Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Feminism Goes to Seed" by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

[This article was published in 1999. Some of the names mentioned are dated, but the basic argument still holds and applies to the debates recently engaged in on this blog.]

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Modern feminism, which has always left a great deal to be desired, had at least one legitimate concept at its inception in the 1960s and 1970s, namely, the notion that women, as well as men, should have the opportunity to aspire to be all that they can be; it should not be assumed that the fixed essence of femaleness is being in the service of a man. But note that at the root of this eminently reasonable claim is the quintessentially feminist beef that women have always ended up with a mere sliver of the pie of cultural power. Aha! says the antifeminist, all this talk of women using their talents to the full for the general good is a mere rhetorical cover for their real agenda of gaining the upper hand over men—upsetting the balance of power in society at large and in personal relationships. This prospect, of course, terrifies the average man.

Behind the scenes here, manipulating many of these views and concerns like puppets on strings, is the primitive power of the female body over the male. Women and men have always been aware of this sometimes unsavory fact of life. What changes across cultures and history is the use to which this fact of life is put. In times past, when men felt obligated to restrain themselves for the sake of moral virtue and/or social order, those men who found this to be a formidable project (that is to say, most men) fell back on the venerable solution of culturally subjugating women; men evidently figured that if they had power over women, women would not have power over them.

But no matter. Women have always adapted to this arrangement by wielding their sexual power over men in covert, manipulative ways in order to get men to do what they want men to do for them. Women’s submission is often marketed in conservative religious circles as useful for just this purpose: make him feel like he’s the big, strong man in charge and he’ll do anything for you. Feminine wiles in Christian guise.

The essence of feminism is a rejection of this age-old arrangement and an affirmation of women’s right to exercise power directly. One feminism differs from another in terms of what sort of power women exercise in what way, and to what purpose. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, feminist women wanted to exercise political power by voting, as men do. In the 1960s and 1970s, they wanted to exercise personal power by pursuing the vocation of their choice, as men do. Much of feminism today—in apparent capitulation to the pornographic American culture of the last decade—has devolved into the simple, sordid matter of women freely flaunting their sexual power over men. In our sexually careless society, little impetus remains—on the part of either men or women—to control or contain the power of female sexuality.

This is feminism at its worst: the power of “the second sex” reduced to the power of sex. It is as antifeminist as it can get and still be reckoned feminist. It is antifeminist in that—as in all traditional cultures—women are being defined as sexual beings, and men as human beings. It is feminist in that women are ostensibly doing what they want to do (overtly exercising their sexual power), not what they must do in order to accommodate and negotiate the constraints of a male power structure (standard procedure for women in prefeminist or antifeminist cultures). Such a “feminism,” however, easily boils down to women using their sexual power in order to gain some secondary access to the cultural power society normally reserves for men. It is a “feminism” that serves well the fundamental agenda of that unconquerable deity, the male ego.

Until recently in modern American society, there have been two categories of women outside that of the full-time homemaker: the professional career woman and the bimbo, the sex siren. Those two categories, previously assumed to be mutually exclusive, have now merged to form the new feminist ideal: the bimbo career woman, with emphasis on the bimbo. The significance of the career is seen primarily in terms of the opportunities it provides for a woman to have a high-powered sex life, without being financially dependent on her sex partner(s). The popular media are replete with such preposterous heroines, from Ally McBeal (unreal TV character) to Monica Lewinsky (surreal real-life character).

This is feminism gone to seed—along with the rest of our culturally exhausted postmodern society. Nothing means anything anymore. All that remains is recycled silliness. So just enjoy asserting your power—sexual power, that is, the only power women get to have. And don’t hesitate to use it as a weapon if that’s what makes you feel personally empowered.

But the power of postfeminism is fallacious. Women who seek to exercise power by flaunting their sexual power—whether in actual promiscuity or merely in clothing themselves immodestly—end up losing power, the power that comes from possessing personal integrity and winning the respect of both women and men.

