Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Biblical Womanhood?

When I sat down to write Ruby Slippers I got some excellent advice.
  • Don't assume that you have THE model of womanhood.
  • Take time to be freeing and flexible to your readers
  • Before normalizing any experience you've had look around, does it fit all types of women?

And God pointed my gaze to women (my agent, my publisher, my grandmothers, Deborah, Ruth, Priscilla) who didn't fit my neat list of feminine traits. Eventually, I came to a place where I could honestly say, "I am not offering an exhaustive index on femininity or the only biblical model for womanhood" (Ruby Slippers 25). Read more about re-working my original narrow conceptions of femininity in Ruby Slippers' "Epilogue" pg 192-193.

There is a steady stream of work, however, that says there is one form of Biblical Womanhood. Much to my dismay, the L.A. Times has covered one such example at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where you can get a BA in their newly opened degree in Home Economics (hooray for the Home Ec revival). Sadly, it's only open to women.

The journalist interviewed Dorothy Patterson who appears to be certain that her flavor of homemaking is biblical.

So in no particular order, here are some of the problems with equating Biblical womanhood with the stay-at-home flavor of femininity (a great way to be feminine, but by no means the only way!).

By the way, reading the article (free membership required) will give you some interesting perspective and background on my comments.

Problem 1: The college is equating God's purpose for women with being a helper suitable for man (Gen 2:18, Hebrew ezer = pronounced "ay'-zer", best translated ally). That's fine and mostly good, but to them, being an ezer means being good at home economics. So "helper" means sewing buttons, sustaining sparkling dinner conversations, and making a delicious meal. One woman who gave up her career when her husband wanted children is quoted as saying "If we love the Scripture, we must do it. We must fit into this role." Is this really what Scripture says? I find that the word most associated with ezer is the synonym warrior-protector, not homemaker. This idea leaves no room for the Proverbs 31 woman (a female often esteemed by Southern Baptists as the ideal woman) who is part organics farmer (v. 13), artist (v.13), international exports and imports monitor(v.14, 24), chef (v.15), food storage and distribution expert (v.15), administrator (v.15), public relations officer, (v.15),realtor (v.16), oenologist (v.16), pilates attender (v.17), accountant (v.18), textile operator (v. 19), defense attorney for the poor and oppressed (v.20), interior designer (v.22), fashion designer (v.13,21,24), high-achieving-up-at-the-crack- of-dawn-coffee-drunk -paper-read-off-to-work sort of woman (v.15, 18), and most of these positions bring her earning, i.e. real world money. She is a real provider and protector for her family, in both the public and private spheres. And it no where says she has a joint checking account with her husband. Though she may have. The point is not to be overwhelmed by her, the point is that we've got options ladies, real options.

Problem 2: This view of "biblical homemaking" bars wives and mothers from taking co-dominion opportunities in the public market place: law, business, academy, church. Now don't hear me wrong, I don't mean to say that staying home with kids, or even being a homemaker without children is a poor decision, but let's not prescribe it as the only godly position. The minimal number of Christian wives and mothers modeling what it looks like to be professors, attorneys, public servants, itinerant speakers, corporate executives has hurt more than a few women in deciding on what options are open to them. Would that we really had more Prov 31 examples around!

Problem 3: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, et al., have constructed an artificial realm of womanhood (i.e. home economics), and failed to dig deeper into the real unique things women offer. A man can iron, sew, cook, entertain just as well as a woman, so making women Masters of Home Economics pretends that this is a "woman's realm" when in reality it's a human realm. Further it actually robs men from the work (both satisfying and grueling) of caring for hearth and home. If a wife prefers to be the home economics master, well and good, but let's not assume that this means she is
  1. more feminine
  2. more godly
  3. more biblically feminine
  4. more ezer.
She is not. Femininity, godliness and helper are more demanding than home economics. You can do home economics well, and still be unfeminine and ungodly (i.e. frigid or invulnerable or calculating or controlling or demanding et cetera).

Problem 4: Home Economics is something men can do awfully well. Shouln't we value men doing the dishes and loving through service? Shouldn't Eph. 5:25 "love your wives as Christ loved the church" invite men into home economics? We could empower and encourage men to find jobs that they do well around the house. If wives were submissive in all things, this would include letting men help us with the housework, right? In our home, Dale is the primary dish-washer, grocery-shopper and part-time vacuumer and does these tasks very well. I can do them well, too, but my femininity is not threatened by him doing keeping house anymore than his masculinity is threatened by scrubbing pots and pans.

