Gender roles refer to the psychological traits, place in society, and place in home life that a culture associates with male and female. Being a man or a woman comes with expectations attached to it about how a person ought to behave and the kind of life they ought to aspire to living.
The traditional view of gender roles are that men should be active in the world while women should be submissive to male authority and dedicated to homemaking and bringing up children.
These gender roles were seen as natural and therefore good either because God designed human nature to flourish when following them, or evolution designed males and females to be suited to different types of roles.
Feminists argue that gender roles are to some degree socially constructed, though they disagree amongst themselves about that degree. That being the case, it is wrong for society to push gender expectations on people. People should be free to do what they want with their life, so long as they aren’t hurting others. Gender roles being present everywhere in society manipulates people into thinking that they are natural which makes people accept them, go along with them and even believe them.
The result has been a cultural battle between feminists and traditionalists over their opposing views of gender and the opposing views on men and women’s places in society and family that follow.
Traditionalists see feminists as irrationally attempting to deny the reality of their own nature regarding what would make them happy.
Feminists see traditionalism as a man-made ideology which manipulates women into accepting the social role that it serves the interests of men for them to have.
Liberal feminism is the view that men and women should be equal in their rights and opportunities in society.
Radical feminism is the view that equal rights is not enough to guarantee equality because that does nothing to address or undo the cultural impact of thousands of years of oppression caused by gender roles. For equality to be achieved our culture needs to be challenged and changed.
Gender Traditionalism is the view that traditional gender roles are natural and that human life is best when following them.
Gender roles and motherhood in the Bible
“Wives, submit to your own husbands as you do the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church … Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the world”
Genesis 3:16 “To the woman he [God] said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”
1 Timothy 2:12
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one who was deceived, it was the woman … But women will be saved through childbearing”.
This quote seems against the possibility of women having any power over men, which would undermine the goals of liberal feminism of marriage, workplace and political equality and radical feminism of eliminating gender difference.
Feminist biblical criticism
Feminist biblical criticism is the feminist approach to the Bible. It typically takes the liberal view of biblical inspiration.
Biblical Patriarchy is a key concept in feminist biblical criticism. It is the idea that the Bible is man-made for the purpose of subjugating women. If a man tells a woman to submit to a certain gender role, that’s not persuasive, but if that man tells the woman that the creator of the universe wants her to, that is quite persuasive, especially if both the man and woman actually believe in that God.
The consequence is that the Bible, or at least the sexist parts of it, are not the perfect word of God but written by men to further the interests of men. The idea is not that patriarchy is some secret conspiracy. Men, like all humans, have a tendency for self-interest. As Hume points out, reason is a slave of the passions. Men will therefore be subconsciously drawn to ideology that serves their interests. The view that men’s rightful place is being active in the world while women support them by being passive in the home, appeals to the self-interest of men. They therefore tend to support it, just as any group of humans would tend to support something which benefits them. When the Bible came to be written, it felt only natural to its authors to include verses that reflected their subscription to a patriarchal ideology.
Traditional Christians might respond that that the Bible is God’s inspired word. If God wants men and women to be different, then that’s what God wants. Of course, it can look like a conspiracy when you consider that all of the people in charge of Christianity throughout history have been men, but that’s how it would look even if it were truly God’s wish!
They might argue that women who reject these bible passages are essentially acting like Eve did when she disobeyed God. All humans are called to a high standard by God, but many prefer to disobey and disbelieve rather than submit to it.
Liberal feminist theology
would respond that the Bible is not the perfect word of God. It is full of errors and therefore requires re-interpretation
The liberal approach to the Bible views it as a product of the human mind, not the perfect word of God. It began during the enlightenment period where scientific, historical and literary critique began of the Bible. The Bible was shown to contain scientific and historical errors as well as literary evidence of the human author’s influence on the text.
This suggests that the scriptures were written by witnesses of God’s divine events in history like the incarnation, or times when God communicated or revealed himself. What came to be written down as a result however was merely what those people took away from such events, or from hearing about such events from the testimony of those who witnessed them. The words of the Bible are therefore just human interpretations of what the authors felt and understood of God’s revelation. The Bible is a human record of divine events.
The bible thus reflects the cultural and historical context of its human authors and requires interpretation and continual re-interpretation to ensure its relevance. It is not the perfect word of God. Liberal Christians will point out that Jesus himself seemed to be progressive in that in the sermon on the mount he modified some of the old testament laws. Christians should follow this example and continually update and improve Christian theology and ethics.
Ruether’s feminist theology
Ruether would respond that the Bible contains patriarchal verses, but also verses that are in favour of equality. The Bible is therefore inconsistent on this issue and cannot itself coherently support the traditional patriarchal view of gender roles.
Golden thread argument
Post-Christian feminist theologians
Post-Christian feminist theologians (E.g. Daly & Hampson) however would regard the patriarchy in the Bible as evidence that the Christian God doesn’t exist because it’s man-made, which you can tell by the fact that the Bible gives men what is in their view a superior position to women. God did not make man, men made God.
