Women and Patriarchy

Dear Atheology Readers,

I am honored to have been invited by Dwight to write a post on atheology.com. Raised by Fundamentalist parents in the Bible Belt, I am excited to share some of my thoughts on why women join—and leave—fundamentalist religion. When I look back at the religion I left, I am struck by how great an emphasis its leaders place on womens’ submissiveness and “traditional” family values. Many of the older women and almost all of the young women in the church in which I grew up were devoted to the idea of Biblical Womanhood.

Biblical Womanhood means, essentially, that women are to joyfully submit to their husbands in everything, devote themselves to the “High Calling” of being wives and mothers, and dress and behave modestly. While the idea of womens’ working outside of the home is not discouraged if it stems from economic necessity, the highest praise and approval is reserved for full-time wives and mothers. Women who choose not to marry or not to have children are often viewed with suspicion. Women, who represent a numerical majority among members of every Christian sect, are barred from any position in the church which would give them authority over men. It was routinely suggested from the pulpit that married women ought not own their own money, have a private email address, or make friends with men.

Lest you think these ideas are unique to one congregation, the idea of Biblical Womanhood is widely endorsed across Evangelical denominations and is rapidly growing in popularity among young women and teenage girls. Many of these women say things like “I’m feminine, not feminist” and “I’m a Proverbs 31 woman!” or a “I want to be a Titus 2 woman!” Many Fundamentalist Christians view any move toward womens’ empowerment to be part of a liberal attack on Christian Family Values.

But why? Why do Fundamentalist Christians seem so obsessed with curtailing womens’ rights and equality? Why is male dominance and female submissiveness a Christian Family Value? The first and most obvious reason for embracing a system in which men rule over women and women are treated as second class citizens is that it is biblical. Taken at face value, the Bible does not set forth a society in which men and women are equals. While the Bible describes a handful of powerful women, those women do not represent a model for ordinary godly women. In fact, powerful women in the Bible are often villains (Vashti, Delilah, Jezebel). The Bible is crystal clear about women’s relationship to men (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22). If one chooses to live by a literal interpretation of the Bible, one must accept that gender equality is simply inconsistent.

Of course, the Bible has been (roughly) the same for centuries. So, what has brought about the recent emphasis in Fundamentalist circles on controlling women by returning to “traditional” gender roles? One argument is that, until a few years ago, these gender roles represented broad social norms; but that, in the past few decades, the wider society has changed while the church has held with “tradition.” To some extent, this is true. The recent emphasis on women’s “returning” to biblical gender roles is, at least partly, the church’s response to feminism. In the past few decades, women have seen tremendous changes in their position relative to men. Men, too, have necessarily seen changes in their positions relative to women. Men are suddenly (in the past few decades) faced with realities which their fathers never imagined: women bosses; women professors; women in high political office—women in charge of them. Men can no longer rely on the law, on science, or on prevailing social norms to justify mens’ dominance and womens’ subjugation. One place men can reasonably expect to receive affirmation of their superiority is in Fundamentalist churches—churches which seek to live by a literal interpretation of the Bible. It follows, then, that the more rights and powers women gain in society, the more the church will seek to take those rights and powers away.

If one gives it much thought, it isn’t difficult to see why men in recent decades have embraced a system which reinforces patriarchal values just as the broader society is beginning to reject them. What may be more difficult to understand is why women would choose to live under such a system. One may reasonably imagine that women are dragged into Fundamentalist sects through abuse and manipulation by their husbands. Certainly this is sometimes the case. Other women, like myself, have been brought up by Fundamentalist families. But a shocking number of young women willingly convert to Fundamentalist sects, or, being raised in a Fundamentalist family, embrace more conservative views than their parents. Why? Why would a woman knowingly embrace the message that she is inferior?

Again, the most straight-forward reason is that the Bible tells me so. What does a woman think when she reads verses like “I do not permit a woman to speak or to hold authority; she must remain silent”? The same thing a man thinks: Women must not be as good as men. If a woman begins with the premise that the Bible is the literal word of God, and she then observes that the Bible prescribes a subservient position for women, then she must conclude that God prescribes a subservient role for women. The only way to obey God, then, is to accept her own second-class status.

