I was prepared to dominate English 101 at university; I had already read almost every single book in the catalogue, I had high honours from high school, I was confident (okay, fine, I was one of those irritating teenage know-it-alls). So English 101? Let’s do this.
The very first book we studied was new to me; a collection of essays by well-known writers and linguists about how we use and mis-use words and the co-opting of our language for political, marketing, and ideological purposes. It was my first foray into the outer limits of postmodern thought, and I remember reading these essays like I was drinking from a firehose: it was too much new information all at once. I remember one essay in particular; the author argued that we cannot use subjective words such as “feminine” as a descriptor of women because, by very nature of womanhood, if you are a woman, then it is, in fact, regardless of stereotypes, feminine.
If I am a woman, and I am doing it, it is, by statement of fact, womanly.
My 18-year-old mind was blown.
I had a very clear – and narrow – idea of what femininity or womanly meant in those years. Those beliefs were more informed by culture wars than scripture. I came to realise that my understanding of these words was based more on pop culture, bad theology, and advertising than on the actual words themselves. And years later, when I began to study the kaleidoscope of womanhood in scripture, and experience the freedom of Christ with the broad gorgeousness of the Church, culture, and terrible beauty in the world, I began understand that words, so easily tossed around, matter.
Words matter, particularly when we apply them to people. And words have power.
I have had an uneasy and respectful relationship with words, particularly words of religion, sex and gender, politics and ideology ever since.
Language is a responsibility. Scripture affirms this truth: our words have power.
I couldn’t help but notice a trend of divisive language cloaked in soft colours as I walked through the women’s section of a Christian bookstore. “True Womanhood,” proclaimed one. “Being a Real Woman,” wrote another.
One of the better habits I picked up in higher education, along with an ability to cook an entire meal using only a hot pot and the expired contents of a communal fridge, is knee-jerk critical thinking. That skill went into overdrive in that bookshop because there is actually no such thing as true womanhood or real femininity. We only have our culturally and contextually conditioned versions of those words, they are not clear.
We use words like “true” and “real” in reference to womanhood or motherhood or marriage, and I think it’s wrong to do this.
We use these words like they are freeing or universal or helpful, but instead they are forging new chains for a new law. There is no such thing as “real” woman or a “real” man.
If you are a man, you are a real man. If you are a woman, you are a real woman.
The funny bit of perhaps-irony is that – from the outside – my life even likely affirms those narrow descriptors of “true” womanhood. After all, I married young, I am a stay-at-home mother of three tinies, I care for our home and family, I cook, I clean, I fold laundry, and I seek to honour my husband. And yet, the doing of these things do not make me a “real” woman. If I worked outside the home or if I never got married or if I did not or could not have children or if I burnt supper, it does not make me less of a real woman, particularly when one is in Christ.
One need only open their eyes (or more radically, read their Bible) to see women all around us who do not meet these narrow and misleading definitions of “real” or true” and yet live and move and have their being in their full womanhood, affirmed as daughters of the King. Womanhood in Christ must mean more than these words’ propose.
And that wholeness, that realness, that trueness, is not represented by marital status or income level, let alone our adherence to a sitcom society that never existed or a division of modern labour. In Christ, you are a true woman. You are a true man. Already.
The implication of words like “true” and “real” is that if you do not meet their arbitrary standard, then somehow you must be a fake woman or an unreal woman or less-of a woman. Maybe these words are used more to affirm our own beliefs and life choices, maybe it’s out of fear, or a loss of power, or a lack of real thoughtfulness. Rachel Held Evans wrote an entire book about how the word “biblical” is a pretty terrible adjective in front of “womanhood” for this same reason.
This is why words matter, and why I don’t like the use of subjective language to burden and divide in the name of God.
I believe that part of God’s kingdom includes the wholeness of restored image-bearers of God, working and living and loving in beautiful communion together. Carolyn Custis James calls it “the blessed alliance” and it’s not exclusive to married couples by a long shot.
The blessed alliance is what happens when men and women are both walking in the fullness of their unique gifts and callings, in wholeness and in right relationship with God and each other, it’s what happens when we are restored in God’s Kingdom.
I celebrate the differences between men and women, I do, although I’m wary of universalizing traits, temperament, and personalities for entire genders. Words like “true” and “real” in reference to womanhood or manhood are not celebrating the differences. They are narrow, misleading descriptors, a one-size-fits-all paper-thin straw man argument to baptise our preferences.
They are words that divide and agitate and burden, there is no freedom in this language. This is cookie-cutter language, this is not the language of the Cross, and it is not the language of the kingdom of God. There is no gospel in a new law with extra requirements and add-ons to life in Christ.
I believe that in the kingdom of God, true womanhood and true manhood is not so different from true personhood. Christ came to unveil what it means to be fully human, and to reconcile us with our Father, and to save us, set us free, heal us, to walk us out into our created purposes and wholeness. He calls us by name, not by a number. Words have creative power, words can build up or tear down, set free or forge chains.