Are Women meant to wield society power? (by Katelyn Beaty)

Are Women meant to wield society power? (by Katelyn Beaty) May 5, 2015

ARE WOMEN MEANT TO WIELD SOCIETAL POWER? (A response to “Males and Their Friends,” by Alastair Roberts)

The following is an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Co.Creators: The Christian Call for Women to Work (Howard/Simon&Schuster, summer 2016). Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, where she co-founded Her.meneutics in 2009.

Today when we hear the word patriarchy, we think of something like this definition from sociologist Allan G. Johnson, author of The Gender Knot:

A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. . . . positions of authority—political, economic, legal, religious, educational, military, domestic—are generally reserved for men.”[1]

In other words, patriarchy today is a negative term for societies set up, intentionally or otherwise, to socially, politically, and economically benefit men, simply because they are men. The Patriarchy has become one sharp, hashtaggable shorthand for everything wrong with a society that oppresses, ignores, and justifies violence against women.

For some Christians, though, patriarchy is a society that reflects the created order of God, who intended for men to lead not as harsh dictators but as gentle loving fathers and husbands. The word patriarch comes from the Greek pater, meaning “father,” and arkhein, meaning “to rule”—similar to the word paterfamilias, a father or older male who governs an extended family. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are often called the patriarchs of Israel, and today the word is still used for bishops in the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches.

“Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in 2006.[2] In a paper for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Moore notes that the language most Christians use for the Godhead is irreducibly male, as are the recipients of the covenants and promises of Israel. He writes that Scripture’s big picture “trajectory” actually leads to patriarchy. It’s a “loving, sacrificial, protective leadership of human fathers, in the home and in the church (Eph. 3:14–15; Matt. 7:9–11; Heb. 12:5–11),” Moore writes.

While he doesn’t explicitly state it, it’s hard to imagine that Moore wouldn’t extend this vision of “loving, sacrificial, protective leadership” to the rest of society, beyond home and church. If men’s leadership images the Godhead and his work in the world, then a society in which women lead, at least in any significant or systemic way, would seem to contradict the created order.

More recently, writers like Alastair Roberts [featured recently on this blog] point to men’s natural “agency,” generation of power, confidence, and physical strength to argue that God “intended for men to wield the majority of creational and societal power.” Roberts exposits Genesis 1–3 this way:

The man was created before the woman and was created for the immediate purpose of taming and cultivating the world, bringing order to the creation. . . . The task of naming the creation—notice that naming is a task of the first three days—is particularly entrusted to the man. Man is also typically more physiologically and psychologically equipped for and oriented towards this.

By contrast, prior to the Fall the woman seems to be placed under the tutelage of the man. It is the man who is held particularly responsible for upholding the moral boundaries and order of the garden.

In Roberts’s telling, Adam typifies all men, Eve typifies all women, and the Garden typifies the world.

It’s a world in which the life work of Alice Seeley Harris would have seemed strange, unnatural, and even unwomanly.


Harris was born in 1870, at the height of the Victorian Era. The British Empire was enjoying innovation, industry, and prosperity in every sector of society. Queen Victoria was one of the few women who wielded public authority on account of the monarchy, and ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen. India, Australia, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Canada, and Malaya (now Malaysia) were all jewels in the crown of the Empire.

But though this crown sat on the head of a woman, British culture, like ours, rested mostly on the achievements and cultural power of men. Pervasive in the Victorian Era was the notion of “separate spheres”—that women were naturally suited to oversee the private sphere of home and family life, while men were naturally suited to oversee the public sphere of economy activity and civic leadership. To be sure, the idea that “a woman’s place is in the home” can be traced to ancient Greece, traditional Judaism, and historic Christianity. But it became enshrined as moral and spiritual fact in Great Britain by 1850, as it would in the United States in the same century.

Apparently Alice did not feel restricted to the domestic sphere when she married John Hobbis Harris in 1898. Alice had been working at a London post office while training to be a missionary, one of the few professions of the time that allowed women to travel the world. It was the century of foreign Protestant missions, spurred by the Second Great Awakening and trailblazers such as William Carey in India, Hudson Taylor in mainland China, David Livingstone in southern and central Africa. Women, even single women, would join their ranks in unprecedented numbers in this century, bringing with them education and reform to many poor communities.

The year they married, the Harrisessailed to the Belgian Congo, a region in Central Africa then controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium. Since 1885, Leopold had claimed the Congo Free State (CFS) as his personal property, ostensibly to make straight the path for the gospelto take root in its basins and rainforests. Instead, Leopold turned the CFS into a labor camp to exploit the region’s rubber and ivory supplies. It was grueling work that took the lives of an estimated 10 million Congolese.

This is the brutalitythat Alicefound when the Harrises arrived in the Belgian Congo. That brutality would arrive at her mission’s doorstep one day, when a man named Nsala appeared holding a small package. Here is how journalist Judy Pollard Smith imagines it, based on Alice’s records:

I could see that the young man at the front of the group was particularly devastated. His face was twisted in anguish. His friends led him forward by his elbows toward me. . . . The young man sank onto the porch and I thought he may collapse. He was carrying a small bundle bound about in plantain leaves. . . . Their eyes were fixed steadily on me as I unwrapped the parcel. I opened it with greater care than was usual because I was not sure what I was in for, given the way they looked at me with such burden etched on each face. To my own horror out fell two tiny pieces of human anatomy: a tiny child’s foot, a tiny hand.

