Lee-Barnewall–historical reflections on gender and evangelicalism

I am reading Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian.

She talks about the late 19th century as a time when the idea that a woman’s place was in the home became dominant. Before men went to factories and offices to work, their place was in the home too. Farmers and craftsmen worked from home. But industrialization and urbanization changed this. The world was divided into a domestic sphere and a worldly sphere. The domestic sphere belonged to women and the worldly sphere belonged to men.

This, I think, oversimplifies a bit. The older model still exists. I grew up in the 20th century with the older model of family, because I grew up on a ranch. We still have farms and mom-and-pop businesses. But the shift from an agrarian economy was the general rule and did change gender relations.

The interesting thing about this to me was the way it promoted a women-good-men-bad view of gender. Notice that the sphere of men was worldly. To the evangelical mind set this tainted men. There came to be a general idea that the domestic sphere watched over by women was the sphere of purity and righteousness. Women were the upholders of the national virtue.

This led to an unexpected result. Women began to promote national purity beyond the home by engaging in moral crusades and mission work. This started before the Civil War in America with women very prominent in the movement to abolish slavery. A number of women were public speakers for this cause. There was some debate about whether or not this was “unseemly”.

But the 19th century was a crusading age. A theological reason behind this was the postmillenial eschatology that saw mission work and social reform as ushering in the kingdom of God. For evangelicals it was an activist era. For practical reasons, women became the pushers behind many of these efforts. Some prominent evangelicals brushed aside objections. Jesus said the workers for the harvest are few. Men alone were inadequate for the task. There was a great work to be done and if women had the inclination and ability to participate, practical thinkers felt that this was an advantage not a problem. The famous evangelist, Dwight Moody, was one who accepted women as preachers and leaders.

There arose a number of women’s missionary societies. Women also vocally supported many of the social reform movements of the era.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the most famous of these was the temperance movement. Evangelical women were major crusaders for the prohibition of liquor. This was an example of the attempt to enforce domestic virtue in the worldly sphere that corrupted men. The displacements of the industrial age probably drove some men to drink. This tended to make these men irresponsible husbands and fathers. So women had a primary interest in doing something about it.

Lee-Barnewall doesn’t mention the xenophobic aspect of the temperance movement. It was immigrants like the Irish with their whiskey, the Germans with their beer, and Italians with their wine who were targets of prohibition. So these women were partly acting out of fear of foreign influence.

The author shows how it was the period after World War II that brought about new limits on women’s leadership and activism on the part of evangelicals. It was the dawn of the atomic age and the fear of Communism. So the Cold War generated a deep desire for security among Americans. Evangelicals responded by holding up the home and family as a bulwark of security.

There was a sense that the natural order had been disrupted by the war. Men got torn away from their families. Women got recruited into the factories and offices. Now in the 40s, 50s, and 60s the need was to rebuild the family. Energy in the churches that had been focused on supporting the war effort and helping society cope with that challenge now turned to fulfilling the responsibility of the church to support strong families.

Evangelical churches encouraged women and girls to devote themselves to the nurture of families. The idea of having a career outside the home was a something that detracted from their real duty. Evangelical churches restricted the role of women. Leaders began to teach that it was wrong for a woman to lead in any way in public worship. At the same time, preaching began to call for husbands to be the heads of families. The ideal was no longer using women in mission and outreach but maintaining the proper order in the church. Order required male leadership and female submission.

This all set the stage for the 1970s and the emerging emphasis on women’s rights and a backlash against that.

My take on this is that, although Lee-Barnewall mentions industrialization, she doesn’t really take up the very important role of technology in the changes. One of my daughters in law asked at a family gathering over the holidays what invention had most changed the world. There were several answers that focused on digital technology. But I maintained that it was birth control. As far as women’s position is concerned there are a whole range of other things as well. There are the advances in care that have made death in childbirth rare. There are labor-saving devices that have made domestic chores easier. There is infant formula. There is the availability of fast food and day care.

What these things together have done is to make it so that even if for biblical or evolutionary reasons you think women’s main role is child rearing and domestic support, you have to cope with the reality that those things aren’t so all consuming anymore. So what is a woman supposed to do with the rest of her life?

The 70s and the impact of feminism will be the next topic.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Church, Ethics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lee-Barnewall–historical reflections on gender and evangelicalism

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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