A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Feminism

In the words of Carolyn Custis James, is God good for women? How would you answer that question?

In your personal experience and study of scripture or history, has the church been a reflection of God’s loving kindness and faithfulness to women? Where would you like to see the church improve? Is there a difference between equality and power?

(If you’d like a brief summary of feminism and it’s history you might be interested in this post.)

Addressing the Fear of Feminism

For many evangelical Christians there is fear associated with the concept of feminism. It can be perceived to be a threat to masculinity or an attempt to overturn the “biblical” design. Many people do not speak kindly about it or those who support it and there are plenty of polarizing, misinformed nicknames and phrases as evidence of this.

There is such a broad, beautiful spectrum of feminists. Feminism supports the idea women can freely make their own choices and raise their voices on issues that matter to them. The goal isn’t to be a monolithic movement, but to give women the same opportunity to think and choose for themselves as men have had. Women have a right to choose what to believe and how to worship, how to love those around them, care for their bodies, and how to shape their career.

For example, as a Christian feminist, I support women working hard to advance their career, whether in the marketplace or at home with her children. I support a woman’s right to choose where and how she works, even if I choose differently.

You might think women have these freedoms already. And yes, many women have these privileges. Feminist movements in the Western world have given us the right to vote, the ability to work outside the home (if you want!) and be paid (theoretically) equal for the same job, and equal access to education and healthcare. The results aren’t perfect but they have made significant progress we can celebrate. Yet, on a global level, many countries still have not adopted these practices and girls and women are not able to access education, financial independence, or bodily autonomy (female genital mutilation, child marriage, legal marital rape, etc.), among other things.

Let’s say you’re still unsure but you’re open. My purpose in this post isn’t to get down to the Greek and convince you of anything, nor is this the most elaborate explanation of how to be feminist Christian. I’m still learning, too. I offer my perspective as an invitation to discover how the Christian faith and feminism can actually work together for the mutual flourishing of women and men.

photo: Hannah Busing

Is God male or female?

A quick skim of the scripture reveals a text full of male imagery and pronouns for God. Names or metaphors like Lord, King, or Father are used in both Old and New Testaments. Without a background in languages it may seem silly to ask if God is male or female, when the text is so “clear.”

But is the Bible clear? We use male pronouns in sermons, songs, and in our prayers. The Hebrew Bible also uses the third person singular pronoun in reference to God, which we’ve translated as male. And of course, the person of Jesus Christ is male but does this mean the Holy Spirit and God “the Father” are also male? Taking a closer look we find:

  • God is not a created, gendered being like humans are and cannot be accurately reflected in an image or seen outside Jesus Christ. Language about God always requires an analogy since God is beyond being.
  • God “the Father” is a metaphor used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6 and 28 is not a literal relationship. God did not contribute any biological matter to create the Son. The Son is a person of the Trinity, which has no beginning. Father-language is used to reflect a personal relationship and can be appropriate to use, although not exclusively.
  • Deuteronomy 4:15-19 prohibits images of God and idols, both male and female. Creating either a male image or female image for God is idolatrous.

It might be grammatically awkward to withhold gendered pronouns while talking about God but it offers a more precise foundation from which to worship, communicate, and cultivate healing. What we believe about God impacts our understanding of gender, personhood, and power. Other gender-neutral names for God include I Am, Creator, Divine, Light, Vine, Redeemer, Potter, Sustainer, and Word.

(This explanation was taken from this post.)

This is just one example of why a feminist lens in theology can be helpful. Feminist theology, in general, wants to read sacred texts from the experience of women, which is notably different than men. Mind you, there’s many different theories and beliefs surrounding feminist theology, some more orthodox than others.

“The uniqueness of feminist theology lies not in its use of the criterion of experience but rather in its use for women’s experience which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflection in the past. The use of women’s experience in feminist theology, therefore, explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology…as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience.”

— Rosemary Radford Ruether

Is patriarchy or masculinity bad?

