I ran across this article a few days ago, hailed as a “spot on” understanding of gender and marriage. It’s called “Why Man and Woman Are Not Equal.”
I thought, at first, it was a click-baity title, but no, for real, the point of the article is
Man and woman are not equal. He owes what he is to her. … Woman is the most powerful living force on the globe. She creates, shapes, and sustains human civilization. The first step in weakening her power is to convince her that she must overcome her femininity.
This article is a typical complementarian trope I call “pedestaling woman” — elevating the feminine, “the woman” singular, to untouchable heights on account of her world-changing femininity.
It seems nice, of course, for a man to say that man and woman are not equal, but then name woman as superior — the moral force, the hand that rules the world because it rocks the cradle, the good woman behind every great man. This sort of humility and reverence feels refreshing after all the catcalls and the criticisms for women’s career and home choices.
I think pedestaling woman is a major draw for complementarian and patriarchal women. Finally, a gender theory that values women for their more “feminine” side, their contributions to the home and family, their homemaking hobbies and heart. In this circle, women don’t feel second-class because they choose to homeschool or manage the home full-time. Women don’t need to climb corporate ladders to gain power. They just need to marry, rock the cradle, and bake the homemade bread to be “the most powerful living force on the globe.”
I’m glad for safe places that honor so highly the “feminine” (and with it, marriage, motherhood, and homemaking), especially for women who face opposition in those areas.
But that is the problem with this gender theory: it values woman but not necessarily women. It values femininity but not necessarily females.
Those who pedestal woman see next to no problem affirming the awesome value of femininity in the world and getting red-faced at the idea of a woman actually using all of her gifts, particularly in the church. Women like me, whose gifts and personality do not easily lend themselves to the “woman” this theory pedestals, are criticized on the grounds of their lack of femininity. Unladylike. Unwomanly.
It’s an awkward moment when your own personhood conflicts with womanhood, and womanhood wins.
According to this theory, regardless of women’s virtues, gifts, or personality, they fall short as persons if they fall short of “woman.”
This is an ancient idea, present in even the most oppressive, misogynistic cultures. Prudence Allen, author of The Concept of Woman, calls this gender theory “reverse sex polarity”: men and women are different, and women are superior.
For example, the Neo-Pythagorean female philosopher Perectione I (a rarity, since most philosophical schools prohibited women on account of their “mental and spiritual inferiority”) juxtaposed the lascivious, intemperate husband with the virtuous, pure wife who maintains the household, the marriage bed, and the family reputation. This situation makes woman the superior gender.
Since woman is the largest moral force on the globe, you see, a lack of femininity will cause the world to collapse under the weight of immoral single men in want of a wife.
As I quoted above, a woman’s greatest contribution to society in this theory is her “femininity,” loosely defined in this case as her moral reforming force on men. Above all else, the article warns, women must preserve their femininity. And yes, sure, of course “woman should have equality in the workplace, in politics, and in the public square,” but none of that matters if a woman is in any way unfeminine.
In other words, inequality isn’t great, but it’s not as devastating as the blurring of the feminine with the masculine.
Pardon my feminist interjection, but seriously?
This article operates on the naive assumption that “equality” and “inequality” are easy words to bat around when discussing gender, as if equality still isn’t an issue for many men and women today, as if misogyny and discrimination don’t exist, as if it’s not offensive in any way, shape, or form to call anybody, male or female, “unequal” on account of their gender.
In fact, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why, after writing an article on how men and women are different and how women, in particular, make men better, the author concludes that men and women are not equal. Why not conclude that men and women are “different” or “dependent”? How does men and women being different and dependent make them unequal? What is the correlation between difference and equality?
But then I remembered all the times sensible complementarians told me they couldn’t ever be egalitarian because they believe men and women are different. It seems that complementarians struggle with the concept that being equal does not exclude being different and that saying someone is “unequal” is offensive, period.
Unwittingly, complementarianism has emphasized the importance of women staying women and men staying men at the expense of pursuing equality. Complementarians tend to err on the side of worshiping the woman on the pedestal rather than seeking justice for the women right next to them.
I don’t buy into the flattering but laughable idea that women rule the world and reform people in any greater way than men do. It’s not true that the women in my life are any more nurturing and morally influential than the men in my life. Every man and woman affirms and contradicts what’s “feminine” and “masculine,” to the point where those terms are nearly useless.
I can’t say with a straight face that I’m more virtuous and responsible than my husband. I’m more Type A, yes, because I’m me. I’m nurturing enough to work with kindergartners because I’m me. And my husband has always taken care of me, particularly when it comes to eating, and he has always been great with comforting, supporting, and accepting others in a distinctly Erich way.
There’s a dark side of pedestaling woman, the shadow from the pedestal, if you will. It ignores injustice against women, plural. It hurries over the individual virtues, gifts, and personalities of actual women and men. It wants to preserve something nebulous — the difference between the sexes — sometimes at the expense of promoting actual virtues and protecting actual people.
Honestly, reverse gender polarity is just as sexist as regular ol’ sexism. Any theory that limits, maligns, or misunderstands men and women on account of their sex — that’s sexism. And that’s exactly what pedestaling woman does.
In the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. — St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:11