Complementarians v. Egalitarians


Although the world of Christianity has a strong diversity of cultures, rituals, philosophies, and people the issue of gender relations seems to break firmly into two camps. There are the egalitarians who believe in equity and equality between genders and there are the complementarians who believe that there are two sexes of humans that are equal in God’s eyes but whose innate differences and roles are designed to complement one another on earth.

I’ve been obsessed with complementarianism for a long time. Feminism was a no brainer for me as a stubborn and willful child stepping into atheism long before I could even fit a bra (let alone burn one in defiance) coming of age in the Catholic Church. Being told I was fundamentally unfit for a leadership role in my community or my household made me blood boil. As a sixth grader I used to pronounce that I was going to be the first PERSON to walk on Mars, not the first woman and if women could be astronauts then being a priest or the pope was obviously a possibility. The ‘complementarian’ bullshit didn’t work on me. My logic at the time was that if a woman was the best person to make sure a family had a clean and hygienic home, oversee daily child development, plan meals, and stay on top of all the work and rigor that goes into homemaking than she was probably more than adequately prepared to run a parish.
IMG_3302The Catholic Church made me feel so much that being a woman was a punishment. Eve was responsible for the downfall of the first man and the rest of humanity for all time. Nevermind the fact that God decided to take on human flesh and redeem everyone (even women!) and opened up a New Testament where the gates of heaven were reopened and salvation was for all who wanted or needed it. If Eve had offended God so gravely, wasn’t it more than apparent that through the Cross, she was forgiven for that ill-fated snack of an apple? Why was the church of man still insistent on carrying out a punishment on all women, for all time?

Patriarchy is not God’s design for the world. Patriarchy was very much a product of sin, not part of the original design.

The scripture shows us that one of God’s primary activities is undermining systemic oppression. Jesus had his longest recorded conversations with women, he came into this world with a woman giving birth without an attendant in a stable, women were the only ones brave enough to bear witness to his death, and it was to women that he revealed the resurrection. Jesus is a feminist. Jesus is anti-fascist. Jesus is anti-racist. God’s love is the exact opposite of the forces of dehumanization present in the world.

And yet, as much as complementarian philosophy seems to be the more clearly “anti-woman” of the two, nothing is ever that simple. Egalitarianism has been used to justify more than its share of misogyny, especially when it devalues the importance of ‘feminine’ work. Both of these relational models exist under a patriarchy and acts of oppression will use any and all vocabulary to justify themselves.

Here’s what studies have shown us:

  1. Men interrupt women, a lot. In this study, 20 women and 20 men were paired up for recorded conversations. Women interrupted men, on average, just once in the short conversations while the men interrupted 2.6 times.
  2. Men dominate business meetings, taking up 75% of the conversation according to Brigham Young and Princeton universities.
  3. Patients are 2x more likely to interrupt a female doctor than a male.
  4. Even as young as middle school, boys are more likely to be called on in the classroom and are more likely to be disruptive to their peers when speaking.
  5. Women find more success as intellectuals when they publish writing or research under gender neutral or masculine names.
  6. Men perceived women as dominating a conversation and speaking over men when in actuality the woman had only spoken 30% of the time.

To me, #6 is very important because it shows that when women are assertive enough to speak only 1/3 of the time in a conversation than men feel and experience that as being at least equal if not more than their fair share. In this context, egalitarianism is next to impossible. If women cannot contribute a full 50% to a conversation without making men feel uncomfortable and justified in interrupting her, then where exactly are we learning and practicing this purported equality? Egalitarianism is by and large an unrealized ideal and it’s hard to say which is harder: the philosophy that states outright that it believes in patriarchy or the philosophy that asks me to pretend in an equality that simply doesn’t exist. Even if any given woman were to be in a romantic relationship with a genuinely egalitarian male partner, they would both still exist in an inegalitarian world that will always privilege his speech, his actions, and his intentions over hers.

Trying to escape sexism is a lot like trying to climb out of quicksand.

If a woman’s ‘equal’ share only amounts to 30% instead of a full 50%, then egalitarianism can only go so far because we are all socialized to believe that 70/30 is actually 50/50. This socialization is endemic to our culture and it is internalized by us all, regardless of gender. What we are taught to call equal isn’t so a lot of egalitarianism lacks the awareness necessary to effectively combat gender-based oppression.

Complementarians believe that women shouldn’t be in any immediate positions of authority over men (defined to be 13+ years of age). A woman shouldn’t be directing traffic in the middle of an intersection because then she would be an authority figure to male motorists and that would be inherently emasculating to men on the road. But, if a woman engineered a traffic light to be hung in that same intersection it might be okay because men wouldn’t have the emotional experience of capitulating to the demands of a woman. I don’t believe that this should be the way of the world but I do acknowledge that by and large, it is how things are going.