Problem 5: The LA Times' journalist no doubt left this Seminary with the distinct impression that the Bible is the foundation for this narrow definition of womanhood. No wonder we're losing women to Wicca. Here's how I'd think if I were a non-believer reading this article, "If the Biblical god forces women into realms that do not fit their giftings, their passions, their goals, their soul, then perhaps this god isn't really God."

Problem 6: There appears a sort of sanctified Martha Stewart lifestyle in this training. With such a long list of home economics duties, the wealthy and middle class make out substantially better in fulfilling their God-given purpose than the women who are weak, sick, disabled, poor, divorced, abandoned, widowed. I don't think God would approve of that, since he's so big on helping the weak and oppressed. In fact, he's pretty angry with those who heap burdens on those who cannot lift them (Luke 11:46). And a well-managed household being a good testimony? Praising home economics too highly can begin to heap more responsibilities on women (who must be wealthy enough to stay home and manage all this) to perform well. Women already have a weakness here. For me, I don't need more spiritualizing of my home's cleanliness (for instance, do spiritual destinies really depend on how smoothly my home runs?) I already have enough tapes running in my head preventing me from taking my home less seriously.

Some of the women quoted by the L.A. Times said, "The whole point of taking college-level homemaking is to ensure that my husband won't ever feel that he has to darn a sock or do the laundry. Those are my jobs." and "I'm not one of those out to rebel, out-to-be-my-own-woman types." I want to say, "Do you believe it is automatically selfish, rebellious or unfeminine to follow Christ into unconventional places?" For a better read on Home Economics, I'd recommend Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life, where Margaret Kim Patterson dignifies the menial aspects of housework into one way of worshipping God. But she never equates a woman's value with this good work.

One secular author gave these comforting words that to me, speak more truth into femininity. As we pursue God's thoughts on women, let's keep them in mind, "No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anyone, but oneself." Virginia Woolf.


Anonymous said...

Hi J, this is C. Moon! I just wanted to drop a note to say that while I haven't had an opportunity to read the LA Times article yet (maybe when the kids are down for the night--ha!), I find your side of the story/argument compelling and balanced. Before I started reading your post, I wondered, "Is this going to be ultra-feminist (in a not-so-good way)?" but I like the freedom you offer to women and men who are wondering, "Is there only one way for a women to be godly?" Thanks!

Anonymous said...

You, of course, already know that I love both my home and my garden; so does Gary. We enjoy "playing house" together and when so doing sometimes he "stays home and watches the kids while I go out and hunt for our dinner." A comment overheard when our daughter was about six and playing with a neighbor boy. Have I been his "ezer?" You betcha" and he is mine as well. What foolishness to pin our spiritual essence and function to the strings of an apron.


Anonymous said...

Great commentary - I still need to read the original article. Tonight I will go to class while my husband cleans the dishes with the same skill that he uses when he cleans guns. I think my gut reaction to the premise of college-level home ec is the pressure that it puts on women - why can't keeping the house be a reflection of the tenants' personalities rather than a social norm that is probably unattainable for most?
Robin Moore ;)

faith said...

Thank you once again for speaking the Truth in love and exposing a full Godly view of femininity. The Christian culture has been blinded by a false set of “sacred feminine” requirements to submission and holiness. Hopefully the truth will continue to flourish in hearts and minds of men and women and we can together embrace our place as helpmates, ezers, co-heirs in the abundant love of Christ.

tinamarie said...

You should have seen me as I read that article--the head nodding in disagreement and anger, disbelief slightly rising as I read more about the limited roles these women so willfully accepted. I'm so appreciative of your thoughts and skill in articulating the problems with these views and interpretations. Thanks for sharing.

PS. I, along with three other philosopher wives, will read your book together beginning next week. We refer to ourselves as the Philosopher's Wife Club (P-dub-C) :-) I'll let you know how it goes. Best to you, Dale, and the ladies.

Susy Flory said...

