Browsing Tag


Feminism, Theology

myths I believed about women of the Bible

One of my blogging friends, Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism, has been going through Debi Pearl’s Created to Be His Help Meet a few pages at a time– she’s where I got my idea to break down Fascinating Womanhood. Libby Anne’s gotten to the part of the book where Debi uses Bathsheba as an example of everything a woman shouldn’t be, and blames Bathsheba almost totally for everything that happened– both to her and to David and his family. She’s the biblical face that sunk a thousand ships, as it were.

Reading over Debi’s description felt oh-so-familiar. It was exactly what I was taught about Bathsheba. A quick review of church history– its art, its commentaries, its sermons–  reveals that it’s how most Christians talked about her, too. Bathsheba, to many Christians, was a slutty whore. As I’ve grown into egalitarianism and feminism over the past four years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with that interpretation. There’s no crystal-clear explanation in II Samuel 11 that Bathsheba didn’t consent, but that’s hardly surprising since Bronze Age cultures had no (or little) conception of female consent. Regardless, David was the warrior-king, the warlord, and how exactly was Bathsheba supposed to say “yes”? Consent matters very little when there’s no real possibility of saying no and having that no be respected.

But then, Libby Anne pointed something out that I had completely missed: that the text actually does make it completely and utterly clear that Bathsheba had absolutely no part in what happened to her and she was not to be held responsible. It says it, plain as day, when the passages specifies that she was “purifying herself from her uncleanness” in verse four.

Bathsheba wasn’t bathing on her roof.

Bathsheba was in the mikveh. In the communal pool, the one designated for ritualistic cleansing, the one constructed for privacy, and the one David would have KNOWN naked women went into at least once a month, as the Law commanded.

And not only that, any time David’s actions are discussed anywhere else in Scripture, it is always to place the full, unmitigated blame totally and squarely on David. Never, not even once, is Bathsheba mentioned. She did nothing– nothing— wrong. Considering how severely the Law treats women who “play the harlot in their father’s house” or commit adultery (ie: stoned to death), that any supposed wrong-doing on her part is never even mentioned is pretty strong evidence that David raped her.

Reading that this morning was… beyond mind-boggling. I read that passage my entire life, have heard countless sermons preached on it, and what I walked away with was that Bathsheba was a slut.

The same thing has happened to virtually every other women in the Bible.

Deborah? Just a punishment for men being cowardly and lazy. Huldah? Huh, who’s that? Oh, just some random woman that read the Torah. Forget about how she was a contemporary of four other male prophets. Obviously she’s just there to prove how ungodly Judah had become. Junia? Nope, not an apostle. Dude, she’s not even a woman. Mary Magdalene, the person the Resurrected Christ appeared to first? Also a whore– she was obviously a prostitute. Please ignore how there’s not even a single shred of evidence to support that.

What’s the only thing we know about Sarah? That she mocked God. What did Rebekah do? She manipulated and lied. Rachel? Was a whiny little brat that stole her father’s idols. Dinah? Also a slutty slut, nevermind that she was also raped. Eve? Weak and easily deceived, also responsible for the destruction of the human race because she was a fool. Satan knew that Adam was much too smart, much too good, to be deceived. The song of praise and honor meant for all women in Proverbs 31? It’s a list of commands now, you have to do all of it or you’re a worthless good-for-nothing wretch. What do we remember about Hannah? She was discontent with her husband and needed a baby to be happy.

Over, and over, and over again it seems that most Christian theologians over the past few thousand years have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy doing anything possible to discredit and destroy every single last positive example of womanhood in the Bible. It’s so deeply buried in Christian culture at this point that it seems incredibly rare for someone to even bother to show women in the same light that the Bible showed them: as human, yes, but also as glorious, courageous, magnificent, brave, intelligent, dedicated, loving Daughters of Abraham, Heirs of God.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: feminine nature


What happens when the average red-blooded man comes in contact with an obviously able, intellectual, and competent woman, manifestly independent of any help a man can give, and capable of meeting him or defeating him on his own ground? He simply doesn’t feel like a man any longer. In the presence of such strength and ability in a mere woman he feels like a futile, ineffectual imitation of a man. It is one of the most uncomfortable and humiliating sensations a man can experience, so that the woman who arouses it becomes repugnant to him.

When a man is in the presence of a tender, trustful, dependent woman, he immediately feels a sublime expansion of his power to protect and shelter this frail and delicate creature. In the presence of such weakness, he feels stronger, more competent, bigger, manlier than ever. This feeling of strength and power is one of the most enjoyable he can experience. The apparent need of the woman for care and protection, instead of arousing contempt for her lack of ability, appeals to the very noblest feelings within him.

I don’t usually quote this much from the book (mostly because that would get boring pretty fast, but also because I can only legally reproduce so much of it for a critical review), but I thought it was important for all of you to see this, in the full, horrible, stark reality of Helen’s world. In this world, the most important thing that must be maintained at all costs is that men feel powerful. And not only must they feel powerful, they must be powerful, except that is only possible when a woman is incompetent.

I wish I could say it doesn’t get any worse.

The next section of the chapter is one of Helen’s lists– all the “characteristics” of a feminine nature:

  • weakness– physically weak, incapable of solving physical problems.
  • submissiveness– defined earlier in the book as “never having needs.”
  • dependence– “because her whole purpose in life is home-oriented.”
  • tenderness– “crying [over books, dead animals], were it ever so stupid.”
  • fearfulness– “men will, in fact, sometimes take women into danger, just to see how fearful women are.”

The last one– fearfulness– pisses me off. My abuser would do this over and over again— deliberately put me into a situation that made me feel incredibly unsafe, or do something that was life-threatening and ridiculously stupid (like doing donuts in an iced-over parking lot, or nearly breaking my neck on a jet ski), and then get an incredible kick out of my reaction. He thought my legitimate fear was hysterical, and it made him feel big and bad by comparison. According to Helen, however, men— all men, not just abusers– do this. “He does it because you are so afraid, and he is so unafraid.”

Helen goes on to tell us how to “awaken” our feminine natures, and it’s as easy as 1-2-3. First, we get rid of any “strength, ability, competence, or fearlessness.” Then we stop doing anything around the house that could possibly fall inside a “masculine” job– and if we have to do it, we must do it incredibly badly (“do it in a feminine manner” and feminine = incompetent) or our husbands will “never come to our rescue.”

