The “Christian” Objectification of Women

My friend Meg, who is a professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told me this story from her trip to Bolivia last summer:

“I took an all-female team to work [...] in a small mountain community [...].  At first, I don’t think [the community] quite knew what to do with us.  [...]  Over the week, we worked hard and even got a chance to lead their little Baptist church in service.  I preached, the girls sang and gave testimonies, and the people in the community got to know us and our hopes and dreams as we got to know theirs. 

At the end of our time together, one of the staff, by far the most educated man in the village, spoke about his experience with us.  He said that he had a four-year-old daughter and that watching all the women on our team who were studying to be doctors, nurses, nutritionists, teachers, etc. had opened his eyes to a whole other life that might be possible for his little girl that he’d never dreamed of before.”

As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explain in Half the Sky, lifting women and girls through education and economic empowerment lifts whole societies.

By contrast, the perpetuation of patriarchy and disempowerment of women tends to maintain cycles of poverty, abuse, and violence.

What upsets me when I hear stories like Meg’s is that there are increasingly vocal evangelicals who would openly critique what happened there in Bolivia. {They had a woman preach?}

{Heck, via Meg, I’ve even read a Christian attack on The Hunger Games which bemoaned Katniss’s ‘masculinity’ and Peeta’s ‘femininity’ as a reversal of ‘God’s design’ for manhood and womanhood.}

It seems to me that despite the insistence that such a perspective is Biblical, there is, in fact, an unwitting confirmation of consumer culture’s perspective of women, which is that women are not–or at least shouldn’t be–the subjects of their own lives but the objects of other people’s gazes and desires.  The “Bestselling Books for Christian Women” at ChristianBook.com include a disproportionate number of books that more or less argue that the way to be a really ‘Biblical’ or ‘true’ woman of God is to, essentially submit to the authority and control of men, because doing so is submitting to the authority of God.

As unlikely as it may seem–and as historically and culturally myopic as it is–there are churches that are once again insisting that a woman’s rightful place is in the home of her father until she’s married, and then in her husband’s home, and that for her to be the ‘breadwinner’ is against ‘God’s design,’ and, conversely, for a man to do housework is against ‘God’s design’ for him. Where it is pointed out that highly patriarchal cultures tend toward violence, abuse, and poverty, ‘Biblical’ patriarchalists insist that this is because such cultures aren’t ‘doing patriarchy well,’ not that there’s something inherently amiss with patriarchy itself.

{And this position is supported by the insistence that God is, if not male, exactly, then certainly masculine.}

Could being in the US in the 21st century blind us a bit to what’s really at stake when we talk about women’s equality and women’s rights or what is always disparagingly referred (by all those men and not a few of the women authors of bestselling Christian books) as “feminism.”

It’s easy to forget that we’re not even a hundred years removed from the time when women couldn’t vote and maternal mortality was high. Worldwide, maternal mortality still claims one woman per minute. There are still honor killings–where a woman must throw herself on the funeral pyre, for example, to demonstrate her commitment to her husband.

But when women hold the purse-strings–when they are empowered to start businesses–when they have some capital and some say–things get better for everyone.

Meg said:

“Sometimes cross-cultural interchanges are great examples of cross-pollination.  We just have to be careful about what type of seeds we’re sowing.”

I am glad that most women in America have a choice about what they’re going to do, and it’s fine and wonderful when some choose to stay home (as I do). I consider it a privilege to be able to make that choice. But stamping that choice with the term ‘Biblical’?

I don’t think so.

{And, besides? Aren’t we supposed to care more about being like Jesus than about performing culturally coded gender roles?}

About Rachel Marie Stone
  • http://Judybarrettblog.com Judy

    Some patriarchal teachings forget that women (not men) are listed as the primary supporters of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:3). I don’t believe this was mentioned by accident…

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com from two to one

    Thank you so much for this, Rachel. I am often nervous about asserting that there is a more direct connection than most people — especially Christians — would want to be between patriarchy and these abuses against women. I wrote about it today, actually: http://bit.ly/MXD3W4. Thanks again for helping me to not feel so alone in these thoughts.

  • Tim

    Are women the subjects of their own lives or objects who exist for teh purpose of other people’s lives? Outstanding question, Rachel. Just last night I was reading Carl Trueman on studying theology, and he pointed out that God is the subject of theology, not its object. Since women are made in the image of God, I figure women truly are designed – as you suggest – to be the subject of their lives.

    Patriarchy? It’s only biblical in the sense of being descriptive as culturally relevant to those times. It’s not biblical in the sense of being normative for all times, any more than slavery is. Come to think about it, I can see a lot of parallels between patriarchy and slavery.

    Nice job with this one today, Rachel.

    Tim

    P.S. If you get a chance, Nick just posted a guest piece I did on Bible literary imagery. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, but I hope it might get some thinking or a bit of discussion going: http://theradicaljourney.com/2012/06/28/guest-post-how-to-make-a-memorable-point/

  • http://little-histories.com Lola

    New to your blog, but found this post via Facebook and I’m so glad I did! I just wanted to comment that maternal mortality is still shockingly high in the US (see: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/campaigns/demand-dignity/maternal-health-is-a-human-right/maternal-health-in-the-us).

    I think the disparaging way feminism is often spoken about in the United States can sometimes distract from the reasons WHY we need empowered women in this country. There is still lots of change that needs to happen, and surely living a life in service to others (as Christ calls us) can have huge impact even within our own borders.

  • christianepicurean

    Great thoughts Rachel. I have recently been struggling/wrestling with these questions myself. My wife is about to start her internship for her doctorate in clinical psychology, and I wanted her to find the best possible place–empowering her to go where she wants to be (and by the way, she received her top choice, Evanston, WY). But throughout the process I have questioned my manhood because of deeply ingrained beliefs from the Evangelical culture. Am I really being a man by following my wife? Is this what a man does? Or should I be making decisions? But along the way, God has reminded me through job possibilities and through the words of others, that I am not forgotten and that He is caring for me very specifically. The process is definitely making me trust that maybe marriage is not about specific roles, but about a mutual empowerment stance, where I seek to bring out the best in my wife, Claire, and she seeks to bring out the best in me.

  • Vanessa

    To Rachel and christianepicurean:

    I’m in a long term relationship with a Christian man who actually brought me back to God from Atheism. Prior to that I had bought into a lot of culturally acceptable ideas about what it means to be a woman, and I too struggled with this idea that I must submit to a man, but In reading the Bible I realized that man and woman are called to submit to each other IN LOVE, AS JESUS SERVED US IN LOVE. I’m more educated than my partner, I’m going to make more money, but that doesn’t mean anything spiritually. As it is written, my desire is for my husband and if we truly love each other, as God intended us to love each other, then mutual respect and concern for each other is always going to help guide us. Like Rachel said, it is more important to be like Jesus. Making less money or making the decision to follow your wife physically, so that she make grow her career for the better of your family doesn’t make anyone less of a man. If anything, it makes one more of a man and a good husband, because you are fulfilling your promise to love and cherish, you are humbling yourself in Love, and you are leading your family with righteousness. God reigns by serving in Love and he calls us to do the same. Arguments over things of the earth, like money and stereotypical gender roles are beside the point. Personally, I think that women submit to men emotionally, that seems to be our nature (I’m also in psychology, going for psychiatry) and men are similarly, though differently, drawn to submit to us. You can’t be one flesh if the focus is on the self, just as we can’t be part of the body of Christ if our focus is not on him. God made us women to be suitable PARTNERS and HELPERS, to do so, we have to be able to make equally imporant contributions.


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