When the Equal Rights Amendment was “gay marriage”

When the Equal Rights Amendment was “gay marriage” January 5, 2014

The amnesia of America culture always fascinates me particularly with regard to the things that are perceived to be “threats to the American family.” When anti-gay Christians are asked why they make a big deal out of homosexuality, the standard response is to say that the gay people were the one who made it a big deal and they simply offered a “Biblical” response when asked. There are many different legitimate personal stories that overlap in sociological phenomena, but it’s simply not accurate to treat the “gay marriage” battle as a stand-alone historical issue; it’s one battle in a larger war that has been waging between conservative Christianity and the feminist movement for the last half-century over the meaning of gender. The “gay marriage” crisis of the seventies and eighties had a different name: the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made any gender-based discrimination illegal, which was successfully defeated by conservative activists under the leadership of Phyllis Schlafly.

It seems like an entirely different world, but when I was growing up, it was very controversial (at least in white middle-class Southern Baptist circles) for women to work outside of the home. Men were supposed to be the breadwinners and women were supposed to raise the kids. That was just how we were created by God as men and women. There was plenty of scripture to back this view. It was selfish and prideful for women to put pursuing a career above raising a family. There were plenty of outlets for them to use their gifts through volunteer work with the church. For women to work meant that their kids would get warehoused in daycare clinics where they might get molested. In communist countries, they made women work in the factories and put their kids in daycare, but America was different because we cared about freedom and family values.

It probably seems inconceivable today that a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women and men would fail to get ratified only 30 years ago, but that’s what happened, thanks to Phyllis Schlafly and other conservative activists. The ERA had great momentum before she started, getting ratified by 30 out of the necessary 38 states in 1972 and 1973, but then the momentum sagged when Schlafly’s campaign started to gain steam. Schlafly’s argument was that the ERA would make women absolutely the same as men. They might get drafted for the military and sent into combat, single gender bathrooms would be eliminated, women wouldn’t be able to get alimony or custody of their kids after a divorce. Schlafly won (though of course we have to keep in perspective that “winning” only meant keeping more than 12 out of the 50 states from ratifying it by 1982).

Schlafly’s movement may have won the battle then, but three decades later, they have completely lost the argument. With the exception of a much reduced enclave within conservative evangelical Christianity, it is no longer considered a moral issue for women to stay home while their husbands work. That hill of the battlefield has been quietly surrendered and retreated from. Why? Because it’s no longer economically viable for middle-class families to make it work (working class women have always worked). And championing the right of women to be stay at home moms would require campaigning for a higher minimum wage and supporting the struggles of labor unions, which would pit “family values” against “free market values.” In a head-to-head between the family and the free market, the free market seems to have the trump card every time. Hence the quiet retreat.

The debate thirty years ago about women working outside the home is actually very similar to the debate today about gay marriage in terms of the core question that’s being asked. Are all women supposed to be the same just like all men are supposed to be the same? To argue that all women are supposed to be stay-at-home moms or that all women are supposed to marry men means making it a moral issue to conform to the standards of your respective gender. Likewise to argue that some women are great stay-at-home moms while others make great lawyers is consistent with arguing that while most women are biologically wired to mate with men and vice-versa, some are wired differently. In such an argument, you’re saying in both cases that gender is more complicated than either/or.

The reason that conservative evangelicals make gender normativity into a moral issue is because there are places in the Bible that seem to tell all women and all men to do things a certain way, like telling all wives submit to your husbands, all women to cover their heads in church, etc. This is certainly a plausible way to read what the Bible has to say about gender (if it’s applied consistently). Other Christians (like me) argue that these instructions to women and men are contingent upon their cultural context, basically that Paul was saying since Roman society defines the family as being under the headship of the male paterfamilias, let’s do the Roman thing in the most Christian way possible, but that ultimately the gospel vision is for there to be “no longer male and female for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

