C. S. Lewis’s View of Women, and How He’s Impacted My Thinking
The following questions and answers are from my contribution to Women and C. S. Lewis: What His Life and Literature Reveal for Today's Culture, edited by Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key. I highly recommend this unique and well-reviewed book, which has excellent contributions by 26 others, including Alister McGrath and Kathy Keller.
Question: The readers of our book are interested in C.S. Lewis’s commentaries, literary treatments and known or apparent attitudes regarding women and girls. It’s intriguing to think about whether he would participate in today’s discussions about a variety of issues, ranging from women in church leadership…to abuses of women such as the rise of sex trafficking… to silencing the voices of women and thwarting the educations of schoolgirls in certain cultures. Many thinkers, authors and speakers in the 21st Century are vocal on such issues from various points of view. Do you think Lewis would join this chorus or stay silent, fearing such participation would enter the political realm (Lewis’s reason for turning down Churchill’s offer of a CBE [Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a rank in the royal honors system of the United Kingdom])? If he did participate, what do you think he might say or add to the discussion? We know this is a “supposal,” since he was of a different era, but do you see a hint of a trajectory in his thinking, writing and speaking, based on what you know of Lewis?
Answer: Lewis wrote admiringly of “the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade,” and just as he advocated equal rights for all races, I have no doubt he would fully advocate women’s rights, though his calling wasn’t one of a crusader. I cringe whenever I see Lewis called a misogynist. Certainly, to the degree that most of us are, he was a creature of his day and culture—indeed, he called himself a dinosaur—but in many respects, in the deeply respectful tone he speaks about women, he seems more ahead of his time than behind it. He was a true complementarian, one who saw women as God’s image-bearers with fully equal value to men, even if sometimes intended for different roles, something he celebrated.
As the father of two daughters, I love seeing Lewis’s tenderness toward girls. In his Letters to Children, he treats young girls with great respect and never talks down to them.
In 1949, Lewis sent his five-year-old god-daughter Lucy Barfield the completed manuscript of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with a letter saying, “I wrote this story for you,” which later became the dedication in the printed book. The way he portrays Lucy, as the most spiritually perceptive and good-hearted of the children, is itself a compliment to females—no male character in the Chronicles compares to Lucy in her love for Aslan, nor does Aslan love any character more than Lucy.
Many don’t know that the actual inspiration for Narnia’s Lucy was Jill Freud, a London girl who at age 11, during World War II, was evacuated to Lewis's house in Oxford to escape the bombings. Lewis wrote, “I never appreciated children till the war brought them to me." In his letters Lewis praised Jill as a “bright spot” in the home and "the most selfless person" he’d ever known.
Children often have a way of sensing an adult’s true nature, so I was interested to read a 2005 interview with then 78-year-old Jill Freud. When asked her first impressions of Lewis, she said, “Oh, I loved him.” She said Lewis was like an adoptive parent to her. “He influenced me hugely. …He did think I was bright.”
Two years later Lewis paid for her to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she began a successful career as an actress. Her assessment of Jack Lewis? “I thought he was wonderful.” Not the assessment that a girl or young woman would make of a misogynist!
Lewis developed a good friendship with Ruth Pitter, an accomplished poet. Lewis admired her poetry. His correspondence, including his critique of her work, demonstrates great respect for her intellect and artistic gifts.
Lewis deeply respected and appreciated his friend Dorothy Sayers, one of the greatest British intellectuals of her time, as well as a popular playwright and writer of mysteries. At Sayers’s funeral in 1957, Lewis’s warm eulogy spoke of the extraordinary craftsmanship displayed in her radio plays on the life of Christ, “The Man Born to be King.” He said he had read it “every Holy Week since it first appeared, and never re-read it without being deeply moved.” Sayers was an outspoken woman and a forceful intellect, some of the same qualities Lewis would admire in his future wife Joy.
Lewis developed a close friendship with Joy Davidman Gresham before they married. He loved her deeply and after her death, writing A Grief Observed under a pseudonym, he called Joy “a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword.” If some of Lewis’s earlier books seem occasionally condescending or stereotypical concerning women, his later writings show strong respect, and toward Joy, deep admiration. Lewis met few men who were his intellectual equal, but delighted to marry a woman who had two of his own qualities: a photographic memory and a love for debate. Joy’s son Doug Gresham confirms that theirs was a marriage of equals, with a mutual depth of respect.
