I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head and wept. ‘All right,’ I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
That quote of Daisy, from The Great Gatsby, about the birth of her daughter, sardonically expresses her resignation to the male-dominated society of her time. She is saying that it is better for a girl to be a fool—because for a girl to be anything other than that would be to live a frustrated and repressed life, like her own life.
It shows that Daisy, though always acting flighty and fake, a rich ‘privileged’ woman in the roaring 20’s, has far more depth to her character and real intelligence than she is allowed to openly display.
One might assume that someone in her position, all of her material needs met and sheltered from any responsibility, would be content. I mean, the wealth of her husband, the brutal Tom Buchanan, walled her off from the toils and freed her from work or consequences.
But, beneath the veneer of playfulness, she seems miserable. She was powerless beyond what her husband provided for her and merely acting out the role carved out for her by society, the part of a fool, rather than truly free.
There is only the slightest difference between walls intended to protect and walls that imprison, the smallest gap between guarding someone’s child-like faith and enabling their childish behavior, and a person can claim to be protecting others yet really only be protecting their position. There are many people, men in particular, who like to keep others around them weak so they can feel strong or needed.
A fundamental misunderstanding of the weaker vessel…
The idea that women can’t be expected to handle certain circumstances or rise to the same level of behavior as a man is not something new to me. I know in fundamentalist circles many men regard women to be wholly inferior to them (besides in child-bearing) and thus a comment to that effect was not completely unexpected. However, it was still a bit jarring, in the context it was given, to hear a woman being excused for her unsociable behavior because she, as the “weaker vessel” and thus somehow incapable of doing any better.
I had to wonder what women (conservative Mennonite women in particular) would think of that comment.
Is that what they really want?
Do they truly want to always be regarded as helpless, the perpetual damsel in distress, rather than be treated as an equal and emotionally/intellectually capable?
I have a feeling that is not the kind of male protection that most women want.
But then, I could be wrong, my lack of success in the realm of conservative Mennonite courtship could indicate that my treatment of women as an intellectual equal was a grave error. Perhaps this is why I’ve been described as “intimidating” by a couple intelligent Mennonite women? Could it be that women really do feel better being coddled and patronized?
I will say that many women, especially attractive women, expect to be catered to and this is because men (including yours truly) are generally nicer to them for a variety of reasons—some of those reasons less noble than those more often expressed.
Anyhow, these hidden wants, openly expressed opinions and general tendencies aside, the real question is whether or not this is what the “weaker vessel” of Scripture truly means. Yes, obviously, women are, on average, weaker than men in terms of some measures of physical strength. But does this make women more feeble and less capable in all regards? Are women generally inferior to men?
Here’s the text:
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 KJV)
I used the King James version because other translations replace “vessel” (σκεῦος) with “partner” or “sex” and potentially muddy the waters as far as this question more than they make things clearer. Again, I’m not an expert on the Greek language, but judging by how this word is translated elsewhere (John 19:29, Romans 9:21, Acts 9:15,10:11, etc), the word “vessel” seems to be a more literal, direct and appropriate translation.
That word “vessel” is an important qualifier to the word “weaker” (ἀσθενής) that precedes it. It is used in reference to objects or physical things and, in context of 1 Peter 3:7, would be reasonably understood to be a reference to a woman’s physical body rather than her person in general.
But more important is the rest of what is said. First, this passage is specifically about the relationship between husbands and wives. Second, the answer to a woman being the “weaker vessel” is for husbands to give “honour” (τιμή) to her, which means to value her, as one “being heirs together” with him, and it never suggests treating her like an inferior. If anything, this is an instruction not to use a woman’s lack of physical strength as means to diminish her other abilities or as a reason to otherwise patronize to her.
Yes, certainly we should protect what is valuable and Paul warns (similar to Malachi 2:13-15) about a man’s prayers being hindered if he mistreats his wife. However, that’s not the same thing as saying that we should be an enabler of weakness or should create unhealthy dependencies in our marriages. It is certainly not an excuse to allow a woman to act in an unChrist-like, inappropriate or otherwise unsisterly manner in the church.
