by Rebecca Koerselman
Are men and women spiritually equal in the eyes of God? Are the souls of men and women of equal value? I am not the first, or likely the last, person who has been troubled by this question.
Recently, I read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s brilliant book, A New Gospel for Women, about Katharine Bushnell, a fascinating woman who came of age in late 19th century America, and wrestled with this same question. Bushnell struggled to understand how supposedly upstanding Christian men could treat women as objects to be used and thrown out when they became inconvenient. Bushnell recognized the sexual double standard that American and British culture allowed, even encouraged. But how could that sexual double standard be reconciled with the biblical guidelines for Christian living? Why were women policed for sexual purity while men visited prostitutes? Furthermore, why were prostitutes targeted and punished, while the men who financed the prostitutes went unpunished, especially those men who called themselves followers of Christ? Bushnell searched the scriptures to better understand how this cultural double standard had also been transformed into a biblical double standard.
One of the things I admire most about Bushnell was that she worked through her crisis of faith without abandoning her faith. Instead of rejecting all of Christianity because of this significant inconsistency, she doubled down and examined scripture, studied Greek and Hebrew, and scrutinized the ways that male interpreters of scripture flavored their scholarship with a male gender bias. Take note, millennials—if we are honest, this is a good reminder to all of us. Too often we see one thing we don’t like at church or in the Bible, and chuck the whole thing. To throw the baby out with the bathwater is sloppy scholarship. Instead, we should spend the time and energy to understand and reconcile this inconsistency.
Bushnell eventually wrote the book on Christian feminism, God’s Word to Women. In it, she carefully examined the Bible, beginning with the creation story, the blaming of Eve for all sin, and moves through the Old and New Testaments to explain the original Hebrew and Greek, as well as the mistranslations of scripture that over time created a more culturally recognizable, but biblically inconsistent view of men’s and women’s roles. As Kobes Du Mez artfully points out, Bushnell’s book received good reviews from both the conservative and more liberal ends of the Christian community. Bushnell’s scholarship was sound and well-documented, and, for the most part, respected.
So why aren’t Christians or feminists familiar with Bushnell? Kobes Du Mez points out the poor timing of Bushnell’s message, an era when the Victorians were prudish, backward fuddy-duddies. American culture in the 1920s was becoming far more interested in science and modernism, and continuing it’s gradual unmooring from the Christian ties of the past. Meanwhile, American Christians in the 1920s increasingly favored an emphasis on personal morality and revivalism, at the expense of engaging with popular culture.
But I think the most compelling reason why Bushnell’s articulate and thoughtful work was largely forgotten has to do with the nature of feminists and Christians. As Kobes Du Mez points out, second wave feminists of the more recent past largely cut ties with Christianity. Second wave feminism emphasized sexual freedom as a means for achieving equality for women. How can we erase the sexual double standard of men and women? By allowing women to have the same sexual standards as men, answered the second wave feminists. Bushnell, in contrast, argued that men should be held to the same sexually pure standards of Victorian women. An interesting difference in strategy, yet both Bushnell and secular feminists would likely agree that the double standard for men and women still exists and that sexual liberation for women has not yet managed to erase it.
Wouldn’t it be great if feminists and Christians could talk with each other about gender instead of talking past each other? What if both groups realized they had a great deal in common and shared many of the same frustrations about our cultural double standards? Perhaps reading Bushnell and Kobes Du Mez, is the perfect first step.
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.