Welcome to our second panel of Christian women writing about issues related to faith and gender and a whole lot of really interesting topics. Catch up on last’s week’s panel on Disney princesses, and read on for some thought-provoking reflections. (You will probably also want to be friends with all of these people because they are so thoughtful and articulate.)
Today’s topic is close to my heart because I know many women who get exhausted after just reading Proverbs 31. And because I know teenage girls who have worried that they should be “less” of something if they wanted nice Christian guys to like them—less intelligent or opinionated or capable. And because I once thought I was a terrible person because I did not have a “quiet and gentle spirit.” (Note from context: the opposite of a “quiet and gentle spirit” is not a “feisty and exuberant spirit.” It is a “self-flaunting and obnoxious spirit.”)
Question: What comes to mind when you think of what most Christians in our culture think a woman should be? Is this helpful or hurtful, and in what ways?
The ideal Christian woman: she’s married, has three kids (named after Bible characters, possibly Old Testament prophets), either home-schools them or invests a large amount of time in protecting them from negative cultural influences, home-cooks every meal, hand-makes her children’s birthday gifts using less than $5 and her mad-crafting skills, is warm and friendly (but not too opinionated or loud), teaches Sunday school, runs the church potluck and missions committee, attends three Bible studies, always looks put-together and attractive (nothing immodest of course: think Ann Taylor Loft clothes bought on sale, and the perfect amount of make-up to enhance her natural beauty) and is a constant support and encouragement to her husband in the work he does providing for the family and leading in the church.
The biggest problem I have is that this story revolves around the woman being married. If you’re a single Christian woman, the only way you fit into this story is in the prologue, where you hone your skills and sing, “One day my Prince will come.” I think as Christians we need to tell ourselves (and our children) a story of womanhood that doesn’t completely base our identity nor define virtue around how we respond to our husbands/future husbands.
For more from Stephanie, visit her blog, Bridging Hope.
I could make a list, but the biggest thing, I think, is that we’re often expected to be the same. We hear sweeping statements about how women “give sex to get love,” are more emotional, are more nurturing, etc. While there certainly are behavioral trends among women (and men), I think it can be harmful to act as though these tendencies are absolutes which apply to all women, everywhere, at all times. Not only does this thinking ignore women who don’t fit the mold, but it also encourages the idea that if we can only figure out who the “average woman” is, and what she wants, then we’ll finally understand the women in our everyday lives.
But it’s just not true. The “average woman”? She’s isn’t me. She’s not my sister, my aunts, my co-workers, or my friends. She certainly isn’t my sisters in Christ. She’s an amalgamation, a creature made from surveys and studies and polls, and pretending otherwise is—quite frankly—dehumanizing, as though women are merely carbon copies of each other and not individuals made in the image of God. Dorothy L. Sayers talks more about this in Are Women Human?, which I highly recommend reading.
I imagine that for people who grew up within privileged white evangelical homes like mine, we see Her as stylish but “modest.” Confident, but not too loud. Smart, but not pretentious. The first to volunteer, but only for the “right” roles. The one holding a baby, but never commanding a room.
Behind Amy’s question lies a paradox: to describe the ideal Christian woman, you have to assume she exists; that gender “norms” exist; that there is a dominant cultural image of the ideal Christian woman. It’s a self-perpetuating system. We draw hard lines around “the Proverbs 31 woman” and hand women the crayons.
This cultural “picture” also universalizes (Western, white) privilege without recognizing that for women around the world, issues like employment are a question of survival, not a theological debate.
The conservative, evangelical Christianity I grew up within sponsored these gender-based cultural expectations in a way that excluded and wounded people who didn’t fit in—and allowed those who appeared to fit in to remain invisible. When we tell people what they should look like, who they should be, we also say don’t be this, don’t do that. We say, no room here for you.
The first image that pops into my mind is a stay-at-home mom with 3-5 kids, although I think that image of ideal Christian womanhood is quickly becoming outdated. I think it’s difficult for Christians to know exactly what a woman should be, partially because there are so few positive examples of biblical womanhood. I mean, you have Esther, Ruth, and Mary the mother of Jesus, sure, but after that? Jezebel, Bathsheba, and Rahab? Not exactly women we’re able to hold up as paragons of virtue.
So many times, biblical passages involving women just bring more confusion. Should women speak in the church or be silent? Can they teach or should they leave that to the men? What role should childbirth and motherhood play in the life of a woman? No one has definitively answered these questions in a way that satisfies all Christian men and women, and so most people are left a little bewildered.
Personally, I’d like to see more encouragement from Christians and the church for women to be whole people, rather than fragmented stereotypes. Maybe she’s a mother, maybe she’s a career woman, maybe she loves baking and taking care of guests, maybe she loves math or sports or life in the corporate world, maybe she’s vulnerable, maybe she’s strong. Maybe she’s a little of all of these things…and that’s okay.
For more from Ruthie, visit her blog, Stories that Bind.
Thoughts? How do you think Christians can affirm women and speak to issues that affect their lives without stereotyping them?