Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb grew up running for the sheer love of it. Training for the Boston Marathon without running shoes or a coach, Gibb ran up to 30 and 40 miles a day. What Gibb didn’t know: The event was closed to women due to the widely believed myth that women pursuing vigorous athletics would damage their reproductive organs. My mother was pregnant with me in early 1966 when Gibb received a letter stating “women were not physiologically capable of running 26 miles and furthermore, under the rules that governed international sports, they were not allowed to run.”1 The myth has since been debunked, though it still makes notable appearances.
Talents and responsibilities bequeathed by God to men and women are often at odds with cultural gender expectations. Some people attempt to throw off any and all constraints on honorable behavior. Others attempt to definitively define acceptable behavior. However, our fullest expression as male and female created in the image of God is found in neither unbridled freedom nor oppressive regulation. Paradoxically, within God’s delineations we find the liberty to be ourselves.Our fullest expression as male and female created in the image of God is found in neither unbridled freedom nor oppressive regulation.
Being confused about their meanings, I often crossed out “Sex” and replaced it with “Gender” on forms requiring basic personal information. I would then tick “Female.” I thought gender meant the fullness of a person, while sex was simply the wrong word. Unknowingly, I was utilizing a new cultural euphemism. Whereas sex originated as a noun referring to reproductive biology, it has morphed into a verb meaning copulation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), gender has been used euphemistically in place of sex since the 1960s.
Gender originates from grammar in some languages, such as Latin, Russian, and German, to classify words as masculine, feminine, neuter, or common for the purposes of sentence syntax. The term gender has morphed to mean the expectations a culture creates for males and females. One OED definition for gender says: “The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex.” [emphasis added]
In this article, rather than using sex as a verb—such as, I have sex with my husband—sex is used primarily as a noun—Sex is an aspect of my being; I am female. Gender discussions shall focus on cultural expectations of males and females.
When God creates mankind in Genesis 1:26–27, he doesn’t begin by comparing and contrasting us as male and female, he begins with his own attributes. Three times he speaks of creating mankind in his image and likeness. To truly understand male and female, the place to start isn’t with our biology, the place to start is the fact that we are created Imago Dei: created in the image and likeness of God. But that isn’t where people usually start. We begin with, It’s a girl! It’s a boy!
In April 1966, Gibb disguised her sex under a hooded sweatshirt and hid in bushes near the Boston Marathon starting line. She slipped into the middle of the crowd of runners after the gun blast. To her relief, runners and then spectators (after she took off her sweatshirt) enthusiastically welcomed a woman participating in the event. Reporters noticed her and phoned the news ahead. Radio announcers broadcast her progress. The women of Wellesley College cheered her on with screams and tears.
“Finally, I got to Hereford Street and made the turn on to Boylston. Spectators thronged the bleachers and let out a roar of applause. The press was there. The governor of Massachusetts came down to shake my hand. The next day it was front-page headlines. News went out around the world that a woman had run the Boston Marathon. I had run in a time of 3 hours and 21 minutes and had finished ahead of two-thirds of the field.”2
Many people didn’t believe that Bobbi Gibb had run the entire marathon. In April 1967, she stood out in the open near the starting line and began running after half the men’s field passed by. She ran the Boston Marathon a third time in 1968. Both years, Gibb easily won ahead of the other women who chose to follow her historic lead and run the race. Contrary to the myth of athletics damaging reproductive organs, years later Gibb said, “Of all the things I’ve ever done, having a baby was the best.”
In 1972, during the running boom of my childhood, the Boston Marathon opened registration to women. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics held the first women’s Olympic marathon the same year I graduated high school in Greater Los Angeles.
Not only do women run marathons successfully, but they now also toe the starting lines of ultra marathons (any running event longer than 26.2 miles; typical distances are 50 and 100 miles). In 2014, just over 25% of ultra marathon finishers were women.3 In April 2015, Alissa St. Laurent outclassed every other competitor, both male and female, in the Canadian Death Race—a 77-mile running race through the northern Rockies with about 17,000 feet of elevation change. The next fastest competitor finished more than an hour later.4
Less than fifty years ago, it was commonly believed that women were physiologically incapable of vigorous physical pursuits. Women proved that this gender construct had no basis in reality.
The case can be made that this Western myth regarding women’s physical capabilities began with Victorian gender constructs.5 Women were believed to be physically weak and incapable. And they were—far more than the general differences we see between men and women today. Corsets squeezed their vital organs until diagnosable damage was caused.6 One does not run a marathon with a tightly laced abdomen. Women’s frailty was caused by fashion, not inherent design.