Then there’s this:

Don’t compete with men for advancement on a job, higher pay, or greater honors. Don’t compete with them for scholastic honors in men’s subjects. It may be all right to win over a man in English or social studies, but you’re in trouble if you compete with men in math, chemistry, or science. Don’t appear to know more than a man does in world events, the space program, science, or industry.

I just . . . can’t even handle this chapter.

Partly because I know more than my husband about the space program. It’s what happens when you’re obsessed with something like space exploration since your earliest memory, like me. Except, in Helen’s world, the fact that I have been a Trekkie and a NASA geek since I was four is wrong. Something that is so deeply a part of me– my love of space, and the stars, and of space launches and Mars missions– must be removed, because it threatens men.

I know this sounds crazy. I know this sounds like something from the 50s. Except it is exactly what I grew up with, and it is entrenched so deeply in our culture that when you remind a woman that she’s a woman she does worse in math and science evaluations. And it’s because women like Helen Andelin, and Debbie Pearl, and Mary Pride, and Phyllis Schlafly, and Mary Kassian, and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and Grace Driscoll, and Danah Gresh have all been screaming about this since the 60s. Being strong, and capable, and competent, is anti-feminine and anti-God.

Feminism, Social Issues, Theology

hoping to help bring change at church, part four

church building

As I mentioned earlier in this series, my partner and I have solid relationships with many people involved with our church’s leadership– both pastors and staff members. I’m grateful for those relationships, and for the trust we have, and not just because it’s enabling us to approach them with some of our concerns, but because this is the first time in my life I’ve ever been taken seriously by church leadership. It’s probably at least connected to being fully an “adult”: I’m married and attending a church where no one’s ever met my parents . . . but I also believe it’s because this church is actually different than other churches I’ve attended.

When I first found out that women weren’t allowed to serve on the elder board here, I was surprised. Shocked, really. I’d heard women teach in the main service, I’d seen women consistently teach  adult-level classes, and I knew that they had several women on staff– one as a pastor. To hear that they could do everything except serve as elder puzzled me. After I’d attended for a few months, I was sitting in a “get to know our church!” meeting, and when a woman next to me asked what their stance was toward women, the response included the word “forbidden.”

That . . . bothered me. I wasn’t expecting to hear that. Not here.

So, my partner and I reached out to a man we’d been working with for over six months and who served on the elder board, asking what the church’s official position was. What we eventually heard back was that they believed in compromise: that women could serve in every leadership position except elder. It was a divisive, contentious issue, they said, and since they hold to “in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” they didn’t want to “take sides.” This seemed the best way to do that.


You all know me– you can imagine that went over about as well as a lead balloon.

After several more months, after carefully watching and observing as much as I could, after interacting with as many people as I could find and talk to, and after doing as much research as I could, I realized that this church, as amazing as it is, had a serious problem with their view of women, and it was everywhere. It was in how the pastor addressed women in his sermons, how I was treated, how leaders engaged with women during volunteer meetings. It was in all the books they recommend for married couples, it was in listening to the people who led the married Bible studies, in hearing what the topic recommendations were for the women’s studies, and in hearing men talk about the women in their church, occasionally their wives.

No one knew to uplift and recognize women because it wasn’t happening.

The church leaders had decided that having women involved was nice, but not necessary. And it was affecting everything.

Which was why my partner and I eventually reached out to the same elder again; this time, though, instead of simply asking for this church’s position, we would be explaining our own.


The same day that I heard that women were “forbidden” from serving as elders, something else also happened. Handsome literally poked and prodded me until I spoke with one of our pastors– the man currently in charge of the youth program. I’d been ranting and raving about the messages young women receive from church and American culture about sex and “purity.” Handsome is always of the opinion that if you could be doing something . . . well, then, you should be doing something. I’d mentioned, rather off the cuff, that I’d like to talk to the teenagers at our church about sex, consent, agency, autonomy, etc, and he thought it sounded like a fantastic idea.

So did the youth pastor, coincidentally.

That’s how I ended up filling out a survey and giving the church my information for a background check, and why I ended up sitting in a classroom awkwardly listening to a lesson on the 10 Commandments (note: it was actually an incredible lesson), blinking sleepily under fluorescent lights, and hearing the bantering back-and-forth of teenagers. The youth pastor suggested that I get to know the kids before I come blustering into their lives shouting about vaginas and penises. Seemed like a good idea. I’m going to keep going to their class, hopefully become a familiar face, and be talking with the pastor about my lesson.

It’s an exciting process, and I’m looking forward to being able to share some of my story and talk to them about something powerful enough to change their life.


Handsome and I invited the elder to our home so we could talk, and I was nervous as all get-out for the entire day. In the hour before he arrived I thought I was going to be sick half a dozen times. I reached out to twitter, and everyone was amazing and supportive. Just so you know, hearing eshet chayil gets me RIGHT IN THE FEELS.

Once we’d all settled in after I had a really hard time engaging in the small talk (apparently, small talk is impossible for me when I’m nervous), we actually managed to have a conversation. The elder explained more about how the board functioned– what they do, what they don’t do. When Handsome and I started opening up about our concerns, he listened, but he also engaged with us, occasionally clarifying for himself something we’d said, other times explaining more about the elder board in order to ease our concerns some. I was able to get through more of what I was thinking than I’d ever thought possible– I had carefully honed my argument down to the bare minimum, but I was really able to open up to this elder and express most of what’s in my heart.

What happened that night is something I’ve seen play out many times during my first year on the internet. I know that The IntraWebs can be a messy, confusing, infuriating place most of the time, but I’ve been in small corners that feel more like living rooms. I’ve seen people disagree– sometimes heatedly– and come out on the other side . . . better. Sometimes, all an interaction meant was that you could articulate an idea better since it had been put against opposition. Other times, we all came together to overcome a communication barrier. Sometimes we learned– and sometimes the learning was painful.

This conversation was like that. It was people, believers, sitting down together and trying to figure out what we can do. It was good. It left me feeling very hopeful, and it ended with a promise that we’d get to address the elder board.


hoping to help bring change at church, part three

church building

I’ve mentioned a few times that I have two goals for my church, but I’ve never laid out exactly what they are in this series. If you’ve been a reader for a while, you probably already know what they are, but I’d figure I’d spell it out.

