Essentialism in Feminist Theology: Identity in Narrative and Nature








            Theologian Serene Jones, the first female president of Union Theological Seminary, has stated that, “assumptions about what women are, and should be, are built into our theology and practices.”[1] A brief survey of two-thousand years of church history and the works of its theologians, reveals a tradition replete with claims about the female nature.[2] The vast bulk of Christian literature during this time has preserved what most perceive as a subordinate view of women. Contrast this with the conviction of the complete equality of women with men, the staple of feminist thought and theology. What is less clear however is, to what degree (if any) there is a difference between the female and the male essence. Those who continue to embrace the notion that biological and non-biological differences between women and men are not just socially constructed but are somehow partially natural, generally fall under the umbrella category of “essentialists.”

As such, this paper will explore revised and newly framed formulations of essentialist theology which attempt to discard old, outdated and restrictive claims about the female essence, in favor of strategic or “pragmatic essentialism,” which provides a structure of narrative for a woman’s identity.[3] For our purposes, this mode of essentialist speculation will be rooted in the Christian tradition and a synthesis of secular and theological thought. In this process we will examine some historical developments within feminist and gender theory that are relevant both to Christian theology and also for constructing a framework around the significance of “femaleness.” All of this will be used in an attempt to explain why many women and men still choose to embrace “universal” claims about sexed nature, which undoubtedly provides a sense of foundational narrative for our individual and communal lives.[4]

Introductory Remarks

Christian feminists have, over the past half-century, sought to bring their respective critiques and observations regarding society and culture into critical dialogue with the disciplines of theology and biblical studies.[5] In many respects, the general aims of secular and Christian feminists feature shared convictions about women’s equality and the need to address oppressive practices and ideas in the world at large. The immense diversity within feminist thought, however, inevitably leads to differences. These differences are more apparent for feminists who remain committed to the historic, Christian faith, because their starting point is fundamentally distinct from secular feminists. Thus, there is always a dialectical push and pull between the two. This relationship is put well in the following, “There is not only a unity of concerns between feminist and Christian voices in this journey, but also a persistent and fruitful tension between them.”[6] Elaine Storkey provides us with a more specific label, “biblical feminists,” which describes those whose epistemological foundation begins with an acceptance of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as somehow revelatory in nature and as “authentic communication from God.”[7] Christian feminists who identify with some kind of biblical commitment are then, as a result, tasked with theologizing about what attention the bible gives to female existence and what it means to be a woman.

The Imago Dei that humankind reflects is on its own a subject for philosophical pontification concerning the nature of humanity. The character of the Genesis creation account is such that it predisposes the Judeo-Christian tradition towards an adherence to a doctrine of creation.[8] What is particularly relevant is not just that humanity is formed in the image of God, but that humanity is composed of female and male individuals, who both represent God in some fashion. The following quote illuminates more precisely the ambiguity that essentialist theology might attempt to elucidate;

That we are created male and female, and that this difference plays a large part in the central human tasks of “reproduction, nurturing, survival,” is indeed “beyond critical scrutiny.” But what that fixed point of reference signifies, is by no means beyond analysis.[9]

Feminism, Essentialism & Historical Development

            As alluded to earlier, feminist thinkers have been hesitant to embrace “difference,” as an appropriate term for the unique embodiment of men and women. Following the early women’s right’s movements, the goal of early feminism was to establish the “foundational, non negotiable premise that women and men are equal.”[10] This expanded beyond the suffrage movement to women’s opportunities in the workplace and in society at large. During this pivotal time, many held that “equal rights and opportunities could only be grounded in the presumption that women and men share the same nature.”[11] For there was an understandable concern about the danger of over-emphasizing or conceding to the existence of differences between men and women. More specifically, a primary concern here, was that an affirmation of a “natural female essence…potentially reinstates and reinforces the very abuses feminism intends to fight.”[12] In short, if one granted that women possessed an essential nature or a universal set of fixed characteristics, the inevitable result would be that fixed gender roles and attributes would be ascribed to all women, thus limiting the female experience. And even if one accepted the premise that there were differences between women and men, this emphasis on difference was altogether subjective, since one could just as easily make the case that the similarities between men and women far outweigh the differences.[13] Thus, many argued that any differences, whether actual or assumed, should be dismissed altogether so that women and men could interact as equals in daily life. But this solution was rejected by others. And so many began to argue that the answer to how the patriarchy “devalued” womanhood was “not to deny but to appreciate those differences.”[14] Some even began to argue that ignoring difference was just as much of an issue and was another method of erasing female existence. The point here being that, “Difference and equality were never intended to be at opposite poles.”[15]