Just as women were squeezed into deforming corsets, they were also squeezed into deforming gender constructs, remnants of which linger on today. In response to the changing nature of work and home life, expectations of men and women also changed. Historically, production, commerce, and family life all took place in homes and on family-managed lands. Commerce and dwellings physically separated until home-life no longer included economic production.
Whole new gender paradigms developed in response to these changing dynamics. Historian Barbara Welter coined a name for the ensuing gender constructs in the title of her 1966 essay, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860.” Commerce might have left the home, but it was believed that proper women could not. After an exhaustive survey of the period literature to determine what authors meant by the commonly used but seldom defined term—True Woman—Welter wrote her conclusions with plenty of supporting evidence.
Within this pervasive cultural paradigm the four cardinal virtues for women were piety, purity, domesticity, and submission. It was put forth by many that women were far more naturally inclined toward religion than men. To preserve their purity and rescue men from their carnality, the less passionate female must resist males’ sexual impulses. Since commerce had moved outside the home and women were commanded by scripture to be “working at home,”7 it was concluded that women’s work meant only the domestic sphere, despite Paul’s emphasis likely being far more on work than on home. However, the cardinal virtue exclusive to women was submission.
Men were supposed to be religious, although they rarely had time for it, and supposed to be pure, although it came awfully hard to them, but men were the movers, the doers, the actors. Women were the passive, submissive responders. The order of dialogue was, of course, fixed in Heaven. Man was “woman’s superior by God’s appointment, if not in intellectual dowry, at least by official decree.” Therefore, as Charles Elliott argued in The Ladies’ Repository, she should submit to him “for the sake of good order at the least.” Women were warned that if they tampered with this quality, they tampered with the order of the Universe. (Welter, “Cult of True Womanhood”)
We find remnants of such beliefs expressed today in John Piper’s definitions of manhood and womanhood. He included them recently in an Ask Pastor John broadcast:
“I have come up with a general definition of what I think the heart of mature manhood and the heart of mature womanhood are. … At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way a husband will, but he will be a man. At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships. I take a whole book, a little book, to unpack those two definitions.” [emphasis added]
Piper’s definitions, highlighted above, are from his book, What’s the Difference?, in which he argues that they are gleaned from the Bible. Since he is a renowned pastor and theologian, I rather wonder at no mention of God in the definitions themselves. Piper states his definitions “are an attempt to get at the heart, or at least an indispensable aspect, of manhood and womanhood.” (22) These definitions focus on the response of each sex to the other. Piper argues for a Male-Female paradigm made up of complementary traits: Initiator-Responder, Leader-Assistant, Protector-Nurturer, Provider-Receiver. Piper claims: “The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior.” (63) Piper’s paradigm echoes the values expressed again and again in the literature promoting True Womanhood in the 1800s: man should direct, woman may persuade. Piper’s definitions, and their explanations, have much in common with the cultural gender constructs of the Victorian era.We experience the similarities and differences between our sexes. Yet to delineate into words what we tentatively grasp in our senses is like attempting to control the winds. Our efforts to capture the gender genie in a bottle have become laughable.
Statements of universal truths should elicit a corresponding pang of recognition in most people. If Piper’s definitions really got at the heart of manhood and womanhood, they would elicit an “ah, of course” response for most Christians and possibly most people. Certainly fellow complementarians, a term John Piper helped coin, would raise a cheer of recognition. However, complementarian Aimee Byrd at Mortification of Spin finds “these definitions troublesome.”
Fellow Spin blogger Todd Pruitt, after affirming complementarian beliefs about home and church leadership as well as the significance of our sexes, states, “yet it seems that holding to these biblical teachings is not enough to be considered a real complementarian. … So, some of us complementarians are wondering if complementarianism is morphing into patriarchy.” Pruitt considers that some “strange reactions” to posts at Mortification of Spin “could possibly be chalked up to the shock that someone had publically [sic] disagreed with John Piper. But maybe it is also because the rather exotic teachings of Patriarchy are taking hold within complementarian circles.”
Pruitt is talking about Patriarchal teachings that hearken back to the social mores found in the Cult of True Womanhood with its emphasis on separate male and female roles as well as spheres of influence. A year ago in her introduction to the podcast “The Spin of Patriarchy,” Aimee Byrd wrote: “With all the truly harmful problems that I see with this doctrine, at its core I see a faith that filters everything through women and men’s roles rather than Christ as he is clothed in the gospel. It seems to be about men and women rather than God.”
