Author Archives: sjmharrison
If you’ve come across this blog and found it interesting, you might like my other blog, The Mother God Experiment, at http://www.mothergodexperiment.com. It’s for feminist Jesus followers who want to learn to call God Mother (too).
This post was going to address only math and women, rather than math, theology and women. However, I just finished searching on amazon for a book by Tony Jones, Ph.D. I noticed that nearly every one writing about, and writing reviews of, contemporary theology today are men.
Why is theology a man’s world? I suspect it is the same reason so many women avoid math.
The back drop here is what you, the reader, are thinking and feeling as you read this. What do we already “know” about women? We suck at math, and aren’t logical enough for theology. Too relationship-oriented for either. That’s what we all “know.” That’s the stereotype of women.
So, I have two questions I want to discuss: Is the math stereotype true? (I’m not sure we can know regarding theology, based on scientific studies). And, What impact do stereotypes have on women’s behaviors? Luckily, we are finally in a time when we can begin to answer those questions.
The stereotype of women and math is not true. A recent meta-analysis, reported in Science Daily, showed that “girls around the world are not worse at math than boys.” However, boys are universally more confident in their math skills. Another earlier meta-analysis showed similar results, that boys and girls through high school maintain similar math abilities.
So why are boys more confident? In the United States, stereotypes about girls being worse at math have become a form of early gender education. Another study in Science Daily showed that second graders have internalized these ideas. Boys identify themselves with math; girls do not identify themselves with math. Despite the fact that American second graders show no average differences in math achievement.
What impact do these stereotypes have on girls and women? Social psychologists study a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” —the effect of the awareness of being negatively judged based on some social cue like gender or race. In Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine has chapters-worth of studies on gender stereotype threat.
And what happens when you remove the threat? Several researchers found that in tests of mental rotation, when stereotype threat is actively removed, women and men perform equally well. This is a test that men have, on average, performed better on. In this case, the threat was removed by stating that “women perform better than men in this test, probably for genetic reasons” (p. 28). The control group was told nothing, and the threat-group was told that men perform better. In those groups, the men indeed performed better.
In another study, the non-threat group of students doing a challenging calculus test was simply told that “despite testing on thousands of students no gender difference had been found.” Women in this group “outperformed every other group—including both groups of men” (p. 31). Interestingly, students in the threat-condition group were only told what we’re usually told, that “the test was designed to measure math ability, to try to understand what makes some people better at math than others.” So even such a seemingly benign statement is loaded for women—as in, “we know what you are really saying.” We’ve heard this stuff all our lives about women being no good at math, and it does impact our performance.
Stereotype threat has been shown in studies to get in the way of working memory and concentration. Well, any kind of anxiety does. In one study, female and male students in the Advanced Math, Science and Engineering undergraduate program at Stanford were asked to watch several ads for a conference. Some of the ads had an equal number of women and men depicted; others had a more realistic imbalanced ratio of more men to women. The study participants’ heart rate and skin conductance were recorded. Women watching the imbalanced ratio of more men to women had physiological indicators of vigilance and stress, and were less likely to want to attend the conference. These are women who are already in that situation, as majors in Math, Science and Engineering at Stanford. Can you imagine what their daily lives are like? No wonder most women avoid those departments. Who wants to live your life constantly anxious?
And studies show that the more meaningful it is to a woman to be good at math, the more crippling is stereotype threat. In 2001, says Cordelia Fine, half of undergrad math majors were women. But only 29 percent of math Ph.D.s are women. The fewer women there are, the more stereotype threat abounds. For example, one study found that math performance in women diminishes the more males there are in a room with a solo woman. If you found yourself in that situation too many times, it would be easy to just give up and say “They’re right. I’m no good at this.”
I remember as an entering freshman in college, someone who knew me well encouraged me to drop a calculus class that I had pre-tested and qualified for. “Don’t take something so hard,” this person said. That was all it took for me to believe I’d be in over my head. Math’s not for women, right? I had the second highest SAT score in high school and my math score was higher than my verbal. All I needed was someone to encourage me and believe in me, something to dispel the stereotype threat, not reinforce it.
The other day, my husband was telling me that the president of Harvey Mudd College is actively recruiting women for the computer science department, where women now make up 42% of the department (nationally, the statistic is 14%). She is holding all-women classes, for example, and simplifying introductory computer courses to make them more accessible to those without prior experience. She scoots around campus on her skateboard talking to women and encouraging them. Read more here.
When I heard about this, I surprised myself with my tears. I suddenly realized that I have gone my whole life with doors closed based on stereotype. Doors I’d never considered opening. And a few I almost opened.