            And so this brings us to both a divergence among feminist thinkers, but also a middle ground for others, where a “both/and” perspective was embraced.[16] Over decades of feminist discourse, a number of theoretical impasses would emerge, highlighting some not insignificant ideological breaks. One of the first, was the sex-gender distinction made by gender theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, which we will review shortly. The second and related juncture was the constructivist-essentialist divide. A third question, which like the previous two, remains unresolved for many, has been whether or not there is a single male-female nature or dual natures.[17] All three of these points of contention persist in academia today and are of course deeply interrelated. Before we outline the basic critiques of essentialism, we need to delineate what exactly these criticisms are directed towards and so we will quickly define older forms of essentialism.

Pre-modern and Biological Essentialism

            The basic thrust of essentialism is the, “idea that a certain ‘essence’ defines the center of our identity as human beings and as men and women.”[18] This has typically translated to some notion of “fixed characteristics” for both genders, which are natural.[19] Additionally, these fixed attributes have been considered to explain why gendered roles are and should be both descriptive and prescriptive. This older or “pre-modern” essentialism is especially pertinent in a Christian context, because for most of history, and still for a great many Christians today, it has been viewed as normative for men and women. Typically, this involves defining womanhood and manhood with absolutized characteristics that are or should be true across cultural and societal lines.[20] Traditional forms of essentialist theology almost always translate to expectations within gender roles. Examples of this in Christian praxis might include; female exclusion from the clergy, male headship in marriage and general expectations about behavior, attire and sexuality.[21]

            Additionally, we have “biological essentialism,” which focuses on the natural differences (i.e. anatomical, physiological and hormonal etc.) between women and men and builds an essentialist paradigm in light of them.[22] For early feminists, this form of essentialism was still an acceptable fact of life. But as we will see next, many feminist thinkers would come to reject biological essentialism as well, due to its deterministic outlook.[23]

The Constructivist Account: A Critique of Essentialist Claims

Even before many of the historical dynamics described above had taken place, gender theorists were beginning to question the parameters of gender as a category. One of the major innovations was the sex-gender distinction, which accepted that sex was biological, but stressed that gender was social.[24] Thus, one can see how the idea of gender being constructed rather than inherent, quickly emerged once this distinction was made. Because humans are unstable beings with inescapable mutability, change in personality always occurs over the course of one’s life. Experiences and the environmental location in which we develop clearly play roles in shaping our identity. Therefore, in constructivism, “the body (sex) is raw material on which socially constructed mores (gender) inscribe themselves.”[25]

A number of pointed objections are then levied at essentialism and their validity should be well-taken. We’ll list just a few. Essentialism posits a “universal feminine,” which tends to be either abstract and undefinable or contingent upon the gender norms of each particular time period.[26] Essentialism presupposes the existence of binary categories such as sex/gender, male/female and culture/nature.[27] Likewise, feminists argue, due to concerns about a biologically based essentialism, that it “makes women’s historical subordination to men seem like a natural fact rather than a cultural product.”[28] While by no means exhaustively representative of the criticisms essentialism has been subjected to, these points do capture some of the primary observations which have undermined the legitimacy of essentialism as it pertains to human sex and gender. One further philosophical development must be addressed before we see how a recapitulated essentialism has escaped relegation to the intellectual basement.