  • I want my church to openly and honestly declare that they support women.
  • I want my church to approach the reality of abuse with abuse victims in mind.

Those two goals encompass a huge set of changes– and I’m only positive about a few of them in the short-term. This is going to be an extended process if it happens at all, and I’m trying to keep myself realistic. I can’t expect sweeping changes overnight, and the only thing that will ensure is that I burn myself out much faster than anything can happen.

I am working on articulating– to myself, and to others– what I would like these changes to be, specifically. What I do know, right now, is that it’s not really a set of policies I want to put in place. What I want to see happen is a fundamental shift in how this church treats women and abuse victims.

One of the problems is that this church, just like other denominations that claim to “be supportive of women,” doesn’t distinguish between women can lead and women should lead. It might seem subtle, but it’s not.

The difference comes down to recognizing the absolute necessity of having women involved in leadership, and not just saying “oh, if you want to.” This church is in a strange middle place of having women in leadership– on the staff, on volunteer teams, as teachers– but not allowing women to serve on the elder board. With one half of their mouth they claim that they “support women” and say they think that women “can be leaders,” but with the other half they say that they do not support women and that they can’t be leaders.

My partner and I have gotten a multi-pronged reason for why the church was set up this way, and the reasons have varied according to who we spoke to. One of the staff mentioned that it was because our founding church didn’t have women on the elder board, so when they appointed our elder board (the elder board is self-appointing and not elected, because the church doesn’t have a member role), they just didn’t appoint women and it’s stayed that way. Another suggested it was because that the elder board is itself split on this issue, so they haven’t been pro-active. One of the pastors explained that they believe in the “biblical approach” (read: complementarian), but that they’ve “allowed” women to serve in other positions, just not the elder board.

However, the official reason I’ve gotten from the elder board and the senior pastor was that they believe this position is a “compromise” regarding a contentious issue. Obviously, I disagree that this is a “compromise” at all, but that’s what I am going to be arguing for when I meet the elder board. Initially, I’m going to be asking that the elder board change their position and allow women to serve, but my real goal is for the elder board to be representative of the church– so somewhere around half of them being women. This comes from my desire to see this church not just “allow” a woman to lead, but to seek, encourage, and train women to be leaders— something that men have gotten in evangelical churches for years. They do this to a limited extent, but I want to see a shift happen. This church, as I’ve explained, went out of their way to be racially diverse– they thought that was important enough to actively pursue. I want that same attitude reflected in how they treat women: important enough to pursue.

For the second goal, I want to make it clear that this church hasn’t been antagonistic toward abuse victims. I’ve seen many churches over the years be openly dismissive of abuse victim’s needs, and I’ve heard horror stories about how “church should not be safe”– from multiple people in different denominations, different areas of the country. It can get so much worse than that, too– churches and church leaderships can engage in massive cover-ups that can go on for thirty years or more.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure about this church’s stance toward abuse victims. All I know is that, as an abuse victim sitting in a Sunday morning service, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve heard things that I know perpetuate and legitimize abuse for abusers and their victims. However, I think all of that is done because of innocence, and what this church needs is education. It’s an extremely difficult thing to face, standing in front of a congregation, knowing that 20% of the marriages you’re seeing are abusive, that 25% of the women and 10% of the men have been raped, that 40% of the people were abused as children, that half of those were also sexually abused. It’s not a reality that I’d want to face every week as a pastor.

But it has to be faced.

It has to be because the abuse is ongoing, because pastors preach to abusers and their victims every week. They are speaking into the hearts of wounded people– people who probably don’t even know that they’re being abused.

And churches, pastors, leaders, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how what they say can be manipulated by an abuser to give them even more power. They don’t understand how abusers work– how they are actually attracted to church because they know we’ll give them a multitude of second chances, and extend grace and forgiveness and compassion.

These are the things I want to see change.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: feminine manner


This chapter, more than most, makes me — well, this word is going to sound melodramatic, but it’s the only word that comes close– it makes me feel despair. I know I’ve said this a few times during the course of this review, but it’s worth re-iterating: Helen sounds incredibly extreme, and her ideas sound cartoonish and seem to be easily dismissed.

But Helen is only saying out loud what most of the people I knew actually believed– and still believe, in most cases.

Granted, I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, and they’re on the “unmitigated horror” end of the Christian spectrum. However, the ideas I’m about to dissect are present all over mainstream evangelical culture. For example, all of the ideas in this chapter show up in Rebecca St. James’ “SHE Teen.” The “feminine manner” that Helen describes is all over every single Jannette Oke and Lori Wick book ever written.

So, digging in:

The feminine manner is attractive to a man because it is such a contrast to his masculine strength and firmness.

This is probably the central theme for any conversation about femininity in evangelical contexts: the goal is to be as much unlike a man as can possibly be managed. The boundaries between sexes must be firm and distant, and there can be no gender fluidity of any kind. Everyone must not only be cisgender, they must also conform to modern Western stereotypes or risk being labeled “ungodly.”

There are nine specific ways Helen says women can develop a feminine manner: with your hands, the way you walk, your voice, laugh, by “cooing and purring,” having “bewitching languor,” controlling your facial expressions, in your conversations, and in “refinement.”

First of all: this chapter is racist.

It’s racist, because every single trait she describes as “feminine” could be described in two ways: “not stereotypically masculine” and “not black”– by how white supremacists view black women and black culture. Although there’s no such thing as some hegemonic or monolithic “black culture,” there is a way white people view what they call “black culture,” and it’s typically demeaning. When Helen talks about all the unfeminine things can women do, she’s using words and ideas that racists use to belittle and Other black women.

We can’t “wave our hands in the air of use them firmly in expressing” ourselves. Which, that means I’m always going to be unfeminine. Always. I don’t think it’s possible for me to talk without using my hands. Also, this implies that we can’t express ourselves firmly, either– which tends to happen when you have firm views on something. However, having a definite, solid, informed opinion and being resolute– that’s unfeminine.

