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Austin Cline

Christianity: Propping Up Masculinity Through Infantilizing Women

By November 19, 2007

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Women Must Obey Husbands
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster:
Library of Congress
Conservative Christians will readily insist that their ideology has nothing to do with rendering women socially, politically, or culturally inferior. Women are "equal" to men, but they have "their own place" in the natural order created by God — an argument that sounds suspiciously similar to how blacks in America were once told that they had to "mind their place" in a white society.

Even more suspicious is how readily religious conservatives will infantilize women. Is it really compatible with full social, political, and cultural equality of women to treat them as if they children who need to be protected, nurtured, and cared for by men whose "place in the natural order" just happens to be all the leadership roles? Sometimes, these men almost sound like they are afraid of strong, intelligent, and capable women who have no trouble being their equals if just given the chance.

Wayne Johns writes in a Letter to the Editor:

Whatever happened to little girls playing with dolls and dreaming of becoming wives and mothers? Whatever happened to young men looking for a good Christian wife and finding a young woman still clinging to her doll? Me, old fashioned? I guess. Me, a male chauvinist pig? To answer that I would have to say, “Oink, oink, oink.”

Source: Victoria Advocate (via Pharyngula)

When I wrote recently about misogyny in Islam, I noted that under an authoritarian Muslim system, even the lowest man is still socially, legally, culturally, and politically superior to every women he encounters. This sense of superiority over half the human population is one reason why such fundamentalist religious systems can be so attractive to men. Here, it's hard not to wonder if a similar process is at work with Wayne Johns.

What sort of man actively desires a woman "still clinging to her doll" unless he is looking for a child he can feel superior too — and fears that it's only a child, not an adult, that he can appear superior when compared to? Some might also suspect the sexuality of a man actively seeking a child rather than an adult woman, but I don't think we need to go that far. To me, this looks far more like a matter of needing to feel superior to a spouse rather than wanting an equal partner in marriage.

As PZ Myers points out, some of the comments to the above letter are just as interesting as the letter itself. For example, "deyamorgan" writes:

I am a grown woman. Almost 40. Raising three children in this day and age isn't easy. I am a full time mom and also work full time and yes the work load is very taxing at times. I have a brain. My grey matter works as well as any other, but to say that me and my husband are equals as one of the posts suggested is a little off. As a follower of Christ, I realize God endowed each gender with special qualities, not necessarily equal qualities. These qualities compliment each other. This is what creates the home environment that children need to feel, safe, secure, and loved.

I am undoubtedly the easier going in my marriage. I am a push over. I do thank the Lord every day that I am married to a man who realizes that the children are not the center of our existence. He takes the hard line with them, and I feel that that compliments our relationship as a family. I sometimes have to subjigate my will to my husband. But as a Christian, that's what Christ commands. And that's actually a relief for me, because as a man, my husband is accountable for his role as head of the household. So men can be in authority, but they also have the responsibility of being accountible. When it is all said and done, I was nurturing, and my husband was the disciplinarian.

Its ok. Christ did command us to subjigate our will, and that is what is so hard for people to do in this day and age. It's all about "ME" in this day and age. Christ taught us humility and charity. As Christians, we are not our own, we are bought with a price. Christ paid it. If God tells me to submit my will to my husband, who is also in Christ, who am I to defy God's will? [emphasis added]

If you are always taking orders, it's easy to pretend that you aren't accountable to your actions — but it's sad to see in this day and age that there are still people who think "I was just following orders" is any excuse for what they've done. This comment wasn't written by a robot, it was written by an adult woman who is responsible for her actions, choices, and attitudes. No orders — not from her husband nor from any alleged god — can mitigate that responsibility one iota. She is accountable for what she does and, sadly, for the example she is setting for other women.

Fortunately, not all Christians agree with Wayne Johns; rancourt writes:

I am a Christian, and I am married to an amazing and wonderful woman who is, frankly, strong, modern, and self-assured. I have something far more wonderful than a "helpmate" in my life; I have a *partner*. ...God gave to womankind the same capacities He gave to mankind; there is little question in the minds of neurologists that the grey matter between the ears is of comparable pedigree, and history will certainly bear out times when women carried the burden of executive power over men, as well as the opposite. Women are, of course, just as susceptible to corruption by power and privilege as men, too.

