The end of biblical womanhood?

Held-Evans' funny, deft look at 'A Year of Biblical Womanhood'

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Rachel Held-Evans. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 352 pp.

If “biblical womanhood” were a rutabaga, then Rachel Held-Evans, in her newfound, tongue-and-cheek praise of womanly domesticity, would slice and dice it until it is no longer recognizable, then garnish it with a sprig of parsley. The result? An awkward vegetable – the kind I avoid in grocery stores – served up as a flavorful dish.

Indeed, Held-Evans’ latest book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” takes a difficult, loaded subject, one that can elicit strong feelings and knee-jerk reactions, and humorously pokes holes in it until it no longer holds muster; but what could be a painful, bitter rant by a feminist evangelical is instead a fun, amusing story about one young woman’s relationship with the Bible she holds dear and her effort to follow, over the course of one year, all of Scripture’s prescriptions for women.

At stake here is the popular mantra of conservative evangelicals John Piper and Wayne Grudem and the movement they and their Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood lead: “biblical womanhood” asserts that a woman’s best place is in the home, women should submit to their husbands’ leadership, and women should not be allowed to serve in main leadership roles over men.

If the notion that there is only one biblically supported form of how to be a woman is dubious at the start, it only becomes more ludicrous and downright ridiculous as the book progresses, offering both author and reader a boatload of laugh-rich material.

Held-Evans spends a year observing on a daily basis what she coins her “Biblical Woman’s Ten Commandments.” These emerge from the favorite proof texts of “biblical womanhood” enthusiasts. “Thou shalt submit to thy husband’s will in all things,” “thou shalt devote thyself to the duties of the home,” and “thou shalt nurture a gentle and quiet spirit” are a few examples.

These daily guidelines for living are interspersed with practices Held-Evans enacts just once, with a view to focusing each month of the year on a different womanly “virtue,” such as gentleness, domesticity, obedience or valor. October’s focus on “gentleness” thus involves refraining from loudness, even at football games (1 Peter 3:3-4), taking a lesson in etiquette (Proverbs 11:22), and doing penance on the roof for acts of contention (Proverbs 21:9). April’s call to “purity” means camping out in the front yard for the first few days of menstruation, in accordance with the Levitical rituals surrounding female purity (Leviticus 15:19), while an emphasis on fertility in May inspires caring for a mail-order, computer-simulated baby (Titus 2:4).

Certain sections elicit applause in addition to a good laugh. Held-Evans’ exploration of “what biblical submission really means” is near the top of my short list of best exegetical commentary on the submission passages (Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Peter 3:1-2). Here Held-Evans effectively shows the deeply contextual nature of the command that wives submit to their husbands, insofar as it appears within a Greco-Roman household code that also accommodates slaves submitting to their masters. The implication is clear – that if we are to support wifely submission to husbands, we must also implicitly embrace a household code that accommodates slavery!

Outdated? I would say so.

Outlandish? Absolutely.

I have a few, small gripes after reading the book. The short sections highlighting a particular woman from Scripture, from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to lesser-known types like Huldah, are enriching narratives that further dismantle the misnomer of “biblical womanhood,” but they seem a bit disjointed in their placement within the book’s overall framework. It can be unclear how, for example, the story of Ruth the Moabite really relates to the preceding chapter on “beauty” – or if, for that matter, it is supposed to.

Every so often Held-Evans’ welcome, self-deprecating sense of humor about the evangelical tribe in which we both were reared is prone to broad generalizations built on faulty assumptions, like this one: “In the evangelical Christian subculture, there are three people a girl’s got to know about before she gets her period: (1) Jesus, (2) Ronald Reagan and (3) the Proverbs 31 woman.” Growing up in a conservative evangelical home, I heard a lot about Jesus, but a whole lot less about Ronald Reagan and the Proverbs 31 woman; and recent studies would confirm that today’s evangelicals do not fit easily within any one particular subculture.

Finally, while a chapter on sex and beauty is most certainly germane to an exploration of “biblical womanhood” and will gratify readers in our sex-obsessed culture, I’m frankly not interested in hearing about Held-Evans’ seemingly riveting life in the bedroom. Held-Evans is a gifted, competent writer, one who has earned a broad, loyal readership, and she doesn’t need to pander. “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” deserves to be taken seriously for its deft and funny application of a devastating misnomer in today’s evangelical world – despite a couple of these cheap shots to salivating readers.

The other day, a woman from a “Bible church,” upon meeting me and learning that I was a minister, exclaimed simply and with great conviction, “That’s not Scriptural!”

Thanks to “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” I was able to respond more confidently and with a laugh, “But of course polygamy is!” (Genesis 30, Exodus 21:10).

But for more on polygamy as part and parcel of “biblical womanhood,” you’ll have to consult Held-Evans’ chapter on the womanly virtue of “obedience.”


— Kristina Robb-Dover is a writer and minister. Her first book, “Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls,” she hopes will one day be published. In the meantime, you can find her musing at the intersection between life and God here:

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