By Ruth Tucker
This morning while waiting for a dental appointment I noticed a copy of Cosmopolitan on the table next to me. The headline read: “Why Being Strong Isn’t Bitchy.” I was mildly interested in what someone would write to prove such an obvious truism, but, hard as I looked, I couldn’t find the article. When my dental assistant appeared I showed her the cover. She recounted that where she previously worked, the dentist repeatedly called Hillary Clinton the “c-word”—particularly when certain male patients were in the chair.
I have pointed out such gender code words in a recent article where I suggested an interesting little exercise. Call forth English-language terms used to disparage women in comparison to terms disparaging men, (unless the man is gay). Women through the generations—long before Trump came on the scene—have been called bitch, butch, bawd, broad, ballsy, battle-axe, crone, cunt, floozy, gossip, hen-pecker, harridan, harpy, hoe, hussy, hag, nag, slut, skank, shrew, termagant, tart, whore and many more. Should it surprise us that the most common slurs against a man reference the man’s contemptible mother: a bastard, a son-of-a-bitch?
Women themselves sometimes use such slurs against their own gender as did Mary Kassian, a proponent of male headship. On a blog post, she asked women to take a quiz: “Are you a shrew?” The entire quiz relates to a woman controlling “her man.” Nothing, of course, about a man who controls “his woman,” nor is there a shrewish name for such a man. The terms used in this Kassian quiz are among the common code words employed against women: nag, badger, harangue, scold, tongue-lashing and others.
It’s long been pointed out that women are often described as manipulating, domineering, bossy, headstrong, overbearing, while men in the same circumstances are strong, confident, self-assured and in charge. A woman who marries up financially is a gold-digger; an assertive woman has hair on her chest and an argument between women is a cat-fight, while men’s arguments are high-minded. Women are also slurred with biblical names, most commonly: Eve or daughter of Eve, and if she’s really bad, she’s a Jezebel. It’s no surprise that there are no comparable Adam and Ahab slurs against men. Eve, in the eyes of many complimentarians, was a feminist who emasculated “her man.” Such denigration is certainly no surprise to me.
Back in 2005 when I was teaching at Calvin Seminary, I was assigned to be a faculty advisor at the Christian Reformed Synod, a task that included sitting on one of many committees. I was silent except for one instance when I offered some well-reasoned observations. I was surprised—and pleased—because in the midst of a boring meeting my words generated passionate discussion. But for introducing the subject, I was called out.
Anyone who has ever attended Synod knows that men voice very strong opinions and are sometimes embroiled in angry diatribes—such taking place on the very floor of Synod (where the Press can observe). But the man who called me out was faulting me for speaking up (behind closed doors) because I, by my speaking out, “reflected negatively . . . on the cause of women in leadership.”Though I did not know this man nor did I recall meeting him, he began a letter to me with simply “Ruth,” while referring to the seminary president twice as “Dr. Plantinga.” I later learned that this man had spoken to President Plantinga who encouraged him to write to me, with a cc to him. Among other things this man wrote: “When I first met you I noticed a kind of contrariness.” You can’t invent a better example of a code word than contrariness! How well we all remember, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary. . . .” He goes on to say: “you appear a little stand-offish and judgmental. . . . You came off making judgments. . . . You spoke in judgments, and with what came off as arrogance.”
Being judgmental is not an entirely unfair criticism of me (and contrariness as well), but certainly not in that committee meeting. What is significant about his letter is that Neal Plantinga put it in his file and later used it as evidence against me—of course, never asking me to assess my speaking up in the committee meeting. Evidence. Good night. It seems like he was entirely blind to gender prejudice. I simply cannot imagine a male colleague being treated this way. I was called out because I “reflected negatively,” according to this critic, “on the cause of women in leadership.” I was not, in his mind, an example of feminine leadership.
When I became the first full-time woman professor at Calvin Seminary, the news made the front page of the Grand Rapids Press. It was a big deal because previously women had been barred from such teaching positions. An article posted on John Piper’s Desiring God blog, however, offers a very different view of such firsts. Under the subtitle “Throw Like a Girl,” Rebekah Merkle writes:
Think of the way our society cheers for the women who make it into the Navy Seals, or anything similar to that. It’s honestly the same reaction as when the really, really slow kid finally chugs across the finish line of the race, twelve minutes behind everyone else. We women need to stop being so easily flattered by that kind of admiration. If you pay any attention at all, you realize it’s not really a compliment.
The analogy is mindboggling. The slow boy is cheered because of his perseverance not because of his capabilities. The woman is cheered because she is the first female to cross the finish line—to break down a barrier by entering a rigorous heretofore man’s world. Merkle goes on to cheer for “the idea of feminine excellence,” saying women must “learn to embody virtue like women, obedience like women, ambition like women, wisdom like women, courage like women, faithfulness like women, strength like women”—whatever that is supposed to entail.
So while women are denigrated with gender slurs, they are, at the same time, expected to demonstrate ambition, courage, strength, leadership like a woman. Though never stated openly, this is the very issue that I faced at Calvin Seminary. I did not embody the ideal of “feminine excellence”—a man-made construct that doomed me to failure.