How to Produce an Egalitarian Man

by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. | June 05, 2006
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Let’s get a couple of things straight right away.

First, I’m a man. I have a hairy chest. I used to be on the football team. I like Bruce Willis movies — at least, the ones in which something blows up, which is most of them. And barbecue is among my favorite cuisines. (Although, please don’t tell the guys on the football team that I used a word like “cuisines.”)

Second, I was not always an egalitarian. I was raised in an environment to produce quite the opposite. My dad was a surgeon and a jock and an elder in our Christian Brethren assembly. My mom was a schoolteacher and a homemaker and a — well, we didn’t have titles for what women were in the church: she was just one of the “ladies,” as in “Ladies Coffee Hour” meetings, and “Ladies Missionary Society,” and the like, most of which my mother helped to run. And I was raised in northern Ontario in the sixties and early seventies, a cultural backwater where the waves of feminism were reduced to tiny ripples by the time they lapped up there.

So how did I become an egalitarian? Indeed, how did I become an egalitarian who writes a book encouraging other people to become egalitarians?

This conversion experience, like all other important and benign conversion experiences, was a work of God. We do not have the ability to convert other people in such deep ways. We can’t even convert ourselves to the goodness we would like to attain. So let’s recognize immediately that any change to egalitarianism of a lasting and proper sort results only from the transformative power of the Holy Spirit of God.

I make this point because sometimes we egalitarians act as if we think as follows: “If we can just present the right evidence and the right arguments in the right way, then all will be well.” When the audiences don’t all immediately convert, we redouble our efforts. And when that doesn’t bring in the Kingdom of Peace, we incline to despair.

We need to remember that any lasting change of people’s values to those of the Kingdom of God — among which values I do number egalitarianism — is a part of authentic conversion, and conversion is the province of the Holy Spirit, not us. “How to produce an egalitarian man”? Pray that God will do it.

This isn’t all there is to be said, however. Indeed, let us invoke the monastic motto, ora et labora: “pray — and work.” God calls us to work with him in the spread of the Kingdom. So what work shall we do to cooperate with God in his great work of conversion?

In my case (and I have been asked to write autobiographically), four kinds of influences made the difference. Two of them had to do with men; two of them had to do with women.

First, I encountered good arguments. I read articles and books that showed me other ways of understanding the Bible’s teaching on gender. Those articles and books were written by men: I remember particularly being helped by Robert Johnston, Ward Gasque, David Scholer, and Berkeley Mickelsen.

I was also helped, secondly, by the fact that these men were both scholars and evangelicals. They provided, that is, not just arguments, but examples to follow. Their egalitarianism gave me a kind of permission to consider egalitarianism for myself. Indeed, while he wrote very little on the matter, when I found out (I think through a transcription of an interview) that eminent Brethren scholar F. F. Bruce — than whom no intellectual star shone brighter in our little denominational firmament — supported women in public ministry, it deeply impressed me. “If F. F. Bruce thinks so, well, then: I’d better think about this some more.”

This second point, about male role models (for such they were), explains my silly reference earlier to being a man. Men need other men to show them that it’s okay to be egalitarian. We need to know that we’re not giving up anything truly masculine in changing our attitudes toward women. When so much of our culture (and, I believe, of every culture heretofore and elsewhere) intertwines genuine masculinity with patriarchy — indeed, with the domination of women, so that a “true man” condescends to women, mocks women, enjoys making use of women, and refuses to be importantly influenced by women — then we men can fear egalitarianism as, in fact, emasculation. So the examples of hairy-chested, football-playing, barbecue-chomping men can be important in the conversion experience. (I surmise that this is likely the first time you have ever read a sentence like that.) And, while it’s not clear to me that, say, F. F. Bruce fit that particular description, the key here is that he was, for me, an admirable Christian man, and thus served powerfully as a role model as I stumbled my way toward egalitarianism.

Women also, of course, have been providing excellent arguments along the way. Patricia Gundry, Letha Scanzoni, Nancy Hardesty, Alvera Mickelsen, Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Catherine Clark Kroeger, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Ruth Tucker, Janette Hassey, Elaine Storkey — the list goes on of capable women providing excellent arguments that have confirmed and improved my egalitarianism. Beyond these contributions, however, women have played two other important roles in my move from patriarchy to feminism.

In fact, this account is really out of order. Long before I sought out egalitarian arguments against patriarchy, I was being prompted to do so by extended experience that unsettled my reflexive patriarchy. Long before I needed male Christian role models, I was being prepared to entertain and even embrace a different view of gender as I encountered female Christians who were the spiritual equal of men. Indeed, they seemed the equal of men in every way pertinent to leadership in church and society, and to partnership at home. My mother was (and is) herself such a woman: articulate, ambitious, tireless, creative, assertive, self-possessed, inspiring, critical — easily a match for any man I knew on any scale of leadership qualities. As everyone in our family will attest, she has certainly been a match for my dad! And I saw her lead outside the home, in our church, in summer camp programs, on university and civic boards, and more.

My mother’s sisters and sister-in-law also provided me with examples of women who simply were not inferior to men, who seemed to me in their respective ways to possess all that was necessary for full partnership in every social sphere. They were certainly feminine in classic ways — warm, nurturing, encouraging, patient, and gentle — but also rational, discerning, insightful, and pragmatic. So why were they supposed to submit to men?

I benefited, furthermore, from the work and companionship of capable Christian women in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Staff leaders impressed me as Bible teachers and spiritual directors. Even more impressive to me were my fellow students in high school and university Christian clubs who were at least as godly, intelligent, and capable as any of us young men. And dazzling among these impressive young women was one particular person who became my wife, Kari — a petite, curly-haired cutie whom my family once feared would be dominated by her effusive and overbearing fiancé. They don’t think that anymore! Kari has been a daily reminder to me, for almost thirty years now, that egalitarianism makes sense and patriarchy doesn’t.

