Fascinating Womanhood: gender roles

betty draper

TW for homophobia.

Before I jump into this chapter, I want to make a clarification. I’ve been doing my best to make sure that when I talk about my marriage that I make it clear that what I’ve experienced and witnessed personally in my life is limited to my experience only, that I’m only making observations that I’m comfortable viewing as generally true about people. These statements are in line with my core values about marriage: that I am not married to a man, I am married to a person. He is a human being that is different and unique, and deserves to be treated with respect to his individuality instead of viewing of him in terms of stereotypically masculine constructs.

However, I should make it clear that I’ve been married for six months, and that means there are certain limitations to my perspective because of my youth. That is not necessarily true for my readers, many who have been in relationships or married for years, and I’m going to be honest and say that I’m relying on you to temper my inexperience. So thank you for that, and for the things I know I’m going to learn from you as we discuss Fascinating Womanhood. The conversation we can have about this book is honestly more important to me than my review of it.

Ok, with that being said, I’m going to tackle this chapter, which serves as an introduction to the next five. It is titled, you guessed it, “Masculine and Feminine Roles.”

Oh boy. I cringed. And then I avoided reading it again for days. I honestly had serious thoughts about whether or not I even wanted to write this post, or if I just wanted to skip this chapter entirely. Unfortunately, the statements that Helen makes here are only reinforced in the rest of the book, so it’s necessary that I give this chapter the attention it deserves.

When I’ve talked about gender roles and gender essentialism on my blog before, I’ve been disparaging, but I’ve never had the opportunity to dissect anything about gender roles, because it’s usually tangential to the post. Today, though, it’s central, so let’s talk about it.

First, gender roles are cultural constructs.

That is probably the most important element to keep in mind when talking about gender roles from a feminist, egalitarian position. This is also a point deeply in contention in Christianity. Complementarians, who are gender essentialists (at least, as far as I can tell. I’ve never found an exception. If you know of any who aren’t, I’d be fascinated), argue the exact opposite. In a nutshell, gender essentialism is the belief that biological and anatomical factors determine gender, and that your gender results in inherent differences that are biblical. Violating these “inherent” differences is typically described as a perversion of God’s design.

Sex and gender, however, are not the same thing. Sex is biology– and even sex is not always a binary. Even biologically speaking, there are people who have the biological and anatomical characteristics of both sexes. Some people are born with XXY chromosomes, instead of just XX (genetically female) or XY (genetically male). Some people are also born as intersex, or with the presence of both sex organs, or with “ambiguous” genitalia.

Gender, however, is about identity. I have not done a lot of research into trans* issues yet, so I will keep this general, but there are people who are born genetically, biologically, and anatomically as one sex, but identify as the other– but this reality is entirely more fluid than I can articulate well. Gender is a sliding scale– not a binary.

However, Western culture has particular ways of establishing a gender binary. Our culture identifies certain behaviors, personality traits, desires, etc, as either “feminine” or “masculine.” Men who have “feminine” behaviors or attitudes are usually demeaned for it, and women who have “masculine” characteristics also receive social punishment– although, generally speaking, this is to a lesser extent. Metrosexual men, or men typically classified as “effeminate” or “gay” receive endless social beatings.

In conservative Christian culture, however, I would posit that the ramifications for women “behaving like men” are probably just as severe. Especially in complementarian, gender essentialist environments.

That is definitely true for women in Helen’s world.

Man’s Role:

Woman’s Role:

The masculine and feminine roles, clearly defined above, are not merely a result of custom or tradition, but are of divine origin.

First words of the chapter. She certainly doesn’t waste time, does she? She doesn’t even try to cloak what she believes about gender essentialism, which I guess I can appreciate. I don’t think Helen has ever deliberately tried to be deceitful– she uses shady and underhanded tactics and unethical approaches to literature and history, but she presents herself as pretty honest. She’s brutally honest, at times.

