Gender in the iWorld

It’s Christmas morning, and little Zachariah can’t wait to see what’s under the tree.  His heart beats quickly as his fingers shred the colorful wrapping paper.  To his delight, it’s just what he’d wanted: a talking G.I. Joe action figure.  Removing it from the box, he pushes the button to hear Joe bark his orders.  Instead he hears a high-pitched, feminine voice saying things like: “Want to go shopping?” and “Math is tough!”

It was the early 1990’s, and a group called the Barbie Liberation Organization had been wreaking havoc with the toy industry.  They’d found a way to swap the voice chips of the new “talking Barbie” with the “talking G.I. Joe.”  As an end result, little boys like Zachariah received action figures spouting the sexist lines intended for Barbie.[1]

The tWorld contains both Biblical traditions as well as human traditions.  Because human traditions are not uniformly positive, the tWorld can sometimes do more to distort gender roles than to clarify them.

TREATMENT OF WOMEN IN THE NT

As we pointed out earlier, the tWorld can often construct definitions of masculinity and femininity that are rooted in little more than cultural stereotypes.  But let’s remember that as bad as our stereotypes may be, Jesus occupied a world just as bad.

For instance, one ancient writer recognized that in the ancient world, women were valued solely by their physical beauty.  “Immediately after they are fourteen…women are called ‘ladies’ by men.  So when they see that they have nothing else but only to be the bedfellows of men, they begin to beautify themselves, and put all their hopes in that.”[2]  In other words, if a woman didn’t measure up to social beauty standards, she was dismissed as worthless.  In addition to body shame, women experienced character shame.  Jewish men were known to pray: “Thank you, God, that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.”[3]  In some ways, infertility was a form of career shame—as women would describe themselves as “worthless” (1 Samuel 1:16).  All of this meant that women in the ancient world experienced body shame, character shame, and career shame.

Sound familiar?  For most of western history, women suffered through these experiences in relative silence.  But in the middle of the twentieth century, the Second World War forced women to “fill in” for America’s men by entering the workforce. When the war ended, many of them didn’t want to give up their new careers.  For the first time ever, women’s rights became a prominent issue in America, and in the years that followed a movement called “feminism” emerged to defend the equality of women.

To that end, the iWorld had a positive effect inasmuch as it eroded the harmful stereotypes of the past.  But it would be wrong to say that Biblical Christianity was anything other than on the side of the solution.  We see several ways in which Christianity elevated women above negative social stereotypes:

  • Jesus elevated the status of women like no other religious figure, ignoring purity laws to care for women (Mark 5:25-34), talking to women of different social classes (John 4:7), he offered his teaching to women as well as men (Luke 10:38-42), and repeatedly stressed the importance of caring for widows (Luke 2:36; 4:26; 7:11; 18:1; 20:47; 21:1).
  • In ancient Rome, young girls were regarded as worthless and therefore left to die shortly after birth. Ancient inscriptions read that in ancient Rome, out of 600 familes, only 6 had raised a daughter.[4]  Early Christians were known to take in these “unwanted” girls to raise as their own.
  • In ancient Rome, only boys received education. But early Christians educated women as well as men.[5]  Even today, it’s been Christian missionaries that have insisted on the education of women despite cultural protests.[6]

If you assume that Christianity has historically been oppressive to women, then I’d respectfully suggest you haven’t looked closely enough at the pages of history.  Women have received honor and dignity through the acts of Jesus and his followers.

MARRIAGE EQUALITY

While Christianity and feminism might find some common ground in tackling cultural stereotypes, the two systems part ways in other issues.  Feminism, at its core, tends to say that if stereotypes are rooted in cultural traditions, then so too are all forms of gender identity.  In other words, if it’s harmful to confine women to gender roles in the workplace, it’s equally wrong to confine them to gender roles in the home.  Anything else would be considered the denial of “equal rights,” and the result can only be “male dominance.”  As one writer puts it, “to strip a woman naked and hold her down under the power of a knife, a fistful of money, or the glare of a camera is the supreme expression of man’s rule over woman.” [7]

So when the Bible calls women to “submit to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22), our only options seem to be to (1) dismiss such language as the product of a primitive, patriarchal society, or (2) victimize women at the hands of oppressive male leadership.

But maybe—just maybe—God’s beautiful design would produce something quite positive.  In 2006, a pair of social scientists from the University of Virginia performed an important study on the overall happiness of marriages.  The cultural assumption has been that an “egalitarian” marriage—that is, where both partners share all roles equally—would produce happier, longer-lasting relationships.  They found that the opposite is true: that traditional marriages tend to produce happier, more-committed couples:

“[Researchers] find no support for the theory that egalitarianism (conceptualized as approving or disapproving of women working when [they] have children, whether or not the wife participated in the labor force, whether husband or wife earned more, and how equally household labor [was] divided) promotes wife’s marital quality.  It is important for wife’s marital happiness that husband and wife have shared ideas about marriage, that they both commit to the institution of marriage, that they are integrated into an institution (like the church) that also has these same ideas about marriage, and that the marriage and the husbands are emotionally invested in marriage.”[8]

These aren’t the biased ramblings of evangelical preachers; this represents research from one of the sociology department of a highly-respected university.  Perhaps God’s design for marriage and family isn’t as outdated as we thought.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS

So what about the workplace?  Surely we would be better off if there was an equal sharing of roles in the workforce?

From a moral standpoint, Christianity makes no objection to women entering the career field.  But we must avoid the misstep of elevating career over motherhood (or vice versa), or in twisting equality into some form of uniformity.

It’s actually been tried before in the form of the Israeli kibbutz movement.  In the last century, these communities were formed on the basis of total equality for women and men.  The belief was that this utopian vision would eradicate gender altogether.  So what happened?

“The experiment collapsed within a generation, and a traditional family and gender system reasserted itself. Why? … because the mothers wanted their kids back. They wanted to take care of their young children in the old-fashioned way, themselves. … Such feelings persisted and intensified, until collective pressure forced the kibbutz to let parents spend extra time with their kids.” [9]

Perhaps these are merely the reflections of a society that simply lacks the courage to shrug off the shackles of male dominance and gender roles.  Or perhaps God’s design and the moral order retains enduring value even in a world marked by individual rights rather than social responsibilities.

Christianity says that women are deeply and intrinsically valuable—and that the asymmetry in gender roles needn’t be seen as a sign of inequality.  When we see the many ways in which men and women complement one another, we see beauty, we see order, we see joy.

 

[1] Story appears in Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters, p. 33.

[2] Epictetus, Encheirodon 40.

[3] Yoel Kahn. The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship, and Identity in Jewish Liturgy.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, p. 97.

[5]Alvin J. Schmidt How Christianity Changed the World, p. 171.

[6] Dana Roberts, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, p. 50.

[7] Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible, p. 36.

[8] W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?  Equality, Equity, Commitment, and Women’s Marital Quality,” Social Forces 84, no. 3 (March 2006): 1321-45.

[9] Stanley Kurtz, “Can We Make Boys and Girls Alike?” City Journal, Spring 2005, http://www.city-journal.org/html/15_2_boys_girls.html

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