Subtle Sexism and the Complicity of Women by Christina Knowles

This week I was confronted with the fact that numerous girls from the age of 16-18 hold views of gender equality, or should I say inequality, that are more akin to what I expect from their male counterparts of the same age. I teach in a somewhat, okay, very conservative high school, but still, these students have embraced openly homosexual and transgendered students with fairly open arms. Yet these same students hold the view that women should be submissive to men, that it is a good idea to stay home and let husbands take care of them, and that many jobs traditionally held by men should continue to be held by men to the exclusion of women.

It seems that no matter how prevalent racism is, no matter how discrimination still subsists against the homosexual community, and no matter how much prejudice remains against those who practice certain religions or no religion at all, the final holdout will likely be biases based on gender. It makes me wonder with all the racist comments directed against our first black president, who happens at least to be a man, what kind of degradation will a future female president be made to endure. I have to ask myself, Why?

Well, here’s my theory. America is a country where, according to a Pew Research Poll (2012), 73% identify as Christian (PewResearch). And although sexism is a factor in many religions, including Judaism, I often hear many comments about Islam’s blatant sexism, which I don’t deny, but the sexism inherent in Christianity is a much more subtle, and therefore, easier to ignore type of oppression, and with 73% of Americans theoretically accepting the bible as God’s word, I wondered if this is the root of our tenacious American version of sexism.

Of course, the bible condemns homosexuality, and yet, there seems to be a trend to accept that as a lifestyle more and more. Still, being raised in the Christian religion myself, I know, firsthand, the views of women’s roles according to “God.” I have heard from the pulpit of at least a dozen churches that women are to be submissive to their husbands, should not rule over a man, that woman was made for man, women were created to be man’s helper, and that a woman is to keep the home, stay silent in church, and ask her husband if she has any questions.

Of course, all of this is biblical. This archaic message continues to be heard from thousands of pulpits today, even in the 21st century. It really is quite shocking—yet, many Americans aren’t shocked at all. Why?

I believe that women are complicit in their own sexist treatment as a result of being subtly conditioned by a predominantly Christian culture to find sexist treatment desirable, flattering, sexy, and even loving. Again, from the pulpit I’ve heard ridiculous explanations of the stories in the bible twisted to make the degradation of women seem acceptable. I’ve heard a pastor say that Adam only ate of the forbidden fruit because he didn’t want Eve to be condemned without him. Sure, that is a much more romantic way of blaming Eve for the downfall of mankind. And everyone’s heard the feel-good twist on the creation of Adam and Eve. The real bible story goes that Adam was created first, and then Eve was made from his rib to be his “helpmate” because it was “not good for man to be alone.” The modern version of this story is that Eve was taken from Adam’s rib to symbolize how she walks next to him—not in front of him, not behind him, but equal to him.

I guess someone should have told this version to Paul. This is what he has to say on the subject in I Timothy 2: 11-15: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control” ( Apparently, Paul, and God by extrapolation, believe that because Eve came after Adam and was first to be deceived, women now and forever after must keep their mouths shut, be submissive, know their place in the church and at home, and if they do their job of birthing children, there may still be hope for them. So much for walking side by side in equality.

And, of course, there is always the “Chivalry” justification. I’ve heard from the pulpit that women, as the “weaker vessel” are to be treated like a priceless vase or precious fine china. They need the protection of a man, and this, unfortunately, means protecting them from doing really hard stuff like having authority over a man. Where was all this delicate treatment when women had to marry their rapists or were being offered up to be molested in the place of angels in Sodom and Gomorrah, by a man who was deemed “righteous” in God’s eyes? Naturally, there is an “explanation” for this as well. is a popular site dedicated to answering the unanswerable questions and contradictions in the bible. This is what they have to say about Lot’s righteousness: “Based on what is revealed about Lot’s life, one might wonder if he was righteous. However, there is no doubt that God had declared him to be positionally righteous, even during his time in Sodom . . . At some point Lot had believed in the coming Messiah, and that faith resulted in a righteous standing before God. It is likely that Lot’s uncle, Abraham, had passed this truth down to him” ( So he was only considered righteous because he had once believed in the coming Messiah, which contradicts numerous teachings regarding apostates who “turn from the faith” and are commonly thought to never have been converted in the first place. My point is that our culture seems to accept every despicable treatment of women justified by religion as long as we sugarcoat it.

But the absolute craziest thing I’ve heard lately came from a conversation I had with a local bible guru who hosts a Christian radio question and answer show in Denver, Colorado. This talk show host actually used the “protection” reasoning to justify polygamy as being superior to homosexual marriage. Now, I’m sure he would deny that he was justifying polygamy. However, he claims that there are times and cultural demands that present polygamy as the only viable option for women to live safely and be protected. He says, for example, in the bible, that God allowed polygamy for the protection of women. He states that sometimes, in a certain culture where men hold the power and status, and there are not enough men to go around, women would be on the street without polygamy. He says it isn’t God’s ideal plan, but God allows it because the culture requires a redefinition of marriage. Yet he denies that we can redefine marriage to include same sex marriage based on our changing culture. It also seems the double-standard never works in favor of women because when I asked him if the reverse would be true—if a culture dominated by women existed, wherein women held the power, the status, the jobs, and there were fewer men than women, if women should have more than one husband to protect the men, he declined to answer, and instead, changed the subject.

