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Symbolic Traditionalism & Pragmatic Egalitarianism:
Contemporary Evangelicals,  Families & Gender


Sally K. Gallagher
Oregon State University  

Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of Association for the Sociology of Religion, New York, August 1996. Funding for this research was provided by Pew Charitable Trusts. Address all correspondence to the author: Department of Sociology, Fairbanks 307, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97321.



Family values are ever with us.  Whether we are considering the traditional values  of the "New Right" or the communitarian vision of the "New Democrats", the rhetoric of family values continues to take center stage.  This paper considers the family values of Evangelical Protestants.  While studies of Evangelicals and family values is nothing new, most previous research tends to focus on either pro-family political activists (Diamond, 1991; Dworkin, 1983; Jorstad, 1987; Klatch, 1987), or the rhetoric of Evangelical leaders (Hunter, 1987; Johnson, 1993).  By way of contrast, this paper focuses on "lay" Evangelicals; individuals who identify themselves as Evangelical Christians, yet who are not necessarily activists or movement leaders.  It examines both the rhetoric and the practice of everyday, Evangelicals "in the pew" and assesses the ways in which contemporary Evangelicals negotiate the conflicts between experience and ideals regarding gender, work and family. 

Evangelical Traditions

One hallmark of traditional Evangelical Protestantism has been the adherence to a neo-traditionalism in which women are seen as subordinate to men.  This particular gender ideology focuses on family roles and has its roots in the separate spheres of the late 19th century.  In the ideology of separate spheres, men are seen as responsible for paid labor performed outside the home; while women are responsible for a range of unpaid, domestic and nurturing labor, including housework, child care, kinkeeping, and charity work.   Nineteenth century, popular views of men as aggressive, lusty, worldly and rational were complemented by ideals of women's submissiveness, purity, piety, and domesticity (Welter, 1966).

Even in the previous century, however, the ability to put the ideology of separate spheres into practice was a luxury that only a minority of white, upper middle class, Protestants could afford.  The experience of most men and women, across race and   class, was that women's paid labor, as well as their domestic labor, were essential to the maintenance of family life.  Regardless of how widely held was the doctrine of separate spheres, women often worked for wages outside the home (ref).  In fact, other than slight declines following WWII and during the depression, women's labor force participation has gradually and constantly increased since 1880, with the most significant recent growth being among mothers with small children (Baxandall and Gordon, 1995; Bergmann, 1986).  Clearly, the past several decades have seen the demise of the traditional "good provider role" (Bernard, 1971).  Currently, more than half  (57.5 percent) of all married women with children under the age of one are employed outside the home, compared with about 30 percent (30.8%) two decades ago (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994). The question remains, however, as to what degree these changes practice have affected Evangelical identity in the late twentieth century.

In addition to a traditional division of labor, Evangelicals also have a long tradition of activism in charity work and social reform.  During the 19th century, Evangelical women in particular were instrumental in the abolitionist and temperance movements, as well as broader challenges to traditional ideals regarding women's roles in the family, the church and the broader community (Hassey, 1986).  Currently, the involvement of Evangelical Christians as volunteers and activists within political and social reform organizations such as the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition has received widespread attention in both the media and sociological research (Dworkin, 1983; Johnson, 1993; Klatch, 1987).  Quantitative data from our interviews with a national random sample of over 2,000 Evangelicals finds that this tradition of volunteering remains strong.  Among Evangelicals, approximately 55 percent volunteered in a local community organization and nearly 80 percent (78.5%) volunteered in a church program that helped the community in the past 2 years— considerably more than the national averages for the population as a whole of approximately one half of all women volunteer (52.9 % women/ 5 hours per week; 49.2 % men, 2.2 hours/week, 1991) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994).]  

Gender & Marriage Ideals Among Religiously Committed Christians (percent) 

  Evangel. Fundamntlst. Mainline Liberal  Catholics
Empty/Unfulfilling marriages should be ended in divorce 13.3 22.4 29.0 40.9 34.9
Marriage should be an equal partnership 87.4 82.6 88.3 91.9 92.2
Husband should be the head of the family 90.4 82.8 70.5 59.0 38.1

Changing Gender and Family Roles

In terms of practice, numerous explanations have been advanced for these changes in women's work and family roles.  Larger social and demographic trends combined to both pull and push women out of more narrow domesticity, into the paid labor force.  On the one hand, household economists like Gary Becker (1981), have argued that women are drawn into the labor force as the rational calculus tips in favor of paid employment as opposed to exclusive domesticity.  From this perspective, the benefits of wage work have risen relative to the benefits of domesticity over the course of the 20th century.  Since 1900, real wages for women workers quadrupled, while declining fertility, labor saving devices, and declining standards for housekeeping reduced the demand for woman's unpaid labor at home (Bergman, 1986; Goldin, 1990; Vanek, 1974).

