Gender and Theology series: Serene Jones and Feminist Theology

Sargent, Street in Venice

Table of contents for the series:

1. Introduction

2. Serene Jones and Feminist Theory

3. Karl Barth on Man and Woman

4. Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

5. Implications for Women’s Ordained Ministry (Charlotte von Kirschbaum)


Serene Jones, currently the president of Union Theological Seminary, will be our guide for understanding the categories at play in the feminist critique of gender norms. But first, here is a quick note about the term, “norms.” It is a much-debated term and can bear either a descriptive meaning or a prescriptive meaning, and often both at once. As descriptive, it can be used to define merely what is the case in most circumstances; as prescriptive, it is used to define what ought to be the case. For feminist critics of gender norms, the target is prescriptive norms, especially as they are manifest at the descriptive level and either enslave (limit) or marginalize those who do not benefit from the norms. Through the eyes of feminist historiography, it is the male who has benefited, the female who is limited, and the queer who are marginalized.

This concern is at the heart of the feminist critique of “gender essentialism.” Essentialism believes that there is an “essence” of what it means to be male and what it means to be female, and these essences are distinct and cannot be interchanged. As an “essence,” each gender is a part of nature which we discover and is, thereby, irreducible to anything other than itself. As irreducible, it cannot be said that social, cultural, political, or economic forces are the creators of these essences; rather, they exist prior to any such social forces. As Jones explains, “Essentialist views of women historically appeal to a ‘natural state of affairs’ as the basis for claims about universal features. These features are believed to be inherent in all women, meaning that they are not produced by cultural training, learned conventions, or social expectations but are natural.”[1]

This understanding of a “natural state of affairs” involves what feminists call the “sex-gender scheme,” wherein the gender of a person is determined by his or her sex. Gender is defined as the self-understanding of the individual as male or female, whereas sex is defined as the biological determination of male or female. Jones defines the sex-gender scheme as “a tendency in Western thought to identify sexual difference with both biological/physiological dimensions (sex), and dispositional/psychological and social characteristics (gender).”[2] From the perspective of most feminists, this scheme marginalizes, therefore oppresses, those who do not exhibit either the psychological traits of their sex-assigned gender or the biological traits of their gender (especially with the variations in intersex physiology). Lastly, essentialism involves a complementarity in the gender binary of male and female: “Women and men are also differentiated by complementary traits: women are emotional and men rational, or men are assertive and women receptive.”[3] It is here that feminist criticisms are most acute because it is here that the “essences” of male and female are given material content.

In response to this gender essentialism of complementary traits, feminists have responded with the project of gender “constructivism.” This constructivism discerns the ways in which norms have been determined (constructed) by various historical and inter-personal forces. Society determines gender, and therefore gender is ultimately reducible to this power wielded by society, family, and peers. Jones explains:

What these [feminist] theorists share is a profound appreciation for the constitutive role of nurture or socialization in the construction of “women.” Feminist constructivism can be defined as a theory that focuses on the social, cultural, and linguistic sources of our views of women and women’s nature.[4]


For feminist constructivists, “selves” are no longer assessed and measured by universals but are viewed as dynamic products of vast cultural forces. To emphasize this, feminists refer to the self not as a stable entity but as a kind of “site,” “terrain,” “territory,” or “space” through which cultural constructs move, often settle, and are frequently contested and changed.[5]

By identifying the manifold ways in which gender has been constructed, and continues to be constructed, feminists can discern the ways in which women have been limited by predetermined possibilities for them as women. For example, as long as women are intuitive and not rational, the expectations for them are to be nurturers and not educators. Since these possibilities are constructed and not inherent in them as women, they can be challenged as the forces of power and oppression, not justice and liberty. However, this constructivism has its limits, as Jones recognizes: “If no single description of women’s lives is correct and all are equally valid, what standards are available for assessing harm or the nature of justice and injustice in women’s lives?”[6] In order to countenance harm or injustice, moral relativism proves woefully inadequate. The solution which Jones offers, borrowing from Luce Irigaray, is a project of “strategic essentialism.” The concern here is to have something positive to say to women as women in order to facilitate the emancipation of women from oppressive prescriptive norms. This strategic essentialism still uses the tools of constructivism to identify modes of oppression and their sources, yet there can only be emancipation if women have something normative by which to judge their oppressors. The “strategy” is therefore thoroughly pragmatist in its orientation toward liberation, as Jones recognizes: “The strategic essentialist is a ‘pragmatist’ or ‘functionalist,’ because she uses ‘practical effect’ as the measure of theory. …she asks: Will their view of women’s nature advance the struggle for women’s empowerment?”[7] Jones continues with clear statements that women “must make strong normative judgments…[finding] positive value in making essentialist claims about human nature in general and women’s nature in particular.”[8]

But, what are these essentialist claims? The difficulty for Jones is that she is never actually able to make essentialist claims about “women’s nature in particular.” Rather, the only normative (prescriptive) claims that she makes are applicable to human nature in general, not women in particular, because her ethic is thoroughly oriented to the emancipation of the individual from oppressive norms. This liberation is a human value, not peculiar to women. Jones favorably describes Irigaray’s depiction of woman as “needing to be enveloped in a structure of identity that enables autonomy and thereby contests the fragmenting relationality that Western discourse has imposed upon her.”[9] Yet, surely Jones would argue that men likewise need to have a liberating self-identity, not determined by the “desires” or machinations of others. The dilemma, from a feminist perspective, is that any essentialist claim of differentiation between men and women can only serve to devalue the one over the other, as long as liberation is the chief end and value underwriting the moral prescriptions. The goal, therefore, for both strict constructivism and for strategic essentialism is the reducibility of gender identity to a liberated and common human nature, yielding empowerment. Thus, human nature is not essentially gendered but essentially androgynous and necessarily so for the sake of emancipation.

Up next, we will look at Karl Barth’s account of gender identity, arguing that Barth is (contra feminist theory) able to give material content to the gender categories of male and female, as modeled on the covenant form of creation, while (pro feminist theory) questioning many of the “natural” types that have been used to secure conceptual clarity on gender.

[1] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 36-37.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Ibid., 42.


Image: “Street in Venice” by John Singer Sargent


  1. Devil’s advocate: if we say that Paul didn’t fully work out the ethics of slavery and probably didn’t have a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity, why can’t we say the same for gender roles?

    I lean towards complementarianism with respect to marriage, but it’s not a settled issue for me and Driscoll and others have kind of poisoned the conversation. I appreciate that you keep it as a somewhat separate issue from women in ministry.

    • Hah, yeah, Driscoll is a perfect illustration of precisely what I am arguing against. I think Barth’s response to Brunner (in part 3 of this series) demonstrates that we can let Scripture fill-in our categories of “male” and “female,” not culture or misguided natural assumptions.

      In regards to your question, I lean towards the explanation that Paul assumed that the parousia of Christ was in the near future of his own lifetime. Thus, the maintenance of order in order to bear witness to Christ (through obedience) was first and foremost on Paul’s mind. As for the Trinity, I don’t have a fully developed doctrine either!

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