It is no revelation that sexism is rooted in traditional religions. However, it is the subtle acceptance of this legitimatized sexism among mainstream and nice people that makes it so insidious and pervasive. According to a study published by Psychology of Women Quarterly, the effects of what psychologists, Burn and Busso, call Benevolent Sexism, wherein women are complicit in their own oppression due to the religious and cultural reframing of said oppression, biblical literalism is at the root of this problem. Burn and Busso find that their studies “do suggest that religiosity is correlated with BS [Benevolent Sexism]. Thus, a consideration of the various forces that contribute to women’s lower power and status should include religion. Religion is frequently a central part of a culture and many religions communicate to their followers that men’s greater power and status relative to women is appropriate and acceptable. Although this perspective is presented ‘benevolently’ rather than ‘hostilely,’ the net effect is still to support gender inequality—especially because women as well as men tend to endorse it. Not only does BS justify traditional gender roles but it also pacifies women’s resistance to gender subordination by masking gender inequality with the cloak of chivalry (e.g., men need women and should protect and cherish them” (Glick & Fiske, 2001a, 2001b). “BS rooted in religion may be a significant obstacle to gender equality when it is rooted in literal scriptural interpretations and is essentially nonfalsifiable because there is no arguing with the word of God” (Burn, Busso, p.6). Burn and Busso quote Anwar’s 1999 study “Theological alternatives to religious fundamentalism” that states “common features of religious fundamentalism include a belief that society needs to be rescued from secularism, a commitment to the authority of the ancient scriptures, and the idealization of a past where gender spheres were separate and women were modest and subordinate” (Anwar, qtd in Burn and Busso, p. 1).

The churches I grew up in and have attended at various points throughout my life claim not to be fundamentalist, just bible-believing, but they would all fit the above criteria. I don’t deny that there are many factors involved in the lingering and acceptable sexism persistent in the American culture besides religious justification and the “dressing up” of gender stereotyping and behavior. However, I do believe that a culture that teaches women that it is God who demands a subordinate role, and that this role is righteous and good, will continue the “benevolent” oppression of women, and that this acceptable oppression will not confine itself to benevolent acts and innocuous sexist views of women, if there is such a thing. As our culture moves beyond stereotypical assignments of roles to various people groups, the advancement of women as equal human partners in the modern world requires an abandoning of this acceptance of literal interpretations of the bible and of the adherence to ancient biblical writings as divine law that should be imposed on a modern society. As long as religious leaders use the divinity of scripture as justification for the subordinate treatment of women, effectively blaming God for their prejudice, and as long as they condition and pressure women to accept this treatment as the will of God, gender inequality will continue to exist in our society.

If, indeed, there is a god, I am sure this god is very disturbed at the thought of men using an ancient book written by men as a justification to inflate themselves and to persecute half of creation in his . . . or her name. –Christina Knowles


Burn, Shawn Meghan, and Julia Busso. “AMBIVALENT SEXISM, SCRIPTURAL LITERALISM, AND RELIGIOSITY.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 29.4 (2005): 412-18. Digital Commons @ CAL POLY. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <;. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <;.

“Nones on the Rise.” Pew Research Center. 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <;.

“I Timothy 2:11-15.” New King James Version. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.

“UN Women Ads Show Sexism behind Google Searches.” Photo. 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 7 Mar. 2015.

5 thoughts on “Subtle Sexism and the Complicity of Women by Christina Knowles

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  1. Dear Christina, if you are ever in the Boston area I invite you to visit my church home, South Church ( We are Christian but have a different interpretation of the scriptures. “God is still speaking”! As for what Paul said about women speaking, well, our senior pastor is a woman and a mother of a toddler. So I do not disagree that the Christian tradition isn’t contributing to the sexism, but I’m hopeful that maybe it isn’t all 70-odd percent of us who are Christian contributing to the problem.


  2. Very true. As I also come from a Christian background, I have a big problem with the sexist teachings of the church. I am certainly not the kind of woman who intends to resign herself to being a “helpmate” or a barefoot, baby machine/housewife. I am also vexed by the subtle mysogyny in our culture, and I’m sure the two ideas are intertwined. I must say, it’a taken me a long time to extricate myself from that line of thinking, and to learn to take pride in my womanhood, so subtle it may be, but its damaging effects are lasting and powerful.
    Unfortunately, my brother is sexist in this exact way, and I go around and around with him, so thanks for this. Our sex still has many strides to take, I think, if we dare to take them.


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