Volume 13, Issue 1: Poetics
The Meaning of Femininity
It's no great strech to observe that women easily tend to be far more interesting persons than men. But what brings that about?
Of course, this is the path of blasphemy in the modern world. We're told it's immoral to talk about what is uniquely feminine or masculine, because we are each equally sexless souls trapped in bodies. The Enlightenment's imagination has always been comically narrow.
Even in Christian circles, the distinctions between the feminine and masculine are rather sterile. They certainly don't inspire daughters to greatness; they tend to describe the feminine in negative terms. Sometimes we hear the masculine is active and the feminine is passive. But it's hard to see how motherhood, for example, could be characterized as passive. Mothers certainly don't think so.
Similarly, we hear men are linear and women are wholistic. But no one really reasons linearly; reason is always much more complex and nested. And wholism is hardly inspiring by itself. Cobwebs are wholistic. The Victorian spin on linear/wholistic was rational/emotional. But that built on false Enlightenment assumptions about the intellect. Even cool rationality always involves emotions: carefulness, loyalty (to truth), courage, calmness.
Others use Scripture's exhortation that women be adorned with "a gentle and quiet spirit" as the generalization for femininity. But that exhortation seems to be answering a different question. It certainly is the path for winning a rebellious husband (1 Pet. 3:1,2), but it doesn't work as an overall model for femininity, since Scripture exhorts men, too, to be gentle (1 Tim. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:24; Tit. 3:2), and Christ Himself declared "I am gentle and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29).
Moreover, one dangerous effect of taking "a gentle and quiet spirit" as the model of femininity in general is that its effect is to force all different kinds of women into one personality mold. And that one mold usually turns out to be some version of a grown-up Elsie Dinsmore or that sugary Melanie in Gone with the Wind. But God has blessed the world with all different sorts of women, some loud, some quiet, some exuberant, some laid back, some quick, some passionate. All these personalities can be expressed via the fruit of the Spirit, though they might not fit into the personality type we envision by "a gentle and quiet spirit."
I think a better answer lies in meditating on our differently designed bodies, since creation and incarnation lie at the heart of biblical thinking. We are not primarily souls. We are our bodies, and God reveals meanings through the created order (Ps. 19:1-3), including arms and legs and breasts.
The fact that a woman's body is designed to be relatively weaker than a man's is ripe with meaning. There is a glory in it to be fathomed, though the modern world denigrates it and wants us all to be serious hockey players. But the fact of bodily weakness shades a woman's life in the world in a very unique direction. Men aren't accustomed to think about conflict through the lense of bodily weakness. No matter how average a man we are, bodily strength is always part of our horizon of options. Not so with women. They live in a world surrounded by people who can almost always take them down in a struggle. This colors everything; thoughts about travel, work, security, and the future are judged in light of relative bodily weakness. Woman have to seek to overcome obstacles in the world not by bodily strength but by other means, namely goodness and wisdom and beauty. Women have to cultivate these virtues in ways that men cannot fathom.
But it's this unique manner of overcoming bodily weakness that Scripture pictures as feminine strength. Most prominently, Scripture asks us to think of the Church in terms of a woman (Ez. 16; Eph. 5:23; Rev. 21:2), and Christ exhorts her to overcome the world and sin (Rev. 2:7,11,17,etc.). But how does she gain victory? Like a man or a woman? She overcomes not "according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:3; cf. Jn 18:36; 1 Jn.5:4). Thus she "overcomes evil with good" (Rom. 12:21).
So it is to the Church, then, to which we can turn our daughters' eyes as the richest model of femininity. If you want to see feminine glory and strength, look first to the trials and temptations and victories of the Church in Scripture and later history. Passages like the letters to the seven churches become grand examples of feminine character. The Church is praised for being loyal and holy, but also bold, wise, and hating false doctrine.
If something like this is correct, then we can characterize femininity as the collection of all those characteristics which flow from delighting in and overcoming bodily weakness by means of goodness. And it is this sort of indirect, subtle, often mysterious overcoming that makes women so interesting to men. Their core, their take on life is the material of grand drama and literature, the Church holy and overcoming.
It's also important to see the masculine complement. Similar sorts of arguments could be made about the glory of bodily strength that is characteristic of men's bodies (Prov. 20:29; Ps. 18:32; 96:6). Without going into those arguments and qualifications, the masculine generalization fits nicely with its feminine complement, namely, that masculinity is the collection of all those characteristics which flow from delighting in and sacrificing bodily strength for goodness. Understanding the feminine and masculine along these positive lines seems to answer so many questions, especially day-to-day questions that come up in families and education.