It is impossible to separate how Jack Lewis viewed women, later in life, from how he viewed Joy, the woman with whom he shared his dreams, pleasures and sorrows. How brilliant was Joy? She entered college at age 14. By age twenty she had a master's degree with honors from Columbia. Her poetry was published in the most prestigious magazines. At age 8, she read H.G. Wells’s Outline of History and declared that she was an atheist. (Many years later she credited the books of Lewis with bringing her to Christ.) Her brother recalled that she could read a page of Shakespeare once and memorize it instantly. Her IQ tests were literally off the charts. (Some of the claims about her intellect may seem overstated, but Doug Gresham, when I asked him, confirmed their truth.) Any man who was insecure around capable women would surely stay away from Joy, who was so brilliant and prone toward debate!
Warren Lewis, Jack’s brother, wrote: “For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met ... who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun.”
Paul Ford points out that the female characters in the four Chronicles of Narnia written prior to The Horse and His Boy are more old-fashioned, while afterward the women become more modern, intellectual and self-sufficient. It’s no coincidence that The Horse and His Boy, dedicated to Joy’s sons Douglas and David, was the first one written after Lewis had gotten to know Joy. In his last novel, Till We Have Faces, Lewis’s favorite, he writes from the point-of-view of Orual, a woman. Joy collaborated with him on this book, which he dedicated to her. I’ve admired the typewriter at Doug Gresham’s home used by his mother, on which she typed the final manuscript. Many believe that Orual, in many respects, reflects Joy’s persona. Theirs was a true partnership of equals.
Without his understanding of women that came through his relationship with Joy, The Four Loves might not have been written, and certainly would not be as rich and perceptive.
After Davidman's death from cancer in 1960, Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed: “She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. ...If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less always been together.”
My wife Nanci and I were very touched, many years ago, to view Joy’s memorial epitaph in Headington, near Oxford, with the words written by her loving husband Jack Lewis. He could not have expressed such deep affection for one woman without embracing a high regard for womanhood:
Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
Question: As an author who has written widely on issues of interest to women (and men), such as Help for Women Under Stress, Why Prolife?, and ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments, in what ways has Lewis impacted your thinking?
Answer: My wife Nanci and I raised two daughters whom I respect deeply. When the first was born, the Christian doctor said to me in the delivery room, “Sorry, dad. It’s a girl.” I looked at him without appreciation and said, “I prayed we’d have a girl.” I’ve never had a moment’s regret that God gave me girls instead of boys.
Lewis’s writing and focus on Heaven powerfully reminds us to live our lives seeking to please Christ. His emphasis on eternity helps us to become the kind of Christians who actively reach out to others in Jesus’s name, addressing both their physical and spiritual needs. Many of the most materially needy and emotionally abused people in the world are women.
Nanci’s and my book Help for Women Under Stress was written to give hope, encouragement and practical assistance to women facing life’s challenges. We encourage women to embrace their worth but recognize their limits. Their energy is perishable, but can and should be daily replenished. Most importantly, we remind readers that God will wipe away all their tears in an eternal world of rest, refreshment, thriving relationships and unending adventure. This eternal perspective emerges in both Lewis’s fiction and nonfiction, and it’s something all of us need to consider.
My books ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments and Why ProLife? were born out of a deep concern both for the unborn and their mothers. A little more than half of aborted children are female, and in some cultures prenatal testing is done to identify females and kill them before they are born. This is anti-woman on the most basic level.
Because I’ve been outspoken in my support of women, it was a particularly hard blow years ago to be pigeonholed as “anti-women” because I publicly opposed abortion. In fact, my concern about abortion didn’t start with a burden for children, but a burden for women who struggled due to their past abortions. I believe abortion not only kills children, but deeply hurts women.
It was during this time of public criticism that I began daily to think about God as “the Audience of One.” Lewis helped me remember that eternal realities alone, not temporary ones (including other people’s opinions of us), are truly important. When Jack Lewis met his Savior, I believe he heard, “Well done, my good and faithful servant, enter into your Master’s happiness.” When that day comes for all of us, we will know instantly that the One opinion that really mattered all along was His.