In the summer of 2011, I interviewed four women between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-two who were raised in the Southern Baptist Church (SBC) and have since left that church or religion all together. These women no longer feel called to follow SBC teachings, yet those teachings linger. Like other conservative and fundamentalist denominations, the SBC encourages women to seek fulfillment primarily as wives and mothers, and it discourages—or even forbids—women from taking on key leadership roles, both within the family and the church congregation. Sexuality and relationships are discussed in narrow terms, using phrases like “true love waits” and “let God write your love story” that stand at stark odds with the terms used by the wider Western culture; premarital sex is often colloquially spoken about as an unredeemable transgression; and sex is seen as mainly a procreative act.1 For women who were raised in this context and have since left, these perspectives continue to shape their lives, constraining them unwillingly to their pasts and forcing a strange disconnect between their theology and its implications on their bodies. As one of my interviewees remarked, “I still don’t know what to do with my own body or how to feel about it all.”
I approach the subject of sexual identity and these particular interviews as a social scientist, someone for whom the term gender refers to the “totality of meanings that are attached to the sexes within a particular social system,”2 whereas the term sexes refers to the categories usually attached to physicality or biology. Although biology certainly plays into gender, we see gender as part of a socially constructed, pervasive system that forces observations about others and us into certain categories. For example, by observing reproductive organs and systems within each sex, we have determined particular gender roles in the bearing and upbringing of children. Given that women’s bodies are the physical incubators and nurturers of children, whereas men only contribute briefly to the process, our society has determined that women are in charge of childrearing while men are in charge of other things. And to be viewed as “gender appropriate” within our culture, we must fall in line with these norms; we must follow where the weight of cultural assumptions and biological realities for our sex directs us.
A key point here is that differences between sex and gender are often difficult for Christians to navigate.3 This can be due to any number of reasons, including a mistrust of science or the fact that such distinctions are not discussed in the Bible. We believe that God created all human life ex nihlio (out of nothing), and so there were no predetermined molds that every human had to fit into.4 However, many Christians from traditional churches also believe that the genitalia we were given at birth help guide us to become the people whom we were meant to be. These Christians spend their lives learning how to be godly men and women,5 patterning their views of parenthood, sexual behavior, and marriage after so-called “traditional family values” and pervasive heterosexual gender roles. My interviewees consistently remarked on the influence of this kind of thinking on their lives, both in and outside of the SBC, and it represents a significant reason why the gender conversation is troubling for so many in the Christian tradition. If God created sex and gender to be different, they may ask, why is that not explained in the Bible? Yet without clear scriptural examples to connect to their paradigm, many Christians feel uncertain whether to approach social science research as truth or antireligious bias.6
One could write tomes on the relationship between women and religion in Protestant contexts—and tomes have indeed been written. Women’s roles within Christianity have been examined and contested since the inception of the faith.7 More recently, as the role of women in post-WWII society became hotly debated, that debate bled into church life and politics as well. Should women be allowed to be pastors, deacons, or elders? Or should they stick to their historical roles in most denominations as Sunday school teachers and missionaries? The answers varied, and in those denominations in which the answers leaned toward restrictions upon female involvement, the debate rages on8—if women are not allowed to serve in leadership roles, then the church must continually answer the question why?
Outside of quoting biblical passages that address the behavior of women in religious gatherings, Christian defenders of traditional gender roles usually suggest that women are “more emotional” or “should focus on motherhood.”9 If a woman is meant to be a mother, then a logical conclusion is that an adolescent girl is a mother-in-training, and if she is already being prepared to bear, nurture, and raise the next generation of Christians, it makes sense that her “purity” would be the business of the larger community. This prevalent attitude, which is often couched in language that speaks of how “God created” man and woman for specific things, leaves women very narrow confines from which to operate. Women who choose to reject those confines often find themselves ostracized from their church community and, in extreme situations, their families. The women I interviewed all attested to being taught this view throughout their childhood in their respective churches.
The data set for my paper is small, consisting of four Caucasian, heterosexual women who were raised in the SBC of Texas and who volunteered for interviews and were contacted through social media. As part of a larger research project, I asked these women about their history with sexual health education, both in sacred and secular environments, their experience with dating relationships, and their experiences with sexual activity.
Womanhood = Motherhood
As I mentioned previously, the collapse of sexual differences and gender differences into a single entity leads to assumptions of definitional reality. My interviewees all suggested that the conflation of being a woman with being a mother posed difficulties in their lives. Both academic and colloquial literature sources demonstrate that these women are not alone in their confusion about how to navigate this reality.10 This is the most significant consequence of the cultural mixing of sex and gender; the other thematic consequences stem from this confusion.
