Warrior Wives and Evangelical Gender Norms



3 comments
Seth Dowland

Over the weekend, The Atlantic published a fascinating piece on the “Warrior Wives” of evangelical Christianity. The title grabbed my attention immediately, as it connected the normally masculine warrior ideal with women. Such a connection is not totally surprising; evangelicals have employed militaristic metaphors for decades, if not centuries. It turns out, as well, that Atlantic editors were merely taking their cues from one of the more popular evangelical women’s blogs, Warrior Wives. But I still found it curious. When is it OK for a woman to be a warrior? How do evangelicals simultaneously hold gender norms that assign men and women to complementary roles alongside a rhetoric that enjoins everyone—man or woman—to fight?

The Atlantic piece rightly placed gender norms at the center of evangelical understandings of marriage and sexuality.  Author Emma Green repeatedly turned to Amy DeRogatis, whose excellent new book Saving Sex shows (among other things) how evangelical women have recast the feminist ideal of empowerment in the realm of sexuality. Women can wield power by withholding sex before marriage and by indulging their husbands’ purportedly stronger sex drives after the wedding day. Chaste evangelical women also claim power by avoiding the “sexually transmitted demons” that plague the unfaithful and the promiscuous.

Evangelical women’s power has allowed some to claim the mantle of “warrior wives,” revising over a century’s worth of female gender norms that have envisioned women as weaker vessels or as the fairer sex. When anti-feminists fought against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, conservative women baked cakes and brought them to their legislators’ offices, telling them, “we need you, (male) legislators, to fight for us.”* Today’s evangelical women, it seems, can fight for themselves.  Reading the Warrior Wives blog confirms the insights that Marie Griffith made about the “power of submission” in her still-timely 1997 book, God’s Daughters. Many conservative evangelical women still prioritize submission to their husbands, but their version of submission sounds quite egalitarian. Today’s evangelical women “fight for their marriages” and aren’t afraid of confrontation.

Now I know what I need to be wearing for fantasy football drafts.
I’m intrigued about how this focus on female fighting will reshape gender norms for evangelicals. In particular, I’m curious about what the presence of warrior wives will do to evangelical norms for men. We’ve highlighted on this blog some of the über-masculinity in conservative evangelicalism, from MMA evangelists to the Power Team** to Tim Tebow. I don’t think that evangelicals’ understanding of men as fighters is going away anytime soon. But there does seem to be some slackening in strict complementarianism. Evangelicals have inherited the notion that some women want to fight, too, and all men may not be into MMA. Who knows where this will lead? A century ago, liberal Protestants talked incessantly about manliness and muscular Christianity. That rhetoric slowly faded among liberals. Are evangelicals entering a similar phase of rethinking their understandings of gender?

* This awesome anecdote comes from Don Mathews and Jane Sherron DeHart’s book Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA.
** Please see Elesha Coffman’s brilliant Then & Now post for another reading of gender in evangelicalism that also mentions the Power Team.


3 comments:

JW at: November 15, 2014 at 6:24 PM said...

I don't think that evangelicals seeing women in more modern roles signifies a change away from traditionalist gender roles. In fact, in some ways it can reinforce them. Evangelical women are "their women", the ones who are pre-vetted. Thus you can make some exceptions to the general rules. This article immediately reminded me of a former professor's work on the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), a right-wing traditionalist party that had both modern and traditional views of women's roles. Men are always called to a virtuous past, which allows leaders to appeal to nostalgia in their quest for traditional roles. So, in some ways, the traditional angle is well covered. Anyone interested should read the article, "Boys Must be Boys: Gender and the Serbian Radical Party, 1991-2000" by Carol S. Lilly and J. Irvine. Also I'd add that the idea of "Warrior Wives" isn't as redefining as it seems. It's similar to the phenomenon of "Warrior Mothers", the ones who raise up the sons for battle and shame men into taking on traditionalist roles. The role (and metaphor) evoke very traditional gender norms. There's lots of great feminist literature on this, Maneuvers by Cynthia Enloe is a great place to start.

JW at: November 15, 2014 at 6:25 PM said...

I don't think that evangelicals seeing women in more modern roles signifies a change away from traditionalist gender roles. In fact, in some ways it can reinforce them. Evangelical women are "their women", the ones who are pre-vetted. Thus you can make some exceptions to the general rules. This article immediately reminded me of a former professor's work on the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), a right-wing traditionalist party that had both modern and traditional views of women's roles. Men are always called to a virtuous past, which allows leaders to appeal to nostalgia in their quest for traditional roles. So, in some ways, the traditional angle is well covered. Anyone interested should read the article, "Boys Must be Boys: Gender and the Serbian Radical Party, 1991-2000" by Carol S. Lilly and J. Irvine. Also I'd add that the idea of "Warrior Wives" isn't as redefining as it seems. It's similar to the phenomenon of "Warrior Mothers", the ones who raise up the sons for battle and shame men into taking on traditionalist roles. The role (and metaphor) evoke very traditional gender norms. There's lots of great feminist literature on this, Maneuvers by Cynthia Enloe is a great place to start.

Seth Dowland at: November 18, 2014 at 1:07 AM said...

Thanks for the comment and reading recommendations, JW - very helpful. I agree that the warrior wives aren't directly challenging traditional gender roles. But there's something in the fact that evangelicals are using "warrior" as a gender-neutral term -- that's something you wouldn't have seen 50 years ago among american evangelicals.

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