Religion Must Evolve to Give Women More Choices | Opinion

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Beth Allison Barr during a Newsweek podcast debate on the role of women in religion. You can listen to the podcast here:

My recent book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, has caused quite a bit of stir among evangelical Christian circles. Evangelicalism in the U.S. is one of the religious groups that are the least comfortable with women working outside the home. We know that women in these groups have been leaving the workforce, not in huge numbers, but it has certainly has been a decline since the early 2000s. This seems to be connected to some of the theological teachings that evangelical Christians have imbibed.

I think that women should be allowed to make choices about what they want to do. The problem evangelical women are facing is that they have a set of expectations about what they are supposed to do, and women who go outside those expectations or want to do something else, that is very challenging for them. Evangelical women have more challenges in going to work, whereas Orthodox Jewish women may have challenges not wanting to work. But still, the burden is on women.

In cultures throughout time, women have, of course, always been the child bearers, so there has always been that connection. But we also know that at varying times, what women did in the household, and the training of the child, hasn't always been the same. And in many households, it was often divided by sex, where the women were the primary caregivers for the daughters and the sons were at early ages to be cared for by the men. I think we do have to put this into historical context.

Clearly, there is some biology with what women do. But at the same time, I think there also are some unique biological connections that men have to their children. I think by focusing too much on women's roles with their children, we really are in danger of downplaying the husband's role or the father's role with their children.

I breastfed both my children. Throughout the entire time I breastfed them when they would wake up at night, I would hear them immediately and get up. But the minute I stopped, I stopped hearing them and my husband was then the person who got up in the middle of the night with them from that point forward.

What we consider to be the normative family, the traditional family, this is a construct that we can see the creation of in history. When we talk about traditional gender roles today, for the American family, they are based on a 19th-century construction of gender, which did polarize the domestic space from the public space.

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So I would push against normative family values because I think this is something that is historically constructed. I do push against the fact that there are certain roles that women are supposed to do in society, and there are certain roles that men are supposed to do in society, and that there are not only legal and economic and social reasons for that but there are also religious reasons for that. And I would argue that those reasons are culturally constructed, and especially from the Christian framework, are not based in biblical teachings, that it's something we've added to the text.

Beth Allison Barr is associate professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she specializes in medieval history, women's history and church history. She is the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.

The views in this article are the writer's own.