I’m perplexed by the way that my denomination, the United Methodist Church, wants to hedge its bets by allowing a Galatians 3:28 vision for a “post-gendered” (?) body of Christ to trump the plain meaning of scripture in Ephesians 5:22, 1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Timothy 2:12, and other places when it comes to women serving in ordained ministry, but then casting aside Galatians 3:28’s eradication of gender normativity when it comes to LGBT issues. To believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality is contingent upon making the 1st century presumptions about gender in Paul’s epistles permanently normative for all Christians at all times. We either live in a world where all women are supposed to act the same and all men are supposed to act the same, or we don’t. It’s artificial and dishonest to treat these issues piecemeal.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s an unqualified good that free market pressures on wages ultimately won the debate over Phyllis Schlafly and her “family values” so that most married middle-class households have to rely on two incomes today. Why couldn’t we divide up the work in our society differently so that everyone would have 25-30 hour work weeks, currently unemployed people would have jobs, and kids would spend a minimal amount of time in daycare? I realize that’s a very Pollyanna thought. The free market requires everyone who has a job to work like crazy and maximize their efficiency so there will be even fewer people with jobs next year.

My wife and I are blessed to have the resources to enable her to stay home with my kids until my youngest starts elementary school. The reason she’s the stay-at-home parent is not because she’s the female but because of where each of us were in our ministerial ordination process three years ago. When I was a seminary student and my wife was a chaplain resident at Duke hospital, I was the stay-at-home parent. In our home, there are some things I’m better at and some things that my wife is better at in terms of how we parent and manage our household. I have no idea which of these things have to do with our gender and which of them have to do with our personalities, nor does it seem like a grave moral matter for us to figure that out.


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  • Susan Irene Fox

    This is one of the more intelligent posts I’ve read on the matter. For me, Galatians 3:28 really does define it all. Exegetically, we have to understand when Paul was speaking about a specific circumstance before we apply hermeneutics and generalize his comments to the entirety of Christianity. I agree with you on this one.

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      I wonder how much Paul is smacking his head every day in heaven at the way that the church abuses his writing.

  • Tyler

    It is a pity when any denomination, as you pointed out, will ignore certain “plain understandings” of the Scripture in regards to female leadership in the Church, but then hold tightly to biases against the LGBTQ community as if some are worth ignoring and some are worth holding when our predispositions suit us.

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      It’s because women are half of our population and LGBT people a lot less. Actually it’s probably because of the terms under which the northern and southern terms reunited. I don’t know the history well enough. If the northern church had stayed separated from the south a little longer, they probably would have passed LGBT ordination in the 60’s.

  • eurobrat

    And back when we had these ideas about gender, we had set ideas about race, as well, and the roles different races had to conform to. It seems we are less and less willing to submit to these rules about “knowing our place”…it will be interesting to see where that will take Christianity.

    • MorganGuyton

      Right that’s a good term. It’s the morality of “knowing your place” as opposed to a morality based upon loving God and loving neighbor.

  • tsgIII

    Someday we will have to confront our ideas about economics. There seems to be the idea that it’s free market or socialism. I really believe Roman Catholics have paved the way on this topic. I think it is unfortunate that Chesterton and Belloc’s ideas were called Distributism. In actuality, they are not Distribution economics( which leans socialistic). Since people do have such short memories(amnesia), or in this case probably plain ignorance, I wish for those early 20th century ideas of Chesterton to be re-named. Do you know that the Big Society coalition in England in 2010 has many of the ideas Chesterton called friendly societies? A lot of the localism of Wendell Berry and the conservatives like Front Porch Republic also has this flavor. The liberal Dorothy Sayer has an affinity, and there are questions if she read them or was creative on her own(or why not both). People are taking the recent comments of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium as liberal, but check out distributism in Wikipedia to see that they harken back to Chesterton and Belloc. It is in the US where these ideas are still imbedded in the psychological make-up of the people who immigrated here( and probably even in those who have done so recently, even without the paper work). I think you see these ideas starting to percolate in urban and rural America.