Her main argument for why she believes in gender essentialism is pulled from Genesis 3, which I’ve already thoroughly dissected here. In short, using Original Sin, the results of the Fall, and the Curse as your main argument for why women are subservient to men? Not ok, mostly because it’s not consistent with the Gospel. “And he shall have the rule over you” is the Curse. By it’s very nature, it is a description of what human relationships are not supposed to be.

She doesn’t just use the Bible, however, she also turns to history. She talks about “studies” and “science” and “research projects,” however, she never cites any of them, gives any names, any titles, any institutions, nothing. We’re just supposed to accept her presentation of these results as factual, as honest presentations of these studies. Given her habit of twisting literature to suit her purposes, I don’t trust her at all.

Her main thrust is that “gender roles are based on a division of labor,” and then she talks about how everyone is happier when men work outside the home and women work inside of it, and she focuses on medieval history. This is egregiously, factually incorrect. An overwhelming flood of letters, wills, business transactions, literature, and art all depict women as integrally involved in economic arenas “outside the home.” This idea that there was “women’s work” and “men’s work” was primarily present in the nobility, and then, during the Victorian era, in the middle class. Women being able to “work at home” has almost always been a sign of affluence and wealth. Complementarians, in my experience, have the unfortunate habit of completely dismissing the realities of poverty from history and bathing the roles of the nobility and the middle class in a rosy glow.

Three masculine needs:

1. A man needs to function in his masculine role as the guide, protector, and provider.
2. He needs to feel needed in this role.
3. He needs to excel women in this role.

I’m going to save my dissection of the guide, protector, and provider descriptions for later, since Helen dedicates an entire chapter to each one. Trust me, it’s going to be a barrel of monkeys’ worth of fun. The one element here I’d like to highlight, however, is a factor that Helen is going to use as a key component through the rest of the book. This concept will appear as one of the basic assumptions in virtually everything Helen talks about from this point forward:

Men must excel women.

At this point in the book, Helen presents this concept as “men need to excel women in their masculine roles of guide, protector, and provider,” but as the book progresses, she becomes increasingly more forceful about this idea, and occasionally, it approaches the boundaries of ridiculousness and sanity. Her emphasis on “men must always excel women” becomes all-encompassing until it’s a caricature, and clownish. I’m not even kidding about this. It makes me want to laugh, cry, break things, and go on rampages.


Another justification she gives for men and women adhering to her gender roles is because of children:

If children are to develop their sexual nature, they need strong masculine and feminine images to pattern from. The mother demonstrates the feminine image . . . as she moves about the house in feminine clothes, tending to her domestic work, tenderly caring for her children and nursing her baby  . . .

When this is not so, when there is a blurring of roles it can lead to problems. Much homosexuality is traced to homes which have a blurring of roles. The girls and boys from these homes have not had a sexual image to pattern from. This has denied them normal sexual development . . .

Nothing is more important than a boy becoming a masculine man and a girl becoming a feminine woman.

Oh, yes. She went there.

Adhere to gender essentiallism, or your children will become homosexuals, and we all know what a horrifying, terrible fate that is.

Just in case you missed it, that is what blatant bigotry and homophobia looks like.

And, really, Helen? Nothing is more important than Bobby playing with trucks and Sally playing with dolls? Nothing?

She also bemoans the state of the world today, which could either be 1965, or 1980 when she released a major overhaul of the book. In the section “Failures of Society,” she talks about how women have “invaded” the mans’ world, and that, “at home it is just as bad,” and all of this has resulted in tension, worry, and loss of serenity.

As much as Helen assigns men and women to their spheres, she makes it clear almost any time she talks about it that, even inside of the home, even in her domestic responsibilities, not even then does a woman really have any kind of authority.  She says that “even at home it is just as bad. The woman takes control and tries to run things her way.”

So, if you’re a woman, nothing is more important than to “demonstrate a feminine image,” which she clearly lays out in three words: you’re a wife, you’re a mother, you’re a homemaker. And that’s it.

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  • I love this series. Thanks for putting so simply the distinction between gender and sex that people so often muddle when discussing any sort of gender dynamics.