I mentioned theology at the beginning of this. I had the same Closed Door experience in my upper level theology and Bible classes at Regent College. Mainly because the classes were mostly men. Even my upper level missions class had only two women in it, and I was one of them. I experienced inexplicable tension, a sense of both standing out and being invisible. The one time I spoke out, in defense of the other woman student who was ignored because she expressed emotions when she spoke of injustice she had experienced in her country, the class passed over my comment as though it had never been.
Much later in my education, I wanted to take Advanced New Testament to get a New Testament concentration for my M.Div., as it was the only class I lacked. But no way was I going to subject myself to the intense anxiety of being the only woman in a group of over-confident men, including, forgive me, the professor. So, I missed out on the class and the concentration.
But I obviously wasn’t the only one. Women had, in general, opted out of that and other higher level classes.
Unfortunately, this probably only reinforced for the men that women are no good at theology and higher level Bible studies. I doubt it ever occurred to most of them to ask, “Where are the women?” They assumed they knew. The women were polishing their toe nails and bonding, discussing lighter subjects like community and social justice.
I suppose it is going to take women, en masse, infiltrating these Men’s Clubs, doing sit-ins together. I hope that we can begin to talk about stereotype threat, name it as a reality women face, so we can open doors that matter to us, and learn what we want to learn. It’s going to take men, too, choosing to become aware of the impact of stereotype threat on women, and choosing to speak out. And to genuinely want to know, “Where are the women?”
How has stereotype threat impacted you or someone you know?
Back in my Regent College Days, I led a social justice group called Micah 6:8. At one point I was having conversations with homosexual Christian men who were speakers or graduates of Regent. I had decided to host a debate about homosexuality in a climate where this topic would be “hot” to say the least.
Then I changed my mind. I asked a woman from an inner healing group called Living Waters whether she or someone she knew would like to speak about their experience with being transformed from having a homosexual orientation to having a heterosexual one. She was married to the leader of the group, who was formerly homosexual.
She was quite angry at me for asking and asked rhetorically, “Would you have a debate to discuss adultery?” Shamed, I muttered some ineffective response and got off the phone.
Yet, my intuition said, “This is right. Do it.”
That didn’t make sense to me because my mind still said homosexuality was an orientation which could not be morally lived out. The Living Waters leader was right, wasn’t she?
As I was in the habit of doing back then, I listened to my left brain instead of that still, small voice. Call it intuition, or the Holy Spirit, I still remember that feeling. And I betrayed it.
So, like Alan Chambers from the now defunct Exodus International, I wanted to chime in and say, I’m sorry. I screwed up.
But I’m glad that there are forums to say that. I’m happy that Chambers has provided an enormous opportunity for discussion in the Christian community for discussion about how to love people. And how to bring healing to people who have are deeply wounded by well-meaning yet wrong-headed believers, like I was. I’d like to post a part of Chambers’ apology here, because it is so powerful.
As I have heard people comment, that doesn’t make up for the damage. But without it, as a start, can there really be complete healing?
Here’s an excerpt from Chamber’s website:
Recently, I have begun thinking again about how to apologize to the people that have been hurt by Exodus International through an experience or by a message. I have heard many firsthand stories from people called ex-gay survivors. Stories of people who went to Exodus affiliated ministries or ministers for help only to experience more trauma. I have heard stories of shame, sexual misconduct, and false hope. In every case that has been brought to my attention, there has been swift action resulting in the removal of these leaders and/or their organizations. But rarely was there an apology or a public acknowledgement by me.
And then there is the trauma that I have caused. There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions. I was afraid to share them as readily and easily as I do today. They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes they would go away. Looking back, it seems so odd that I thought I could do something to make them stop. Today, however, I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there. The days of feeling shame over being human in that way are long over, and I feel free simply accepting myself as my wife and family does. As my friends do. As God does.
Never in a million years would I intentionally hurt another person. Yet, here I sit having hurt so many by failing to acknowledge the pain some affiliated with Exodus International caused, and by failing to share the whole truth about my own story. My good intentions matter very little and fail to diminish the pain and hurt others have experienced on my watch. The good that we have done at Exodus is overshadowed by all of this.
Friends and critics alike have said it’s not enough to simply change our message or website. I agree. I cannot simply move on and pretend that I have always been the friend that I long to be today. I understand why I am distrusted and why Exodus is hated.
Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.
More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives. For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the Gospel, one of grace, mercy and open invitation to all to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God.
Wow and Amen.
How has Alan Chamber’s confession influenced you to re-think this issue?
“I thought you told me we didn’t have enough money for vacation this year. I see you got a bonus from work but used it to buy a new camera,” said Jane.
“What?” Joe blinked several times. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re crazy.”
Jane dropped the issue, half-doubting herself. The camera was bought anyway.
Just what was going on in this exchange?