Yes, we can turn to a very important Christian book for text claiming women are inferior to men. By that book, I'm also entitled to throw stones at you until death for wearing rayon or eating ham. If you plan to make your wife live in a tent while menstruating, so be it, but should you make even a single concession anywhere in your life for differentiating between legacy, historical words of advice in the Bible and prescriptive law to last for all time, then we've let the genie of modern reinterpretation out of the bottle, and now we're merely quibbling over the best set of guidelines to use to filter out that "legacy" content from the "timeless" stuff.

I do think you might have a point, though. You argue that seeing women in positions of power caused these little girls to act unreasonably and irrationally, disrespectfully toward the opposite sex, and in a manner that we as a society should censure and criticize. Indeed, look at the way observing centuries of patriarchial power structures influenced you!

My personal take on it is that none of us human beings are particularly suited to leadership, so, frankly, we need all the help we can get, and we can't afford to categorically exclude any group but one: closed-minded, reactionary idiots. I leave it to each of us to come up with the best criteria we can to determine who belongs in that group. [emphasis added]

The perspective of rancourt is far more enlightened and modern than that of deyamorgan, but is it more consistent with traditional Christian theology? I don't really think so — rancourt's arguments are more utilitarian and rational in that they point out the ridiculousness and ridiculous consequences of treating women as inferior, but they aren't theological. I'm not quoting everything in the original comment, but there is no argument about how full social, cultural, and political equality for women is more consistent with the biblical text.

Granted, I don't think it really matters what is or is not more consistent with the Bible. If women's inequality is the biblical position, then the Bible is wrong and should be ignored; if women's equality is more consistent with the Bible, then so what? Women's equality should be based on moral and practical arguments, not on what some alleged god allegedly told sheep herders several millennia ago. However, part of the point of the above discussion is what is the most appropriately "Christian" position on such matters and that in turn is dependent on the Bible.

What Wayne Johns writes is offensive and ridiculous, but it is the traditional Christian perspective. Traditional Christianity — and most traditional religions, for that matter — do not value the equality of women. In most religions, women have been forced into an inferior role just as they have been in most cultures and political systems. Religion, being a product of politics and culture, has simply reflected the prevailing patriarchal attitudes towards women.

The one critical difference is that religions have ascribed these attitudes towards gods, prophets, and otherwise unquestionable religious authorities. Whereas the opinions of ancient kings and other leaders could be ignored today, the opinions of ancient priests and prophets have acquired a fixed position in people's minds. People are unwilling to defy the will of their gods, so ancient misogyny is able to maintain it's hold on people's minds in a manner that simply wouldn't be possible if it had remained a part of secular ideologies.

November 19, 2007 at 1:34 pm
(1) Eric says:

Freedom and personal autonomy come with responsibility and risk. That scares some people. Patriarchal social arrangements in Western culture survive not only through empowering men at the expense of women, but by convincing a large enough number of women that they have actually come out ahead in the end.

November 19, 2007 at 4:10 pm
(2) Addy says:

I can be a pushover (I’m working on not being one). That is the only similarity I have with deyamorgan. And as a fellow pushover, from my own experience, it sounds more like she is using her faith as an excuse to NOT take responsibility for anything. It just happens to fit rather nicely with what the bible says.

It’s really easy to put your life in your own hands versus taking responsibility for yourself (as Eric nicely describes).

And there are people who will gladly let you submit to them for the simple fact that they do want to feel powerful.

November 19, 2007 at 5:49 pm
(3) tracieh says:

>Whatever happened to young men looking for a good Christian wife and finding a young woman still clinging to her doll?

Does anyone else find this image really, REALLY disturbing? Perhaps this person needs to become a Mormon and move to Utah where he can marry as many child-brides as he likes without the authorities asking too many questions?

>Me, a male chauvinist pig? To answer that I would have to say, “Oink, oink, oink.”

Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of pedophile…? I’ve known some male chauvinists–they have tended more toward Hustler models–who don’t exactly strike me as the type of females who are still playing with dolls. Although I guess a Catholic School Girl fantasy shoot is still promoted now and again?

>This is what creates the home environment that children need to feel, safe, secure, and loved.

This couldn’t be more wrong. I have known two single mothers who have raised fabulous daughters. One double majored and studied abroad for a year (She went to college on a full scholarship).

