Christian Patriarchy and Bodily Ownership

My mother taught my sisters and I that our bodies belonged to our father. She told us that if we wanted to alter our bodies by a piercing or tattoo, that had to go through him – even if we were adults. She told us that once we married, our bodies would belong to our husbands, and we would likewise have to get permission from them to alter our bodies in any way.

Christian Patriarchy teaches that every female has a god-given male authority, or male “head,” to whom she must submit. And submit means obey. Christian Patriarchy teaches that God speaks to women through their god-give male authorities, and that by obeying these male authorities they are obeying God. In fact, some go so far as to argue that a woman is justified in breaking the law or even sinning if she does so on the order of her god-given male authority, because God will honor her decision to submit to and obey the authority he has placed over her. (Somehow I don’t think law enforcement would do the same.)

A woman’s first god-given male authority is her father. If her father dies before she marries, the oldest of her brothers becomes her god-given authority (yes, I really did believe this). Once a woman marries, her god-given male authority is her husband. The wedding ceremony is a symbol of the very literal transition of authority as the girl is transferred from her father to her husband. Some even hold that if the father does not give his approval to his daughter’s marriage, her marriage is null and void. (Somehow I don’t think the civil government would agree.)

Christian Patriarchy goes to great pains to argue that this isn’t about women as a whole being under men as a whole. Men and women, they say, are equal. I’ve heard Christian Patriarchy proponents laugh at the idea that “women” should submit to “men,” arguing that that is absolutely not the case at all. Rather, they say, each individual woman has an individual male authority placed over her by God to protect her and guide her. It’s not about women submitting to men. It’s about a woman submitting to a man. Somehow, that’s supposed to make it sound acceptable, rational, and certainly not extreme at all.

For my mother, female submission to male authority was more than just an idea. It was very real. And for my mother, female submission to male authority was more than just obedience. It was ownership. In some sense, of course, the idea that an adult daughter should have to get her father’s permission to alter her body is not really that different from the idea that she should have to get her father’s permission and approval to go to college, begin a relationship, get a job, or even, in some families, go to the grocery store. But in another sense it is.

Perhaps most important, implying bodily ownership makes crystal clear that there is little difference between Christian Patriarchy and slavery. Or really, no difference.

Of course, proponents of Christian Patriarchy will emphasize that fathers and husbands are to care for and love their daughters and wives, not simply treat them as objects to be exploited. The system is set up to promote the well-being of everyone involved, they insist, and women are simply designed to follow and be protected while men are designed to lead and protect. Interestingly, slavery apologists before the Civil War made these same arguments, insisting that African American were not intellectually fit to be independent and that slave owners were actually protecting and caring for their slaves, not exploiting them.

Dress it however you like, if one person is expected to submit to and obey another, if one person’s body “belongs to” another, that is slavery.

What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
A Matter of Patriarchy
What Courtship Was for Me
Fifty Shades of Evangelical Justifications for Patriarchy
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.

  • Elise

    Ouch…my mum used the same argument to justify her abuse…wow.

    • Elise

      I mean, that children were ‘owned’ by their parents by god’s ordination or something. In her eyes, she could do anything that she wanted to me, because it was for my own good, and it was her right as a mother. Wow.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        That sounds horrible *hugs* I hope everything is better for you now.

        All this stuff about submission sounds so foreign to me, so extreme… and I’m really glad that’s the case. I hope people in that culture read blog posts like this and realise the wrongness of it, no matter how naive that hope probably is.

  • Caitlin

    Elise, I was thinking the same thing–that corporal punishment assumes that a child’s body belongs to the parents. Of course, this idea isn’t limited to CP/QF families, but it makes me wonder how non-CP?QF families justify it. My family was atheistic but still practiced corporal punishment.

    • Anat

      Justifications? There are plenty:

      “It’s for your own good”
      “It hurts me more, believe me!”
      “You’ll thank me when you are older”

      And yes, my father did say ‘that’s mine and I can hit what is mine if I want to’.

