Last week, The New York Times Magazine ran a feature article on “biblical womanhood,” a subject I wrote about extensively in my 2009 book, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.
In the far-right evangelical communities I reported on, “biblical womanhood” guidelines aimed to create a new evangelical, anti-feminist Renaissance Woman: a submissive warrior who obeys her husband, homeschools their children and “dies to the self” by putting aside her own desires to accept God’s plan for her as helpmeet to her husband.
Throughout four years of reporting on the subject, I found a great many women who defended the lifestyle of submission and patriarchy—their words—as not only biblical but also the best protection for women. I also found a lot of women who revealed, after they’d left patriarchal churches, that the culture of submission had enabled domestic violence at home, had left them stranded in a community where submitting to an unreasonable or tyrannical husband is lauded as a virtue or, in more pedestrian tragedies, had compelled them to sacrifice their own ambitions for those of their husband.
In the Times, however, author Molly Worthen only found biblical womanhood, or “complementarianism”—the theology that holds that God created the sexes not for equal functions but to complement each other—as a harmonious partnership that might “make feminists cheer.” In this image of benevolent patriarchy, women are protected by “servant-leader” husbands while separate-but-equal gender roles don’t preclude women following their dreams.
After a year of “grizzly-mama feminism,” what could logically follow but the argument that fundamentalist gender roles can be feminist, too?
Worthen’s case in point is women’s ministry head Priscilla Shirer, who makes her living on the biblical womanhood circuit, leading Bible studies and conferences that teach women how to submit to their husbands. But, in fact, Shirer follows a long tradition of conservative female activists who have constructed a career out of telling other women to stay home. Shirer’s own husband maintains a token breadwinner role by managing her career, but she still submits–as when her husband vetoed her pick for one of their children’s names after an “accountability” session with male friends who affirmed his decision. It was a “tough pill to swallow,” Shirer says, but overall she says she’s grateful her husband had considered her wishes at all.
Worthen has made a beat, of sorts, from sympathetic reporting on conservative Christians (even those on the far fringe, such as “Christian Reconstructionist” pastor Douglas Wilson, who has defended the idea of stoning adulterers as well as slavery), and this profile is no different. She buys into the talk that submission doesn’t mean women are doormats. Complementarians relentlessly defend their system by pointing out that the biblical admonition for women to submit is paired with one for men to love their wives, which they see as a safety net that prevents male abuses of power.
There are other important aspects of the story where Worthen seems to take the words of biblical womanhood advocates at face value. Men are not present at their rallies, she repeats, because they’d cramp women’s emotive style. However, as even the most lax biblical womanhood adherent could explain, men are not present because if they were the women would most likely not be on the stage; women are not allowed under biblical womanhood to be in a position of spiritual authority over men.
Although I first encountered biblical womanhood and submission theory in fundamentalist circles—where submission means women submitting a daily itinerary to husbands for approval and not speaking in church—the idea of biblical womanhood as a conservative counteroffensive to feminism is far broader, garnering the support of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention in a 1998 resolution. Complementarianism is a code of ethics with rules based on gender inequality.
Many of these are laid out by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), an organization founded in 1987 with the goal of fighting the modest trend of “Christian feminism,” which made gentle demands that the church shouldn’t discourage women’s careers outside the home, and that family-planning decisions are best left within the family. Worthen doesn’t discuss the CBMW in her piece, but it’s the backbone of the movement and enjoys considerable support from mainstream evangelical leaders and denominations, including the Presbyterian Church of America and Campus Crusade for Christ. Its members and supporters include Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America, and heavyweight theologians like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Nancy Leigh DeMoss, a leader of the movement and editor of Biblical Womanhood in the Home, declares that this “is a revolution that will take place on our knees!” (Yes, she really said that.) A common refrain from a library of biblical womanhood literature (with titles such as Liberated through Submission, “Pruned to Bloom,” and The Politically Incorrect Wife), tells women that heavenly love will compensate for a lackluster, or abusive, relationship here on earth, and that women should focus their hopes for fulfillment and love on Jesus, “the lover I’ve longed for all my life.” Above all, they’re told, learn to be satisfied with what you have.
In the signature publication of the CBMW, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, one of the CBMW’s leaders, John Piper, a celebrity Reformed Baptist preacher, helpfully maps out what jobs would “stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point.” The list included many instances of female supervision over men, such as principals, college professors or police officers. (The same standard was at the root of a 2008 controversy at a Catholic academy in Kansas, where a female basketball referee was forbidden from calling a high school boys’ varsity match, as it would place her in an unbiblical position of authority over men.)
In the early days of the women’s liberation movement, many women were gradually politicized through “consciousness raising” groups, where they grew to see their personal unhappiness as part of a widespread, systematic oppression. Biblical womanhood, in comparison, channels women’s complaints into very strict expression, forbidding gossip or “dishonoring” words about one’s husband.
The notion of “Palin feminism” has excited a media that loves a counterintuitive, contrarian narrative. However, except for a few women who get a chance to lead in exchange for disseminating a message of subservience, there’s nothing feminist or empowering to complementarianism at all.