Recent growth of the service sector has also been credited with drawing more women into the work force.  The increasing availability of jobs currently considered appropriate for women probably played some part in drawing women into the labor force or at least removing some of the ideological barriers to paid labor (Oppenheimer, 1979).              

In addition to changes in the structure of the work force and household demographics, greater educational attainment by women has enabled women to obtain employment in a wider range of fields.   As recently as 30 years ago, there were about half as many women as men enrolled in higher education; whereas, currently, the gender distribution among undergraduates is roughly equal (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994).

Along with variables which have both opened employment to women and made it more attractive, a number of other social and cultural factors have transformed women's roles by making women's employment more of a necessity—pushing them towards paid employment.  A steady stream of new consumer products and the cultural ideal of maintaining a middle class lifestyle, if not obtaining a better one, works against the adequacy of a single, husband-provided, income (Baxandall and Gordon, 1995; Bergmann, 1986; Brown, 1982, Coontz, 1992).  Even though men's wages may have also risen, they have not risen fast enough to keep up with either inflation (especially since the 1970s (ref)) or a growing demand for consumer products.  Thus, while a wife's income may have been necessary to the maintenance of poor and working class households in the late 19th century, the late 20th century has witnessed the rhetoric of need being applied to the maintenance of a consumer lifestyle among the middle and upper middle class (Kessler-Harris, 1982). 

Other demographic changes have also increased the importance of paid work for women. Higher divorce rates and delaying first marriage have made employment an economic necessity for many women (Cherlin, 1991).  Again, changes in divorce and age of marriage have had most effect on employment patterns among middle and upper middle class whites.  Black women are more likely than whites to be poor and in need of employment regardless of whether or not they are married; whereas white women are more likely to be thrown into poverty and be in need of employment because of a divorce (B..., 1989 ref; Weizman, 1985).  Whether through divorce or never being married, the experience of being a single mother has reinforced the necessity of women's employment in many households, across race and class; and, given recent changes in the funding of AFDC and other programs in aid for the poor, the significance of employment for women in poor and working class families can only be expected to increase.

Lastly, and certainly not to be minimized, is the "pull" towards employment provided by the second wave of feminism. Especially among white, middle and upper middle class women, the women's movement of the 1970's removed ideological barriers to women's employment.  Liberal feminism, in particular, as a logical outcome of American ideals of individual rights, reinforced norms of egalitarianism in both the late nineteenth century, as well as the late twentieth.  Thus, while numerous studied document minimal movement towards egalitarianism in the division of household labor (Hochschild, 1989; Rubin, 1994; Stacey, 1991), the past three decades have seen a dramatic and pervasive shift towards the adoption of the idea of egalitarianism in the paid labor force and the rejection of the idea that women are "inferior" to men (among both Evangelicals and mainline Protestant Christians (Piper and Grudem, 1991)).  More recently, albeit on a much smaller scale, various strands of the Men's Movement have encouraged men to get "in-touch" with their emotional, caring side (Schwalbe, 1995); to take on responsibility for child rearing (Ehrensaft, 1980 & 1987); and to, even, choose to abandon the role of breadwinner for "at home" dad (Hanisch, 1975).

Research Questions



Based on interviews with 128 Protestants in 4 geographic regions of the country, this paper examines the contradictions between evangelical rhetoric concerning family values and the beliefs of self-identified Evangelical Christians.  The goal was to hear the voices of Evangelical Christians "in the pew"—people who may or may not be political or social activists—and to ask how their faith shapes their ideals regarding gender, work and family, as well as their practices in everyday life. These interviews were conducted during the summer of 1995.  Because a primary questions of this research as a whole was Evangelical identity and involvement, and because Evangelicals are located within a broad range of protestant traditions, we cast a wide net in our sampling.  The target population was Church-going Protestants, sampled across the diversity of Protestantism, with the goal of achieving proportionate representation for relevant theological and denominational traditions. We attempted to represent the population heterogeneity first by stratifying the sample by race, denominational tradition and, where appropriate, denominational theological orientation (liberal/conservative).1  We determined the number of Protestants in each category and assigned denominations to categories using J. Gordon Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions (Gale: 1993), the most comprehensive source for denominational information; Martin Bradley et al., Churches and Church Membership in the United States 1990 (Glenmary Research Center: 1992); The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Frank Mead and Samuel Hill, Abingdon: 1990); Melton's Religious Bodies in the United States (Garland: 1992); the Encyclopedia of African-American Religions (Garland: 1993) edited by Larry Murphy, Melton, and Gary Ward; and Wandell Payne's Directory of African-American Religious Bodies (Howard University: 1991).  We relied primarily on Melton's reported membership figures to determine the size of the denomination, and determined theological orientation from descriptive summaries of each denomination in Melton, Mead and Hill, Murphy et al. and Payne.  Bradley et al. provide an estimate of independent and nondenominational church membership.  While this estimate is very conservative, independent and nondenominational churches were not likely to have been under represented in the sample, since we established a minimum number of interviews from each category, and thus the proportion of nondenominational interviews in our sample far exceeded the numerical proportions in the population as estimated by Bradley.  The stratification yielded 13 white categories and 3 black categories of church-going Protestants.