In marriage counseling, therapists talk about “gas lighting.” The term comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight. In it, Ingrid Bergman stars as a woman who is made crazy for a time by her husband’s intention to make her question reality at every turn. He searches for hidden treasure in the attic with gas lights, for example. The wife often notices that gas lights in the house are flickering, and the husband denies it, always acting as though she is crazy.
So, gas lighting involves deception, insults or abuse, paired with the forceful denial of such. But it goes further. It makes the one questioning the deceiver or abuser doubt herself. I say “herself” because often the dynamic is between husband and wife. But it can also be between a parent and a child, or siblings, or boss and employer. Women can perpetrate as well as men, but the one being manipulated into self-doubt is often a woman. Society brainwashes women, via stereotypes, into doubting our own perceptions and emotional stability.
I recently read an article by a man who was once a gaslighter, entitled, “A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not ‘Crazy.’” He lists the things gaslighters (who can also be women) say to women who complain of feeling hurt, angry or frustrated with them.
“You’re so emotional.”
“You’re too sensitive.”
“Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out!”
“I was just joking. Don’t you have a sense of humor?”
It might also be just a facial expression—squinting at you like you are nuts. Well-rehearsed body language that is all about putting you in your place for truth-telling. Or a verbal sleight of hand that makes you question your memory.
Another way of thinking of gas lighting is emotional manipulation, says the author. It’s a play on “the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It’s patently false and unfair.”
What is the key to getting out of a gaslighting situation? Learning to trust your own perceptions and stick by them no matter what. Refusing to second-guess yourself. It might also mean getting out of a certain relationship entirely or putting boundaries on it. Let’s revisit the first scene:
“What? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Joe blinked several times. “You’re crazy!”
Looking him in the eye, Jane said, “I think you do know. You told me we didn’t have the money, but we did, and now the money is gone. We need to talk about this.”
And, perhaps, to make an appointment to see a marriage or family counselor who is sensitive to feminist issues. Or to see a lawyer if the gaslighter’s defenses are so rigid that change that change is unlikely and the oppression unrelenting. Or, as needed, to call a domestic abuse hotline and find a women’s shelter. Sometimes women cannot afford to truth-tell.
Bergman gets the last laugh in Gas Light, by the way, once a detective investigates and validates her perception about the gas lights. I hope this post is enough validation for you to be loyal to your own feelings and perceptions, whether you are a wife dealing with a controlling husband, a grown daughter still feeling manipulated by your mother, or an employee of a gas-lighting boss.
You are not crazy, and you deserve better.
Last week I read an article by a 14 year old girl named Anne G., entitled, “Feminism’s Not Dying, But it May be Changing a Little.” She brings a millennial perspective to a recent survey by HuffPost/YouGov which found that a majority of respondents (81%) claim that “women and men should be social, political, and economic equals.” Yet, only 20% embrace the term “feminist.” Notably, CBS polls show this has been true for the past 20 years—around 20% call themselves feminist, with a far higher number when feminism is defined as a belief in equality.
My first reaction to that statistic was pleasant surprise. I never expected that kind of strong minority to identify with such a radical term. “Feminist” is a committed word, like “evangelical.” It implies much more than the definition of feminism as “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” It brings to mind someone who is willing to apply that theory. Someone willing to make waves, speak up, change rules and laws, make people unhappy if necessary—an activist who is willing to talk about the hard stuff about the way women are treated in society, or in a family, and do something about it.
Alexandra at Feminista.com, notes that people are scared of feminists, because “the first harbinger of change” is “the women in protest, rejecting her assumed docility and with it our entire gendered world in its current form.”
I agree. A lot of men and women do not like the traditional “angry feminist.” These days she might be wearing high heels and lipstick and referring to her “girlfriends,” but it doesn’t matter. And that’s a part of the problem feminists address: men can get angry and still be good men–or not, but good women must exude sweetness and light, with a smiley face after any truth-telling statement. If we do not behave, there is a boat-load of nasty labels waiting for us. One of them might be “feminist.”
Yet, it is the fighting spirit in women that has brought about the economic, political and social changes we benefit from, over the last 150 years. We act as though these have always been: women’s right to vote; to attend a university; to work outside the home in a variety of professions; to earn a (more) equal wage; to be (more or less) protected by the police when husbands and boyfriends abuse. All of these changes took place through women and men boldly, passionately, and intelligently speaking out in hostile environments. Susan Faludi says, “The meaning of the word ‘feminist’ has not really changed since it first appeared in a book review in the Athenaeum of April 27, 1895, describing a woman who ‘has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence.’”
