The Feminist Challenge to Marriage


Review

  1. The establishment of marriage and the creation of man and woman for marriage.
  2. Celebratory Speech as the primary means of the practice of married love.
  3. The Headship of the man in marriage and the submission of wives as realities of nature, and so divine callings, that are to be sanctified and practiced in a Christ-like way, to the mutual pleasure and blessing of man and woman.
  4. The endemic temptations of married life: the peculiar temptations of men and women in marriage and where, so often, marriages go wrong.
  5. Then we considered the biblical data concerning the proper choice of a spouse.
  6. Then, over two weeks, we considered marriage as a sexual union and as the divinely ordained context for the sexual pleasure and fulfillment.
  7. Finally, the last time we treated marriage as a primary sphere of life in which Christians are to work out their salvation, experience the grace of God, and serve the Lord.

Today, I want to treat one particular development that strikes at the view of marriage and the practice of marriage in our culture: viz. the growing disdain for and movement away from the domesticity of a woman’s life. Feminism has represented an attack on marriage in other ways, of course. We have already discussed the biblical teaching regarding male headship in marriage which modern feminism rejects root and branch. But there is another way in which the feminist movement is re-inventing marriage in our time.

The Feminist Challenge to Marriage

There is no development, since no-fault divorce opened the floodgates to divorce in the 1960s, that is likely to affect marriage as an institution in American culture – and so in American Christian culture – so profoundly as the entrance of wives and mothers into the permanent workforce and their embrace of “the career.”

Now, I want to be very clear about what I am saying here. I almost never discuss such questions any more but have my words repeated back to me later in a form that I scarcely recognize or be told that I taught this or that which I not only did not teach, but never thought to teach! It is, I’m afraid, the inevitable risk of dealing with practices now so widespread that people may feel that they are being condemned for choices that they have made or that their liberty to choose for themselves is somehow being restricted, a grave offense in late 20th century America! But, listen carefully to what I say. I hope to demonstrate my conclusions from the Bible with the Bible’s own balance. If anyone has a problem with what I say, I want the problem to be felt with the biblical text itself, not with my opinions. So, hear me out.

First, I have no interest in defending American culture in some earlier form, still less in defending the American culture of the 1950s, as if it were the expression of Christian commitments. Obviously something was deeply wrong in 1950s American culture, otherwise it would not have produced the 1960s! Ozzie and Harriet’s son Ricky had problems with drugs, after all. I confess to being troubled, however, by some Christians who have such a disdain for the conservative Christian political movement and the so-called “family-values” movement, that they cannot seem to admit that it was better for people all round when families were generally more healthy, stable, and secure, when there were many fewer illegitimate births, when the great majority of American high-schoolers still lived with their biological parents, and when the bad crowd in a high school was composed of the boys and girls who smoked cigarettes in the bathrooms. And don’t tell me that it wasn’t really so. You will read revisionist work from time to time that seeks to show that the situation was far worse in the 50s than we thought. Don’t believe it. I went to a public school in the mid 1960s: most of my peers lived with their biological parents and the bad crowd was precisely the boys and girls that smoked in the “john” and got drunk at Friday night parties. There probably weren’t yet 25 kids in that large suburban high school who knew what marijuana smelled like. That was true even in many inner-city schools in those halcyon days. And, it will be very difficult to prove that a very large reason for the stability of American marriage and family life was that it was still organized around the principle of female domesticity and male bread-winning.

Nevertheless, I am not claiming that we should return to the 50s or that, at any point, American culture provided a satisfactory example of marriage and family life for the Christian church. There were characteristic problems in American marriage in those days and long before.

Furthermore, I am certainly not saying that women have not suffered grievous injustice from men. They have and they do. But it is the Devil’s ancient weapon to blame the truth for the corruptions and misapplications of it. The history of the world, in a way, is the history of babies being thrown out along with bath water. And usually the chosen remedies prove worse in the long term than the disease they were intended to cure. The oppression of the lower classes in Czarist Russia and feudal China was brutal and terrible, but the Marxist revolution introduced a terror neither the Czar nor the Warlords had dreamed of.

But the Bible itself raises this question and forces this issue upon us in the teeth of our own experience of cultural change. Still, even with the Bible in hand, I expect some to misinterpret what I am about to say. The whole discussion is made much more complex by the fact that there are any number of individual circumstances that fundamentally alter the application of biblical norms to the question of working women. Some women never marry. Others are widowed. The Philippian business-woman, Lydia, was apparently among the widows. She had a family to feed. Some married women have no children, through no fault of their own. The question: what to do with her life, is obviously to be answered differently by a woman who is the mother of children than by one who is not. What a woman may choose to do after her children are older is a different issue than what she chooses to do when they are young. And so on. I am not thinking today, primarily about motherhood, but about marriage, but the relationship between the two is profoundly interconnected.

But, let me accumulate some of the biblical data.