The Postmodern Problem

            The complex and often vague philosophical term that is “postmodernism” carries a host of meanings with it. The postmodern claims relevant to a discussion of essentialism have primarily to do with “deconstruction.” Furthermore, for postmodern thinkers, “there are no essentials, no metanarratives, no overarching explanatory formulas.”[29] The implications of these propositions should be self-evident, especially for Christians who take the metanarrative of scripture as a frame of reference for reality. The notion of deconstruction provides another conundrum for our conceptualization of sex/gender, for postmodernists not only claim gender is constructed, but sex![30]

Responding to Constructivism & Postmodernism: Strategic Essentialisms

Where does this dizzying array of critiques leave someone with essentialist inclinations? One has to wonder if essentialism is even viable anymore given its historical impedimenta. Certainly among scholastics, to speak of essential female or male natures or immanence (to borrow Beauvoir’s language) or of a “basic feminine character structure,” has become uncommon, but not unheard of among feminist theorists.[31] An inherent feminine nature is “no longer orthodox,” and for many gender theorists especially, it is a “rather heretical view.”[32] But where there is heresy, there are also heretics and for many outside of the academic sphere, forms of essentialism are still embraced, unconsciously or consciously. While by far the minority within academia, a number of thinkers, both secular and religious, have postulated new approaches to essentialist paradigms.

The starting point for these voices is to acknowledge many of the criticisms aimed at pre-modern essentialism. There are a plethora of problems for an essentialist ideology or theology. At the same time there are some advantages, particularly from a Christian perspective. A starting point for a valuable essentialism takes place when it is a “representative metaphor entailing human agency and practice, rather than a realist retreat into a nature against which human beings are powerless.”[33] The worry about a kind of biological destiny is evident here. As such, too much emphasis on biology’s role in gender identity should be taken into account as well as a realization that men and women share many similarities and thus it might be more helpful to focus on similarities rather than differences, depending on the context.[34] However, the counter-response to concerns about “biology as destiny”[35] is a concern over a total denial of differences rooted in male-female bodies. And when it comes to theorizing about the natural differentiation between women and men, an essentialist “two-nature” theory does have some advantages as explained in the following;

Drawing from the account of creation in Genesis 2, the two-nature theory emphasizes the fact that men and women have very different bodies and reproductive tasks, but also more subtle differences. Men have more testosterone, women have more estrogen…The two-nature theory seems to explain some persistent patterns in human nature…The two nature-theory also takes account of the ways biological differences shape human lives.[36]

The single nature theory does emphasize the unity of human nature and reiterates that all faculties and abilities possessed by individuals are universal to women and men. At the same time, a shared human nature does not exhaust the unique “diversity” of embodiment for women and men. Thus, it is important to place these theories of human and sexed nature in dialectical reciprocity.[37] But beyond biology and its role in the female identity, recovering or rethinking essentialism has come in a number of forms. For example, while most feminist essentialists would reject motherhood or “mothering” as a manifestation of essentialism since not every woman chooses to have children and some cannot biologically produce children, it is still a feature of life for the majority of women around the world both historically and presently. But to speak of motherhood is not to speak universally but rather in generality, for it is a staple of most women’s lives. And to reject a very broad truth about existence simply because it is not true for every single individual is not helpful either. Take Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance,” where he noted that members from any given family can share some “resemblance” without necessarily bearing all of the same qualities. In other words, general shared traits vs universal shared traits. Wittgenstein then applied this to words or conceptual categories, noting that the word “game” can refer to many activities that are vastly different. Thus, with this in mind, the words or categories, “motherhood” or “male/female,” can refer to broad characteristics shared within a certain category without universalizing particular aspects in a determinative manner.[38] Furthermore, even “for many radical feminists, the solution to such dichotomies lies not in women’s rejecting childbearing and child raising but rather in their regaining control of both…By retrieving motherhood on their own terms…”[39] This “retrieval” or reclamation of certain typically “feminine” associated experiences is precisely that. However, while some feminists have encouraged women to embrace and take back certain female identities, they have rejected any claim that an identity of one woman is normative for the next and thus prefer to speak in generalities. This means that, while feminists might acknowledge women’s unique experience as a nurturer, this does not exhaust or define the lives of all women, nor does it imply that men are any less capable of nurturing qualities. Thus as with feminist thinkers like Luce Irigaray, there is a call for the woman to free herself from the patriarchy and to “become herself,” while also embracing the beauty of difference between not just men and women but among all women too.[40] What emerges from this delicate balance is what has been coined as “strategic essentialism.”[41]

