Last week, Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family wrote a piece for First Things on “Why Man and Woman Are Not Equal.” It’s a provocative headline, and the article has garnered quite a bit of attention. Not all of it positive. Aimee Byrd has an excellent response here: “Are Women the Holders of Virtue?” I highly recommend it.
Stanton’s article is an attempt to praise women for their role in civilizing men:
Women create, shape, and maintain human culture. Manners exist because women exist. Worthy men adjust their behavior when a woman enters the room. They become better creatures. Civilization arises and endures because women have expectations of themselves and of those around them.
This is not just a conservative or traditionalist idea.
Stanton goes on to give examples of the civilizing effect of women in history and notes that the tragedy of Lord of the Flies would not have occurred if women had been present:
This is why Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a tale not so much about the dark nature of humanity as about the isolation of the masculine from the feminine. Had there been just a few confident girls amongst those boys, its conclusion might have been more Swiss Family Robinson.
It sounds good, right? Women make men better. They make men behave. They create and maintain civilization:
Husbands and fathers become better, safer, more responsible and productive citizens, unrivaled by their peers in any other relational status. Husbands become better mates, treating their wives better by every important measure—physical and emotional safety, financial and material provision, personal respect, fidelity, general self-sacrifice, etc.—compared to boyfriends, whether dating or cohabiting.
But there’s a problem. Or rather, there are several problems with this thesis. First, despite Stanton’s claims, being a husband and father does not automatically make men better behaved, and it certainly doesn’t make men necessarily treat women better. There are countless examples of good, godly women married to absolutely rotten men. Men who degrade and abuse their wives are often married to women who have tried their best to “civilize” them.
Women who have been abused by their husbands are frequently told that their husbands would stop abusing them if they submitted enough, if they prayed enough, if they were better wives. In fact, many women go into and stay in abusive relationships because they believe the lie that the “love of a good woman” can change a man.
This idea that women are more civilized than men is destructive to both men and women. It makes women believe they can make bad men good. It demoralizes them when they fail. It perpetuates the idea that “boys will be boys.” It insults godly, honorable bachelors. Were Jesus and Paul less civilized in some way because they weren’t married? I doubt it.
As one of my friends (a man) said in response to this article:
“Worthy men adjust their behavior when a woman enters the room.”
No! Worthy men do not need to adjust their behavior when a woman enters the room, because they are gentlemen no matter whose company they find themselves in. Worthy men act honorably because they are worthy men, whether they are in a room full of men, mixed company, or alone!
Exactly. Godly men are godly men regardless of who is or isn’t in the room. There aren’t two standards of behavior. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be.
Second, the idea that women change men for the better is absolutely a “traditional” idea. It has its roots historically in the Victorian era and even further back in the Ancient Greek and Roman culture. But it was not always believed that women were good for men.
One of the oldest Greek myths is the Zeus’ creation of the first woman, Pandora. Yes, that Pandora, the one with the box that brought evil into the world. Here is an excerpt from the 7th-century BC. According to the myth, Pandora was created by Zeus to punish man:
Zeus ordered famous Hephaestus to mix as fast as he could earth with water, and to put in it a human’s voice and strength, and to make its face resemble a deathless goddess’s, with the fair form of a virgin. And he ordered Athena to teach her to work, to weave on the intricate loom. And he ordered golden Aphrodite to shed grace on her head and cruel passion and worries that gnaw at the limbs. And he commanded Hermes, slayer of Argos, to put in her a bitch’s mind and a thieving heart. … In her breast the Guide Hermes, slayer of Argos, put lies, tricky speeches, and a thieving heart; he did this in accordance with Zeus’ plans. Hermes, the gods’ herald, put in her voice, and they named this woman Pandora, because all gods who live in Olympus gave her a gift, a pain to men-who-eat-barley.
