How Traditional Are Traditional Gender Roles?

Turret lathe operator machining parts for tran...
Image via Wikipedia

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) once had a reality-based show called, “The Week the Women Went”. Apparently, all of a town’s women left their men to fend for themselves for a week. I didn`t see an episode but the ads suggested that its entertainment value was in seeing how the poor men struggle in their housekeeping, cooking, cleaning and child caring duties normally done by the women. The show assumes traditional gender roles of the stay-at-home woman and the out-to-work man.

I guess I don’t have a traditional marriage. I had my share of being a single dad when my wife left for work-related trips. Once last year she left for almost a week. I occasionally cook for the family, usually Chinese stir-fry dishes. I help with laundry and vacuuming is normally my job. And I am very involved with my kids. I have had my share of changing diapers and getting up at midnight to soothe a crying child. Since I have more flexible working hours, I am often the default parent for taking the kids to medical appointments, skating or swimming lessons, attending their piano recitals or just plain staying home with them if necessary. I gratefully leave my taxes to my wife who has the better head for numbers. I suspect my marriage is typical of contemporary urban couples where spouses share roles and responsibilities based more on aptitude, skills and availability rather than on any traditionally prescribed gender roles.

Some Christians, in the name of “family values,” bemoan this erosion of traditional gender roles. The doctrine of “male headship” in the household is often, not always, used to justify upholding these gender “norms”. Traditional gender roles are seen as not only traditional but also biblical and God-ordained. I have tackled the biblical male headship passages in a previous post: “Are Paul’s Writings Anti-Women?” In this post, I want to suggest that the so-called traditional gender roles – mother-childcare and father-work – may not be so traditional after all.

In his sermon, “The Estate of Marriage” (1522), the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther preached:

Now observe that when … our natural reason … takes a look at married life, … and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labour at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? …”

Now … when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, … God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. (This sermon can be found here.)

Notice how Luther assumed that 16th century fathers would be doing just as much childcare work, like washing diapers and rocking babies, as mothers. He was using these as natural objections against a man getting married! Now, I am not suggesting that Luther was a feminist. Anyone who has read Luther extensively would know his attitudes to women weren’t always charitable. Rather, I am suggesting that Luther’s quote here shows that 16th century Germany’s cultural expectations of fathers did not fit nicely into the so-called traditional gender roles.

I suspect our traditional gender roles really only became a cultural norm after the Industrial Revolution separated monetary work from home, creating a public sphere (of men and work) and a private sphere (of women and home). Rodney Clapp observed:

Before the Industrial Revolution, spouses, children, relatives and servants worked together in the household to produce goods. Economically, the household was a producing unit as well as a consuming unit. Only with the nineteenth-century industrialization was the household privatized. Industrialization and the spread of factories introduced the single wage-earner, who departed the home to earn the family’s livelihood. The household was no longer a center of economic productivity, where the family together wove rugs or cobbled shoes or farmed. (Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional & Modern Options, IVP: 1993, p. 54)

Psychologist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen argues that it is this development that created the “traditional” woman’s role of childrearing and housekeeping:

The home, formerly a unit of production, now became merely a unit for consuming things produced elsewhere, and women’s role in the cash economy was reduced to that of choosing which goods and services the family would spend its money on. Instead of sharing economic productivity with their husbands, women became unwaged consumers and caretakers. Rather than sharing the work of childrearing with husbands and other family members, they ended up doing it largely alone. (Gender and Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World, IVP: 1990, p. 200)

Hence, what so many conservative Christians today claim to be the true “biblical” pattern of family and married life is really only a middle-class post-industrial evolution of the family.

I believe gender roles evolve with culture over time and space. The only God-created roles given to men and women may be in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (NRSV) BOTH men and women were given the tasks of multiplying (by implication child-rearing) and having dominion (work in the world). There is no division of labour suggested here. (In response to the ecological critique of the “dominion” aspect of this passage, please see my post: “A Christian Four-Eyed Perspective on the Environment”.)

I guess my non-traditional marriage might, ironically, be more biblical than a traditional one!

8 thoughts on “How Traditional Are Traditional Gender Roles?

  1. Is it wrong to be a christian girl who does not believe in traditional gender roles? Personally I find it ridiculous beyond measure.


    1. Hi Damaris,
      Thanks for your question.
      Personally, I don’t think it is wrong for a Christian girl to NOT conform to traditional gender roles. Provided, however, that one rejects (or accepts for that matter) for the proper reasons, namely out of conscience, belief and principles. I would think rebelliousness, peer pressure, or simply selfish reasons (maybe even ignorance) are not good reasons to reject tradition.
      Of course, if the tradition does harm (emotional and spiritual harm as well), then it is high time to reconsider and reform those traditional practices.
      But if one sincerely believes that those traditional roles are not divinely ordained and unnecessarily restrictive, then we have a right to be true to our beliefs and principles, and decline as graciously as possible.
      Speak the truth (as we know it) in love.
      If such a girl is caught in a Christian community that places too much emphasis on these gender roles, it is important for her to find friends and support, either within that community or if necessary, from outside of that community.
      I understand that sometimes, breaking from tradition may not be taken lightly in certain communities, and may result in some pain and heartache. Hence, a support group of friends/family is really important if someone chooses to balk conformity in a rigid community.
      I hope that helps, Damaris.


  2. Thanks for helping us discern where this “traditional family” value is actually coming from, Chong! Well done.


  3. Thanks for putting my thoughts into well-written words, Chong. 🙂
    I appreciate the Luther quote – one I have never read before.


What is your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s