The sexism of lower expectations is not honoring or Scriptural…
For the same reason we tell a bully “pick on someone your own size” we also say “don’t hit a woman” and should always take a clear stand against those who would exploit weaker people. Scripture always sides with the protection of the poor and against the oppression of the weak.
However, protection is not the same thing as pandering and nor does having Christian compassion mean we should coddle. No, a man should use his strength to encourage, empower and strengthen the weak. His role should be to give a space for his family to flourish. I believe that is the goal of our protection. Men protect the weak, in essence, by lending them our physical strength against external threats and that allows their abilities to shine rather than be crushed.
It is well-established that countries that protect the property and freedoms of their citizens prosper economically compared to those that exploit and/or do not. This is because people who know their work will likely be stolen have no reason to innovate or be ambitious. Likewise, a man who is a controlling tyrant, who sees his wife or children as wholly inferior, even if he does prevent their being exploited by others, will stifle and destroy the abilities of those entrusted to him.
Sure, maybe some women do employ their weakness as a means to get what they want in a relationship. I also know a couple cases of wives who can’t make their own decisions and depend on their husbands for everything besides picking the color of the drapes. But that level of dependency is not a good thing nor is it something we find in Scripture as an example of exemplary womanhood either:
A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:10-31 RSV)
That is not a limp-wristed wimp of a woman who follows two paces behind her man to keep in her place. No, that is a human dynamo, a force to be reckoned with and not that extremely anxious woman waiting for her husband’s input before doing anything on her own. No, the ideal woman, according to Proverbs, is the one who “makes her arms strong” and engages in commerce, a manager of a wide variety of affairs, and a wise teacher to boot.
Paul didn’t write so that men would lower their expectations for women. No, Paul has many expectations for women. Including in the verse prior (1 Peter 3:6) where he tells women not to be fearful. Telling a woman not to be fearful (φοβούμεναι) is the same as telling her to be emotionally strong and mentally capable.
It is not honoring of women to treat them as generally inferior or incapable.
How should men honor women?
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not!” (Isaiah 35:3-5a RSV)
Honoring means to protect and protect means to strengthen.
A wise man knows that he might not always be able to provide for his wife and children. For that reason, he will protect them by making them strong and not only shelter them with his own strength.
Yes, there is a kind of man who likes to keep others around him permanently disabled so that he can feel strong and useful. There are also women who enjoy being fearful and hanging on the arms of any man who will give them attention. But there is nothing in Scripture that suggests we should encourage this kind of codependent behavior and plenty that indicates we should strengthen and bring out the best in each other.
Men and women may serve different roles in the church and home. After all, people are different, regardless of gender, with different strengths and weaknesses. However, acknowledging that the reality of our differences in strength and honoring the “weaker vessel” does not mean treating anyone as our intellectual, emotional, or spiritual lesser. What Paul is really teaching, in a fuller context of Scripture, is that we not use our own physical strength as a means to diminish the abilities of our wife and rather we should honor her as someone capable.
In the end, nothing good comes from pandering to the women. Instead, we should respect them as capable, despite their lack of physical strength, and should encourage them (as Paul does) to be free rather than fearful. Fundamentalist purity cultures do the opposite, they seek to subjugate the weak and twist Scriptures (sometimes ever so slightly) to justify their dishonoring treatment of women. It is very subtle in some cases, it can be as small as lowering expectations based on gender alone, yet it is pervasive and perverse.
Maybe these men need a reminder? The word “helpmeet” used in Genesis 2:19-20 denotes a “suitable helper” and uses the same Hebrew words used to describe God’s help in battle. It does not imply subordination. It implies capability and strength. So, if we do not honor God through our doubt, then we do we honor women by lowering our expectations for women. Instead, we use our own unique strengths to encourage and strengthen each other.
A woman can be so much more than a beautiful little fool and we should not deprive them of the opportunity to rise up to the challenge of meeting the standards of competency that we would expect from a man—so do not dishonor her with sexism of low expectations.