I am continuing to write about Michelle Lee- Barnewall’s Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian.
She talks about the women’s suffrage movement as one of the social reform movements that grew out of 19th century activism. However, she does not talk about how evangelical women related to that movement. I do not know. I may research it myself sometime.
What she does do is to say that at first suffrage was supported on the basis of women’s right to free expression as individuals. She says that argument failed to get political traction. What eventually succeeded was the argument that women had something to contribute to politics that men did not. The notion the women provided a voice that supported domesticity, the family, and even holiness counter to male worldliness was what prevailed.
Though I do not think she would agree with the idea that women are more holy than men, she does think men and women bring different gifts.
This sets up a fundamental distinction. On the one side of the feminist movement has been the idea of female individuality and individual rights. On the other side has been a more integrative idea that women make a contribution to society in ways other than just asserting their rights.
The civil rights movement in the 1960s highlighted the need to oppose discrimination of all kinds. So there arose a women’s movement paralleling it. Evangelical women came on board as part of a less radical feminism that emerged in the 1970s. In 1974 Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty published All We’re Meant to Be: a Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation. This became the catalyst for evangelical feminism. The book criticized evangelical women for “sitting on the sideline” of the women’s movement.
Feminism influenced these women. But much preaching, teaching and writing in the evangelical churches was against feminism. So the evangelical women’s movement went to the Bible to ask again the questions about the place of women in family and church.
Lee-Barnewall makes the interesting point that the thinking of Charles Finney (1792-1875), the American lawyer turned revivalist, played an important part in evangelical egalitarianism. Finney was pretty pragmatic and a key concept for him was usefulness. Women should play whatever role in carrying out God’s project was most useful. And if their usefulness to the kingdom extended beyond the home, so be it.
It does not take much to see that a concept of usefulness stands over against what Lee-Barnewall calls the “hyper-individualism” of second-wave feminism. Also the idea of usefulness merges into the biblical idea of servanthood.
So there is a big difference between an ideology that is mostly concerned with individual self fulfillment and one that sees women and men as servants called to be useful.
But the evangelical women’s movement also owed much to secular feminism. It adopted the concept of patriarchy, the belief that the problem was not just about some unequal laws or practices but a cultural structure that led to discrimination against women. Just as black Americans needed more than legal rights, so women needed society to have a fundamental cultural change in attitude and outlook.
There was push back. She doesn’t go into it but some of it was nasty, like Pat Robertson’s blanket condemnation of feminism:
Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.
But beyond the polarization and unpleasant accusations she sees that as egalitarians and complementarians have debated each other’s points, there has been some progress.
In recent years there have been modifications on both sides, indicating dissatisfaction with the status quo. Terminology has changed, with “complementarian” generally replacing the use of “traditionalist” or “hierarchical,” and evangelical feminism more often referred to as “egalitarianism” or “biblical equality.” Complementarians began to emphasize the concept of “servant leadership” to refer to male leadership in the home and the church. Some complementarians qualified their position by agreeing that women can have leadership roles, with the exception of the “highest” ones, such as elder or senior pastor. As a result the argument that women can have leadership roles is not a distinctly egalitarian position. Egalitarians have also modified their position by insisting that they too were “complementarian” in that they believed in differences between the sexes that went beyond physical traits. However, complementarity did not necessitate hierarchy (p. 65).
This is how Lee-Barnewall sees the current state of the debate. Her book is about a possible way to move beyond it.