by Kendra Weddle Irons
(With responses by Melanie Springer Mock and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)
I may be on the cusp of something monumental. For me, really huge!
For years despite having a husband who designs cutting edge smart phones for a living, I have lived in the world of dumb phones, an especially dumb one right now as my little touch-screen works intermittently at best. Too cheap to spring for the big bucks of an iPhone or the monthly fees to own one, I also abhor the idea of going to the local outlet and listening while my husband goes through every nook and cranny of each phone and program with a salesperson, all while never divulging his part in this consumer-driven industry.
Fortunately for me, my husband has a very good work colleague who also is willing to lead me out of the dark ages. An engineer who also uses electronic gadgets from smart phones to e-readers to notepads, she has recently assisted me in catching up with the progress of technology by getting me an old smart phone (to alleviate my sticker shock) and introducing me to a plan that costs less than the one I currently have to support my aging dumb phone.
But it isn’t her technological savviness or willingness to share this information that I’ve been thinking about (although I’m deeply grateful). Rather, I’m happy that my husband has the opportunity to work with such a wonderful person and that they can be friends without the baggage that I think many Christians teach always accompanies such opposite-sex relationships and is lurking in the background ready to pounce if one isn’t paying attention.
My husband’s work environment is better because of his friend: they share lunches together where they can talk freely about their projects and also about life in general; and because of her, they sometimes walk for a few minutes outside, taking a longer break from the frenetic pace they normally endure.
But these kinds of relationships were presented to me years ago as an impressionable and young student within American Evangelicalism as highly problematic. I was taught to fear friendships with the opposite sex. This wasn’t the “don’t get too close to guys because such relationships always end up with sex” mantra that is also prevalent within conservative Christian movements but geared to young singles with raging hormones. No, this admonition was directed toward one’s future work environment (with the assumption that one was married) where we were essentially told nothing good could ever come out of working positively with one’s peers, those gendered differently than you, that is.
To sharpen the focus, I remember one professor providing story after unquestionable story about the need to keep sharp lines of gender isolation in place. He told us, for example, how he made sure his office had windows and that he made sure he was visible at all times when a female was in his office. The message was clear: he wanted to meet with women infrequently and when he did so, he was especially alert to all of the dangers involved.
Now, I certainly understand the need for propriety and for sound professional ethics, ones that will from time-to-time call for just the same kind of intentional attentiveness that this professor indicated. Nevertheless, reflecting back upon these teachable moments, I’m disappointed that I was taught in this case from a place of fear rather than a place of understanding and openness. It took me several years to question these assumptions and even longer to believe it might be possible to have professional relationships with men, to trust that they might not see me as dangerous or even to think we might be able to work together in effective and respectful ways.
And on a deeper, subconscious level, I’m afraid I took in the implied message, too: women are to be feared because they tempt men. In a bizarre way, and one that is very difficult to explain, I was taught to distrust myself, not because I saw myself as a desirable person, but simply because I am a woman, the Other, the one who is the source of fear.
While we may think these days of seeing women in this way are long gone, products of an earlier time when lawsuits over workplace violence had just emerged and therefore were more prevalent or public, I think similar ways of distrusting women occur each day, especially in the minds and legislative efforts of many of our federal, state, and local representatives.
Looking back at 2012 there are numerous examples of legislative failures regarding women driven by fear or mistrust or general ignorance about women’s experiences and situations: rampant measures in several states to either ban abortion or to make abortions more traumatic than they already are; the failure of the US House of Representatives to pass the Violence Against Women Act; personhood amendments making some forms of birth control illegal; the refusal of many candidates for public office to support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (or, in some cases, to even know about it).
At the same time, 2012 also offered its share of damaging ads portraying women as sexual objects to be consumed, as parts rather than whole beings, as one dimensional, and as possessions to be controlled and violated.
Despite these challenges, however, I am hopeful that 2013 will be a year of change, starting with a new Senate where twenty women now make up the Democratic caucus, the most in our U.S. history. Too, I’m sure Melanie and Letha will help me see more clearly the positive glimpses of a new day, one where women are valued as whole persons, not to be feared, but to share fully in our dreams of making this a better world.
What Christian Culture Often Likes — A Response by Melanie
Sometime in early December, I stumbled on a Facebook page called “Stuff Christian Culture Likes” and its companion website. From what I can tell, its creator lives in Seattle and has a wicked sense of humor, a great hypocrisy (or B.S.) detector, and just a little more cynicism than I do about evangelicalism. I’ve wasted a good bit of time there over the last month, reading about the crazy stuff Christian culture likes and enjoying the dialogue of the page’s regular visitors.