      • Elise

        Exactly. While not CP/QF, my mum did believe that the only good people were Christians, a term that she applied where she saw fit. She was (and is) mentally ill, and spent a lot of time looking for justification for her actions, and found that invoking the wrath of god (a higher power) did the trick. I had just never made that connection before reading this posting.

        Paula and Caitlin–yes, life is better now. (hugs back!) I started therapy for PTSD last fall, and it’s so helpful to address issues, work through my new memories, and move on.

        Interestingly, becoming an atheist has resulted in a better ‘relationship’ with my mum, since I can see through her, now. Conversely, I know others who found peace through religion. To each their own, but this abuse of religion is terrible.

        Anat: I absolutely empathise. Hugs to you.

  • OneSmallStep

    LIbby Anne,

    Granted this is an extreme philosophy, but I think even in the Catholic Church and “regular” evangelical churches, this idea still exists, even if subconscious. The idea that women do not own themselves, or belong to themselves.

    With that, do you think this is a large part as to what drove the pro-life movement in the early stages? An absolute anger that women were allowed to determine the result of their pregnancy? There just seems to be a lot of anger on the pro-life side when women do choose abortion.

    • Elise

      Of course women don’t belong to themselves in their eyes. That’s why so many rape victims get slut-shamed. (She was asking for it, why did she wear clothes like that…)

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      “Granted this is an extreme philosophy, but I think even in the Catholic Church and “regular” evangelical churches, this idea still exists, even if subconscious. The idea that women do not own themselves, or belong to themselves.”

      Yeah, and even totally secular people who fancy themselves liberal-minded frequently take a, how to say this…WUSSY position on patriarchal relationships even if they don’t engage in them themselves. lol. The idea is “well, they’re just traditional and who am I to judge?” But of course those same people judge the hell out of slavery and, like Libby says, pro-slavery arguments were very similar to pro-patriarchy arguments in that both sought to justify those systems as benevolent and “protective” of the enslaved. Advocates of slavery even tried to rebut abolitionist arguments by saying that a slave-owner was really not that much different from a husband and you abolitionist types have no problem with marriage, right? (To which many replied, “Um, actually we kinda do.”)

      The trouble is, most people don’t know that. Most people seem to think that slavery was all straightforward racial hatred and violence when the reality was much more complex, and slave-owners often DID treat their slaves “kindly” in order to justify slavery to themselves. Harriet Beecher Stowe illustrated that phenomenon pretty well in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” (Along with how little it actually meant in the end. Tom’s “loving master” still sold him into Hell when he was up to his ass in debt.) Shame nobody reads that any more. I think if more people were more familiar with the nuances of old pro-slavery arguments–”It’s good for the slaves, they can’t take care of themselves! It’s our way of life! It’s our tradition and it’s not your business!”–they’d see their condoning attitude of patriarchal relationships for the cowardice it really is. Is saying “Oh well, I’m not traditional but I’m not willing to tell other people that they’re wrong” really that different from saying “Oh well, we Northerners don’t want any slaves up here but let those Southern folks down there do things their own way.”

      • ScottInOH

        This is a good, but sad, point. We humans are good at convincing ourselves that the horrible injustices of the past are over and locked up in a nice box.

        The people who DO know that slavery can be painted in this light, by the way, are the ones inclined to argue that slavery wasn’t all that bad. That’s a whole ‘nother scary conversation.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        For real. Yeah, often the only people who seem to be familiar with the old justifications of slavery are the ones still making them. Not surprisingly, they often seem to be the ones in favor if female slavery too.

      • OneSmallStep

        ** But of course those same people judge the hell out of slavery and, like Libby says, pro-slavery arguments were very similar to pro-patriarchy arguments in that both sought to justify those systems as benevolent and “protective” of the enslaved. **

        I wonder how many conservative Christians consider that 200 years ago, they probably would’ve been as pro-slavery as they come, due to the Biblical justification.

