Someone drew my attention to a bit of a brouhaha that has been going on over on Twitter about an article I wrote a year and a half ago, in which I questioned the trope of the ‘strong female character’. I thought I’d take some time to clear up some of the apparent confusion.
I confess, reading the discussion was a depressing reminder of just how incredibly reactive and careless people’s reading can be on the Internet. On an issue as emotive as gender, people tend to jump to unwarranted conclusions, operating with reactive impressions, rather than attentive readings. Unfortunately, much of the following will have to address basic failures of comprehension.
‘His worldview is problematic because it doesn’t derive from Scripture but from a culturally constructed vision of gender that is supposedly “biological.” The problem is that it’s not biblical enough.’ Is this true?
At the outset, considering how much work I’ve done on the biblical witness and how broadly I’ve thrown my net in exploring what the Scripture has to say on this subject, it is, to be frank, rather strange to receive this accusation from someone who has done considerably less work in the area. My concern has always been to read the Bible on such subjects closely, thoroughly, and comprehensively. By contrast, a highly selective and piecemeal reading is all too often characteristic of critics such as the person in question, a reading that takes modern concerns to the text and seeks to find biblical support, rather than an intensive, extensive, and attentive engagement with the Bible’s own witness on the Bible’s own terms. The result of such readings, as I shall later argue, is a radically distorted sense of the Bible’s actual teaching and priorities.
The accusation that my position is supposedly derived from a mistaken understanding of biology is one I deny on various counts. It is not derived from biology, but, rather, is attentive to biology, alongside many other sources. The term ‘biology’ can also be an unhelpful term in this context: I have tried to attend to nature, which is considerably broader than biology.
As for the accusation of a ‘culturally constructed vision of gender’, I believe that such visions of gender are not merely arbitrary constructions of power upon an inert and plastic nature, but that they must negotiate with the natural reality of our sexed nature, which they construe in various conventions and customs. There are some key things to notice about this.
First, like wearing clothing or speaking language, gender is a human universal: despite the many differences between the ways in which they do so, every human culture socially distinguishes between men and women.
Second, gender difference is almost invariably accentuated in various ways. Few cultures treat gender difference as an unfortunate difference to be eradicated or minimized, but as a beautiful and glorious thing in which our humanity is most elevated. Gender is the key human difference that constitutes the dance of society. When we want to appear most glorious, we tend to dress in ways that foreground our masculinity and femininity.
Because of the typical accentuation of gender difference, nature cannot simply be read off culture. However, culture is natural to us as human beings and the elevation of the biological reality of sexual dimorphism into the cultural reality of gender with it. C.S. Lewis observed that ‘the naked man was the man who had undergone a process of naking, that is, of stripping or peeling.’ The wearing of clothing is natural to mature human beings, much as the speaking of language is. To be naked is to have a layer of our glory as humanity removed, to be reduced to a childlike or ‘peeled’ state. Likewise, gender is part of our glory as human beings, that which ‘dresses up’ our natural bodily differences into something distinctively and gloriously human.
Third, within the great variety of ways in which different cultures dance out or dress up the difference between men and women, great consistencies are to be seen, consistencies that reveal that we are all producing variations on the same underlying themes. Anywhere you go in the world, pronounced cultural differences between men and women exist, differences in which men and women remain quite recognizably men and women. If the sexes were to switch places, the confusion would swiftly be discovered.
Fourth, the cultural differences between men and women are naturally creative construals and presentations of the natural differences between them. They are created differences, yet they are not arbitrary differences, as they negotiate, foreground, and accentuate the natural character of sexual dimorphism.
We can’t simply read nature off culture, but the extensive consistencies and convergences between cultures when it comes to gender are illuminating. And, in addition to this, both culture and the drawing of gender distinctions are natural to human beings. Much as in the case of language, gender difference can take innumerable forms. However, like language, it is both natural to us and must relate effectively to the world.