Interviewer: How did you first learn about puberty?
Margaret11: My mom, who was a nurse, told me when I was about ten. She explained the mechanics and then launched into a bit of a morality lecture.
Interviewer: A morality lecture?
Margaret: Yeah, you know—no sex before marriage, no matter what. Dressing modestly and remembering your place.
Interviewer: What did she mean by “remember your place”?
Margaret: It’s a phrase I heard often—one of my father’s favorites—so I’m sure she meant that I was to remember that women are to be seen and not heard.
The point of being a girl teenager was to train for marriage and motherhood. My dad was constantly farming me out to babysit for cousins and neighbors. I wasn’t offended then—I thought it was normal and that it was my duty and a good thing to do. Of course I was going to have kids someday, and of course I was going to be married. And if I wanted to be a good wife, I had to be a good mother, and so I had to babysit to get good. Now I look back, and I’m annoyed because I never liked doing it. I just thought I had to. There’s other stuff I would have rather done.
Interviewer: Like what? Did you only babysit in your free time?
Margaret: Oh no, no, no, no. I did other stuff at church or with my family. Looking back, I wish I did other stuff. I don’t think I minded it at the time—that was my normal. It’s what everyone in church did and that was my world, so why would I be annoyed? In fact, the first time I met a girl who did not want children and was vocal about it was in college. It was revolutionary to me—who would she be if she wasn’t a mother?
Margaret (28) was single and working on her master’s degree in social work when we had this interview. She went on to talk about how dressing modestly was important because “then you wouldn’t let boys think about you in that way” and about how every lesson in her church contexts ultimately led to being a wife and a mother. For example, the girls in the youth group were always expected to help make the meals on mission trips while the boys were assigned to construction projects. Margaret’s church leaders and peers made both overt and covert heteronormative assumptions and condemnations of other lifestyles.
The idea that women could choose not to have children was foreign to Margaret, and often women who struggled to have children were spoken of as if their lack of children was related to past sins. Later in her interview, Margaret related a story about how a couple in her church asked for prayer from the congregation as they were struggling to conceive. While the congregation prayed for them, Margaret reported being horrified at the way the couple was spoken about behind their backs. It was assumed that the woman had done something horribly wrong to prove to God she wasn’t worthy of having a child; the man’s past life was never mentioned and medical realities were not discussed.
The other women told similar stories. Angie (31) reported being told repeatedly throughout her adolescence that the only reason to go to college was to find a “suitable husband.” She was advised not to worry about her career because “the only career a woman should have is that of mother. It’s God’s will.” This is also not surprising—if a woman’s main role in life is to be a good wife and mother, what purpose would higher education serve beyond meeting a potential spouse?
Karen (29) recalled going to a large national conference for evangelical youth and attending a workshop on “being a godly woman.” When I asked her what she learned in that session, she laughed and said,
I learned that being a godly woman meant being a quiet, submissive one. I learned that original ideas were not accepted and that my only purpose in life was to create a home for my husband and children. I remember a girl behind me snorting that the speaker had us confused with June Cleaver. That was the beginning of the end for me, that conference. After that I couldn’t buy my church’s teachings on anything. Their version of womanhood was simply not what I was feeling—I hated children and I never wanted to get married—and if they were so wrong about that, how could they be right about anything else? If that’s what God wanted from me, why did he create me to want the things I wanted? Then I thought that maybe he didn’t create me at all. It took me ten years to come back to church after that.
In sharing about her experience sorting through the church’s teachings on motherhood, Karen raised several important points. She begins by mentioning a connection between quietness and women.12 Then Karen discusses how the role of childbearing was taught as a key part of a woman’s identity. Her story raises many important questions—if a woman is barren, is she less of a woman? If a woman chooses not to have children, is she less of a woman? The language used at that conference demonstrates an assumption that every woman will make a caring and nurturing mother, but what if a woman is physically or emotionally abusive to the children she bears? Lastly, let us note that in this all-or-nothing paradigm, Karen’s reaction was to exclude herself from the religion. If her church was “wrong” about this idea of womanhood, she decided, she could not trust them regarding their other ideas about Christianity. She has never returned to an SBC-associated church; at the time of the interview, she was attending an Episcopal church.
Purity Above All
Another example of the consequences of the sex/gender collapse within the SBC is the idea that sexual purity is the most important aspect of an adolescent girl’s life. She must guard that purity—which ranges in definition but always include no penetrative sex outside of marriage—above all else. It places the responsibility for guarding that purity and the subsequent purity of her future husband and children in her hands, and it implies that if she does not enter marriage as a virgin she will have shamed God, her parents, her husband, and their future children. As we see, this concern for purity is strongly tied to the equating of womanhood with motherhood.