    • MorganGuyton

      I like what distributism looks like. The interesting thing about Marx is at the beginning of Capital, he tells his reader to contemplate how a peasant farm works, where everyone pitches in where they can and gets fed. That is his starting point for building communism! The problem is that you can’t make a nation of people into a peasant farm. Micro doesn’t translate into macro. You need a whole lot of peasant farms. So I’m on board with Chesterton and Wendell Berry!

  • I’ll be honest, I’m not following the connection from gender roles of men and women to acceptance of LGBT issues.

    I’m assuming you’re trying to make the point that if gender roles are ultimately cultural and negated by the Galatians removal of gender normative roles than so are sexual roles and identities? So when your denomination accepts the removal of specific gender roles it should also be accepting of the LGBT community. If that is the point I’m not sure I follow it, at least with what is given here.

    Regardless of the dissolution of gender roles in Galatians it doesn’t mean that there is no distinction between men and women. I agree when you’re talking about the arbitrary gender roles area, especially as a stay-at-home dad, but there are still some differences. Yes, they tend to be focused around the area of childbirth which seems always to be a bit of a touchy area to talk about, but I’m not the one who made it that way.

    If there are still physical identifiers of man and woman, doesn’t it somewhat make sense that those may also be physical identifiers of sexuality too? If one views it this way, than I see no dishonesty with your denomination’s view. It views gender roles as negated through Christ, but holds that there is still a physical reality that presents both male and female humans and a sexuality that is based in that physical reality.

    I get that many people separate the idea of sex and gender, but I’m not sure those who tend to be against LGBT issues separate those quite as easily. From those who say more than just “The Bible says x or y,” this tends to be rooted in the nature of our physical bodies. This is a point of contention, but I think we have to understand that the two points start in different locations.

    I mean if all gender roles are null and void, then what does someone mean when they say that they feel like they were born the wrong gender? Would that somehow be disingenuous to believe that gender roles are dissolved, but still believe you’re the wrong gender or support those who believe that? What does being born the wrong gender really mean then? I’m not sure if I have an answer to that, but isn’t that worth thinking about too?

    Maybe I’m off on what your point is trying to be at least on that connection. Maybe it was simply that people in the LGBT community shouldn’t be discriminated against just like people shouldn’t be with gender roles. I can be behind that. Granted then it becomes a question of what is discrimination, but my comment is too long as it is. Hopefully I was able to present any push back respectfully, but if not let me know.

    • Paul Clutterbuck

      The issue of discrimination against LGBTIQA people is quite a serious one, with deadly consequences if we get it wrong. Suicide rates for LGBTIQA people are several times higher than for straight people, including those in Christian families, churches and Christian schools. Maybe this post might help to put that into perspective: http://intheparlor.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/what-you-believe-about-homosexuality-doesnt-matter/

      • I’m not sure why this is pointed my direction? Did I say that discrimination wasn’t an issue? I did say that what counts as discrimination may be up for debate, much like it is for Christians who like to claim persecution because they’re disagreed with. I’m all for not having discrimination. My views may differ on what is discrimination and was is not, but I think that everyone deserves to be treated with the respect due to a human being and nothing changes that.

        My point was more not seeing that Morgan’s denomination as being horribly bias or dishonest by interpreting a passage one way in regards to gender roles, but not to LGBT people. You can infer what you like out of that, but the post you present I find not very helpful. It doesn’t matter what we think about issues? Of course it does.

        What matters more is that we are approaching the issue treating others with respect and the dignity of a human being. If I haven’t done that then I do apologize.

        • MorganGuyton

          I hear what you’re saying Jeremy. I think you’ve given a good push-back that will help me tighten up what I’m trying to say and provide a little more context. I forgot to share in the post some reading I had done from an Orthodox rabbi that shapes the connections I’m making. I will share more this evening.

