Man and Woman

Last updated: 10/5/2022

Thesis: Historically, there has been disagreement within the feminist movement on whether or not embracing or rejecting gender is more conducive towards liberation. The following are scattered notes on the topic.

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Further Reading:

  • The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

I have spent a strangely large amount of time engaging with feminist literature, especially given that this subject is not at all my main area of interest. Maybe it’s out of a desire to understand myself and the people around me, maybe it is due to it being a serious point of tension between my religion and my politics, maybe it is just a rabbit-hole I happened to fall down. You’d think with so much reading, I’d feel more grounded, but if anything I feel like I’ve come out with more questions than answers. I don’t even know if I can necessarily say I’m on two minds about the issue; for all I know I could be on three or four minds.

The sheer ambivalence I have towards the matter makes it very difficult to express coherently in conversation or even properly reflect upon personally. That ambivalence might be a big reason why I’ve been long wary to avoid identifying with any sort of ideological labels or camps in this manner.

The goal of this essay in my view is not to provide any sort of authoritative or final statement on “how feminism must be”, but to put onto paper the various conflicting ideas in my head and hopefully open up venues for dialogue and self-reflection. This means that certain sections of the essay will contradict each other, often running with the argument in wildly different directions. I’m interested to see what happens if each of these trains of thought are faced with each other, to see if it is possible to make any sense of it that way.

It’s intended to be rather scattershot in its structure, however there is still a central theme underlying the work: what is gender and is it inherently harmful? While there’s a lot of angles to approach such a topic from, I’d like to focus on the tension between two specific theories: the evangelical idea of complementarianism and the second-wave feminist notion of social construction.

1. Gender in Feminism (section in-progress)

One of the most central and recurring debates within Western feminism (and possibly elsewhere, I’m not informed enough to comment on that though) is whether or not the political aims of women are achieved by through either the emphasizing or minimizing of difference between the sexes.

Feminists themselves could not decide whether or not to base their case on sexual differences. In the 1850s they repeatedly debated this issue at their annual meetings. In reply to the claim that marriage represented the union of opposites, Lucretia Mott declared that “it is the union of similar, not opposite affections, which is necessary for the marriage bond.” In Mrs. Mott’s view, “mind has no sex”; women were rational creatures and enjoyed all the rights associated with reason. At a convention in Syracuse, in 1853, she dissented from the position advanced by Clarina Howard Nichols, that women’s “moral susceptibilities are greater than those of man.” Mrs. Mott “did not believe that women’s moral feelings were more elevated than man’s; but that with the same opportunities for development … there would probably be about an equal manifestation of virtue.” Ernestine Rose likewise rejected arguments based on the “renovating influences of woman.” The case for feminism, she maintained, had to rest not on expediency but on natural rights, specifically on the doctrine that taxation without representation flouted the political foundations of the American Republic.

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It was the radical feminists which really began to properly take this concept of minimizing sex difference to its ends. And it’s here where things begin to get really interesting. The first chapter of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex starts with a simple question: what is a woman?

Where are the women?” asked a short-lived magazine recently. But first, what is a woman? “Tota mulier in utero: she is a womb,” some say. Yet speaking of certain women, the experts proclaim, “They are not women,” even though they have a uterus like the others. Everyone agrees there are females in the human species; today, as in the past, they make up about half of humanity; and yet we are told that “femininity is in jeopardy”; we are urged, “Be women, stay women, become women.” So not every female human being is necessarily a woman; she must take part in this mysterious and endangered reality known as femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Is it enshrined in a Platonic heaven? Is a frilly petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? Although some women zealously strive to embody it, the model has never been patented. It is typically described in vague and shimmering terms borrowed from a clairvoyant’s vocabulary.  ...If the female function is not enough to define woman, and if we also reject the explanation of the “eternal feminine,” but if we accept, even temporarily, that there are women on the earth, we then have to ask: What is a woman?