I remember the moment I decided to become a feminist, in college, in 1989. I was sitting by a window in a class called “Music, Poetry and Ideas” taught by a feminist music professor. I knew her mainly as “pro-choice” because I was actively pro-life. As she spoke about the prevalence of husbands abusing wives, young men mistreating girlfriends, I felt deeply moved in a way that only a 20-year old can. I made a conscious decision to become a feminist and take the baggage with the term, which for me included being misunderstood on the issue of abortion and misunderstood by my evangelical community. But when I said “yes” to “feminist,” I said yes to women, to the never-ending discomfort of intentionally making myself aware of injustice against women, and to being sometimes stereotyped. I never expected to be in a majority.
Yet, in a sense, I now am. Another bit of happy news from that poll is that, thanks to feminists, 81% of those surveyed have a new normal when it comes to women–they expect equal rights in all spheres. In a CBS poll from 2009, 77% of women said their opportunities are greater than their mothers’ were, and they credit the women’s movement with that. In fact, 69% said the women’s movement “had improved their lives.” This is remarkable in that, in 1983, only 25% of women said the same.
The women’s movement was and is made of feminist activists. That brilliant 14-year old girl I mentioned in the first paragraph notes that a changing feminism flourishes among the Millennial generation. For example, her high school supports a Young Feminist Club and hosted a SlutWalk. (If you need to understand why feminists feel angry, read the SlutWalk link, an article by a man who walked with his boys.) Though she says that for her the term “feminist” is inconsequential compared to the ideology, for me, the word can be embraced by all who know there is still a lot to be pro-actively compassionate and angry about.
For just one example, the soil of the Internet has unearthed a new men’s movement (Men’s Rights Activists) that is not only about men’s rights, but is often actively misogynist. Woman-hate has in fact become so mainstream that Facebook didn’t object to ads promoting rape and violence against women until companies began removing their own ads in protest. And this is with Sheryl Sandberg in charge.
As Anne G. notes, even within the feminist movement itself, we need women’s voices speaking out, because there are ways to be more inclusive, ways to empower the women who are least likely to be heard, kinder ways to speak to each other. It’s okay for women to notice injustice, be angry about it, and voice it. It is the time-honored role of the prophetess or prophet to speak truth to power, or from places of power.
We need feminist men’s voices, too, as they are still more likely to actually be heard. We respect and honor a male feminist; they surprise and delight us; and they are out there doing the work, too.
Let’s keep the “feminist” label if we can wear it proudly, with an understanding of its amazing history—one that most of us appreciate. Being known as a feminist predictably means being misunderstood, marginalized or even despised, by some men and institutions that do not want the balance of power to change too much. And also, sadly, by some of the women who have benefited from the women’s movement.
That very resistance to us is why society still needs our unrelenting, prophetic—and righteously angry—feminist voices.
What do you think? Do you call yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
“But Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.”
Anne Lamott, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day”
In honor of my child, Micah, and with a nod to Anne Lamott
Not sure who started it, but “luv you, buv you” caught right on in our family. We say it a lot. We say it in our king size bed when the three of us lie down, all cozy, and talk our 7 year old son to sleep. Some nights lately, Micah says “luv you, buv you” or just “luv you” to us a dozen times, and each time, we say it back, until it is tempting to ask him to stop. It finally occurred to me, that there must be a reason he keeps repeating this. He’s not quite getting his love needs met. Our languid “luv you buv you, too”s weren’t doing it.
One day recently, he walked into the little room where I exercise to DVDs, and said, “Mom must be turning 79 on your next birthday in July,” and then “You don’t love me as much you used to.” Somehow, death was linked with the loss of love in this seeming non-sequitur. I had felt gloomy and was withdrawn that day, even though I thought it wasn’t showing much.
Micah picks up on these things. It doesn’t take shouting, harsh reprimands, irrational punishments or crazy consequences for him to know when he is not being loved. He’s always been that way. When he was 3, we read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and thought, “This is our kid.” By the time he was 5, we were hearing painful echoes of “Asperger’s,” “Autistic Spectrum Disorder,” and “Sensory Processing Disorder,” from people like our pediatrician, the preschool teacher, and even strangers.
It took a long time to come to the conclusion, with a psychologist, that he is on “the spectrum,” if on the high functioning end. One of the reasons it was hard to accept this diagnosis is he so exquisitely sensitive to us, to God, to animals, to plants, and to anything created. When he was 3, we often watched home repair videos on the computer because he enjoyed them. When a commercial for a mouse trap was advertised, Micah’s eyes welled up with tears. We have introduced the idea of the food chain very slowly to him even though he is 7 now. He has finally accepted that fleas must die in our house.
