Thursday, August 29, 2013

'Protecting 'finer feelings'.

Here's a really interesting interview with 4th year theological student Tess. I'm fascinated by this paragraph towards the end:

"Admitting that it is hard to specifically identify what is in many ways just a “vibe” she gets, she modestly and carefully explains that sometimes, as an intelligent women, she feels she has hold back to protect the finer feelings of the men in her classes, so as not to offend them. She admits that feeling is a bit ridiculous, and explains that clearly, scriptures don’t bar her from holding or expressing her own ideas."

Of course, we sometimes hold back our ideas and opinions out of consideration for others. This is just a normal part of life. I'm not going to contradict a person with 20 or 30 more years of life experience from me - or I'm not going to do it in the same way I would to someone my own age or younger. But it is curious, if as women, we feel we can't debate energetically with our male peers, exchanging ideas and opinions with them as we would with our female peers. In the theological college environment, a female student would not be overstepping and having teaching authority over her male classmate if she did this. If she felt she needed to hold back (more than she would with female peers), it would be either:

1. Because she was imagining some impropriety that didn't exist.
2. Because she knows from experience that (some of) the guys in her class feel quite insecure in their masculinity and will be threatened by her.
3. Because she knows from experience that expressing opinions in this group context isn't considered womanly and engaging in robust debate would lower her in the eyes of others in the group.

If #2 is the reason, then holding back might seem a kindness but probably won't help the guys in question be better husbands to their wives or ministers to women in the future.



  1. I think the Bible is fairly clear that women should have that sort of attitude towards their own husbands, but it doesn't say they should with random Joe Bloggs fellow college classmate.. I'd have thought the college classroom was a group of peers, regardless of gender. It's not really a setting where there is leader and led, because the lecturer is the leader in that sense. Aren't the classmates just classmates?

  2. clarify, I don't mean that a wife should defer to ditsy mode to make her dumb husband feel better about his mid capacity brain.. I just mean... ummm.. something different to that. I'm going now before I make this hole deeper.

  3. Yeah, #2 is totally understandable but I'd really encourage against thinking that way. As someone who was starved for robust engagement during my college years particularly!

    But more importantly, it's those interactions that are where iron sharpens iron by showing up the rougher bits in character. If she makes a bloke feel threatened, and he has to go away and work out why he felt threatened and to repent, then that's a win for the kingdom, in my eyes.

  4. I think it's important to remember that just because men are at college, it doesn't mean that they're not sexist or threatened by a strong independent thinking woman. It's IMHO a denial of the truths of Romans 1 and universal depravity and Gen 3 and the curse (man's desire to rule over) that there will always be struggles within male/female relationships and leadership roles. I think there's also a great deal of difference in how people understand the traditional evangelical role of what is submission and how it works, both within and outside the church structures. I have been chastised by godly Christian men that I otherwise respect for holding a leadership position in a secular environment (and this is a man who has extensively studied, both secularly and at Moore college).

    So does it surprise me that men are threatened and that sexism exists? Not at all.

    As a very tall, very able, very capable, very intelligent woman, I have often seen men who are intimidated by my a) height b) size in general c) multiple qualifications d) extensive skills and talents.

    We are all this side of the fall, and we are all intimidated. I'm in awe of Simone's ability to write biblical beautiful lyrics, and speak the truth. I'm in awe of Ben's honesty, faithfulness and drawing ability. I'm in awe of this woman's courage in being in Honi Soit. It's a fine line between awe and intimidation too.

  5. That's really interesting. I wonder what she actually defines as 'finer feelings'? Are the guys in her classes holding back too, to spare the women's 'finer feelings'? Are they all just tip-toeing around each other? I've never been to bible college but in my experience, when I hold back from expressing an opinion it is (all things being equal) usually just sheer laziness - I simply could not be bothered.
    Can I be bothered opening my mouth?
    Can I be bothered prolonging this conversation?
    Can I be bothered articulating my beliefs?
    Can I be bothered listening to someone's rebuttal?
    Can I be bothered dealing with the fact that I may be wrong?
    Can I be bothered agreeing to disagree?

    If I find myself falling into this habit, it's time to pull myself together and start interacting!
    Particularly within my marriage I frequently have to check the reasons why I may be keeping my mouth shut - in my defence, to have an 'exchanging of ideas' with my husband requires a lot of mental energy! It's exhausting. But always worth the effort.

    After 4 years at bible college, it would be a shame if Tess didn't speak up - she's no doubt got some great things to share and the guys (and girls) could all probably learn a lot from her and in turn, each other. (And just to clarify - I wasn't saying that Tess is being lazy!).

  6. Isn't it more about HOW you talk with men? I don't think anyone likes robust discussion where the other party is put down and made to feel silly (of either sex). A respectful, robust discussion between men and women is entirely appropriate. I don't even get why it would be an issue (even though I know it is) in a Bible college. Isn't everyone there to learn together? Entering into a discussion where you learn from one another is not the same as being a lead Bible teacher in a church. Surely not? ...

    I do think that if there are insecure men in a discussion who are feeling threatened, then the other party (male or female) needs to not just think, 'Oh come on mate, toughen up' but as a Christian be kind and sensitive and carry out discussions in a way that empowers that guy.

  7. Hi Simone,
    Tess here. Thanks for trying to dissect my thoughts on this issue - they certainly are nebulous! I wonder whether a number of the ideas you posited were true. I certainly wonder whether engaging in robust discussion is womanly - even though I intellectually know it can be, and that manner is key. One of my problems is that I too often compare myself to other women and then when I engage in robust discussion it feels like I am participating in a man's world and like maybe that's wrong. I don't know. It's something I'm constantly thinking about and battling with.

    But thanks so much for helping! Your post made me think more about why I think what I do. :)

    1. "I certainly wonder whether engaging in robust discussion is womanly - even though I intellectually know it can be, and that manner is key. One of my problems is that I too often compare myself to other women and then when I engage in robust discussion it feels like I am participating in a man's world and like maybe that's wrong."

      Ah. Yes. I'm quite familiar with that battle.

      Maybe I'll write something about my experience of it sometime.

  8. Yes, this is interesting - and certainly familiar. I wonder if there is an issue here with make and female cultures, especially in the church. In my experience, women don't often sit around having robust disagreements about ideas. We talk about ideas, but I think women are much more likely to be interested in developing consensus or at least making sure everyone feels ok about disagreement than simply thrashing out disagreements. I'm not saying all women are like this or that it is an innately female characteristic, but it's certainly my experience of women-only Bible studies etc. So I think when women find themselves in a more 'masculine' culture of discussion, it can be challenging. Many women would find it difficult to publicly directly disagree with either men or women, I suspect. But the challenge arises less with women! In my MTS days I found it incredibly frustrating that noisy boys with silly ideas felt able to make pronouncements while women with a lot of wisdom felt uncomfortable to talk. Unlike Tess, I probably took an unholy pleasure in pointing out silly arguments when I saw them. In the MTS context (& this is ten years ago, so no current criticism implied) I think there was sometimes very little awareness of how these gendered differences would play out, so sometimes no effort was put into encouraging women's voices in those kinds of public discussions.
    I note that similar dynamics exist in the secular university tutorials I run - women are often much more careful to be gentle or indirect in disagreement. Once you get to the level of academic staff, however, I think it's much more equal - lots of women engaging in robust disagreement. I think if you don't enjoy some level of arguing, you wouldn't become a humanities academic!

  9. Also, Tess - kudos to you for a great interview!

  10. I'm at a loss to work out where/why robust discussion would, in and of itself, be unfeminine.