Yes and no.

In the scriptures God reached out to a people shaped by patriarchy, and certainly as Christians we have relied on the faith of patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and David, to shape our own faith. Yet, just because patriarchy was the longest running social norm does not mean it will continue to be the superior means to a thriving society or the only channel through which God communicates. Just ask the women at the empty tomb.

Similar to patriarchy, masculinity is not inherently bad. However, because we live in a fallen world, our understanding of masculinity and how society enforces its expectations can be misguided. Research has helped us understand that many rigid expectations (Men should be this; Men should be like that; Men should not do this) we have placed on boys and men are not healthy for the larger community as they contribute to increased rates of mental illness and violence.

  • This study in Australia evaluated the impact of beliefs that men are “to be tough; not to show any emotions; to be the breadwinner, to always be in control, use violence to solve problems; and to have many sexual partners.” The report details the differences between men who hold these beliefs and those who do not. Men who believe this about themselves are more likely to consider suicide, initiate verbal bullying in person or online, or make sexual/sexist comments towards women, among other responses. Read the rest here.
  • This study in the UK found “61% of 18-24 year olds feel UK society expects a man to “man up” when faced with a challenge and over half (55%) said that crying in front of others would make a man feel less masculine.”

As people of hope, can we observe a healthy spectrum of masculinity in the scriptures? The Bible is full of wisdom on what Christian life and practice can look like for all people, regardless of gender. The following people are a few specific examples of what masculinity can look like, as an alternative to the toxic/rigid expectations we commonly see today:

  • Jesus
    • Expressed a full range of emotions including joy, sadness, anger, tiredness, and playfulness.
    • Demonstrated compassion, forgiveness, and self-control.
    • Honored, trusted, listened to, and travelled with women.
    • Shared space, time, and meals with those considered social outcasts and untouchable.
    • Washed the feet of his disciples.
  • Job admits vulnerability and suffering but does not curse God.
  • David
    • Held close friendship with Jonathan.
    • Repented from his sin.
    • Expressed emotions through artistic poems and psalms, and dancing in the streets.
    • Demonstrated courage during his time as a young shepherd or as a leader in battle.
  • Boaz acted generously and compassionately towards the poor and marginalized, namely Ruth, an immigrant widow.
  • Barnabas
    • Known as the “son of encouragement.”
    • Believed Saul’s controversial conversion and discipled him and John Mark.
  • Joseph and Daniel lived with integrity even as they were tested physically, spiritually, and relationally.

The authors of scripture also praise and emphasize non-gendered attributes like gentleness, peace, patience, responsibility, and self-control. Where else can you find examples of healthy masculinity in the scriptures?

Who should submit?

Language and verses related to submission have been used to oppress various populations, both in secular and religious liturgy. The instructions in scripture surrounding submission are not justification for abuse. If you are a survivor of abuse or sexual violence, it is okay to be uncomfortable with scripture or liturgy that includes this topic. Please, take your time to heal and come back gently as you feel ready. With this in mind, I would rather use different terminology to describe the appropriate course of action for friendships, marriages, and communities.

“He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Luke 10:27

As a church we are called to walk in humility, to love others deeply, respecting who they are and their experience, to relinquish any pride, and as the ESV says in Romans 12:10, “outdo one another in showing honor.”

Self-discipline, service, and submission are all highly praised characteristics in the scriptures. These qualities are not limited to or better suited for one gender over another. But if someone believes in the stereotypes built by benevolent sexism, it can be easy to assume men should be superior to women. After all, they are the “natural leaders,” right?

To submit assumes a hierarchy is in place. Is the hierarchy between genders? Or between Creator and the creation?

There’s enough evidence in the scripture and history to make a strong case for women’s leadership. But I don’t believe Jesus’ radical inclusion of women was meant to flip the patriarchy into matriarchy. The life and ministry of Jesus itself was backwards. The Son of God, second person of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the divine enters the world through a humble birth, denies the offer of power, and goes on to touch those who are contagious and outcast, heals chronic illness, shares meals with social outsiders, and washes the muck from his disciples’ ungroomed feet.