Rondalyn Varney Whitney, author of Nonverbal Learning Disorder: Understanding and Coping with NLD and Asperger’s—What Parents and Teachers Need to Know, says this of Spectrum kids, “The message these kids bring is, ‘If you tell me exactly what you mean, if you are honest with me and kind to me, I’ll be the most amazing kid you’ve ever met. And if you’re not, I’ll be your worst nightmare. Not because I’m trying to punish you, but because I don’t know how else to be. So you can use me as measure of your clarity, your honesty, and your kindness. Here I am.’” And she is right. There is no fooling our child (or any child) with conditional love.
Sometimes, when Micah can’t get a bad memory out of his head, something that I have done, he says, “I love you…but sometimes you make mistakes.” And we talk about the memory. Lately it is a memory of a time when Micah and I drove to the pet store in town—two years ago. He enjoyed watching a worker install a water filter in a fish tank, and peppered him with questions. Until the guy stopped talking, entirely. Embarrassed, I tried to get Micah to leave with me, but he wouldn’t. Finally, I pulled him out of the store.
For many children, this is one of many every-day scenes where parents take control physically, or deliver consequences as though the child actually had bad intentions. Too many moments like that to remember, and maybe kids get used to it, or change their behavior, or harden their hearts. But our son won’t let us get away with the parenting we ourselves were raised with.
From reading Alfie Kohn (Unconditional Parenting), to Naomi Aldort (Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves), I have had to look at my parental underbelly and see what was there. I realized that I learned, somewhere along the way, to live in my head, and to keep my emotions well in check. Not because I don’t feel them; just the opposite. But I have learned a self-protective way of being in the world. That emotional style impacts how I parent Micah.
The last year, Micah has been intensely, loudly sad and scared over many things—monster play at preschool, our two cats getting out of the house and disappearing for a day, moving from a house he loved, and seeing a deer carcass in the forest near the new house—to name but a few. My son has expressed deep and terrifying emotions—guttural cries, copious tears and much anxiety in the aftermath.
Around the time all these crises began, I read The Whole Brain Child, by Siegel and Bryson, which helped me see how I needed to change my response to Micah’s emotional storms. I realized that I retreat to my rational left brain when overwhelmed. I needed to re-engage the right brain, where my emotions are formed, in order to truly connect with and calm my son when he was distressed. My too-calm voice when he was upset did not match the measure of my love and commitment to Micah’s well-being.
So I have gone to work on my brain in those moments that frighten us. I have looked carefully at Micah’s tear-stained face and tried to remember feeling that tenor of sadness, fear and vulnerability that only a child can feel. I have felt that upset, too; we all have. And somehow that memory trace from my own childhood has been just enough to kick-start true feelings of empathy that Micah can lean on in his most scary moments. When I empathize with my words, my feelings match now.
The other day, I read this cool verse from the Bible, and thought of Micah not being quite satisfied with our responses to his love at night: “He will exult over you with singing, as on the day of a festival” (Zeph. 3). God will karaoke and have a party over you. Just as Micah needs my true empathy, so he needs that kind of delight, exultation, rejoicing over who he is.
In my “I love you”s and “luv you buv you”s, he wants to hear in my voice tone the height and depth of my emotions. What Micah demands is divine love. That’s what he knows he deserves. And as I tap into both divine rejoicing and my right brain, he will know for sure that he is loved.
Some of you may have heard about or attended a Love and Respect marriage conference at an evangelical church near you. Dr. Susan Biali, MD, blogged on psychologytoday.com about her and her husband’s transformative experience at one of these conferences. She learned that husbands mainly want respect, not love (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prescriptions-life/201304/relationship-advice-women-need-love-men-need-respect).
This was Biali’s summary of Eggerich’s recommendations to women:
A man feels respected when:
1) You tell him thanks for going to work every day and praise his commitment to providing for you and your family (I know, you very likely go to work, too – as do I – but to men it’s particularly important to have their efforts and dedication acknowledged)
2) You ask him to talk about his dreams.
3) You praise his good decisions (and don’t keep bringing up the bad ones)
4) You honor his authority in front of the children – and others in general – and differ with him in private
5) You thank him for his advice and knowledge (men love to help and advise)
6) You do recreational activities with him, “shoulder to shoulder”, such as watching the football game, going along for a drive, or going camping with him (here’s a kicker, though: apparently it’s a huge gift to men if women keep them company but don’t talk the whole time. I have been working on this one, it is not easy!)
7) You respond more often to him sexually (I think this one needs no explanation)
What do you think about this? I for one really enjoy the feeling of being deliberately, consciously respectful, of letting a man be a man and recognizing him for his “manliness” and his internal blueprint for leadership. Men really are very different from women, I think that’s pretty obvious to anyone.
Eggerichs and Biali are coming from a perspective that uses the Bible to support their position, that men mostly want respect in marriage, and women mainly want love. In light of that, I want to point out verses that command husbands to respect their wives, and encourage wives to love their husbands.
