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?

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anne —

    Lol…well, my mom took care of the check book and grocery shopping, but my dad leaned more towards the tyrant. Not really over my mom…she wasn't a strong-willed person so it was easy for her to submit (besides that, she was convinced she wasn't as smart as he was), but over us kids, he was a tyrant.He would say things like he was the king of his house, and mom was the queen, meaning he was the boss and mom was sorta-boss, and we were…nothing. He once compared himself to God to us, using the following logic:God gave me authority over you, so in effect, I'm like God to you. Just like when Anne babysits, I give her a part [VERY small part let me tell you] of my authority, so she represents me to you. Since I represent God to you, you should obey me because that's obeying God.I'm not kidding.

  • Enigma

    My dad controlled everything in our family. Even the grocery shopping. Originally my mom would fight his control, then she moved on to manipulation to try and get what she wanted, eventually she just submitted completely.I remember her sitting me down once and telling me that everything would be better now because she had decided to submit to Dad the way God wanted her to.And Anne, my dad said the EXACT same thing about authority. He told us that God communicated directly with fathers through the holy spirit. If we disobeyed or even disagreed, we would be rebelling against God.

  • bluebleakember

    I think you are right in that each individual marriage dynamic is shaped more by the personalities of the husband and wife than by whatever gender ideals they say they espouse.However, I also think that families with certain kinds of weaknesses and flaws (overly controlling husband, wife afraid of responsibility) do tend to gravitate more naturally to the teachings of Christian patriarchy. It can get to be a mess, when people idealize their pathologies! I know this doesn't happen in all Christian patriarchal homes, though.

  • shadowspring

    I think that as long as it is an evangelical requirement to publicly assent to wifely submission, this dichotomy between what a family lays claim to believing and how a family actually lives will exist. Assenting to wifely submission is the shibboleth by which those who don't really belong are weeded out of the evangelical community. It's not how you live in practice that matters; it's the doctrines to which you publicly assent that matter.This is how Michelle Bachmann can claim that as a college-educated career woman she was being submissive to her husband. Her parents WANTED her to be educated and her husband WANTED her to work, so it's okay.Now for those children whose parents do not want to see them well-educated, and those women whose husbands do not want them to work, well, not Michelle Bachmann's problem. I claimed to be in submission to my husband while in reality my husband was just not involved in day to day family life. I always kept the family finances, he has never thought of telling me what/how to spend money, home schooling is almost entirely a feminist undertaking, and I wear what I want to wear and go where I want to go. So the best way for a godly submissive wife to be able to live with herself and play the part is to marry a passive man who pretty much just goes with the flow.I contributed greatly to the mess that our marriage became by personally subjugating myself to my husband without his knowledge or consent. I was being told that this self-subjugation was the road to happiness and God's blessing.In reality, the road to happiness lay in my expressing MY opinions and putting MY foot down when my good brain told me it was the right thing to do.Since I stopped giving even lip service to the shibboleth of wifely submission, I was almost immediately characterizes as a liberal Jezebel by the Christian communities I was associating with- both online and IRL. Funny, because my spiritual life is as vibrant as ever, my marriage is on the way instead of headed for divorce, my home schooled students are thriving instead of depressed and self-loathing, and I am really enjoying the pursuit of my own future career.But now I'm a liberal-ooooh scary- all because I acknowledged reality and dropped the evangelical party line about marriage and family.Ohs. Noes.

  • Katy-Anne

    For us my mom used wifely submission as an excuse to sit back and say nothing when our father abused us. Yeah, it's called passing the buck.

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