A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates

  • Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
  • May 13, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen.  A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.  264 pages. ISBN 978-1-58743-208-8.

Certainly over the years of reading fantasy fiction and classic works of Christian apologetics by C. S. Lewis, I noticed a distinct (and puzzling) attitude toward women, but I never really gave his attitudes much thought.  I was less familiar with his life story, his education, his youth, his marriage, and his world-view.  I did not fully appreciate the man, the author, or his background, until I read the new book by Mary Steward Van Leeuwen.  Her book, A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates, should be required reading for anyone interested in Lewis, in the present state of gender issues in society, or in the science and psychology of human gender.

Like Van Leeuwen, I placed C. S. Lewis on a literary pedestal, quoting him often in lectures and sermons.  It was a revelation to me that his opinion of women as revealed in his writings was so negative that he has been labeled a misogynist, a “woman hater.”  While it may have been unfair to place Lewis in such a category, it was a shock to see all the evidence that could conceivably place him in such a group.  Nevertheless, Van Leeuwen does not leave us with a shattered image of Lewis.  Her comprehensive research reveals a fallible human being, and a very honest picture of the British author who is still ranks as one of the finest Christian writers of the twentieth century.

This book grants the reader a “slide show” of C. S. Lewis’ life, his interests, teachings, philosophies, successes and his failures.  We see the scared young boy at an English boarding school, and the bright tutor in medieval literature at Oxford.  We can imagine the tragic effects of two World Wars on Great Britain and on Lewis.  His public and his private relationships with men and women are assessed.  As a scholar in the public eye, Lewis’ literature and lectures were heavily influenced by his classical, philosophical, and literary interests.  However, those interests were certainly swayed by his early “Edwardian up-bringing.”  During the “Edwardian era” in Britain, society maintained a “doctrine of separate spheres for men and women, which were seen as ‘natural’ and ‘biblical’” (p. 39).  Further, into his adult life “he grappled with significant social changes in England regarding both class and gender” (p. 106).

During his earlier years, Lewis upheld “a hierarchical and essentialist view of class and gender” (p. 247).  On the one hand, in his earlier books and essays, we see a Lewis who “wrote as if class and gender were divinely fixed anthropological essences and social categories” (p. 244).  Both his fiction and his non-fiction revealed “stereotypical masculinity and femininity portrayed as timeless archetypes” (p. 42).  There were no women invited to attend the meetings of the “Inklings,” the literary discussion group (that included Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien) who met in Oxford from 1933 to 1949.  Lewis supported the proposal to limit the number of women admitted to Oxford to study, to avoid the “appalling danger of our degenerating into a women’s university” (p. 37).

In his earlier writings, Lewis revealed a Platonic “dualistic mind-set.”  He punctuated the differences between good and evil, spiritual and secular, right and wrong, male and female.  No doubt this “black-and-white” world-view evolved from his love of medieval literature, and from his distinction between human reality and imagination.  Thus, the very nature of men and women was fundamentally different for Lewis.  In the 1940’s, Lewis believed that “there were both ‘wifely’ and ‘motherly’ essences laid down by God and nature, regardless of what other roles women might take on as mere human beings” (p. 118).  In his writings, he was quick to make judgments about men and women, many of which could not be proven by the social sciences: “men have a more disinterested sense of justice than women; women are more concerned with practical issues than with abstract truths; neither women nor men want women in positions of authority,” and so on (p. 159).  Even in his Christian writings, Lewis was often tempted to revert back to his Platonic dualism concepts.

On the other hand, Van Leeuwen demonstrates a gradual shift in Lewis’ views regarding women.  His later letters and literary writings demonstrate that he was decidedly “less conservative in his private than in his public life” concerning gender issues (p. 245).  Publicly, he could not accept that “newer” always meant “better,” especially when it came to ideas on class, gender, and the roles of women in society.  At the same time, “Jack” was writing private letters and personal essays that exposed a sensitive heart, and did not support gender or class hierarchy.  By the 1960’s, following the death of his wife to cancer and his own physical frailty, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, in which he “effectively retracted many of this earlier views on the essence of masculinity and femininity” (p. 29).

Van Leeuwen gives us details concerning numerous friendships with women both inside and outside of his academic world.  She employs both primary and secondary sources to uncover Lewis’ thoughts and behavior towards other people.  He had a reciprocal and respectful relationship with the writer Dorothy L. Sayers, “a woman of his own class and educational background” (p. 107).  We are given insight into Lewis’ relationships with female students and with young female evacuees during the war.  Further, he developed a friendly relationship with Ruth Pitter, who published eighteen volumes of poetry (a feat he was never able to accomplish). With his female colleagues, he was regarded as “respectful, serious, and (a bit) courtly” (p. 113). 

Lewis’ opinions concerning marriage and child-rearing were explicit, but often surprising, in view of his own unhappy childhood and his late-in-life marriage.  Van Leeuwen gives the readers a glimpse into Lewis’ relationship with his wife, Joy Davidman.  In contrast to the popular movie, Shadowlands (1993), the union of Jack Lewis and Joy began as a secretive, private civil union; after some time, it was eventually blessed by the church in spite of problems encountered with regard to divorce and remarriage.  His relationship with Joy seems to have had a “balancing” effect on Lewis; after his marriage, his writings were “less intellectually combative” and he became a more “emotionally accessible” person (p. 201).

From this book, it is obvious that Van Leeuwen is a brilliant, well-trained psychologist and philosopher.  Her “brief sermon on method” (chapter 7), is convincing and scholarly.  She demonstrates great knowledge concerning the psychology of gender, “complementarity anxiety,” biological and social scientific studies on gender, as well as the familiar “nurture vs. nature” issues as they pertain to the modern gender debates.   She believes that people on both sides of the gender issue have “misread the psychological literature, in a misguided attempt to essentialize certain gender differences and read them back into Scripture” (p. 170).  Although her scientific discussions are heavy reading, she summarizes nicely by suggesting that “we need to think of ‘gender’ more as a verb than a noun” (ibid., her emphasis). Thus, “gendering is something we are responsibly and flexibly called to do more than to be” (ibid.).  Moreover, she writes that this concept is not far removed from the “better impulses” of the man C. S. Lewis, and is very much in keeping with the psychological research and literature on gender issues since his time (ibid.).

Again and again, Van Leeuwen brings us back to the interesting refrain: “Lewis was a better man than his theories” (i.e., p. 240).  It appears that in his later years, in his better moments, in his private thoughts and emotions, Lewis arrived at a more egalitarian understanding of gender differences than that which he reveals in his earlier, public, scholarly literature. So, which was the real C. S. Lewis?  Is he the proclaimed “misogynist,” or the kind, concerned mentor, loving husband, godfather, and generous step-father?  Van Leeuwen’s conclusion is very interesting, and may surprise many readers.  It is better that I allow readers to consider this conclusion with Van Leeuwen than for me to spoil the surprise. 

Judith A. Diehl, Ph.D.
Instructor in New Testament
Denver Seminary 

May 2010



Steve McKinzie

Thanks Dr. Diehl for the masterful review -- well-written and engaging. It is going to be great having you here at Denver.

Neverthless, having read a great deal of Lewis and all of The Sword Between the Sexes, I frankly find Van Leeuwen's detailed scholarship anything but convincing. One could grab a gracious contemporary complementarian, such as a John Piper or a Wayne Grudem, and doubtless find countless instances of their graciousness to women and their mentoring of female colleagues. None of that would make them some sort of closet egalitarian. Leeuwen is a fine scholar and insightful sociologist, but she is way off base on this one. She falls victim to her own wishful thanking.