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A Response to “Free to Be Feminist?” | Righting America

by Emily McGowin

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emily Hunter McGowin. Dr. McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her work is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. Her first book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family, will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices, New Blackfriars, and a collection of essays, Angels on Earth: Mothering, Religion, and SpiritualityEmily is a regular speaker in Denver, CO, where she is theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection. You can learn more about Emily at her website. 

In their post, “Free to Be Feminist?,” Bill and Sue Trollinger rightly point out how fundamentalist/evangelical rhetoric regarding female subjugation changed in the 1960s and 70s following the inroads made by second-wave feminism. Rather than argue women are subservient to men as a result of the Fall (per Gen. 3:16), evangelicals began to argue that female subservience was rooted in God’s original design for creation. If male headship is rooted in God’s design, then feminism is a rejection of and rebellion against that divine design.

Then, over the past few decades, some evangelicals took the argument for patriarchy even further: Not only is male headship rooted in God’s design for creation, but it’s also rooted in God’s Triune nature.

Often called the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS), this position suggests the Son is in an eternally subordinate relationship to the Father. In short, they are equal in glory and power, but unequal in roles (as the Son submits eternally to the Father). This then becomes the model for women’s subordination to men: equal in worth and honor, but unequal in roles (as the wife submits to the husband).

I rehearse this narrative because it is important to recognize these rhetorical shifts. As patriarchy has been threatened in 20th and 21st Century America, evangelicals have attempted to shore it up, particularly within Christian spaces. First, patriarchy was constructed as a consequence of the Fall. Then, patriarchy was interpreted to be central to God’s original creative design, leaving no room for seeing it as a reversible result of sin. And then, in recent decades, patriarchy has been reinterpreted (by some) as rooted in God’s Triune nature. It wasn’t enough for patriarchy to govern the world; it has to be embedded in the ground of all being, too.

But there’s additional insight to be gained about fundamentalist rhetoric by considering it in an even broader historical framework. The fact of the matter is that, until the mid-20th Century, the argument for patriarchy within Christianity was predicated upon the assumption that women were, in their very nature, deficient. That is, compared to men, women lacked intelligence, were emotionally unstable, and were more subject to temptation. As a result of this fundamental deficiency, women should be subject to men—in the home, in the church, and in the world.

The assumption of women’s natural deficiency crossed the boundaries of Christian traditions, showing up in Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sources. Anglican theologian William Witt has written about this matter at great length in reference to Anglican disputes over women’s ordination (and I understand he has a book in the works as well). It’s impossible to replicate his arguments here. But a few of the examples from his research will illustrate what once was the traditional Christian consensus on women’s subjection to men:

  • “[D]o you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.” – Tertullian, 2nd C.

  • “To woman is assigned the presidency of the household; to man all the business of state, the marketplace, the administration of government … She cannot handle state business well, but she can raise children correctly…” – John Chrysostom, 4th C.

  • “[G]enerally, proverbially, and commonly it is affirmed that women are more mendacious and fragile, more diffident, more shameless, more deceptively eloquent, and, in brief, a woman is nothing but a devil fashioned into a human appearance.” – Albert the Great, 13th C.

  • “For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” – Thomas Aquinas, 13th C.

  • “Nature, I say, doth paynt [women] further to be weake, fraile, impacient, feble, and foolishe.” – John Knox, 16th C.

  • “[Women’s] judgments are commonly weakest because of their sex.” – Richard Hooker, 16th C.

These are but a few examples of the near-universal agreement of Christian teachers through the centuries that women are biologically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually inferior to men—what Witt calls “an inherent ontological incapacity.”  That is to say, until the mid-20th Century, the standard reasoning about the relation of the sexes was that women are subject to men due to their natural inferiority. Of course, for many reasons such reasoning ceases to be viable today. So, the Christian “traditionalists”, including fundamentalists/evangelicals, have shifted their rhetoric. Now women’s subjection is rooted in the order of creation, the language of a couple of Pauline epistles, and, for some, the Trinity itself.

I share this broader context for evangelical antifeminist rhetoric because it reveals something important. Those fundamentalist and evangelical “traditionalists” who have altered their arguments to maintain women’s submission to men are, in fact, theological innovators. Indeed, within the wider frame of church history, all who choose to speak of women as the moral, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual equals of men are promoting a “progressive” agenda. The realization that women are, in fact, fully human has made theological innovators of us all.

This is not to say, of course, that all innovation is created equal (ESS is particularly concerning, in my view). But it is to acknowledge that, despite Christ’s own teachings and pattern of life, the Christian tradition has often failed to affirm the full humanity of women. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some evangelicals are looking for more sophisticated arguments for women’s subordination today.