Check these out:
I Peter 3:7 “Husbands in the same way [as the women] be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” [Note that my commentary says that “weaker” is “not a reference to moral stamina, strength of character or mental capacity, but most likely to sheer physical strength”—TNIV Study Bible.]
Titus 2:4 “Then they [older women] can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children…”
Even the Biblical writers were flexible enough in their thinking about gender roles to include commands for women to love their husbands, and husbands to respect their wives. That ought to say something to us in the 21st century when women’s human rights are, in principle, acknowledged.
That said, I think that Biali and Eggerichs are right in one way: many men would love their wives or girlfriends to do all of those things. What neither seem to notice, or give value to, is that most of these suggestions, unless they are reciprocated to the wife, are likely to result in an unequal and unfair dynamic in a relationship. (For example, note the fact that Biali, as an MD, may surpass her husband in salary and skill-set, yet she is the one to express appreciation to him for working so hard for the family). If women follow Biali’s model of “being deliberately, consciously respectful, of letting a man be a man and recognizing him for his ‘manliness’ and his internal blueprint for leadership,” then what you have is not a partnership but a leader-followership. It is a reinforcement of hierarchy. That’s not what Jesus would do. If you want to see Jesus’ egalitarian approach to women, read the gospels. Or, at least, my book (http://www.amazon.com/Saving-Women-Church-Jesus-Divide/dp/1594980136/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1367961697&sr=1-1&keywords=saving+women+from+the+church).
And do men, in general, really need more respect? The need for respect can be a bottomless pit when the fear of not meeting the standards of traditional masculinity has forged shame into the soul. But, the actual need for respect may, in fact, be strongest in those who don’t get as much in society: wives and mothers, for example. When I withdrew from a doctoral program to become a Stay-at-Home Mom, I realized with a shock that I dropped to the bottom of the societal value-meter. I had to consciously develop such a strong sense of self-respect that I don’t need any one to praise me for the valuable skills I have honed in my current position.
Many men could not function emotionally at all in a Stay-at-Home Parent role. (Let me emphasize that there are some wonderful exceptions to this statement). They have been raised to expect power, respect, status and praise both in the world and at home, more than women have. That expectation can leave them fragile, when it is not met. Note even the sub-title of Eggerich’s book, “The Love She Most Desires, The Respect He Desperately Needs.” Should wives feed into this false sense of desperation, by emphasizing respect?
Biali’s final respect-over-love argument is the Mars/Venus one: “Men really are very different from women, I think that’s pretty obvious to anyone.” All our beliefs are obvious before they are tested. Let’s look at a 2013 meta-analysis of 13 gender difference studies (here: http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/02/05/men-and-women-may-not-be-so-different-after-all/51222.html). The review showed “that for the vast majority of psychological traits, including the fear of success, mate selection criteria, and empathy, men and women are definitely from the same planet.
“Instead of scores clustering at either end of the spectrum—the way they do with, say, height or physical strength—psychological indicators fall along a linear gradation for both genders.”
Men and women, because they are both human, more similar in their needs than different, need love and respect in equal measure. Those who say they want respect more than love begin to enter an abuse continuum where the greater power must be maintained in a marriage relationship. Abusive men appear to need no love at all: only respect and power. They are on one extreme end. On the milder end of the spectrum are the men whose self-esteem thrives on subtle and direct communications of wifely deference—the very suggestions Biali has suggested, in fact.
When these men don’t get what they need to feel good about themselves, they often stonewall, says Eggerichs—an adult, quiet version of a tantrum. Stonewalling is one of marriage expert John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse” for marriage—a divorce predictor (http://azgrowth.com/4Horsemen.pdf ). Yes, “respect” would end the stonewalling, but not in a healthy way, just as giving a child candy for dinner because he wants it keeps him happy but not well.
As Eggerichs says, respect and love are not the same thing. He notes, “You respect your boss, you don’t love your boss.” Exactly.
Three years ago, I wrote an essay called “Raising an Egalitarian Son” (published in Mutuality Magazine). Our process for doing that was straightforward: don’t use sexist language; don’t push gender-based activities; and don’t watch TV. When one day my then 3 year old son announced, “God is a woman. You can see mama, but you can’t see God,” I knew we’d done something right.
Since then, life has gotten more complicated. My now 7 year old son’s landing process from angel to concrete has been painful. We still don’t watch TV, so being around media-saturated boys has jarred him. When Micah was in preschool, one boy was obsessed with playing monster, while other boys brought heinous-looking action figures to school for show and tell. One 5 year old kid often wore a shirt with a man with a sneer and a huge fist coming out toward the rest of us. Preschool teachers acted like this was normal.