Scripture highlights this fact by declaring cultural distinctions between genders to be natural (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:14-15). The point is not that specific gender distinctions are unavoidable, but that the drawing of gender distinctions is natural to humanity, and that the ways that our culture draws such distinctions are not to be lightly dismissed, even though they may occasionally need to be replaced by better ways of drawing the distinction.
Do I ‘think that social justice is a modern liberal post-Christian pursuit and not something connected to God’s Word and God’s vision for human flourishing’?
‘Social justice’ is an extremely heavily loaded term. In the sense that this terminology currently functions, I believe that it is a highly compromised and flawed pursuit, even if well-intentioned. As ‘social justice’ usually operates, it is bound up with what René Girard describes as a perverse ‘victimology’ cult. It is also oriented around the demand of ‘equality’, a highly questionable value, which owes a lot to a technique-driven society that treats all persons as commensurable and natural differences as obstacles to the parity of outcomes that should exist.
God’s vision for human flourishing does not orbit around the value of equality, but is about each person flourishing in their own proper ways and in their differences. In this vision, the differences between men and women make a difference and this difference is essentially good, albeit distorted by the Fall. The expectation that men and women should get equal outcomes is based on the futile attempt to erase the created differences between men and women—creation itself fuelling a deep ressentiment—rather than to welcome them in ways that enable both men and women to flourish in their own fashion.
Why is it bad to have more female heroes? Am I unacquainted with ICU nurses?
Far from it being bad to have more heroines, it is something that we desperately need! My point in my article was that the ‘strong female character’ trope fails us on this front because it places so much of the weight of potential female heroism upon women’s conformity to a narrow set of more characteristically male strengths (a vision of heroism constraining for men, yet radically more so for women) and on women’s occupation of roles that play to those strengths. This merely reinforces the assumption that, to be heroic, you need to be like a fighting man.
If you read my article, you will see that it is arguing that, for a true recognition of female heroism, we need to move beyond accumulating token female characters in roles modelled upon a particularly male model of heroism, and to expand our vision of what heroism itself means. Films that explored the heroism of ICU nurses would be wonderful. ICU nurses don’t need to be engaged in combat or to have incredible marital arts skills in order to be heroic. We should learn to attend to and to admire the heroism of such persons without feeling that they cannot truly be heroic if they can’t best a trained male fighter in hand-to-hand combat. Recognizing the reality of their heroism requires an attention that the in-your-face (yet often merely apparent) heroism of the fighter does not. But it badly needs to be cultivated.
The ‘strong female character’ trope is a lazy solution for female empowerment. While it may give many women a cathartic sense of women’s agency being recognized on the screen, it does so by reinforcing the underlying problem. It gives the impression that women’s agency only qualifies for our attention insofar as it conforms itself to certain models of masculine agency.
For a society that increasingly lives vicariously through its consumption of screen entertainment, the catharsis of seeing women’s agency prominently displayed on the screen may seem to be enough, and be regarded as a salutary challenge to the wider realms of life where their agency is often overlooked altogether. However, the terms upon which women’s agency is being recognized must be recognized, as they reinforce the real-world problems that women face. Strip almost any one of the ‘strong female characters’ of their fighting abilities and they would suddenly cease to enjoy a place in the centre of the frame. While many contemporary ‘strong female characters’ exhibit a wide range of different traits and agency that far exceeds fighting, we only get to discover this because they are gifted warriors. However, in the real world the most gifted warriors are, almost to a man … men. Here our media aren’t teaching us to recognize women’s actual heroism, just to chafe against reality.
There is no need to deny the existence of the few exceptions to these patterns to make this point. The point is not that no women are strong, but that very few women are stronger than the average man and that, when we get to the extremes of strength, we are dealing almost exclusively with men. The problem with the ‘strong female character’ is not that such characters exist in popular movies and TV series, but that the representation of women in much popular entertainment is so dependent on characters conforming to that trope.
People tend to be very poor at thinking about group differences (especially gender differences) that involve overlapping distributions. We are often reminded, for instance, that the difference between two particular groups on a specific trait may be much smaller than the variation within either one of the groups. Or we will be reminded of how much overlap there is between them. Furthermore, as people tend to think individualistically, they tend to fixate on the issue of the range of possible values that exist within a group’s distribution and pay little attention to group effects.
