In my ongoing and quixotic efforts to reconcile my faith and my feminism, I've often run up against my own susceptibility to the theory of complementarity. That's a fancy term for the notion that men and women are divinely created to play different, complementary roles.
Lots of contemporary Christians use the rhetoric of complementarity. Where some of the church fathers might have insisted that women were defective men, more vulnerable to sin and of lesser value, most modern conservative Christians employ the Plessy v. Ferguson model of understanding gender: we are all equal, but ought to be in separate spheres.
One of my best students this semester is a moderately conservative young Christian woman. In our class this morning, she said "I think true femininity in women brings out true masculinity in men, and vice versa." Several of her classmates nodded their heads, while others looked quizzical.
In all these years of teaching feminism and reading the Gospel, of activism and prayer, I've gone back and forth on the issue of whether gender is merely a social construct or an eternal reality that transcends culture. At times, I've been a flagrant essentialist, convinced that men and women (thanks to divine design, testosterone, Y chromosomes, ocytocin, whatever) will always see the world differently because of their biology. The best we can do as feminists and pro-feminists, therefore, is try and enable both men and women to live into their prescribed roles as happily and as fairly as they can. While liberal essentialists may acknowledge women's intellectual equality with men, they still fiercely defend the notion that at the end of the day, most women are more nurturing and less sexual than most men. Even when they refrain from using absolutes, they tend to use phrases like "While it's true that exceptions exist, it's clear that the majority of women..."
I've worked and taught as a bit of an essentialist. It seems compatible with most Catholic and evangelical thinking on sexuality. Those of us who believe that God created the world, and all that is in it, also have to acknowledge that She created us male and female. (Pace, my transgendered friends.) If we believe that God's design has a purpose, it's hard to avoid coming to the essentialist conclusion, even with a whole series of caveats: "Yes, men and women are different, but we still ought to mutually submit to each other" (ala Ephesians 5:21). It's thus not impossible to believe in Christ, creation, and -- simultaneously -- the radical equality of men and women. It is tough, however, to do so without falling prey gender stereotypes.
As any feminist theologian can tell you, there's more to the creation story than the need for dichotomous sexual reproduction. Genesis tells us that Eve was created to be an "ezer" to Adam, a term that denotes "companion" or "equal partner". The same term ezer used for Eve in Genesis 2:18 (mistranslated as "helper") shows up to describe God's partnership with Moses in Exodus 18:4.
Biblically and psychologically speaking, we can have companions who are male or female. In order to feel "complemented" and "helped" by another person, they don't have to be of the other sex. While it is true that it is not good for a man to be alone, it doesn't follow from a close reading of Scripture that therefore women were created to "balance men out." There's nothing in Genesis about "true masculinity" and "true femininity" that reinforces the radical difference between the Creator's intention for men and his intention for women.
This is just a thumbnail sketch of how I've worked through this issue. Back to my student's comment this morning. I tried to be as kind as I could in gently deconstructing this notion of "true masculine and feminine."
While acknowledging that the complementarity thesis is immensely appealing, I pointed out that it is enormously destructive to those countless men and women who experience themselves as having qualities that this theory associates with the other sex! What room is there in this theory for a woman with a powerful libido, or one who doesn't want children of her own, or one who longs for political power? What room is there for a man whose joys are cooking, creating a beautiful home, and taking the lead role in raising his own children? Either we call these men and women "defective" and perhaps in need of therapy to discover their true nature, or we call them "exceptions" to the rule. The problem with the former strategy is we end up pathologizing perfectly acceptable and normal desires; the problem with the latter strategy is that if we are honest, we quickly acknowledge that there are so many exceptions out there as to render the "rule" utterly useless!
So have I become, once again, a strict social constructionist? Am I prepared to say that all of what we think of as our innate ideas about sex roles are entirely cultural? No, I'm not. Testosterone, Y chromosomes, and other biological factors are very real players in the construction of the human person. But so too are faith, culture, and family. And too often we label our differences as inevitable and intrinsic and part of the divine order without stopping to consider just how many of those "differences" are actually built and reinforced by human institutions.
I've got lots more to post on this. I will say that at this point, I'm willing to argue that a healthy Christian feminism (or a feminist Christianity) does exist, and it doesn't require one to adopt a strictly essentialist "argument from design" view in order to reconcile the two. We can believe that we were all created to be companions, ezers, to one another without believing that God intended us to live and operate in separate spheres according to separate and discrete codes of behavior.
We can, in other words, celebrate that we are created both male and female while denying that those two categories impose any meaningful limitations on our lives. That's where I stand today.