Friday, February 23, 2018

The weaker sex

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Pet 3:7).

Peter's comparison has become a controversial statement. Some Christians are embarrassed by it. Even Tom Schreiner, although he's a complementation, is very defensive about this verse in his commentary, and restricts the comparison to physical strength. 

So in what respect does Peter think women are the weaker sex? We can't say for sure because he doesn't spell out what he means. It's possible that he just means men in general are physically stronger than women.

Karen Jobes agrees with that up to a point, but adds that "the female is also weaker in the sense of social entitlement and empowerment" (209). And in the ancient world, that was often be the case. However, I think that's an overstatement, or misleading. The ancient world was hierarchical. Would an upper class women be inferior in "social entitlement and empowerment" to a lower class man? 

It's quite possible that Peter didn't explain what he meant because he figured that ought to be obvious to his readers. He may take for granted that his audience recognized stereotypical physical and psychological differences between men and women. For instance, consider this comparison by a female philosopher who specializes in gender and feminism:

A lot of typical boy behavior, such as rough-and-tumble play, risk taking and fascination with gadgets rather than dolls, appears to have a basis in biology. Researchers have found, for example, that female monkeys play with dolls much more than their brothers, who prefer toy cars and trucks. Are male monkeys captive to a “guy code”? A recent study on sex differences by researchers from the University of Turin, in Italy, and the University of Manchester, in England, confirms what most of us see with our eyes: with some exceptions, women tend to be more sensitive, esthetic, sentimental, intuitive and tender-minded, while men tend to be more utilitarian, objective, unsentimental and tough-minded…Most boys evince healthy masculinity. They may enjoy mayhem in games and sports, but in life they like to build, not destroy. Their instinct is not to exploit vulnerable people but to protect and defend them... Male stoicism may be adaptive and protective...Engage his male instinct for problem solving...The energy, competitiveness and corporal daring of normal males are responsible for much good in the world. No one denies that boys’ aggressive and risk-taking tendencies must be socialized and channeled toward constructive ends. 

So Peter may mean that guys are stronger in that respect. Those are not strengths or weaknesses in an absolute sense. A gender trait that's advantageous in one social setting may be disadvantageous in a different social setting. It's not uncommon for someone's point of strength to be a point of weakness, depending on the context. Patton was a brilliant general, but he lacked social intelligence. 

This crops up in complementarian/egalitarian debates about women in leadership roles, or the coed military, and so forth. As a rule, women are better at some things than men while men are better at some things than women. There are, for instance, lots of women in the medical profession. That's a natural niche for women. It plays to their natural empathy. However, some medical professions, like surgery, appeal to men with classically masculine character traits–or so I've read. 


  1. "Would an upper class women be inferior in "social entitlement and empowerment" to a lower class man?"

    In terms of the ancient Greek and Roman laws governing marriage and inheritance, that seems to be the case (although I welcome correction on the matter). If Peter has in mind social weakness, that would make sense of his reference to "heirs," since women had very restricted rights and expectations in this area, and the ancient world was obsessed with the honor conferred by heirs and the continuation of the family name.

    1. My comment didn't have reference to the power dynamic within ancient marriage, but to social superiors and social inferiors in the general culture.

    2. I framed my comment around households because, as I understand it, women were either under the complete authority of a father or a husband. A person's social standing was tied to the honor of households, and given marriage laws, a man's was always either superior to or, at worst, equal to a woman's. In all the aspects that were valued at the time--voting, writing, producing honorable (male) heirs, or politics generally--women had no significant social standing. Even Augustus exiled his daughter for refusing to behave like a plebeian.

  2. "There are, for instance, lots of women in the medical profession. That's a natural niche for women. It plays to their natural empathy. However, some medical professions, like surgery, appeal to men with classically masculine character traits–or so I've read."

    If we look a bit more closely, family medicine is about 60% women, pediatrics is about 75% women, and obstetrics/gynecology is about 85% women (and most the men in the field tend toward obstetrics, which is the more hands-on and surgical side of obstetrics/gynecology such as doing c-sections). I believe specialties like dermatology and psychiatry are likewise majority female.

    By contrast, general surgery is about 60% men, emergency medicine and anesthesiology about 65% men, and radiology about 75% men. I'm sure surgical subspecialties (e.g. orthopedic surgery, urology, ENT surgery, plastic surgery) and medical specialties which involve significant procedural components (e.g. cardiology, gastroenterology) are likewise majority male.

    Granted, there's some self-selection involved primarily based on grades and scores, but all things considered it is still striking men and women gravitate toward certain specialties more than others. To simplify, women prefer specialties where there's more of a longitudinal relational aspect, while men prefer specialties where the focus is more on fixing and problem-solving.

  3. As a side note, Christina Hoff Sommers' video the "War on Boys" is likewise worth watching.

  4. There may be another possibility. It could be a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that people tend to think they are better than other people, whether they actually are or not. In that event, it's a plea for the husband to use his self-perceived strengths for the benefit of his wife who he perceives to be weaker in those areas.

    No I don't think that's necessarily what Peter intended here. However, I do think that Paul uses this kind of argument in a few places. For example, the "meat offered to idols" admonishment where the stronger brother is not to harm the conscience of the weaker brother. Now, we can make a case that Christian liberty is a place of stronger faith, but it's not necessarily the case that people who understand their freedom to pursue matters of Christian liberty have a stronger faith en toto than people who struggle in a particular area of sin that requires them to avoid Christian liberty in that area. So I think Paul's admonition plays to the superiority complex of the Christian with apparently stronger faith in a certain area. If they truly had a stronger faith, they woukldn't need to be told not to use their liberty to bludgeon their brother in Christ.