When radical feminists refer to gender as being “socially constructed”, it’s easy to forget what that exactly entails given how much of a cliche it’s become in the modern day. Social construction in this context very much refers to something heteronomous here. You don’t simply identify as a gender, you are subject to the process of gendering. If gender was simply a matter of choosing or “pitching” a restructuring of the categories, we’d refer to it as individually, as opposed to socially constructed.

2. Gender in the Bible (section in-progress)

When it comes to interpreting Scriptural views on gender, Christians will typically resort to one of three frameworks: explicit patriarchy, complementarianism, or egalitarianism.

  • An explicitly patriarchal interpretation, mostly upheld by various Church Fathers centuries ago, but still advocated by some fringe groups in the modern day. They argue that there is an innate inferiority on part of women which necessitates a one-sided subordination. While a less common view nowadays, this played a large role in church history, and can be found in the works of many Church Fathers.
  • A complementarian interpretation, which has become popular among modern-day conservative Christians. Complementarians uphold the existence of separate gender roles, but argue that this separation tells us nothing about superiority or inferiority.
  • An egalitarian interpretation, which has found its support among more liberal Christians in the modern age. Egalitarians would argue that there’s minimal to no difference in the roles prescribed to men and women and that equality also means equality in kind.

The bulk of the debate in the present day has been waged between the latter two groups, as explicitly patriarchal interpretations have become increasingly politically untenable to defend with the advance of women’s rights. Regardless, I’ll take a look at all three in part.

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The thing about complementarianism is that it’s really only able to speak to male-female relations within a very specific context. Take a second to seriously engage with what goes on beyond that sphere, and the arguments really begin to buckle under pressure.

3. The Debate (section in-progress)

In the realm of theology (especially as we enter the 20th century), we begin to see not just these ideas implemented as a hermuenetic exercise, but as a larger system which has to hold itself accountable to not just textual analysis but the actual real-world dynamics between men and women. As someone who is pretty strongly influenced by neo-orthodoxy, a lot of my reading has been within that sphere. But regardless, this still works out as the writers within this sphere directly tackle the issue of gender difference, with Karl Barth even writing a section on this exact subject in his Church Dogmatics.

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The really unfortunate thing is that while Barth was in a position to address the claims put forth in The Second Sex, he fails to do so, completely dismissing the core of de Beauvoir’s argument. He makes the same mistake every other complementarian makes, reading women’s experience as the exception rather than the rule. It really makes me question if he read the book, given how much of it he writes off as “some men abusing their authority over women”. That’s a massive red flag, given that the bulk of TSS is spent talking about women: women’s thoughts, childhoods, aspirations, and anxieties.

It completely misses the point to characterize the work as a chronicle of mistreatment: it’s a testament to how femininity itself is alienation, how womanhood is a caste purely defined by what it is not. de Beauvoir surveys all sorts of female archetypes (the Lesbian, the Girl, the Prostitute, the Mother, etc.) to show that this condition is universal rather than situational. To her, it’s not merely a matter of women being devalued, it’s that womanhood itself is a badge of devaluation. TSS is not just a feminist work, it’s also an existentialist one: what’s at stake here isn’t just a struggle for equality, but a struggle for humanity.

It’s a shame because had Barth actually taken her perspective seriously rather than trying to assassinate her in the footnotes so he could continue his sermon, he would find what is by far the most compelling challenge to his argument: rooted not in theological abstracts or scientific inquiry but actual human experience.

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I’ve always been a bit of a presuppositionalist myself, but this is one of the areas where it becomes instinctually, viscerally impossible to defend. To do so would go against the very fiber of my conscience. The Gospel is not merely a narrative or some sort of Romantic myth, but rather instead the center of reality itself, the actual, literal truth of what stands between the individual and God. If such truth is incommensurable with human experience, then it cannot speak to human beings. If the Gospel cannot speak to human beings, then who the hell is it for?

Any truth which does not just reject, but outright dismisses the abject misery of an entire class of people cannot be called such.

If femininity itself be a sum of contradictions impossible to maintain outside of lies, then

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Ellul, drawing inspiration from Barth, extends the complementarian line of argument into his critique of industrial society, with a rather unorthodox approach to complementarianism.

