The Unmaking of Biblical Womanhood: Prof. Beth Allison Barr's Historical Challenge to Evangelical Gender RolesHistorians in the News
tags: gender, feminism, Christianity, religious history, womens history, sexism, Evangelical Christianity, Complementarianism
In the past several years, two battered cottonseed silos in Waco, Texas, surrounded by food trucks selling sweet tea and energy balls, have become a pilgrimage site for Christian homemakers from around the country, among others. The silos form part of an open-air mall erected by Chip and Joanna Gaines, the husband-and-wife stars of “Fixer Upper: Welcome Home,” a popular reality show. The Gaineses have built a commercial empire called Magnolia, by selling the trappings of a trendy, Christian life style. In 2017, a market-research blog found that they were some of the most popular celebrities among faith-based consumers. One afternoon in May, Beth Allison Barr, a medieval-history professor at Baylor University, who studies the role of women in evangelical Christianity, visited the store on a kind of research trip. We walked past a line of hungry tourists waiting outside a bakery that sells pastel-frosted cupcakes, and by boxwood hedges studded with lavender. “It’s like Waco’s Disneyland,” Barr said. “We evangelicals love it.”
The Gaines’s brand often seems to valorize aspects of traditional gender roles. This aesthetic, perhaps unintentionally, has resonances with the evangelical notion of complementarianism, the concept that, though men and women have equal value in God’s eyes, the Bible ascribes to them different roles at home, in their families, and in the church. The ideology promotes the notions of Biblical manhood and womanhood, conceptions of how proper Christian men and women should comport themselves, which are ostensibly based on scriptural teaching, and tend to encourage women’s submission to men. The Gaineses have never publicly advocated complementarianism; Chip has written about embracing his “supporting role” in light of his wife’s dynamic leadership. But their brand, for Barr, seemed to be an example of the way ideas about women’s domesticity pervade American Christianity. “It’s not so much what they do—it is how they are perceived,” she told me. “What they sell does play into the evangelical world view—family, domesticity, rugged manhood.” Many of the shopping spaces in the Silos appear to be curated by gender. Some sections sell leather baseballs, black “god bless texas” banners, and copies of Chip’s best-selling book on entrepreneurship, “Capital Gaines.” In other areas, muffin tins and bundt pans are on display, and Jo’s beatific face shines from the covers of cookbooks. Jo also sells sweatshirts that read “homebody,” and “Homebody” is the title of her best-selling book. The catchphrase, to Barr, reinforced the traditional idea of where a woman should be.
Barr is forty-five, rawboned, and earnest. She is a conservative evangelical Christian and believes that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. But she is also the author of “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth,” a new book that uses historical analysis to challenge contemporary claims of scriptural gender roles. “This narrative that men carry the authority of God is frightening, and it’s not Christian,” Barr told me. As other historians have pointed out, the idea that women should be subordinate to men has deep roots in the Christian tradition. But Barr’s book argues that the modern version of complementarianism was invented in the twentieth century, in response to an increasingly effective feminist movement, to reinforce cultural gender divisions. “Women think all of this is the Bible because they learn it in their churches,” Barr told me. “But it’s really a post-Second World War construction of domesticity, which was designed to send working women back to the kitchen.” Barr’s book has become wildly popular among evangelical women; it soared to No. 26 on the Amazon charts and is now on its fourth printing.
Barr was taking her friend and colleague Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, to Magnolia that day. Du Mez, who is bookish and slight, is the author of the book “Jesus and John Wayne,” published last year, in which she charts the ways that, in the twentieth century, conservative culture hijacked evangelical Christianity. The women’s books, which are careful fact-based critiques rather than ideological polemics, have become a rallying point for evangelicals trying to cast off the influences of right-wing politics and American culture on their faith. “We’re basically applying the historical method to modern evangelicalism,” Du Mez told me. Du Mez, who is researching how domestic ideals are marketed to Christian women, perused the inspirational plaques. “These not only beautify the home, they also display a woman’s commitment to an idealized vision of faith and family,” she said.