A Valuable (or not) Historical Resource on Gender Roles

The last year or so has witnessed some controversy about the meaning and value of the term complementarianism (not to be confused with complimentarianism, which is belief in people who pay me compliments) to describe men and women's respective identities and roles in family and church. That controversy seems to have evolved into more significant (to my thinking) debate over distinct Trinitarian theologies that may or may not accompany and/or inform positions on gender roles in family and church. I've largely lacked the time and mental energy necessary to keep track of the players and positions in this more recent squabble. To said players (if any) guilty of projecting distinctions proper to the economic Trinity on to the immanent Trinity (under the guise of exploring Trinitarian relations), I would merely repeat the eminently wise advice of renowned psychiatrist Dr. Switzer.

One positive fruit of recent Trinitarian debate has been a turn to resources and voices from the past for guidance in the present. Serious engagement with Christian thinkers and the Christian Church of ages past in toto invariably enriches present day theological discourse and judgment. (Superficial engagement with the past is a different matter). That being so, I wanted to highlight a valuable (or not) historical resource relating to men and women's respective roles in family and church before discussion moves entirely away from issues related to the same. That resource is the anonymously written Women's Fegaries, published in London in 1672 and pictured below:


Fegaries, incidentally, are tricks or pranks. The wood-cut adorning the cover and the full title of this important work jointly serve to reveal its basic thesis and, by way of consequence, its significance to present day discussions of gender roles. The full title reads "The Women's Fegaries, shewing the great endeavours they have used for obtaining of the breeches." The wood-cut shows a husband and wife struggling for control of the "breeches," he wielding a sword for said occasion and she wielding what appears to be a ladle. The actual content of this noteworthy book sheds considerable light on the origin of that well-known saying "the ladle is mightier than the sword."

Women's Fegaries is a mixture of prose and poetry. It contains accounts of rather mischievous lengths that particular women living in and around London had gone to in recent years in order to "obtain the breeches," and concludes each with a short verse celebrating women's desire for authority in the home and skill in obtaining the same. So, for instance, there is the account of a plasterer from Clerkenwell who made it his nefarious practice to come home drunk from "the Ale-house" every evening despite the regular "scolding" of his wife. On one such occasion the plasterer came home, fought with his wife, and having put her firmly in her place "went quietly to bed, where he slept soundly." She, meanwhile, "lay awake studying of mischief, [and] in the morning before he awaked, examin'd his pockets for money (the common trick of a great many women) but found nothing in them save only some lath nails," fair enough pocket ware for a plasterer. "These did she take and set upright all about the chamber, which done she gets a pail of water in her hands, and called aloud commanding him to rise, which he refused to do, whereupon she throws the pail of water upon the bed. This so vext him that starting suddenly up, he went to run after her, when his naked feet lighting upon the lath nails, he was forced to slacken his pace...." This rather extreme treatment ultimately prompted the plasterer to beg his wife's forgiveness, "resigning the whole right and title of the breeches unto her," and to admit that "though he was superior to her in strength, yet he was inferior to her in policy."

Cue the poetry:

When as that women do themselves apply
To mischief, they perform it readily,
Nothing will serve them when their finger itches
Until such time they have attain'd the breeches.

The author of Women's Fegaries even goes so far as to provide both ontological and historical reasons for women's apparently inherent talent at mischief. Women are, he (or she?) notes, "made of a knobby crooked rib," and so "contain something in their manners and dispositions of the matter and form of which they were created." Aggravating this unfortunate state of being is the historical reality that "about two hundred and fifty years ago ... there was a great sickness [namely the bubonic plague] almost throughout the whole world, wherein their dyed Fourty five millione, eight hundred seventy three thousand, six hundred and ninety two good women, and of bad women only three hundred fourty and four, by reason whereof there hath been such a scarcity of good women ever since, the whole breed of them then being almost utterly extinct."

Well that explains a lot.

In any case, the significance of Women's Fegaries for present day questions about complementarianism, egalitarianism, or whatever other -isms now define one's position on gender roles in family and church should be obvious to all. So critical is this historical work, I think, that a reprint is almost certainly in order. Perhaps that's something the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals could take the lead on? I've been leaving messages at the Alliance's main office to discuss possibilities in this regard, but no one has been returning my calls. What's going on guys? Are you still mad at me for that post on parachurchism?