    • I’m just glad it was clear. It is complicated to talk about it, especially since I don’t know that much about trans* issues.

      • Yeah, I’m not well educated in relation to trans issues either. The best I can manage right now is just to say that gender is a social construct independent of biological sex. I think that’s a fair position to take, even in relation to transgendered folks, though I really don’t know enough to be sure.

  • Is it time (again) to point out her hypocrisy? Because unless she’s giving that book away, she’s “providing” for her family and invading an arena that should be maintained for the exclusive enjoyment of men. Where does “writer of books telling other women what to do while not myself doing it” fit in the biblical construct of “wife, mother, homemaker?”

    Why are fundamentalist Christians so comfortable with hypocrisy? This question has bugged me for a long time, and it is a serious one. Because it seems to me that they are pretty much ALL hypocrites – the men are unfaithful while exhorting others to be faithful, they espouse family values while abusing their children, and they claim the ethical high ground while they actively work to make the lives of poor people even more miserable than they already are. How is any of this “biblical”?

    • I think it might have something to do with women being writers in the Victorian age, and anything that a Victorian pre-suffrage woman could do is fine.

      And it’s a big question, because they do seem to be perfectly ok with lies and hypocrisy.

      • Huh. Honestly, I did not see that answer coming! Interesting.

    • Christine, I’ve been a Christian for 30 years and most of that time I spent in fundamentalist Christianity. I came to it during my teenage years while I was looking for answers to the suffering I had experienced in my life, and the fundamentalists presented themselves as the people with “the answers.” I’ve lived in 6 different states, some in the Bible belt, some in the Mid Atlantic. In my experience, the majority of fundamentalist Christians are NOT hypocrites. Misguided and brainwashed in the many, many ways that Samantha and others so deftly point out in their postings, but MOST of them truly believe and try their darnedest to actually conform to the standards presented to them as “God’s will.” As in most cultures, and fundamentalist Christianity is a subculture of Christianity, it is the abusers, the hypocrites, the unfaithful who get all of the press. I compare it to Islamic extremists compared to Islam as a whole. It would be unfair to claim that pretty much all Islamic people are comfortable with suicide bombing, for example, yet it is the suicide bombers and their leaders who get all of the press.

  • sheila0405

    “And he shall have the rule over you” is the Curse. By it’s very nature, it is a description of what human relationships are not supposed to be. BINGO! I’m fairly new to this site, and that simple statement resonated deep within me. I went back and read your post on Genesis 3. It is apparent to me in Genesis 3 that it will ultimately be the woman who ends the curse. In the Douey-Rheims version of the Bible, Genesis 3:15 reads that it is the woman who will crush the head of the serpent. And, your points about sex and gender are spot on. As a nurse, I can attest to the mix-ups that occur biologically, which you highlight. And, gender is rooted in our consciousness, not our genitalia. Altogether a really wonderful blog post. I’m looking forward to the installment. I’m so glad I found this site!

  • I wonder what Helen would think of someone like me — a man who has a job outside the home, as a software developer, but works at home, remotely. I’m like Schroedinger’s Husband: employed both inside and outside the home!

    For what it’s worth, I love working from home. Less pressure, don’t have to dress up, and there’s no work environment that can replace getting kisses from my daughters after a meeting.

    • notleia

      +1 for Schrodinger’s Husband

  • Catcat

    Interesting that the woman is defined solely in relation to her immediate family (wife…of a man; mother…of children.) Sure, I guess a man needs *someone* to guide and protect, but it’s not defined in relation to another specific person in the way that “wife” and “mother” and “homemaker” are. An unmarried, childless man can guide, provide, and protect, say, at work, or at church, or in other important communities. An unmarried childless woman can’t be a wife, she can’t be a mother, so I guess she can…be a homemaker for her spinster roommates? This is claiming that a woman’s identity is her immediate family.