Although, as we shall see, many feminists would find the role that Ellul suggests for women in his current view utterly sexist, he maintains their superiority. Indeed, as he said to me in 1981, he believes that women and women’s values hold out the only hope for our world.
Although some theologians have seen woman’s creation after man’s as evidence of female inferiority, Ellul maintains the opposite: each stage in creation is superior to the previous one, so that woman represents the high point of creation. She is the perfection of man, who was incomplete without her, and the source of his freedom in the sense that he finds freedom in relationship with her. The serpent attacks the woman because she is the head and perfection of creation, not because she is weaker than man.3 According the Ellul, women’s superior values stem more from education and culture than from their genes, which probably play a role in shaping them but do not constitute a determining factor. Since women are excluded from politics, for example, they tend to form relationships based on values other than competition and force. Ellul explores this idea most extensively in The Subversion of Christianity,4 where he also offers his most detailed contrast of men and women’s values.
Sometimes he opposes these point by point so that the reader can grasp how he views them: men incline to eros the conqueror, rigid order, morality, power, rationality, pitilessness toward the weak, violence and quantitive values, whereas women favour agape the servant, flexibility, the faith-hope-love trilogy, nonpower, intuition, care for the weak and wounded, nonviolence, and qualitative values.

However, what Ellul has to be wary about is that these gendered archetypes are a hermeneutic, not a governing principle. Just like the way we speak of yin-yang, there’s no metaphysical reality underlying dichotomy, it’s simply a mode of perception, whether that be cultural, historical, or moral.

Let’s try on a different hermeneutic. It just as easily can be argued that these traits represent not the masculine overtaking the feminine, but rather instead the inhuman overtaking the human, steel’s dominion over flesh.

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But I do understand why – from a theological perspective – both writers continue to be drawn towards complementarianism. Barth and Ellul come from very similar foundations, both departing from the Calvinist understanding of total depravity. There is an infinitely qualitative distance between humanity and God, reconcilable only through Christ. But what Christ represents is a radical inversion, the light in which our limitations, once reflected, become strength.

We see the righteousness of God in his wrath, the risen Christ in the crucified one, life in death, the ‘Yes’ in the ‘No’. We are able to behold at the barrier the place of exit, and in the judgement the Coming Day of Salvation. We, as believers, stand in the negation of the negation of the suffering of Christ. And hereby a new premiss is provided for our tribulation also. What it first seems nothing but mere human suffering becomes the action of God, the Creator and the Redeemer. The obstacle to our life becomes a stepping-stone to the victory of life. Demolition becomes edification… The prisoner becomes the watchman and darkness is converted into light. We understand the questionableness of life as it is; and we become aware that our limitation and dissolution are inevitable, and no mere chance occurrence. We affirm the negation which says that we are creatures, and we see clearly. We are enabled ot take to ourselves the protest of the creation against the world as it is. (Barth 156)

Within this context, gender difference constitutes a mutual critique. Gender represents a mark of incompleteness, a reminder that we are not Ubermensch. The masculine, in encounter with the feminine, is forced to grapple with its own insufficiencies and force the man to come to terms with the fact that he is not truly independent. In the acceptance of this weakness, he finds he can come to rely on Christ, but also his fellow human beings. This continuous encounter may begin with struggle, but leads to introspection and humility. The same applies in vice versa. This is the essence of agape, a love for humanity among humanity borne out of a recognition of a common standing before God.

It’s quite poetic, it fits the essence of the Gospel, and is consistent with Scripture, but once again I have to reiterate the question because it is crucial: is this actually how things are?

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It’s also worth noting another common source of inspiration for these men, that being the women close to them in their lives and the influence said women had on their own development. For Barth, it was Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his assistant (and probable lover, but that’s for another discussion). For Ellul it was his wife.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with with using one’s own personal experiences as reference for an understanding of gender, but it should be noted that if we truly understand such a dynamic to be symmetric, then we need to weigh not just the standpoint of the man in marriage, but also the woman to ensure that everything corroborates.


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