Monday, April 12, 2010

Subtle Sexism and the Church

So, for the past several months, I have been talking (and whining) about my thesis. I pick up my manuscript from the mechanical reviewer tomorrow, and thought it only fitting that I share my research with all five of you who read this blog. Just as warning, I wrote approximately 70 pages on this subject, so this is a abbreviated version of the theoretical framework and basic findings of the study, along with the implication of the results, and some personal reflection at the very end.

Initially, when I was looking for a topic for my thesis I was very tentative and noncommittal about my topic. I sort of fell into the literature on sexism, and the natural hole to be filled had to do with exploring the religious correlates of sexism. As it turns out, I greatly enjoyed the project, even if it did steal quite a few nights sleep from me.

Basically, for the past several decades social scientists have been preoccupied with the gender inequality that remains despite recent gains women have made in society. Ambivalent Sexism Theory (Glick & Fiske, 1996) suggests that there is a dichotomy of sexist attitudes toward women; on one hand women are often degraded and belittled by men, but on the other hand they are often placed on a pedestal. These two opposing attitudes create an ambivalent brand of sexism that can sometimes be difficult to identify. The two basic types of sexism under this theory are hostile sexism, or sexism that fits the classic definition of prejudice, and benevolent sexism, a set of attitudes that serve to hold women in restricted stereotypical roles that are subjectively positive in tone (Glick and Fiske, 1996).

No discussion of prejudice would be complete without including Gordon Allport, famous for providing the first theoretical framework of prejudice in his 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport (1954) argues that when the religious defend the absolutes of their faith, they tend to defend their in-group as a whole, using their faith as justification for the secular practices of the in-group. This is illustrated by the way that the church has equated Godly ideals with benevolently sexist ideals. This phenomenon still remains puzzling as religion clearly maintains a sense of brotherly love and acceptance, and yet there is something about religion that lends itself to bigotry. In The Religious Context of Prejudice Allport (1966) proposes that there are three main religious contexts that contain the seeds of bigotry: the theological context, or crucial doctrines that influence the way the religious interact with minority groups; the socio-cultural context,or social factors that predispose the religious to prejudice ; and the personal-psychological context, or some individual psychological factors that influence the religious individual’s inclination for prejudice.

While there is a body of research about benevolent sexism, there is very little examining religious correlates of benevolent sexism. The purpose of this study was to apply Gordon Allport’s theory of religious prejudice to explain benevolent sexism among a religious population.

172 undergraduate volunteers were asked to complete an assessment battery of tests designed to measure both hostile and benevolent sexism as well as the 3 Allport constructs. Essentially, what we found was that Allpot's theory was partly true for sexism. Specifically, as expected, how conservatively you read Scriptural had a significant relationship with benevolent sexism, but not with hostile sexism. Additionally, those who had a less egalitarian view of scripture rated higher on both hostile and benevolent sexism. As expected, there was a positive relationship between Agency (a psychological variable that measures assertiveness and power) and both hostile and benevolent sexism. However, no significant relationship between Socio-cultural ratings and hostile or benevolent sexism was observed. In sum, of the three Allport contexts of religious prejudice, theological beliefs and personality had a significant relationship with sexism.

Here's why this is interesting:

The findings of the study indicated that those who had a less egalitarian and more patriarchal interpretation of Pauline passages about women were more likely to also endorse hostile and benevolently sexist attitudes and behaviors. Essentially, this relationship could be illustrating one of two, likely reinforcing, dynamics: the way people read the Bible influences the way they think about others, or the way people think about others influences the way they read the Bible. Generally, Biblical influence on the treatment of others is considered to be a positive trait by the Christian community. However, it is important to realize that the way scripture is read might serve to reinforce prejudicial attitudes and beliefs. Understanding that interpretation of Scripture plays such a central role in developing attitudes and beliefs among Christians, church leaders ought to think very seriously how they teach difficult passages that could inform prejudicial beliefs.

Interestingly, reading Scripture literally had a relationship with benevolent sexism, but not hostile sexism. This finding indicates that while Christians who have a conservative reading of Scripture are not more or less likely to engage in overt prejudice against women, they are more likely to endorse benevolently sexist attitudes. Benevolent sexism on the surface expresses a very positive and affirming view of women. The trouble is, the aspects of womanhood that are praised are characteristics that keep patriarchal gender roles intact. The deceptive nature of benevolent sexism makes it very difficult to identify, and Christians who may consider themselves to be enlightened about gender issues may still be engaged in benevolent sexism.

As leaders in the church continue to try to sort out what the Bible has to say about appropriate gender roles, they must be aware of the possible secondary gain men in the church may be getting by keeping these patriarchal roles intact. Monitoring motivations in regards to the decisions that are made about women’s roles in the church will prove to be a difficult task, as sexism is generally socially unacceptable and slow to be admitted by perpetrators.

