Femininity, by Elisabeth Elliot

Today's daily devotional from Elisabeth Elliot, simply titled, "Femininity," reads as follows:

My late philosopher-theologian husband used to tell his students that the importance of a thing was in direct ratio to the difficulty of defining it. Last year I asked my students in seminary to write a paper defining masculinity and femininity. They were allowed a maximum of two pages in which to do it, but I told them it would be fine with me if they could manage it in two sentences. (None did.) All of them testified that it was the most difficult assignment of the course.

The difficulty has been exacerbated, I am convinced, by the so-called liberation movement, which starts from the premise that there are no distinctions between the sexes other than the purely biological. It seems a strangely naive and cramped view of the fundamental differentiation of our human existence, especially in this day when most physicians acknowledge that illnesses involve more than the body, when psychiatrists acknowledge that mental illness may have physical causes, and when any spiritual counselor knows that spiritual problems often affect both mind and body. Why, in this most obvious area of sexual distinction, should we blandly (and preposterously) assert that it has no implications deeper than the physiological?

One Thanksgiving weekend I attended the Evangelical Women's Caucus in Washington, D.C. A few women who had read some of my writings greeted me with an astonished "What are you doing here?"

"I'm an evangelical woman, am I not?" I said, but of course I knew why they were surprised. The conference was to deal with the question of a "biblical" approach to feminism. Those who attended were expected to be feminists, and I don't belong in that crowd. I cannot be a "feminist" because, for one thing, I believe in femininity--a category which I see as infinitely deeper than the merely physical, a quality radically distinct from masculinity.

I listened in vain for the word femininity in any of the major addresses, and I looked in vain for any workshop which might touch on the subject. What women feel, what women want, what women do and what they want to do and don't want to do were all discussed with enthusiasm and even with passion, but what women are simply escaped everybody's notice. One workshop leader, Letha Scanzoni, co-author of an evangelical feminist book, All We're Meant to Be, used Ephesians 5 to support her idea of egalitarian marriage, claiming mutual submission to be Paul's point there, thus divesting the analogy of its sense.

One of the planks of the feminist platform is that sexual distinctions beyond the biological ones are all culturally defined. Our ideas of femininity, they say, are purely conditioned. If we try giving dump trucks to little girls and tea sets to little boys, things would be quickly reversed, we are told. The only reason no woman has ever been a Grand Master in chess is that women are not socially conditioned to be great chess players. Sounds believable until you think of Russia, the country from which most Grand Masters have come, and a country in which as many women as men play chess (but we would not dare to suggest that the feminine intellect is in any way different from--not to say inferior to--the masculine). Women are not encouraged to seek positions which require aggression, it is said, and therefore aggression is considered a masculine trait. Society can change all this. Just start interchanging roles, encouraging girls to be plant foremen, boys to be nurses. Insist on husbands doing housework and wives taking equal financial responsibility. Make women pay alimony, conscript them for active military service, let men knit and cry in public if they want to, and we'll see what happens.

But all this sort of thing is quite beside the point. The idea of male and female was God's idea. None of us would have thought of it, and God has never defined it for anybody. He's told us what he did--he created them in his own image, male and female and he's shown us how he did it. He made the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life; then, because he saw in his creation the first thing that was "not good," namely a man alone, he made for the man a woman. He made her for the man. To me this is the first constituent of femininity. Then he made her from the man--derived, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, like and yet wondrously unlike. This is the second constituent. Finally, he brought her to the man, designed exactly to suit his peculiar need, prepared to meet that need for a helper, and then, in divine wisdom and love, given. This is the third constituent.

But what is this man, what is this woman? What are these elusive and indefinable but universally acknowledged qualities on which every culture and society has shaped its existence? The question which feminists resolutely refuse to confront at all is one vastly prior to the question of social conditioning. It is this: Why has every society since the beginning of time conditioned its males and females so distinctively? Granted, the ideas of masculinity and femininity have been expressed differently from time to time and from place to place, but the distinctions have without exception been, until the late twentieth century, preserved.