Don’t walk like men or fashion models. Especially not models. They’re “arrogant.” Also, we have to walk like we weigh “ninety-five pounds.” Which, since I’m around 150, can someone please explain to me how I’m supposed to walk around like I weigh 50 pounds less than I do? Apparently, you need to have been horribly skinny at one point in your adult life to do this. If I ever weighed ninety-five pounds I’d be dead. Granted, there are plenty of small women and 95 lbs. is no big deal for them. However, I’m not one of them.

For our voice, we can’t talk “too loud,” which she doesn’t define, and it also can’t be raspy. It has to be “clear,” and if it isn’t, we have to practice by recording ourselves and reading poetry with marbles stuffed in our mouths like chipmunks. Forget about women who have naturally husky, low, raspy, or masculine-sounding voices. They’re beyond hope.

This next one just infuriated me: we have to “coo” and “purr”:

Have you noticed when women talk to their babies . . . they tend to make gentle noises? This is called baby talk. It can be fascinating to a man, even when bestowed on an infant.

Baby talk.

I’m a little lost as to what “bewitching languor” is supposed to be. She says it’s a “calm, quiet air similar to that of a cat relaxing before a fireplace.” When you say bewitching languor to me this is what I imagine:

Sleeping Hermaphroditus by Bernini

 Considering Helen’s basically been on a rampage against sexiness, talking about “languor” just seems . . . odd.

In our facial expressions, we can never have “tight lips or drooping mouth” . . . or basically use our face to communicate any non-happy-happy-joy-joy expression. If our faces are anything less than eternally “gentle,” it’s because we don’t have a “sound philosophy of life based on moral values” and we’re just “harsh, critical, [and] impatient.” We can learn to control our character by exercising control over our face . . . and apparently, having a good character means never feeling or showing anything negative. Ever.

Women talk too much, too. And we talk about ourselves all of the time. We never talk about anything that isn’t our children, husband, or our house– nevermind the fact that besides church (where we see people to talk to!) we don’t ever interact with anything that isn’t our husband, children, or house in Helen’s universe.

And, my favorite, refinement, which “implies good social breeding.” Considering that phrase is intimately connected to being descended from either wealth or nobility, it’s unsurprising that the description Helen gives for “refinement” is basically “be rich and white.”

There are some parts in this section that I agree with: she encourages us to be courteous, respectful, considerate. All good things. However, in the context of this chapter, even these exhortations to be decent human beings are problematic. You’re courteous, respectful, and considerate because you’re refined. You have “good breeding.” Anyone who expresses frustration, or is critical, who “rubs their husband’s back” or does anything outside of a pearl-and-kitten-heels-wearing image of womanhood is unrefined, and we can judge them for it.

The last part of the chapter, though, includes several “letters” from women who have read Fascinating Womanhood and wanted Helen to know how much it changed their life. I don’t usually talk about the letters– the book is heartbreaking enough on its own, and I’m not even sure if the “letters” are legitimate. Stylistically, they don’t deviate that far from Helen’s voicing, tone, grammar, and vocabulary. The first letter though, hit me:

Before I found your book, I was extremely unhappy . . . I had been raised to be very aggressive, independent, and competent, and added to that was the fact that I am very tall and unfeminine loo
king . . . I feel anything that can change a person like I was into a soft, feminine woman needs to be taught to every woman, especially Women’s Libbers!”

Feminism, Theology

why I am a Christian feminist

woman at the well

So, I got an interesting question on twitter this morning. “John” asked me “how does modern day feminism and Christianity complement each other?” and it occurred to me that while I’ve talked a lot about how I became a feminist, and why I’m a feminist, and why I think Christianity desperately needs feminism . . . I don’t think I’ve talked about why I specifically identify as an egalitarian and Christian feminist, even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about why I disagree with complementarianism.

Even if I left Christianity and abandoned my faith entirely I would still be a feminist– in fact, if I do eventually leave my faith it will probably be because I am a feminist. To me, feminism isn’t about making sure that men and women are indistinguishable (and I would posit that feminism has never argued for that, even though it was painted as doing so): feminism is entirely about fighting for the marginalized, for the oppressed, for the abused, for the silenced. Flavia Dzodan said it better than I ever could: my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Intersectional, meaning that as a feminist I will fight for equality for all people– for LGBTQ people, for people of color, for men damaged by the messages of patriarchy and domination. If I abandon Christianity, it will be because I’ve concluded that there is no hope for equality based on a thorough and deep investigation of Scripture.

However, even though I have deep struggles with the Bible and what almost feel like unanswerable questions about infanticide, genocide, rape, and the slaughter of innocents, when I read about Jesus, when I read the Gospels and then the following letters that circulated in the early church, I see hope for the oppressed. When I sang “O Holy Night” during my in-laws Candlelight Service, the words “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother– and in his name all oppression shall cease” shook me to my core, and I had to stop singing so that I could weep.

All oppression shall cease.

Christian feminism and its sister egalitarianism is about fighting against the oppression of women in the Church. We have inherited a long history of open misogyny practiced by many (if not most) of our Church fathers. Martin Luther called marriage a “necessary evil” and said that it’s better for women to bear as many children as possible and die in childbirth than it is for a woman to live a long life. Tertullian described us as “the gateway to hell.” Even biblical writers blame Eve’s weakness almost entirely for the Fall, taking the same approach that Adam did when God questioned him.

We seek to honestly struggle with these passages, to understand them in light of what we see as Jesus’ message. When I read the Gospels, what I see is a story about how Jesus lifted up the oppressed, how he exalted second-class citizens to equality. I see Jesus being born of a woman and Mary exclaiming:

He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.

I watch as his parents take him to the Temple, and it is a woman, Anna, who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and who speaks of him to all those “searching for redemption in Jerusalem.” I follow him through his ministry, when he speaks to uneducated women the exact same way he speaks to Pharisees and biblical scholars. I delight when he declares a woman has bested him when she says “even dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table.” I rejoice when he recognizes the full rights of women when he calls one of us a “Daughter of Abraham.” I glow with the pride Mary must have when he says that she’s chosen her rightful place to learn at his feet. I cry when it is only women who remain, following him to the tomb– and then dance when the Resurrection is announced by a woman, who is revered as “The Apostle to the Apostles.”

And it doesn’t end there– the stories keep pouring in. Prisca, who teaches Apollos a better way. Junia, an outstanding apostle. Phoebe, the deacon from Cenchrea. Philip’s daughters, who prophesy. Mary, Trephena, Truphose, Persis, Eudoia, Synteche, Damaris, Nympha, Apphia … and many others who go unnamed but labor side-by-side with the Twelve in spreading the Gospel.

