Shadows, Echoes, and Reflections: Gendered Standards

As you know, I have a very large number of younger siblings. As more of my siblings have begun growing up, I’ve been noticing a pattern in how my parents have treated their children’s relationships with those of the opposite gender. Let’s just say it’s a gendered difference. A major gendered difference.

The girls have all had their prospective beaus scrutinized in detail, and each time there ends up being drama and pain and heartbreak. And it’s not just the beliefs that are scrutinized. It’s everything. The boys? Nope. Nada. The boys can bring home a prospective marriage partner and all they get is excitement and a pat on the back. Their prospective sweethearts aren’t questioned or scrutinized at all.

There is a serious double standard here.

And in case it’s not already obvious, this makes me mad. It’s not that I want my brothers to have their relationships put through my parents’ strainer, it’s just that when I watch how my parents treat my brothers’ relationships I can’t help but think I wish that was me. I wish they had reacted that way when I brought a boy home. And the whole situation just feels so unfair. It hurts.

But it has also made me think. Why is there this difference? What all is involved? And I’ve come up with two things: First, my parents belief that husbands are to lead and wives are to follow; and Second, my parents believe that parents are to serve as gatekeepers and protectors for their daughters, but not for their sons.

Husbands Lead, Wives Follow

My parents’ belief that it is the husband’s job to lead and the wife’s job to follow affects how they view their adult children’s romantic relationships. It’s pretty simple really. As my parents see it, my brothers are looking for women to follow them, to echo their views and their vision, but my sisters are looking for men to follow, men whose views and vision they will echo.

It’s almost like a wife is to become her husband’s shadow, to cling to her husband and lose herself in him completely. She becomes her husband’s echo, her husband’s helper, her husband’s reflection.

When one of my brothers brings a girl home, my parents look at that girl as a prospective shadow of my brother, as someone who will follow my brother and do as he does, say what he says, and live as he lives. Who that girl is in and of herself becomes less important, for first and foremost she is to become a shadow, and echo, and a reflection.

When one of my sisters expresses interest in a young man, it’s completely different. My parents look at that young man as the person my sister will become the shadow, echo, and reflection of. That young man must therefore be perfect, completely ideologically pure and economically prepared. As my parents look at that young man, they ask themselves whether they want their daughter to become this man’s shadow, echo, and reflection, losing herself completely in him and in his vision.

The result is that my sisters’ marriage interests are subjected to a grilling the likes of which my brothers’ marriage interests never face. And I was no exception. My parents put their daughters – and their daughters’ marriage interests – through hell, trauma, and pain. My brothers and their marriage interests? Nope. They, in contrast, are welcomed with open arms, smiles, and immediate wedding planning.

Daughters in a Tower

There’s something else going on here as well, though. My parents believe that parents – and especially fathers – are to be the gatekeepers and protectors of their daughters.

Imagine a world in which parents lock their daughters in towers and stand guard around them. At the same time, they send their sons off to seek their fortunes. In their travels each of these young men eventually finds a young woman – locked in a tower – who strikes his fancy. He must apply to the young lady’s parents, who are carefully standing guard, to release her from her tower. Only if the young man passes the parents’ inspection will they unlock the tower and free the young lady to leave with her suitor.

Now of course, the towers we’re talking about here are figurative, but the idea is the same. Parents are to stand guard over their daughters while young men are to go off and search for brides. Every adult daughter, then, is to have a protector and gatekeeper – her parents, but especially her father – whose scrutiny a young man must pass in order to obtain her hand in marriage.

Now back to how this relates to my parents. My parents don’t see themselves as gatekeepers or guards over their sons, but only over their daughters. It is their duty, they believe, to protect their adult daughters by carefully screening marriage prospects, but the need not do the same with their sons. Thus they treat a daughter’s marriage interest completely differently than they would a son’s marriage interest.