We conducted 128 interviews, which were distributed evenly among four researchers.  The number of interviews in each category was based on the proportion of the population in that category, calculated from Melton's Religious Bodies in the United States (Melton, 1992).  However, in order to adequately account for small but distinct and historically significant denominational traditions, a minimum of five interviews were assigned for each category.  According to this criteria, five respondents were interviewed from each of the following categories:  Anabaptist, Conservative Presbyterian/Reformed, Conservative Pietist/Methodist, Liberal Episcopal, Holiness, and Independent/ Non-denominational.  To achieve this diversity, we partially relaxed the proportionality principle, and reduced the number of interviews from the largest three denominational traditions, Conservative white Baptist (from 37 to 27), Conservative black Baptist (from 21 to 15), and Liberal Methodist/Pietist (from 14 to 10).  Since we were still conducting a relatively large number of interviews from each of these three categories, we assumed that the marginal gain was higher if 20 interviews were reassigned from these three to the important, though numerically small denominational traditions.  In the end, each of the six smaller traditions mentioned above gained 2-3 interviews on average, the three large categories lost a total of 20 interviews, and the rest of the denominational traditions were assigned interviews in proportion to their numbers.

We conducted the interviews in Minneapolis, Chicago,  Birmingham, Alabama, Durham, North Carolina, Essex County in Massachusetts, and Linn and Benton Counties in  Oregon. The number of interviews conducted in each area accounted for regional strongholds of denominational traditions.  The majority of  Lutherans were interviewed in Minnesota, for example, and relatively more black Baptists were interviewed in Birmingham.  The smaller categories, with only five allotted interviews each, were split among two researchers in order to assure geographical diversity and to keep the number of necessary church contacts from unreasonably proliferating.

Sampling frames for each category at each location were compiled using lists of local churches drawn from telephone directories, and checked for relative comprehensiveness with Martin Bradley et al., Churches and Church Membership in the United States 1990 (Glenmary Research Center: 1992) (contact the author for a list of denominations by category).  Churches without telephones, or which declined to have their telephone number listed in the telephone directory, were not included in our sample.  This created an inevitable sample bias against the poorest churches, separatist churches, and house churches. For the purpose of this research, however, this is an unavoidable and creatively insignificant bias, insofar as these churches would be expected to have little influence on the dominant character of Protestantism overall.

We randomly selected individual churches from the lists. We then contacted church pastors to secure cooperation and complete lists of church members and regular-attenders.  In order better to diversify at the level of individual churches, the maximum number of respondents was limited to four per church. We then systematically selected potential respondents and took a second random sample for alternates. The list of sampled potential respondents was checked with the pastor to eliminate members completely uninvolved in the church. In fact, only very old respondents who had moved into nursing homes and were incapable of doing an interview needed to be eliminated in this way.  While the sampling methodology worked efficiently for white Protestants, it became increasingly clear that a complete random sample of black Protestants would be difficult to obtain. Many pastors of black churches held second jobs, most churches did not have secretarial assistance, and many did not have an answering machine.  Furthermore, in certain low-income neighborhoods, many black churches held a policy against distributing church membership lists because of threats from collection agencies, the IRS, etc.. Moreover, many randomly-sampled black Protestants proved unwilling to do interviews with a researcher who called without a personal reference.  After multiple unsuccessful call-backs and requests, it became apparent that in some cases the only reasonably effective means of obtaining interviews with black Protestants would be to work through existing social networks of black Protestants with which we did have prior entree.  In the sample of black Protestants, therefore, 7 were sampled randomly and 17 were not.  However, with blacks, we were able to achieve regional diversity (Chicago, Birmingham, Boston, and Durham, NC), and to represent the three major traditions proportionate to their numbers in the population.