Michael Marshall in his profound little book Gospel Healing and Salvation says, "Modern man is hung up on his identity with others in lengthy counselings. The Christian realizes that his true identity is a mystery known only to God, and that any attempt at this stage on the road of discipleship to define himself is bound to be blasphemous and destructive of that mysterious work of God forming Christ in him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the Christian does not define his identity by his actions: that is the very ultimate in anti-Christ, for it is in effect saying that I am my own creator."

Feminists, regrettably, ask us to define ourselves not as men and women but as "human beings" (whatever that means), identified only by our function in society. We must rid ourselves, Virginia Mollenkott declared at the Washington caucus, of "all gender-based categories.

Through the centuries the church has seen the soul as "female before God"--that is, the receptor, the one who responds, who is created for the other, the one acted upon, the one who gives herself. The structure of the female body, designed to carry, to bear and to nurture--surely it is but the material evidence of the mystery of femininity, a physical sign of metaphysical realities with which we tamper only to our own peril. Femininity is indisputably bound up with the concept of motherhood. This is not social conditioning. It is not a lamentable prejudice of which we ought to try to purify ourselves. It is most certainly not, as some feminists cry, "barbaric." The physical signs, far from being extraneous frills we would do well to ignore or overcome, point to the invisible truth of womanhood, exemplified for all women forever in that simple peasant girl, the virgin Mary, utterly feminine, utterly ready to give herself up to the over-shadowing Holy Ghost in the will of God, ready to receive, to bear, to nurture "that holy thing," the Lord Christ, ready to go down into death to give him life, ready to have even her own soul pierced by a sword.

This is an example, I say, for all women forever--not only for those who are the actual mothers of children, but for all who seriously contemplate the Creation Story and accept their place as it is described there, not a competitive one, not even (heaven forbid) an "equal" one, but a different one, mysterious, defined at last only by God the Creator himself, with its own divinely designed kingdom, its own power, its own glory, and all in perfect complement to that other mystery which every real woman recognizes when she sees it--recognizes but cannot define: masculinity.

From Elisabeth Elliot's Online Devotional


Jennifer said…
I love this piece. I think Elisabeth Elliot really hits the nail on the head with this one. Femininity, as best as I think we can truly understand it, is about the quality of nurturing. Although feminists want to wipe this away, many Christians keep the concept of femininity in shackles as well by limiting it to roles of wife and mother. If I don't have children, am I unfeminine? If my husband dies and I am widowed, do I cease to be female?

Femininity, as with masculinity, is a quality wrapped in the mystery of God, yet we constantly try to define the unexplainable with human reasoning. As finite creatures, we want so badly to contain that which cannot be contained.
Geraldine said…
Quote "many Christians keep the concept of femininity in shackles as well by limiting it to roles of wife and mother. If I don't have children, am I unfeminine? If my husband dies and I am widowed, do I cease to be female?"
This whole topic is VERY interesting and it is something that i have never seriously thought about before. There seems to be these black and white areas both a result of human reasoning trying to package neatly the meaning of what it is to be a woman. When i was a newborn Christian i thought nothing of a woman having authority over a man because these issues were not taught about. But as God showed me His truth it was a work on His part to break up the hardness of my heart. It was a humbling experience. But now i have experienced the other extreme side of femininity being 'shackled', that the woman is good only for childbearing, cooking cleaning and the like. Having come out from that it is refreshing to read about femininity being described as the 'quality of nurturing'. This makes so much sense when we see how God has used women in times past for His glory.
i like this piece as well especially that she uses words like carry, bear, and nurture. These things transcend childbirth and could be applied to how a godly woman is to model her life. When we do these things for the glory of God, He is exalted and we minister to others. Femininity is a beautiful and important thing when you look at it this way.

Thanks for posting this devotional- I'm new to the site and i really love it.

Jennifer said…
Hi there Sonya! We are so glad to have you here. Great insights on the language she uses and how that does transcend childbirth. You are right - it goes beyond just the biological and is an encouragement to women who may not have children of their own to know that they can be spiritual mothers, not just biological. Thanks for your comment!

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