Kill The Angel in the House
As you can imagine, I zeroed in on the chapter entitled “Evangelicals and Gender”, authored by Sarah C. Williams, in this week’s book, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History & Culture in Regional Perspective, edited by Donald M. Lewis and Richard P. Pierard. It was validating to read about the impact evangelicalism has had on our current gender issues and how history has been slow “to recognize the complex but formative interactions between evangelical beliefs and cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity. It is unquestionably the case that evangelicalism had a vast impact on the intricate fabric of social relationships between men and women.” It has been disturbing to discover in my research how much damage has been done in this area due to the strong social influence of the church and early evangelical beliefs. Everything from the “stained glass ceiling” for women to the prescribed gender roles found in countless churches across America, we are suffering the immense consequences of these destructive beliefs.
Williams organized her chapter into sections based on five underlying assumptions. She states, “It is my contention that five underlying assumptions have shaped mainstream historiographical interpretations of the relationship between gender and evangelicalism. Each of these assumptions, for differing reasons and to varying degrees, inhibit and distort our understanding of the range and depth of evangelical influence on historical structures of thought and patterns of life.” The five assumptions she outlines are:
Assumption One: Who Is in Charge?
Assumption Two: It’s All About Women
Assumption Three: The Separation of Male and Female Spheres
Assumption Four: Hegemonic Evangelicalism
Assumption Five: The Correlation Between Social and Political Conservatism
Under her first assumption of “Who is in Charge?”, she makes the following powerful statement: “The scholarly agenda was shaped by the assumption that Christianity, and evangelicalism in particular, was and is unremittingly patriarchal. Evangelicalism is presented in the pages of such history books as a force that subordinated women to male domination in church and society. As a result, subjects such as female leadership in the church have become highly charged and adversarial, which often obscures the vital and creative interweaving of Christian spirituality and constitutive social ideals based on relations between as well as within the sexes. The word gender itself carries connotations of power, and early studies of this topic were concerned above all with the relative distribution of power between men and women within the structures of church leadership.” This explains a great deal of the brainwashing and patriarchal traditions that have been perpetuated in our churches. It also reveals how inaccurately history can be portrayed to promote a particular ideal as well. Another historian, Callum Brown, advocates for the strong impact of the feminization of religion on the character and role of the modern church. He argues that “in the Middle Ages and for much of the early modern period, female piety was understood in terms of the religious woman becoming male. Icons of female piety such as martyrs and ascetics were represented essentially in masculine forms, while femininity, menstruation and childbirth were all regarded as polluting and even dangerous to piety.”
This highlights the destructive image the church has given women and how it has systematically marginalized them as being dangerous or unneeded. It also reveals the subordinate role they were expected the play and how they were to live in the shadow of their man. This idea continues to get unfolded by Brown when he argues “that in the wake of the evangelical revival Christianity was feminized and depictions of women as avaricious, greedy, lustful and sexually predatory gave way to the venerated female spirituality of the Victorian woman, depicted so graphically in Coventry Patmore’s famous 1854 poem, “The Angel in the House.” If women do indeed predominate in every area of religious life except in formal leadership, then it makes little sense to limit the scope of enquiry to officially designated institutional leaders, as if it is they who lead exclusively and they who necessarily carry the tone and emphasis of community life.” Of course this caused me to do a little research on this “Angel in the House” poem to see how it really depicted women. Come to find out, it is a rather long poem published as a 184-page book inspired by Patmore’s wife, Emily, and depicts her as the ideal submissive woman of the age. Unfortunately, this became the gold standard for women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The following is an excerpt I found that gives a sense of the poem’s content:
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.
I also thought it was interesting that the Brooklyn College professor’s website where I found the summary of the poem had this quote: “For Virginia Woolf, the repressive ideal of women represented by the Angel in the House was still so potent that she wrote, in 1931, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” This is probably what many women would like to do to the many destructive narratives written about women in the evangelical church…actually I would like to join them in killing this divisive and abusive treatment of our sisters in Christ.
 Sarah C. Williams, “Evangelicals and Gender,”, in Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History & Culture in Regional Perspective, eds. Donald M. Lewis, and Richard P. Pierard, (InterVarsity Press, Kindle Edition), 271.
 Williams, “Evangelicals and Gender,” 271-272.
 Virginia Woolf was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Woolf
13 responses to “Kill The Angel in the House”
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I am sometimes amazed how someone’s interpretation or tradition gets understood as if Jesus said it himself. I guess that is the “secularist” in me :-). “…while femininity, menstruation and childbirth were all regarded as polluting and even dangerous to piety.” This quote struck me because I have heard this preached…about the hemorrhaging women…being dirty and Jesus made her clean. The emphasis often seems to be on her bleeding rather than her sinfulness. We miss that Jesus put this women and her need above going to the local governors house. Waiting to see who had touch him and publicly recognizing her so he status could be restored. What a beautiful representation of how Christ treats women.