Personality also had a significant relationship with both hostile and benevolent sexism. This relationship may partially explain why those who subscribe to sexist ideologies feel justified in their prejudicial beliefs, as personality is often determined very early in life. Because this issue is so heavily influenced by variables that are generally more fixed than fluid, Biblical interpretation and personality, individuals who go about challenging current gender roles will face a great deal of resistance and if change occurs, it will come very slowly.

On a personal note, these are confusing issues. Many Christian women that I know willingly embrace chivalry. They want to have men to materially provide and to open doors for them. They want to be rescued and cared for. Are these women being duped? Am I? Since I started writing my thesis I have found myself second guessing so many of my relationships. There are ways I thought I wanted to be treated by men that now I'm not so sure about, some men in my life who I realized didn't respect me as much as I thought, and girlfriends who have indeed been duped. Sometimes I wonder how much we've all been. However, the more I read in the Bible and in the literature, the more I feel certain that God’s justice and mercy are in the middle of it all. What I mean is, the God we serve is a God of justice who wants women to be treated fairly. He is also a God of mercy, who loves us even though we get it wrong, and will walk along side us to help make it right.

And yet, I find myself angry about the church's failure to refuse to tolerate or propagate the cultural abuse of women. It grieves me that women in the church are clearly being disenfranchised. When I think about so many of the Godly women in my life, the girls on my halls in the dorms, and the little girls I teach in Sunday school, I think about how gifted and willing to serve they are and yet may never be allowed to have the freedom to use their teaching and leadership abilities in the way that men can. In some ways I think we (women) have changed who we are to fit into the church community. I only pray that if I ever get married and have a daughter she won't have to change who she is to fit the church's mold- there are far too many other pressures working to compromise women’s identity, the church certainly ought not be one of them.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!


Kirk said...

I'd love to continue this conversation over lunch when you get "home."

Jenny said...

Great work Shannon!!!! I'm glad you persevered and completed your thesis (not that I had any doubts at all!!!)--- it's an important topic, and as you pointed out, it's an area that is under-researched and an area we don't like to talk about. I can't wait for you to come back!!!!

Arni Zachariassen said...

Very, very interesting stuff! Your results aren't surprising - we all know that sexist is deeply embedded in the church. But it's good to scientifically document it.
Will your research be published?

Unknown said...

Hey! In my research for my own thesis, I stumbled upon the ASI and read it and found it really interesting, but my supervisor, who is firmly in "objective" research recommended that I took that route in exploring sexism, by measuring participants' reaction times to consistent and inconsistent sex- roles, and found a significant "sex-role effect", i.e. in trials where the sex of the person was consistent with the sex-role depicted (e.g. a female nurse) reaction time was faster than if the person was inconsistent with the sex-role (e.. a male nurse). I interpreted this in relation to advanced in person perception and stereotyping, that learned cues (i.e. from socialization) in addition to what is so well established regarding faces and stereotyping in social psychology, trigger "sex-role" stereotyping without our awareness. SO maybe our two "findings" are two sides of the same coin :)

Shannon Williamson said...

Thanks for reading. I will present the research at the Christian Scholars confrence in Nashville,TN in June and am working towards submitting it for publication.

Your finding are also interesting! I wonder how an implicit association test comparing gender and roles in the church would turn out. If you're interested in "objective research" you should check out a study done out of the University of Liege in France (you are probably already familiar with it- but I listed the reference below just in case). Thanks for reading!
Dardenne, B., Dumont, M., & Bollier, T. (2007). Insdious dangers of benevolent sexism: Consequences for women's performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93 (5), 764-779.

SoCalSingleMama said...

Found your blog from a link on Experimental Theology and really enjoyed it - I plan to be back regularly. :-)

HillaryGayle said...

Wow. Thanks for this; I found this remarkably fascinating & I intend to link to it from my Livejournal, if you don't mind. In fact, I'm pretty sure I found you by clicking on a link from another person's LJ and then continuing to click fascinating links 'til I found you!

My husband and I have long talked about the concept of benevolent sexism, though we never had a term for it before. I actively participate in trying to discredit it; I'm a physically extremely strong person in a very physically demanding job, so it looks rather silly to go treating me like a delicate flower. There is a significant man in my life who holds these benevolent sexist views, and he seems confused beyond all belief when I gently reject them.

Also: I'm a southerner living in the south--and I routinely open doors for men. It's HILARIOUS. THEY GET SO CONFUSED.

Shannon said...

great reading Shannon. I'm looking for more christian perspectives on feminism.

Would you have any recommendations?

Shannon Williamson said...


I'm not sure what your'e looking for but here are some suggestions:

Anything by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen would probably be helpful. She is very well published in this area. Belleville and Blomberg have a book called Two Views on Women in Ministry that contains essays stating both egalitarian and complementarian views. Schuurman and Sterk wrote a book called After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation, which I found to be articularly helpful. Evangelical Feminism: A history by Pamela Cochran is a fairly recent book(2005) that may be more specific to your needs (although I did not use it in my research). Hope that helps!