We cannot understand who we are as men and women by merely comparing each sex to the other. The differentiation of sexes isn’t the place God begins in His biblical account. He begins with Himself:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Three times Genesis 1:26–27 states that God created mankind in His image. Once in the planning and twice in the doing. Then Genesis 1:27c states, “male and female he created them.” Hannah Anderson, in her book, Made for More, focuses on this truth. Who are we as Imago Dei creatures? We must answer this primary question before we can ponder the more specific question: What does it mean to be male and female? Anderson states:
“[W]e have never really answered the basic questions of identity. Instead, we’ve tried to answer how identity manifests itself without first answering where identity comes from; we’ve tried to figure out where a woman should spend her life without first answering who she should be.” (23)
Patriarchy is a far cry from God’s first directive to both male and female: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’ ” (Gen. 1:28). God calls both men and women to dominion over creation and submission to their Creator.
Many women within the Christian church today are faced with two extremes of feminine gender expectations. Within the Church, some are pointing back to older cultural gender norms of Patriarchy and True Womanhood, while current popular culture promotes an Anything Goes gender construct. Both miss the biblical liberty offered by Christ.
An example of gender expectations shifting in American culture can be seen in the Miss America Pageant. In 1984, the same year I graduated from high school and Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic marathon, Vanessa Williams was dethroned as Miss America. Her crime: posing nude with another woman for pornographic photos. Taken before she entered the pageant, Penthouse Magazine published them after Williams was crowned Miss America. At this year’s Miss America Pageant in September 2015, Vanessa Williams was issued a warm, contrite apology during the event and sat as head judge for it. A CNN article, “Vanessa Williams and the declining scandal of nude photos,” relates how celebrities currently use a nude photo “scandal” to boost their career. It wasn’t so for Williams, who took a four-year hiatus after the controversy. Gender constructs and social mores are shifting sands. What’s career destroying in one generation is career boosting in another.
Gender ideologies run the gamut from claiming impunity while casting off all restraints to oppressive regulation that deforms our God-given design. Claiming impunity disparages God’s love and exposes adherents to the ravages of evil. Oppressive regulation subjugates adherents to God-dishonoring confinements. Indwelling the liberty that comes from our Creator protects us from both evils. We are properly protected, nurtured, and liberated to our fullest selves when we abide in Jesus.
We experience the similarities and differences between our sexes. Yet to delineate into words what we tentatively grasp in our senses is like attempting to control the winds. Our efforts to capture the gender genie in a bottle become laughable when we consider the many times and ways God has had women act beyond human gender constructs. In Judges 4, Deborah was appointed by God to judge Israel. She gave personal, direct orders to many, including military leader Barak. In Luke 10:3–42, Mary leaves the kitchen and her sister, Martha, to claim the place of a disciple, a place only for men in her culture. Jesus defended Mary’s choice.
Victorian gender norms were still limiting women one hundred years later as Bobbi Gibb found out when she tried to register for the Boston Marathon. Gibb called it, during a 2011 interview, “that mindless discrimination against women that so infuriated me. If you were a woman [in the 1960s] it seemed you weren’t allowed to do anything. … I realized that if I could prove this prejudice to be wrong, I would throw into question all the other prejudices and false beliefs about women.”
Faulty beliefs about women’s physical capabilities have carried into the twenty-first century. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred ski jumping as a women’s event until the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Gaining entrance to the Olympics was:
A decade-long fight, waged without the support of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Federation and despite the overt resistance of the International Ski Federation (FIS), whose president in 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, also an IOC member, said he opposed women’s ski jumping because it “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
The peril Kasper alluded to, as other skeptics put it to [Olympic ski jumper, Lindsey] Van more bluntly, is that a woman’s reproductive organs could be damaged—even dislodged—by the cumulative impact of ski-jump landings.
“I’ve had people ask me had my uterus fallen out yet,” Van said, recounting the litany of arguments marshaled against women’s ski jumping. “I heard that multiple times; it was comical. And embarrassing—not so much for me but for whoever said it.”8
How much do Victorian gender constructs still affect us today? Cultural norms are tenacious and influential. We must not pretend that we easily lay ours aside when we read Scripture. It is far too easy to read our own “normal” into the text.
Defying cultural gender expectations opens ourselves to ridicule and scorn. We do so rightly only when we submit to God’s leading. Both male and female are created Imago Dei, both are tasked with dominion and stewardship of creation, both are to work alongside each other as siblings in God’s family. In all my prayerful pondering of made in the image of God: male and female He created them, one conclusion I have come to is that rather than being charged with different tasks and spheres of influence, men and women bring different perspectives, insights, and strengths to the same tasks and spheres of influence. God made us different and indispensable to each other because of those differences.
We are the same; we are different. The world of athletics now understands this. While discussing a 1967 Boston Marathon controversy, Bobbi Gibb stated, “A woman is not qualified to run in the men’s division race any more that a man is qualified to run in a woman’s division race.” Yet both run alongside each other on the same course, spurring each other toward the same finish line.
5. Thanks to Adina Johnson’s research assistance.
7. Titus 2:5