Before that the races of men had lived on the earth without evils and without harsh labour and cruel diseases which give men over to the Fates – for in evil times men grow old quickly. But the woman lifted in her hands the great lid from the jar and scattered these evils about – she devised miserable sorrows for men. (Pandora. Boeotia, early 7th cent. B.C. (Hesiod, Works and Days 42-105 Tr. M.R.L.), Women’s Life in Greece & Rome: A source book in translation, Ed. Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, 1982, pg 13)
The ancient Greeks and Romans commonly believed that women were morally inferior and basically a necessary evil to be endured for the sake of procreation:
If we could get on without a wife, Romans, we would all avoid that annoyance; but since nature has ordained that we can neither life very comfortably with them nor at all without them, we must take thought for our lasting well-being rather than for the pleasure of the moment. (Gellius, Attic Nights, 1.6.2, trans. S. Dixon) (Roman Women, Eve E.Ambra. 2007, pg 47)
In fact, it was believed that marriage reformed women who needed to be married off young to keep them from wickedness:
Gender fit into a hierarchical system in which the male was superior, the female inferior and likened to other weak and wayward creatures, such as the non-Roman, the young, and untamed animals, all of whom required the firm hand of Roman male authority. According to medical who could only consider the male form as achieving perfection, the female body was inherently defective. Maidens, young women physically developed and ready for marriage in their teens, required the most supervision because their budding sexuality left them vulnerable to to physical desires that they might not be able to control. … Marriage solved the problem – in theory, the earlier, the better for elite daughters, while others married later (in their upper teens or early twenties) and had to run the gauntlet of adolescent crises and a hostile environment with less protection. Marriage completed the female, invested her with a social presence, and saved her from her innate incompetence. (Roman Women, Eve E.Ambra. 2007, pg 12)
In pre-Victorian era Western civilization, women were also believed to be morally inferior and the source of evil, having descended from Eve. This excerpt is from 1405:
Men, especially in writing in books, vociferously and unanimously claim that women in particular are fickle and inconstant, changeable and flighty, weak-hearted, compliant like children, and lacking all stamina. (Christine De Pizan (1365-c. 1430) The Book of the City of Ladies (France 1405), The Essential Feminist Reader: Ed. Estelle B Freedman 2007, pg 8)
Although women were considered inferior, they had a very important role (besides childbearing) in ancient Greek and Roman society. They were the keepers of the hearth in the essential worship of Hestia/Vesta:
In fact, many cults acknowledged that wives and mothers were central to the well-being of Rome. It should be noted, however, that most of women’s duties and obligations were in the private or domestic sphere (although the boundaries between private and public were blurry). (Roman Women, Eve E.Ambra. 2007, pg 142)
The home fires represented the very heart and soul of the country:
The residence of a paterfamilias was virtually a temple to the family gods, and it therefore followed the house was itself sacred in some sense. The hearth which cooked the family’s food and kept them from freezing in the cold was Vesta. Vesta like her Greek counterpart Hestia seems to be a very ancient Indo-European goddess of domestic fire. The women of the house were charged with maintaining Vesta’s flames, and to let the flames extinguish was a disgrace.
Therefore, the first offerings were always to Hestia. And this was a woman’s duty:
These injunctions presumably would be followed by the mistress of the house if she were present. The matron was obligated to keep the hearth clean and to decorate it for festivals. She propitiated the family’s guardian spirit (Lar familiaris) on special days and offered prayers to the household genius or ancestor. Because of her responsibility over the storeroom, she honored the Penates, the deities who watched over it. (Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life, Lynn H. Cohick, 2009, pg 161)
With the rise of the Victorian era, the attitude towards women changed:
Women are naturally religious, moral, virtuous, or so said the conventional wisdom of the nineteenth century. When that assertion is compared with the assumptions about women’s nature that pervaded Christian thought even into the seventeenth century, the reversal is dramatic. (“You Have Stept Out of Your Place” A History of Women and Religion in America, Susan Hill Lindley, 1996, pg 52)
Women were still believed to be intellectually, emotionally, and physically inferior to men, but they were now believed to be morally and spiritually superior:
The ideology of Separate Spheres rested on a definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of women and men. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life. (Kathryn Hughes)
Religion became the province of women:
Though religious institutions exerted a conservative influence on European society in the early nineteenth century, religion paradoxically became the province of women. To paraphrase an historian of nineteenth-century America, Ann Douglas, religion became “feminized,” not just within Protestantism, but across denominations and the general culture, for several reasons. (Deborah Valenze, “Gender in the Formation of European Power”, A Companion to Gender History, ed. By Teresa A. Meade and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks 2004, pg 467)
This was in part due to the Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood which blended the old ideas of women as keeper of the hearth with the new belief in the moral superiority of women:
Women were expected to uphold the values of stability, morality, and democracy by making the home a special place, a refuge from the world where her husband could escape from the highly competitive, unstable, immoral world of business and industry. It was widely expected that in order to succeed in the work world, men had to adopt certain values and behaviors: materialism, aggression, vulgarity, hardness, rationality. But men also needed to develop another side to their nature, a human side, an anticompetitive side. The home was to be the place where they could do this. This was where they could express humanistic values, aesthetic values, love, honor, loyalty and faithfulness. The home was no longer a unit valued for its function in the community (or its economic productiveness), but rather for its isolation from the community and its service to its members. (Catherine J. Lavender, ʺNotes on The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood,ʺ)
Women were to be the “Angels in the House” responsible for civilizing and reforming men:
It was the fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth-century American woman had – to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.
