In recent months, several people have mentioned to me that they are reading essays by Dorothy L. Sayers.
I knew her primarily as a British mystery writer from the early 20th century, so I was initially confused why others were referencing her essays and not her novels. I did not know she was also considered to be a lay theologian and Christian apologist. Recently, I read her essay, Are Women Human? and was intrigued by her stance and the times in which she wrote it.
First, some background. Sayers was born in 1893, during the height of the New Woman movement and in the midst of the suffragist effort in both the U.K. and the U.S. to obtain the right to vote for women. She studied modern languages and medieval literature at Oxford and received first-class honors, but could not obtain a degree as a woman at that time. A few years later, when that position was reversed, she was among the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. She was also a good friend of C.S. Lewis and some of the other Inklings, and the author of Creed or Chaos?, a defense of orthodox Christian teaching that has been compared to Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Thus, she brings some interesting “street cred” to answer the question underlying this essay.
The first essay in Are Women Human? was given as an address to a British woman’s society in 1938. It begins with an unexpected correction to the assumptions of her audience:
When I was asked to come and speak to you, your Secretary made the suggestion that she thought I must be interested in the feminist movement. I replied–a little irritably, I am afraid–that I was not sure I wanted to “identify myself,” as the phrase goes, with feminism, and that the time for “feminism,” in the old-fashioned sense of the word, had gone past. In fact, I think I went so far as to say that, under present conditions, an aggressive feminism might do more harm than good. As a result I was, perhaps not unnaturally, invited to explain myself.
I do not know that it is very easy to explain, without offence or risk of misunderstanding, exactly what I do mean, but I will try.
The question of “sex-equality” is, like all questions affecting human relationships, delicate and complicated. It cannot be settled by loud slogans or hard-and-fast assertions like “a woman is as good as a man”–or “woman’s place is the home”–or “women ought not to take men’s jobs.” The minute one makes such assertions, one finds one has to qualify them.
This was 1938 and Sayers was saying that the time for feminism had gone past. From our perspective today, that’s ironic to read. But I can understand her thinking. By 1938, women were allowed to vote, to obtain university degrees, and to work in a variety of fields after proving themselves competent to do so in the first World War. World War II was less than a year away, which would only add to this view.
After making this point, Sayers stated that feminists were generalizing in the same way that they accused their opponents of doing. Sayers argued for the common humanity of both men and women to be recognized: “The first thing that strikes the careless observer is that women are unlike men. They are the ‘opposite sex’–(though why ‘opposite’ I do not know; what is the ‘neighboring sex’?). But the fundamental thing is that women are more like men than anything else in the world. They are human beings.” This common humanity is what Sayers was arguing for in this essay–and in that common humanity, also the permission to be viewed as individuals within that classification, individuals with varying abilities, interests, and pursuits.
Sayers lived in a time when men were openly patronizing of women and she had to personally stand up under it. While she would not jump on board with feminist thinking without critical evaluation, she was also not going to give the church a pass if she found it embracing the same pattern:
I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt, somehow, somewhere, to explain away its text. Mary’s, of course, was the better part–the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him. But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, He approved of her, too. We could not get on without her, and indeed (having paid lip-service to God’s opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her. For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man–there never has been such another. A prophet and a teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.
I wonder what Sayers would say about the state of gender discussions today. We have swung from the infamous and exasperated Freudian question of Sayers’ day (“What do women want?”), to the issue of remaking or discarding gender all together. Through it all, the church has been buffeted about, often splitting and realigning over these very arguments. And wherever the primary identify of being a disciple of Christ as He defined it under His own authority has been trampled, we find excesses on both sides. Nothing that Jesus said about being one of His followers will ever make sense apart from the foundational gospel message of sin, judgment, redemption and reconciliation. We can’t speak to the varying roles of men and women found in the Bible if we bypass thecommonality we share in the gospel: we are made alike in the image of God; we equally share in rebellious sin and therefore in the judgment of a righteous God; and we equally receive unmerited favor from the justifying sacrifice of Jesus as our mediator. Once we are redeemed by our Savior, we are fully His–objects of mercy who are under His command and laboring together to advance His gospel agenda.
Standing humbly with this knowledge, we reject the self-exaltation and self-directed theology of our times. And we also reject the proud human tendency to value and define people by their roles, knowing that our Savior modeled and commended the role of a servant to His followers. Female Christ-followers are first His disciples who, at various times in life, labor in differing roles as He assigns them. The lives of individual female Christ-followers will never look exactly alike, so we must never reduce the message and definition of biblical womanhood to that of a role. Nor should we allow others to define this message as such, for being a woman made in the image of God and rescued from corrosive, indwelling sin by the atonement of Jesus is the preeminent definition of biblical womanhood.
It is also the answer to the question of Sayers’ essay … even if she didn’t clearly articulate it herself in this book.
Some blog posts are worth repeating. This is one of them. ~ CMC
Read the original post or comment at Carolyn McCulley’s blog.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://christmycovenant.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/carolyn-mcculley.png[/author_image] [author_info]Carolyn McCulley is the author of two books, Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World (Moody Publishers, 2008) and Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred (Crossway, 2004). Carolyn is also a contributor to Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2005), as well as to other webzines and publications. She is a frequent conference speaker for women’s ministry events and also maintains a blog, Radical Womanhood. [/author_info] [/author]