Height is a good way to illustrate the issues with such objections. The variation in both male and female height is truly immense, especially for men (both the tallest and the shortest persons ever recorded are men). When the variation in a group is so great that it exceeds the bounds of another group in both directions, isn’t it meaningless to talk about differences between the two groups? Also, the average height difference between men and women is only about 5 inches, dwarfed by the size of the variation and with plenty of women being taller than the average male height. Anyone who says that men are taller than women will often face strong objections from people who think about such things individualistically, with reminders that people like Gwendoline Christie (6’3”) exist. Yet there is no need to deny the existence of exceptionally tall women in order to maintain the significance of height difference between the sexes. When we go above six feet, for instance, only one person in about two thousand will be a woman. If we were looking for the tallest ten percent of society, it would almost exclusively be male.
If the most prominent women in our blockbuster movies and most popular TV shows were overwhelmingly over six feet in height, their presence wouldn’t necessarily be empowering to women. They would soon cease to represent a healthy recognition of the existence of exceptionally tall women and would function as the expectation that women must be exceptionally tall to be recognized. Likewise, the problem is not with the existence of physically strong women or of women with elite fighting abilities, but the huge dependence upon the trope, a dependence that reveals an egalitarian society’s inability to handle natural differences between the sexes.
My point is not that women’s agency and heroism should be removed from our screens (quite the opposite: note that, far from being a principled resistance to the attempt to represent women’s agency and heroism, my article ends with a discussion of how we could do better here), but that they should truly be recognized, rather than forced into an unnatural straitjacket. It is not an injustice that women are naturally weaker than men, but it is an injustice when we suggest that women must be of comparable strength to men for their agency and characters to be recognized. The resistance to natural difference merely imposes an unrealistic standard upon women.
What about the women who financially supported Jesus and his disciples?
What about them? Does the Bible make its recognition of the significance of their actions contingent upon their aptitude for physical combat? No. Indeed, our ability to recognize their actions and those of many other women like them may depend upon attentiveness to the actual form of women’s agency in Scripture, rather than to our narrow cultural expectations of what ‘strong women’ must look like.
I quote statistics about men’s different upper body strength relative to women in about ‘4-5 essays’, but surely this is ‘not a fact upon which to hang a whole worldview about the genders.’
To my knowledge, I have quoted that particular fact in no more than three different pieces and in none of them was it the foundation for my argument. It is most definitely not a fact upon which to hang a whole account of the sexes, which is why I never do anything remotely like that. I use the fact, not to ground a ‘whole worldview about the genders’, but to point out the natural imbalance between the sexes, especially at the extremes of physical performance. Men’s bodies and psychologies are suited for combat in a great many ways that women’s bodies and psychologies are not and, in a society that is increasingly focused upon fighting women in its entertainment, it is important to remind ourselves of this.
This sort of accusation, sadly characteristic of the seemingly reactive reading of the person in question, is such a bad faith engagement with my arguments that I am wary of dignifying it with a response. However, for the sake of those following the conversation, rebuttal may be important.
Realistically how many modern men rely on their upper body strength when caring for, protecting and serving their wives?
This would be quite the devastating challenge were I basing an entire understanding about the genders and their respective roles upon the greater upper body strength of men.
But I’m not, so it isn’t.
Am I denying that women are strong enough to care for others?
Certainly not. Challenging the helpfulness of a dominant trope that foregrounds women engaging in violence is not denying that there are many ways in which women show strength in caring for others.
‘The emphasis on women’s central (only?) roles as wives and child-bearers is an a priori lens of Roberts’s and others that leads them to overlook women’s other forms of strength seen in Scripture. Note how Alastair deals with Jael and Deborah…in passing.’
Scripture repeatedly presents the bearing of children and the faithful managing of a household as the primary form that women’s vocations will take. It is not the only form and there are some women who will have more exceptional forms of calling, but it is consistently represented as the centre of gravity for women’s activity.