I see all of these stories, and then I see a few scant passages with murky histories and difficulties in their interpretations, and I can’t accept that a few words we don’t clearly understand can completely undo the honor and praise heaped upon women– women who Paul says had been a “leader of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:2).

I understand why this is an ongoing conversation in the evangelical community in America. There is a tension here, between these ideas. There is a reason why many intelligent, perceptive people are complementarians. I disagree with them– sometimes, I disagree with them violently— but I get it.

However, I believe that all oppressions shall cease, and patriarchy– even patriarchy christened by earnest Bible-believing men and women as “complementarianism”– is oppression. I believe that this is one of the core ideas in the Gospel– that everyone, every person no matter their gender, sex, color, or status is equal. That under the Gospel, there is no bond or free or man or woman or Greek or Gentile. We are all one in Christ, the heirs and children of God.

To me, there is basically no difference between my feminism and my faith. The two are so integrally connected; all my reasons and feelings are tied up together. I am a Christian because I am a feminist– I believe that Christianity’s core message is one of freedom and hope. I am a feminist because I am a Christian– I fight for equality because I believe it is both the only moral, right, just thing to do and because I seek to follow where Jesus led.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: outward femininity


I’m back from my vacation, and jumping right back into Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood. I know I picked up some new readers over the holiday break (huge thanks to Fred Clark at the Slacktivist for featuring me)– which, welcome!– so it’s possible many of you aren’t familiar with Helen. I did an introduction to my review series that has all the quick-and-dirty facts you’ll need, and if you’re interested in catching up on the series, you can find them all under my Archives–>Projects tab. I’ve been doing an extended review, examining Helen’s book for its damaging teachings.


We’ve got about a third of the book left, and starting a completely new section: “The Human Qualities.” Up until now Helen’s been talking about the “Angelic Qualities,” and she divides these traits up thusly:

ideal woman

And she certainly starts off this section with a bang:

Femininity is a gentle, tender quality found in a woman’s appearance, manner, and nature . . . She has a spirit of sweet submission and a dependency upon men for their care and protection. Nothing about her is masculine– no male aggressiveness, competence, efficiency, fearlessness, strength, or the ability to kill her own snakes.

When I first hit this paragraph, I couldn’t imagine that Helen means exactly what she says here, but oh, she does. Does she ever. She actually does intend for women to be the exact opposite of what she views as “masculine.” Women are to be hopelessly dependent, weak, and incompetent, and she argues for this unabashedly.

This chapter– which is, thankfully, brief– focuses on what goes into “outward” femininity, and she spends most of her time focusing on clothes. Granted, this was hysterical the first time I read it. I ended up reading it out loud to Handsome (that’s my partner’s nickname here, for the newbies) in my best Margaret Thatcher/Julia Child voice. The main point that she makes, though, is that to “acquire a feminine appearance,” women must “accentuate the differences between yourself and men.” We can do this by wearing “only those things” that make the “greatest contrast to their apparel.” Because, after all, “[m]en never wear anything fluffy, lacy, or gauzy.”

Really, Helen? Never?

She tells us ladies to pay attention to our fabric choices– no tweed, herringbone, woolens, denims, plaids, or anything else ever used to make a suit, really, or worn for work at all. First of all, I’m really curious why these fabrics automatically disqualify an outfit from being feminine. I’ve seen Pinterest. And, just because Helen wrote this back in the 60s, I was curious. Was there something about how these fabrics were used that made Helen think that they could not possibly be used in a feminine way?

EPSON scanner image

Nope. That’s all tweed. She looks pretty feminine to me. And warm. In Helen’s world, women can’t be warm, because we have to wear crisp cottons, linens, chiffon, lace, sating, angora, organdy, and silk. Can’t go around looking for comfort, warmth, or durability from our clothes– that would be unfeminine. Also, all those fabrics? They’re upper-middle class fabrics, and completely unpractical for anyone who does anything more physically strenuous than dust. Which I suppose is probably the point. It also just highlights that Helen is completely blind to her privilege– I have no idea how much money her husband made, but how on earth is an ordinary woman supposed to have a wardrobe made up of anything like what she’s describing?

But, it’s not just the fabrics. We can’t wear “drab colors used by men,” which amounts to anything in the “neutral” category. We should aim for prints, not solids, and assiduously avoid anything “tailored” or “mannish,” like pants or sleeves with buttons. She goes on to tell us to look for “trim”– lace, ribbons, embroidery, beads, and braiding– and all of that also says money to me. And, for our accessories, never carry anything that might look like a briefcase, and always be sure to top off our outfits with scarves, flowers, and jewelry.

Then she moves away from clothes and starts talking about “grooming.” She gives a head-nod to cleanliness and hygiene, with the ridiculously made-up assertion that the women on the Mayflower “may not have had enough water to drink, but they sneaked enough to wash their white collars and caps.” She really can’t help it with the “I have to twist historical realities in order to make my point!” thing.

However, the point of this section isn’t cleanliness, it’s makeup. Apparently, women have “for generations … applied eye makeup and used fragrances.” To a certain extent you could probably make that argument, with a caveat: for generations, noble or extremely rich women have used eye makeup and perfumes. So did men, for that matter. “Women today are essentially the same,” she says, though, and it’s because we do things like “have a wide variety of makeup” and “from time to time fix up their makeup.”

I’d like to take a moment to stop and talk about that.

I love me some makeup, don’t get me wrong. I even have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to the stuff, and I have literally spent days watching makeup tutorial videos on YouTube, just so I could learn to do this:


However, Helen remains completely silent on any sort of warning, or caution, about makeup. She endorses it without any reservations, and encourages women to apply it multiple times a day so that we can look pretty for our husbands (bottom of page 273). She completely ignores the reality of the beauty industry, which was just gaining steam in the 60s.