Just last week, their Facebook page linked to a number of images from Bill Gothard’s book, Seven Basic Needs of a Wife. The book was apparently published in 2010, though the advice seems more fitting for 1950—or perhaps for the Taliban. Included are such great insights as this: “God created women, so He knows how they think. As a result, He gives an allowance for a woman when she makes a vow. He realizes that it may be only an expression of her mind, will, or emotions.”
Good to know. When I make a vow to someone, I don’t have to keep it, since I’m a woman and all. Thank God (literally!) that I have an out because I’m an emotional wreck.
But Kendra’s post reminded me of several other points of advice culled from Gothard’s book, and offered as images on the “Stuff Christian Culture Likes” page. Namely, Gothard provides guidelines for the safe selection of secretaries because, of course, every person in the workplace is a man, and every secretary a woman-nee-temptress, ready to undermine the happy marriage of a godly wife.
Says Gothard (in 2010, remember), “Many marriages break up over the competing affections of a secretary, who has a great advantage over a wife because she is not expecting extra benefits from her employer and she is able to look her best throughout the work day.”
And, “Technically, a secretary is working for your wife, because she is doing things to assist you that your wife is not able to do.”
And this: “Make sure that you praise your wife to your secretary . . . and appreciate your secretary’s abilities without praising her to your wife.” (Note to self: I need to stop telling my husband how awesome my administrative assistant, Kathy, is. No doubt this makes my husband feel insecure and undermines our marriage.)
Gothard’s advice is truly cringe-inducing, making me wonder exactly what decade he lives in, and whether he has any real understanding of what the workplace looks like in 2013. But what I noticed in the brief excerpts I read is how Gothard appears to dehumanize the women about whom he writes. The secretary isn’t anything more than her title; the wife is nothing more than hers. Both have simple, basic needs—and, for the “wife,” only seven basic needs at that.
At its heart, isn’t that the problem with the legislative measures Kendra mentions? And the advertisements, too? The recent failure of the Violence Against Women Act reflects a lack of seeing the women the measure protects as anything more than their labels: they are “illegal immigrants” or “lesbians” or “Native Americans” (and thus reviled), rather than real people, with real histories and real families and real suffering. The advertisements show that women aren’t anything but boobs and legs, with the same kind of basic needs Gothard writes about: to be placated and patronized.
Which is no doubt why Kendra and I and a million other women grew up with the warning that we should not develop friendships with men outside of our marriages. Such prohibitions failed to recognize that sometimes, women can relate to men without our (apparently) basic need to tempt them, tease them, and get them into the sack, because—as Gothard says—women are especially susceptible to Satan’s influence. Sometimes, women develop friendships with men because they enjoy talking about technology, or arguing about politics, or sharing their latest professional triumphs. Imagine that.
Much of this is discouraging, to be sure, and Kendra requested hopeful signs that 2013 will be different. So I’ll return to the Facebook page “Stuff Christian Culture Likes,” and to the thoughtful exchanges happening there, which at times turn to the role of women in the church; and to the not-so-benevolent misogyny that often occurs in the world of religious blogging, where male voices continue to dominate; and to the idea that the stuff Christian culture likes is often far different from the stuff Jesus liked.
The dialogue there, and elsewhere, gives me hope that the tide is shifting, and that the old guard, with folks like Gothard at its charge, will be forced to reckon with the full humanity of the women in their worlds. Even, God forbid, their secretaries.
Out-Freuding Freud? — A Response by Letha
A physician friend once told me that he thought evangelical Christians “out-Freuded” Sigmund Freud. “They see sex everywhere!” he laughed.
They especially seem to see it when they think about (and often reject) the possibility of genuine male-female colleagueship and friendship, as Kendra and Melanie have pointed out. Behind the fear and warnings—whether in conservative religions or sometimes in secular society— are several assumptions: (1) that everyone is heterosexual and has sex on their minds at all times; (2) that a woman, by her very existence, is a temptress, requiring men to be on guard; (3) that men are weak and helpless in controlling their feelings of sexual attraction when a woman is nearby, and (4) that women are responsible for men’s feelings and actions.
And so we have the recent Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that it wasn’t illegal gender discrimination for a dentist to fire his dental assistant (with only one month’s severance pay) simply for being too attractive and “irresistible”—even though she had not flirted with him nor had an affair. Nor had she done anything else wrong. She had worked for him for ten years as an exemplary employee. But he felt his obsession with her (a married mother of two) was a threat to his own marriage so wanted her out of his sight.
(I suppose one could argue this was a case of “if your eye offends you, pluck it out”—except Jesus’ words were concerned with inner discipline and controlling one’s own thoughts/ vision, not destroying what was being looked at! Perhaps men who fear their own lustful thoughts could purchase some of the unofficial “modesty patrol’s” special glasses reportedly designed for strict Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Israel to help them avoid looking at women or even little girls whom they consider insufficiently covered up as they walk along the sidewalks on their way to school.)
