Tom Brokaw, a former NBC news anchor and father of three daughters, predicted the 21st century will be remembered as the "Century of Women."
We’ve all witnessed the factors behind the momentum for our gender: second-wave feminism has gone global, women and girls are making gains in education, economic empowerment, maternal health, and human rights, and this movement is only gaining momentum.
But the rise of women is also raising concerns that progress for women comes at a cost for men.
In a recent online survey conducted by Hart Research Associates and covered in the Wall Street Journal, 44 percent of American men said they are finding it “harder to be a man today compared with their father’s generation.”
The most common explanation pointed to the rise of women: “Women attaining a stronger position in the workplace, a stronger position financially, and greater gender equity.” Nearly a third conceded that as women take greater responsibility outside the home the confidence of American men is eroding.
For years, Christians have heard similar concerns from church pulpits, evangelical conferences, and books about biblical manhood. More than one well-respected Christian leader has publically lamented the alleged “feminization” of the church and the denigrating impact they believe this has on men. In some cases, these concerns have prompted a precautionary tightening of restrictions on women students in theological seminaries, and on women’s leadership in churches and Christian organizations to limit how high women can rise within evangelical ranks.
Where does this kind of thinking come from? Are men and women locked in a zero sum game?
In my new book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, I argue that the principal source of this kind of thinking derives from historic patriarchy—a social system that privileges men and establishes male authority over women and depends on their subordination. Patriarchy is the primary expression of what I call the malestrom.
Patriarchal thinking locks men and women into a zero-sum game where manhood will only survive intact if women hold back. The Bible dismantles this thinking. In Scripture, the rise of women happens with remarkable regularity. The fact that these risings occur within a full-fledged patriarchal culture makes them all the more significant. Surprisingly, the men in their stories aren’t wringing their hands or finding it harder to “be a man.” They are cheering women on—actually benefiting from and depending on their rise.
In Genesis 38, Tamar fights for family honor, and her father-in-law Judah becomes a better man as a result. He calls her “righteous.” Ruth the Moabitess leads Boaz to employ his male powers on behalf of Naomi. Boaz praises Ruth as a woman of valor (chayil, Ruth 3:11).
In the New Testament, Mary of Nazareth rises to answer God’s call to be the mother of the Messiah at enormous risk to herself. Instead of vindicating his male honor, Joseph shuts down his carpenter shop and adapts himself to God’s calling on his wife (Matt. 1:18-25). His very salvation depended on her success. Mary of Bethany rises to follow Jesus and stands with him in his darkest hour (Mark 14:1-9). Against the criticism of his male disciples, Jesus praised her for preparing his body for burial, saying, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Even the Apostle Paul joins this male chorus to celebrate the rise of women. His letter to the Romans concludes with words of profound indebtedness and esteem for the courageous and costly contributions of women who rose to partner and suffer with him for the gospel (Rom. 16).
The classic “rise of women” story is that of Deborah, Israel’s judge, prophet, and commander-in-chief, and General Barak (Judges 4-5). According to traditional interpretations, Barak is the red-faced poster child of cowardice for refusing to go into battle without Deborah. But Barak was no coward. With wise caution, Barak wanted confirmation that God was in the battle with him. In the end, he sings the praises of his valorous sisters who joined him in battle. New Testament writers praise Barak as a man of extraordinary faith (Heb. 11:32-34).
The rise of women is good news for women; it is also very good news for men. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom in which the flourishing of some of its citizens comes at the expense of its other citizens. The good news is that we belong—men and women—to a kingdom governed by a Holy Spirit with an immeasurable appetite for blessing all its citizens. In the Kingdom of God, when women flourish, men flourish too.
Carolyn Custis James is the author of Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World and Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women.