Purity Culture Part IV: Gender roles within purity culture and beyond.
Heteronormative: “of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only natural expression of sexuality.” This term will be used ad nauseam over the last two parts of this series. Mostly due to the fact that evangelicals have built their entire biblical interpretation around this concept. Which of course has been a primary source of trauma for many, and in some cases, unthinkable tragedy. For white evangelicals, heteronormativity relies entirely on gender being binary in nature. Which is how we end up with what they call “traditional gender roles.”
When you hear the phrase “traditional gender roles,” perhaps what pops into your head is a 1950’s housewife pulling a roast chicken out of the oven and her husband seated at the table waiting to be served the dinner he did not cook in the kitchen he did not clean. Perhaps you think of stay-at-home-moms, throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties and sharing pictures of their children in matching outfits with hashtags like “blessed” and “love my life.” Or maybe you think of a character, like Tim “the tool man” Taylor or any role played by John Wayne.
Women’s Roles in the Rise of the Christian Right
When the urgent call for sexual purity within white evangelical subculture began afresh in the early 1990’s, evangelicals already saw feminism as the enemy. This was well established by popular white women of the 60’s and 70’s who sold books to housewives, convincing them that the only way to ensure their own happiness- and the security of marriage- was to embrace their differences from men and dedicate their lives to their husband’s happiness. As Kristin Du Mez points out in her book Jesus and John Wayne1 (in reference to Maribel Morgan’s popular book “The Total Woman” published in 1973), “By giving husbands what they wanted, women could transform marriage from “an endurance contest” into something enjoyable.” In other words, if they just adhered to all the expectations of prescribed gender norms, they’d be happy.
In the 1980’s, with a different economy we see a new rise of working women. A new generation of women were fighting back against traditional gender norms, getting advanced degrees and climbing corporate ladders in the attempt to break the glass ceiling. Of course, evangelicals saw this is as yet another attack on the nuclear family. This helps us understand the mindset of white male evangelical leaders of the early 1990’s, when a Democrat is elected president. Many of them probably looked back on the days of Maribel Morgan, and similarly Phyllis Schlafly, with great nostalgia.
Traditional women’s roles, as evangelicals see them, did not start with authors like Morgan, though. As Beth Allison Barr wrote in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood2, “During the nineteenth century, a similar fixation with female purity emerged—stemming from a new ideology about women, work, and family life—which historians call the cult of domesticity.” These ideas were spread widely among Christian society at the time and formed—along with the writings of Paul and scripture like Proverbs 31—the basis for what evangelicals would eventually coin as biblical womanhood. And as Barr later astutely writes, “Christians had once again fallen for a little bit of biblical truth mixed with a lot of human effort poured into maintaining the patriarchal equilibrium of history.” My personal feelings on the efficacy of Barr’s book aside, I’m grateful she points this out. Because it gives us greater understanding of where these ideas come from.
Gender as Social Construct
So much of what we were taught as teenagers and young college students in the era we’re referring to, was taught from the premise of “this is the way it’s always been.” There was very little questioning of the bible verses weaponized to keep girls in check and uphold toxic masculinity. And this overall trust in the system itself played a huge role in how ingrained these ideas were into the minds of young people, and the ones teaching them. I think of the famous phrase from The Mandalorian—This is the way. Women as submissive wives and mothers and homemakers, men as leaders in all things, the spiritual head of his household. That was the way.
But there were other ways. We were simply taught that those other ways were wrong and not pleasing to god. And the fact that even secular society praised these roles to a certain degree—made it easier to “feel” as if this were the only way. Glennon Doyle wrote about this in her 2020 book Untamed3, “Femininity is just a set of human characteristics a culture pours into a bucket and slaps with the label “feminine.” Gender is not wild, its prescribed. When we say, “Girls are nurturing and boys are ambitious. Girls are soft and boys are tough. Girls are emotional and boys are stoic,” we are not telling truths, we are sharing beliefs—beliefs that have become mandates. If these statements seem true, it’s because everyone has been so well programmed.” So well programmed, because this programming has been happening for well over a century!
