The “Christian” Objectification of Women

My friend Meg, who is a professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told me this story from her trip to Bolivia last summer:

“I took an all-female team to work […] in a small mountain community […].  At first, I don’t think [the community] quite knew what to do with us.  […]  Over the week, we worked hard and even got a chance to lead their little Baptist church in service.  I preached, the girls sang and gave testimonies, and the people in the community got to know us and our hopes and dreams as we got to know theirs. 

At the end of our time together, one of the staff, by far the most educated man in the village, spoke about his experience with us.  He said that he had a four-year-old daughter and that watching all the women on our team who were studying to be doctors, nurses, nutritionists, teachers, etc. had opened his eyes to a whole other life that might be possible for his little girl that he’d never dreamed of before.”

As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explain in Half the Sky, lifting women and girls through education and economic empowerment lifts whole societies.

By contrast, the perpetuation of patriarchy and disempowerment of women tends to maintain cycles of poverty, abuse, and violence.

What upsets me when I hear stories like Meg’s is that there are increasingly vocal evangelicals who would openly critique what happened there in Bolivia. {They had a woman preach?}

{Heck, via Meg, I’ve even read a Christian attack on The Hunger Games which bemoaned Katniss’s ‘masculinity’ and Peeta’s ‘femininity’ as a reversal of ‘God’s design’ for manhood and womanhood.}

It seems to me that despite the insistence that such a perspective is Biblical, there is, in fact, an unwitting confirmation of consumer culture’s perspective of women, which is that women are not–or at least shouldn’t be–the subjects of their own lives but the objects of other people’s gazes and desires.  The “Bestselling Books for Christian Women” at include a disproportionate number of books that more or less argue that the way to be a really ‘Biblical’ or ‘true’ woman of God is to, essentially submit to the authority and control of men, because doing so is submitting to the authority of God.

As unlikely as it may seem–and as historically and culturally myopic as it is–there are churches that are once again insisting that a woman’s rightful place is in the home of her father until she’s married, and then in her husband’s home, and that for her to be the ‘breadwinner’ is against ‘God’s design,’ and, conversely, for a man to do housework is against ‘God’s design’ for him. Where it is pointed out that highly patriarchal cultures tend toward violence, abuse, and poverty, ‘Biblical’ patriarchalists insist that this is because such cultures aren’t ‘doing patriarchy well,’ not that there’s something inherently amiss with patriarchy itself.

{And this position is supported by the insistence that God is, if not male, exactly, then certainly masculine.}

Could being in the US in the 21st century blind us a bit to what’s really at stake when we talk about women’s equality and women’s rights or what is always disparagingly referred (by all those men and not a few of the women authors of bestselling Christian books) as “feminism.”

It’s easy to forget that we’re not even a hundred years removed from the time when women couldn’t vote and maternal mortality was high. Worldwide, maternal mortality still claims one woman per minute. There are still honor killings–where a woman must throw herself on the funeral pyre, for example, to demonstrate her commitment to her husband.

But when women hold the purse-strings–when they are empowered to start businesses–when they have some capital and some say–things get better for everyone.

Meg said:

“Sometimes cross-cultural interchanges are great examples of cross-pollination.  We just have to be careful about what type of seeds we’re sowing.”

I am glad that most women in America have a choice about what they’re going to do, and it’s fine and wonderful when some choose to stay home (as I do). I consider it a privilege to be able to make that choice. But stamping that choice with the term ‘Biblical’?

I don’t think so.

{And, besides? Aren’t we supposed to care more about being like Jesus than about performing culturally coded gender roles?}