If you’re looking for a powerful film to watch this summer, consider Iron Jawed Angels, a dramatization of the American suffragist Alice Paul (1885-1977). Her legacy is one of a kind. Few leaders exhibit more genius in responding to the rhetoric and strategies of their opponents than Paul. For egalitarians today, her struggle and ours have significant parallels. We have much to learn from Paul’s challenge to the illogic that portrayed women as wholly different from men and therefore unsuitable for decision making responsibilities. At a crucial moment in the film, while imprisoned for picketing the White House, Paul is examined by a psychiatrist for mental instability. In a penetrating declaration, she establishes her sanity as well as woman’s shared humanity with men. She tells the physician that her life is aimed at gaining for women what men have always enjoyed—professional opportunities for their aspirations and talents. In other words, women want an opportunity to subdue the world and rule over creation with the unique talents they possess not according to their gender, but because of their uniqueness as human beings created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27-28).
Writing at the same time as Alice Paul, the British author and theologian Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) also found it irritating and illogical to “assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs” (Are Women Human?) According to Sayers, there is “very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general” (Ibid.). To insist that women want something wholly different from men because of their gender is a sentimentalist notion that not only diminishes our uniqueness as human beings, but also opposes the teachings of Scripture.
The divine mandate in Genesis 1:27-28 shows how men and women both bear God’s image equally and therefore rule over creation together:
So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (TNIV).
“Rule over” in the Greek Septuagint, as well as all the other imperative commandment verbs in Genesis 1, are second person plural—meaning that the command is to both the man and woman. Therefore, this mandate should be manifested in a world that gives women a political, social, and spiritual voice to exercise their God-given place in tending the earth and making decisions that impact their lives and those of their children. For Alice Paul, this meant giving women the vote. For Dorothy Sayers, the divine mandate extends women equal access to trades and professions whereby they too might tend the earth and care for creation through their gifts and aspirations. Because women are human and created in God’s image, they too long to be part of the divine mandate as men do. Any argument that excludes human beings because of skin color, gender, or socioeconomic status from their God-given place in tending the earth is in direct opposition to God’s ultimate purposes for humankind.
The shared authority men and women enjoyed in the divine mandate over creation was severely disrupted through sin and the fall. Men began to rule over women as noted clearly in the “he will rule over you” of Genesis 3:16. Thankfully in Christ, the gift of grace is not like the trespass (Rom. 5:15). Our redemption in Jesus opposes the consequences of sin and men’s domination over women, traced throughout history. In Jesus we experience reconciliation, mutuality, and harmony, where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Through Jesus, as joint heirs of God’s kingdom, the divine mandate (of Gen. 1:27-28) is re-established. Men and women share authority in subduing the earth!