Sitting back before the bell rang for my non-AP U.S. History course, I was the opposite of my in-class self. At 17, I had all the youthful dedication to learning and no mental filter. Student comes from the Latin word for eager. Well, if anyone was ever studens, it was high school Veronica. But outside of that sacred hour of hallowed learning, I was silent. I seemed to process the world on an entirely different plane from that of my peers. While I was contemplating Jesus and Virgil and 19th century labor laws, they carried on about tanning and drinking and—for the two young men sitting in front of me—a certain kind of joke.
It was nothing beyond what we’ve all heard before: Hellen Keller; a kitchen punchline; that’s what she said. Despite previous exposure, there was something stupidly different about this time I was hearing these insipid comments because I knew I wasn’t supposed to. These “men” conversed in the ultimate secrecy of whispers and wide eyes…suggestive eyebrows…hand motions. And suddenly I was privy to the secret congregation of men stretching back to the dawn of time lording about the universal knowledge of their inherent superiority. I don’t think my peers meant anything by what they said, but by the end of class I was eager to be rid of them.
At last I returned to the haven of my childhood bedroom. In an attempt to remind myself of the God who loves me, I drew forth a book of Christian dating advice hidden behind my bedpost. In a passage I can only assume was about dressing modestly, I read an excerpt addressed explicitly to women from 1 Peter 3: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” Yes, this is also the chapter that later calls husbands to “treat [their wives] with respect as the weaker partner.”
And that’s when I totally lost it: tears, snot, the works. Out in a broken world where women can casually be mocked and degraded, the idea that God would want in me a “gentle and quiet spirit” felt like a betrayal too intimate to bear. I like to think Peter meant some sort of spiritual peace, one eagerly sought by Christian men and women alike. However, the gendered nature of this passage lent itself to a far more troubling reading: Woman, God made you to be small and silent. Serve him as the church mouse you were born to be.
Given the exegetical acrobatics we have accustomed ourselves to in a generation that strives to empower women, my pessimistic reading may sound absurd. Of course God made some women to be loud! Of course God made some women to be CEOs!
But before you dismiss my emotional response to 1 Peter as the poor Biblical interpretation of a tempermental teen, remember that for the vast majority of Church history, it has been taken for granted that women were inferior to men.
In Scots Magazine June 1797, an article admonishing women to avoid romance novels recommends they instead seek gratification through “[habitually studying] the Holy Scriptures,” “[giving] delight in the affectionate intercourse of domestic society,” “[smoothing] the bed of sickness,” and “[cheering] the decline of age” (Gisborne 375-376). While I would still encourage all Christians to participate in these tasks, we can see how Christian ethics appeared side-by-side with strict gender roles designed for a fairer and weaker sex.
Byzantine scholars including Diether Reinsch, Jeanne Beaucamp, and Thalia Gouma-Peterson widely agree that Byzantine women of all ranks were considered inferior to men by virtue of their lesser bodies and due to Eve’s original sin (Reinsch 84, Beaucamp 99-100, Gouma-Peterson 109). Opportunities to atone for their inherent deficiencies included joining a convent, being beautiful, and having children.
I’m sure we could dig deeper and find some shockingly sexist remark, but that misses the mark. The painful reality to me is that even our most well intentioned brothers and sisters have been responsible for disseminating a message that women are feeble, quiet, suited only for soft tasks.
I am a loud, vibrant woman of God. Acting, public speaking, and showing off my intellectual chops with the boys are some of my hands-down favorite pastimes. Does this mean I am not as God intended? Are my talents nothing more than a defective ovum paired with an accidentally outspoken X-carrying sperm?
We live in a fascinating and beguiling age. We quickly must question many of history’s assumptions about sex in light of transgenderism, second wave feminism, and the shocking discovery that women can do math. I understand so little of what these developments mean. I have no idea why God created gender, though I trust His design is good. I take a great deal of joy from being a woman and would not request any androgynous alternative. Age brings with it the promise of increased understanding, which I eagerly anticipate.
Until the day comes when our unique amalgams of bold and gentle make sense, I caution you all that there is pain in the process of unraveling sexism, especially in the Church. While it is painful to hear two anonymous jocks bandy about warped conceptions of femininity, it wrecks me to find those same ideas haunting Church history and—let’s be real—it’s present. I hope as you engage with questions of God’s plan for gender, my thoughts here inspire you to move with care.
Christians, avoid sexist jokes however funny. Listen intently when someone recounts the hurt they have experienced due to their gender identity. Assume nothing. Approach God humbly in search of answers. May the Lord God bless you with healing and answers, both now and in the age to come.
Veronica Wickline ’16 lives in Kirkland House and concentrates in ancient history.
Beaucamp, Joëlle. “Exclues et Aliénées: Les femmes dans la tradition canonique byzantine.” Strangers to Themselves: The Byzantine Outsider. Ed. Dion C. Smythe. pp. Aldershot: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000. Print.
Gisborne, Thomas. “On Romances and Novels, and the Proper Employment of the Fair Sex.” The Scots Magazine, Or, General Repository of Literature, History, and Politics. Alex Chapman and Company, 1797. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. http://books.google.com/books?vid=HARVARD32044092547470&printsec=titlepage#v=onepage&q&f=false
Reinsch, Diether R. “Women’s Literature in Byzantium? —The Case for Anna Komnene.” Anna Komnene and Her Times. Ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. New York: Garland, 2000. Print.
Thalia Gouma-Peterson. “Gender and Power: Passages to the Maternal in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad.” Anna Komnene and Her Times. Ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson. New York: Garland, 2000. Print.