(This essay was previously published in The Denver Post, May 13, 1999.)


juliagwin said...

I have not yet formed a deep conviction about the traditionalist / egalitarian positions, but continue to read articles on both sides and compare it with scripture.

Mrs. Groothuis says, “Modern feminism…had at least one legitimate concept…the notion that women, as well as men, should have the opportunity to aspire to be all that they can be; it should not be assumed that the fixed essence of femaleness is being in the service of a man.”

Eve was created to be Adam’s helpmeet. Could she have understood that her essence was not fixed in Adam’s service? Although I think the mystery of the Trinity is reflected in the creation of male and female, it is more than the candlepower of my mind to understand it. I believe all persons of the Trinity are equally God, and I believe scripture teaches that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. God seems to esteem service more than status, where we, in our flesh, value status and seek those positions which offer it.

If men, in response to female sexual power, use cultural subjugation and women respond by wielding sexual power in manipulative ways, then both men and women are equally wrong and both are being dishonest with each other. I think Mrs. Groothuis correctly identifies this as the frequent unhappy relationship of men and women.

I would much prefer to believe the egalitarian arguments, but it seems the traditionalist arguments have stronger scriptural support. If the egalitarian position is true, why is there not equal responsibility in the marriage relationship? Wives are to submit to, be subject to, and reverence their husbands as the church to Christ, but husbands are called (among other things) to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5). The wife is never called to die for her husband. Is the husband not given a greater responsibility?

Douglas Groothuis said...

From Rebecca

Even if the husband is given greater responsibility (which I don’t think is a conclusion that can be derived from this text), responsibility does not necessarily entail authority—especially not in the sense of spiritual authority to make final decisions about God’s will on behalf of the whole family (and such spiritual authority is the point at issue in the gender debate). Ephesians 5:21-33 does describe husband and wife differently: the man is to serve as her provider and protector and she is to submit to his ministry of provision and protection (just as the church submits to Christ’s ministry to his Body). This text also expects the wife to conform her behavior to the Greco-Roman household code, whereby she is to be under the civil authority of her husband, per Roman law.

This text is double-layered. On one level, Paul is setting forth household role assignments that were compatible with the social norms and structures of the day (but he adapted them to fit Christian ethics: whereas the secular household codes of the day told men to rule their wives, Paul does not, but rather exhorts men to lay down their lives for their wives). On another level, Paul is going beyond the culturally specific behaviors and is setting forth universal truths with respect to how the husband and wife relationship reflects certain aspects of the relationship of Christ to the church. And this head-body relationship of integral connectedness, love and respect is to characterize marriage regardless of the cultural norms of the day; thus it is applicable to us today, as well as to Christians in ancient Greco-Roman cultures.

So it is evident that not only is woman to serve her husband (as Genesis 2 indicates) but also the man is to serve his wife (as is very clear from Eph 5). The man’s service to the wife is not explicitly stated in Gen 2—after all, when the man was created there was no woman for him to serve, so how could that have been his stated role at that time? But there was a Garden that needed tending, so that was the job assigned to him. It is reasonable to suppose that the woman then joined him in the task of cultivating the Garden, thus helping him in this and other ways.

So then, biblically, it cannot be claimed that the woman’s central, essential life work is to serve the man while the man’s essential life work is to rule the creation and the woman. This is a cultural convention, not a biblical teaching. Rather, biblically, both are called to do both. Man as well as woman is to serve, and woman as well as man is to rule (see Gen 1:27-28).

Please see my website article summarizing Ephesians 5:21-33 and other New Testament texts, titled “The Bible and Gender Equality,” available at


juliagwin said...

Mrs. Groothuis,

Thank you for your very thoughtful and kind response to me.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm curious if you think Dr. Laura Schlessinger's book The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands is part of this postfeminism that you're critiquing or whether you think it's consistent with the biblical picture. I suggest Laurence Thomas' defense of her book, which I've commented on here with respect to Paul's statements in I Cor 7 for some background in case you're unfamiliar with the book.