From the creation of the woman onwards, her calling is primarily focused upon the raising up of seed. In Genesis 2, the man was created from and for the taming of the land, while the woman was created from the side of the man, with her calling centring upon the formation of human union and communion through marriage, the bearing of children, the forming of homes and communities. The judgment on the man after the Fall focuses upon his subduing of the land, while the judgment on the woman focuses upon her bearing and raising of children.
When Scripture talks about the calling of women, it focuses upon the realm of marriage, childbearing and the managing of the household. In Titus 2:4-5, older women are called to ‘admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.’ In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul declares that younger widows should ‘marry, bear children, manage the house.’ In 1 Timothy 2:15 it is childbearing that Paul presents as central to the calling of Eve and her daughters. The work of wise women in Proverbs also focuses upon the managing of their households too (Proverbs 14:1; 31:10ff). They engage in economic activity, but as those building their households and homes, not as independent careerists. This is all very unwelcome to modern ears, but this is what Scripture focuses upon when it comes to women.
Scripture repeatedly presents women’s work in the bearing of children and raising of their households as heroic in character and as a prominent work of social reproduction that is to be foregrounded and honoured in society. Women and their work in the bearing, protecting, and raising of children are front and centre in many of the most pivotal narratives of Scripture. The story of the patriarchs has women struggling to give birth at the heart of it. The story of the Exodus begins with women giving birth. The story of the kingdom begins with the prayer of Hannah. The story of the gospel begins with Elizabeth and Mary.
It must, however, be recognized that this calling of women was not as socially marginalizing in Scripture as it is in the modern world, in which the realm of the household has ceased to be at the heart of society, the primary engine of both production and social reproduction. Rather than a settled reality, which accumulated social capital over generations, the modern home is a private domestic bubble that will exist for a couple of decades, before it dissolves as children leave home and scatter to different parts of the country or world. It is primarily a realm of private consumption with little social power or influence.
We live in a society that has increasingly outsourced the traditional operations of the family onto the state and other economic and productive agencies. Our society is dependent upon the normalization of the suppression of women’s fertility through contraception and abortion so that they can untether themselves from the collapsing domestic sphere. As marriage and the family are enervated and no longer afford the same social influence they once enjoyed. Rather than representing a true realm of interdependence, pooling of resources, and combining of efforts, capable of bearing considerable weight, both men and women place relatively little practical weight on their marriages nowadays when compared to other ages of history. The modern women is (often understandably) careful to maintain her economic independence, so that she never needs her marriage, even if she might want it. Marriage just isn’t that reliable an enterprise any longer and, especially, as her husband has far less resting on the marriage than he would have done in the past, she can’t afford to fall into a relationship of unilateral dependence.
Our broader cultural situation is not something that Scripture presents as healthy. Indeed, it challenges us to recognize the dysfunctional and alienated character of our social order. While it doesn’t support those who want to normalize the independent career-driven woman, it doesn’t support those who simply want to confine women to the modern home either. Rather, it calls for a more careful understanding and wise negotiation of a compromised situation, in which both the limits of the home and the demands of the career generally prove alienating for women. It also requires a deeper reckoning with the alienated character of men’s labour.
Of course, people who come to Scripture with their cultural itches, looking for scriptural resources to scratch them, will fail to appreciate Scripture’s broader indictment upon the form of society that gives rise to such itches in the first place. They will extrapolate extensive visions from isolated characters like Deborah or Jael, without attending closely either to the broader sweep of Scripture or to the stories of Deborah and Jael themselves. They will presume the validity of the terms, categories, and concerns of their own societies and never allow Scripture to hold them in question.
In contrast to such approaches, our duty must be to deal with Scripture more comprehensively and on its own terms. We must be attentive to its categories and concerns and use these both to understand what it says and to assess our own cultures. If your concern is merely arguing for ‘equality’, you will pounce upon texts such as Galatians 3:28 or Genesis 1:27 as statements of the equality of every individual and easily assume everything else that our society rests upon that term. However, as I pointed out recently, this is simply not how such texts function when understood within Scripture’s own conceptual frameworks.
