I am the father of twin teenage girls, Katie and Emma, who are passionate about women’s issues and rights. For as long as I can remember, my girls have actively questioned societal norms related to women. It started with the typical questions.
“Daddy, why does the lady always take the husband’s last name?”
“Daddy, why can’t a woman be president?”
But quickly moved on to more theological questions. At this point, unable to provide solid answers, I became concerned.
“Daddy, why should I believe in a God that punishes women because of Eve’s sin in the garden?”
“Daddy, can I follow a God that would tell women to be silent in church?”
“Daddy, why is everything in Scripture focused on men?”
These are real questions—searching questions—that demand substantial and solid answers. As a dad and as a head of a Christian school, I began to research the answers. This past year, I read Jesus and John Wayne, by Calvin University professor Kristen Kobes Du Mez. In doing so, I learned that Dr. Du Mez wrote another book, A New Gospel for Women, a biography detailing the life and work of Katharine Bushnell. So I ordered the book for my girls and me to read together. It was this work that began to provide answers to Kate’s and Emma’s questions, and helped me to affirm my girls’ passions but remain faithful to the Scriptures I firmly believe are the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
The Problem (by Emma)
I wish I had read A New Gospel for Women a year ago, because questions of the role of women in the Bible came up multiple times last year in my freshman Biblical Narrative I class. One day in particular sticks out to me.
A girl in class asked our teacher what Genesis 3:16 (ESV) meant when it said, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” It was a question that was most likely on every girl’s mind in the moment. Was it saying God purposely devalued and placed women below men as punishment for one woman’s sin? Does that seem like something a loving and merciful God would do? With bated breath, we all waited to see how our teacher would reply. I was hoping she would have some insight that clarified the verse, because if not, I feared it might turn some girls away from seeking out what it means to live as a follower of Christ.
I do not remember my teacher’s exact words, but I recall feeling dissatisfied with her answer. It seemed to dance around actually giving a response, which frustrated me. To make matters worse, afterwards a boy in our class cheered, because he was excited that as a boy, he “ruled over” girls. I was exasperated and furious at that moment. Not only were girls left feeling lesser and discouraged by the Bible, of all things, but boys were celebrating a false sense of dominance.
Katharine Bushnell’s fresh interpretations of certain verses, such as Genesis 3:16, provided me with comfort. I wish the rest of the girls in my Bible class could have heard Bushnell’s perspective, for it seemed to be more in line with God’s loving character. God loves everyone, men and women, equally. The Bible should be a haven where both boys and girls can find peace amidst the world’s chaos.
A Potential Answer (by Katie)
Katharine Bushnell defied common Victorian-era stereotypes which labeled women as helpless, submissive, and voiceless. I admire Bushnell because of how she put her esteemed reputation on the line to follow her passion. She did not accept sub-par answers from others but instead sought truth for herself by studying the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. I have always struggled with the way females are portrayed in the Bible. I wondered why God would allow verses such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, Ephesians 5:21-24, 1 Corinthians 14:31-40, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. These verses have been used to label women as subordinate to men, contrary to what I believe is God’s character.
After reading Katharine Bushnell’s modern translations of the Bible, I was completely in awe of her conclusions. Her take on these verses that have long confused me was both inspiring and eye opening. I loved how Bushnell stressed that men and women were equals, even as she redefined a women’s role according to the Bible. I identified with her belief that men were not the protectors of women, but instead should be supporters of women. A Christian view of feminism is not women attempting to steal men’s power, but is women and men trying to create a world where everyone has equal power, equal opportunity, and an equal voice.
I am inspired by Bushnell’s ability to defy simple categorization that is so common in society. Women’s rights can be at the heart of the Gospel and this is both “liberal and conservative, orthodox and radical, feminist and Christian” (Du Mez, 187). This inspired me to offer fresh ideas in this ongoing debate and learn more about how Bushnell said women would lead men out of egotism and into the freedom of all being God’s children.
Taking Action (by Emma and Katie)
Inspired by Katharine Bushnell and her work, we wanted to be activists for change, so we began by starting a club called HERstory at our school. The club’s goals are to support, educate, serve, and inspire girls in our community. Our ultimate success is if these girls take their knowledge and passion to empower others. It takes one person to spark an interest in others and make change, much like Bushnell for us. Every week, we focus on a woman of the day and explain why she inspires us. We have open discussions on topics ranging from gender stereotypes to women in career fields and the gender pay gap.
Recently, we talked about common stereotypes that are harmful and false about women. We asked our club, “How do these stereotypes affect women in the career field?” People said that women are undervalued, called derogatory names for using their voices, scrutinized, and discouraged from entering certain professions. We then asked our members, “What can we do about it?” This is the golden question. It is not enough to idly stand by and do nothing. This is in fact, an insult to God. God created males and females in His divine image. Males and females have equal value. Bushnell argues that this is God’s will, and even goes as far as to say that it is a sin to be quiet and allow the subjugation of women to prevail. It is our job as image bearers of God to work and strive for equality. Women and men both have voices and a role; everyone is empowered by God to better the world with Christian ideals.
Bushnell has inspired us to seek answers and follow our passions to further God’s will in this world. This inspires us to pursue business administration and to be powerful female voices in leadership. We dream about creating a Christian company centered around female empowerment, but no matter what career we eventually choose, we know it will involve bettering and equalizing the lives of women, while staying true to our Christian beliefs. Thanks to Bushnell, we now understand that this is possible.
Application in Schools (by Mitchell)
Our world is full of complex questions. Our students are asking really significant questions. Simple—dare I say, trite—answers will not suffice. Creating educational environments where students can explore questions, search for answers, and find truth is essential so that the next generation will be inspired to bring healing and hope.
As a head of school, I need to ask, do we have the courage to allow our young people to explore? Are we willing to take on the hard questions? My daughters’ insatiable quest for answers led us to some really wonderful places. In particular, a 19th-century champion for women’s rights opened doors for two girls in the 21st century to understand and pursue their God-honoring dreams.
Du Mez, Kristen Kobes. (2015). A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism. Oxford Univ. Press.