I have a friend who loves to clean her house. It's like a hobby and reduces stress. She cleans her bathroom every single day! She hates to cook, though. Mostly her family eats Little Caesar's pizza and cereal. On the other hand, I HATE to clean (my cat likes to play with the dust bunnies) and my bathroom is lucky to see Windex once a week. But I love to bake, though! It's a delight to tie on an apron and dig into the flour and the sugar. I don't know...I think a lot of our troubles come from trying to create static gender based job descriptions that don't fit us as God created us--in His image and with His unlimited creativity! I bet some of those Baptist guy students love to cook, and some of those Baptist wives love to mow the grass. And that's okay. Just don't make me clean bathrooms!

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

I love your observations. Have you read Keeping House? I think you'd find that the author (who shares your dislike for cleaning) has found that keeping house is something we do when we bring ourself into a space, and it changes depending on who we are.

Esther said...

Hi Jonalyn,

I have been reading through your blogs (by subjects) and am enjoying them immensely:) I hope that you don't mind me commenting even though they are older blogs.

In the past, I would have been thrilled that this course was being offered to women. I would have thought to myself, this is what we need to do- make a priority out of what God has called women to do.

These days I don't quite see it the same way. I still think it is great that this college if offering the program, but I think it sad that it is not open to men.

I like the point I understood you made, that household work is "human" work and not "woman" work. In times past, both men and women had to do more of this type of work, both inside and outside the home (working the land, etc). But why would it be that now, a man can have a career in which he spends 8 hours a day or so using his mind more than his hands, but a woman should not have the same opportunity?

It makes complete sense for us to share dominion, even in housework.

But I still wonder...

My beliefs in the past were based on these scriptures:

1) Psalm 113:9- God makes the barren woman to keep house and be a happy mother of children. "Keep" means dwell, remain, abide, stay. "House" could refer to house/ family/ household affairs and also carries the idea of "within, inwards" to it.

2) Proverbs 14:1- A wise woman builds her house. Build here means establish and so this verse can be translated "establish a family".

3) Proverbs 31:27- This woman "looks well" to the "ways" of her household- she watches the doings of her family/household affairs very closely; keeps watch over household affairs.

4) 1 Timothy 5:14- The woman is to guide the house- this means she is to be the master of the house, to rule the household, and manage family affairs.

5) Titus 2:5- Women are to be keepers at home which means to care for the house, work at home, taking care of household affairs, a domestic.

So what is your take on all these verses? Do you think they are all cultural or could it be, that even though there is MUCH room for women within the model, that the home and family affairs is God's *primary* "work" for women. I am wondering...

It does seem woman (in general) may be better "equipped" in her soul for home and family care...I am thinking of what you mentioned in your book about Cultivation and Interdependence.

Last thing I wanted to comment on, I am not sure I feel comfortable with your list of what the Proverbs 31 woman is, and what the list means.

How does verse 13 show that she is an organics farmer? And, could not stay at home mothers say that they, too, grow things in gardens?

Verse 14- I always took that to mean seeking the best food at the best prices. Something stay at home moms often do.

Verse 24- Sewing can be done at home...it seemed to me she then sold her creations to the merchants to sell in the public sphere?

Verse 15- well, if that makes you a chef, every woman who cooks at home is a chef, including stay at home moms. But, I must say, I am not even convinced that she cooked the food- it says she "provides" the food- does that automatically mean she *made* it?

I think that most stay at home moms are "food storage and distribution" experts.

I don't see how verse 15 is a public relations officer?

Verse 16- a Realtor? Isn't the wife the one *buying* the land? Not selling it.

Verse 17- pilates attender? I think I strengthen my arms when I do much housework...and think of the harder labor women in those times had to do:) I don't see how this can be concluded to be "pilates".

Verse 18- again, most stay at home moms are accountants by this verse.

Verse 20- defense attorney for the poor and oppressed. I must say, this one *really* bothers me. How is she a defense attorney? She is simply helping the poor and needy.

Lastly, as far as being an interior designer and fashion designer, many stay at home mothers could also say those things.

You know, stay at home moms could add so much to the list- chauffeur, nurse, psychologist, etc...you see my point?

So I could see how people who believe a woman's place is only in the home, could justify their reasons with the Proverbs 31 woman. I am not convinced there is much there making it clear that she did "such and such" away from home? What is clear is that she is a hard worker.

Now, my point in sharing all this was not to say that I think a woman's place is only in the home:)