The parables of the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, and the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) among other lessons and stories from the life of Jesus reveal there is no seniority or hierarchy in the Kingdom of God. No one is above another. The hierarchy appears to only exist between God and humans.

This is a very simple summary of a vast collection of thoughts and centuries of academic study. I’ve included some more resources below if this topic is your bread and butter.

What if my church has a different view?

Your church may have a formal position on this issue. It may not. If your tradition does not allow women to teach or deliver sermons, this can be especially difficult for women who feel drawn to this type of ministry. Historically many churches have denied women a place at the pulpit but have sent female missionaries to teach and preach doctrine to others. This becomes a challenging situation and calls into question how church leaders view the abilities of women (How are women good enough for global missions but not for local church ministry?) and the personhood of those in “mission fields” (What do you think of the unreached if you send them your “second best”?)

Christianity, and more specifically evangelical Christianity, has not always been resistant towards gender equality. (Read a brief article on the history of Christian feminism here.) I believe this is really hopeful. It’s worth asking your church if they have a formal stance, and if not, asking more about how the church can make space for the voices of women. You could start with reading materials authored by female pastors or theologians, supporting women in seminary, or inviting a guest preacher if there are no immediate possibilities already in the congregation.

If your church has a formal stance opposed to women in leadership, there is still hope. You’ll have to discern for yourself where the Holy Spirit is leading you. If you chose to stay in your church, I suggest finding some type of online or in-person community that supports your exploration. There are still women pioneering the way for others in these traditions who may offer insight and wisdom for your context.

photo: Allie Smith

Do I need to call myself a feminist? Isn’t female empowerment enough?

“There’s too much baggage associated with feminism.”

I hear this more than anything else. And guess what. The people who say this are right. But they forget the term “Christian” is another loaded word that many people associate with racism, colonization, sexism, greed, and horrific physical and sexual violence. As far as I know those fearful of labeling themselves as feminists, still self-identify as Christians.

More importantly, what should I call someone who seeks the equal respect of all genders? In this moment in history we call them feminists, just like we call those who serve the church ministers. Not all ministers agree on all issues and some certainly give others a bad name. Does this diminish the role or purpose of the minister? Or feminist? If you have ideas for a new term, by all means, let’s hear it!

At its core, feminism seeks to remove all boundaries that do not allow women the same rights and privileges as men. Women, like men, deserve to make their own choices and have their voices heard.

There are different theories, perspectives, and methodologies within feminism — just like diversity of denominations or traditions of Christianity. Christian feminism reminds us of the mystery of a sovereign God, the fallenness and beauty in our interpretations of gender, and the practical instruction to honor each member of our community as we love ourselves. Using the strengths of our unique contexts we can embrace the core goal of feminism to nourish communities and glorify God.

Additional Resources

What is Feminism?

Happy Women’s History Month!

Ask 10 people what feminism means and you may get 10 different answers. Feminism can be loaded subject and sometimes it pushes people further into their respective corners. When I think of my work within purity culture, the concept of feminism is easily intertwined. It made sense to bring light to it here. My hope is to dispel a few misconceptions and bridge a few gaps for my audience.

Think of it this way, feminism is a garden with a variety of theories, perspectives, and methodologies. It’s ok to not understand or agree with everything you see; simply enter the garden with curiosity.

(By no means is this an exhaustive explanation or resource on feminism. This is simply a launching pad for better dialogue and exploration.)

Defining the Terms

It’s hard to learn if there is not a shared language. Here are some definitions that might be old news to you, but I’ll include just in case. Some are more contested than others. I’ve also included a few extra resources that I found interesting.