An interview schedule was developed which included questions about the respondent's religious identity and strategies of influencing American society. We asked all of the interviewees a series of open-ended questions about their sense of religious identity, and how that identity relates to other religious and secular groups, their experiences living as Christians in American society, and their perceptions of how American society is changing.  We also asked a variety of questions about attitudes towards Christian involvement in politics, materialism, the family, morality, public education, and cultural pluralism; as well as their own practices.  Especially important, for this paper, is that we asked a series of questions regarding gender ideology; and followed up with questions about how faith affects the practice of gender within their own household.  In order to probe more deeply, we asked specifically about the meaning of male headship, in both the family and the church; and followed up with questions about the specifics of decision making, employment, domestic work and child care. Through these interviews, we attempted to discern the distinctives of Evangelical views and practice with regard to gender and family.

Interviews lasted from one to three hours, with the average length being about two hours long.  With respondent's permission, we tape recorded each interview.  These interviews were transcribed and given a cover sheet with summary codes for religious identity, gender, age, marital status, education, employment status, (etc.).  One hundred and twenty-eight interviews were completed in all.  This analysis focuses on those interviews for which Evangelical was chosen as a primary identity (approximately 2/3 of the total sample); interviews for those identifying not as Evangelical, but as either mainline or liberal were omitted from this analysis.

Systematic content analysis was used to develop coding categories for themes that emerged from multiple reading of these transcripts.  The main use of  these coding schemes was to organize respondents comments into a cohesive manner for qualitative, textual analysis.  Statements from specific respondents are all quotations, with only minor editorial changes (eg. omitting repetitive words or correct minor grammatical errors).  


Symbolic Traditionalism

Overwhelmingly, the Evangelicals interviewed in this study espoused agreement with a neo-traditional rhetoric of gender and family roles.  With rare exception, both men and women made the claim that the husband was the head of the family.  Most respondents alluded to various New Testament passages in support of these assertions; most frequently Paul's letter to the Ephesians, as well as the Pastoral Epistles—First and Second Timothy, and the short letter to Titus—and to the second, more detailed creation story recorded in Genesis 2.

Because the Biblical texts occupy a significant place in Evangelical ontology, two of these selections are worth quoting here (both are from the New International Version).  The first, is from Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  


Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her ... In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself, after all, no-one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body . ... each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Eph 5: 21-33. NIV).

And from the book of Genesis, both before and after the Fall:

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him". ... So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh.  Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh..." (Gen 2: 18, 21, 22-23).

And from the book of Genesis, after the Fall:

To the woman he (the LORD) said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you."

To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. ... By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. (Gen 3: 16, 17 and 19. NIV).

Both of these selections figured prominently in respondent's explanations of their ideals for women and men in families.  Further probing revealed a number of salient dimensions to Evangelical gender ideology, particularly with regard to the notion of headship and its implications for family life.

Bearing Responsibility

Throughout the interviews, men's responsibility emerged as central to Evangelical notions of headship.  Both women and men saw men as being ultimately responsible for the family; responsibility that ought to earn men the respect and deference of their wives and children.

Material Responsibility

One of the most commonly mentioned components of  headship was the notion that men are responsible to provide for material needs of their families.  Very few respondents, however, held to what Jessie Bernard has called "the good provider role" (Bernard, 1981).   Rather than simply men's gender and family identity being  husband / provider, a more multifaceted version of the provider role appeared; one that involved men's assuming responsibility for bearing greater danger, difficult work, and accountability before God for the welfare of the family. One respondent, a retired military man, described gender in families this way

I think we do have different roles, but those roles should compliment one another.  I see the man as the wisely trained scout, so to speak. The one that goes in ahead and looks for dangerous situations that provides for the family and tries to make sure that daily provisions are in place.  I see the woman in the family taking care of more of the nurturing needs, not to say that men can't do that, I think they can, I just feel it's a woman's job.  (Birmingham, retired Army Colonel, # 12)

For this man, taking on responsibility economic provision is likened to being an army scout: he's supposed to be out there, in danger, bearing responsibility for the rest of the company.  While not all men used this kind of military allusion, many spoke of  headship as being tied up in an ideal of masculinity in which men take on "more difficult" work or "greater accountability".

I think the man should be the bread winner there. I think he should be the one that breaks his back and whatever it takes to earn the living...because he's a man. (Durham man, #9). 

While some argued that headship involved responsibility for physically protecting family members in a dangerous society; some men did argue, specifically, that women need, literally, to be protected.

I  would hate to think that if a burglar would break into my house that I have to send my wife to see about it. That is my job. (Birmingham man, #9).

Providing for the material well-being of the family, was thus a core component of ideals of male headship.