Women who are in positions of authority over men often have one hell of a time with that. In fact, just being a woman with a social media account and active followers is more than enough for many men to justify sending death and rape threats. Women who challenge the status quo and refuse to believe that they are intrinsically worth less than the men around them often face great violence. We as a planet have absolutely refused to modify men’s behavior around women and instead we opt to modify women’s behavior to accommodate the violence of men as natural and inevitable. Telling a woman not to speak up or take a position of authority because it might anger a male is no different from telling her not to wear an article of clothing she likes because it might be so arousing that she’ll be raped. It’s all an act of coercion: be modest, don’t speak up, don’t leave your house or else we’ll hurt you.

The ultimate failing of egalitarianism is that it fails to understand that sexism must be confronted and overthrown before it can really be genuinely manifested in society. “Egalitarian” and “feminist” men need to do a lot of soul-searching and reflection on where they think this middle point really is and question themselves on how they’re demonstrating equality. In many ways, we have to look at our predilection to shoot down whenever we think we can get away with it as something like ‘original sin.’ The fact that we’re more likely to favor inaction in the face of something we know is wrong unless we’re invested in the outcome is our original sin, a self-centeredness at any cost to ourselves, communities, and planet.

I think there is a lot to be said for Christian feminism but I think it’s hard for it to win without reaching out across to interfaith, atheist, and agnostic women. Patriarchy isn’t a distinctly Christian problem nor really a religious problem. It’s alive and well in the world of science and academia. It’s alive in social work. It’s alive in LGBT communities and radicals and progressives. It’s there among the unbelievers. Undermining the our collective drive to dehumanize our fellow passengers and exploit them is what social justice is about and the common goal shared among those fighting for it regardless of how any of us cope with our existential experiences as those marginalized by society. To reconfigure original sin/violent selfishness as a way to counter oppression in all of its forms and recognize the fact that our self-preservation instinct tends to make most of us conservative in our action to challenge a system that has demonstrated itself to be violent.

Both complementarianism and egalitarianism have an abundance of defensive arguments as to why each is the better option for women rather than humility before such a big context and a willingness to center the needs and voices of those most impacted by it. So often I’ve seen self-identified feminist men reiterate the notion that men won’t really hear or understand feminism unless it’s explained by a man, a counter-productive technique if I’ve ever heard one as well as speaking as though men are equally oppressed by the patriarchy as women when the reality is that men have many systemic benefits from the patriarchy and are definitively not the main targets of it though they may very well be at the mercy of classism, racism, or other forms of systemic oppression.

For example, a lot of enforcement of a ‘macho/muscular’ body is very class oriented: the ruling classes have generally lacked such body policing because their value is not seen in their ability to produce manual labor but rather to capitalize on it.  Body policing is about ones relative use to the ruling elite rather than a set of vague abstract standards that just so happened to come into vogue. They occur within a context: how do you and your body best serve those at the highest echelons of society. Much of sex positive feminism has been about making feminism appeal to men at the expense of including class, race, and other analyses of the body in relation to white western capitalism.

This is where I begin to find commonalities with complementarians: there is a much more raw class based analysis within it than many give it credit and I struggle with this. In the patriarchal world where I live, having a male partner affords me greater security in all senses of the world and within a certain income range we will have more secure finances if I stay at home and inhibit the bleeding costs that come from both parties working away. A household IS a lively economic unit and many families do hemorrhage their income by paying for domestic services that those in the household themselves cannot attend to due to the workplaces obligations they have taken on to survive under capitalism. It’s a painful reality: although many women are the primary breadwinners for their families, I personally am very unlikely to ever out-earn my partner because my skills, gifts, and talents do not translate well to marketplace success but they will help my family and home to thrive as we all face the bitter situation we are faced with in the world.

This reality does not sit well because we don’t value the labor that I am best at doing. “Women’s labor” is both priceless and unvalued at the same time and patriarchy finds a way to blame women for both sides of this. Without domestic labor, we are at serious risk of physical and mental health breakdowns. Toilets cannot go unscrubbed, untended physical and emotional wounds fester in the individual and collective body, babies must be held and fed, children must play, learn, and be messy, our first homes are carried in our hearts and minds for the entirety of our lives. “Pink collar” jobs are always paid less and given less regard in the capitalist market, though, despite their integral place in our survival. We revile those who tend to our most primal of needs.

There is so much admiration I have for women who are so assured and confident that their labor matters and is integral to the success of her family unit that they can ignore the world and know it in the bottom of their hearts that their labor is irreplaceable and priceless. Many of them are in complementarian communities in which their labor is culturally valued. Homemaking and caregiving skills are not seen as female weakness but rather female strengths. In many of these communities, men might earn the dollar but it is their waves who double it through their work managing a home. That dollar is worth less without what she can do with it. A complementarianism that genuinely regards all participants as valuable and vital for their differences can offer more social support for the stay-at-home mom but this is just as mythological as egalitarianism: both still exist within a sexist framework that will ultimately undermine the gains of either ideology in the absence of a full social revolution.

Coming soon: closer looks at Quiverfull, anti-feminism, and other Christian gender theories

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