    • Thank you for pointing this out. I wish I’d had the time/space, and you’re absolutely right. There’s no equality built into this system at all.

    • Catcat, you are right! Amazing observation. It is like saying that a childless, unmarried woman isn’t really a woman and she has no role that can be pleasing to God!

  • Morgan Guyton

    Ugh! What we have here is a moralization of normality. There is no genuine moral issue at play here. Gender normativity serves the purpose of giving selfish people a reason to feel righteous because at least their kid’s not gay. Making (white middle-upper class) normality “moral” is part of a strategy for avoiding other moral issues like greed and how we treat our neighbor. Normality is what Jesus referred to as “the world.” In our day, we try to get around the radicalness of his call by making “the world” Hollywood or “those liberals” rather than the system of privilege from which white middle-upper class people benefit. As long as morality is about being sexually “normal,” we will keep on living out Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

  • notleia

    I think life would be so much easier if more people understood the difference between cultural mores and ethics/morals.
    I can’t remember where, but I once read something about some Native American tribes (I think the specific one under discussion was a Plains tribe) considered farming women’s work, so they looked down on the majority of white men around them, who were farmers, but missionaries and the like were bound and determined to make them “civilized,” which meant farming. It makes me sorry for everybody involved in that.

    • notleia

      Upon further research, it turns out that I’m not using the term “mores” right, so I’ll rephrase: I think life would be so much easier if more people understood the difference between cultural norms and ethics/morals.
      Like people should stop assuming I’m a slob because I leave my shoes by the door. It’s totally legit. The Japanese do it. It keeps your floors cleaner when you don’t track the outside onto them. But you probably have some grounds to think me a slob about all the unfolded clothes piled/draped on the furniture.

    • “considered farming women’s work, so they looked down on the majority of white men around them, who were farmers”

      And even this assumes that “women’s work” is looked down on. In many Native American cultures, tasks that were considered “Women’s tasks” were honored. And in some cultures women were considered the heads of household. Others were egalitarian.

      There’s some good information out there about Iroquois and Cherokee gender out there, and I wish I had more time to play librarian… But here are two links I can find easily.


      • In those Plains tribes (I think it was the Kiowa or Comanche), women were totally socially inferior to the men, hence the problem in getting the men to farm. But yeah, the Iroquois were pretty cool; they had constitutions and stuff.

  • It’s sad that “father” and “husband” aren’t important roles for men. But these gender roles seem to define women by their relationships and men by their actions.

  • The net trajectory of biological evolution is from simple to complex across vast spans of time. In Genesis, Eve is the last to be created, which means that the human female is the pinnacle of God’s creation, a step of improvement beyond males. In the Genesis parable, why did the serpent go after Eve rather than Adam? The Force of Evil at war with God knew that it had to attack this new creative enterprise of God at its head to have any chance of destroying it. Adam was not the head. Eve was. However, the Bible posits an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in this Old Testament milieu, and Eve was given the promise that her progeny would bash in the head of the serpent one day and make things right. It was no accident that the first people to witness the evidence of the resurrection were women. Jesus knew that his creation had been attacked at its head long ago, so women were given the first joy of seeing things come full circle. Jesus did not come to put his stamp of approval on subjugating women. He came to render justice for this ancient attack on the pinnacle of his creation and to set women free to be who they were originally created to be.

  • Margaret

    Thank you for this post. As much as I’ve heard about gender roles, I hadn’t thought about it being binary. I’m glad my parents did not insist on this model. My mom stayed home while we were young, but we kids were taught equally to do household chores, boys and girls alike. When I married, my husband was used to more traditional (American?) roles at home. Fortunately for me, he hated yard work more than he abhorred washing dishes and was occasionally willing to trade for me riding the lawn tractor while he cleaned up the kitchen and kept track of the kids.

  • I have a few more comments:

    1) Gender roles (division of labor) are a function of our mammalian past when we were evolving towards being humans. Males were larger and women were smaller. Women were more vulnerable because of the limitations created by pregnancy and caring for children. The rule “of only the strong survive” reigned supreme. The male and female division of labor (men hunt and women gather) were adaptations that promoted survival under those tough circumstances in those ancient times. However, environments change over time, and the means of adaptation change with them.

