On Biblical Womanhood – A Conversation with Beth Allison Barr

Beth Allison Barr is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean for Professional Development at Baylor University. Her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, blends personal memoir with history to examine how submission became a central requirement for women in conservative Christian denominations.

ECM: What is biblical womanhood, and how is it made?

BAB: Contrary to much popular belief, biblical womanhood is a very modern construct. It’s the idea that God created women and men with separate roles in life, and that women are destined for home and hearth, children and family, while men are destined for work outside of the home. It suggests that women and men are uniquely made in these ways, so while they may sometimes have to overlap their roles—as when, in time of financial hardship, a woman may have to get a job to help pay the bills—the ideal is that women manage the household and men participate in public life. It suggests, further, that when women and men adhere to these standards, God will bless them and their families.

This is biblical womanhood in a nutshell. There are two versions of it—one that originated in the nineteenth century and that we call the “cult of domesticity,” and another that emerged in the twentieth century, in response to the surge of women in the workplace brought on by World War II. When the men came home from Europe and Asia, there was a concentrated push to move women back into the household and restore those jobs to the men who had left them. Christians joined that effort and, by the 1970s, had tailored their “complementarian” arguments to counter those of the Second Wave feminists, who they believed to be antithetical to Christianity. 

ECM: Though proponents of complementarianism position themselves as standing boldly against the secular culture, you argue that they are actually products of it. How so?

BAB: The one aspect of biblical womanhood that has historical continuity is patriarchy. Christians often don’t like to use that word because we associate it with feminism, but it’s really just a simple historical construct. It suggests that, wherever you are in time, women’s ability to make choices about their lives is always limited by the men around them, and that they always have fewer options than men do. Legally, politically, socially, religiously—in all of these realms—women are to a significant extent under the control of men.

Complementarianism—the idea that women and men have different and complementary gender roles to perform—is simply another manifestation of the patriarchy that has been at work since the beginning of civilization. So while complementarians are correct that their belief has historical continuity, they are incorrect that it is a Christianphenomenon. Essentially, the thesis of my book is that biblical womanhood is a product of historical circumstances. It has been refashioned throughout history—by Christians and non-Christians alike—but it always insists that women are less than men, that there is something innately wrong with them, and that they cannot exercise authority in the same way that men can.

ECM: The discussion around women in Christian ministry and in leadership always arrives eventually at the Apostle Paul. Has he been misread on the matter?

BAB: He has! I’m a medieval scholar—not a biblical scholar—so when I started writing the book, I decided that I was not going to tackle Paul. My husband is a pastor and when I told him my plan, he challenged me on it. He said the reason that Christians think biblical womanhood is biblical is because they are so accustomed to reading Paul that way and that if I didn’t address it, I was going to lose them. I listened to him, and I’m really glad I did.

I went back to the drawing board and wrote a chapter on Paul, drawing largely from scholarly sources that I’ve been using in my lectures at Baylor since 2008. I try to show that, to paraphrase Beverly Roberts Gaventa, we’ve missed Paul’s point. Because patriarchy is so central to everything we do, and because we look for the points in Paul that seem to support the world around us, we inevitably see Paul supporting a patriarchal world. But if we read Paul in his context, rather than ours, we see that he was calling Christians to be unified and to use their skills in God’s service. We see him celebrating women in positions of leadership. This includes Phoebe, to whom he entrusted his letter to the Romans. She was the carrier of that letter in the same way that Timothy had been previously, meaning that she would have taken it around and read it to audiences. In other words, the book of Romans was first preached by a woman, with Paul’s blessing. We miss those details when we read Paul in this post-1970s understanding. I want readers to know that you can be a faithful Christian and read Paul differently.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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