Another reason why women cling to religious doctrines which preach male dominance is a bit more complicated. Rather than reflecting the successes of feminist movements, womens’ adherence to Fundamentalist views on gender reflects the failures of feminist movements. That is, it speaks to the fact that women are still oppressed in very real ways which are seldom acknowledged. When people tell little girls that we could grow up to be President of the Untied States, we know they aren’t telling us the truth. We know that, in reality, we probably can’t do that. In the same way, when people tell us that women are just as smart and capable as men in the work place but we consistently earn less money and receive fewer promotions, we feel lied to. When we are told that women have equal protection under the law, yet we are treated with suspicion and contempt when we report being the victim of a violent crime, we feel lied to. When we’re told that we are sexually liberated, but what we experience is comodification and objectification of our sexuality, we feel lied to.A doctrine which tells us that women aren’t meant to be equal to men and that we will be happier if we accept our lot in life—just seems more honest.

Not only is the idea of a divinely ordained patriarchy consistent with many womens’ experiences, it brings positive meaning to those experiences.

Fundamentalist women are told that when we choose to submit to our husbands, we are modeling perfect submission to God. When we subject our will to our husbands’, we are not being abused; we are practicing dependence on God. When we choose to dress modestly and eschew the trappings of beauty, we are demonstrating godly humility. When we abstain from sexual intimacy and pleasure, we are saving our selves as a gift for our husbands (just as we save our spirits for God). And when we satisfy our husbands demands for sex and childbearing, we are acknowledging God’s right to control our bodies. By submitting gracefully and demonstrating joy in submission, we are demonstrating to a rebellious and discontented world the “Peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding.”

Viewed through the lens of Fundamentalist Christianity, our oppression ceases to be painful, frustrating, and humiliating, and becomes instead a powerful expression of devotion to God.

Indeed, embracing feminism, not skepticism toward the existence of God, is what first separated me from the church. I didn’t question—either aloud or in my mind—whether there really was a God. I insisted that there was a God. I insisted that God loved me. And I insisted  that I, a woman, was made in the image of God, as the Bible says. I questioned why a perfect creator would create an imperfect creature in Its own image.  I then began to question why, if women and men are both made in the image of God, women should submit to men.The resistance and anger I faced for asking this relatively simple question was the beginning of the end of faith for me. Only when I refused to accept my own inferiority did I begin to reject the Bible and the Bible’s God.

About Redheaded Heretic

Raised a Fundamentalist Christian, I am a relative newcomer to atheism and feminism.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Feminism, Patriarchy. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Women and Patriarchy

  1. Thanks for this article, Redheaded Heretic and Dwight. In recent years, thousands of women are ‘waking up’ to falsehoods, outright lies, twisted interpretation of sacred books, and ongoing oppression. Many who feel a connection with Divinity will disengage from an organized faith group or church, finding community with other women who are more attuned with similar realizations that God IS Love, whether one views the deity in masculine or feminine ‘form’. Each woman (and man, of course) has a choice between rule-drive, dogma-laden policies within organized religions that will keep them subservient and bound, or to remove herself to something more truly uplifting, empowering, and aligned with grace. God, and the Goddess (as Mary, Kwan Yin, Tara, Isis, Aprhodite, Athena and so on — all variations on the Divine Feminine theme) opens her arms to receive anyone who seeks Truth as well as the liberation from male-dominated systems that no longer work. Women often run to organized religion at the encouragement of others, including demanding husbands and well-meaning relations. Conforming rather than thinking for oneself is encouraged by those who would line up to allow another to run their lives. Women who lack self-esteem, courage, self-discipline, self-awareness and any form of ‘voice’ tend to fall into those fundamentalist groups. The word ‘ignorance’ comes up often in discussion of such groups, and sadly the ignorance seems based on biases and repeated refrains culled from a few outdated verses in Old Testament thinking. These no longer work, for women, for the GLBT community, for millions of people who have begun to remember they don’t have to do a thing to BE the precious children of God/Goddess/Mother/Father which they are. They simply need to align with the love within their own hearts, forgiving all, and raising their own consciousness by directly connecting with their Creator – whatever the name or gender. I do not believe God is of any gender, however I use my own Spirit’s knowing to recognize each day, often in nature, how the Divine shines through all Be-ings. My thinking is more aligned with ancient pagan ways, because Nature has been a great teacher to me. My heart goes out to the millions of oppressed people world-wide who continue to suffer at the hand of the patriarchy–in religion or on Wall Street. I mention quite a bit about this in my book “Everyone’s A Guru”, and hope more people wake up to their own perfection. Again, thank you.