Women thus provided me with good reasons to become egalitarian in the two ways parallel to what I received from men: in literal evidence and argument that helped change my mind, yes, but also in personal examples that contradicted patriarchy.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn is often cited to help us understand how people undergo significant changes in their thinking — what we call paradigm shifts. Kuhn suggests that we give up our ways of thinking, our paradigms, only under duress. Typically we do so only when we can no longer ignore or accommodate within our paradigms those evidences and arguments that don’t fit — what Kuhn called “anomalies.” Well, the arguments and examples provided by these men and women constituted a pretty big, and ever-growing, pile of anomalies. The collective force of these egalitarian evidences helped collapse my inherited patriarchy and put me in search of a new way of thinking (which I have set out in Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender).

So far, however, I have spoken about my change of mind as if it was just that: an alteration of intellection, a transfer of rational allegiance from one concept to another. It was that, but it was more than that. It was, as most important conversions are, also a change of heart.

Aristotle suggests that the speaker intent on persuasion must employ three modes of speech: logos (appeal to reason), ethos (appeal to a way of being), and pathos (appeal to the affections). From the male scholars I mentioned earlier, I received both logos (good arguments) and ethos (examples of how to be Christian, feminist, and male). From women, I received more logos (indeed, some of the best — both their verbal arguments and also the arguments from their impressive lives), but I also needed to receive, and did receive, the crucial gift of pathos. I needed to feel something of the pain of patriarchy: of being interrupted or ignored in conversation; of being passed over for recognition and promotion; of receiving condescension or suspicion instead of welcome partnership. And I needed to be confronted with their anger, with their refusal to be treated this way anymore.

Women have entrusted me with great gifts: their stories and their feelings about what they have been through and continue to encounter. We men will not change until we want to change, and one of the most powerful motives we will have for changing our minds is to alleviate the suffering of the women we admire and love — suffering that is obvious to women but often unseen by us men. I know it seems incredible to women that men can be so obtuse, but people of color will testify that we white North Americans are similarly obtuse about racism. Poor people will testify that we wealthy people are obtuse about financial differences. And tradespeople will testify what we professionals are obtuse about class distinctions.

We men just don’t see how we dominate conversations, for instance. We figure that anyone who has something to say will just say it, so those silent women must not have anything to say — and, we conclude, must not be all that bright or all that motivated. We don’t see how our feelings for women can divert and even pervert interactions that are supposed to be constructive and mutually beneficial into erotic games that no one should have to play, and especially not in a work- or church-related context. We don’t see how we unconsciously disregard women’s abilities and interests, and because those decisions are unconscious, the women themselves will never know what happened: They just somehow (again) won’t get the opportunity, or the honor, or the reward they actually deserve.

We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be marginalized, demeaned, disrespected, dismissed. We can be told by other men to shape up, and that can help. Men certainly have responsibility here to speak on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.

Furthermore, I have needed these testimonies, not just when I was transiting from patriarchy to egalitarianism, but continually, to this very day. My wife has reminded me from time to time, “You’re not as feminist as you think you are.” I used to bristle when she would say that, for I had congratulated myself on being a fully enlightened man, totally emancipated from sexism, and (let’s be honest) a pretty admirable guy. But I have come to see, a little more clearly over the years, just how deeply entrenched are the “gender scripts” that I have tended to follow. I have not “arrived” at entire sanctification and I do not dwell in the New Jerusalem. I continue to mistreat women despite my intention not to do so, and I have concluded that only women can help the situation by notifying me that, yes, you’re doing it again and, no, you failed to do what was appropriate.

I recognize, of course, that not all men want to be so reminded. All sensible people need to pick their battles and their moments. Many women do not have men in their lives who want to hear what they have to say. So they will have to do what women have always done: press on, regardless, to make the best of their situation, to provide good examples to those women and men under their influence, and to hope for something better, if only for their daughters.

Feminist psychologist Virginia Vanian, however, urges women not just to wait for a brighter day, but to speak up now, and particularly about the small things that women tend just to swallow and endure. She points out that repeated small slights constitute large-scale social patterns of repression — that mountains can, in fact, arise out of the accumulation of molehills. So women can and must do something to keep the pattern from being reinforced. Add your anomalies to the paradigm to help collapse it, or it will remain your prison — and, indeed, the prison that disadvantages all of us.

Yes, we are to patiently endure each other’s shortcomings and not overreact to the social clumsiness of day-to-day life. But I, as a man, join with Dr. Vanian to plead with women to speak up more, to acquaint us men better with what’s going on and how it pains you. I know it’s discomfiting and I know it’s unfair (“Why, after all we’ve been through, do we have to teach you men such elementary things?”), but here’s the sober and inescapable truth: If you keep letting patterns persist, then they will persist.

We men, of course, have our corresponding imperatives. We must help to create safe places and occasions in which we welcome women to say the hard things, the painful things, the confrontational things that tell the truth about how things really are. We need to brace ourselves for words that will dislodge us from our comfortable seats of automatic privilege. And we must prepare ourselves to act on what we hear, not merely to let women vent and then congratulate ourselves on our magnanimity. For if we listen to women and then do not change, we victimize them twice. And we render ourselves doubly guilty.

All of us need both to see and to feel in order to change, and we men need the help of you women. Only then will we, in return, give you the help of our asymmetric social power that is so long overdue. Most of us men really do love you: We just don’t know how to love you as well as we can! We are responsible to sort ourselves out, of course. But may I ask you women to help us, please, become the egalitarian men we want to be.