The Complementarian Vision of Kitty Wells

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This week saw the passing, at 92 years-old, of legend Kitty Wells, who was called “the Queen of Country Music.” And, with her death, commentators are hailing her as a feminist icon. The Atlantic magazine even eulogized her as a forerunner of Britney Spears. Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “feminist.”

Wells is most famous, of course, for the song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.” The song made history because it was a response, from a woman’s perspective, to Hank Thompson’s hit “Wild Side of Life.” In his song, Thompson cynically berates his ex-wife who left him. He should have known, he sings, that she’d “never made a wife.” She was instead a “honky-tonk angel,” predestined to be unfaithful to him.

Not so fast, said Miss Kitty.

Wells’ song responded in kind, and with the same tune as Thompson’s (which was not original to him but was borrowed from such classics as the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” and Roy Acuff’s “Great Specked Bird).” Wells pushed back against the double standard, omnipresent on the country music charts and in the 1950s America, that a man could “run around” with a wink and a nod, but a woman who did so was some sort of harlot.

Wells argued, in a deceptively sweet and gentle voice, that women were driven to the honky-tonk night life not by God’s design but by years of life with men who “think that they’re still single.”

“It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women,” Wells sang.

You sing it sister.

Wells’ voice was new, and it led to a similar form of female protest songs that shows up in Loretta Lynn’s lyrics against womanizing, drunkenness, and abandoning a wife at home with the children while the husband raises hell out with his buddies. So, yes, if by “feminism” you mean the idea that women bear dignity and respect, then, yes, Kitty Wells fits the bill.

But Wells was no Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. She wasn’t attempting to tear down the complementary harmony of the husband-wife union or the so-called “traditional nuclear family.” Instead, Wells was calling men to the very traditional complementarity they said they believed but had abandoned. What Wells was protesting wasn’t the kind of self-sacrificial headship found in the masculine imperative given by Jesus and his apostles. It was instead a protest against the kind of pagan patriarchy we see in every culture and at every age. This patriarchy asserts a kind of male headship that’s based on power and privilege.

And it leads to the male destruction of families and homes, followed by the blaming of women. As a matter of fact, that’s the kind of satanic “headship” we see in the primeval Garden. “The woman you gave to me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). As Kitty put it, that’s a shame.

What she’s protesting against is still worth protesting, including within the church. We live in a world where male Darwinian power is everywhere worshiped, even in a culture that deems itself “feminist.” Women are degraded in a billion pixels on the Internet and in objectifying corporate advertising and in the abandoned single mothers struggling to eek out a living for the children of some long-gone man. This is seen in an anarchic church in which fathers and spiritual leaders turn their heads while their daughters are used by men for sexual immorality.

Kitty Wells is hardly the musical godmother of Britney Spears or the hyper-sexualized singers of the past generation. She was just the opposite. She didn’t want to celebrate honky-tonk angeldom. She didn’t want to be a honky-tonk angel at all. She wanted to be a wife, a lover, a woman. She wanted human dignity, and a man who was worthy of the name. She wanted a union that was bone of bone and flesh of flesh.

It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels. Amen.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).