            While modern essentialists often end up in a very defensive posture, they have raised some critical points about the weaknesses of the constructivist account and postmodern philosophy. The most obvious response to social constructivism is that it makes us as humans mere byproducts of societal and environmental mores, which in some sense share deterministic parallels with biological destiny.[42] Additionally, essentialists protest that strong forms of constructivism can lead to relativistic outlooks where “standards” by which to describe female suffering and injustice disappear into a larger paradigm that ultimately disadvantages women.[43] Seemingly, both accounts present faults. But, while postmodernity is critical of constructivist and essentialist language, it offers only less ground to stand on, making it increasingly difficult to create narratives about who we are as humans and as men and women. Furthermore, the postmodern deconstruction of both sex and gender as categories contains a number of flaws. Postmodernists insightfully tell us that language (and thus the usage of terms like “essentials,” “sex” and “gender”) has limitations alongside its inherent power. For, “language constructs reality,” and there is a profound “instability of all categories.”[44] If this is the case, we then have to carefully reconsider and deconstruct how we’ve delineated these categories, including those of sex and gender.[45] Because language is limited and is also used to accumulate power, there should be a hermeneutic of suspicion directed towards its usage. This postmodern critique makes important observations, but its own logic must be applied upon itself.[46] Furthermore, while there is of course a deep value to deconstruction, particularly regarding universal claims that have to do with our day to day existence, at some point we need to construct meaning for our lives and our self-perception. Ultimately, the rejection of any kind of metanarrative, of even an abstract notion of the “universal feminine,” which for many people carries a great deal of significance, is what makes the postmodern deconstruction of sex and gender unhelpful for many. This is why, despite remarkable limitations, a theological narrative around the nature of sex/gender matters. Similarly, despite legitimate concerns about exaggerations promulgated by biological essentialism, postmodern deconstruction ultimately founders on the rock of biological reality. Consider the unique health challenges that men and women face, where for example, females but not males are at risk for cervical cancer. This is not a socially constructed reality and can be rooted in normative biological categories.

The Importance of Narrative and Nature

            Elaine Storkey gives us four paradigms from which to understand the biblical depiction of female-male existence, uniqueness and relations; difference, sameness/similarity, complementarity and union.[47] Each of these themes represents separate but interrelated aspects of our “essentialized” createdness in the image of God. Storkey highlights the connection between sameness and difference in the following:

As Christians, we understand that both men and women are created in God’s image, and that both are the subjects of redemption history. Thus men and women are fundamentally equal. Yet the Creator, whose appreciation of diversity vibrates throughout creation, made both men and women as human beings embodied differently and thus bound to experience the creation in certain unique ways. Accordingly, equality and diversity are at the heart of creation, and at the center of the human community.[48]

There is then a complementarity implied in the differences, at least biologically, in that reproduction requires specific contributions from each sex. And finally the differences and complementarity make the concept of “union” possible, given that union, as opposed to uniformity, requires differences coming together in a complementary manner.

Thus, we can see how the Genesis narrative captures all four of these paradigms. Creation begins with sameness before differentiation takes place. But shortly after, the complementary nature of reproduction and mutual partnership leads to unity. The concept of union necessitates a difference and what brings the differences together is the complementarity (not in the hierarchical sense).

            Many commentators have noted that in the Genesis creation account, humanity is only seen as wholly complete when both male and female are present.[49] A dismissal or misuse of the Genesis account loses sight of its theological and existential weight. For regardless of debates about historicity or interpretation, the story of Eve and Adam is the beginning of the Christian tradition and it carries with it the authoritative gravity of God’s creative designs for humanity. This means that while individuals will always form their own essentialist (or constructivist) identities, we must also define ourselves on a larger scale;

Individualistic solutions…cannot unravel the complexities of gender, for in the end gender is not about individual men and women but about the differences that emerge when men and women are in relationship in human communities. To understand and attempt to connect the injustice of gender relations, we must explore the dynamics of men and women in relationship with each other.[50]


