In the discussion of Women as responders, commenter Neguy pointed out that the idea that women are naturally good (so long as their husband is loving) goes much further back than 1972:
I think you’ll find that the core of the men bad/women good theology goes back quite a long way. British scholar Callum Brown dates the big shift to somewhere around the year 1800. He surveys the evangelical literature of the 19th and 20th centuries and writings from the 1800s are almost identical to Glenn Stanton. His book The Death of Christian Britain is about secularization in the UK, but basically argues that this feminization of faith (or more precisely, the merger of Christian and feminine identity), is what ultimately caused the collapse of Christianity in the west.
This comment and some excerpts he shared in follow-on comments convinced me to pick up a copy of The Death of Christian Britain. I haven’t made it all the way through the book, so I may well write a follow up post later. But as Neguy notes above, the narrative that Brown found starting around 1800 is the standard narrative we see from conservative Christians today.
Brown’s thesis is that conventional wisdom on the decline of Christianity in Britain is incorrect. Conventional wisdom is that Christianity has been in steady decline in Britian since 1800. Brown asserts that this is not the case, and instead argues that the real decline was abrupt and began in 1963. As Brown explains in the introduction:
…this book re-brands Britain of 1800 to 1963 as a highly religious nation, and the period as the nation’s last puritan age. The Britain of our nearest forefathers is re-branded as a deeply Christian country of unprecedented churchgoing levels and the most strict religious rules of personal conduct.
…The book focuses considerable attention on how piety was conceived as an overwhelmingly feminine trait which challenged masculinity and left men demonized and constantly anxious. It was modern evangelicalism that raised the piety of woman, the ‘angel in the house’, to reign over the moral weakness and innate temptations of masculinity.
…women, rather than cities or social class, emerge as the principal source of explanation for the patterns of religiosity that were observable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most importantly, two other things will emerge. First, women were the bulwark to popular support for organized Christianity between 1800 and 1963, and second it was they who broke their relationship to Christian piety in the 1960s and thereby caused secularization.
Chapter four covers what Brown calls the feminization of piety.
One of the great mythic transformations of the early nineteenth century was the feminization of angels. Until the 1790s, British art and prose portrayed the angel as masculine or, at most, bisexual — characteristically muscular, strong, and even displaying male genitalia, and a free divine spirit inhabiting the chasms of the sky and space. But by the early Victorian period, angels were virtuously feminine in form and increasingly shown in domestic confinement, no longer free to fly. Woman had become divine, but an angel now confined to the house.
But it is Brown’s analysis of the common narrative during this period that I find most interesting.
…women’s spiritual destiny was virtually never portrayed as a battle with temptation or real sin; fallen women did not appear as central characters, and none of the usual temptations like drink or gambling ever seemed to be an issue with them. The problem is the man, sometimes the father, but more commonly the boyfriend, fiancé, or husband, who is a drinker, a gambler, keeps the ‘bad company’ of ‘rough lads’ and is commonly a womanizer. The man is the agency of the virtuous woman’s downfall; he does not make her bad, but does make her suffer and poor. She is not always portrayed as having undergone a major conversion experience, but to have emerged from childhood into a disciplined and natural ‘goodness.’
As Neguy points out, you can see this same concept of women having “natural goodness” in Glenn Stanton’s writings (among many others). Brown explains how this concept dominated the Christian romance stories of the time. Just as Christians are taught today, if a woman has a godly husband she will be a very happy wife:
Finding the right Christian husband was the uppermost consideration rather than the age of engagement. The ending, as in all evangelical stories, was always happy — as in Love’s Healing in the 1920s which concludes with the heroine marrying ‘a splendid Christian man. She is fortunate indeed and will be a happy wife.’ By the 1930s and 1940s, scores of paperback religious novels appeared, aimed almost exclusively at teenage girls and young women. Love was the dominant theme, following a format familiar to Mills & Boon readers, but with a Christian ‘spin’, ending with lines like: ‘What are you thinking of, darling?’ whispered her husband. ‘I was thinking how good God is. I’ve never been so happy in my life.’ Romance was set within a tough system of moral values, but it was invariably the man’s moral values that were the criteria, making the women’s issue the arrival at the right judgment on the man’s worthiness.
Men, on the other hand, are presented as naturally sinful and in need of a woman to reform them (emphasis mine):
In evangelical stories about piety, women appeared throughout as good but not always converted; men, by contrast, almost always appeared as in a perilous sinful state until near the end. Men were the problem, given manifold temptations: drink (nearly always), gambling (increasingly after 1890), and ‘rough’ in overall cultural terms. They lived dissipated lives which caused suffering and ruination to mothers, wives, and children. Nowhere did evangelical literature have such a powerful influence in the public domain, including in ‘secular’ fiction, as in its demonization of men.
Brown explains that narratives about men fit one of two structures:
The male centered evangelical narrative had important characteristics. There were two structures in use between the 1850s and 1930s; the ‘son structure’ and the ‘husband structure’:
Of the two, the Husband Structure is the one we most commonly see today, albeit generally omitting item E or replacing it (and often D) with the wakeup call.
A. Husband lives with virtuous wife
B. Husband is a drunkard/gambler/wife-beater
C. Wife and children suffer in poverty
D. Chance event (often an accident to husband)
E. Wife nurses husband in Christian way.
F. Husband converts
G. Family happier, if not richer
If this seems familiar, it is because it is the plot of every Kendrick brothers movie with the possible exception of Facing the Giants. I’ve already written about Fireproof, where the chance event (D) is the wife filing for divorce and taking up with another man. I’ve also written about Courageous, and War Room. But you can even see this same pattern in the more obscure Kendrick brother movie Flywheel. From the plot summary at InfoGalactic:
Jay Austin (Alex Kendrick) is a car salesman who consistently cheats his customers, even to the point of overcharging his own pastor. He teaches his rotund salesmen, Bernie Meyers (Tracy Goode) and Vince Berkeley (Treavor Lokey), to do likewise. Jay occasionally attends church, but only because his wife Judy (Janet Lee Dapper) wants him to go. He also fakes giving a donation to the church. His relationships with his wife and son (Richie Hunnewell), who both disapprove of his dishonesty, deteriorate. In addition he is facing foreclosure on his lot by the bank. Jay becomes troubled in his conscience, and one day while flipping television channels, he sees a pastor preaching that “you’re in the shape you’re in today because of the choices you’ve made”. Jay becomes personally convicted and becomes a born-again Christian, prompting him to change his business practices.
Jay apologizes to his pregnant wife and his son and decides to sell cars honestly from that point on…
This covers A-D, omits E, and covers F. All that is left for the Husband Structure is the final item, G:
The next day Jay comes to the lot and sees many people there to buy his cars. Jay even has to call his wife to help sell all the cars on the lot that day. The total of the sales above the cost of the cars is enough to cover what the banker demanded, who comes later that day and wonders where all the cars have gone…
Jay exits the lot and rushes home to bring his wife to the hospital. She gives birth to a girl named Faith, to stand as a living reminder of Jay’s newfound faith in God. At the end of the film, Jay drives away with his son in his 1958 Triumph TR3, an acquisition at the beginning of the film, which Max (Walter Burnett), his mechanic, had repaired with a newly installed flywheel (thus the film’s title).