Feminism

“the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes”

— Britanica

“Feminism is a gamut of socio political movements and ideologies that share a common goal to delineate, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes. Feminist movements over decades have campaigned for rights of women, including the right to vote, to hold public office, to work, to earn fair wages or equal pay, to own property, to receive education, to enter contracts, to have equal rights within marriage, and to have maternity leave. Feminists have also worked to promote bodily autonomy and integrity and to protect women and girls from brutal crimes such as rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.”

Misogyny, feminism, and sexual harassment by Srivastava, Chaundhury, Bhat, and Sahu

“The one historical strategy of feminism that is also a philosophical imperative is the cultivation of an independent mind. Independent thinking, acquired through rigorous education, is the bastion of liberalism and specifically underscores the tenet of freedom.” 

— Marcie Bianco, Nothing says misogyny like defining feminism as equality for all

Patriarchy

“Patriarchy is a social structure, not a conspiracy among men. It is not always intentional; men need not intend to oppress women. Men too are subject to the enormous pressures of a social system that creates paths of least resistance consistent with patriarchy, such as going along with the locker room chatter about babes. Men as well as women are damaged by patriarchy. For example, masculine men are hurt when they learn to repress emotions and to deny their needs for connection and intimacy in order to avoid being punished as sissies and to maintain the control necessary to protect themselves from other men.”

Patriarchy and Inequality: Towards a Substantive Feminism

What is Patriarchy? (2 minute video)

Gender

“Gender refers to the roles, behaviours, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for girls and boys, and women and men. Gender interacts with, but is different from, the binary categories of biological sex.”

World Health Organization

Sex

“Sex refers to the biological distinctions between males and females, most often in connection with reproductive functions.”

Sex, Gender, Genetics, and Health by Short, Yang, Jenkins
source: forallwomankind.com

Brief History of Feminism in the West

Feminism, as a movement, is a relatively recent one. But the hope (ache) for equality is not new.

“…women have always found ways to resist the oppressions of patriarchal forms, systems, and values. These currents in feminist theory are important for reminding us that women, though oppressed, need not be rendered essentially as victims; indeed, that many have found ways to make vital contributions in, around, and in spite of myriad forms of sexist oppression.”

Bettina Tate Pedersen

I don’t intend to be the spokesperson for the history of feminism, so I’ll summarize the Western movements here with different voices and hope it inspires you to learn more about global movements.

Additional resources:

Flavors of Feminism

Feminism, like other systems of belief or thought, is a spectrum. There are all different combinations of motivations, fears, and convictions under the larger umbrella. Many feminists disagree with other feminists.

Feminism cannot be defined by a single wave or a single figure. It is a living and breathing body of work and people who have general commonalities and specific differences.

The Relationship Between Feminism & Racial Justice

When women won the right to vote in 1920, it was only white women who benefited from this new law. Women of color continued to be discriminated against at the polls until 1965, 45 years later, when the Voting Rights Act became law by President Johnson.

This is just one example. Too easily, feminism can bypass the unique obstacles women of color face. Racial justice/reconciliation is too often seen as a secondary issue; it should be prioritized if feminism means what it says. White supremacy and white privilege are still active systems in today’s world. How many of these privileges do you benefit from?

True feminism must recognize and support not only white women, but all women.

Read or watch more:

Our First Year in the Episcopal Church

For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?

In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction. 

Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”

In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking. 

The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns. 

Flowers we brought home from our Easter service.

If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)

Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions

This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition. 

We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.

“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.” 

— Ben Irwin, 11 Things I Love About the Episcopal Church

Worship as a Lifestyle

There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.

I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.

Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.

Eucharist Every Week

Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)

Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)

On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.

At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.

These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!

Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences: 

*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition. 

The Handmaid’s Tale: The Ethics of Surrogacy

photo: sartle.com (If you know the artist, let me know so I can credit them!)

This post follows this one.

The driving force behind the fictional theocracy of Gilead is surrogacy. Young, fertile handmaids are forced to bear children for other couples desperate for a family of “their own” to fulfill the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Most handmaids are unable to fully consent to this practice considering the elements of oppression at play.

