Dear Atheology Readers,
I am honored to have been invited by Dwight to write a post on atheology.com. Raised by Fundamentalist parents in the Bible Belt, I am excited to share some of my thoughts on why women join—and leave—fundamentalist religion. When I look back at the religion I left, I am struck by how great an emphasis its leaders place on womens’ submissiveness and “traditional” family values. Many of the older women and almost all of the young women in the church in which I grew up were devoted to the idea of Biblical Womanhood.
Biblical Womanhood means, essentially, that women are to joyfully submit to their husbands in everything, devote themselves to the “High Calling” of being wives and mothers, and dress and behave modestly. While the idea of womens’ working outside of the home is not discouraged if it stems from economic necessity, the highest praise and approval is reserved for full-time wives and mothers. Women who choose not to marry or not to have children are often viewed with suspicion. Women, who represent a numerical majority among members of every Christian sect, are barred from any position in the church which would give them authority over men. It was routinely suggested from the pulpit that married women ought not own their own money, have a private email address, or make friends with men.
Lest you think these ideas are unique to one congregation, the idea of Biblical Womanhood is widely endorsed across Evangelical denominations and is rapidly growing in popularity among young women and teenage girls. Many of these women say things like “I’m feminine, not feminist” and “I’m a Proverbs 31 woman!” or a “I want to be a Titus 2 woman!” Many Fundamentalist Christians view any move toward womens’ empowerment to be part of a liberal attack on Christian Family Values.
But why? Why do Fundamentalist Christians seem so obsessed with curtailing womens’ rights and equality? Why is male dominance and female submissiveness a Christian Family Value? The first and most obvious reason for embracing a system in which men rule over women and women are treated as second class citizens is that it is biblical. Taken at face value, the Bible does not set forth a society in which men and women are equals. While the Bible describes a handful of powerful women, those women do not represent a model for ordinary godly women. In fact, powerful women in the Bible are often villains (Vashti, Delilah, Jezebel). The Bible is crystal clear about women’s relationship to men (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22). If one chooses to live by a literal interpretation of the Bible, one must accept that gender equality is simply inconsistent.
Of course, the Bible has been (roughly) the same for centuries. So, what has brought about the recent emphasis in Fundamentalist circles on controlling women by returning to “traditional” gender roles? One argument is that, until a few years ago, these gender roles represented broad social norms; but that, in the past few decades, the wider society has changed while the church has held with “tradition.” To some extent, this is true. The recent emphasis on women’s “returning” to biblical gender roles is, at least partly, the church’s response to feminism. In the past few decades, women have seen tremendous changes in their position relative to men. Men, too, have necessarily seen changes in their positions relative to women. Men are suddenly (in the past few decades) faced with realities which their fathers never imagined: women bosses; women professors; women in high political office—women in charge of them. Men can no longer rely on the law, on science, or on prevailing social norms to justify mens’ dominance and womens’ subjugation. One place men can reasonably expect to receive affirmation of their superiority is in Fundamentalist churches—churches which seek to live by a literal interpretation of the Bible. It follows, then, that the more rights and powers women gain in society, the more the church will seek to take those rights and powers away.
If one gives it much thought, it isn’t difficult to see why men in recent decades have embraced a system which reinforces patriarchal values just as the broader society is beginning to reject them. What may be more difficult to understand is why women would choose to live under such a system. One may reasonably imagine that women are dragged into Fundamentalist sects through abuse and manipulation by their husbands. Certainly this is sometimes the case. Other women, like myself, have been brought up by Fundamentalist families. But a shocking number of young women willingly convert to Fundamentalist sects, or, being raised in a Fundamentalist family, embrace more conservative views than their parents. Why? Why would a woman knowingly embrace the message that she is inferior?
Again, the most straight-forward reason is that the Bible tells me so. What does a woman think when she reads verses like “I do not permit a woman to speak or to hold authority; she must remain silent”? The same thing a man thinks: Women must not be as good as men. If a woman begins with the premise that the Bible is the literal word of God, and she then observes that the Bible prescribes a subservient position for women, then she must conclude that God prescribes a subservient role for women. The only way to obey God, then, is to accept her own second-class status.
Another reason why women cling to religious doctrines which preach male dominance is a bit more complicated. Rather than reflecting the successes of feminist movements, womens’ adherence to Fundamentalist views on gender reflects the failures of feminist movements. That is, it speaks to the fact that women are still oppressed in very real ways which are seldom acknowledged. When people tell little girls that we could grow up to be President of the Untied States, we know they aren’t telling us the truth. We know that, in reality, we probably can’t do that. In the same way, when people tell us that women are just as smart and capable as men in the work place but we consistently earn less money and receive fewer promotions, we feel lied to. When we are told that women have equal protection under the law, yet we are treated with suspicion and contempt when we report being the victim of a violent crime, we feel lied to. When we’re told that we are sexually liberated, but what we experience is comodification and objectification of our sexuality, we feel lied to.A doctrine which tells us that women aren’t meant to be equal to men and that we will be happier if we accept our lot in life—just seems more honest.
Not only is the idea of a divinely ordained patriarchy consistent with many womens’ experiences, it brings positive meaning to those experiences.
Fundamentalist women are told that when we choose to submit to our husbands, we are modeling perfect submission to God. When we subject our will to our husbands’, we are not being abused; we are practicing dependence on God. When we choose to dress modestly and eschew the trappings of beauty, we are demonstrating godly humility. When we abstain from sexual intimacy and pleasure, we are saving our selves as a gift for our husbands (just as we save our spirits for God). And when we satisfy our husbands demands for sex and childbearing, we are acknowledging God’s right to control our bodies. By submitting gracefully and demonstrating joy in submission, we are demonstrating to a rebellious and discontented world the “Peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding.”
Viewed through the lens of Fundamentalist Christianity, our oppression ceases to be painful, frustrating, and humiliating, and becomes instead a powerful expression of devotion to God.
Indeed, embracing feminism, not skepticism toward the existence of God, is what first separated me from the church. I didn’t question—either aloud or in my mind—whether there really was a God. I insisted that there was a God. I insisted that God loved me. And I insisted that I, a woman, was made in the image of God, as the Bible says. I questioned why a perfect creator would create an imperfect creature in Its own image. I then began to question why, if women and men are both made in the image of God, women should submit to men.The resistance and anger I faced for asking this relatively simple question was the beginning of the end of faith for me. Only when I refused to accept my own inferiority did I begin to reject the Bible and the Bible’s God.