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True Woman Movement

Mary Kassian is not what comes to most people’s minds when they hear about a “submissive wife.” 

Tall, fit, with a flash of short auburn hair and impeccable fashion sense, Mary automatically commands attention whenever she walks into a room. At 50, the Canadian mother of three could pass for 39, and has earned a reputation for being an articulate, funny, and popular conference speaker. After graduating with a degree in rehabilitation medicine from the University of Alberta, Mary pursued her interest in theology by studying at the doctoral level at Southern Baptist Seminary. Now she travels across the country speaking at conferences, churches, and seminaries about the importance of reclaiming “biblical womanhood.” 

When I first met Mary in Louisville, Kentucky back in October, she wore a pristine white jacket paired with bold, turquoise jewelry. She spoke with a slight Canadian accent, and shook my hand firmly. 

“Welcome to the W Conference, Rachel,” she said. “Such a pleasure to meet you.”

Mary is cofounder of the True Woman Movement, a network of conservative evangelical women who rally around what they call the True Woman Manifesto. 

“Scripture is God’s authoritative means of instructing us in His ways,” the manifesto declares, “and it reveals His holy pattern for our womanhood, our character, our priorities, and our various roles, responsibilities, and relationships…We are called as women to affirm and encourage men as they seek to express godly masculinity, and to honor and support God-ordained male leadership in the home and church.”

True Woman conferences have attracted over 20,000 attendees, and produced multiple books and Bible study materials. Mary is the author of a book entitled The Feminist Mistake, a stinging polemic against feminism, a movement that Mary argues represented a “seismic postmodern earthquake” with cataclysmic consequences that will “continue to crash on our culture’s shores like a tsunami throughout the opening decades of the new millennium.” 

Despite the fact that I disagree with her on this—I’ve seen enough Mad Men episodes to be eternally grateful for feminism—I like Mary a lot. When I first made the project public, Mary called me up to enthusiastically offer her help and input and to invite me as her guest at a biblical womanhood conference at Southern Seminary where she would be speaking. 

“If you’re going to write about biblical womanhood,” she said. “You need to see it in action.” 

We ended up talking for over an hour about the Bible, evangelicalism, writing, speaking, and the challenges of facing such harsh criticism when tackling subjects related to gender and religion. 

Mary and her husband Brent have been married for 29 years, so I asked Mary how submission worked for her. 

“Some might be surprised that I believe in submission because my marriage displays unity and mutuality,” she said. “I am flourishing. I have what most want….My husband takes his responsibility to love me as Christ loves the Church seriously. And I take my responsibility to submit to him seriously. That means that I am cherished and have a voice, and that he is respected and supported.” 

“Submission,” she said “is not as much an action as it is an attitude. Because of the misconceptions surrounding the definition of submission, I actually prefer to use the term ‘amenability.’ Amenability comes from the French amener, meaning ‘to lead.’ An amenable woman is leadable. She’s responsive to input and likely to cooperate.”

I asked her to elaborate on misconceptions regarding gender-based submission. 

One of the biggest, she said, is that submission requires mindless acquiescence. 

“A Christian’s first responsibility is to submit to the Lord and His standard of righteousness,” she said. “A wife is not called to submit to sin, mistreatment, or abuse. The Lord does not want weak-willed women! No brain-dead doormats or spineless bowls of JELLO here! Submission is neither mindless nor formulaic nor simplistic.” 

I asked her to be more specific, to relate submission to a specific scenario in her own marriage, but Mary replied, “People always want a list of rules, but as soon as you provide an example from your own life experience, it gets taken as prescriptive, as a mandate for everyone’s life, and so I try to avoid doing that.” 

Another misconception about submission, she said, is that a husband has the right to demand his wife’s submission. 

“A husband does not have the right to demand or extract submission from his wife,” Mary said. “Submission is her choice, her responsibility. It is not his right. Not ever. The Bible says she is to ‘submit herself,’ so deciding when and how to submit is her call. In a Christian marriage, the focus is never on rights, but on personal responsibility. It’s his responsibility to be affectionate. It’s her responsibility to be agreeable. The husband’s responsibility is to sacrificially love as Christ loved the Church—not to make his wife submit.” 