Spiritual Responsibility

Headship as male responsibility involved not only economic provision and protection, but responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the family as well.

Well, the man has the responsibility-- everything goes through him. He's responsible and God is gonna hold him accountable for everything that has happened in that house--how people are spiritually--God is gonna hold him accountable for that.  (Birmingham man, # 14)

This particular dimension of male responsibility involved taking the initiative in "having daily devotions, going to church, joining in church activities (Durham woman, #20).2

Responsibility for Decision Making

(A card never played)

The third, and perhaps most frequently cited, component of men's headship involved the responsibility for making decisions. Most commonly, this was described as making a "final decision", being the "primary decision-maker" or as casting a "tie breaking vote" when a decision could not easily be reached.  Couched in the language of democratic "voting" behavior, Evangelical men's responsibility for decision making resembles more of a trump card than a voting ballot.  Describing either inertia or chaos as the alternatives, Evangelicals apparently opt for dictatorship when democracy fails. Yet, as respondent's described their actual decisions, this trump card was rarely played.  One young man, describing decision-making in his household, explained that

R: God's order is you have a final decision to make. 

Q: In your own family

R: My own family's fine, piece of cake.  Never had a problem.  Right now, she's working as the director of Christian education at the church and doing a fine job; she loves it and I don't tell her what to do.  Wouldn't work to try.   (Boston man, #24).

For most, like this man, the trump card of male headship is largely symbolic.  In some cases, like this, when there's mutual agreement, its not necessary to play it; and when it is necessary, the card isn't played because it would, presumably, be ignored.  Rather than risking a direct confrontation to his authority, this particular young man would rather not even try.  Other men decline the use of this trump card because it undermines ideals of "oneness" within the family.  As one older man explained

(Decision-making) should be mutual.  If the same Holy Spirit that's leading me is leading my wife, we're probably not gonna disagree, you know, we're gonna be led in the same direction.  I don't think (the issue of husband's having the final say) is going to come up very often.  I think it would be a rare thing.  If the husband and wife were close to each other... and close to the Lord, I don't think there's gonna' be a lot of disagreement.  If we had a big decision to make and my wife and I disagreed on it, I'd probably try to figure it out, why we disagreed and we would definitely need to sit down and talk about why (Durham man, # 8)

Here, a husband's responsibility for maintaining unity/ harmony in the household takes priority over simply casting a "deciding vote".  [reflects badly on his ability to discern]

The Returns to Women on Men's Responsibility

The benefits that accrue to Evangelical men through the practice of male headship are more easily apparent than the benefits that accrue to Evangelical women.  Yet, adherence to the ideal of male headship provides both emotional and material benefits to women as well.3

Love.  Love, as a dimension of headship, was frequently described as sacrificing for one's wife and family. Borrowing a phrase from the women's movement, some Evangelicals described love as empowering or "lifting up" one's wife (Birmingham man #14).  Moreover,  adopting the rhetoric of headship may enable Evangelical women to hold husbands to a higher standard of emotional intimacy and support; thus approximating, if not fulling, cultural ideals of companionship marriage.

I believe that ultimately the man should be the head of the household; that's not a dictatorship, we're talking about leadership. If men really took their role seriously, the Bible says  men should love their wives like Christ loved the Church. They leave off that part when they're talking about women.  ...  I think that's pretty cool to have someone who wants to lay their life down and really protect me and considers me to be his best friend (Boston woman, # 3)

On occasion describing men's responsibility to love their wives included the ideal of mutual submission. 

Some believe women should be submissive.  Well, in a sense, everybody has to be submissive.  We are submissive, my wife is submissive to me, but ... I have to be just as submissive to her.  I have to love her as Christ loved the church, willing to die for her, which is perhaps more difficult to do. You don't hear that much.  (Boston man, #10) 

Interestingly, even in describing love as mutual submission, the idea that what men do for family is difficult and involves sacrifice plays a prominent role.

[just like working class men sacrifice by working long days at difficult jobs in exchange for the services of their wived, Rubin, 1994].


Second, adopting the ideals of male headship provides Evangelical women some degree of security and stability.  The women in this study were not unaware of their economic vulnerability.  While deferring to male headship legitimized men's power in the family, many of these women saw it as a fair exchange.  To many, headship was largely symbolic, while the material security husband's provided was very real.

I see them as playing different roles but yet can be equal.  You know, I don't think there is a need for one to be more or less over the other. I just see where our roles would be different.  I like looking up to my husband for things.  You know, I like that.  It gives me a sense of security--I love that. ... I think basically women love to work underneath.  I do personally.  I like havin' a man in the leadership role--that's my idea.   (Birmingham woman, # 11).