We begin with 1 Tim. 2:15, which we have already discussed in regard to other matters. There Paul says that “women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.” And we said that what that means is that motherhood is, in general, the sphere in which women work out their salvation in fear and trembling, in which they practice their faith, experience the grace of God, and that it is there, more than anywhere else that they serve the Lord. It is important to remember, of course, that hardly anyone – Christian or not – would have disputed that point from 30 years ago back to the beginning of time. The role of the woman as the bearer and nurturer of children is a fixture of human biology and sociology. But, it is regarded nowadays, by an increasing number of people, including an increasing number of Christians, as a positively ridiculous idea.

Nevertheless, Paul teaches it, and, to make matters worse from the feminist viewpoint, he teaches it in a context in which sexual differentiation is taught to be both the divine intention for the human race and essential to its happiness and prosperity. The calling of women to be mothers is part and parcel of that divinely instituted order of human life, the observance of which is crucial to human life.

But the same point is made in many other places and ways in the Bible. 1 Tim. 5:14 and Titus 2:4 both indicate that the domestic focus of female life was both the universal assumption and the positive ethic of apostolic Christianity. (John MacArthur’s church is conservative and Bible believing, but even he lost folk after preaching Titus 2:4 and insisting that there is no way Christians can dispense with this instruction as if it had no relevance for life today or did not lay Christians under the obligation to obey it today.) It is something always to remember that the entire world has lived largely by this rule since its beginning, that feminism is, in its origins, its philosophy, its interests, its methods, a fundamentally anti-Christian movement, and that it is already obvious, after just a few decades that its results are not congenial to Christian interests. That Christians today are more and more accepting its tenets as too obvious to need demonstration is a sign of how tenuous the grip of Holy Scripture has become on large segments of the Christian world.

What makes these few statements more significant, of course, is that they exactly agree with the picture of feminine life given us everywhere in the Bible from the beginning.

  1. Gen. 3 and the woman’s curse focuses on her domestic life as wife and mother;
  2. Almost all the women in the Bible appear in the narrative as wives and mothers and the exceptions virtually prove the rule (Deborah condemns Barak for allowing a woman such a role as he gave her; Esther is a queen, but a queen who plays a most submissive role to her husband; etc.) Now, it is true, most of the Bible’s men were husbands and fathers, but most of the time they are not presented to us in those roles (many times they are, but not most of the time). David is a husband, but he is primarily a heroic king and commander in the narrative. Peter was a married man, we know, but we know nothing of his marriage or family. And so on.
  3. Prov. 7:11: it is part of the description of the evil woman that “her feet never stay at home”
  4. Even, Prov. 31:10-31, which present us with a woman of great accomplishment, obviously intelligent, worldly-wise, comfortable in matters diverse as real estate transactions, personnel management, trade, family finance, agriculture, textile manufacture, etc, presents us, nevertheless, with a woman whose focus in life is domestic and whose life focus is, in that very way, distinctly different from that of her husband. And that is true, even though that biblical culture, as many after it until the modern period, was agricultural, men and women worked in close proximity to one another, and shared many tasks. The division of labor was still obvious and profound.

Now, I am assuming – I haven’t time to demonstrate this – that the distinction of calling everywhere illustrated and taught in the Bible is moral, not positive – that is, it is a consequence of the way things are, of how God made men and women and for what purpose he made them as he did. It is not happenstance, or the particular course evolution took in the development of the human species, or the result of physically stronger men seeing to the socialization of children in such a way as to preserve the superior status of the male. Nor is it dispensational, a pattern of life appropriate to an earlier stage in the history of revelation, but now superceded by later developments.

The reason human life bears this mark of feminine domesticity is because of the way men and women are. Even feminists have largely admitted this, even as they have gnashed their teeth at it and attempted to force its change. Simone de Beauvoir, the consort of Jean Paul Sartre, wrote in 1975 that

“No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children…. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” [Cited in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 313]

Even Margaret Mead, the very influential though now largely discredited sociologist, who is often cited by feminist authors as an authority for their viewpoints, at least was honest enough to admit:

“It is true…that all claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed…. Men have always been the leaders in public affairs, and the final authorities at home.” [320]

Indeed, anthropologist William Stephens observes that, there are near universals in husband-wife relationships in human culture: These include:

  1. A standard division of labor by sex;
  2. The “essential femininity” of some tasks, such as child care, and the “essential masculinity” of other tasks, such as fishing;
  3. Power and privilege: the husband’s status is either equal or higher than the wife’s; matriarchies are rare. [317]

Revolutionaries will seek to alter this order, of course, by main force if necessary. And in some cultures, as the Marxist – there are many similarities between feminism and Marxism as social movements – an effort was made, in effect, to force men into childcare and women to fish – (actually, interestingly, they didn’t really try to make men care for children, they just tried to make women fish! – the brunt of the revolution was, as always, born by the women, who now not only had to care for the children, but fish too!). These revolutions against the divine intention in nature never work. Nature always wins out (so the Israeli kibbutz).

