Perhaps you noticed the furor after Target removed gender signs on children’s toys and bedding. Some considered this to be caving to the culture’s “winding, zigzag gender line.”1 Others welcomed the effort as removing barriers that bar girls from toys, interests, and ultimately even careers once viewed as off limits to them. For these parents the question is not: Is my daughter confused about her gender? The issue is: Given male privilege, will my daughter’s aspirations and talents be welcomed? Will she have the same opportunities as males? Or will society shame her, accusing her of denying her femininity, as often happens?
Consider Lavinia Goodell (1839–1880), the first woman licensed to practice law in Wisconsin. A devout Christian, Lavinia was drawn to a career occupied by males. She taught herself law and passed the county bar in 1874. Several of her cases went to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, where she was not allowed to represent her clients because the Chief Justice denied her admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, insisting that women’s sacred sphere is bearing and rearing children. Thus, to pursue work outside the home violated the “law of nature.”
Where the Chief Justice embraced gender essentialism—the belief that our human essence is inseparable from sex and “gender roles”—Lavinia pursued what I call “human essentialism.” She did not question her sex or try to deny differences between men and women. Rather, by using her talents to advance justice and human flourishing, she revealed her truest “nature”—that of a human created in God’s image and recreated in Christ.
Scripture repeatedly points to human essence as co-creative, co-protective, and co-nurturing. Humanity, created in God’s image, reflects the creative, protective, and nurturing qualities of God. To reduce human essence to gendered roles or work (whatever they might be) not only limits humans’ scope in caring for a hurting world, but also justifies the marginalization and abuse of women by denying females their God-given agency (Gen. 1:26–31). Those who favor gendered toy aisles often insist that to reject gender essentialism in favor of human essentialism is to negate differences between males and females. They assert that males are hardwired for authority and even aggression, while females are hardwired for nurture, submission, and to attract the sexual desires of males. This is the core of what it means to be male or female. By playing with “appropriate” toys like dolls, girls exercise their God-given natures, just as boys do by playing with GI Joes with biceps the size of Barbie’s waist! GI Joe and Barbie, Beauty and the Beast—it sounds too much like Genesis 3:16: “your desire will be for your husband who will rule over you.”
Yet, if girls are innately more inclined to nurture and boys are drawn to competition and aggression, they need each other for balance! This is what many businesses and boards are discovering. When organizations increase the number of women on boards or in leadership, they create more ethical work practices and outperform their competitors. Perhaps Target got it right! If males and females are created in God’s image to care for the world with equal influence and authority, then let them play with any toy, because both are needed in all professions, at all levels.
Gender differences—whatever they are—do not define, replace, or supersede the essence of our humanity as people created in God’s image and reborn in Christ. In fact, it is the other way around, as Lavinia Goodell demonstrated. Gender essentialist assumptions are used to exclude and marginalize women from positions of shared leadership—something challenged by the human essentialism throughout Scripture (in Gal. 3:28, for example). It is not our gender, but our abilities and character that equip us for leadership. This explains the diversity of leaders throughout Scripture and history.
Despite the gender essentialist assumptions of culture, especially Christian culture, we demean our own uniqueness as image bearers when we limit our influence to categories of male and female. As professor Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College wrote, every human being possesses the dignity of what C.S. Lewis called their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence. Rather than boring into ourselves to learn what category we might be part of, we do well to forget ourselves and do our work. Kilby reminds us that every day is filled with eternal possibilities, and every person, regardless of gender, contributes to “the cosmic canvas” revealing that our origins as men and women come from the heavens and that our creator is the Alpha and Omega.2
Grant Castleberry, “Missing the Target: Some Brief Thoughts on Target’s Cultural Capitulation.” CBMW.org. Available at http://cbmw.org/public-square/culture/missing-the-target-some-brief-thoughts-on-targets-cultural-capitulation/
- Clyde Kilby, “A Means to Mental Health.” Wheaton.edu. Available at http://www.wheaton.edu/~/media/Files/Centers-and-Institutes/Wade-Center/AMeanstoMentalHealth_Web.pdf.