So, what about Jael and Deborah?
I am accused of dealing with Jael and Deborah only in passing. Yet such an accusation could arguably be levelled even more strongly against Scripture itself. Deborah and Jael appear during a period of national oppression in Israel’s early history, their deeds recounted in a single story near the beginning of the book of Judges. After that, they vanish from the scene and no other women quite like them come along. For instance, apart from the murderous usurper, Athaliah, there is no women among the forty-two regents of Israel and Judah and no woman other than Deborah among the almost twenty judges of Israel mentioned at various points in Scripture. This isn’t because brave and influential women are absent from either the subsequent pages of Scripture or Israelite society, but because Jael and Deborah are not representative of the more typical forms of female courage and virtue that Scripture most foregrounds and celebrates.
Scripture wants us to celebrate the actions of such women, but they are not the norm and are not normalized. Both Jael and Deborah are presented by Scripture itself—in the context of its wider representation of women, and within their own narratives—as exceptional cases. Those who are desperate to discover scriptural warrant for breaking of gender stereotypes and norms place considerable weight upon such texts, yet neglect the vast swathes of Scripture that present the norm against which such exceptions appear. They also neglect to observe the way that gender norms are reinforced even in the accounts of exceptions.
Deborah’s calling as a judge is closely related to the fact that she is a prophetess, someone who could deliver the word of the Lord to Barak and others (cf. Judges 4:6-7). While most of the other judges were primarily military men, going out before Israel, leading them against their enemies, the dynamic with Deborah was different and perhaps more akin to figures like Samuel or Moses, other prophetic judges. Deborah sat under her palm tree and delivered judgment upon the cases brought to her by the children of Israel.
Deborah is a Mosaic figure who, like Moses, presides over the new birth of a nation when all had seemed lost. Like Moses, she is the divinely-instructed prophet who directs the battle from behind the scenes, leading to a miraculous victory over a powerful army of chariots through a sudden torrent of water. The chariots of Pharaoh were swept away by the waters of the Red Sea; the chariots of Jabin were swept away by the River Kishon (5:20-21). Like Moses, she sings a song of victory afterwards. These parallels are important and some indication of the significance of Deborah’s work.
The crushing or suppression of the virility of a nation was always one of most important concerns for an oppressing power. Removing the weapons, killing or enslaving the males, and emasculating and subjugating their leaders were ways in which a nation could be brought under the domination of another. Scripture presents us with a number of such moments in history. The Exodus is one example: Pharaoh enslaves Israel and kills their boys. In this situation, deliverance arose from women, as women delivered the infant Moses and protected the Israelite boys from Pharaoh. Women protected the seed that would crush the serpent’s head. Deborah is associated with the other women who lived at such times, with Jochebed, Miriam, and the Hebrew midwives, with Hannah, with Esther, with Elizabeth and Mary.
The highways were deserted,
And the travelers walked along the byways.
Village life ceased, it ceased in Israel,
Until I, Deborah, arose,
Arose a mother in Israel.
They chose new gods;
Then there was war in the gates;
Not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel. (Judges 5:6b-8)
Deborah describes herself as ‘a mother in Israel’, someone who arose at a point of crisis in Israel’s history, when men were without strength and it needed to experience something akin to a new birth. One of the problems with people regarding Deborah as a biblical normalization of gender-neutralized leadership is that they fail to take into account this background and the character of Deborah’s work. Deborah’s calling is to act as a mother in Israel, someone who will protect and raise up the seed that will ultimately lead and deliver.
Like Joan of Arc, Deborah is a prophetic woman who leads a movement to restore the rule of her nation at a moment of crisis and the utter breakdown of its power. She is not an ordinary leader in a time of peace. Barak is like the Dauphin, who must be helped to achieve his victory, after which the security and power of the nation can be restored under his rule.
