When one thinks of women’s empowerment, or, indeed, does a quick Google search of the term, the image of Rosie the Riveter1 is one of the first to appear. Physically fit, imposing, and patriotic, she looks at you proudly and exhorts, “We can do it!” She has economic autonomy, self-confidence, and military knowledge; her hands contribute to the war effort as well as any man’s. These days, one might also think of Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Meyer, high-up executives at tech companies who have leaned into the male-dominated world to amazing success.
I am a feminist: I believe in equal rights and opportunities for women. I am glad that we can be in positions of power and I pray that that percentage continues to grow. Within the church, I am glad that women are becoming teachers and preachers and leaders. But the language of empowerment and leadership shows that our society’s priorities are deeply flawed— they hurt Christian men as much, if not more, as they hurt Christian women.
Both inside and outside the church, women have historically been associated with caregiving. From mothers bearing and watching over their children, to medicine women and midwives, to elementary school teachers and social workers, the virtues with which women have been associated are gentleness, nurturing, emotional awareness, and meekness. This has meant that even women who aren’t nurturing or sensitive have had such positions foisted upon them, even in the church today. As anyone who knows me can attest to, I like debating theology much more than I like babies; little children scare me more than does heavy lifting. But I felt like I should work in the church nursery since I was a girl. So I did.
The traits associated with men have been strength (physical and intellectual), stoicism, boldness, and assertiveness. If you’ve spent any time in Western society, you can list a plethora of stereotypical gender expectations. Boys like cars, sports, and outwitting their opponents. When they grow up, they become mathematicians, pastors, and CEOs. When they are young, they don’t work in the nursery; when they are older, they see role models who look like them in every sector of societal success.
Throughout Western history, the virtues associated with men have been seen as strong and desirable, while those associated with women have been seen as weak and undesirable. For women today, “empowerment” becomes about being as good as (or better than) a man under the paradigm and in the society that men have created. The jobs of presidents, business leaders, generals, and pastors are jobs, now, to which little boys and girls aspire.
Remember Rosie the Riveter? She was a war hero. Physically fit, imposing, and patriotic, she created the machines to destroy, by fire and bullet, the evil across the sea. Just like Jesus did before her with the Romans.
Wait… he didn’t? Before the Messiah came, people expected him to be a war hero and a violent deliverer. But Jesus, the ultimate example of a man, was meek and gentle. He saw the children in the nursery as a blessing, not an annoyance (Matthew 19:14). He washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:17). He overturned the tables of the moneylenders (Matthew 21:12). He healed a marginalized woman with a terrible disease (Mark 5:25-34). He outwitted the Pharisees (Matthew 22:41-46). He wept (John 11:35). He had strength that would impress the greatest general, going willingly to torture and death for the greatest good. He had perfect humility, going willingly to die in the most shameful fashion.
It’s ironic that the very markers of women’s success have become about making it in a man’s world and playing by the man’s rules. It’s even more ironic that this world created by men has in many ways been antithetical to the word proclaimed and lived by the ultimate Man:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5: 2-5).
And what writes the Apostle Paul, who survived multiple shipwrecks and jailings? “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV). Or in the King James Version, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22-32, KJV). These are not our culture’s idea of manliness.
Historical patriarchy and subjugation of women (in the very, very long run) have been more harmful to Christian men than they have to Christian women. The “undesirable” roles that have been open to women throughout history, such as children’s teacher, housewife, or hospice worker, have been those which cultivate the exact sort of servant leadership that Jesus himself exhibited. These are thankless and others-focused jobs which require the sacrifice of self and ambition for a greater good. This is what Jesus did. Yes, Jesus was bold, clever, and strong, but he was humble and gentle and put others above himself to the point of death, even a shameful, terrible death on a cross.
Our society’s value of power (hence “empowerment”) and autonomy above all has permeated the church. Both sexes are raised to see the “feminine” virtues as somewhat inferior to the “masculine” virtues. But while doing the jobs seen by society as inferior, women are able to see the good in both “feminine” and “masculine” virtues, whereas men, who can easily avoid seeing “feminine” virtues as desirable, can go their whole lives without having to grapple with Christ’s gentle and sacrificial nature. 2 Working in the nursery made me a better Christian by putting me into a gentle servant leader’s role, which does not come naturally to me. Were I a man, I would not have had to experience the virtues of patience and caring in the same way.
(This is not to say that the historical Christian patriarchy has not harmed women. Much has been written about the abuses women suffered at the hands of even a well-meaning church. As a mild, modern example: because of the idea of “women’s roles”, I pursued intellectual excellence and leadership everywhere but the church, and I have not started studying theology and being bold about my faith until recently. Even today, many women in the church feel they cannot be bold, have left the church because of its treatment of gender, or have suffered housebound and helpless to use all of their gifts.)
The virtues traditionally associated with femininity, such as gentleness and meekness, and masculinity, such as boldness and strength, are important for all humans to have to love and serve Christ fully. But the association of certain Christlike virtues with certain genders allows sin to both fester on a personal level and to become acceptable on a societal level. While I believe that this has harmed men more because it has led to the valuation of power over servant leadership, it has also greatly impeded women. The world’s rhetoric of power and empowerment is strong, but Jesus is stronger. And more loving. And gentler.
Siobhan McDonough ’17 lives in Kirkland House and concentrates in Social Studies.
- We shall refer to the iconic picture thus, though she was not given the name until later. ↩
- This is certainly not to say that men cannot exemplify this spirit. My father, for example, is a gentle and caring person who cares little about money or power. The male saints throughout the ages have overcome the dominant culture to live, humbly and sacrificially, like Christ. ↩