I Am Biblical Woman, Hear Me Roar?

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.

Photo from Flickr user Steve Snodgrass under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. antiintellect says:

    Sick to my stomach.

  2. I can't imagine why religious fundamentalism would make any feminist cheer, to be quite honest. Talk about missing the point!

  3. I, too, was disturbed by Molly Worthen's article The New York Times Magazine. Thank you for posting this blog, Kathryn. How are so many women willing to give up/give over who they are?

  4. This kind of justification of patriarchy offends me so much. It warps autonomy into a role-pattern vulnerable to abuse and asks women to be martyrs by accepting their servitude and lack of satisfaction as a divinely ordained test of character. I think we all negotiate our own autonomies, and compromise them in social contexts. We cede some of our autonomy to employers, authorities and partners, and some times more than others. We do this because we have little choice if we value the company and cooperation of others, but this is always conditional, ultimately, on our consent. We must recognize that although it is necessary, it is not natural, and we have a say in the matter.

  5. If complementarians really were serious in what they preach, then there would be even more extensive talks, tours, and conferences on men protecting, loving, and not abusing their wives. These things don't exist because it's a system that men are comfortable with: that they are in charge. The fact that the majority of burden to conform to this system is on the women's shoulders comes to no surprise to me.

    The same can be said for purity balls and abstinence only programs– almost all of the preaching and burden falls to the women, without the same attention to the men. The inequality in the system only highlights the actual purpose of the complementarianism movement: suppression of women for the benefit of men.

  6. J Lawson Zepeda says:

    Patriarchy is not healthy. It diminishes the physical health of men and the emotional health of women. No matter how much these Christian hypocrites want to reintroduce patriarchy, it was the genesis of feminism for a reason — women were abused, abandoned, and emotionally devastated from it. And as much as Christian husbands with their sexual fetishes want to reintroduce it to the dependent and nonthinking women they choose as spouses; it does nothing to improve one's relationship with God or man.

    Google – Patriarchy: The Rebirth of Victorian Attitudes – to find out why.

  7. You know, the worst thing is that they're raising their daughters to have no identity. Why not just skip names like "Hepzibah" or "Rebecca" and go straight to "OfDad," changing it to "OfHusband" when they get married and "SisterOfBrother" or "MotherOfSon" if they get widowed? This will probably be followed by, "Let's not teach our daughters to read because then Satan will take over their minds and tempt them into thinking." Wow.

  8. A. Galamin says:

    Thanks for writing this Ms. Joyce.
    I am wondering when the USA will end up like the world
    in “The Handmaids Tale”…..
    I hope we don’t end up there.

  9. Blooming_field says:

    Well, I happen to be a rather conservative Christian who believes that women submission was rather related to the cultural ethic of the times and places the bible was written.

    You forget to mention in your article there are many, many evangelical and non-evangelical women believe in biblical equality, that men and women have exactly the same role to play in both private in public lives:

    You will find here the testimony of many women who found out that the message of Jesus is in fact quite liberating and not at all oppressing: in a very patriarchal culture he treats women as equal to men, and his relationship to adulterous women was marked by love, tenderness and compassion.

    I know many conservative Christian women who have an interesting career, preach in the church and are much more militant than men that sex should not be outside of marriage. I can assure you they are as much shocked with adulterous men than with adulterous women.

    I understand your indignation because I am kind of a leftist and hate the religious right but please don’t think that all Christians are the same.

    Moreover, I think your criticism cannot be applied to the large majority of husbands and wives who believe in complementarity. I know many many such men who believe that while the roles of women and men are different, women and men have absolutely the same dignity and worth, and that abuse of women in some couples is something atrocious.

    And we should ask the question: when Christian men are mistreating their wives, is it because they try diligently to follow the teachings of Jesus ?

    I believe the problems is that they are wicked hypocritical persons who just want to use whatever pretext they find, religious or not, to dominate and exploit women.

    I think that the problem is that they are not obeying enough to the biblical commands for if they were, they would love their wives as much as “Christ loved the church”, what means they ought to sacrifice their selfish desires for the well being of their spouses.

    What is more, those wicked husband who pretend to be biblical literalistic forget one thing: Paul did not only teach that wives are to be submitted to husbands, but that all believers have to submit to one other, using the same Greek word. Since husbands are believers, and wives are fellow believers, it logically follows that also husbands ought to be submitted to wives !

    I would love to read your reactions.

  10. “Well, I happen to be a rather conservative Christian who believes that women submission was rather related to the cultural ethic of the times and places the bible was written. ”

    But as Ms. Joyce stated, the whole “woman, submit to your husbands” thing isn’t being kept in biblical times, it is being practiced by patriarchal Christian males in the 21st century. I find that whole mentality of “women’s submission” utterly repugnant, and it was one of the biggest reasons (among a few others) why I rejected the oppression of religion over 20 years ago.

    What I find even more alarming is the number of patriarchal male politicians in both Congress and the Senate, who are targeting women’s reproductive rights. Two of them ran for President and Vice President in the last election, and thank goodness they lost it. If they had won, I shudder to think what would have happened to women’s rights in a regressive Conservative administration.

    Underestimating these regressive politicians and their supporters is very dangerous in my opinion, not only to women’s reproductive rights, but also to women’s rights in general. For that reason, we cannot afford to ignore them or minimize the danger to women they represent.

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