All four of my interviewees reported that they signed True Love Waits13 cards during their adolescence. When I asked Ashley (26) about her experience with the card, she grimaced and said she was told to carry the card in her wallet for “emotional reinforcement.”
Interviewer: What does that mean?
Ashley: Whenever I was alone with a boy and felt like I was going to go too far, I was supposed to pull out that card to remind myself of the promise I made to God and to my future husband and to my parents and to my future children.
Interviewer: What was the definition of too far?
Ashley: Hands in the swimsuit areas and penetration.
Interviewer: The pledge talks about purity. What does that mean to you?
Ashley: At the time that I signed the pledge, it meant no sex. And it meant not dressing in a way that would “cause my brother to stumble.” There was nothing about emotional purity or wholeness. There were no concepts of damage—just the boundaries on my body.
Interviewer: Are you referring to dress codes?
Ashley: Yes, girls weren’t supposed to wear short skirts or low-cut tops because men are such visual creatures that they can’t control themselves if they see skin.
Interviewer: I’m sensing sarcasm in your tone.
Ashley: Of course you are! Because it’s ridiculous! Why is the sexuality or behavior of men my responsibility? I’m not saying that there aren’t appropriate and inappropriate forms of dress, but I spent my adolescence apoplectic and never learned how to dress for myself or what made me look and feel best. It was only about covering myself up and that only led to me feeling constantly ashamed of my body and thinking that my body was evil. That’s one of the main reasons I won’t go back to church. I can’t truck with the double standard.
Margaret reported in her interview that her mother told her that proper Christian girls always wear pantyhose—even under jeans or trousers. The risk that a man might see bare skin was too much and must be avoided if one was to be a proper woman. Margaret snorted with laughter while relaying this story and remarked, “I would have fit in to any Dickens novel the way she made me dress.”
In terms of the True Love Waits purity pledge, all of the women reported that it had a direct impact on their concept of sexual identity and sexual behavior. They said that the constant talk about not having sex meant that there was no positive talk about sex. It was only described as an act reserved for marriage. “They kept saying God made it beautiful,” Karen remarked, “and then used every word in the book to make us think it was sinful and shameful.” This association between sex and shame is one of the key findings of my interviews.
Implications in “Secular” Adulthood
Because conservative Christian churches often train young women for motherhood while rejecting other life paths, it is possible that women who leave such environments may struggle when they attempt to converse with their “secular” peers regarding their adolescence. They also may suffer a relationship with their own physicality that can generously be described as wary. While they may fully agree with their peers’ opinions on sexual behavior and dress, the cultural conditioning of their upbringing still exists and they often struggle to navigate between the two realities. This can lead to social ostracism and difficulties in relationships, both romantic and platonic.14
When asked how they felt about their bodies as they moved into adulthood, the women I interviewed all said they were uncomfortable with their bodies. Two of the women were participating in therapeutic treatment to learn how to be more comfortable. Angie, who was seeking therapy at the time of the interview, described her feelings in this way:
I hate myself because I always feel wrong somehow. I’m not married; I don’t have children, and all of my growing up years I was told that that was the only purpose a woman should serve. So if I’m not serving those purposes, do I serve a purpose at all? My friends who were not raised like I was seem so much more comfortable with things like shopping and dating. I have never been on a date and never been kissed, and I feel like a total reject. I hate shopping because I always have my mother’s voice in my head telling me to make sure the clothing is modest enough to not embarrass her. I work in a secular environment now and I have no idea how to talk to the women I work with about men or bodies or anything. It’s embarrassing and that’s why I’m in therapy. I see no other way to blend the self I was growing up with the self I am now. I need help.
Angie’s discomfort with her coworkers was similar to the emotions expressed by the other women I interviewed. Margaret described being raised in a bubble that never taught her how to interact with men outside of their potential as future husbands. She said she doesn’t really know how to have male friends and that this ignorance is a source of pain and shame for her.
If women are constantly told that their only identity is in relation to men, this is the logical outcome. By talking about their bodies only in relation to men’s sexual proclivities (i.e., the language of “causing a brother to stumble” or the double standard that “boys will be boys”) and not simply in relation to their own womanhood, women who have no primary male romantic figure in their lives are left adrift. They are told their bodies are meant for men’s sexual enjoyment and then for childbearing and for little else. Women who use their bodies for other purposes, especially sexual activity outside of marriage, are seen as anathemas at best and are shamed and excluded at worst.