Most of what I’d say is in a video by the incredible Laci Green:

Helen falls right in line with what Laci critiques in this video: that the beauty industry has almost single-handedly created a completely unnatural definition of beauty. We spend an insane amount of time now making our lips redder, our eyes bigger– we learn about contouring so we can make our noses narrower and our cheekbones higher. And that… that is sad. It’s ended up getting to the point that when I did a google images search of “movie stars no makeup” what I got was an endless stream of Hollywood’s most glamorous looking as unattractive as possible. Or that I had a dudebro in an airport tell me I was obviously a lesbian because I idly commented that makeup wasn’t “worth the effort most days.” Or that whole studies have “revealed” that makeup is necessary in order for a woman to be respected. Or that 68% of men say that prefer women “without makeup” but 73% of men, when shown images, preferred women in makeup over no makeup at all. Or that, in college, three different men told me that I “obviously didn’t care” because I didn’t wear makeup.

When I asked them “care about what?” the response was “looking good” or “trying to get a guy’s attention.” Three men were offended enough by my lack-of-makeup-wearing to comment on it and tell me that it was bad that I didn’t care about getting a guy’s attention, and that this was somehow a mark on my character.

And Helen blows all of this off with an offhand “Your husband wants you to look pretty,” that he even “wants his wife to look pretty to everyone.”

We have to look pretty.

Not be strong, or capable, or competent, or efficient.

Just pretty.


false dichotomies: "homeschooled girls vs. feminists"

homeschooled girls

So, Robert Knight, an extremely conservative writer for Townhall and whose articles occasionally appear in publications like the Washington Times, wrote an article last Tuesday called “Homeschooled Girls vs. Feminists.” Since the article spends most of its time talking about grown women, I have to admit to some mild annoyance to the persistent infantilization of women in conservative circles. College-aged females are women, thank you.

My real problem with his article, however, is the false dichotomy he frames in the title and then argues in the piece itself. Just a quick review: a false dichotomy, also known as the false dilemma, is an attempt to reduce a complex, nuanced argument down to two separate, extreme positions. This type of argument is probably more familiar to people as “black and white thinking.” Knight’s article is an excellent example of how fundamentalists approach almost any issue– it’s us against them. Good, godly, homeschooled “girls” (grr) verses those big, bad, bra-burning, man-hating feminists.

First of all, I’m a homeschooled graduate and a feminist. My existence flies in the face of Knight’s argument. Also, there has not been any backlash against homeschooling led by feminists. If a feminist figure says anything at all, it’s to comment on the sexist attitude in religious homeschooling culture. Also, the feminist who said that, Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, homeschooled her children and published that article in Home Education Magazine. The only people who really seem to be saying that feminists oppose homeschooling are homeschoolers. In fact, there are many feminists who choose to homeschool– women like Sara Schmidt. And Suki Wessling.

But it’s not an uncommon reaction for homeschooling advocates to point at people like me who want to see common-sense policies introduced and start shouting “you’re all a bunch of feminists!” See Robert Knight, and “Overhere” (who was commenting on a secular homeschooling forum). In these sorts of discussions, feminists get painted inaccurately, and motivations are attributed to us that fall right in line with the anti-feminist rhetoric that’s existed for decades. We’re just selfish. We think homeschooling means signing ourselves into a “concentration camp” (which, granted, that comparison comes from The Feminine Mystique…).

Which is, le sigh, not true.

But, I’d like to address how Knight sets up this dichotomy in his article. He’s responding to an article I can’t read, “Feminism’s Worst Nightmare: Educated Women,” by Lou Markos for The City (published by Houston Baptist University), but giving the somewhat paranoid nature of most of his writing, I’m going to assume that this essay is pretty typical fare, and probably falls inside CBMW and CWA -type arguments, which Knight seems to share.

Knight shares Markos’ presentation of the “homeschooled girl”:

They possess a razor-sharp wit with which they can cut pretentious people (especially males) down to size, but they rarely use this skill, and only when they are sorely provoked …

They have a firm knowledge of the Bible, but they (unlike my biblically-literate male students) don’t engage in forensic debates over minor theological points of controversy; they will, however, step in if the boys get too contentious or triumphalist …

Home-schooled girls have wonderfully synthetic and creative minds that make connections across disciplines … they are gifted in the arts; almost all of them can sing and most play instruments and draw. …

They have not bought in to the lies of our modern consumerist state: that is to say, they do not judge their value and worth on the basis of power, wealth, or job status.

There are some pretty specific attitudes that Markos (and now Knight) are praising.

  • These young women are quiet and submissive, meek and gentle– they rarely react, and only when “sorely provoked.”
  • They understand what their place is when it comes to the Bible; they always let men lead discussions and refuse to become involved in discussing theology or become a part of a debate– they only lovingly point out that a debate has become “contentious.” They know better than to think they can engage with men on theological issues.
  • They pursue stereotypically feminine talents.
  • They find their value in the patriarchal attitudes of being a mother, wife, and homemaker and see employment as inconsequential.

Knight follows this up with talking about how Jane Austen and Downton Abbey are so popular– which he attributes to these works as not catering to “politically correct feminist lenses.” All that claim does is demonstrate a rather astonishing lack of historical awareness of either the Regency Era or WWI-era Britain. Trying to appropriate Jane Austen as some sort of anti-feminist figure is ridiculous. I’m not overly familiar with Downton Abbey, but many of my friends love it for explicitly feminist reasons.

And, apparently, feminists are engaged in the “real war on women” because we have some sort of campaign to encourage promiscuity and convince women not to ever, ever get married. Which is a pretty typical conservative phrasing of feminist arguments– they take the sex-positive, anti-shame, you-can-get-married-when-you-want-to-who-you-want narratives of feminism and completely flip them upside down.

Feminists also supposedly scream a lot about how there’s no differences between men and women and about how much we hate femininity and feminine women:

They have the wit and discernment to perceive that the feminist is finally a greater threat than the male chauvinist: for whereas the chauvinist demeans femininity, the feminist dismisses it altogether as a social construct that has no essential grounding in our God-created soul. It’s no wonder feminists hate the feminine Sarah Palin with white-hot intensity.

I would like to actually address this issue, because it’s something that as a feminist I bump into a lot, and I think it’s the essential disagreement between egalitarians and complementarians. Feminists and egalitarians both assert that while biological factors exist (besides the obvious reproductive differences, there’s also different skeletal and muscular structures), that substantial and essential differences don’t. Men and women are both created with the imago dei, both receive spiritual gifts, and both can serve in equal roles. Egalitarians recognize the variety and complexity of all people, and are uncomfortable with dividing that variety according to patriarchal stereotypes.

