Unfair Nostalgia Part 1

written on 08 January 2021 by Alicia Hovanas

Art by Nat Iwata

There is a prominent belief circulating in Protestant Churches, especially American Evangelical churches that women’s roles are, always have been, and always will be viewed in light of submission to men, economic inferiority, and domesticity, albeit the presumption and assertion is more subdued and nuanced, in order for it to be more palatable. The majority of people who ascribe to this belief maintain that this notion of inferiority, however labeled or downplayed of its significance, originates from the Bible from passages in Genesis and in Paul’s writing. I too once held this belief and deeply struggled with how God could view half of the human race as inherently second-rate. After repeatedly and violently shoving this sadness and anger down, one day a spark ignited, and it was this tiny spark that lit a fire and gave me the courage to dig in - and to dig in deeply - to face the music once and for all: did God or did He not create women with the intention of withholding from them and giving men the most gifts, leaving the most prestigious ones for men and men alone? Did He equip men more fully? Did He intentionally withhold, did He intentionally handicap women? And for the love of God, why? Maybe He’s a giant jerk. Maybe He isn’t love. Maybe He’s cruel and twisted.

After repeatedly and violently shoving this sadness and anger down, one day a spark ignited, and it was this tiny spark that lit a fire and gave me the courage to dig in - and to dig in deeply - to face the music once and for all...

Everyone likes to think the Bible speaks for itself and our theology is derived from the Bible alone, where politics, history, culture, and customs have little to do with our understanding of Scripture. However, my research exposes the fallacies in that argument and sheds light on the historical and social conditions that Protestant Christians tend to unknowingly draw their seemingly Biblical conclusions concerning women’s roles from; especially from the influence of ideals in the Victorian Era and the fundamentalist movement. My goal is to show you the ways in which Victorian gender politics, as well as some of the atrocities that came out of fundamentalism, continue to influence women’s roles within American Evangelicalism by restricting women’s roles within the home and in the church, and by extension, our culture at large.

My goal is to show you the ways in which Victorian gender politics, as well as some of the atrocities that came out of fundamentalism, continue to influence women’s roles within American Evangelicalism by restricting women’s roles within the home and in the church, and by extension, our culture at large.

It is necessary to begin with a framework that illustrates the customs present during the Victorian Era in order to understand how it shapes our modern-day thought concerning the role and place of women. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, a theologian and historian I’ve come to deeply respect, notes that Christians who consider themselves traditionalists “believe that their understanding of biblical gender roles is corroborated by church tradition, and that all ‘feminist’ thought is a direct reflection of modern culture and ought therefore to be resisted.” However, those who hold to the traditionalist view regarding family values may be surprised to learn that they are not actually traditional in the sense they think they are. Granted, patriarchy and male authority, as well as biblical standards of sexual behavior truly are traditional, but “the traditionalist agenda promotes just as vigorously the features of a family model that did not develop historically until the nineteenth century.” This type of family model promotes the husband as the sole financial provider for the family, whereas the wife meets the needs of the children and the household affairs by staying home. Groothuis argues, “the wife is dependent on her husband for her financial wherewithal and her personal identity and social status. Motherhood is deemed the primary calling of every woman and is regarded as essential to the preservation of the social order.”

The nineteenth century, or the Victorian Era in America, was a time in which gender identity became confusing for men and women alike. All men knew was that they were not women or anything like them. They were merely opposite sexes. Betty DeBerg writes in Ungodly Women, “...it became more important to heighten gender differences and to define manliness via negativa: men were not women.” One way in which men distinguished themselves from women was their vital role in working. Men began to look at their role in the workforce as integral to their identity and thus prided themselves in being the sole breadwinner. DeBerg continues: Income replaced property as a sign of successful manhood, and by the late 1800s a wife who did not work outside the home “constituted the visible badge of having achieved middle-class status,” -a sign to the outside world that a man was an adequate breadwinner and sufficiently masculine.

Indeed, Groothuis concurs, noting that “The woman’s role as homemaker is not only her own identity; it also identifies her husband as a masculine (i.e., financial) success. A wife who stays at home is man’s status symbol.” Making a significant profit to live off of during this time period was more often than not, a product of ruthlessness and very poor ethics. The lack of ethics is one of the many reasons that men created a concept such as the home, a place for refuge and solace. “Men also created ‘the virtuous woman’ who would practice the kindness and charity they were unable to in the economic world.” This phenomenon was explored and brought to light by a woman named Barbara Welter, which she called the ‘Cult of True Womanhood.’ The ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ was needed by men because it was an outlet for their wives to perform tasks the men wanted to do and used to do but were no longer allowed to do themselves; things such as aid in rearing children and managing the home. Because the women were so removed from the public sphere of life, men compensated (and patronized), giving them titles like ‘queen of the home’ and praised the vocation of motherhood. Consequently, the 19th century was an instrumental time in history for how people viewed the home and aggrandized the concept of one’s dwelling place. Prior to this time period, women worked alongside their husbands before the Industrial Revolution. Groothuis claims that neither the father nor the mother had time to coddle their children, and “mothers as well as fathers had economically necessary work to do... women did not organize their lives around their children to any great extent. The definition of motherhood as a full-time job did not exist.” Groothuis maintains elsewhere, “The simple fact that full-time motherhood was a cultural invention of the nineteenth century stands in stark contrast to the traditionalist contention that until the modern feminist assault on the family, motherhood had always been a full-time job.”

For the second instalment of this four-part series, come back next Friday!