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What We Can Learn from the Confusion About ‘Handmaids’

The discussion about Christian marriage sparked by Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination highlights how Christians and non-Christians talk past one another.
October 25, 2020
What We Can Learn from the Confusion About ‘Handmaids’
A woman dressed as a character from the novel-turned-TV series "The Handmaid's Tale" walks through the Hart Senate Office Building as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh starts the first day of his confirmation hearing in front of the US Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, on September 4, 2018. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Amy Coney Barrett’s membership in the charismatic Catholic community People of Praise has received considerable attention since her Supreme Court nomination. Some observers worry that it might have an “inappropriate sway” over her judicial decision-making. In particular, many news outlets have noted that the group is known for what a Mother Jones article called “the submissive role played by women, some of whom were called ‘handmaids.’” Though Margaret Atwood, the author of the 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, has stated that her novel was inspired by a different religious group, the narrative has stuck. Here’s Marianne Williamson, the author and erstwhile Democratic gadfly candidate for the presidency:

Meanwhile, on the right, people are defending Barrett’s faith. A Federalist headline earlier this month read, “How Strong Women Like Amy Coney Barrett Submit to Their Husbands With Joy.” The article attempts to explain the verse in the Bible “wives, submit to your husbands,” as the male author addresses how men should be the head of the household. Even setting aside the substance of the article, about which there is much that could be said, both its title and the optics of having a male writer explaining for a broader, secular readership the biblical teaching regarding wives submitting to their husbands are enough to make anybody—secular or Christian—shudder, as it perpetuates Christian stereotypes that women are oppressed and forced into submission but have been brainwashed to enjoy it.

What most of the dozens of articles about Amy Coney Barrett’s faith reveal is that secular and Christian Americans are speaking past one another—indeed, at times they have borderline ridiculous misunderstandings of one another. Many Christians view verses such as Ephesians 5:22 as simply biblical and normal without taking the time to articulate to people who are not part of “the club” what they mean. And from a secular perspective, there is little effort to truly understand what these words mean. As New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet stated in a 2016 interview: “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.” If we want to make our society at least a little less fractious and polarized, non-Christians should take the time to understand what Christians mean, and Christians should take the time to understand how they sound to people of other faiths or no faith.

What, exactly, does it mean, then, for the man to be the head of the house in a Christian family? At least in the evangelical Christian family I grew up in, I can say it is a far cry from the stereotypes purported by Mother Jones and The Federalist. There was not a whiff of my mother being domineered and overruled by my father. Nor was my dad sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching sports while my mom meekly served him in the kitchen. Instead, I think of my parents treating each other with love and respect, co-captaining and leading the team that is our family. My parents complement each other, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

My family has a number of jokes regarding the biblical idea that “the man should be the head of the family.” My dad often paraphrases a line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “If the man is the head, then the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.” While it is indisputable that my dad has authority in our family, my mom does, too. Indeed, with her master’s degree in public policy, she is not one to submit spinelessly or refuse to share her opinions—and she has plenty of opinions. Many dinners she comes to the table with an article she read that day, poised to lead and debate with our family in discussion.

Though my mom does much of the cooking in my family, it is not because she is forced to by any Christian teachings or by my father. She cooks because it’s her passion and her love language. Besides, she loves her children and doesn’t want us to suffer from our dad’s cooking. She consumes installments of Cook’s Illustrated and takes delight in whipping up everything from chicken souvlaki to beignets for her family and friends. After dinner, especially during the summer and fall months, my mom is found sitting on the couch, sipping her wine, and watching her beloved Washington Nationals—while the rest of my family, led by my dad, washes the dishes.

This, at any rate, is how things worked in the family I was blessed to be raised in—and it’s what I hope for in a family of my own someday. I understand, of course, that other families live differently, and that some families may think differently about how to live out the Bible’s teachings. But in a Christian marriage, submission calls first and foremost for a mutual obedience to Christ, where the husband and wife promise to submit to the Bible’s teachings together. Each and every day, both my parents put the needs of the other before their own. At times, submission entails my mom choosing not to overtly challenge my father, as she allows him to be the tiebreaker in an argument. My dad, however, is tasked with an equally difficult role, as he is commanded to love my mom to such an extent that he will lay down his life for his wife, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Christians and secular people sometimes miss something obvious: that they are using the same words to mean different things. Understood in its original biblical context, the word “submit” is not a biblical mandate for spousal abuse, an excuse to rob women of their dignity or opinions, or permission for men to dominate and subordinate their wives. Instead, submission is to Christ first and foremost, and done out of genuine respect and love for one another.

And what of the term “handmaid,” which has been met with so much scorn as readers of Margaret Atwood’s novel or the recent Hulu adaptation of it have heard of its use by People of Praise? Again, there’s some basic confusion. To Christians, the term “handmaid” doesn’t symbolize repressive servitude. Rather, it is a reference to the annunciation of Jesus Christ when Mary promises to be a servant of the Lord. Its use today gets at the idea that lots of people seek to further the work of the Kingdom of God. Although People of Praise has stopped using the term—the group replaced “handmaids” with “women leaders” in 2017, when the Hulu series premiered—during the four decades when the group did use the term, it referred to female leaders within the organization. This is very different from the secular understanding of the term, which suggests a person deprived of agency.

Non-Christians of course don’t have to like or agree with the teachings of Christianity—but as a bare minimum they should care to know enough to avoid wrongful caricatures. Likewise, Christians should be careful about throwing around terms like “submission” or “head of the family” without a sensitivity toward how they may be misunderstood by non-Christians. The garbled discussion arising from Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination should be a wake-up call for Americans: We too often speak past one another and do not make a sufficient effort to understand one another.

Caroline Bryant

Caroline Bryant is a student at Wake Forest University studying politics and international affairs. Twitter: @CarolineMcLean_.