Now, having said all of that, other things must be said.

  1. Women are entering college and graduate schools in unprecedented numbers and, naturally, hope to use the skills and credentials they acquire.
  2. Life-style and economic forces in the developed world, especially the USA, are making it more and more difficult for many families to exist on a single income. Many women in this church began to work, even when their children were still young, precisely in order to be able to keep them in Christian schools.
  3. Domestic work is not the same today, in this era of technology, that it once was; and, even more important, it does not receive the cultural reward that it once did. (Though Betty Friedan’s picture of the unfulfilled 50s housewife was a bald-face lie.)
  4. Effective and readily available birth control has utterly changed the face of the world, including the Christian world. Smaller families and children on demand have profoundly changed a woman’s life.

Now all of this could and should be elaborated in much greater detail. But I put it before you simply to indicate the possible ways in which these developments bear on marriage. And it shouldn’t be hard to see how the new two-career family changes the nature of marriage as well as family.

  1. There is, in the first place, the demands of time and energy that a career places upon a woman, particularly a woman who also is married with children. You may have seen an article in the newspaper a few weeks back about a woman who had built from scratch a $300 million dollar maternity clothing company. She was giving advice to working women. And the advice consisted effectively in urging them to get used to the fact that you had to cut things out: you couldn’t cook dinner for your family, you couldn’t spend as much time with your children – this bothered her, she admitted, but she had resolutely to set her face like flint toward the company and its needs. Well, whatever we may think of this woman’s ethics, her priorities, there is nothing wrong with her logic. A woman who stays at home and has children, knows full well that to do justice to her family will take more time and energy than she has. To add a career to that means something must give. But the career doesn’t give. You can’t just come late to work and leave early because you have things to do at home. It is home that must give. And if the family must lose a good part of your time and energy, surely the marriage must as well. This is the new reality in American marriages – a husband and a wife who see comparatively little of one another, have very little to do with one another’s lives. And it is no solution to this problem to say that men and women must simply learn to share domestic duties. Not only is this a denial of nature, it is way too little and way too late a solution to a problem that strikes at the nature of marriage as a union of two lives. [On the news the other evening a couple was featured for their “cutting edge” solution to caring for their young children while each maintained a career. The mother worked in the morning and the father an afternoon-evening shift. In this way they didn’t have to resort to day-care. Interestingly, they admitted that the price of this arrangement was that they virtually never saw one another. Apparently an acceptable trade-off for having a two-career family.]
  2. When there was and is a more biblical division of labor between husband and wife, there is, naturally and inevitably, a greater union of life between them and a greater sense of that union. (I am not saying that this would be so in marriages where husbands or wives are not fulfilling their roles as they should.) When the man is winning the bread and the woman is baking it – I am speaking figuratively, of course, — there is a sense that they are both spending their lives for the same purpose, building together a life that requires what each of them is uniquely gifted and called to provide. But when both are pursuing careers, both are working out of the home, that sense of common purpose is dissipated, the mutuality of their life together is degraded. I worry that men are effected by this even more than women. (Men graduating from American colleges and universities now, by a significant majority, do not want to marry women who want to stay home and raise children, because they fear the loss of lifestyle when reduced to a single income.) You may still have a man and a woman living under the same roof; but you have less and less obviously “one flesh” a single life being welded out of two. In fact, you seem more and more to have two lives seeking to find something left to share with one another.
  3. There are many more things to mention: the stress put on marriage as a result of the stress that comes from children in day-care, the guilt women feel about what their children are not getting from them, the resentment they often have toward their husbands whom they do not feel have undertaken a full half of the domestic duties, the divided attention in a woman’s life who forms close and meaningful relationships at work, as she is more likely to do than a man, the different view of children that is the inevitable result of fitting them into the schedule of a life that is equally committed – at least so far as time and energy are concerned – to other things, the lessening of a man’s emotional commitment to the life and work of his wife whom, he does not so clearly see as he used to as his partner in his life’s work so much as someone who works at another job, the difficulties that can come from paying a single set of bills from two incomes and a reintroduction into marriage of a sense of “mine” and “yours”, etc.

I do not say that the resolution of this problem for marriage is easy. But I do not hesitate to warn people that the sense of “one flesh” is precious – the very sum of what marriage means – but it is easily eroded. Two careers, especially when there are children present, exercises a powerfully corrosive effect on that “one flesh”, an effect few marriages, in my observation, have managed to withstand very happily. In the Bible, one flesh is accomplished by many things, but one of those things was a division of labor between man and woman that made each a contributor in his or her own way to the unity of their lives, of their accomplishments, of their interests.

[I should say, by the way, that, all the more in our day, it is incumbent upon men to be sure their wives know and often hear that they treasure the work they do, that their own work is of importance to them first of all because it supports her in hers, that he always thinks of what he earns as theirs not his, and that one of the chief blessings of having a wife at home is that he does not have to share her time, her attention, her love with a company.]