The summer after preschool, Micah avoided boys, assuming they were all this way. And so far, we have found that many are. Our egalitarian son, who has no need to prove himself as “all boy,” has found there are few like him. Why? Is it that most boys are genetically programmed to be aggressive and attracted to violence, while most girls are not? Is our son just an anomaly, while the media feeds other little boys with what they really want?
Lise Eliot, neuroscientist and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, writes that though there are indeed some small sex-based differences, “overall, boys’ and girls’ brains are remarkably alike. Just as boys’ and girls’ bodies start out more androgynous than they end up in adulthood, their brains appear to be less sexually differentiated than adult men’s and women’s” (5). The brain has plasticity, and so to a large degree “your brain is what you do with it.” Elliot believes that boys’ and girls’ brains become distinctly male and female adult brains after experiencing a boy set of social expectations and a girl set of social expectations.
This isn’t sexy, as Eliot points out. What’s sexy is the idea of hard-wired, innate sex differences. Sex differences sell. And so research has been reported irresponsibly, which has contributed to the stereotypical yet well-loved idea that “boys will be boys.” (See the books Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, and Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, for more). We then continue to raise boys differently than girls, and the “typical boy” behaviors are reinforced as inevitable while we turn on the TV or stand in line for another Power Rangers toy.
Because I have been aware of the gender difference research since 2005 (in professional journals rather than the popular media), the year my son was born, I know that even in adults there are few things one can even try to predict based only on sex (http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/02/05/men-and-women-may-not-be-so-different-after-all/51222.html). So, I have tried to avoid treating Micah differently based on the fact he is male. Have I done it anyway? Probably. I believe I have been less empathetic toward him overall than I would have been had he been a girl. When I have pictured myself relating to a distressed girl, I’ve heard a softer tone of voice and seen more expression in my face.
When I became aware of that, I began to try hard to change. The other day we had a conversation in the car about each family member’s strengths and skills. My husband Mark said that he thought I was skilled at empathy. Micah said, “That’s an understatement!” So I must have made some progress. But I know I still have archetypes of “real maleness” in my head that I will be confronting the rest of Micah’s growing up years. The best I can do is stay aware.
That’s what I hope to do with this post—create awareness of the ways we mold and shape our children’s brains to fit into stereotypes. When children are babies, boys tend to be needier than girls due to developmental differences (likely due to a less mature hypothalamic-endocrine system at birth, says Eliot ). Yet you will see people peer into strollers talking to the “Little Man” dressed in blue, as though he were already on his way out the door and into the army. Talking to a “Little Woman” infant would seem bizzare, like we’d put breasts on her already. We start early with our expectations of boys.
The path is not as narrow with girls, surprisingly. In the 21st century, girls actually have more choices than boys in what they can dream about becoming. Hence, studies show that girls in mid-preschool begin to have a wide range of toy preferences, including toy vehicles and sports games (Elliot, 110). Boys of this age tend to become more and more rigid, however, and must avoid anything remotely related to girlhood.
Eliot believes this reflects the narrow set of roles for men in our culture. While women can more freely cross into most male-dominated job markets now, men are still ridiculed for taking on jobs like nursing, stay at home parent, or preschool teacher. Society questions their masculinity, virility or sexual orientation, whereas a woman police officer or pilot is still assumed to be heterosexual—if she looks the part, anyway.
I had never thought of boys or men as oppressed, until the experience of raising one. Having a boy has given me the opportunity to see the ways that boys are restricted, the ways that fear and shame diminish them from the earliest age. The fear is that of being seen as girl-like, the shame is that of not meeting up to the standards of the “real boy.” William Pollack, Ph.D., calls this “The Boy Code”—a set of “should be’s” about boys. Boys should be the “sturdy oak”—independent, strong; they should “give ‘em hell” a la John Wayne; they should be “the big wheel”—always dominant and powerful; there should be “no sissy stuff” meaning real human feelings (23-25). Except for anger, which we tend to see as the only masculine emotion.
Mark Gerzon, author of A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Face of American Manhood, notes that in the age of the world wars, boys were raised to be hardened so they could become soldiers. He says the nuclear age means we have to stop raising boys to be fighters, or we will, eventually, annihilate ourselves. He writes, “This is true heroism: the courage to explore oneself deeply and to act with self-awareness….As the threats to human survival change, so does masculinity” (6). A man doesn’t have to be Braveheart to “push the button”—just bent on self-destruction.
It is time to let our boys be themselves in all their variety as human beings, rather than walking representatives of Masculinity. Sure, some will tend toward aggressive play. But some others are pushed into it through shame, when they would rather read or play the piano (see Pollack’s Real Boys’ Voices for their stories). At our house, there is no gender education, except for our own unwitting modeling of sex roles (see my blog post, Raising an Egalitarian Boy, Part 1, for more on that). When Micah puts on a pink shirt, so does his dad.