The other has only just turned 13, but has already had her own art show through an art co-operative, and sold her first painting a few months ago–at the age of only 12. The co-op, just to be clear, includes adults–it’s not a children’s co-op.

I also know a woman who had joint custody of her only son. He worked as a junior & senior in high school. And bought his own new car (not a used “new” car–a “new” new car). He is currently attending college and doing great. He’s polite, respectful, and an absolute darling.

If children know they are loved, and their lives have stability–there is no need for a two-parent home.

In my first exmaple above, the mother was widowed. In the second, the mother never married the father (who had addiction issues he has since resolved). In the last, the couple divorced when the child was in preschool.

There are MANY reasons a family may not be the standard nuclear type. Anyone can raise successful, well adjusted children. It doesn’t take a two-parent home where one party is subjugated to the other. If the children have stability, love, and someone there to promote their personal sense of value and self-worth–they generally do just fine.

>who think “I was just following orders” is any excuse for what they’ve done.

Or what they allow others to do to their children. The way she describes her husband–I can’t help but think he’s hitting these children as “discipline.” That’s an assumption on my part. But the words she uses are key words often used by those who endorse hitting children as a valid form of “discipline.”

But who am I to question god–who says to not spare the rod? If god tells me to hit my kids–what choice do I have? What did she call it? “A relief”?

I’m saddened that making decisions that affect living her own life and taking responsibility for herself is such a burden that she’d rather someone take care of it for her.

Isn’t this the attitude dictators drool over? “Just give me full authority–and the trains will run on time. You don’t have to worry about how it gets done. I’ll take care of it for you.”

Interesting (to me, anyway) personal aside, rancourt’s comments are something I began to consider when I was a young woman in a fundamentalist church. I wasn’t at a point yet where I was questioning whether or not there was a god; but I kept thinking that something must be wrong, because it didn’t make sense that women should be subjugated. It made sense that those best qualified to do job X should be preferred for doing job X. That was a simple, logical reality that any child can recognize. Ask a small child which tool to use for putting in a nail–and the child will point out a hammer.

If a woman in a group is the best hammer–why would I choose the second or third best (male) hammer to do the job on some sort of weird propriety? That’s ineffective and unreasonable. And it seemed to me that “omniscient” just wasn’t compatible with ineffective and unreasonable. If god was wiser than man–then man’s interpretation of god’s meaning had to be incorrect on the idea of subjugating women. To say this is what god intends it to say that god is not all-knowing. If he tells us to use a screw-drive to hammer nails–something’s really, really wrong. He’s either a really stupid god, or we aren’t understanding something correctly.

Of course, as an atheist, the point is now moot. It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t _have_ to make sense, because there is no god. But at the time I was “sure” there was a god–I was baffled by what to make of it.

November 19, 2007 at 9:45 pm
(4) Ron says:

When Saddam Hussein was in American custody it was revealed on CNN that he had some fatherly advice for the interviewer. If you are looking for romance. He said, go with an Iraqi woman, because American women are too independent!

November 20, 2007 at 1:18 pm
(5) tracieh says:

I forgot to include this, but it is sort of funny. You may have heard it already though (not the story, but the joke in the card I bought):

The little girl I wrote about who just turned 13, I sent her a present and a card for her birthday. The card just CRACKED me up. I had heard the joke before, but I still thought it was funny. She probably hadn’t heard it. But since she is at an age where there’s likely only a couple years before she starts dating, I thought it was appropriate.

On the cover is a frog wearing a crown, and a little fairy story that goes something like this:

One day a beautiful young princess came upon a frog while going on a walk. The frog spoke to the young woman and said: “Beautiful young maiden, I am really a prince under a spell. If you will but kiss me once, I will turn back into a handsome prince, and we can marry and go back to my kingdom and live in my lush palace, where you can cook for me, and clean my castle, and see to my every need, and we can live together happily ever after.”

Inside the card, it says, “And, so, that night, the beautiful young maiden dined on delicious frogs legs.”

I wrote in the card:

“Dear X

“This is a very good card. Keep it somewhere safe, and when you start dating, remember to refer to it often.”


I also forgot to note above that the daughter who studied abroad also recently passed the state bar in California.


Oh these poor, young, capable, intelligent women. It’s such a shame they’re able to take care of themselves and make informed decisions and run their own lives without doubting their capacity to think for themselves. I don’t see how they will ever be happy…?