As I have demonstrated, the social sciences agree that there is a difference between biologically determined sex and socially constructed gender, but by using language like gender roles, conservative Christianity mixes the two as though they were congruous. This confusion may be at the root of the crisis described by the women I had the opportunity to interview. Because they were taught how to be women through a theologically tinted language of determinism, they now struggle to freely express their own sexuality or to even come to terms with themselves as sexual beings.
Additionally, if the women I interviewed are correct and their experiences are normative for women raised in the evangelical and conservative milieu of the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, there are many more questions to ask. How will definitions of womanhood be passed on to future generations? As these women get older, how will they interact with the larger culture whose understanding of gender was and is constructed through different means? Further research is needed into this area to ascertain the larger social and theological implications.
A fascinating new development for individuals who are interested in exploring these intersections between womanhood and church is the burgeoning collective of women who blog about issues of theology and purity. Few of these women are “trained” social scientists or theologians, but their thoughtful writings have created space for other women to share their experiences. Writers such as Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther, and Dianna Anderson (who can all be found through basic Internet searches) are providing insights into and critiques of this conversation. It is worth mentioning that men are starting to wade into these waters, so to speak, as well, yet nonheteronormative narratives are still limited.
In conclusion, one of the realities of religious constructs that confuse gender and sex is a sense of confusion and alienation among women who do not fit. This is an important matter for any discussion of women in religion. This brief study demonstrated cognitive dissonance among women who were raised in one environment but find themselves living as adults in another. This is clearly not a simple matter or one which can be addressed glibly. I hope that through this essay I have shed light onto a topic that is not often the center of discussion—what is the impact of theology upon bodily behaviors? These women I spoke to, and if they are to be believed, thousands like them, are wrestling with that very question on a regular basis. It is part of their life every time they go shopping for clothes, every time they interact with a man, every time they consider dating. As we continue the journey of wrestling with the intersection of theology and culture, this piece of that puzzle is worth our consideration.
1. In colloquial literature, Eric Lundy, When God Writes Your Love Story (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 1999) and Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 1997) are often recommended to young people as a way of encouraging complete abstinence. There is a lack of academic work advocating this kind of an abstinence-only approach with teens, but several studies have suggested potentially negative ramifications for these teachings. See Darren Wright, “True Love Waits? An Examination of the Motivations and Methods of True Love Waits Programs,” unpublished thesis at University of Missouri, found online at https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/11525/research.pdf?sequence=3, 2011.
2. Laura Kramer, A Sociology of Gender (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 2.
3. R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997); and Mary Van Leeuwen, After Eden: Gender Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).
4. Sally Gallagher, “Where Are the Anti-feminist Evangelicals? Evangelical Identity, Subculture Location, and Attitudes toward Feminism,” Gender and Society 18 (2004): 4.
5. See Brenda Brasher, Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
6. See John Hoffmann and John Bartkowski, “Gender, Religious Tradition and Biblical Literalism,” Social Forces 86 (2008): 3.
7. Anyone looking for a thorough examination of that process should look no further than Mary Malone’s anthology Women and Christianity, vols. 1, 2, and 3 (Marymount, NY: Orbis, 1999, 2000, 2001).
8. See Elisabeth Goddard and Claire Hendry, The Gender Agenda, (Nottingham, UK: Intervarsity, 2011) and Peter Nynas and Andrew Yip, Religion, Gender, and Sexuality in Everyday Life (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2012). For colloquial references, see Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012) or Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist (Brentwood, TN: Howard Publishing, 2013).
9. Hoffman and Bartkowski, “Gender, Religious Tradition, and Biblical Literalism,” 1245–72.
10. See R. H. Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012); S. Bessey, Jesus Feminist (New York, NY: Howard, 2013); or L. Goddard and L. Hendry, The Gender Agenda (Nottingham, UK: Intervarsity, 2011).
11. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of my interviewees. The women were informed that this would happen when they granted consent to participate in the study.
12. The other women I interviewed also brought up this connection, and it is a common connection in the literature.
13. True Love Waits was a sexual purity movement that was popular in American evangelical and conservative churches in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The movement focused on a pledge for adolescents to keep themselves sexually pure until their wedding night, and the language invoked promises to their parents and future children. Studies have statistically demonstrated that few of the individuals who signed the pledge followed through on their promise. See Michael Young and Tina Penhollow, “The Impact of Abstinence-Only Education,” American Journal of Health Education 37, no. 4 (2006): 194–202.
14. Research on fundamentalist movements and their interactions with the “outside” reinforce the stories of struggle told by the four women who were interviewed for this paper. See R. Danielle Egan, Becoming Sexual (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013) and John Stratton Hawley, Fundamentalism and Gender (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994).