So yes, feminists actually believe that “femininity” is a social construct that has little grounding in biological sex–  men, women, and trans* persons can have traits and attitudes reflective of socially constructed “feminine” and “masculine” traits. Knight isn’t wrong here.

However, what Knight believes is that there is absolutely a fundamental difference between men and women– and it’s doubtful if he recognizes the legitimacy of trans* persons (which would be an attitude he shared with some). He believes that this difference is a part of our “God-created soul” and arguing any differently is akin to arguing against God and his Holy, Inspired, Infallible, Inerrant Word (instead of just a traditional interpretation of it).

It’s interesting to note that Knight spends so much of his article recognizing women he describes in terms of Proverbs 31– as “strong” and, at many points, very capable and intelligent. I think it’s possible that if Knight could engage with feminism, he’d realize that the feminism he’s portrayed here is nothing more than a straw man. I think the views he’s expressed here are sexist, but they come from this conservative preaching-at-the-choir that’s happened for decades now. Organizations like CBMW and CWA have spent a long time telling Christians what feminism is and what feminists do, and it’s gotten to the point that many Christians accept these portrayals without analysis or research.

Feminists don’t hate men.

Feminists want a world where gender privilege no longer exists, where people are treated the same regardless of their sex or gender identity, where women and trans* persons are no longer oppressed by violent systems. That’s it, really.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: the domestic goddess

french maid

Most of this chapter is, from my point of view, almost entirely normal. It’s the same sort of things that I’ve heard my entire life about what it means to be a “keeper at home.” She makes the same argument that I’ve heard from numerous pulpits, countless books, and endless radio programs and lectures. Some of it could even be considered good advice– her tips on how to get organized seem to be pretty standard fare on all those organization shows I’ve watched on TV.

The problem comes from the basic assumption of the chapter, which she explicitly states at the end: all women with “worthy character” want to be a domestic goddess, and being a domestic goddess always look exactly like this with absolutely no exceptions.

The “no exceptions” part is what frustrates me the most, because people are not all exactly the same, and expecting every single last woman on the planet to be what Helen describes as a domestic goddess is harmful. For many women– many women that I know and love and admire– following what Helen proscribes in this chapter is literally impossible for a variety of reasons. Not every woman can do everything this chapter says, but Helen doesn’t acknowledge that, and in fact argues that any woman who doesn’t do what she says has “a weakness of character”:

Poor homemaking is usually traced to self-centeredness . . .

Failure to follow [God’s example of orderliness] indicates lack of character . . .

Poor homemaking may be due to a lack of knowledge .  . . but when she makes no effort to learn, it indicates a lack of caring, and therefore a lack of character . . .

When a sense of responsibility is lacking there is a deficiency of character . . .

In addition, the woman who will not care for her family because she is lazy demonstrates a lack of love for them, a lack of concern for them, a lack of character.

That’s all on a single page. She’s just spent the entire chapter detailing what it looks like for a woman to “care for her family,” and saying that not doing it her way demonstrates a lack of love for her family is cruel. If my mother had to make from-scratch meals every single breakfast, lunch, and dinner (pages 259 and 260) . . . if she was never allowed to make mac n’ cheese and hotdogs and serve corn out of a can, her physical and mental well being would have been threatened, and she would have been carrying around a completely unnecessary burden of guilt and shame. If using “frozen dinners, cold cuts, packaged mixes, canned foods, macaroni” is a “complete failure in meal preparation” and somehow meant that my mother didn’t love her family? That’s just beyond ridiculous. And it’s not because she was lazy — it was because she was not healthy and was very busy. But there’s no room for that anywhere in this chapter– or this book.

Helen’s ideal woman is a white, wealthy, healthy, fit, reserved, timid, and childish person. Anything else– any other kind of person– doesn’t exist. They’re just people with a lack of character.

And that’s a message I’ve heard a lot in a bunch of different churches, from a variety of books and magazines in more mainstream Christian culture. Women are bludgeoned endlessly with Proverbs 31 (which she says we should read as part of our “assignment” for this chapter), and which is no longer the glorious poem husbands would sing to their wives, but is now a precise checklist for everything a Christian woman is supposed to be and failing to live up to the “standard” of a woman whose “price is far above rubies” is now one of the worst things a Christian woman can do.

And the vision of “biblical womanhood” and “godly motherhood” and “homemaker” that I’ve heard and read all my life is echoed in these pages. Mingled in with lessons on making sure your house is always spotless (but accepting that your husband is going to be messy and not cleaning up until later because he’ll divorce you), all meals are from scratch, your house is decorated (she specifically mentions tablecloths four times), and your children are well-dressed is this idea that being bored with any of that or needing fulfillment in something besides housework is wrong. The problem, Helen says, is your fault:

Many women fail to find happiness in homemaking because they only go the first mile. They only give the bare stint of requirement . . . Women who give just enough to get by never enjoy homemaking. You have to go the second mile to enjoy anything.

So, if you’re longing for something besides keeping your house clean and cooking food? Work harder. Starch those collars, make fresh bread everyday. Do more. Go farther. You’ll never be happy unless you’re constantly working your fingers to your bone– and if any of it is “drudgery”? Still your fault.

Many of our duties [changing diapers, scrubbing floors] are a source of real enjoyment. Caring for children, cooking delicious meals, and cleaning the house can be pleasant experiences . . . Actually little of our work is unpleasant . . .

If you think any of this is boring and you would like to spend a little less time on it to do things you do like to do, like reading books? That’s just something that “robs you of your time” and causes you to be “in a rush for the important things” like making sure your silver is sparkling and labeling plastic tubs for storage.

In short, if you’re not June Cleaver, you’re a failure.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: worthy character

joan of arc

Today is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This year is a special campaign that will go through December 10, Human Rights Day. Women’s rights activists have honored Patria , María , and Antonia  Mirabal, three sisters who were assassinated by Rafael Trujillo on November 25, 1960, by choosing November 25 as a day dedicated to helping women who are the victims of violence since 1981. There are many organizations dedicated to ending violence against women– some have a global focus while others are concentrated on particular nations.