    One of the great hypocracies of Christian fundamentalism is its constant invective against natural selection and evolution on the one hand while it holds high as its “little precious” the dictum that “only the strong should survive.” My favorite is this one: “The only people who should get medical care are the people who can afford to pay for it out of their own pockets.” In other words, only the strong should survive. Christian fundamentalism idolizes and spiritualizes the basest instincts of our animal past by worshipping the gender roles that first developed in the crucible of sweat and terror on the ancient African plains several million years ago. Those roles were necessary for survival then, but human beings have evolved since that time, and the environments we have to adapt to have changed as well. It is not a given that these early roles are frozen forever. If God had meant women to always be at home, barefoot, and pregnant, he would have ensured that their brains would be incapable of doing anything else. God gave women brains to do calculus because he expected that women would one day need those brains to adapt to changing environments. Calculus is not a prerequisite to changing diapers.

    • Insightful and brilliant comments. I think you’re right on!

  • Last of all, I have two gay relatives who grew up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord in a Southern Baptist Convention church. Neither were rebellious types who attended church just because their parents made them go—then went wild with sin the second church let out. Their dad was a “he man” through and through, and their mother was a clearly feminine person—a real “girlie girl.” I do not think either of the children chose to be gay. Gayness chose them against their own wills, and they had to reconcile the inevitable within themselves. Moreover, for those people who see gayness as a choice, and that seems oh so very obvious, you probably feel that way because something within you says, “Yeah, it is definitely a choice. I know because I could go one way or the other myself and I chose to go hetero.” Huh-uh. If you have that perception and choice ability within yourself, you are making the mistake of thinking that all other people are just like you. Bisexualism most likely chose you. This is why you have urges that could go either way. We true heterosexuals never have any such urges towards the same sex at all. It just never arises within us. I think it would be interesting to find out whether Helen thinks gayness is a simple choice like strawberry versus chocolate ice-cream. I know from personal experience in my own family that her cockamamy theory about what creates gay children is totally incorrect.

  • I would be interested to find out how Helen would define her life and her role within her family if her husband decided that he didn’t want to be part of the family anymore and decided to divorce her and marry someone else. Then she would be forced to do those awful things such as make important decisions for her family, get a job outside the home and take authority over her home and family.

    I lived a “Helen” life for 20 years. I was taught that to be a godly wife and mother, as such I needed to submit to my husband, quit my job, bring my children home from public school and teach them myself, and be a homemaker. I did it as completely and faithfully as I knew how because I was taught by my church and by my husband that doing these things would “please God” and that God would ultimately bless me for the sacrifices I made for my family.

    Then in year 20, with 3 children and not working outside the home for 17 years, after never having even balancing a checkbook or buying an insurance policy or paying a bill (because that was my husband’s role to make these kinds of decisions), the husband who had enjoyed the benefits of a submissive wife, a clean home, and 3 gorgeous, well-behaved children decided that he had had enough of this “lie” and left.

    I had to get 3 part-time jobs. I lost health insurance and all of the social security and 401(k) money that he had saved over the years. I eventually had to file for bankruptcy and my home was foreclosed because I couldn’t make ends meet even with 3 jobs. One part-time job I had with a “Christian school” fired me because I was divorced and “that was a bad example for the students.” My children and I were ostracized at our church and we were all called “sluts” to our faces.

    My ex-husband had the financial and worldly knowledge to move away to another state, get a better job, and marry a woman with a career. He had the advantage of planning his escape from our life so he could make sure he didn’t “lose too much” in the divorce. Ultimately, all of the “promises” that were made to me about how submitting to my husband and giving up a career of my own would ultimately bless my life and “please God”, THAT WAS THE LIE! What it actually did was handicap me beyond measure and leave me in my 40’s and unprepared to live in the real world for the rest of my life.