  2. Dwight says:

    I wonder how wide-spread this reactionary emphasis on female submission and inferiority (“Biblical Womanhood”) has become among fundamentalist and evangelical churches. Because these churches represent the most vibrant and active segment of Christianity in the U. S. today, it’s vital to understand the extent to which they are embracing the re-subjugation of women.

    I understand that this modern effort to put women back into their Biblical “place” includes the assertion that women should not vote, should not drive, and should be chaparoned by male relatives whenever they leave the house, among other Taliban-like restrictions. It is as though a sort of Christian sharia is developing within American fundamentalism. As Redheaded Heretic says, they know they can’t rely “on the law, on science, or on prevailing social norms to justify mens’ dominance and womens’ subjugation”, but what they can rely on is their circle of religious influence. In a nation as religious as ours is, that circle can be broad and powerful.

    That conservative Christians are engaging American society in a culture war is well-known to those of use who find ourselves having to defend modern values. But the stakes seem to be much greater—particularly for women and girls—than I realized. What we are seeing is no less than an effort to turn back the clock, not years or decades, but centuries.

    As I think Redheaded Heretic makes clear, this is not just a reaction to modern feminism and the subsequent gains women have made politically and socially. It’s built upon one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity: that the Bible is God’s Holy word. If Christians take that tenet seriously, it means adopting Biblical social structures and morality, to the detriment of all of us. This would be especially disastrous for women, of course. We only need to look at Islamic societies to see where this enslavement to ancient texts could take us.

    Debra—it seems entirely natural to me that modern women who are religious would turn away from the patriarchal middle eastern religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and embrace the Goddess. Even when I was still a teenager (and still Christian) I found that it was the female moon that drew the strongest religious feelings out of me—as if I had a natural inclination to worship a Goddess. The moon felt like my protector, a feeling that persists even today (though as an atheist I shouldn’t admit it, I know).

    But seems to me that relatively few women or men actually become Wiccan or embrace any kind of matriarchal religion. Am I wrong about that? Are they out there in large numbers, but hidden under the “non-religious” or “unaffiliated” category in religious polls?

    In the modern world, Christianity and Islam seem like they can only be reactionary and drag us backwards morally and socially. We need voices of all kinds to oppose that.

  3. Dwight says:

    As if to reinforce the point, here’s a video of Pastor Jack Schapp, First Baptist Church of Hammond Indiana

    In case this video has to be taken down again, here’s some of what he says:

    ABC News called me this week and said,”we heard that you believe that men should be in charge of their wives.” I said, no sir I didn’t say that. I said, God said that. He said husbands are the head of the wife. I said, you got a problem with what I said, I’ve quoted the Bible, maybe you ought take it up with God.

    He said, do you think that’s appropriate and I said, son, anything God says is appropriate and you better get that straight right now.

    I never apologize for standing where God stands.

    The other day someone asked me, this reporter he said, “I heard that it would be a cold day in hell before you’d get your theology from a woman.” He said, “Don’t you kind of think that’s demeaning to the genders?” I said, ask Adam what he thought about getting his theology from a woman? I said, it damned the whole world. I said the reason your sorry soul’s going to hell is because a woman told Adam what God thinks about things. He said, “You’re pretty strong about what you believe.” I said, not half as strong as what God knows you ought to believe.

    I wouldn’t get my [salary? theology?] from a woman.

    A woman didn’t write this book. Not one woman wrote the Scriptures right here. A man wrote the Bible, got it from God. A man hung on the cross, Jesus Christ, and God called on a man to lead the church here. Hey! I’m proud I’m a man.

  4. lolo says:

    but in islam (muslims) women and men are treated equally 🙂

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