I’m fascinated and appalled by the way many people still like to stereotype women and girls as either pure goodness or immoral seductress.
In a rape trial last week in Ireland, the defence barrister (a woman) asked the teenage victim to hold up her lace underpants worn on the night of the attack. The implication for the jury was that any girl who wore underwear like that was asking for trouble. The man was found not guilty (though I cannot know how important that part of the evidence was in the jury’s mind).
Story tellers in Hollywood Westerns used to draw the same simplistic picture – women on the frontiers of white settlement were either virtuous wives and homemakers bringing civilising values or bold bar girls with revealing clothes and little virtue.
In ‘Stagecoach’, a classic John Wayne and John Ford Western, the stereotypes are certainly there: the doc who drinks too much and the sanctimonious women of the Virtue League. But the coach passengers include Dallas, a girl of ‘easy virtue’ (their male clients are never described like that!) with a good heart. Wayne’s character, Ringo Kid, is drawn to her lack of hypocrisy and they fall in love. The ‘moral’ characters evoke little sympathy.
Maybe we need to allow for more Dallas models in our Barbie collections.
Wives in British colonial settings also carried the flame for moral rectitude and civilised values: in the face of challenging cultures where western men had affairs with local girls, British memsaabs were charged with upholding Victorian values. That meant church values too.
Australian historian Anne Summers summed up the colonial mindset in Australia with a wonderful phrase – women were either ‘damned whores or God’s police’. She argued that colonisation reduced 19th-century women settlers to one of two narrow roles: virtuous wives and mothers, “God’s police” who made sure colonists did not get drunk or gamble; or the transgressive “damned whores” who answered the repressed needs of men, in a colony where females were in short supply.
Bible commentators do the same thing – put the Bible’s women into one of 2 columns – very good or very bad.
Jezebel is ‘very bad’, so is Potiphar’s wife, so is Herod’s wife. And it’s mostly to do with sexual sin – these women tempt men to sinful behaviour. Eve is described as a temptress and blamed for causing Adam to sin.
On the ‘very good’ side we have young women who are usually described as beautiful, like Ruth, Esther or Mary.
I think this is why Billy Graham’s ‘rule’ about not meeting with women in private has been taken up so enthusiastically by a new generation – we still see women as unbalanced tempters and men as victims.
Billy Graham was a famous figure who I am sure attracted all sorts of needy people who wanted his attention – men and women. He was travelling a lot, away from his circle of support. He also knew that the media would pounce on any whiff of indiscretion.
I do not criticise his way of dealing with the issue of temptation but somehow now, we leave the man’s response out of the equation as if they do not have intelligence and strength to deal with vulnerable men and women.
(Well maybe they don’t, considering the huge number of cases of male leaders who have abused their power and influence over young lives)
We all have to get better at acknowledging the whole spectrum of behaviour of women. We don’t want to see women as static romantic heroines of chivalry but we don’t want the opposite either. Women are loving, nurturing, strong, brave, impetuous, emotional, intellectual, frail…..the list goes on.
It worries me that in these days of hate-filled discourse, there is a revival of idealising ‘traditional’ roles, and putting a soft glow on the complementarian idea that women are sort-of-equal, but just not equal enough to lead or teach.
Some women and men are totally happy to be homemakers, family builders and supporters of others. If that is their gifting and desire, fantastic.
But for those who are called and gifted to be teachers, preachers and leaders, we should not be vilified, and random Bible verses should not be quoted to imply that we are rebellious. The ‘blame women’ thread in contemporary commentary needs to stop.