She goes onto to say, “What is gendered is permission to express certain traits.” Permission. That’s really what gender roles within white evangelicalism come down to. That’s really how heteronormativity has been enforced all along. By women only being given permission to be submissive to male authority. Permission to have romantic feelings for only their male counterparts. Permission to only express her sexuality once she is married to her Christian husband. Men were given permission to make all of the important decisions (or sometimes even the unimportant ones) for their wives. They were also given permission to have an unfettered sexual desire for their wives, which tragically has led to some Christian men believing they own their wives body’s. This particular permission has given rise to pastors like Mark Driscoll, who referred to women as nothing more than “penis homes” for their husbands.4 And on the other side of that coin, they were given permission to have romantic or sexual attraction for only their female counterparts. Again with the heterosexual attraction being enforced as the only acceptable social norm.
Enter, Toxic Masculinity
This obsession with labeling certain characteristics “feminine” or “masculine” led male pastors and authors over the years to go looking for biblical backup for their labels. I’ve cited this particular quote before, but I’m going to use it again here because its a poignant explanation, and by someone who experienced it first hand in real time. Dr. Bradley Onishi is a religious studies professor and former-evangelical who wrote about toxic masculinity in the wake of the Atlanta spa murders earlier this year:
“As an Evangelical, Jesus was the most important thing to me. My personal relationship with God took place through the unconditional love of his Son. But when it came to figuring out how to be a godly man, my elders rarely used Jesus as the prime example. Instead, the model for manhood was the God who destroyed his enemies, rescued Israel — the damsel in distress — from outsiders, and exerted control through a dominant sexuality and physical power. My leaders taught me that most of the Old Testament’s covenant was nullified by the life and death of Christ. The savior brought us a new relationship with God and thus a new set of rules on how to relate to him. At every turn, the new covenant of Jesus overshadowed the old one. And yet, when it came to masculinity, we turned from Christ back to the Most Masculine God in Genesis, Hosea, and other select parts of the Old Testament.”
By putting restrictions on what and who men and women could be, do and think—white evangelical male leaders constructed a system which remained the most comfortable for them and only them. They made themselves the oppressors by making sure everyone who wasn’t them had less power, less autonomy, less everything. They took a set of characteristics and told women, “This is what you must be in order to please God and if it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.” And likewise for young men. Now I could go into the troubling theology that went into this, how we were taught to die unto ourselves to be alive in Christ. But really all that theology did was prop up—or reinforce—any negative feelings or emotions that might arise as a result of adhering to said gender norms. It provided an explanation for the exhaustion and emptiness Christian stay-at-home-moms might feel, or the denial of any desires that were not permitted (sexual or otherwise). Or the never-ending pressure felt by Christian men to provide all financial support and always make the right choices for their family.
In the current world we live in, a lot of us have made great strides to find our freedom and live as our truest selves. However, the old ideas of traditional gender norms are still all around us. Denominations like the SBC and the Christian Right at-large do not want them to go away, and they are fighting hard to keep their idea of “family values” (which we learned last week has more to do with white supremacy than scripture). But the truth is, forced heteronormativity—meaning insisting heterosexual marriages and sex, and by extension traditional gender roles as the only acceptable way of life—is actually killing people. It results in hate and discrimination of our transgender siblings. It’s allowed for the creation of things like “conversion therapy” which have increased suicide rates among gay and trans youth. It’s the reason for all hate crimes committed against the LGBTQIA+ community.
These “traditional” roles are labeled as such to convince us this is the way it should be, because it is what has always been. But as I just pointed out, what has always been has also always hurt people. It has hurt and continues to hurt people physically and psychologically. The ones hurt the most are always those in the margins. Which in the case of white evangelicalism, is pretty much any non-white male. For me personally, I will forever fight this forced heteronormativity until every transgender child has access to the lifesaving healthcare they need in every state. Until every woman is paid an equal wage to her male counterpart. Until every human being is treated equally under the law and in the workplace no matter their gender expression or sexual identity.
Join me again next week, as I conclude this series on the purity culture that shaped a generation. I’ll be exploring just how difficult life was for those who survived purity culture knowing that they could never—and would never—be able to put themselves in the gender boxes prescribed to them by white evangelicalism.
- Du Mez, K. (2020) Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright Publishing Corp. [Kindle Version]
- Barr, B.A. (2021). The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
- Doyle, G. (2020). Untamed. New York, NY: The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
- Retrieved from: https://time.com/3304861/pastor-mark-driscoll-penis-homes/