Nsala had carried the remains of his 5-year-old girl, killed by officers with the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, to the missionaries.

And in response, Alice did something remarkable. She asked Nsala to pose, then took a photograph of him sitting on the veranda, staring down at the severed hand and foot of his child. The year before Alice and John had left for Africa, Kodak had debuted its Bulls-Eye camera, which could process photographs without a darkroom. Alice began using one to document Congolese who had been beaten and maimed by officers, first sending photos back to the magazine of their host agency, the interdenominational Congo Balolo Mission. Within five years, Alice’s photos had circulated beyond the magazine, composing the Harris Lantern Slide Show, which was shown throughout England and eventually the United States. Ordinary citizens who had assumed Leopold’s rule was civilizing and beneficial were faced instead with the irrefutable carnage of colonialism.

After returning to England in 1905, Alice and John joined the Congo Reform Association, formed to draw attention to the plight of Congolese living under Leopold’s rule. One person who was directly and profoundly affected by Alice’s photos was Mark Twain. In 1905, he wrote a satirical first-person essay in the voice of Leopold, who despairs, “The Kodak has been a sole calamity for us. The most powerful enemy indeed . . . the only witness I couldn’t bribe!” Some editions of King Leopold’s Soliloquy include reprints of Alice’s photo of Nsala.

The campaign against Leopold’s rule in the CFS grew to a global hum, and by 1908, control of the Congo had finally fallen to the Belgian government. Alice, of course, worked within a vast network of journalists, explorers, and other missionaries laboring to ensure that Leopold’s violence was on display for the world to see. But the power of her photography is incontrovertible. As one UK journalist notes, “The fact that Leopold lost his unfettered control so soon after Alice’s photos were made widely available to the public in Europe tells its own story.” Today Alice is remembered as one of the first to use photography to campaign for human rights. Within a few decades of Alice’s campaign, Dorothea Lange would capture the exodus of migrant laborers moving to California, challenging the Depression-era agricultural policies.


“We live in the world that culture has made,” writes Andy Crouch in Culture Making. It’s a culture that comes to us indelibly marked by Alice Seeley Harris, whom we remember not only as a woman doing apparently unwomanly things, but chiefly as a woman serving Christ, adding streams of his truth, love, and mercy to the flow of human history. She’s one of the many women whose missionary work became the single greatest factor in determining the rise of democracy in the Congo, South Africa, and China. In one of the most amazing stories Christianity Today magazine has published, journalist Andrea Palpant Dilley surveyed the explosive findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry. Over 10 years, using a complex series of tests made to account for other factors, Woodberry found that

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

To be sure, Harris never had to ask for a flex-time arrangement with her supervisor or find a secluded corner of the office building in order to pump breast milk. She was taking her photos more than 50 years before the United Kingdom passed an Equal Pay Act, following on the heels (heels no higher than an inch, mind you) of the US Equal Pay Act of 1963. She and John would have received financial backing from sponsors back home, enough to cover only the simplest of living expenses. Mentoring, the boardroom’s male-female ratio, and retirement planning—Alice would have known none of the complexities of women working today.

But Alice and her photography get at a deeper, eternal truth about our work. Whether you work full-time or part-time or not at all; whether you are a college student and figuring out what you want to study, or are a stay-at-home mom raising little ones, or an empty nester searching to make the most of your last years, this is a truth for you: God has invited you, his image bearer, to weave your story into the larger story of the world that culture has made. It’s a world that appears, by nearly every worldly account, to be sustained by men but is ultimately sustained by God, who is also bent on redeeming it. And one of the ways he intends to redeem it is to invite his redeemed image bearers to shape and reshape culture through their work. Simply because you bear the image of the Creator, you are made to create; because you bear the image of the Ruler, you are made to rule. When King David marveled that God “crowned [mankind] with glory and honor,” that God “made them rulers over the works of your hands; you have put everything under their feet,” David is talking not only about rulers, or men. He is talking about you.

I’m writing this book because I believe every woman is called to make something of the world—to take the basic elements of time, resources, and community and create something good. It’s there in the first pages of Scripture: God, the ultimate creator, invites Adam and Eve to join him in spending their days fashioning a world where humans and the whole creation flourish. But somewhere between the Garden and today, many Christian women have been alienated from the gift of work. Neither the secular world nor the Christian world has really helped women rediscover it. Books like Lean In encourage women to ask for the pay raise or speak up in meetings, giving (relatively privileged) women some tools to integrate work into the rest of their lives and labor for corporate gender parity. But very rarely is it explained what those tools are for, what we are building with the tools beyond our own, small professional kingdoms.

Meanwhile, the US church has enjoyed a renaissance of reclaiming the goodness of professional work. These conversations are a welcome departure from the sacred-secular divide that has dominated Christian understandings of vocation. But too often, Christian conversations about work are led by men and directed toward men, giving the impression that work is a gift mostly for men. It remains the case that the faith-at-work movement is led mostly by men and therefore assumes a distinctly male life trajectory.

This book, I hope, invites many more women to discover the responsibility and privilege of tending our world. At this point, you have probably surmised that I don’t believe men alone bear the cultural responsibility of tending our world, the one that God is redeeming. This doesn’t mean that differences between men and women aren’t real or aren’t important. It just means that those differences are no hindrance to taking up the imago Dei responsibility to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). I hope this book helps you discover the gift and joy of work.



[1] Johnson, Allan G., The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy (Temple University Press, 1997), p. 5.


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