The poem reminded of the movie The Notre Dame movie by Disney. It has always disturbed me that the villain is a bishop and makes the women in the story a witch (or demon) for tempting him. It breaks my heart that this is the world we live in where “holy” people blame women for their own downfalls.
Thanks Greg, awesome feedback. I appreciate your support of women and I love how you connected it to the story of the bleeding woman and how that represented Jesus’ position with women…He was a radical feminist 😉 I also think it is very sad and demoralizing how the church has villanized women for years. Thanks again for your thoughts and for being a champion for women.
Glad this book also fit in well with your research topic. A whole chapter served up on a platter for you again. Wish I had more that fit into mine (grin).
Just a fun satire from the Babylon Bee (don’t anyone jump too offense too quickly, it is a satire! Laugh a little…)
By the way, you had a very catchy title!
Thanks Jay, yes I have been fortunate to have my topic represented in the last couple of books…it does help :-). Oh my gosh, that satire article you included was absolutely hilarious…I love how they bring humor to som many topics in the church (like the one about the lights turning off in the Presbyterian church). Thanks also for the affirmation on the title, I was hoping people wouldn’t think it was too morbid. Blessings friend!
Great insight, Jake!
I thought it was interesting that Mark A. Noll, wrote, “The important thing to note about this list is that not only does it feature many women, who (in the First World at least) were much more restricted in terms of roles available to them, but many of these were not ‘ordained’ professional clergy” (Lewis and Pierard, 34). It was fascinating to read how egalitarianism morphed into strictly segregated roles colored by the Victorian age.
I found it interesting that women were elevated for philanthropy and volunteerism; however, it still kept women boxed in. Even today, most modern churches elevate women in regard to motherhood, marriage, and voluntary ministry, but do not talk on the topics of leadership, personal identity or business.
Victorian ideals are still perpetuated today because women are still addressed as an appendage of their household, whether that be their husband, children or parents. What ways have you seen North American Evangelicalism create segregated roles for men and women and personality expectation? How would understanding evangelicalism in a global context change this narrative?
Thanks Colleen for the thought filled comments. You always have such great things to add to my posts and new and interesting insights about the topic. Yes I agree, it is pathetic how churches don’t seem to apologize for highlighting primarily the motherly, nurturing aspects of women but rarely the strong leadership gifts. Churches also still see very limiting prescribed roles for men and women and we could benefit from taking notice of other countries who have the gender thing figured out much better than us Americans. The more voices supporting gender-balanced leadership the better. Thanks again.
Your ability to zero in on this issue is so important. Much like it is not the responsibility of African Americans to bear the burden of changing the dialogue and educating the ‘white’ community, it should not be the role of women to push this debate along. Ultimately it is our responsibility as men to continue the dialogue with other men and Christian leaders about their culpability in maintaining this negative rhetoric regarding women. I am glad that you continue to be laser focused on this issue.
Thanks so much Dan for your support of women leaders. It feels good to have other awesome men like you in our cohort who see the importance of closing the gender leadership gap, and yes I feel strongly about the need for men to be the loudest voices on this topic and use their positions of power to make an impact. Women have been fighting for equality for years with little progress made. Thanks again friend!
Yes, I agree with Dan that it’s so important that your voice (and our voices) as men be heard on this issue. So kudos to you for your post.
Our churches are full of chauvinistic language and attitudes. I remember growing up in my Baptist church, and it would irritate me to see the pot luck announcement for “Ladies” (for that’s what they were called) “with last names A-M to bring salads and N-Z to bring desserts”. What about asking for help from the men? (I liked cooking!) We are often very well-intentioned but with our language and assumptions, we exclude and denigrate.
Thanks so much Mark, nice to know I have other awesome men in this cohort who are advocates for female leaders. So many messages in the church are so obliviously offensive to women and many have no understanding of the need for gender-inclusive language. I bet the church has missed out on tons of great food from men due to their arrogance. 🙂 Hopefully us male voices can be heard since the female ones haven’t for decades. Thanks again friend.
I was hoping to read your thoughts on this subject and you did not disappoint. Thank you for a great perspective – even bold! We need men in ministyr (and in every occupation) who are courageous enough (and confident enough) to empower women.
Thanks Jean, it is women like you who deserve the respect and affirmation by men to be the dynamic leader you already are. Thanks for your encouraging words for my boldness, I just hope I can make even the slightest impact on helping to close the gender gap on this planet. We will just keep killing all the negative and destructive stereotypes that keep women down. Thanks again friend!