Pragmatic Egalitarianism

For the most part, the dimensions of male headship described thus far reveal an Evangelical gender idealogy which is ostensibly quite hierarchical.  However, as some of the comments above suggest, the practice of gender in most Evangelical families is, by-and-large, much more egalitarian.  This can be seen, not only in discussions of joint decision making, but discussions of women's employment as well.

Women's employment. 

Most Evangelicals in this study viewed women's employment as necessary.  Though many argued that it was not ideal, especially when there might be young children in the household, women's employment was a largely taken-for-granted component of everyday life.  In years past, the argument goes, women worked for extra things, to help save money for a home or a vacation; now, women work out of necessity—for survival.  One older woman expressed this perspective through a retelling of her own employment history.

It's so difficult now for men to support their families in this day and age.  I know in my own family, I've had to work, even raising my children.  And I have four.  ... I worked for pay full-time.  And I started out when I was very young.  My father died when I was 15.  I started to work when I was 16 and I've been working ever since.  ...  Now, I think that women cannot afford not to work.  I think the country has gotten to a place now where women have to work.  They have to in order to survive.  It's not a matter of (buying) a home anymore. It's a matter of survival.  that's how I see things.  I mean, when I was young, growing up and having a family, it wasn't just a survival situation. It was, "do I want a good life or a good home for my family?"  I could have probably made it (without working).  It would have been very difficult.  I could not have given my children the things that I would have liked to have given them. That I may not have had. Now it's not a matter of, "do I want to?"; its a matter of "I have to in order to live." (Durham woman, # 24).

This older woman's comments reveal a sensitivity to broad economic changes that make women's employment is a necessity.  Yet they also reveal a lack of sensitivity to how her own life experience, working for survival, betrays the idealized image of an American past in which women could afford to stay home and take care of children.  Like many Evangelicals, this woman's sense of an ideal America is a version of the 1950s, middle class, suburban family. 

A number of respondents were explicit in recognizing the structural changes that have led to increases in women's employment.  At least one woman spoke of working in order to pay for health insurance (Boston woman, #5), while others argued that "with the economic structure the way it is, it's almost a necessity for two to work (Durham woman, #25)."

Women's employment is taken for granted as an economic necessity.  The experience of women's employment, however, may also be transformative; reshaping the negotiation of gender within evangelical families.  As one working class, Boston man explained:

I think that both of them should be able to have multiple roles, you know what I mean?  A lot of men think they should be out workin' and then come home and sit there and, "click!", and let the women do all the work when she's home.  And today the women can't, you know, they work all the time.  I kind of went back and forth with my wife as far as working... she'd work full time, then I'd work full time. At first, well, at first I'd come home and I'd be saying, "What have you done all day?" and I'd be screaming my brains out cuz I'd be exhausted from working hard all day.  Then I found out when I stayed home exactly what she did do all day!  So I gained some respect for the position.

Decision making

Finally, pragmatic egalitarianism can be seen in the practice of joint decision making.  As suggested above, joint decision making is generally not seen as being in conflict with the ideology of male headship. Women's participation in making decisions is a taken for granted as their participation in the paid labor force.

I like the kids to know that Doug is the head of the house, that he has the final say in our house. But as far as tasks, I work part-time, he works full-time. He does the dishes and the laundry when he has to, I pretty much prepare the meals, except when he does the grilling. He is primarily the spiritual head and the final decision maker, although we discuss just about everything. We usually come to the same conclusion. We think a lot alike. [(response to Paul) He very, very rarely has to say, "this is the final word...," cause)] we discuss it and usually he gives in a little and I give in a little and we defer to one another. I submit to him and he defers to me, so it seems to work for us. (Boston woman, #15)

Finally, just as women gain some benefit from supporting other dimensions of men's headship, there are benefits for women in supporting the ideology of male decision making. Yet here, too, women may be supporting symbolic male leadership in exchange for practical reciprocity.   One middle-aged Birmingham described decision making in her household this way

We don't argue, because we reason together and if one person is not in agreement with something, that doesn't mean the other one has to hush up about it.  We listen to one another's thoughts.  Then I ask him to make the final decisions about things.  But you know what happens? Very often he will say, you now, "I really think you need to decide about that." And it becomes 50:50, and not because I stand my ground and say, "I want my 50 percent!".  Nor does, he, but because the reciprocity is appropriate and it is necessary and I think that is the thing people miss--that it can be reciprocal and you don't have to really fight about it.  (Birmingham, woman. # 10)

This woman's gender strategy was plainly apparent in her offering him the token of decision making in confidence that the decision would, often enough, be "returned to her."


