I think I was on my fourth copy of the popular marriage book Love and Respect before I finally figured out why I hated it so much.
Like many Christian books about marriage, it relied heavily on (very limiting) gender stereotypes. I kept reading the sections about how women should behave, desperately trying to find myself in the narrative so I could harvest the pearls of wisdom therein and apply them to my rapidly failing marriage. But I was nowhere to be found in those paragraphs about pink brains and passive communication styles and domesticity and gentleness. Always the gentleness.
Nope. I couldn’t find myself in the words of the book until I got to the sections about how men behave. I identified strongly with the descriptions of boldness and conquest, of being clear and blunt and decisive, of valuing truth over feelings, and of being more analytical than emotional.
If I were a teen suffering gender confusion, latching onto this book as a tool to help me determine my sense of gender, I might easily conclude that I was actually a man trapped inside a woman’s body. And this is no small thing; the way Christians talk about gender is consequential. It was for me.
Rather than writing the stereotypes off as silly and archaic, I concluded that there was something badly wrong with me. My bold assertive style meant that I was performing womanhood wrong. Maybe that’s what was wrong with my marriage. If I could just change myself to fit the script, maybe things would go better for me. Maybe my husband wouldn’t cheat. Maybe I’d be easier to get along with. You see the problem, right?
Christian gender role proponents tend to argue that the distinctions God made between the sexes are proof that God wants to put us in boxes. For example, they think that, because women can give birth, women should therefore resign themselves to lives of domesticity, popping out babies and taking care of the home. They argue that to color outside these lines is to rebel against God himself. It’s design, right?
These arguments have been weaponized against women, in particular, since Eden. And we are right to resist them. For the millions of people like me who do not fit into the rigid gender cages carved out for us, whose callings defy the limits of the roles we’re told we should pursue, life can be a really alienating experience. It’s why so many of the women fighting back against the transgender cult consider themselves “gender abolitionists.”
The abolitionists, like me, have been frequently sidelined or “othered” on account of their non-compliance with society’s expectations for how they should perform their biological sex, and they work overtime to try to eliminate these expectations entirely. They understand the material reality of biological sex, and they defend the importance of sex segregation in areas like sports, prisons, and locker rooms, but they want to get rid of gender roles. They don’t think that jobs, clothes, toys, or other things should be socially assigned according to sex. And I partially agree with them. But not fully.
I think that, just as people can get hurt when we cram them into boxes that don’t fit them, there’s a commensurate danger in eliminating all the boxes entirely. When we flatten all the distinctions between the sexes, we inadvertently communicate that men and women are interchangeable, and that fuels the gender cult, as well. There’s got to be a grey area between the two. For example, patriarchalists like John Piper say: “Women shouldn’t be firefighters. It’s a crime against nature.”
Gender abolitionists say: “Women should absolutely be firefighters. They shouldn’t be excluded.”
I’m of the opinion that women should be allowed to be firefighters if (and only if) they can meet the same baseline physical requirements as men. This is a job where physical strength and endurance are of utmost importance. Whether or not a person is physically capable of hauling a body out of the burning building isn’t a feminist issue. It’s an issue of material reality, and society suffers without the ability to name this truth.
I do not hold this same line for law enforcement, mind you. I actually think it’s quite important for women to be represented in police teams, where the ability to calmly de-escalate tense situations is arguably every bit as important as the ability to restrain a bad guy, and where female rape or DV victims may be too traumatized to confide in an all-male squad.
When I go to buy my kids their clothes, I actually want there to be a girls’ section and a boys’ section. Their bodies are different. Their preferred styles are different. I may complain about the options available to my daughter (Can we talk about booty shorts for 12-year-olds, please?) But there’s nothing wrong with girls who prefer princesses or boys who prefer dinosaurs. I don’t feel any need whatsoever to challenge those proclivities or change them in any way. As long as there are options for people who don’t share them, I’m okay with catering to the preferences of the majority in this regard. It’s not a hill upon which I’m willing to die, and honestly, the one time I did shop in a store where all the girl clothes were mixed in with the boys, it took me twice as long to find what I was looking for.
And I won’t immediately discard all sex-based generalizations as chauvinism, though a great many of them are exactly that. There are a whole lot more that are rooted in at least a kernel of truth. Generally speaking, for example, it’s objectively true that men are physically stronger than women. I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with believing this is indicative of God’s design for men as a whole to function as protectors. He made muscles for a reason. But I have a very big problem with taking these generalities and forcing them onto individuals who don’t fit the mold. I have a problem with people bullying scrawny men who can’t bench press their body weight. Anecdotally, some of the bravest, most protective men I’ve known are computer nerds with the courage to tell the truth on our behalf. It’s the reductionist nature of the stereotypes that’s the problem.
Similarly, there’s a growing and palpable cultural disdain for motherhood, which seems to be an overcorrection of the “You belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen” trope. But it’s costing a lot of women a lot more than they ever dreamed it would, as they’re perpetually encouraged to freeze their eggs and delay motherhood as long as physically possible in pursuit of their careers. Just ask any random homeschool mom whether or not she feels like people respect her for what she does.
Don’t get me wrong because I’m a career woman myself. I think, in many ways, I’m a better mom because I have work outside the home. So I encourage women to faithfully pursue whatever calling the good Lord leads them to, including homemaking. But I do think it’s a tremendous disservice to women as a whole to work to convince them that motherhood is a lesser pursuit, that women are generally gratuitously happy without it, only to have them learn they were wrong when it’s too late to choose another option. Whatever decisions women make here should be made with both eyes fully open and without the unhelpful shaming conventions of either side of the gender role divide deciding, arbitrarily on their behalf, what exactly it is they ought to do or what they owe the world.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to just say, “Yeah, a lot of people operate this way, but there are a ton of exceptions, and we need to create space for those people to thrive, too”?
Why must everything be all-or-nothing?
There are differences between men and women, but the differences are not as drastic as men are from Mars, women are from Venus. We can celebrate these differences without weaponizing them against one another as some weird sort of control mechanism. It’s really not that hard.
Kaeley Harms, co-founder of Hands Across the Aisle Women’s Coalition, is a Christian feminist who rarely fits into boxes. She is a truth teller, envelope pusher, Jesus follower, abuse survivor, writer, wife, mom, and lover of words aptly spoken.