So, I had a really hard time getting through this chapter– and it’s nothing compared to next week’s, which Helen titled “Domestic Goddess.” This chapter is dedicated to all the different traits the fascinating woman needs in order to have a “worthy character”– and that wasn’t an accidental choice of words. Her definition of “worthy” reminds me a bit of Mr. Darcy’s definition for an “accomplished woman”– and Lizzie’s response of  “I am no longer surprised at you knowing only six accomplished women, Mr. Darcy. I rather wonder at your knowing any.” Her expectations are astronomically high. And, I’m worried about the women who read this book and get to this chapter, because there’s no flexibility in what makes for an “ideal” woman. Having a “worthy character,” in many ways, seems to be “don’t be a human being.”

First off, like always, Helen is capable of giving advice that I agree with. She says several things, in fact, that she didn’t completely ruin with other ridiculous things. One of them was to “perceive people’s needs,” and she says “there is no merit in giving goods or service when not needed, or failing to fill critical needs,” and I couldn’t help picturing what typically happens after a natural disaster, and suddenly the area is flooded with truckloads of old clothes but no food. But . . . that was about it. Everything else was so stomach-twisting that sentiments like that got buried quickly.

She starts of the chapter telling women that the only reason a woman should bother having a “worthy character” is for her husband– forget it being a good idea, even. Nope. It’s because your husband deserves to have a wife that’s more machine than woman:

If he is thoughtless, critical, or weak, he can overlook these human frailties in himself. But he expects a woman to be above such things. At times a man will shake a woman’s pedestal by suggesting she do something wrong. He may do this deliberately to see if she is as worthy as she appears to be. In other words, he tests her. What a disappointment if she lowers her standards and falls to his level.

What the. And this was the first page of the chapter. It’s a good indicator of what we’re about to get into. Also, this is why I laugh hysterically when I hear the claim that feminism paints men as the bad guy. No, feminism respects men enough to realize that they’re not monsters, and are capable of not being an asshole who deliberately screws with his wife to see if she’ll “stoop to his level.”

Then she goes on to talk about literary characters, which I’ve been over how much she twists poetry,  novels, and even history  in order to prove her point. There’s no point in even talking about what she does to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Princess Maria. It broke my English-major heart.

Anyhoo, Helen spends the rest of the chapter outlining all the traits a woman needs to have a worthy character. They are self-mastery, unselfishness, charity, humility, responsibility, diligence, patience, moral courage, honesty, and chastity. Now, I don’t have a problem with most of these traits– except for the obvious one (coughchastitycough). Almost all of these are, I think in general, pretty good things to try to have. I shoot for many of these on a regular basis, others on a not-so-regular basis. I try to keep things like charity and humility in front of me every day– I believe in loving my neighbor and avoiding being an arrogant jerk, when possible.

However, these traits in the aggregate paint a very specific picture of Helen’s ideal women. If you look at this list, most of these traits have an awful lot to do with being a specific kind of person. The woman Helen is saying you must be in order to have a “worthy character” reminds me of Miss Brooke from Anne of Windy Poplars– the hard, almost dour woman who ruled her classroom through fear and discipline. A woman who Helen would probably describe as “flighty” and I would describe as “joyful and enthusiastic” probably wouldn’t fit into Helen’s picture of a worthy character.

But this is what happens very frequently in fundamentalist and even some evangelical and Protestant circles. Being a godly woman means being a specific kind of woman. If you naturally fit into the mold, then you’re lucky. For all the women who don’t naturally fit the mold, they have to spend their entire lives forcing a round peg into a square hole.

My mother has been affectionately dubbed the “friendly freight train.” She can talk to anyone, she is cheerful and jubilant pretty much all of the time, she adores people, and she is one of the most sacrificial people I know. But I watched her struggle almost all of my life, because she was being told that she had to fit inside of a rigid, inflexible set of parameters that said that who she was as a person was ungodly. She couldn’t ever be just who she was– she was rarely accepted for being who she was because she was so unlike the “godly woman” being preached about from pulpits and Sunday school rooms and ladies’ retreats.

The way that Helen defines these traits is what bothers me the most, though. Take the “self-mastery” trait, for instance. Most people would call that self-control, but what Helen is really going for is mastery, and it sounded eerily familiar:

Another way to gain self-mastery is to train the will. For example, every day do one or more of the following:
do something unpleasant– take a cold shower, or eat a food you don’t like.
do something difficult–do a hard job, or work on a difficult goal . . .  [like] forgoing coffee.
demand quotas of yourself– get up at four thirty . . .

When I was a teenager, my Sunday school teacher told me that if I was wearing a really uncomfortable pair of shoes all day and I got home, I should not take my shoes off for at least another thirty minutes– to “train myself” in this way that Helen describes. I was supposed to “die to self.” This is really just a watered-down form of self-flagellation. Helen is telling women to do the modern-day equivalent of whipping yourself, sleeping on a stone bench, and wearing a cilice. But, instead of us doing this to atone for sin, we’re doing it for no other reason than to make ourselves miserable and prove to ourselves how well we can stand misery.

Helen also completely re-defines unselfishness. She differentiates it from “kindness,” which she says are only the things like “giving away something you don’t want or need.” No, in order to be truly unselfish, you have to give sacrificially. It only counts as being unselfish when it hurts you in some way. It’s gotta make your life substantially harder– and, oh, it’s not “prompted by charity.” You don’t do it because you love people. You do it because it’s your moral duty.

Everything else in the chapter handles other traits in the same sort of binary– you are either responsible, or you are not. Being responsible means that you do absolutely everything possible to the best of your ability and you always, always do it on time. Failure in any one of these areas means that you are most definitely not responsible. Also, all of these traits are only practiced at home. If you’re doing something outside of your domestic responsibilities, there’s no way you could be doing it for a good reason. For example, if you don’t practice patience by doing laundry day after day, you’re going to “turn from it altogether and seek relief in the career world.” Apparently, only impatient, unworthy women go out and have careers.

My heart breaks for all the women who have ever read this book and tried to live by what Helen says– this chapter in particular. No one can be this woman. Ordinary life, the daily ups and downs of being a human being aren’t allowed. You’re either exactly this, or you’re a failure. The problem is, these ideas aren’t isolated to this ridiculous book. I spent 12 years trying to live by them, and I watched everyone in my life try to be exactly what Helen described. The only result was pain.