The ethical concerns of surrogacy don’t stop at the border of Gilead. In it’s many forms, surrogacy has been known to offer children to infertile heterosexual and LGBTQ+ couples, often crossing international borders. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon emotional photos like this or this. Or maybe you heard about Kim Kardashian’s surrogate pregnancies?

Advocating for Surrogacy

A quick google search will reveal enough positive experiences to exhaust a box of kleenex. Here are some reasons some couples may be interested:

  • Surrogacy may be the only opportunity for those reluctant to become pregnant or infertile or ill heterosexual couples or LGBTQ+ couples to have a genetically related family.
  • Some argue surrogacy is no different than adoption, wet-nursing, or alternative reproductive methods like in vitro fertilization.
  • Surrogacy is suggested to be even better than adoption since it creates a genetic bond between at least one parent.
  • Participants in altruistic surrogacy have personal relationships and may not choose to include a formal contract or compensation. (For example, a woman may enjoy pregnancy and choose to donate her body/time/energy to support the reproductive hopes of friends.)

Challenging the Practice

The opposite of altruistic surrogacy is commercial surrogacy. This approach includes a contract and compensation, and therefore a customer. This presents several concerns for all parties involved.

Sincere Consent

It doesn’t matter if the surrogate mother is a personal friend or hired service, the relationship between all “parents” involved is a complicated one. The request of the couple is intimate and not only physically invasive, but may also be emotionally invasive, for the surrogate. This relationship may be subject to coercion due to emotional ties to the child (or idea of a child) developed by either party at any stage. Personal guilt, finances, issues of self-esteem, or other psychological or physical variables may be used to manipulate the other party.

Reproductive Tourism

Similar to the concern listed above, surrogacy that incorporates international borders also highlights the complexity of sincere, informed consent. Those seeking to be parents may be sincere in their hope but sourcing the right (perhaps immediately available, most affordable, etc.) surrogate may pose challenges. Surrogates who have not had access to adequate education or financial resources are vulnerable to what some researchers dub as neocolonialism. What type of pre/post natal healthcare will the surrogate be provided? What is an appropriate rate of compensation? Will the surrogate have an advocate during and after the pregnancy? How do we prevent poor women from being exploited?

Commercialized Reproduction

Exploitation is a real concern, especially in light of commercialized reproduction practices. Feminist Andrea Dworkin likens modern surrogacy to prostitution, saying it allows women to “sell reproductive capacities the same way old-time prostitutes sold sexual ones but without the stigma of whoring because there is no penile intrusion.” It can be argued that surrogacy, like prostitution, is not immoral since it can involve compensation and does not necessarily require a strong emotional bond.

From another angle, when reproductive services are bought and sold, the child produced becomes a commodity. Both the women who give birth and the child she delivers can be commercialized and depersonalized. Children could easily be seen as a product, something to be satisfied or dissatisfied with.

Tangled Parental Relationships

Surrogacy poses a challenge to parental roles and kinship. Ethicists may argue adoption is a response to unfortunate circumstances. On the other hand, surrogacy is the intentional disruption in family ties. There are many ways surrogacy is practiced. The child produced by a surrogate using third party egg and sperm, later cared for by parents genetically unrelated could have as many as five different “parents.” The definition of parenthood becomes fluid. The child’s identity may also be challenged as they grow older. Who am I? Will I ever know my true parents? Is it possible I could become romantically interested in my genetic sibling without knowing?

The characters in Atwood’s novel are not bound by personal relationships or contracts but by reproductive slavery. Yet, the book does shine an interesting light on what it means to be a mother. Which woman is the true surrogate? How do the ancient and modern translators of the Bible interrupt our understanding of the text, specifically Genesis 30:1-3? What relationship does surrogacy have with colonialism?

If you are a child born from surrogacy or you have participated in surrogacy in some form, what have your experiences been like?