The other day, I read an article about a writer-dad in Germany whose little son likes to wear dresses and skirts. The dad has taken to wearing them, too. (And he looks great! Check him out here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nils-pickert/skirt-dad_b_1911444.html). The dad wants to support his son’s phase of development. Dress-up is a part of kidhood and the dad knows that. He also knows how sacred sex roles are to society and he is not going to let his son out there without a skirted escort.
It is going to take that kind of courage on the part of parents to take down the brick walls of gender stereotypes. Blue and pink are just social ideas after all. Prior to the early 20th century, babies of both genders wore frilly white dresses until age 6. Today, the parents of those dress-wearing boys would be vilified.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can decide to loosen up about pink and blue. Yes, start there, with those colors. Commit to never again color-coding a kid. Culture is malleable, just like the human brain, just like the ideas behind gender, which is by definition, a social construct.
This has been evident in our son’s early preference for pink, orange, magenta, turquoise, purple. Micah has always had a singular drive to be himself: rainbow-hued, fully human, fully child. He loves flowers, and trains. Loves cats, and cars. He cries when he gets hurt, still wants to be picked up sometimes when he is tired at the store, and falls asleep at night with his parents beside him. He gets to be 7 now, and a man only when he is an adult. After all, he is a boy, and boys will be boys.
The first person I met who told me he was homosexual was finishing up a doctoral degree at Fuller, a well-known Christian university, in the 1990s. (I was there for a couple of months). He had become sexually active while there, due to all the opportunity for sexual encounters in the LA area. He frequently used 1-800 numbers to meet people. This man and I sort of dated for a bit. He liked me, but, he just wasn’t attracted to women as much as he would have liked to be. It must have been so hard to live two lives, as it seemed he was doing—a day time life and a nighttime life. He told me one time that he would have sexual encounters in bathrooms with men he had just met, and that he longed to say “I love you!” during orgasms sometimes. He wanted, I think now, a long-term commitment with one of these men, but felt constrained by the Christian graduate community of which he was a part.
My comfort level with homosexuality has slowly increased in the past twenty years (see my post “Middlesexed: One Christian’s Incarnational Journey from Fear to Acceptance”), but I have never been able to get comfy with the idea of any one having multiple sexual encounters with strangers, of any sexual orientation. I know that this approach to sex is increasingly common among young heterosexuals, as well. But it’s not healthy for any one, either physically, emotionally or spiritually. So for those people who long to be married, deeply desire to be committed to one person over their life time, I’d like to give my full-on support. Marriage is hard for heterosexuals or homosexuals alike, but nothing like a lifetime of emotionally empty one-time encounters, as my friend was aware of experiencing.
I think if heterosexual Christians want to increase the level of morality in our human community, we would do well to fully support civil unions or marriage rights for homosexuals. And if Christians want to be welcoming to those in the gay community, why not start with affirming their basic rights to stable, committed monogamy. Don’t some Christians still say that heterosexuals who live together are “living in sin”? Well, this is what we are encouraging among homosexuals when we say that two people who deeply love each other cannot have the legal rights of married couples. No one can change their orientation by controlling laws, that’s for sure. But a society in which homosexual people are finding deep and meaningful commitments which enjoy the protection of the law and the support of citizens can only be a more moral one.
Maybe we could bring some healing to people with varying sexual orientations just by acknowledging their basic human rights in this matter. I think about how I would feel if I were homosexual and were continually told by the church that I was sinful due to something I could not change, and that I should not be allowed to have the same legal rights as heterosexuals. I’d be very angry and I wouldn’t listen to anything the church had to say. Wouldn’t you feel the same? What if the issues were reversed and heterosexuality was considered the sin? I can’t see too many celibate-heterosexual-males-for-Jesus banging on the church door, that’s for sure.
Recently, George Barna found that “overall, heterosexuals are twice as likely as homosexuals to attend a church service, read the Bible, and pray to God during a typical week (31% vs 15%)” (http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/13-culture/282-spiritual-profile-of-homosexual-adults-provides-surprising-insights). Yet 58% of homosexual people in the survey “had made ‘a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today.’” It seems to me that people with a homosexual orientation have been pushed out of the church, left out of opportunities for spiritual growth, and forced into an individual rather than community-oriented faith.
I think Jesus wants everyone to come to him alongside other believers, to know they are welcome at the table of faith, and to be accepted as they are. As Christ-followers, why not begin by supporting homosexual people in their desire for a moral, legal, monogamous commitment to another person? To do otherwise is to unwittingly encourage a 1-800 number approach to love.