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Sarah Lindsay

Turkey Sandwiches and Gender Essentialism

A Woman Baking Bread
Jean-François Millet, A Woman Baking Bread, 1854 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Have you ever been in a restaurant that uses cutesy or thematic names for their restrooms, and hesitated a moment before choosing the (fingers crossed) correct one?

Yeah, it’s annoying. And often just a bit sexist.

Apparently, though, these cutesy restroom names are yet more evidence of the essential differences God created between men and women. Brett McCracken asserted in a July essay on The Gospel Coalition website that we instinctively know who goes in the “Bread” room versus the “Meat” room, confirming deep-rooted differences between the genders.

Yes, that’s right: McCracken thinks we instinctively associate women with bread and men with meat because … I guess because women like carbs and men like protein? Or women bake and men hunt? Because something in the essence of women whispers “bread,” while “meat” belongs to the inborn nature of men?

McCracken’s whole article is problematic, but instead of addressing it specifically I want to talk about gender essentialism, since McCracken is asserting that the essence of men and women differs — and not merely their biology or their social conditioning.

In its simplest form, gender essentialism is the belief that women and men differ not just in their outward biology but also in their inner beings, their essential natures. Many people affirm some form of gender essentialism, not just complementarians; even some feminists are gender essentialists. The debate about how our biology (which everyone agrees is different) shapes or intersects with our nature is long and complex.

People who hold to gender essentialism may believe that women are more peaceful and men more violent; women more emotional and men more rational; women more verbal and men more computational. While most gender essentialists are more than willing to admit individual variation, they see men and women on the whole as having distinct, inborn qualities that go beyond biology.

I’m not a gender essentialist because I am not convinced that, absent social conditioning, men and women have different natures. But we can’t fully test these theories, and it’s certainly possible to be a gender essentialist without denigrating women (or men).

McCracken’s article seems to fall into this category of not particularly thoughtful but also not particularly damaging gender essentialism. I’m fairly confident that associating women with bread and men with meat is cultural rather than essential, drawing on stereotypes about the foods men love and women love but shouldn’t eat. But his point is that women and men, in their differences, complement one another and together form something greater, something better, than either alone.

And I agree. When God created Adam, God said it was not good for him to be alone, and so God created Eve: another human also created in the image of God, an equal and a co-laborer in the work of the Garden. Dissension between the genders is one of the oldest disruptions in human relationships caused by sin; as God’s people living in the already-but-not-yet kingdom, women and men should strive to work in harmony with each other.

The problem with the gender essentialism of complementarianism, though, is that it doesn’t stop with two binaries balancing and enhancing one another.1

Instead, the qualities often assigned to women by complementarians denigrate them and place them in an eternally subordinate position. Women are more easily deceived. Women are more submissive. Women are less capable of logic. Women are less skilled at leading. Women are nurturers, bound to home and family, while men are providers, able to move freely in the public sphere.

In short, in this view women’s natures make them followers and men’s natures make them leaders: a state far removed from two equals complementing each other.

I’m all for combinations in which the separate parts form a whole greater than any single part; I still dream about the most perfect turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich I’ve ever had. Vive la différence and all that. But when “different” places one gender above the other, we’ve stopped working towards a greater whole. We’ve instead made one part the whole, allowing the other part in only when it enhances the first.

If we’re going to rhapsodize about the beauty of complementary combinations in God’s creation, we have to create space for the complex dance as different flavors, different people, weave together an amazing new reality. As God’s people we are better together, creating harmony rather than dissonance out of our differences — whatever the origin of those differences. This is only possible when we value all the differences equally, not subordinating one and elevating another. And that can only happen when we wholeheartedly affirm that, in their essence, women and men alike reflect the image of their creator.

  1. The idea of two binaries is also problematic, but beyond the scope of this blog post.