The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and her society could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity… Without them…. all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power. (Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860”, 1966)
John Ruskin wrote “Of Queens’ Gardens” in 1865. He described the differences between men and women and what “power” women have in reforming men. Notice his appeal to the hearth and the household gods:
The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle, — and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. … This is the true nature of home — it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home; it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over, and lighted fire in. But so far as it is a sacred place, a vestal temple, a temple of the hearth watched over by Household Gods, before those faces none may come but those whom they can receive with love,
This, then, I believe to be, — will you not admit it to be — the woman’s true place and power? But do you not see that, to fulfill this, she must — as far as one can use such terms of a human creature — be incapable of error? So far as she rules, all must be right, or nothing is. She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise — wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side:
True Women were expected to reform men and to protect themselves and their own virtue, because men couldn’t be trusted to behave. Through their goodness, women brought “men back to God”:
Therefore all True Women were urged, in the strongest possible terms, to maintain their virtue, although men, being by nature more sensual than they, would try to assault it. Thomas Branagan admitted in The Excellency of the Female Character Vindicated that his sex would sin and sin again, but woman, stronger and purer, must not give in and let man “take liberties incompatible with her delicacy.”
Men could be counted on to be grateful when women thus saved them from themselves…
From her home woman performed her great task of bringing men back to God. The Young Ladies’ Class Book was sure that the “domestic fireside is the great guardian of society against the excesses of human passions…Even if we cannot reform the world in a moment, we can begin the work by reforming ourselves and our households – it is woman’s mission. Let her not look away from her own little family circle for the means of producing moral and social reforms, but begin at home…” (Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860”, 1966)
Of course, virtue was not expected from all women. Because it was believed that men were by nature more “sensual” and that they could not be expected to control themselves, prostitution was considered a necessary evil:
In the 1800s, however, the prostitute in European and American cities acquired a permanent identity as a “fallen woman,” the antithesis of the pure, middle-class mother in the home. Viewed as a sexually depraved creature, to be shunned by all respectable women, the prostitute in fact protected the virtue of pure women. According to the concept of “necessary evil,” society had to tolerate the existence of prostitutes because they siphoned off male lust. Brothels, an editorial explained in 1892, “are necessary in ministering to the passions of men who otherwise would be tempted to seduce young ladies of their acquaintance.” (No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women: Estelle B. Freedman. 2002, pg 141)
Interestingly, two of the first goals of early feminism were suffrage and an end to prostitution. The early feminists believed that men should be expected to control themselves and that there should be no more double standard regarding sexual misbehavior. They didn’t want to lower the bar for women but rather to raise the bar for men.
The problem with these ideas about women as morally superior and keepers of the hearth is that it can’t work. Women cannot be held responsible for saving or creating or maintaining civilization. Which leads me to my last point.
Stanton’s thesis about the inequality of men and women is simply not biblical. It’s worth noting that Stanton’s article does not reference any Scripture, beyond noting that Christ was born of a woman.
Scripture teaches that men and women both were created in the image of God. Adam and Eve both participated in the Fall, although Adam, as the representative of mankind, is ultimately held responsible. All men and women since Adam have been born sinful. All believing men and women are redeemed through Christ’s work and sanctified through the work of the Spirit.
That means that, while men and women are not exactly the same, we are equal in our spiritual nature, in Adam and in Christ. Women are not more moral or more redeemed. Women are not less moral or less redeemed. And most importantly, women are not the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can work in our hearts to sanctify us and to bring about change.
It’s true that God uses all our experiences and relationships in our sanctification. But men can’t sanctify their wives. And wives can’t sanctify their husbands. To teach otherwise diminishes the inherent worth of men and women. It diminishes the effects of the Fall. And it diminishes the work of the Spirit.
Ultimately, I think Stanton’s article fails because it confuses cultural ideas about men and women with biblical truth. While seeming to praise women, it sets them up for an impossible task, and it perpetuates the myth that women can reform men. Do some men change and become better after marriage? Certainly. But the same is true of some women. Marriage may well have a civilizing effect on culture, especially biblical marriage, but it’s not because women are more virtuous or moral or civilizing.
As a side note, the book, Lord of the Flies, was written as a response to another book about a group of boys shipwrecked on an island. The Coral Island was written about a hundred years before Lord of the Flies. There are many, many similarities between the two stories, but there is one main difference. In The Coral Island, the boys do not resort to anarchy and murder. They remain good and kind. They are what they always were, even with the loss of civilization: good young men.
You see, what’s missing from Lord of the Flies is not women. If there had been girls on the island, I imagine their fate would have been worse than Piggy’s. What generally happens to women when all traces of “civilization”are removed from a society? What’s missing from Lord of the Flies is God. Without salvation, without the work of the Spirit, we’re lost. Even if there are women.