Rather than espousing a traditional gender hierarchy, the majority of contemporary evangelicals hold to symbolic traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism.  Consistent with liberal feminist ideology and the pragmatic need for two incomes, the majority of Evangelicals agree that women can, in fact, usually need to be employed; while through everyday examples illustrate the importance of democratic decision-making in family life.  However, the majority also argue that a husband should be the head of the household and are supportive of recent men's movements (such as Promise Keepers) intended to reinforce men's headship and encourage men's taking responsibility for the family.

Why ideological traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism?

Clearly, one of the consequences of the women's movement of the 1970s is that the ideological ground has shifted for Evangelicals in the 1990s.  While, for the most part, arguing that feminism has been a significant cause of cause of family decline,  Evangelicals nonetheless borrow from the underlying egalitarian principles of feminism in their rhetoric of equal opportunities for women and examples of joint decision making at home. More than one respondent stated that "I'm not a Feminist, but..." and then went on to describe some principle of equality of either equal opportunity or equal pay for equal work (Durham woman, #25).   For example

I don't believe in women's rights.  I believe a man should hold a door for a woman.  I believe a man should push a chair in for a woman.  But also believe a woman could make a better iron worker than a man, because she's got a steadier hand or because she's got better balance, then so be it.  Everyone is created equal in that sense. Their brain capacity and their ability to do different things.  

Q: How about mothers of young children working?

R: So long as the children don't lose out because of it.  If the father is willing to be a Mr. Mom, or if a mother-in-law or the mother's mother is willing to help out, such as in my case, then I think its fine.  (Boston man, #1)

Or as a more overtly anti-feminist man put it:

I think the family structure in this nation has dwindled; and I think it's basically, nothing against women, but I think it was basically because of the women's movement in the 60s when Gloria Steinum got up and said ... "you can have it all."  That's a crock; basically, you can't.  If you want to have a job and you want to have kids, there's got to be some kind of compromise there.  I know of people who are working just to pay daycare and that doesn't make sense to me.  ... (Boston man, #18).

Yet this same man finished his comments by saying that

I'm not saying that women can't go out and have a job.  Like right now, my wife is working and I'm here doing an interview...  Right now, my wife is supporting our family.  ....(but) biblically, it's the man that's supposed to be taking care of the family, so I think that's right. (Boston man, # 18)

Moreover, economic and social transformations of the past three decades, have had an additional modifying effect on what is ostensibly a hierarchical ideology. Certainly, the inflation of the 1970s left a large number of families dependent on a second wage to maintain a middle class life style.4  More recently, economic restructuring has phased out not only traditionally male jobs in manufacturing, but narrowed opportunities in white collar occupations as well.  Complementing these changes, Evangelical's appear to have adapted their rhetoric of "headship" to focus less on economic provision and more abstract ideas of responsibility and leadership.

To be sure, a small minority of Evangelicals argue that women should not be employed outside the home, especially since employment may lead women to feel superior and try and gain power in the family (see pubpri.qts).  On the other side of the ideological spectrum, however, a similarly small minority of Evangelicals argued for full equality between women and men: that "in Christ, there is neither male nor female (Gal 3: 28, NIV), that women and men share joint responsibility for the economic, social and spiritual well being of the family. 

In Christ we are all one. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, male or female. You go back to the Old Testament, sure it was a patriarchal society.  The Rabbi's wouldn't teach women, some wouldn't speak to women. What did Jesus do when He came? He spoke to women, he associated with them, there were women in his company. That makes all the difference in the world. And I believe that Christ removed that barrier where there is no difference.  Everybody has to be submissive.  We are submissive, my wife is submissive to me, but ... I have to be just as submissive to her.  (Boston man, #10)

Both of these latter positions, traditional patriarchy and complete egalitarianism, are ideological minority positions among contemporary Evangelicals.  Nevertheless, recognizing these positions is important if we are to grasp the diversity among contemporary evangelicals.  Clearly, this is not the monolithic "religious right" represented in popular media, nor the more ideologically traditional views of evangelical activists and spokespersons.  Most Evangelicals in this sample were pragmatically egalitarian.  Women's employment is a fact of life; it is a given.  Such an economic reality may not always be seen as preferable (especially when pre-school age children are in the household), nevertheless, most women are employed and any abuses were described in the abstract, and not in one's own home.

The symbolic traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism of Evangelical gender ideology also benefits women.  It allows women to exchange token support for symbolic headship for emotional intimacy and greater economic security.  Given women's support for the rhetoric of headship, this exchange appears to be a bargain to them.