Barak was instructed to go to battle, but suffered a minor judgment when he requested that Deborah accompany him. Unlike the typical male judge, Deborah’s absence from the battle was assumed to be the natural and appropriate situation: she was neither a warrior nor a military commander. She was also a woman. The judgment upon Barak for calling Deborah to accompany him was that the opposing general would be delivered into the hands of a woman, who would do Barak’s job for him. Had Barak courageously followed the word of the Lord and not called for Deborah to accompany him, she would not have gone to the battle and Sisera would have been delivered into Barak’s own hand, galvanizing Barak’s authority in Israel.
Both Deborah’s presence with him in the battle (albeit not in the actual fighting) and Jael’s slaying of Sisera were associated with Barak’s failure to assume his proper role. Crushing the head of the serpent Sisera’s head was the task of the seed, which Barak was supposed to be. However, since the seed was not yet powerful enough to crush the serpent’s head himself, the woman had to do it for him. This was a sign that the woman’s task in raising her seed was not yet done.
Deborah and Jael are commonly appealed to as biblical examples of fighting women, examples that are supposedly evidence that fighting wars shouldn’t be gendered (despite the fact that women are notably absent from the many myriads of fighting people elsewhere in Scripture). Putting to one side the fact that Deborah’s presence at the battle and Jael’s crushing of Sisera’s head wasn’t the original divine intention, it is important to note that neither Deborah nor Jael fight. Deborah directs the battle from the top of Mount Tabor and Jael kills a man in his sleep.
Deborah and Jael’s actions are worthy of praise, but neither Deborah nor Jael are warrior women. They are women who, under exceptional circumstances that represent breaks from the norm, and on account of the failure of men to step forward, play surprising and courageous non-combat parts in a divinely orchestrated military victory. Deborah and Jael are heroines of no small stature in Scripture and we should study and appreciate their story. However, anyone who uses the characters of Deborah and Jael to normalize women’s place in warfare is being either careless or dishonest with the text.
One final point to attend to here is the fact that, even in their break from the norm, the womanhood of both Deborah and Jael is foregrounded in various ways and is significant to the narrative. Jael deceiving the serpent Sisera and crushing his head is a poetic reversal of the serpent’s deception of Eve and a minor fulfilment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Jael’s slaying of Sisera occurs, not as she goes out to the battle, but as she invites him into her tent, deceives him with the apparent extension of hospitality, then pierces his head with the domestic tool of a tent peg. Jael, not being a fighter, employs the tactic of cunning deception, which is characteristic of women in their struggle against the serpents of history (Sarai against Pharaoh, Rebekah against Pharaoh and Abimelech, Rachel against Laban, Tamar against Judah, the Hebrew midwives against Pharaoh, Rahab against the king of Jericho, Michael against Saul, Esther against Haman, etc.). The Song of Deborah does not class Jael with the warriors, but with ‘women in tents’ (5:24).
Likewise, Deborah doesn’t cast herself as a warrior, but as a mother. What she does is a significant departure from the norm, but it is nonetheless a motherly action. At the end of her Song she focuses on her rival and counterpart in the conflict, the mother of Sisera, waiting in vain for her son to arrive home. She imagines Sisera’s mother’s ladies explaining Sisera’s delay, suggesting that he was gathering plunder and raping and capturing women, not realizing that, in another piece of poetic justice, he had just been ‘penetrated’ by a woman.
These considerations help us better to understand how Deborah and Jael, while both are exceptions to the norm, are nevertheless expressions of it. They don’t destroy or reject the gendered frameworks of society, but reveal some of the surprising forms that they can take on exceptional occasions. They are orderly anomalies.
Is my handling of Proverbs 31 problematic, ‘circumscribing the wife’s role to “domestic craft-work”’ and ignoring the economic and charitable activities she engages in?
This accusation is based upon a quotation from Peter Leithart in which he writes: ‘…the woman’s work is domestic, economic, craft-work, and yet the poem celebrates it in heroic terms.’ Note both the commas and the presence of the term ‘economic’, which Leithart and I are supposedly ‘ignoring’. This is one of several instances that seem to manifest a depressing low level of basic reading comprehension in my critics.