    • MorganGuyton

      The connection between the two struggles is the question of whether as a man, I am supposed to do certain things because I’m a man and for no other reason. According to this Orthodox rabbi I read named Daniel Boyarin, to try to project the concept of “sexuality” as something that can be separated from gender back onto the ancient Israelites or even 1st century Jews is entirely anachronistic. The issue is that Jews felt that part of the order of the universe depended upon men doing what men are supposed to do and women doing what women are supposed to do. It was a strictly patriarchal society (as within Orthodox Judaism it continues to be today). When you “lie with a man as you would with a woman,” the taboo being violated is for the other man to be playing the part of a woman. Men are supposed to “go into” women; women are supposed to be “gone into,” not men. Boyarin says that same-gender contact between females isn’t an issue because there’s no “going into” involved. Female homoerotic activity among adolescent females is discouraged in the rabbinic literature but only because of the likelihood that it will tempt females to sleep with a man before they’re betrothed. Furthermore, men in Middle Eastern culture regularly engage in affectionate activity that we would consider homoerotic so what the Orthodox rabbis literally say is you can’t “go into” another guy like you do with a woman because that makes him a woman. They have stuff in the Mishnah about “spilling your seed on the ground” (masturbation). It’s frowned upon, but it’s not officially an “abomination.” Homoerotic activity where there’s no “going into” is treated as a form of “seed-spilling.” So the issue is actually gender essentialism and not sexuality per se at least for the Jews historically. Anything else is our anachronistic neo-Victorian eisegesis on top of the text.

      • That’s interesting and definitely helps frame the discussion better. I felt that there must have been something you read or some additional connection that needed to be there, but what you posted up there definitely helps refine your point.

        It still becomes a muddled mess though for me. It seems like our culture places a difference between the sex we are born as and our gender (and with this sexuality). This distinction probably wasn’t made by the ancient Israelites or even 1st century Jews. Even with the rather basic description of the ideas of “going into” and everything it seems very connected to what people would indicate today as their physical sex and not just gender and gender roles as we would view them today. Surely those are there and in play, but they seem much closer related and intertwined than we want them to be today. Considering that is it fair to break that connection wholly?

        So all in all I think your elaboration helps make your point better, but it still leaves me with a lot of questions. Is the idea of any gender inherently bad or at least void now? If this was the traditional view of the Jews before and during the time of Jesus is this why Paul clarifies by adding women to the mix in Romans 1? Kind of like Jesus with the sermon on the mount adding a bit of tweaking to the traditional viewpoint? Not that I expect you to have the answers, just makes me wonder and leaves me scratching my head trying to figure it all out.

        Thanks for that additional part though.

        • MorganGuyton

          To be fair, Paul as a Hellenistic Jew is operating partly with a Greek thought system. When he says kata physein (against nature), he’s referring to the Greek concept of “nature” which I don’t understand well enough. So I’m overreaching to say that Paul lives inside of a Hebrew conception of gender.

          In any case, I don’t understand what people experience who are born as a man in a woman’s body or with an attraction to the same sex or with some other mysterious gender/sexuality difference. What I’m unwilling to say is that they’re lying or overly self-absorbed or delusional when they say they’re different because I need for the world to be uncomplicated. I know that anytime I’ve had performance issues in the marital act, it’s been a devastating experience, so I can’t imagine what it would be like to be unable to please your partner to whom you’re unattracted despite loving her to death because you’re secretly gay and you presumed you were religiously obligated to marry the opposite sex so that you literally can’t consummate your marriage because of something about you that other people claim is only your imagination.

          So basically with regard to gender, sexuality, etc, I take a pragmatic view. If someone is wired in such a way that forcing them to be “normal” for the sake of other peoples’ uncomplicated Bible reading is going to create a huge distraction in their lives that inhibits their full worship of God, then I say “better for them to marry [gay] than to burn.” When I look at 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul gives the most extended discourse on the rationale underneath his sexual ethics, I see pragmatism rather than an insistence on gender essentialism. When I look for principles behind his instruction, I see him say, “I want you to be free from anxieties” (v. 32) and “I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord” (v. 35). Freedom from anxiety, good order, and unhindered devotion to the Lord seem like three good principles for navigating sexual ethics. Based on those three principles, I don’t see room for polyamory, bestiality, adultery, fornication, or a lot of other sexualities that do destroy lives and communities, but I don’t see reason to condemn a chaste monogamous lifelong union between two individuals regardless of gender.