Barr opens this chapter with a gnarly cautionary tale from a medieval sermon:
The story goes like this: Sex was considered impure, so medieval Christians were encouraged to abstain from sex during holy times (which was a lot of time on the medieval calendar). A woman wanted to have sex with her husband on Easter morning. He said no. She was so overcome by desire that she tried to seduce her brother-in-law, who also denied her. Mad with lust, she grabbed a sword and cut off his head. When her husband found her, standing with the sword dripping blood, she declared “Lo, all this I have done, you have made me do!”(151)
The point of the sermon was that while we should abstain from sex during holy times, the “marriage debt” is real and should not have been denied. Barr writes “because of the natural weakness of the female body, medieval women were considered more prone to sin, especially sexual sin” (151). In other words, by denying his wife sex, the man caused her to commit the sin of murder, driven mad by her unfulfilled desire.
As a Catholic, this is the sexual trope with which I am most familiar: the Temptress. The more sexual a woman is, the more sinful. After the safety of our children, it’s hard to find a more indelible failure in the Catholic Church than the enduring belief that women are sexually fallen.
But Barr states that this is not the same way evangelical churches view women. Pre-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a sinful temptation, but a woman could eschew marriage and family, enter a convent and be heard as a doctor of the Church. Post-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a fragile, sacred calling to be protected at all costs; voluntary virginity was devalued as “spinsterhood” and a good woman moved demurely from her father’s authority to a husband’s. Barr says that “patriarchy shapeshifted” between the pre-and post-Reformation and “Instead of women finding holiness through virginity, they now found it in the marriage bed. The most sacred vessels were no longer the men and women who rose about their sex to serve God; the most holy institution was now the holy household”(152-53).
Again, as a Catholic, we do not carry these attitudes about the “holy household” in general, at least not in any way that places the father and husband in such a locus of control; marriage is a sacrament and vocation for both men and woman, and children are a result of that sacramental union. In the last 20 years, the traditional conservative side of our church, overly influenced by evangelical politics, has embraced more of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethics. Mistakenly, as Pope Francis continues to admonish them.
Regardless—both of these attitudes resulted in a social norming of female modesty as evidence of holiness. In this context, I mean the word “modesty” to apply not just to clothing, but an entire way of being female.
Barr tells the story of taking a group of girls to a church camp in the sticky heat of summer. Some of them wore tank tops. They were asked to change by camp directors: “’The straps on their tank tops are too thin. Their bra straps will show. We need them to cover up’”(154). They provided the girls with giant, shapeless men’s tshirts as an alternative.
Barr says that her girls had followed the dress code which allowed sleeveless tops. While the camp directors acknowledged this, they still wanted the girls to cover up. Barr refused, multiple times. But then she was confronted with this: “Modesty honors God, and didn’t the girls want to honor God?” (155). They covered up.
This concept of modesty as a reflection of “good girl” status stems from the cult of domesticity of the 19th century. Familiar to us through books and movies, this social norm “elevat(ed) the home as the safest space for respectable women” (156). Young girls were taught by governesses and finishing schools the necessary skills to provide a peaceful, well-functioning home for their future husbands.
This reminded me of a scene in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Austen was famously critical of social mores in 1810s England. Haughty Caroline Bingley, trying to highlight Lizzie’s lack of “training”, describes an “accomplished woman” thusly: A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” Darcy’s reply: “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” The sarcasm is lost on Caroline but would not have been missed by Austen’s female readers of the early 19th century. Nor the fact that Austen’s most accomplished characters are always the most flawed.
Barr argues that the modern (post-1990s) emphasis on biblical womanhood in evangelical churches is really a return to the cult of domesticity, another example where evangelicals read culture into the Bible. As I pointed out in my first post, the evangelical definition of biblical womanhood emphasizes behavior over spirit. A home-schooling mom with a clean house and the soul of a harpy is of less concern than a working mom with a heart of gold. To this point, prominent female evangelical writers and speakers (aka working moms) tie themselves into knots to present primarily as wives and mothers, obscuring their work behind their “holy modesty”. Barr writes that “being a wife and mother gives evangelical women credibility” and that most of them built fame from “the poured foundation of marriage and family” (168). This speaks to Barr’s point that “women adapt to the ever-changing rules of patriarchy” (169).
I believe this particular adaptation comes with a high cost. Many evangelical women are working within a framework they did not invent, but it often feels disingenuous to me, a pernicious type of virtue-signaling by a certain social class of Christian women. The primacy of their wife- and motherhood is a lie—they are moguls—but it makes their voices palatable to evangelical men. Who it hurts is other Christian women without their opportunities and/or resources, or who are struggling just to do the wife and mom part. It is an impossible benchmark for most women to hit. We have only begun to understand the impact this constant comparison has on the mental and emotional health of women, but it feels like another type of oppression.
I want to recognize that this is a privileged conversation from start to finish, largely devoid of any consideration of race or class. Barr quotes an infamous 2018 blog post from The Transformed Wife (www.thetransformedwife.com, visit at your own risk), written by Lori Alexander: “The chart, titled ‘Should Women Have Careers?’ went viral in 2018. Her answer, clearly, was no. In Alexander’s opinion, a stay-at-home mom has a ‘fulfilling life’ and ‘her husband and children rise up and call her blessed’, whereas a working mom has a life that is ‘falling apart’” (172). It’s hard to imagine a more privileged point of view which simultaneously shames mothers everywhere and ignores the very real struggles of class and race.
It is no surprise that the women who espouse their own imprisonment work tirelessly to justify it. Human nature requires us to be better than someone.
More on that later.