The problem with far too many contemporary Christian readings of passages such as Proverbs 31 is that they are either looking for proof that women should stay at home or looking for proof that women should enjoy careers and lives outside of the home’s confines. Both approaches result from a modern situation where work and the household have become alienated from each other.
The vision of Proverbs 31 is of the woman who manages a productive and fruitful household with wisdom and providence. She is not a detached individual pursuing a career, but the centripetal force of a community that she forms around her. She is the heart of her home, the tree of life in its midst. She is the one who builds up her household with her shrewd economic management and the spring whose waters flow out of her household to give life to all around. She is her husband’s glory and desire; he praises her and builds her up with his own strength.
In this biblical vision, economic, charitable, productive, and other activities are all extensions of the life of the home, not alienated from it as they are in modern society. When the woman buys a field and plants a vineyard, she is not working to extend her boss’s dominion, earning money doing alienated labour in another’s ‘household’, but is extending the dominion of her own. This is the biblical vision of what is good, a vision that should chasten our far more limited ideals. The biblical vision of women’s calling is focused upon their marrying, bearing children, and managing their households. But this vision can only properly be understood against the background of an understanding of the household as the heart of the world, not a marginalized reservation cut off from society. Unfortunately, when people approach the Bible on the terms set by our culture, they miss this.
As I’ve already noted, this vision is decidedly difficult to realize in the current context. It provides a challenging measure against which we can perceive the failure of our society and perhaps means by which things can be changed. If we use such a vision either to condemn women who work outside the home, or women who stay at home, we will be missing the point. Both approaches are typically compromised in the current environment and should not be treated as ideals or as healthy patterns. Our duty is to perceive correctly, speak truthfully, recognize our limitations, and prudently pursue the good to the measure that we can in the situations within which we find ourselves.
Do I have an a priori commitment to the position that ‘biology reveals women’s societal roles’ and that women ‘are the weaker vessel not just physically but societally as well’?
No, I don’t. What I actually believe is that the societal differences between men and women arise in large measure from biological and psychological differences between the sexes. These differences are of various kinds: some are more categorical in character (e.g. women get pregnant while men don’t), while others are about more relative differences (e.g. men are more thing-oriented than women, while women are more person-oriented than men). Such relative differences, unlike the more categorical differences, have plenty of exceptions. However, despite not being categorical differences, they can have a huge impact at the more general societal level, among other things, scuppering attempts to achieve parity.
My beliefs on these fronts can be amply supported by a wealth of cross-cultural empirical research. They help to account for pronounced empirical differences between the sexes that exist across many human (and a number of animal) societies. They also relate closely with the natural teleology of sexual difference. For instance, much as chimps exhibit pronounced sex differences in play behaviours, so we should expect the play behaviours and interests of human males and females to correspond in various ways with their reproductive roles. The existence of significantly different distributions of behavioural tendencies between the sexes isn’t hard to substantiate for those who don’t have their eyes open. The shape of these behavioural differences is also seldom hard to explain for those who take the differences in natural reproductive roles seriously. In an advanced technological and contraceptive society, we may have become unmindful of the existence of natural reproductive roles, but this doesn’t mean that they cease to exist.
This isn’t a belief in strict biological determinism when it comes to men and women’s behaviours, nor is it the belief that we should simply read societal roles off biology. However, it is the belief that nature matters and that we cannot explain society well if we don’t take it seriously. My points here are primarily descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The point is not that biology means that men and women must occupy specific roles but that natural differences mean that every human society will tend to be producing variations on the same underlying themes. God created men and women differently, for different purposes, and the differences between us really make a difference.
It is not difficult to show that men and women aren’t blank slates, but that natural differences between them lead to different behaviours and different social outcomes. People like to point to the effects of socialization as that which establishes the greatest differences between the sexes. However, important though socialization can be, if the differences in question were socialized, it is truly strange that we should encounter the same patterns in so many cultures (and many similar patterns in related species) otherwise independent of each other. It is also worth noticing how socialization can fail. For instance, attempts to socialize girls exposed to high levels of androgens in the womb fail badly, as they typically adopt male-typical behaviours.