In 1988 Pope John Paul II wrote an open letter called ‘Mulieris Dignitatum’ – on the dignity of women – to defend Christianity against the accusation of sexism. He argued that men and women have different but complimentary qualities and abilities due to the nature God designed them with. So, while men and women are different, they are both equally valuable and in fact need each other. This is a defence of Gender Traditionalism and a divinely designed biological essentialism. This suggests that Christianity and the Church is not sexist and that a male savior can save women.
JP II made two different arguments:
Mulieris Dignitatum argument 1: Motherhood is a woman’s telos; natural purpose. J P II argued that women are ‘naturally disposed to motherhood’. Both physically in that they have a womb and also psychologically in that motherhood creates a ‘special openness’ in a mother to their child such that mothers develop their self-giving abilities and compassion. So, the fulfilment and purpose of the female personality, especially that of compassion, comes from virginity and motherhood. This argument is based on Natural law reasoning about telos.
Feminists typically respond that the attempt to embed gender roles in telos is no different to biblical patriarchy. Just as the sexist parts of the Bible were either consciously or unconsciously invented by men for the perpetuation of male dominance, so too is the idea that God designed the telos of males and females to have different goals/inclinations. Feminists. As evidence, feminists point to anthropological study of different human civilisations, where it is found that there is a large degree of variation regarding gender roles between different cultures. If we had a telos that gave us a natural inclination to behave along particular gender roles, we should not expect to find the diversity of approaches to and views on gender that we do.
They conclude that the Christian attempt to insist that God created women with a telos for motherhood is just a cultural invention by men in order to encourage women to adopt the passive social role of childrearing in the home so men can be active in the world and thus perpetuate their overrepresentation in important roles of power in our society (e.g. politics, business, etc).
Simone de Beauvoir also rejects the idea that motherhood is a woman’s telos. De Beauvoir was a radical feminist who was an existentialist like Sartre. Existentialists rejected telos. Sartre argued that there was no objective purpose/telos because “existence precedes essence” meaning humans exist before they have a defined purpose and so have to subjectively define their purpose for themselves. Sartre’s argument was a psychological one, that people cling to fabricated notions of objective purpose like telos because they are afraid of the intensity of the freedom involved in having to create their own purpose, which Sartre thought led to feelings of abandonment (by God/objective reality), anguish (over the weight of being completely responsible for your actions) and despair (over our inability to act exactly as we’d like due to the constraints of the world). It’s much easier to believe in objective purpose than face that existential angst.
Mulieris Dignitatum argument 2: There are important and valued women in Christian history/theology. John Paul II also pointed out that there are many female European saints and that Jesus coming to earth was only possible because of a woman, Mary, which he suggests shows the important place of women in Christian theology. The claim is that Christianity can’t be sexist since there are women it holds in high regard.
Simone de Beauvoir argues that the Christian valuing of Mary shows that it is only through being a man’s “docile servant that she will be also a blessed saint” in Christianity.
Mary Daly makes a similar point to Beauvoir but drives it further. Daly argues Mary is portrayed as a passive empty ‘void waiting to be made by the male’. She argues that Mary is a ‘rape victim’ because ‘physical rape is not necessary when the mind/will/spirit has already been invaded’. The idea that God raped Mary might seem like a startling claim, however consider that there was no consent asked for, and even if there was consent consider the power difference between God and Mary, which would make God difficult to refuse and devalue any given consent. God is the ultimate Harvey Weinstein. So, Jesus’ mother Mary is indeed put on a pedestal by Christianity, but only to encourage women to become passive, submissive and obedient so that women would all the better become the sexual property of men.
Illustration of Daly’s point: when the catholic church say they like and respect Mary – that’s just like a slave owner saying they like and respect the subservient obedient slaves.
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir is a radical feminist. She makes a Marxist style argument that religion is merely a tool of the male oppressor group which keeps women under control in their oppressed place with false promises that they will go to heaven if they obey and claiming that women are associated with sin and temptation for men due to the story of The Fall.
De Beauvoir claims that “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” This means she thinks that gender roles and differences are the result of socialisation, not biology. The gender divide started for biological reasons but its perpetuation is cultural. Men are physically stronger than women who are hindered by pregnancy, but men turned that biological superiority into socio-cultural superiority by using their power to instil gender norms. She argued that girls and boys are the same until a certain age, but boys are then socially pressured and encouraged to avoid affection and emotion and girls are socially pressured to think the meaning of their life is marriage. Men are thought of as adults when they get their first job, women are thought of as adults when they become married. Girls spend their youth “consumed” by waiting for marriage, whereas no boy considers marriage his “fundamental project”.
De Beauvoir argues that men behave as if only women who stay at home are “clean” while the others are “easy marks”. She thinks most mothers are thereby ‘intimidated’ into becoming mothers, so not making a real choice for themselves. She argued that motherhood forces women to sacrifice their own desires and selves for the sake of child-rearing. Liberal feminism seeks to give women the same rights and choices as men, but de Beauvoir criticised this for being insufficient, because it did not address the entire history of cultural oppression which denied women a chance to participate in history to become people. It’s not enough to give women choices when it’s their personalities and by extension ability to make choices which has been stunted by oppression.
