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The Cult of the Good Christian Woman

The community that raised me is pushing an ideal for women that is repressive and damaging

Illustration: Fei Fei

WWho is the “Good Christian Woman”? She is a wife who values having a family over a career or education. She oversees domestic responsibilities, she is obedient to her husband and God’s will, and she protects her children from secular influence. She defends the rights of the unborn and asserts that men are leaders. In church, she is known as a godly woman, the idealistic vision young girls are encouraged to become.

A cult is defined as a religious devotion toward a specific figure. Today, many women in the conservative Christian community have a cult-like devotion for the Good Christian Woman. In the name of this godly ideal they condemn abortion, gender equality, even education and careers. The Good Christian Woman ideal is not only repressive, it is the epicenter of harmful expectations for women perpetuated within the conservative Christian community.

A vivid example of this toxic behavior is evident in the backlash against the recent abortion law in the state of New York, which allows for abortions past 24 weeks when medically necessary. The conservative Christian community is making their anger about this law widely known, spreading misinformation and sparking emotional outrage over legislation that was meant to protect the health of women who require medical intervention later during pregnancy. Worse, a new trend on Twitter uses the hashtag #UndocumentedInfants to compare the uterus to the border, as if women’s bodies are nothing more than a political battleground. The language used has been beyond hurtful and repressive, and much of it said for the Christian cause.

Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a gynecologist and women’s health advocate, discussed several reasons for late abortions in a tweet thread that went semi-viral:

I am deeply familiar with these ignorant and misinformed beliefs because I was raised in a conservative Christian community. When my Midwestern family moved to San Diego, my mother home-schooled her five children to protect us from secular influence. Lessons on the Big Bang and evolution were among those censored from my science curriculum, and when #ExposeChristianSchools recently trended on Twitter, I stepped up to share my familiarity with Christian home schooling. For many of my followers, it was shocking that a science communicator and feminist such as myself came from this background.

But for me, escaping that community — and what I believe to be a “cult” centered on the Good Christian Woman — has consumed most of my life. It’s the reason I moved out at 18, and am now living hundreds of miles away from the town where I grew up. It’s the reason I am pursuing a career communicating science and advocating for women, all while putting myself through school because my parents don’t support that I’m studying for a degree in biology.

I was drawn further toward science and feminism. Those are bad words in the conservative Christian community.

Back in my teen years, I was fortunate that my parents decided to enroll me in a public charter school while my siblings went through Christian schools. There, free from restrictions, I quickly realized I was missing a chunk of education that my peers had been taught. In both my classes and social life, I felt behind and backward. When my pro-life, anti-feminist, and religious beliefs were challenged, I had nothing with which to defend the lessons my parents had taught me. Then, I outraged my parents by dating an atheist, and by the time our brief relationship ended I was no longer a believer. I began to rebel against everything the Good Christian Woman represented — and as a result, I was drawn further toward science and feminism. Those are bad words in the conservative Christian community.

To complicate matters further, as my bisexuality became more evident toward the end of high school, I tried to keep it from my parents. Still, they confiscated my books that contained suggestive female relationships; they lectured me on homosexuality; they banned sleepovers and refused to let me be alone with girls, as if this might somehow fix me. (This is just another example of intolerance toward non-heterosexuality in the conservative community, though many progressive Christians are much more tolerant.) I wish I would have had the vocabulary back then to better defend myself, but I was locked in a cycle of shame I could not escape until I moved away.

Shame is the weapon of choice for the cult of the Good Christian Woman. In fact, the culture of shame is so deeply ingrained in the conservative Christian community that the young women who celebrate the Good Christian Woman are likely suffering the most. Recently a very good friend of mine, a young woman I love like a sister, revealed on Facebook that she has been struggling with singleness. Raised by a community which enforces that women’s value comes from wifeliness, motherhood, and marriage, she has needed help understanding that being single is not a punishment from God or a failure on her part. She’s only in her early twenties.

There’s a generation striving to uphold the ideal of the Good Christian Woman, and then despairing when they inevitably fail to achieve it.

I reached out to her and learned that there is a community of eligible young women — smart, wonderful women like herself — who are despairing over being single. Programs and books have had to be created to help these young women find hope while they wait for a husband. It’s a problem the Christian community created, and now they’re forced to design a solution for it. This is deeply troubling to me not only as a feminist, but because these are women I grew up with. These are my sisters. There’s a generation striving to uphold the ideal of the Good Christian Woman, and then despairing when they inevitably fail to achieve it.

Perpetuating this repressive lifestyle are people like Lori Alexander, blogger at the Transformed Wife, whose tweet about why women must choose between career and family recently gained quite a bit of attention. Her tweet outraged the many women working hard to balance their careers while raising children. But I’m familiar with her argument, as well as her blog, which features popular posts such as: “She Doesn’t Want to Go to College,” “Women in the Workforce Have Hurt Men’s Ability to Provide for Their Families,” “College Keeps Women From Bearing Children,” and “Should Husbands Ever Discipline Their Wives?”

This may seem straight out of Little House on the Prairie, but for women in the conservative Christian community, upholding these Biblical standards brings praise and admiration from others. It’s a cult of domesticity, the model housewife that companies like Coca-Cola sold Americans in the ’50s. Alexander doesn’t shock me because she’s simply expressing the same mentality that the women who raised my generation pushed on us. Women who pursue the ideals of Good Christian Woman are validated by the community that enforces those values — and punishes those who reject them.

An example of this validation can be seen in Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Evans was inspired to follow the commands for women outlined in the Bible, just as they were originally intended, when she felt as though her evangelical community needed to return to true Biblical womanhood. Though she intended to debunk the idea of Old Testament values for women to follow, her book comes across as defensive of the Good Christian Woman.

While it’s easy to laugh at the idea of living an entire year by the antique rules described in the Bible, I was appalled by the way Evans seemed to play with the idea of female oppression. She appears to think calling her husband “Master” is a fun and interesting experience for her book, and that sleeping in a tent during her period was somehow a liberating, religious experience. She doesn’t seem to understand that some women do submit to husbands as their masters, often suffering abuse and rape in the process. She doesn’t seem to know that in some places, women die after being banished to menstruation huts. Of course, Evans does not have to worry about any of that. She did this “challenge” because it was just another fun, trendy experience for a conservative Christian woman.

Throughout my life and my time in the church, I have witnessed firsthand how these beliefs, masked by the ideals of the Good Christian Woman, are much more sinister than they appear. It’s both men and women who perpetuate these repressive beliefs, and both men and women who are directly suffering — but I argue women more so. Christianity is supposed to be a source of hope and strength, the center of a supportive community. Christians are supposed to be sharing a message of love and forgiveness. Instead, the conservative Christian community has become infected by toxicity, distrust, and shame. They distrust science and medicine, spread falsehoods about gender equality, and are becoming more radically repressive by attacking those who challenge their beliefs and asserting that their religion is law.

It’s time to call out the Good Christian Woman for what it is: an idealistic lie designed to perpetuate repressive beliefs.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

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