    A woman defined as WIFE, MOTHER, HOMEMAKER is good work if you can get it. Bully for you, Helen, for getting it and for manipulating your husband into making sure you get to keep it. The one thing that I wish someone had told me 25 years ago was that being a wife, mother, homemaker is TEMPORARY! Marriages end, children grow up, and an empty house doesn’t need a lot of cleaning anyway…certainly not enough to keep you busy full time.

    I teach my daughters and all young women who will listen…DON’T FALL FOR THE LIE. Follow your dreams…become who you were created to be…fully develop every part of your intellectual, physical, spiritual, and emotional self. Do NOT define yourself by your temporary roles and circumstances. Embrace the person you are and who you are becoming.

    • sheila0405

      My mom worked full time for a private Christian school for years. One of the teachers was a pastor’s wife. Her husband ran off with a woman he had been counseling. She was fortunate to be employed full time, and therefore was able to get by. But the school officials wanted to let her go. I know she was able to find another job, but to this day it galls me that she was considered to be somehow at fault for the dissolution of the marriage. As a final insult, her husband eventually divorced the woman he ran off with, and had the nerve to tell his first wife that he missed her and wanted to remarry her. She said no.

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  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    Wait. So according to the opening of her chapter, it’s NOT ordained that men be fathers? Because she specifically indicated that women are to be mothers, but she left out any parental role for males. I would guess she did this because of the verse that instructs women to love their husbands and children and be keepers at home, right? But there’s tons of Bible verses that also talk about dads, so shouldn’t childcare also be considered the domain of men? It doesn’t even make sense on a basic level.

    “Everyone” is happier when men work outside the home and women work in it? Actually, before the Industrial Revolution, men DID work in the home. Were people unhappy then?

    I guess the women I’ve known who got depressed being stay-at-home mothers don’t exist? I guess the ones who went back to work to save their sanity were figments of my imagination? I guess all these ladies who love their kids and love their job and are happy with both are universal paradoxes?

    As for the section on what men need, I thought it was kind of silly and just thrown in there to further scare women/reinforce her ideas. Basically the three needs of men were just three different re-wordings of her original assertion about their role. Men are in charge. Their three needs are to be in charge, to be in charge, and to be in charge.

    • sheila0405

      Well said! My own father worked outside the home, and my mom was the traditional stay at home mom. I’m sure my father loves all of his six children, but between work and church, he wasn’t around all that much, except every night at dinner. He was a devout fundamentalist, and every night after dinner, he did a devotional with us. But he is often sharp and sarcastic, and used words to cut us deeply. I doubted that he loved me throughout my childhood. Fathers need to recognize the differences in each of their children, and spend time getting to know them. Fathers need to encourage and uplift their children, and tell them often that they love them. Yes, the role of married men with children is to help their children feel unconditional love and security in the home. I never got that sense, and I also damaged my own two children when they were little. Thank God I came to realize that my primary role is to love them unconditionally, and now we have better relationships. Fathers are key–children watch how they treat their wives, and internalize what they see and hear.

  • The construct, as you note, is brutal on both men and women. Particularly on those who do not conform to the expectations.

    I am strongly heterosexual by orientation, but don’t fit the “masculine” image particularly well. I am the more nurturing parent in our marriage, I am the more cuddly spouse, I like classical music, poetry, flowers, and romance. Small wonder that I was suspected (by peers, not my family) of being gay during my childhood and early adulthood. (Actually, I think I have been mistaken for gay even in the last few years.) My point isn’t anything negative, but just that there is shaming for those of us who don’t do the binary well.

    Likewise, my wife has taken a good bit of grief for working outside the home, and not being particularly interested in defining herself primarily as a wife and mother.

    Yet, we found early in our marriage that we were happiest when we jettisoned the expectations and just took the roles that worked for us. Thus, we split the wage earning and the housework, and I spend plenty of time with the kids alone. It just works better for us, but it sure is a threat to the complementarian worldview.