WHAT MAKES A WOMAN?
Written by Doug Ponder on October 8, 2015
Jenner vs. Feminism vs. Jesus
From time to time God gives us an occasion for seeing our hardhearted blindness. By almost every measure, the Bruce Jenner saga is just such an occasion.
In the first place, we have witnessed our society support someone who is very sick instead of actually helping him. In the name of “love” we lied to a man and told him that he could do something impossible. And then we gave him an award for bravery, when we should have given him counseling. Counseling is what you would give if a man said he was a sparrow born in a human body. We all know that’s impossible, because biology and identity are connected. That man could not be a human in his body and a sparrow in his mind anymore than someone could be male “between their legs” but female “between their ears.” In the same way, Bruce Jenner was born with an X and a Y chromosome, and so he cannot possibly be a woman, nor could he ever become one. No amount of pills and surgeries can change your DNA.
At the same time, however, Bruce did something that made feminists quite cross (which isn’t very hard to do). In trying to become a woman he began wearing dresses; he painted his fingernails; he started talking more about his emotions and his “sensitive side”; he wore make-up and a wig with long hair. Instead of ‘smashing the patriarchy,’ Bruce did things that seem to reinforce it, feminists say.
He is not unique, however. Almost every person who suffers from gender identity disorder (the psychological name for what is commonly called “transgenderism”) demonstrates a strong urge to dress and act like the other sex. Actually, this urge is how many profess to first “discover” that they are born in the “wrong body.” But if, as feminism insists, differences between male and female or masculine and feminine are merely cultural constructs, then there is no standard of dress or behavior for transpeople to conform to.
Indeed, if the feminists are correct in their assertions about womanhood, this means that Bruce Jenner could have declared himself a woman without changing anything. He could “walk like a man, talk like a man,” as Frankie Valli sang, but simply declare himself a woman by fiat.
But if Bruce did that, you might be thinking, he wouldn’t “look like” a woman. Your sexism is showing, say the feminists, who think it’s misogynistic and restrictive to talk of women looking a certain way. Yet Bruce and other trans people seem to have gotten the memo. For all his faults, Bruce does recognize that there are differences between men and women, and these differences run so deeply that they find ways of expressing themselves in every culture.
This is why the Jenner vs. feminism debate is such an important one. It’s one of those rare moments that shows us just how blind and confused we have become. For the two sides are dealing with the same question—What makes a woman?—but neither has a consistent answer. Thankfully, there’s a third contestant in this debate. He has a word of truth for us, and it’s the kind that sets us free (John 8:32).
The Mess We Made
The problem before us is one of not knowing what it means to be a woman, and it seems we are growing more lost and confused on this topic with every passing year. All-girl colleges are now allowing males who “self-identify” as female into their ranks. Others are fighting to have words like vagina removed from our vocabulary, since they are “exclusionary” and offensive to all those women born in a man’s body. (Their preferred term, if you can believe it, is “front hole,” a term so ridiculous that it singlehandedly proves how dense we have become.) Even the word “woman” itself has come under attack by other women. As a prominent abortion rights activist recently said, “Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue; it’s a uterus owner’s issue.” She, and the thousands that joined her hashtag crusade on Twitter, were speaking up for “men” born in bodies with a uterus—you can’t call it a woman’s body, remember, since the body belongs to someone who self-identifies as male. Confused? Join the club.
For a quick explanation of how we arrived at this place, consider the words of Elinor Burkett, a self-professed feminist and women’s rights activist who “winced” at Bruce Jenner’s official coming out party. She writes, “I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, [but] they cannot stake their claim to dignity as a transgender person by trampling on mine as a woman. Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity.”
Do you see what has happened? In their desire to “loosen gender constraints” and end “gender stereotyping,” feminists insisted that to be a woman didn’t have to mean anything specifically. Women are “just” women, they say. A woman can do anything she wants and be anything she wants. To which every reasonable person responds: Really? Anything? Could a woman become a man? Could a man become a woman? Why not? When you have “your truth” and I have “my truth,” then why can’t I claim to be a female sparrow trapped in a human male’s body? Who are you to say otherwise?
Now we see the quandary that we have made for ourselves. When the word “female” can mean anything to anyone, then it really means nothing to everyone. In their quest to liberate womanhood from gender stereotyping, feminists unwittingly paved the way for gender nihilism—a state of affairs in which the word is merely a label with no substance. Now anyone can be a “woman”; all they have to do is claim the title.
It’s worth nothing that in her article, “What makes a woman?”, feminist Elinor Burkett does not provide an answer to her own question. She merely tells us what doesn’t make a woman (fingernail polish), without offering any positive way forward. I’m not sure whether she realizes that she has done this, but in any case I doubt that she could offer a constructive definition of womanhood. After removing all those “gender stereotypes,” it turns out there’s nothing left in the bottom of the bowl. Not even double-X chromosomes.
Jesus’ Answer to Our Problem
In the 1990 film Kindergarten Cop, one scene involves a young boy “educating” his teacher about the differences between the sexes. He states triumphantly, “Boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina.” We laugh at the joke and move on. But the reason why we are able to laugh and move on quickly is because this truth is so obvious that it needs no explaining. Boys and girls are different, and the Scriptures tell us that these differences are more than “skin deep.”
Indeed, the differences between men and women run right to the center of who we are, down to the depths of our souls. This is because when God creates men and women, he creates whole persons with bodies and souls and callings to fulfill in the world. Because God is not schizophrenic, these three line up; they point in the same direction. For example, we observe in nature that only women are able to bear children. This is neither accidental nor arbitrary. The Scriptures tell us that women were created as nurturing, supportive helpers (Gen. 2:18). They have a receptive/reciprocal/responsive calling that matches the “shape” of their souls, and so we should not be surprised to find that their biology “matches.” (Thus a woman has the sexual anatomy for receiving her husband and nurturing new life inside her, while a man’s sexual anatomy is designed to initiate and provide the seed that leads to life.)
In view of all this, we see that the short answer to “What makes a woman?” is God. God makes a woman, and he does so with purpose and intentionality. As one half of his image-bearers, women are created by God with the same care that an architect would use to design his dream home—because that’s what we are (Eph. 2:22). And when God makes a woman, he makes her a woman physically, spiritually, and vocationally, which is to say that she is unique in her body, soul, and calling. While men are designed by God to provide and protect (Gen. 2:15), women are designed by God to respond through receiving and reciprocating in a joyful partnership of two irreversible roles (Eph. 5:22-24; Titus 2:4-5).
When we lose sight of the wonderful differences of God’s design, the only option left for womanhood is the do-it-yourself variety of feminists and Bruce Jenner. Far from liberating women, the DIY womanhood project has produced what sociologists call “the paradox of declining female happiness.” That is, women are self-reportedly less happy today than they were a few decades ago. Is it any wonder? They have been stripped of their God-given identity. Women have been told “they can be anything they want to be,” but they no longer know who they are.
But Jesus knows who we are, because he made us and he purchased us back from our reality-twisting ways. So we are doubly his, and he really did come to set us free—not from gender stereotyping (much of which is, ironically, rooted in creational design), but from our quests to liberate ourselves. Women (and men) flourish, therefore, when they look to God’s design and embrace it with the arms of faith.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.