            A theologically essentialist paradigm is grounded in the narrative of scripture with the diversity of humanity showcased in the added diversity among all women and all men. The distinctive features between the sexes and among the both sex groups are reasons to uphold and celebrate the ways in which attributes found in both men and women reflect God. Similarly, we can honor and recognize that, “Male and female are sexual categories and we experience much of our identity through our sexuality.”[51] An essentialist may contend, with many qualifications, that, “the female body carries meaning in and of itself, which is the ground for women’s identity and also potentially for women’s solidarity as a group.”[52] Essentialism based on narrative and collective identity, moves beyond individualistic and subjective ways of identifying, allowing women and men to enter into a larger story. This narrative, speaks of the radical equality, difference, similarity and createdness of human beings and highlights that we are more than mere byproducts of stardust, but also more than just our surroundings. To humbly embrace the distinctiveness endowed upon us by our Creator provides a foundation to build a purposeful life. And lastly it reminds us that;

Sustaining a dynamic dialogue between Christianity and feminism occurs when unique and distinct voices are not collapsed into one another. Preserving distinction when appropriate allows us to walk alongside those with whom we disagree, and it is this type of relation that the possibility of hearing a corrective voice or new word occurs. Often this means allowing the light of truth in feminist theory to perform the demanding work of chipping away at patriarchal traditions Christianity often inherits and generates. Equally important, it implies continually asking what light the revelation of God’s self in scripture, tradition and experience may bring to feminist theory.[53]


DallaValle, Nancy A. “Neither Idolatry Nor Iconoclasm: A Critical Essentialism for Catholic Feminist Theology.” Horizons 25, no 1 (Spring 1998): 23-42.


Japinga, Lynn. Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999.


Jones, Serene. Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000.


Knoppers, Annelies, Margaret L. Koch, Douglas J. Schuurman and Helen M. Sterk. After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation edited by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.


Leclerc, Diane. “Two Women Speaking “Woman”: The Strategic Essentialism of Luce Irigaray and Phoebe Palmer.” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen, (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 111-126.


Lindley, Susan Hill. “You Have Stept Out of Your Place.” A History of Women and Religion in America. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.


Maeckelberghe, Els. “Across the Generations in Feminist Theology: From Second to Third Wave Feminisms.” Feminist Theology 23, (January 2000): 63-69.


Powell, Elizabeth. “In Search of Bodily Perspective: A Study of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray.” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen, (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 81-109.


Storkey, Elaine. Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.


Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophische Untersuchungen. Revised Fourth Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.




[1] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 23.

[2] French philosopher and feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir made note of how women’s nature has been described both as inferior and as deficient. Beauvoir draws attention to the commentary on women found in Aristotelian literature and that of the great scholastic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas as just two examples of deeply embedded negative perceptions about the “different,” and “lesser” nature of the female sex. St. Aquinas asserted that the woman was both an “imperfect man,” and an “incidental person.” See Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex translated by Judith Thurman, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011), 5.

[3] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, 44.

[4] By narrative, we mean, “story,” in which a certain paradigm or worldview provides us with both a map to navigate the world and concepts in which to relate to and build our personal and collective identities off of. For helpful works that delve into how story, narrative and mythology relate to reality and human consciousness see Stephen D. Crites, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39, no. 3 (September 1971): 291-311.

[5] Feminist theology (which shouldn’t be interpreted as a uniform ideology with a singular set of systematic principles) as a modern school of thought or philosophy gained momentum following the work of Valerie Saiving and an article authored by her in 1960. See Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 28, no.1 (1960): 75-78. Subsequent early major Christian feminist thinkers in the 1960’s and afterwards included; Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible. Feminist critiques of religion and Christianity also appeared in the 19th century and can be found within the works of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller and Matilda Joslyn Gage. See Susan Hill. Lindley, “You Have Stept Out of Your Place.” A History of Women and Religion in America, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 275-297. Feminist responses to the Christian faith and its relation to women varied in both the 19th and 20th centuries. For an introduction to some of the basic concerns and issues raised by feminist theologians see Regina M. Bechtle, “Feminist Approaches to Theology,” The Way 27, no. 1 (April 1987): 124-131.