It occurred to me that, practically, Mary's relationship with her husband didn't function much differently than my relationship with Dan. Still, Mary’s concept of submission is rooted in a hierarchal understanding of gender roles in which men are called to lead and women are called to follow.

“Biblical concepts of submission and authority cannot be disassociated,” she said. “The two are indivisibly connected.  A biblical definition of submission cannot be understood apart from a biblical definition of authority…When properly understood and enacted, the framework of hierarchal relationships within the Christian community serves a protective function, for every authority is accountable to a higher authority.”

Mary Kassian is no Debi Pearl, but she represents a vocal coalition of evangelical women who consider hierarchal-based gender roles to be a critical element of true biblical womanhood and who describe feminism as a destructive force eroding at a woman’s proper place in the home, church, and society. 

I wanted to get a firsthand look at this particular expression of the biblical womanhood movement myself, so I took Mary up on her offer, and along with my mom, (who hates women’s conferences but feared the Acclaim wouldn’t get me to Louisville, Kentucky in one piece) attended the W Conference on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

When we arrived, attendees were enjoying a light dinner of soup, salad, and sandwiches, and Mom immediately struck up a conversation with the women at our table. We found that most were highly-educated professionals. We met a public school administrator, a publishing house editor, a corporate event planner, a paralegal, and several college professors and students. 

“No jumpers and tennis shoes here,” one woman joked. 

The main sessions were held in Heritage Hall, a small auditorium in which austere portraits of the seminary’s nine former presidents—all of them men—lined the walls. Under their watchful eye, Mary spoke about the destruction of “true womanhood” over the past sixty years, as represented by female television icons. 

Beginning with June Cleaver as a model of joyful homemaking, she traced the slow deterioration of society through the likes of Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Carrie Bradshaw, and, finally, Ellen Degeneres. Women once reveled in their God-ordained roles, she said, before Betty Friedan came along and ruined it all by telling women that they could name themselves, name the world, and ultimately name God. Feminism predicated an increase in promiscuity, cohabitation, abortion, juvenile delinquency, and homosexuality, she said. 

Mom started to squirm next to me, and I heard her mutter something under her breath. 

“What’s wrong?” I whispered.  

“I like Mary Tyler Moore,” she said, her arms folded.  “And you think that perky paralegal we met at lunch would have a job if it weren’t for Betty Friedan?” 

I stifled a giggle. Mom wasn’t exactly what one might call a “raging feminist.” She never took to the streets to protest Miss America or forbade us from playing with Barbie dolls, but she had succinctly identified the stunning irony of a roomful of professional, educated women dismissing out of hand the very moment that made their careers, their choices, and even their conference possible.

It’s been said that every movement needs a devil, and the devil the modern biblical womanhood movement appears to be feminism. If we can just get back to how things used to be, its proponents suggest, we will be closer to “true womanhood.” This view represents a highly idealized and selective vision of pre-feminist America and fails to acknowledge the many good gifts of feminism, not the least of which is Mary’s ability to pursue her career. Furthermore, it projects onto an ancient Near Eastern text expectations and assumptions associated with the post-Industrial Revolution nuclear family, not the agrarian society from which the Bible actually emerged. So passages that seem to support traditional, Western gender roles are lifted out (“wives submit to your husbands”) while those that do not  (“slaves submit to your masters,” “submit one to another”) are brushed aside.

But the Bible doesn’t give us June Cleaver. The Bible gives us Deborah and Ruth, Vashti and Tamar, Mary Magdalene,  Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Bethany and a host of other women—none of whom look exactly the same. 

So I left the True Woman conference still a little unsure of what constitutes a “true woman” in Mary’s eyes.  If “true womanhood” means sticking to traditional, hierarchal-based gender roles, what would that make me, a church leader in an egalitarian marriage…a fake woman? And what would it make my mother, who at the end of the presentation patted my leg and said, “Let’s get out of here and go watch some Mary Tyler Moore”?