Is it just me, or does the perspective of the woman quoted in this article seem really similar to the house elves in the Harry Potter series?

November 20, 2007 at 7:17 pm
(6) Ron says:

Tracie. It is painfully obvious that you don’t know your place. There is a woman in saudi Arabia who was gang raped by 7 men and for that She was sentenced to 200 lashes with a bamboo cane, and jail. That oughta teach HER a lesson!!!

November 20, 2007 at 10:10 pm
(7) Gotweirdness says:

Apparently, the 2oo lashes was considered a lenient punishment after she protested against the original sentence to the men who raped her.

Remember a number of years back when an American kid who was in Singapore was caught with some marijuana? The authorities there sentenced him to being lashed with a bamboo cane but the public outcry from the US ended up reducing the number of lashes and it took place in private.

November 20, 2007 at 10:18 pm
(8) Ron says:

I remember

November 21, 2007 at 8:11 am
(9) Ron says:

public outcry from the US ……….
Where is the public outcry now?

November 21, 2007 at 9:17 am
(10) tracieh says:

Ron: The Singapore kid was a U.S. citizen if I recall. I think that gave us more incentive to intervene politically.

Certainly your point is well-taken that there is a sort of humanitarian cause to out-cry here. But our intervention for the boy was mainly, only because he was an American.

I recall as well a woman in Africa not too long ago who was going to be stoned to death on adultery charges. That one also disturbed me. There was some international out cry over that. If I recall correctly, the sentence was commuted.

What is happening to this woman in the middle East is barbaric–but no less barbaric than the laws “god” set up for the Hebrews.

When I was young, I had a view that “that’s their laws, that’s their customs…” But now I see it differently. Still, it’s a hard line to draw. British colonial rule was similar in that they went around looking at customs such as this one, and saying “savages,” and enforcing their brand of law instead.

On the one hand, I want to respect cultures and not Westernize the whole world into a homogenous U.S. model. On the other hand–is it moral to stand by and watch someone be beaten for reasons I consider unjust? I feel compelled to help.

Can things like mercy, equality, and justice be forced on a culture without destroying the culture? Likewise, if a culture is merciless, unequitable, and unjust (in my view)…should it be respected and supported or allowed to exist?

It’s a hard line to draw sometimes.

November 21, 2007 at 6:30 pm
(11) Ron says:

True. There different cultures, but my feeling is that no matter what the culture,the woman in Saudi Arabia KNOWS that she is being abused

November 22, 2007 at 2:53 pm
(12) M says:

I’m also surprised by the “clinging to her doll” comment – even if he takes the perspective that women are meant to be wives and mothers, does this guy think girls go straight from playing with toys to being ready to run a household? Every woman I know abandoned her dolls by adolescence, long before she was of legally marriageable age.

November 23, 2007 at 4:07 pm
(13) John Hanks says:

Every prejudice is a scam. It is something from nothing.

August 26, 2010 at 11:26 am
(14) Bob the Chef says:

I wouldn’t say this is a Christian thing at all. Perhaps this is a common occurrence in certain Protestant circles, but it certainly does not pertain to Christianity as such. If you don’t believe me, then clearly you’ve never seen some of those feisty Catholic women that manage to cuckold their husbands!

I am of the opinion that this phenomenon is a cultural, and not a religious one, when it comes to Christianity. What we appear to be doing today is conflating equality with sameness. While men and women are both human, and thus persons, and as persons, equals (Aquinas went as far as to say that at the level of persons, man and God are equal). However, biologically, men and women are different and thus differ at least accidentally in some way. I’m not going to debate here what those differences are, or how deep they go, but I can certainly say that infantilism is something to be overcome in the Catholic Church, both in men and women. Corinthians 13:11 could be used to buttress the argument.

If there is any infantilism in our culture, it emanates from the secular front. The conflation of sex with love is so pervasive that it boggles the mind. Boggles! The greatest contribution of true Christianity was agapic love as a deifying, maturing and freeing force. Instead, we have a society of needy children who barter sex for unconditional love. Narcissism is the 20th and 21st centuries’ identifying characteristic. In the Middle Ages, the Church tolerated prostitution as a practical solution to lust. Why? Because it provided a place to satisfy primal desires without using the body of your spouse for sexual gratification. Today, that mutual respect is absent, and it leads to poor spousal choices and failed marriages.

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