Patriarchy in Practice

Sally Gallaher released a study a few years back revealing that even though the majority of evangelicals agree that the wife should submit to the husband and that the husband is the head of the house, almost all of them actually in practice have egalitarian marriages. Interesting, no?

It strikes me that patriarchal gender roles are applied very differently in different families. In most evangelical families, couples endorse patriarchal roles but actually have egalitarian marriages. At the same time, I’ve read stories from girls who report that their dads were tyrants who ruled the house with an iron hand. From personal experience, I have to say that my parents were somewhere in between.

Mom did the day to day finances, and dad took care of the big stuff like investments. They worked out the monthly budget together, and together made decisions about things like swim lessons and music lessons. When there were big decisions to be made, mom had a lot of influence over dad. He might have had final say, but her perspective was always heard and taken into account.

Have you ever heard the phrase “the husband is the head but the wife is the neck, she turns him whichever way she will”? That’s very much the way my parents’ relationship worked. My dad was no tyrant, my mom no doormat.

Sometimes, of course, mom found she couldn’t turn the head. In those cases, she went along with what dad said, and submitted. But she would justify that submission, pointing out that it would never due if husband and wife were at cross purposes. She never played the martyr and she didn’t wear her submission on her sleeve.

Yet at the same time, my parents taught us children that the husband is to love his wife, and the wife is to submit. They taught us that the father is the head of the house and that submission means obedience. They endorsed female submission for both daughter and wife even as in practice this submission entailed a lot more influence and cooperation than it might sound like on the surface.

It strikes me that every wife walks a line between “wearing the pants” and being a “doormat” and every husband walks a line between being a “tyrant” and being a “pushover,” regardless of what sort of gender roles they endorse.

I would also argue that a lot of this variability in what patriarchy actually looks like has to do with personality. My mom was a strong, outspoken woman, and my dad was a quiet, introspective person. For them, patriarchy was relatively cooperative, at least in practice if not in doctrine.

I would argue that there are as many different sorts of patriarchal families as there are colors in a rainbow. If you or your parents endorsed some form of patriarchy, just what did it look like in practice in your situation?

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