Women – Paragons or Pariahs?

A Twilight Musing

One way of describing the Fall is to say that Eve and Adam “bit off more than they could chew.”  They plunged into territory that they were utterly unable to cope with, and the end of their escapade had terrible consequences for all their descendants.  On a much smaller scale, one which I trust will cost my children nothing, I may nevertheless be “biting off more than I can chew” in trying to explain why, in the Bible and in Western culture, the depictions of the extremes of both virtue and perversity tend to cast them in feminine form.

The subject came up with my wife and me one morning as she was reading the description of the Great Whore of Babylon in Rev. 18.  “Why does this symbol of consummate corruption have to be a woman?” she asked.  That got us both to thinking of other feminine figures in Scripture which were seen in terms like those applied to the girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme: “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid!”  In just the book of Proverbs, we have the figure of the Seductive Adultress (Prov. 7), followed by Wisdom pictured as a woman (Prov. 8:1-9:12), followed in her turn by the woman Folly (Prov. 9:13-18).  In the succeeding chapters of Proverbs (as well as in Ecclesiastes), women are repeatedly seen in a negative light, so much that one is tempted to label Solomon a misogynist.  But in the last chapter of the book we have described the Excellent Wife, who is distinguished by her selfless service to her family, praised by her husband and her children.  And to balance out Solomon’s sour view of woman as sexually threatening, we have the idealized sensuality of the Song of Solomon.

This deeply ambivalent view of womanhood is reflected in the New Testament as well.  Over against the Whore of Babylon is the figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, who is chosen among all women to bear God’s Son, and who, in one tradition of Christianity came to be venerated as the paragon of all virtues.  Paul, when he wants to portray the church as perfected in Christ, describes her as “holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27); and this picture is reinforced in the very book that presents the Whore of Babylon, as the New Jerusalem descends from Heaven “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).  But Paul also refers to Eve as the archetypal “original sinner,” because of which she is to be in submission to men in general and to their husbands in particular.  In this passage and elsewhere, women are cautioned against using adornment to get attention, but are admonished to distinguish themselves by “good works” and to let their “adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands,  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.   And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (I Pet. 3:4-6).

So here’s the part where I may have bitten off more than I can chew.  The alternate demonization and idealization of women in the Bible seems to come down to what appears to moderns as blatant sexism. Why should women on the one hand be seen in a worse light than men (the cause of the Fall, sexually dangerous and tainted ) and on the other hand be exalted in impossibly idealized ways (Lady Wisdom, the Perfect Wife, analogous to the Bride of Christ).  I think a possible answer lies (paradoxically) in the very passages that, on the surface, seem to demonize women.

The penalties imposed by God on Adam and Eve are different in ways that can be interpreted as gender-oriented, with the woman’s pain in childbirth and her being ruled over by her husband being consequences with sexual overtones.  In contrast, Adam’s penalty was focused on making difficult for him the task of providing food for his family, including the children that Eve would bear in pain.  The beginning of Eve’s life as a fallen creature established the precarious relationship between the sexes that all humanity has experienced since the expulsion from the Garden.  No longer was the couple’s sexual relationship natural and equal, but problematic.  First is the paradox that the natural result of intercourse would be pregnancy culminating in painful and perhaps dangerous birth, a situation which increases the dependence of the woman on her husband, while also increasing the responsibility of the man to provide for her and the children.  But with the birth of children came also a reward for the woman: through nursing the children she discovered a kind of intimacy with them that was denied the man; an intimacy that must have nourished a love that overcame any bitterness that she might have experienced at being punished by God through the pain of childbearing.

Which leads us to the enigmatic statement by Paul about the connection between Eve’s being the first to sin and her being “saved through childbearing,” if she endures it “in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”  There is reflected here a potential of experience and character development that is greater and more subtle than the opportunities available to men.  It is commonplace to speak of women as natural nurturers, and though it can become a facile stereotype, there is deep truth to it as well, and in that truth lies perhaps some explanation of why extremes of virtue and vice are so often presented in feminine form.  Generally speaking, women have a greater range of moral potential than do men, because they are more vulnerable to suffering, which is the chief developer of moral character.  Pain in childbearing is symbolic of this vulnerability, and it is further manifested in a woman’s dependence on her husband (as mentioned in Gen. 3), and to some extent in her dependency on men in general.  A woman’s nurturing potential finds its most profound expression in birthing and breast feeding a child, but not every woman has to give birth in order to be saved, and there are other ways of manifesting the inborn instincts for nurturing that have to be consciously cultivated by men.  There can be no greater model for God’s love and willingness to sacrifice for a greater good than the love and nurturing that a woman is especially called to; and by the same token, there is no more monstrous a perversion than a woman who has gone against all her nurturing instincts and has hardened herself to all mercy and tenderness.  Thus the tendency toward polarization between feminine-based idealization and feminine-based demonization.

That’s as much as I know to say, but I feel I’m still chewing on the cud in this matter.


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)