My parents, of course, expect that their sons must pass the scrutiny of their marriage interest’s parents, and especially of her father. I suppose that if one of my brothers was interested in a young woman and her parents said “no” to the relationship, my parents would encourage my brother to let it go. If my brother and the young lady in question decided to start a relationship in defiance of her parents’ wishes, my parents would almost certainly object. They would not, though, object because they objected to something about the young lady but rather because they objected to my brother not gaining the proper permissions from her authorities and protectors to start a relationship with her.


Wow, I just realized how very much these ideas relegate women to the position of property, property to be bought and sold, unthinking automatons to mindlessly follow their current male owners. There was a time when I would have said all of this sounded natural and right. That time is long gone.

What it seems like my parents cannot conceive of is two equally capable young adults finding each other, falling in love, and forming an equal partnership in which each retain their own individual thoughts, minds, and desires. They cannot understand that for some people, marriages really are equal partnerships, or that some people see young men and young women as equally capable of choosing the direction of their lives for themselves.

Indeed, my parents seem to see young women as incapable of making good decisions for themselves, and incapable of having their own independent identities. For my parents, adult daughters must be carefully guarded and protected, and once they are handed off to husbands they will morph into shadows, echos, and reflections of those young men.

I am no shadow. I am no echo. I am no reflection.

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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.

  • AnotherOne

    Great post, and so true. My parents were/are harder on us girls in so many ways, and so much more restrictive.

    I, too, once thought that someone had to be in charge in a marriage. I rationalized patriarchy in the common fundamentalist/evangelical way–that ideally, there’s a give and take between husband and wife, but that when there was a disagreement, someone “had” to be the one to make the decision, and the Bible says that someone is the husband. He has the final say, and the wife must submit. That seems crazy to me now. It seems so patently obvious that working to come to a mutually acceptable compromise rather than having one person’s say trump the other is a much healthier basis for a relationship over the long term. I can’t imagine the resentment that would have piled up by now if husband had been the unilateral decision maker every time we’ve disagreed.

    I hold my tongue on a number of issues around my family, but I have always been clear and vocal about the fact that my husband isn’t the leader, and I’m not the submitter. At first the palpable expectation that our godless, ill-conceived marriage would go down in a blazing ball of ruin got on my nerves and made me insecure and defensive, but as the years have gone by, it’s become obvious even to them that we have a happy marriage that functions extremely well.

  • Amethyst

    I think this mindset is a huge part of why same-sex marriage is unthinkable to fundamentalists. You’ve outlined very well just how drastically different they view the roles of male and female. To someone with this worldview, you’re asking them to accept the idea of two natural leaders or two natural followers. In a marriage between two men, who would submit? In a marriage between two women, who would lead? The idea of an equal relationship between two people, each of whom is whole and complete in and of themselves, each of whom is capable of taking the lead or following someone else’s lead as the situation calls for, is completely foreign and even blasphemous to conservative Christianity.

    • Karen

      My mother was a conservative Catholic, and she could not conceive of a relationship of equals. She never attempted to sort out issues with my father via compromise; he’d give his opinion and if she disagreed with it, she would not argue with him but would seethe to me. Growing up, this was really tiresome.

      I don’t think my mother hated gays and lesbians so much as she was befuddled by them. In her eyes, one had to be “the man” (dominant) in the relationship, and the other had to be “the woman” (submissive), and she couldn’t, just couldn’t get her mind around a dominant woman or a submissive man.

      For that matter, she could never quite get her mind around the relationship between my husband and me, which is one of equals.

      • Amethyst

        “I don’t think my mother hated gays and lesbians so much as she was befuddled by them.”

        This. Of the evangelicals I know, very few are hateful or hostile toward LGBTQ people. It’s more like they feel sorry for them because they don’t believe a relationship between two people of the same sex could possibly be as functional or fulfilling as one between a man and a woman. The genuinely believe they’re doing the most compassionate thing possible by promoting ex-gay ministries like Exodus, because in their mind, everyone is happiest when they’re functioning within strict patriarchal sexual/gender roles.

      • Nathaniel

        If if they’re unhappy in their strict gender roles, then they’re obviously Doing It Wrong.

