Two themes run in parallel through Scripture with regard to men and women. Equal dignity and significant difference. Women are badly served when their essential dignity as human beings is disrespected. They are also badly served when equality is assumed to mean sameness. Radical feminism cheered for equality, but failed to take sufficient account of difference.
Feminist history is often presented as four waves of agitation. First wave feminists campaigned to end legal discrimination. While they wanted equal opportunities for women, they also respected the role of women in the family. The second wave was very different!
The evil of patriarchy
A brilliant, but deeply troubled young American graduate student decided in 1970 that the real problem for women through the ages had been patriarchy (from the Greek pater for father, and arche for rule). Kate Millet used this term to describe societies where men rule over women. She argued that the means by which men rule is the traditional heterosexual married family.
This narrative was just one strand of a broader liberation movement where humanity was divided between oppressor and oppressed. In the feminist subplot, men were the oppressors, women the oppressed, and the family was the main place of oppression. Stay-at-home mothers are economically dependent on their husbands. To be truly free means breaking away from that dependence.
The oppression of family
Women’s studies courses sprung up all over America, and then beyond, promoting the idea that women’s oppression is caused by the family. Marriage, motherhood and home-making were regarded as only satisfying for those who were mentally subnormal or emotionally weak.
For those not at university, local consciousness raising groups were formed. The aim? To make women understand that if their families got in the way of their own happiness, they should leave! Nothing and nobody should stand in the way of their right to personal fulfilment. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) was a wildly popular manifesto for unlimited sexual freedom.
What did this mean at a grassroots level? Family breakdown. This was facilitated because feminists had a political strategy as well. Privileges were withdrawn from the traditional family. Alternative family patterns (including single parents) were to receive full state support.
The benchmark of real liberation? Completely equal outcomes at a societal level. Fifty per cent of every profession were to be filled by females.
The ‘injustice’ of biology
The main barrier in the way of this grand project was the ‘injustice’ of biology. Nature had made men and women unequal. Women through history had been forced to bear and rear children. But now, scientific advances meant that women could be liberated from the ‘tyranny of the biological family’ by means of contraception, abortion, artificial reproductive technologies and collective childcare.
Educationally, radical feminists wanted history to be rewritten, toppling men from their central roles in the making and shaping of important events. All written texts were now to be questioned in the light of patriarchy.
Next to be challenged was ‘heteronormativity’ (the idea that heterosexuality is normal). Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) argued that all women are naturally lesbian; that heteronormativity is an oppressive aspect of patriarchy; and that it must be abolished.
Any who questioned these trends could be intimidated into compliance by the threat of being labelled sexist. All this had a major impact in academia and on public policy throughout countries where Western values prevailed. But many women were totally alienated by such extreme claims.
Reaction against violence
‘Feminism is dead!’ proclaimed some newspaper headlines in the 1990s. In fact, this was the decade when third wave feminism was emerging. A central issue for third wave feminists was violence against women, including domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape. All of which are, of course, utterly evil. But what many failed to acknowledge was that violence against women had only been exacerbated by demands for total sexual freedom.
The fourth wave of feminism continues to challenge abuse by means of social media. The #MeToo campaign has resulted in a flood of allegations.
All abuse is an appalling outworking of the Fall, and of sin. The instinct that justice should be done is God-given. The #MeToo movement is a moment at which Christians should be holding out the truth of God’s power to bring healing and hope into the darkest situation.
When someone feels degraded and dehumanised by sinful abuse, the Bible offers the certainty that each of us has the dignity of having been made in God’s image. And the Gospel offers a completely new start.
As Christians, we are not surprised that demands for unlimited sexual freedom have only resulted in increased exploitation and abuse. Women and children have not been liberated by rejection of God’s boundary markers, including his good plan for marriage and family. They have been betrayed.
God’s beautiful design
God’s beautiful design for men and women shines out in contrast to the miserable effects of abuse and family breakdown. These evils have been compounded by sexual liberation.
All alike share the equal dignity of having been made in God’s image. Our complementary differences have been gloriously designed to reflect deep eternal realities about the love of Jesus Christ for his Bride, the Church. God’s design for marriage and the family is for our blessing, not our harm.
Christianity is good news for men and women!
This is abbreviated from Chapter 1 of Sharon James’ new book God’s Design For Women in an Age of Gender Confusion (Evangelical Press).
Dr Sharon James is a Christian author, speaker, and Social Policy Analyst at The Christian Institute.