Gender Roles part 5 in The Gender Agenda Series 

“And what do you want to do?” This question frequently lurks at family gatherings and panics defenceless teenagers who bat it away as fast as possible. Few teenagers have a clear game plan and most like the rest of us will stumble along until they find themselves working for the local council department planning new speed control measures or the like and wonder how they got there. I was a 1970s girl and despite going to a grammar school underpinning my education was an expectation that girls grew up to be nurses or secretaries and then wives and mothers. My history teacher’s most exasperated cry to our class was: “if you carry on like this no one will want to marry you!” university was not our goal. The beginning of that decade brought the Equal Pay Act and by the end of the decade we had a female prime-minister. By 1979 it seemed as though women were breaking through. 2016 has given us another female prime minister but not a woman at the top in the USA, that glass ceiling did not break but it isn’t hard to imagine that one day it will. There are few boundaries that women have yet to cross. Girls are encouraged to go to university and now outnumber the men. Engineering still is predominantly a male world but even this last bastion is falling.

It is hard to imagine that this riddle which flummoxed us in the 1970s could have any traction now:

‘A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son! - How can this be?’

Obviously the surgeon is a woman (or the boy has two dads). Society has changed. But what about gender roles as understood by the church? Is there such a thing as a women’s role? To read some christian authors the answer is clear cut: men and women were created equal but different and that difference is seen in their different callings:

‘That there should be gendered differentiation in the fulfilment of the divine commission is hardly surprising … In the task of exercising dominion and subduing creation, the man is advantaged by reason of the male sex’s typically significantly greater physical strength, resilience, and willingness to expose itself to risk. He is also advantaged on account of the greater social bands of men. In the task of being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the creation, however, the most important capabilities belong to women. It is women who bear children, who play the primary role in nurturing them, and who play the chief role in establishing the communion that lies at the heart of human society. These are differences seen across human cultures.’ [1]

If you have read my blog before you will not be surprised to hear that I have great difficulties with this type of thinking and this way of using the bible which is an imaginative reading of the text which justifies the traditional stereotyped gender roles: men are the providers and women are the nurturers but flies in the face of the daily experience of living gendered lives. Are men more resilient than women? Are women risk-averse? Do men form greater social bands? Are women nurturers and not men? Are women more able communicators? We all know people who do not fit these categories. The problem with this teaching is that it encourages us to be comfortable with our stereotypes instead of challenging all of us to develop in areas where we are weak e.g. to become better communicators or to develop resilience. It also leaves those whose lives are different struggling with the validity of their roles. Child care is increasingly shared between parents sometimes the father is the main carer and that does not make him less of a man. A woman may not have children and find her ‘calling’ in a traditionally male role e.g. our current prime minister.

But as far as I can see the bible’s teaching is to call us all to follow Christ and largely not gendered when it describes godly living — we are all called to become Christ like. The only place where gender roles are distinct are: marriage and church leadership cf. Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Tim 2:11-3:7. These passages teach us how to conduct ourselves rightly in relationship with one another but say little about what that means in terms of gender roles. What does it mean for a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church? What does it mean to submit? Each marriage, each home will uniquely work through these principles and it may even mean the husband stays at home and nurtures the kids whilst his wife is the breadwinner. The bible gives us a huge amount of freedom to work out how to be godly in these areas.

Without a doubt the experience of being a woman is different to that of being a man. Studies show that in countries where women are economically free to choose their careers they tend to choose non STEM subjects at university despite attempts to persuade girls to take up engineering but  why that is is open to interpretation ( see the work of Cordelia Fine [2]). One thing is well documented — there is more difference within the genders than between genders. In our churches we need to lose this fixation on gender stereotypes. Now is a great time to do it. The world is all over the place when it comes to gender and we need to take care that we do not become more polarised in our views. As far as gender roles are concerned we have huge freedom in answer to the question “and what do you want to do?”

Note: I have not addressed the role of women in the church but I have written about that in previous blogs.

[1] The music and meaning of male and female by Alistair Roberts  ( essay in True to Form issue 03, 2016 FIEC)

[2] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, 2012, Icon books 

    © 2020 Karen Soole