As both Kendra and Melanie indicated, there really is a need for men to see women as fully human beings to be respected as persons. Not sex objects Not inferior beings. Not seductresses. But persons with a range of interests and knowledge well worth getting to know as professional colleagues and friends.
And yes, there are encouraging signs even within evangelicalism. I have been heartened to find at least two articles over the past year that were willing to address the topic frankly in Christianity Today’s blog for women, Her.meneutics: “Guarding Your Marriage without Dissing Women” by Gina Delfonzo and “Good Workplace Boundaries in a Post-Petraeus World” by Diane Paddison. Both authors are aware of what life is like today where business travel, lunches, and other interaction between women and men are part of the modern workplace.
But “Are Women Human?”
Dorothy Sayers asked that question in a 1938 speech, later published as a small book with the same title. In all the controversy over gender, rights, privileges, and opportunities, Sayers wanted to emphasize “that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.”
But in some conservative Christian circles, women are only seen as a member of a class or category rather than as individual persons—and in the minds of some, apparently not even human! I can’t help but think of the points made by Stephen B. Clark in his heavily footnoted 753-page tome titled Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences. Clark writes:
“The first indication of the presence of subordination is that the man is the center of the narrative of the creation of woman. . . .Secondly, it is the man who is called “Man” or “Human” and not the woman. . . .What we meet at the end of Genesis 4 is Human and his wife.”
With such a mindset in some segments of evangelicalism or fundamentalism, teachings such as those of Bill Gothard (which Melanie shared with us above) come as no surprise. Actually, until I read Melanie’s part of this conversation, I was surprised Gothard was still around— but I guess I shouldn’t be. He’s just a year older than I, and I’m still around!
Gothard, with his “Basic Youth Conflicts” seminars (later called the “Institute in Basic Life Principles”) was really big in the 1970s and 1980s, often filling arenas with as many as 20,000 people who had signed up to take his courses (basic, advanced, and more). They were expensive, included materials to add in sequence to a big red loose leaf notebook, and they stretched over many days. I understand attendance is much lower now, but he has developed his organization in many additional directions and increased his influence in other ways, as his personal website now shows.
He started his ministry around the same time that some of us early biblical feminists began our writing, and his and our views were polar opposites when it came to gender issues (and a lot of other issues as well). I first became aware of him when one of the college students, meeting in my home for a Bible study in the 1970s, brought one of the big red notebooks to show me a diagram that shocked me (and the student, too). Gothard, who organizes his seminars around lists, steps, charts, and diagrams, illustrated what he considered God’s order for the Christian home by showing an arm coming out of the sky (the arm symbolizing God), holding a hammer (symbolizing the husband), pounding on a chisel (symbolizing the wife), which was carving out a diamond in the rough (the child).
Gothard’s organization was very secretive at the time, and the only way a person could obtain his materials was to attend his seminars. Participants were discouraged from sharing his material with others. No doubt because of the heavy criticism of his work by some over time, along with rumors that his operation was a cult, he is much more open on his website now, including details of some of his teachings on courtship, marriage, and parenting, always including at least one biblical prooftext for each of his points, no matter how far from the historical and cultural context and original meaning the prooftext might be. His system (and that’s what it is) includes instructions on every aspect of life—including some very strange and controversial ideas (such as his warnings issued when Cabbage Patch dolls were all the rage, or his teachings about adoption and anxieties over the “sins of the fathers visited on future generations”).
His teachings appeal to those who like to have definite rules, certainty, order, and no toleration of ambiguity—all the things that make up the authoritarian personality. In fact, authority and design (everything must fulfill its intended function, including women who were designed to serve and bolster men) are key words in his principles. I’ve had friends in the mental health professions tell me that they have a large increase in clients after he has been in town.
But like you, Melanie and Kendra, I want to end on a note of hope, not despair over the patriarchal teachings still in vogue in all too many circles. And I think that “note of hope” is coming through loud and clear in the way Christian feminists (including many of our supportive Christian brothers) are finding each other, sharing, and bonding together through the Internet.
As Sarah Bessey says in a wonderful post on her personal blog:
“I have a tremendous well of hope for the voice of women in the church. The men at the table may be loud but the pockets of hope and love and freedom are spreading like yeast. I see it. I feel it in the ground under my feet. More and more of us are sick of waiting for a seat and so we are simply going outside, to freedom, together. And here, outside, we’re finding each other and it’s beautiful and crazy and churchy and holy.
“We are simply getting on with it, with the work and the community and the dreaming and the loving and the living out of the hope of glory.” (Quoted from Sarah Bessey’s December 12, 2011 post.)