The Feminine Mystique
Updated: Feb 2
This past week I finally closed out my reading of A History of Christian Conversion, a book I have been working on for the past few months. In addition to furthering my own exploration of the concept of conversion, it will also form the basis of an academic book review I will be working on in the next little while.
The concluding chapter is, not surprisingly, full of interesting ideas and summative thoughts. One of these is the relatively commonplace observation about gender. As author David Kling writes:
"...for a variety of reasons discussed throughout this book, more women than men convert to Christianity. Early Christianity attracted more women than men....Early Methodism in England and Pentecostalism on the global stage gathered a majority of female converts. Since the nineteenth century, Protestantism in China has attracted an overwhelming number of women (by some estimates, 70 percent). The Maasai Catholic Church became a church of women, and in the modern industrialized West females made up the preponderance of converts."
Assuming that Kling is correct in this, the question remains: why? Why is it that women are more likely to convert than men? Is it just than women are coded to be more religious? Are men inoculated against faith in one way or another? Is faith a gendered thing, and if so what might this mean in our contemporary age? Such questions are significant for the field of sociology, religious history, and contemporary religious leadership.
As I consider the question of conversion and gender, I suppose I begin by rejecting the idea that women as women are more innately religious than men. That conclusion is, of course, one of the easiest and quickest to draw from a quick survey of the surface data. I think it is too simple, though, and ignores the fact that all human beings must confront the eternality of the beyond. So too I do not think the Scriptures indicate that women are clearly more likely to be "religious" than men.
Some have pointed to the reality of death as a motivating factor. Throughout much of human history, to be a women was to have the potential for constant pregnancy during one's adult years. With the reality of miscarriages, infant mortality, and complications during childbirth that could lead to a mother's death, spiritual questions were therefore never far from the minds of women. Loss was a fact of life for mothers...and with every time they prepared to deliver came the realization that the life lost might be their own.
I have sympathy with this hypothesis, but at the same time would note that it is not only women of childbearing age who throughout human history have faced death head on. Fathers, too, though perhaps less directly connected to daily childrearing, would also experience the loss of children. More notably, every human being--male and female--was subject to the vagaries of war, disease, and famine. And in most human societies, it was the men who faced their own kind of death--through war--as a constant danger and reality. Might not they too have been predisposed to consider the eternal as much as the woman in labor?
Others might look to the childrearing expectations historically foisted upon women as that which encouraged a turn toward matters of faith. Training up a child in traditional cultures means passing on the legacy of the past, and religion in many cases is a part of this. As such, women were forced to think more of these realities than men. I think this is an interesting perspective with some merit. If a society expects women to nurture and tend matters of the soul, then it stands to reason they would consider matters of the soul.
I am certain that a lot of ink has been spilled on this subject, and I do not propose to answer all the complexities involved in a simple blog post. I do, though, think it a worthwhile conversation. And I do have another idea to add to the mix. It is one that comes, I suppose, after spending time reading through the entirety of this history of conversion.
It has to do with power.
To my knowledge, most human societies throughout history have embraced some form of patriarchy. Men, in other words, have been in charge. They have been the ones with the power and in control of the levers of government, finance, war, and the family. Male dominance, whether benevolent or oppressive, has been the status quo for a wide cross-section of human history.
If Kling is correct that "people convert because they sense that Christianity not only meets their basic human needs but also does so in a more convincing matter than existing alternatives," then might we not say that women caught in the midst of the patriarchy have seen in Christianity a freedom and answer to powerlessness or worthlessness that their culture otherwise denied them? Could it be that more women have converted to Christianity or to an intensification of their Christian faith in part because it offered them something the world could not give?
The Christian faith offers a new "year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4) to those who are oppressed or captive, and speaks life and mercy to the fatherless and the widow--the powerless--in way that meets human need. As women are those who historically have been denied such agency and power, it makes sense that they would be more likely to turn to God for aid in the face of such struggles.
Admittedly, this is just one conjecture. But if there is truth to it, the question remains regarding what this means in our contemporary age, at least in the West. For while "the patriarchy" is certainly still alive and well in our culture, it is waning. Power is, little by little, less concentrated according to gender. That is a good thing. It also means that what may have been a significant factor in Christian conversion, at least in this matrix, could be changing.
This new reality does not mean that woman will no longer convert, of course. Men did too, all these years, even if in lesser numbers. There is more to it all than that.
And lest we forget: problematic power differentials are still all around in our fraught world--even if differently framed than in the past. The same impulses that led past generations to reach out for help continue, and the same God is there. Not only that, but the many other reasons of life and soul that people have converted persist as well. Eternity is right around the corner--a fact that none of us have the ability the change. Related questions persist regardless of gender, race, social status, or the relative power in our possession.