Poetry and Politics

Ruth accompanied Bill to Texas at the end of April 1976; he was speaking at the Southern Baptist seminary in Fort Worth, and both were giving talks at her brother Clayton’s church, Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas. During this trip, a reporter conducting an interview for the Associated Press asked Ruth about the “women’s liberation movement,” eliciting perhaps Ruth’s most pointed public comments on midcentury feminism. The resulting news item carried the jazzily terse headline, “Graham’s Wife No Libber Fan.” Unlike some better-known evangelical women such as Anita Bryant and the Catholic anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly, Ruth did not make a career of publicly criticizing the women’s movement. But when asked, she voiced objections in line with previous public comments about marriage and women’s most important roles of wife and mother.

Ruth sometimes theorized in her poetry, but it was theory based on observations, and rarely if ever about being a woman in a man’s world. She thought of herself as a broken sinner in God’s world. She simply did not think about “oppression” in gendered terms. She rather understood oppression as a matter of human subjection to sin. Sinfulness was a universal problem that individuals needed to address in their own lives, by confessing it to God and embracing God’s salvation.

In the AP interview, therefore, Ruth relabeled the women’s movement as “men’s lib,” decrying its effect of “freeing [men] from their responsibilities.” Ruth warned, “I think we [women] are being taken for a ride.” In the abstract, Ruth thought women needed men’s protection and provision. Feminism, in her view, rejected men’s safekeeping and put women at risk. Moreover, in line with antifeminist crusaders such as Schlafly, Ruth believed that traditional gender roles protected men, too, by keeping them accountable. Ruth feared that men who no longer felt an essential calling to shelter women—metaphorically and literally—would sacrifice a duty that humanized them. God made women and men with needs and abilities that answered to each other. Feminism took women “for a ride,” but also ran roughshod over men by allowing them a dangerous freedom that they could not be trusted with.

In criticizing the midcentury women’s liberation movement, Ruth drew deeply on the evidence of her missionary childhood. Nelson and Virginia had lived out their belief that only Christianity (as interpreted by southern whites) would bring true freedom to the Chinese people. Virginia’s leadership in the women’s clinic demonstrated to Ruth how Christian service and the gospel message could relieve missionized women’s physical and spiritual miseries—the classic nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mission ideology of “woman’s work for woman.” Ruth also witnessed the fierce purpose and satisfaction that such work gave to her mother and many other women who worked in Tsingkiangpu. Hence Ruth’s declaration to the AP reporter in Texas that a woman engaged in even menial Christian service was “the most truly liberated”: “She can be liberated behind a sinkfull [sic] of dirty dishes or a load of dirty clothes. She is free to do what God has called her to do” (emphasis added). A woman’s freedom, for Ruth, came through adjusting to her God-ordained duty to love husband, children, neighbors—while men experienced true freedom by adjusting to the “responsibility” of their own divinely ordained family leadership role.

Popular books such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch had diagnosed, described, and proposed remedies for white middle-class women’s experience of patriarchal oppression. Friedan argued that these women suffered a malaise—the “problem that has no name”—rooted in the sacrifice of energies to others’ needs, goals, and cares. Husbands and children outranked a woman’s own care for self. By contrast, Ruth told the AP reporter that her other-directed life had not produced in her any such “identity crisis” (the reporter’s phrase). “I am known as Billy’s wife,” Ruth asserted. “But when I was growing up I was Dr. Nelson Bell’s daughter, and then I was Gigi’s mother, Anne’s mother, Bunny’s mother, Franklin and Ned’s mother.” She claimed to have always known who she was, at least whose she was “known as.”

Ruth’s demurral is worth pondering. On one hand, it legitimated Friedan’s argument. Ruth described herself as Nelson’s daughter, Billy’s wife, and the children’s mother, rather than as Ruth the poet, the philanthropist, the community servant, the lover of practical jokes. On the other hand, her other-directed self-description did not constitute a “problem” for her. If she had a problem that she could not name—but experienced as loneliness, indecision, anxiety—she framed it as a symptom of incomplete adjustment. It rose from the sacrifice she had chosen to make in order to follow both Jesus’s teachings and, through them, Bill’s lead. Feminist historian Joan Scott has pointed out that the characterization of “women as wounded subjects” typified much of second-wave feminism. Ruth did not experience herself as having been wounded by patriarchy, but by her own human sinfulness.

The way Ruth expressed her self-understanding also bears examination for its subtle demonstration of the distinctions she made between public persona and private circumstances. She acknowledged that being “known as Billy’s wife” arose from the connection to her famous husband in his public role. To the public, she was married to Billy Graham the evangelist, not to Bill the husband only she knew. As a child and young woman, before Bill bounded into her life, Ruth Bell “was” Nelson’s daughter. In Montreat, away from the glare of crusade publicity and the nosiness of tour bus passengers, she “was” the mother of five children. She was, therefore, more than what the public knew her as. Living the daily life of a daughter and a mother was, for her, more genuine and essential than her being “known as” the wife of a world-famous figure, even the evangelist she had fought so hard to support and guide. Friedan and her sisters (and maybe even later observers) may have preferred that Ruth see herself as an autonomous agent, rather than be so defined by connections to others. (Indeed, why did Ruth not at least identify herself here with Virginia instead of Nelson?) While she clearly did not object to defining herself in terms of a father or a husband, or in terms of a traditional female role, she did distinguish between her public and private identities in an agentive way. Significantly, the AP writer reported, “Being married to [Billy] Graham, [Ruth] said, has required a lot of adjustment” (emphasis added), using the very term that Ruth herself had embraced years before.

Excerpted from An Odd Cross to Bear: A Biography of Ruth Bell Graham by Anne Blue Wills ©2022 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.