The petticoat gospel

“Nostalgia is denial — denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is golden age thinking:
the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one is living in.”
Paul, “Midnight in Paris”

Seventeen-ninety-seven was not a particularly holy year. People were born and died. John Adams became U.S. president. The transatlantic slave trade was in full steam. Lydia Bennett ran off with Mr. Wickham. Neither were the 1880s unusually spiritual, as Anne fluttered about Green Gables dreaming of puffed sleeves and lace turtlenecks, nor were the 1620s or the 1910s.

But to look at Biblical Girlhood, a movement propagated by organizations like Vision Forum, these years were veritable pinnacles of human existence. Specifically, the pinnacle of Christian womanhood.

A family that follows the ideals of Biblical Girlhood dresses daughters in frilly, often old-fashioned dresses (at least for special occasions; maybe just long skirts for everyday life). Girls play with dolls to practice mommying and learn domestic skills; they become stay-at-home daughters under their father’s protection until marrying. To be virtuous is to be devout and modest, submissive and patient, domestic and maternal.

silverbellsBiblical Girlhood is just a small part of the larger Christian patriarchy movement, and of course it has many more layers than clothing. But as a kid, before I knew all the subtext, I determined how conservative a family was by how the women dressed. At homeschool events, I looked for cues on whether I, a pants-wearing apparent half-heathen, could talk about my secular interests like Star Wars or Lunchables or should stick with fundamentalist-approved subjects like G.A. Henty and canning, and the easiest clue was skirt length and style. I figured out early that to some people, clothing is not just a matter of taste or aesthetics, but of heaven and hell.

What would Mary wear?

A common defense for dressing modestly, especially in costumey strains like BG, is that it “sets apart” (a phrase with a long theological history) Christians from the world, much like the uniforms of nuns or the Amish. The clothes people wear, at least if they’re female, must declare their allegiance to a higher calling, rejection of modern trends and mores, and vision for a world reclaimed for Christ. And with the aprons and jean jumpers, of course, come traditional women’s roles and pastimes.

None of this is inherently bad. Frilly dresses, domestic pursuits, tea parties, old school western femininity: Those are all fine things. If you want to embrace them, go for it. (I myself am still a fan of tea parties and as a wee lass begged my mom for puffed princess sleeves like Snow White’s.) The problem is when frilly dresses or domestic pursuits or tea parties are varnished with a layer of expectation and righteousness, as if western femininity is a divine calling, in fact, the divine calling for women.

If that’s true, then Ruth and Lydia and the Proverbs 31 woman and even Mary, mother to the Messiah, are in trouble. They had faith, sure, but what about hair bows? Poor dears obviously didn’t understand God’s plan for them as good Christian ladies! If that’s true, then all the women throughout history who grew up in other cultures, where frills aren’t practical, where colors are gendered differently, where hair doesn’t conform to ringlets — all those women are shunning God’s plan, too.

If BG was so concerned with being “biblical,” wouldn’t we all — women and men alike — don flowing robes and leather sandals like Feltogram Jesus? (Seriously, why aren’t the men dressing “biblically,” too? Even as a child, I found it odd that it’s the women who must abstain from Forever 21 and sew up a little sanctification, while men can wear normal jeans and polos and have it counted to them as righteousness.) Wouldn’t the standard be ancient Mesopotamians, not Puritans and Victorians? I struggle to find the “biblical” in BG. After all, the Bible never says, “They will know you by your anachronistic dresses,” and even virginal Mary never wore a pinafore.

Good old days

In “Midnight In Paris,” an American dude, Gil, is transported back in time to 1920s Paris, where he meets famous expatriates and artists like Hemingway and Picasso, the people he’s idolized living in an era he’s romanticized. He falls for a woman of that time, Adriana, who in turn yearns for the France of the 1890s. “Surely you don’t think the Twenties are a golden age?” she asks Gil, incredulous that he could find her present day idyllic. “Well, yeah,” he says.

That kind of nostalgia — or, really, revisionist history — heavily informs patriarchay. Were the Puritan New World or Colonial America golden ages? Of course not. But proponents of BC would argue, “Well, yeah.”

When parents dress their children in old-fashioned clothes, they’re transporting themselves back to supposedly better days when to be American was to be Christian, or at least a theist. Petticoats may not actually remind anyone of Jesus, but they are reminiscent of a time when white Christianity had a lot of cultural sway in the U.S., before evolution was taught in schools and women could vote and gay marriage was legal in 13 states and counting and Easy Bake ovens were being made in masculine colors because apparently boys can enjoy being in the kitchen too (maybe even barefoot). That’s the gist of this, isn’t it? This is a desperate tactic in a cultural war that today the Religious Right — not to mention the fringe movements beyond — is slowly losing?

The push for out-of-date fashions, and the lifestyles that the women who wore them led, is a grasp for power over a society that doesn’t agree with patriarchy, fundamentalism or reconstructionism. And that last word, reconstructionism, is especially important: Because BG isn’t just about taking us back to the past, but also taking control of the future, when America, and the whole Earth, will reach its true golden age of blessed theonomy, when every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that gender roles and Old Testament civic laws are lord.

Even on the outskirts of the homeschool patriarchy movement (my family was never really into BG, though influenced by some of its tenants), I sometimes got caught up in the sweeping vision of it all. How we are heroes, patriots, martyrs, saints. How a bit of godly fabric can change the world. But I also felt left out and less than, because I liked my Tweety Bird overalls and wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids and couldn’t figure out knitting and, even then, didn’t really see what Thomas Jefferson had to do with Moses. And in a movement dominated by language of us vs. them, of biblical or not, I never knew which side I was on.

I realize now, there aren’t really sides. It’s an invented war. I don’t have to choose between following God and liking Star Wars, between believing the gospel and wearing leggings. Biblical Girlhood is a misnomer, and I’ve long since given up pretending it’s still 1797.

Silver Bells by Pati Bannister


  1. Dan McDonald · · Reply

    So Kate, I take it you don’t think that “the meek shall inherit the earth” is a reference to theonomy? Seriously thanks for not escaping to the past. A part of me is fairly patriarchal, but even that part is listening to what you are saying. Maybe that will always be a part of me, but hopefully having heard you will even move that part to be a bit more human.

  2. Well said.
    A little nostalgia is probably OK, but the God we serve is the God of the living, not of the dead, and Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking behind her when she should have been moving forward.

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