  • jemand

    The first part, about how your parents ask themselves if their daughter’s prospective partners are good enough for her to “lose herself” in him, and continually come up with the answer, “NO!!” seems to be a roundabout criticism of the whole idea of marriage as a hierarchy where one person becomes a shadow.

    In a way, it’s like when presented with any given option, it is obvious that it would be a poor idea to subsume one’s own thinking and cede all decision-making rather than becoming an equal partner…. but the belief system has it as a given that such a system is the only good, right, and true way to follow.

    So the daughter can’t win. No man will be good enough, because such a system, actually, isn’t that great of an idea. And one can’t overturn the system, because the parents aren’t thinking that far ahead, only looking at each individual candidate separately.

  • Dibs

    Libby, did your parents go through courtship to get to their marriage?

  • seditiosus

    That explains it. If I had a daughter and I believed that when she married she’d become a reflection of her husband, I wouldn’t ever find a man I thought was good enough for her. This was always something that confused me, even coming from a family where parents expected to have a controlling interest in their children’s marriages (not love lives, just marriages, because marriage has legal implications regarding division of assets).

  • smrnda

    Just wondering – I know that a lot of conservative Christians offer warnings about the wrong type of women that men might get involved with – women who aren’t going to submit to the husband or will lead a man away from whatever beliefs he’s been raised at – is there any concern at all about the worldview of a woman a young man in Christian patriarchy would find himself interested in? Or is it assumed that he’s simply not going to want a woman from another religious or cultural background?

    Has there ever been a young man raised in Christian patriarchy that you know of who ended up finding a woman who was say, from the wrong type of church or something? What would happen if he stated he was interested in a woman who wasn’t even a Christian?

  • Holly

    Wow I can only imagine what Patriarchal parents would think of my (very happy) marriage. I am 10 years older, the primary breadwinner (due to my husband’s disability), we were both previously divorced and he had never met any of my family until after we were married. He felt bad about not having discussed it with my father first but my sister and I agreed the only person’s permission he needed to marry me was mine. By the way, my father and sister are both extremely fond of him. Looks like women can choose their own spouses after all.

  • machintelligence

    Have you noticed that the patriarchal way of thinking is embedded in the use of honorifics? If Mary Smith marries John Jones she becomes Mrs. John Jones. If he had an MD then it’s Dr. and Mrs. Jones.
    But now for some fun: If she has the MD and he does not, is it Dr. and Mr. Jones? Or should it be Mr. and Dr. Jones?
    What if they both have doctorates? Is it Dr. and Dr. Jones or the Doctors Jones (Drs. Jones?). My spell check does not recognize that abbreviation.

    • psocoptera

      I use Drs. all the time in official documents. I had a professor who got a Christmas card from her mother that said Dr. and Mrs. [his name] [his last name]. They both had PhDs, so she was understandably furious. It was part of her rant about not calling her Mrs., which boiled down to “if you are going to use an honorific, use the correct one. If not, use my first name.” She was my favorite professor, and the only one to openly tell her class that she was atheist (in the South).

  • ee

    Have you read Tom Jones? It’s an 18th century novel where the title character, upon finding that he is not good enough for his love, Sophia, runs away and gets world experience. The major subplot is that *Sophia* also runs away to get world experience.

    Sophia’s aunt, Mrs. Western (Mrs. because she’s mature, not married. The 18th century still gave honorifics to unmarried women) is my favorite. All the characters are flawed and funny, but they all have important positive qualities. Hers is the right of women to speak and choose. I think you will love these quotes!

    In chapter 8 she says:
    English women are not to be treated like Circassian slaves: We are to be won by gentle means only, and we are not to be hectored, bullied, or beaten into submission. We have the protection of the world. I thank Heaven there is no Salique law here.

    In chapter 14 she says:
    English women, I thank Heaven, are no slaves. We are not to be locked up like the Spanish or Italian wives. We have as good a right to liberty as yourselves (men). We are to be convinced by reason and persuasion only, and not to be governed by force.

    I love Fielding. His writing is mordant and funny even today–especially today because the society he was skewering is ALMOST EXACTLY the society of the Christian Patriarchy. And his truths revealed, like in the above, are still true.