I also believe that women are the weaker vessel societally, a position that, while it can be qualified in certain ways, would seem to be amply demonstrated by the cross-cultural evidence. In almost all human societies, women have a far more intimate bond with their children than their husbands. Beyond even the burdens of pregnancy and nursing, and putting psychological differences between the sexes to one side, the duties of child-rearing will fairly unavoidably fall chiefly upon their shoulders. Without contraception, baby formula, a whole raft of domestic appliances, the welfare state and extensive social institutions, and many other such developments, women will operate largely from the home and will rely heavily upon their husbands for provision. My point here is not to idealize such a situation—in our movement beyond many aspects of such a situation, we have a lot to be thankful for—but to point out that God created men and women in a way that made imbalances of societal power almost inevitable.
Male dominance in public rule wasn’t simply established by some compelling theoretical argument that was accepted by societies around the world. It is the sort of thing that arises fairly organically out of our natures. The greater physical strength of men is only one factor among a great many, although it is important (besides, the most powerful people in society are seldom those who are physically the strongest). Male-typical sociality creates broader, larger, less personal, and more outward-oriented groups, bound together by common agency. Such ‘bands’ of men have a much greater creative power, and not just because they are physically stronger. Men’s greater thing-orientation also drives them more towards the development of physical and social structures, systems, institutions, and laws. Male agonism privileges strength and high agency and equips men for operating in untamed realms. The broader structures of social power primarily arise out of the activity of men. The more intimate forms of social influence, by contrast, are more closely related to the activity of women.
The apparent exceptions to the pattern are worth studying. The dominance of women in society tends to appear in situations where, for instance, the society is subjugated by an external power that closes down the agency of men, where the society is relatively undeveloped, where men are largely absent, or where there is limited scope for the development of broader networks of power (e.g. peoples on isolated islands). In other situations, the natural virility of men will tend to produce a situation where men are the most prominent public figures, as they create greater networks and structures of power.
The problem with the consistent and predictable objections to such observations is that they come from people who seemingly make no real effort to reckon with natural differences and often treat the existence of such differences as if they were great injustices. And this is a theological question that we must ask too (one rarely posed, although Gerald Hiestand’s recent treatment of the question in Beauty, Order, and Mystery is a welcome exception). If ‘equality’, in the modern sense of that term, were really God’s great concern, why did he create men so much stronger than women in a world that demanded and rewarded physical strength? Why did he create women to bear such a disproportionate burden of the weight of the task of procreation? If ‘equality’ were God’s purpose, why are sexual differences so pronounced when it comes to the core tasks of the human vocation: being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth, subduing it, and exercising dominion?
Facile attempts to brush off ‘biological’ groundings of gender roles neglect the fact that the way that God created us is such that the greater prominence of men in societal life doesn’t need to be undergirded by lots of prescriptive arguments: it is simply a descriptive and pretty unavoidable reality.
What about men who are physically weak or ill, or the women who are particularly strong? Or what about situations when women have to act on behalf of men who lack the power to act?
The person asking this question seems to be assuming that my reference to differences in physical strength is designed to ground an entire prescriptive account of gender roles, as if I were arguing that each and every man either is or must be physically stronger than each and every woman (or at least his spouse). However, it is only intended to demonstrate a significant empirical difference between the sexes, a difference that has extensive social consequences. It is not the claim that all men are physically strong or even that all men should be physically strong. It is not the claim that it is unwomanly to be physically strong, or that it is sinful for women to develop or exercise their physical strength.
General norms can have exceptions. The norms aren’t negated by such exceptions and those who defend and express the norms need not be threatened by the exceptions. The norms don’t disappear simply on account of some unusual cases, especially when a number of these cases are recognized to be departures from an ideal in various respects (e.g. situations where a man is ill or disabled).
I don’t intend to get into any discussion in the comments, but have at it.