I do not endorse everything these authors have written but I did find these sources interesting and helpful on the topic of surrogacy:

The Handmaid’s Tale: Traditional Gender Roles

(If you’re not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, either the TV series on Hulu or the 1984 novel by Margaret Atwood, here’s a five minute summary on YouTube. The TV series alters and adds a few details but remains true to the general themes and events of Atwood’s original book.)

In both the book and the Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale presents layers of challenging social, political, and theological issues. There’s lots of ground to cover but here I want to focus our attention on the use of traditional gender roles and the normalization of sexual violence in Gilead.

image
photo: startle.com

Gilead is Not Mere Fiction

As a theocracy, Gilead justifies it’s societal use of strict, traditional gender roles by scripture. Yes, this emerging nation is radical in some ways, but Atwood crafted her novel from events and concepts already present in society or history.

The creation of Gilead was a religious and political reaction to the perceived decrease in traditional values (increase in pornography and prostitution), and other social/political/environmental tensions. Sound familiar? You may be able to name several examples of similar reactionary movements in world history. I’m thinking of one example in particular, the defense of conservative values in the 1970s-1990s in the U.S.

Gilead creates a hierarchy based on gender, but also for different women, which you can read more about here. Two distinct, integral roles, defined “biblically” by creative interpretation of Genesis 30:1-3, are the wives and handmaids.

  • Commander’s wives, the counterpart of Rachel, are considered the ideal picture of femininity: respectful (submissive) of their place under men’s power, often soft-spoken and gentile, and ready to assume motherhood through the rape of the Handmaid by her husband.
  • Handmaids, the counterpart of Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, are fertile, enslaved women forced with the task of child-bearing through a monthly ritual of non-consensual intercourse. Handmaids lose any identity or agency of their own and assume the names of their Commander. (The name Offred comes from “of Fred.”)

The roles for women in Gilead stem from examples found in a literal reading (and justification of) Genesis 30. The scriptures have been used like this to condone horrors such as the Crusades, the silence or secondary nature of women, slavery, colonization, homophobia, and nationalism, among other tragedies.

What will the scriptures be used for next?

Sexism in Gilead’s Traditional Gender Roles

If we were to observe Gilead’s traditionally male-led households and government, how do men use the power they have? All women are secondary to men in Gilead through both hostile and benevolent sexism. A majority, if not all, of women’s agency is lost in the radical submission to men. Consent does not exist.

Image result for handmaids tale photos
photo: cw.com

Here I’ve listed a few examples of traditional gender expectations in Gilead with an evangelical comparison:

  • Men hold ultimate influence over others: Commanders and other men dominate the household, government, and security forces. Major decisions are made by men.
    • John Piper and others warn repeatedly against the influence of women over men in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
    • “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
  • Identity is tied to the man: Handmaids are forced to surrender their old identities (names, families, vocations, often sexual orientations, etc.) and given the names of the men who regularly use (rape) them to procreate.
    • Not necessarily evangelical but women are expected to assume the name of their husband when they are married.
    • Deuteronomy 22:28-29 appears to encourage the marriage between a rapist and the survivor.
  • Women have no right to sexual agency or pleasure: Commanders and their wives do not appear to have sex with each other; Handmaids are to perform “their duty.” High ranking men have access to underground prostitutes. (The very thing that initiated the creation of Gilead.)
    • “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
    • [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)
  • Cruel mistreatment of women: A Commander punishes his own wife by cutting off one of her fingers for merely suggesting the idea that women learn to read the Bible. Others are given permission to physically beat, burn, electrocute, mutilate, or kill those who are disobedient, most of whom are women.
    • “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)

Do any of these demonstrations of male power sound familiar? These are examples of hostile and benevolent sexism that promote rape culture and normalize sexual violence against women.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder that not everything described as “biblical” is truly in agreement with the larger narrative of the Gospel.

Granted, this is not the only example we have of traditional gender roles in history, literature, or television. There are all kinds of experiences and theologies that inform this practice, some more healthy than others. Even so, research cannot ignore the numerous challenges associated between traditional gender norms and sexual violence.

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