Family Values

Overall, the symbolic traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism of contemporary Evangelicals tells us much about "family values".  Symbolic traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism reveals the depth to which traditional values have been internalized (Rubin, 1994); values not only in terms of traditional gender roles, but values regarding the idealized American dream of providing a better life for one's family, a life style that is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and  maintain.  In spite of economic changes, perhaps because of economic changes, both women and men give symbolic support to the idea of male headship.  This support both helps to compensate for men's sense of loss at no longer being able to live up to the "breadwinner" ideal; as well as women's sense of identity as "good wives and mothers" (Rubin, 1994).  Symbolic traditionalism benefits both men and women: it is a way of preserving men's pride (Oregon man, # 22) and effectively obligates men to greater participation in the emotional, nurturing work that are central to our ideals of companionship marriage, as well as solidifying men's responsibility for the economic well-being of the household.  The latter, of course, reveals women's continued economic dependence on men. In this sense, symbolic traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism can be seen as a bargain with patriarchy— a "last gasp" patriarchy, to be sure, one that is confined to the inner corners and closets of the family, but one which continues to figure prominently in the rhetoric of Evangelical family values.


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Becker, Gary. 1981. A Treatise on the Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 

Bergmann, Barbara. 1986. The Economic Emergence of Women.NY: Basic Books. 

Bernard, Jessie. 1981. The good-provider role: Its rise and fall.American Psychologist, 36: 1-12. 

Brown, Claire.  1982. Home production for use in a market economy. Pp. 151-67 in Thorne, Barrie and Marilyn Yalom (eds.), Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions.NY: Longman. 

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Women. 1.  For the white Protestants, we created a liberal and conservative category for the following denominational traditions: Baptist, Methodist/Pietist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian/Reformed.  In our judgment, the predominantly conservative traditions of Holiness, Pentecostal, and Independent/Non-denominational did not warrant a separate comparative liberal cell.  The very small number of conservative Episcopalians were included in the conservative Presbyterian/Reformed group.  For the black churches, we viewed Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal as sufficiently internally homogeneous in theological orientation to warrant one category for each tradition.

2.  Interestingly, when men do not take on this role, perhaps because they are not Evangelicals themselves, women step into the position. (both below are fundies) 

Until recently my husband wasn't a Christian, then I felt strongly that God wanted me to have a responsibility in affecting our daughter and her spiritual growth. So, in doing that, and in coming to church and bringing my daughter to church, it affected my husband, and he became a Christian.  ...  I think he tested it out a lot to see if I was committed, whether it really changed me or whatever.  So I think, personally, that if the husband has abandoned that role as spiritual leader, then the wife can function in that capacity, but still it makes it much more difficult, because you're still in a subordinate role...he's still head of the household.  He's still responsible.  

Similarly, some Evangelicals argued that women's employment was appropriate only when temporarily necessary to pull a family out of debt or when husbands were unable to work.

You know, I understand women that work, (but) I teach that where there's a debt, where the woman has to work, that's understandable. If there's not, and there's no need for her to work, she needs to be a keeper of the house and needs to do an excellent job in raising her children in the fear and admonition of God because that's her principle job and that's a full-time job, and when a lady takes on more than that and ... splits those duties, what happens is that she stresses herself and she's carrying more of the load than she should be carrying. If you have a debt load that won't allow (the wife to stay home), then you need to make a financial plan to eliminate the debt load to the point that your husband can work and you can take care of your business. ... They'll find that their life relationships at home would work much better when the stress is taken off because the weaker vessel needs not to be stressed over what she could bear; and that's the case with most ladies today.  That's why they're takin' drugs to sleep and drugs to wake them up and sedatives because their kids are on their nerves and everything else, because they're doin' too much.  ... That's the ideal environment, but I know that we have to live in the real world and so we do the best we can in those situations. But we plan for the optimal and whenever we get close to there, we're happy.

3.  Adopting the ideal of male headship also provided women with an avenue to obtain their
husband's respect.  The idea of respect for husbands also figured prominently in respondent's discussion of headship.  To some degree, respect also seemed to defuse the notion that headship involves having the final say in decision making. 

He should be respected as the head of the family, but it doesn't mean that he should make the final decisions. Where they can't reach a decision, the husband should have the final say. (But)...there's got to be mutual respect. (Durham woman, #7).

4.  Although some exaggerate women's wages as going for luxury items, three cars, a boat or a vacation home (ref), the majority argued that women's employment is now largely a necessity; if not always for putting food on the table, at least for maintaining a middle class life-style.  




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