De Beauvoir argued that there is no female biological nature because all women are different.
Many feminists argue that capitalism is the cause of patriarchy and recommend socialism but de Beauvoir thought it was a deeper cultural issue than that. She argued that to truly combat patriarchy requires people to “destroy the concept of motherhood”. There is no maternal instinct; how a mother feels about her child depends on the social context. As evidence for this de Beauvoir pointed out that many mothers dislike or resent their child in certain contexts. She attributes this to women being socially pressured into motherhood.
Radical Feminists are too negative towards motherhood. Some radical feminists seem to think that any woman who chooses to be a mother is suffering from ‘internalised misogyny’, meaning that woman has not made a free choice but has been brainwashed by patriarchal society. Liberal feminists argue instead that women should be free to choose what they like, whether that is motherhood or not. Mary O’Brien is a naturalistic feminist who argued that motherhood can be a positive thing if women are in control of their choice to become a mother. O’Brien thought de Beauvoir devalued motherhood.
Radical feminists have a point however that women are brought up in an environment which makes them less likely to think of themselves as scientists or business people and more likely to think of themselves as mothers and housewives. Beauvoir states that if motherhood is genuinely chosen, it can be positive. The problem is that a genuine choice for motherhood is so difficult to cultivate due to the oppressive culture that existed in the 1940s.
Pinker is an atheist and scientist who argues for biological essentialism. He is in favour of liberal feminism, arguing that there should be political and social equality, freedom of choice for women and that we should eliminate violence and discrimination against women. However, Pinker is critical of radical feminism which he thinks believes in ‘tabula rasa’ meaning ‘blank slate’ – the view that the mind is blank from birth containing no human nature, so there is no brain sexual dimorphism. The result of that would be zero innate cognitive differences between men and women. Pinker accuses radical feminism of holding this view for ideological reasons rather than a rational appreciation of the evidence of e.g. prenatal testosterone, so he claims it is against science. Pinker therefore expects a society freed from all sexism to still nonetheless lack a 50-50 split of men and women in all professions and social positions. This is because men and women, on average, have different temperaments, interests and goals.
Criticism of Pinker: There has been a long history of scientists being extremely unscientific in the pursuit of discrimination against women.
Pinker isn’t unscientific, however.
Culture could explain Pinker’s data rather than biology: Temperament, interests and goals are indeed statistically different for men and women, but that does not prove they are innate. Society might condition men and women differently in those traits.
Trait difference by gender is discovered cross-culturally however.
But, so is oppression of women and therefore the social conditioning that follows from oppression could be the cause of the universality of gender roles.
“The gender paradox” is the name given to the statistically observed phenomenon that as gender equality increases in a society, the gender split in terms of the different lifestyle and profession choices men and women make also increases. Some argue this is best explained by biological essentialism.
Anne Oakley, a sociologist, interviewed women about motherhood. She concluded that the so-called ‘maternal instinct’ comes from culture rather than biology. This was based on her observations that women don’t instinctively know how to breastfeed and that the mothers who neglect their children were themselves often neglected as children. This suggests Paul 11 is wrong to think that God created women with a maternal instinct.
Oakley also discovered many women found it frustrating to be a stay-at-home mother. This corroborates de Beauvoir’s claim that women are forced to sacrifice their life goals to bring up their children which seems unfair – why is it not equally the responsibility of the man?
Alternative explanation of Oakley’s data: However, it could be that childhood neglect creates traumas which interfere with the maternal instinct. That would explain why neglectful mothers tended to have been neglected themselves by their maternal instinct having been interfered with.
Nonetheless, if the maternal instinct evolved then it might not come from God which means it loses its moral authoritative force as something that ‘should’ be enacted.
Counter-point: Still, if it genuinely helps women to become developed then they may want to choose to embrace the maternal instinct. It may also cause them suffering to ignore it.
No one knows: The science of human nature is very controversial and it is extremely difficult to prove anything on either side of this debate.
Possible exam questions for gender & society
Should official Christian teaching resist current secular views of gender?
Have secular views of gender equality undermined Christian gender roles?
Assess Christian teaching on the roles of men and women in the family and society.
How successful have Christian responses to secular views about gender been?
Is motherhood liberating or restricting?
‘Christian teaching on the gender roles in the family and society is sexist’ – How far do you agree?
‘Traditional Christian views on gender roles are more successful than secular views’ – Discuss.
Critically assess the views expressed in Mulieris Dignitatem.
Are Christian challenges to changing attitudes about gender convincing?
“Christian thought and practice has been undermined by contemporary secular views on gender roles” – Discuss.
Is the idea of family entirely culturally determined?
Has Christianity successfully adapted to changing views on family and gender?
“Christianity should accept different types of family than the traditional” – Discuss.
“Challenging Christian practice regarding gender roles has not has any effect” – Discuss.