[6] Elizabeth Powell, “In Search of Bodily Perspective: A Study of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray.” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen, (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 103.

[7] Elaine Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 111-112. Storkey explains how the starting point of biblical femininsts functions distinctly from the primary feminist hermeneutic of experience in the following insightful comment; “…biblical feminists are at odds epistemologically with much of the rest of feminist theology, for they reject the primacy of women’s experience as the interpretive framework with which to approach the Bible. For them, although experience is crucially important, it cannot be the standpoint from which we understand reality. As authentic communication from God, the biblical text cannot simply be subject to women’s experience as some “higher order” that ultimately arbitrates over it. Women’s experience cannot have the last word, for experience itself has to be examined and understood. There has to be an intricate two-way relationship of experience and revelation, in which experience is seen in relation to God. Since the basis of human identity is given, created by God, not simply constructed out of the particulars of our world, we have to be prepared to allow the depths of God’s revelation to interpret us as we seek to understand our worth and calling before God.” (112).

[8] And because Christians uphold God as creator, there is already an element of “creation/nature” imbued into humanity and one could argue an essentialism in the Imago Dei that each individual inherently possesses. Elaine Storkey reiterates the relevance of this point to the creation-construction debate, “If we are brought into being by a Creator, and thereby dependent on that Creator for our existence, we have already come down on one side of the creation-construction debate. Yet, we can still hold that our sexuality is put into creation by God and recognize that our differences  might also be developmental and cultural. See Elaine Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 97-98.

[9] Nancy A. Dallavalle, “Neither Idolatry nor Iconoclasm: A Critical Essentialism for Catholic Feminist Theology,” Horizons 25, no.1 (Spring 1998): 32. Here Dallavalle is quoting theologian and gender theorist Eileen Graham. See Eileen Graham, “Gender, Personhood and Theology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 48, (1995): 341-358.

[10] Susan Hill. Lindley, “You Have Stept Out of Your Place.” A History of Women and Religion in America, 426.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Diane Leclerc, “Two Women Speaking “Woman”: The Strategic Essentialism of Luce Irigaray and Phoebe Palmer,” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen, (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 112.

[13] “Far from being an expression of natural differences, exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities.” See Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women edited by R.R. Reitr (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 179-180.

[14] Lindley, “You Have Stept Out of Your Place.” A History of Women and Religion in America, 426.

[15] Margaret Koch, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Western Feminism,” in After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation edited by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 104.

[16] Lindley, “You Have Stept Out of Your Place.” A History of Women and Religion in America, 426.

[17] Generally speaking, “Two explanations for the similarities and differences of men and women have emerged in psychological and religious literature. The first emphasizes the differences and claims that men and women actually have two different natures. The second emphasizes the similarities, arguing that men and women share the same nature and differ only in the biological structure and capacity of their bodies.” See Lynn Japinga, Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 81.

[18] French philosopher Jean Joseph Goux places this in the category of “pre-modern” thought. See Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 25-26. The term essence itself is rooted in Platonic philosophy, but has been redefined or re-articulated by many figures and schools of thought since antiquity.

[19] Ibid., 26.

[20] Serene Jones explains this kind of essentialism in the following. “The notion of universality highlights the all-pervasive scope of essentialist claims about women’s nature, namely the belief that features of womanhood cover women’s lives in every place, age, and culture without exception.” See Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, 26.

[21] The “Danvers Statement,” published by CBMW (The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) is reflective of this traditional perspective. See CBE International (Christian Biblical Egalitarians) represents a differing perspective on sex and gender roles amidst evangelical Christians. See

[22] Storkey acknowledges that, “It would be foolish to deny that biology plays a part in human relationships and sexual differentiation. Men and women are not only sexually different, they are different chromosomally, reproductively, anatomically, hormonally…” See Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 28.

[23] In short, biology is not inevitable. Women and men cannot be reduced to simple products of biology.

[24] Simone de Beauvoir is credited with pioneering this distinction. More recent figures like Judith Butler have been critical in developing and promulgating gender theory and the notion of gender as “performative.” See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (Abingdon, UK: 1990).

[25] Elizabeth Powell,  “In Search of Bodily Perspective: A Study of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray,” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen, (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 82.

