In Sunday’s New York Times magazine Molly Worthen wrote a story about a movement of female conservative Evangelicals — women who are trying to ward off gender equality in order to live what they understand to be traditional Christian lives. The catch, though, for these “Housewives of God,” as the article is titled, is that, beliefs asides, the gender dynamic in their day-to-day lives closely resemble those of the average 21st century couple.
Many call themselves complementarians, signaling their belief that God ordained complementary — not identical or flexible — roles for men and women. To critics, “complementarian” is code for sexist patriarchy, a license to keep women muzzled and homebound. Yet spending even five minutes with Priscilla Shirer and her husband suggests that reality is far more complicated — not only at home but also in the new “separate sphere” that this theology has spawned: a subculture of Bible studies, conferences, ministries, religious retreats and literature ranging from Christian fitness books to Christian romance novels, all produced by and for evangelical women.
These complementarians are criticized by more progressive Christians for emphasizing an intrinsic difference between men and women, one that accounts for the fact that women are “destined to live a different — and subordinate — Christian life.”
The article goes on to explain how the feminist movement has roots in the Victorian-era Evangelical movement, and how in the 1970s a group of Evangelical women began to turn away from women’s and gay liberation — arguing that the concept was a myth, and that “secular feminism enslaves.” Whorten writes:
Women learn to worship the false idols of careerism and independence, brainwashed by propaganda techniques that the Christian author Mary Kassian, in her book “The Feminist Mistake,” compares with those used by Chairman Mao. Submission alone brings true freedom and empowerment. A “submitted woman” can quit struggling to do things God never intended her to do and focus on her feminine gifts. Her gifts might mean a career, as long as she has her husband’s blessing: evangelicals often cite the “Wife of Noble Character” mentioned in Proverbs 31, who “considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.”
The writer does a good job of respecting these women — this isn’t the Tina Fey does Sarah Palin version of conservative women (not that I don’t love Fey) — while still placing their beliefs in a critical context. What struck me is that despite the fact the my fundamental beliefs about gender equality clash with where their fundamental beliefs about female submission, we are, in essence, asking many of the same questions, and coming up with some of the same answers.
This idea of “complementarian,” when not replacing “equal” or “flexible,” sounds a lot like what many women have begun to embrace in place of “doing it all.” The sun is setting on this 80s feminist notion of “superwoman,” who has been replaced by a generation of women like myself that are letting go of trying to do everything men and women do, and finding a space that makes sense for our individual and/or relationship’s needs. I am not advocating that women give up one specific thing for another, or that in the household dynamic should reflect those of the 1950’s — just that progressive women, and men, now more frequently consider how they can complement their partners rather than aiming to be their “equals” in every sense.
I also see this idea of “submission,” in progressive women’s circles. It is never phrased in the terms explained above — where women should submit to their husbands — but more in the sense that women should let go, again, of “superwomen” expectations and “submit” to the overall needs of their families and their lives. I must be clear that I have strong feelings against this word “submit,” and personally prefer to think of it as “letting go,” which puts the agency back in the hands of the woman. Though, ultimately, the sentiments and motivations behind “submitting” and “letting go” are similar.
It is well-documented that the happiness of women in the United States has declined in recent years, even as we have shattered many a glass ceiling. A recent article in Slate, “Going Dutch: Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles and a big gender pay gap, and they love it,” compared women in the U.S. to those in the Netherlands, where less than 10% of women are employed full-time. The article wasn’t endorsing the statistic, or implying that women here should stop working; instead, it just provided some food-for-thought for the exhausted American woman. I found the “housewives of God” the same.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Progressive 'Housewives of God'?