[26] “The essentialist camp, in bringing the body back into feminist discussions, reifies it and so becomes a naive and ultimately destructive universalism.” The reification fallacy is when something immaterial is made material. Thus abstract essentialism which talks about a male or a female “essence.” See Elizabeth Powell, “In Search of Bodily Perspective: A Study of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray,” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen, 91.

[27] Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, 28.

[28] Ibid., 29.

[29] Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 49.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Diane Leclerc,“Two Women Speaking “Woman”: The Strategic Essentialism of Luce Irigaray and Phoebe Palmer,” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen, 111.

[32] Ibid., 112.

[33] Here Storkey is quoting from the work of Elaine Graham. See Elaine Graham, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology, (London, UK: Mowbray, 1995), 190.

[34] Especially from a theological perspective, feminists are keenly aware of the dangerous usage of “difference” language. Margaret Koch concurs that, “with the entry of sin into the world, differences were no longer simply an expression of God’s creativity and the basis for human mutuality. Since the Fall, difference has become the foundation on which we have built prejudice, discrimination and oppression…[Thus]…The ongoing misuse of difference to harm some groups and concentrate power in the hands of others gives feminists a realistic reason to be wary of any discussion of difference.” See Margaret Koch, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Western Feminism,” in After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation edited by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, 101-102.

[35] See Inmaculada, de Melo‐Martín, “When Is Biology Destiny? Biological Determinism and Social Responsibility,Philosophy of Science. 70, no. 5 (2003): 1184–1194.

[36] Lynn Japinga, Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 82. Japinga also notes that single-nature theory, on the other hand, focuses primarily on Genesis 1, “asserting that human nature takes on one basic form rather than two. Men and women are far more alike than different and share the human characteristics of reason, emotion, body and spirit…Human beings are very diverse, but the differences are not divided neatly along gender lines” (82).

[37] Japinga points out that,“The single-nature theory also has its limitations. Its emphasis on sameness and equality tends to downplay the role of the body, making it little more than a vehicle for procreation. The body and sexuality affect all of human life, not just the procreation event; thus the single-nature theory may not pay enough attention to the differences men and women experiences regarding their bodies. [Additionally], The single-nature theory fails to adequately account for diversity, if it assumes that all human beings are the same… [Lastly], There is no single feminist opinion  about human nature. Some feminists emphasize the role of the body; others, the role of socialization.” See Lynn Japinga, Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide, 84.

[38] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, Revised Fourth Edition, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, Revised Fourth Edition, (West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).

[39] Mary Stewart, “Western Feminism Since the 1960s: Lessons from the Present,” In After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation edited by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 58-59. See also Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).

[40] Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, 43.

[41] Jones adds that “strategic essentialism” has also been called “normative constructivism, pragmatic utopianism and pragmatic universalism.” See Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, 44.

[42] Essentialists caution that “although constructivists defend agency, the logic of constructivism might lead to a cultural determinism eve more oppressive than the determinism of essentialism.” See Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, 41.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 53-54.

[45]  “Its own commitment is deconstruction, the questioning and dismantling of all that we previously thought of as real. There are no boundaries to what can be deconstructed. We can include the past, the present, categorical explanations, concepts, language, meaning, sexuality, biology, sociology and theology. In the process of deconstruction, we discover that what were once thought of as “absolutes” are only particulars, and even the particulars can be seen through myriad different perspectives depending on the location of the perceiver.” See Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 53.

[46] “Deconstruction seems to poise feminism on the edge of a relativistic humility that may undercut the entire feminist project.” See Margaret Koch, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Western Feminism,” in After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation edited by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, 70-113.

[47] Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 129-131.

[48] Margaret Koch, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Western Feminism,” in After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation, 101.

[49] Helen Sterk, “Gender Relations and Narrative in a Reformed Church Setting,” in After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation, 212.

[50] Koch, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Western Feminism,” in After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation, 103.

[51] Storkey, Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited, 28.

[52] Elizabeth Powell, “In Search of Bodily Perspective: A Study of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray,” In Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia, 82.

[53] Ibid., 103.