    • Dianne

      I wonder that as well. Would the opposition to abortion disappear if there was a law that a woman could only get an abortion with the permission of her husband or father? I have the feeling that the Operation Rescue types would suddenly find their love of fetal life greatly diminished if fetuses were killed at their father’s or grandfather’s request, not their mother’s.

      • Joy

        Because only a paterfamilias can order the baby exposed? Or something? That would jive with extreme patriarchy, but not today’s ethics.

      • Dianne

        I’m not sure what the excuse would be or if there would even be an official excuse. But I strongly suspect that if a national law were passed saying that abortion was legal up to the 9th month, but only with the consent of the pregnant woman’s husband or her father, the political pressure to illegalize abortion would evaporate. Terry Randell and similar would probably still say, “Well, of course, abortion is wrong” if asked, but they’d find other things to do besides agitating for an end to legal abortion, their donors would be less interested, their rallies less well attended, etc. Because in the end, they don’t care in the least about the fetus, only about controlling women.

    • Catholic

      But in the Catholic wedding ceremony there is absolutely no giving away of the bride nonsense. A father may escort his daughter down the aisle (mine did) but there is no “who gives this woman” crap in the ceremony. In fact, if there were, the marriage could be declared invalid and subject to annulment. The only way the sacrament of marriage is valid is if both bride and groom come to it of their own volition and without impediment. In fact, early in the premarital process with the ceremony officiant, bride and groom have to answer–without the other in the room–questions to determine that no one is forcing or pressuring them to marry. The premarital materials in workshops and retreats emphasize what is essentially an egalitarian view of the marriage relationship and the ceremony includes that the couple will “submit to each other”, that being the only time that word is used.

  • Butterfly

    Ew. The whole thing sounds like a non-consensual, incestuous, 24/7 total power exchange. I’m talking non-consensual D/s.

  • shadowspring

    “In fact, some go so far as to argue that a woman is justified in breaking the law or even sinning if she does so on the order of her god-given male authority, because God will honor her decision to submit to and obey the authority he has placed over her. ”

    Omg, yes! I believed that whatever stupid decision my husband made, God would honor and protect me and my children anyway as long as I was in “submission” to my husband.

    Bullshit! Thank God we didn’t suffer any more serious repercussions than we did suffer, but there are SO many things I would’ve done different if I wasn’t brainwashed by that stupid doctrine. Ugh.

    The worst part is, my husband didn’t want and couldn’t handle the pressure of having “the final say” on these very important decisions. He whiffed the ball because he wasn’t the right person to be in that position: I was! And I defaulted in some misguided attempt at taking the high road.

    So much of what I internalized as Christianity has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, and everything to do with (as Lewis puts it) the commandments of men.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Yeah, I have to say, I really feel sorry for men who feel forced into that position of authority and just don’t have the personality for it. I laugh to think of the mess that would happen if my own father were made to believe that he HAD to have the final say in absolutely everything. My dad, with whom conversations like this have happened:

      Dad: Oh well, I don’t really have a strong opinion about what restaurant we go to. I’m open to a lot of things.

      Mom: Sweetie, just pick what you feel like.

      Dad: Well, what does everyone else feel like?

      Me and Sister: Dad, It’s YOUR BIRTHDAY! Just pick something!

      lol. Which isn’t to say he’s a pushover. He can be quite stubborn about what he believes is right and he’s very opinionated. But he is also a quintessential middle child and still has that instinct to always to mediate and try to resolve conflict, without complicating things with his own needs. My mom, on the other hand, she’s the baby of her family and she’s well used to speaking up to get her way! They have a great relationship as far as I can tell: they communicate well so that both their needs get met despite their differing personalities. But that good relationship would surely go straight down the drain if they believed that my mom always had to decide and my mom always had to submit. It’s just not who they are and it’s not who they want to be.

  • Anonymous

    I have to cringe every time I hear/read about bigoted belief systems like this. Coming from a liberal, nonreligious household, such ideas are utterly alien and disgusting to me.

    I wonder about one thing, though… what would Christian Patriarchy adherents do if, by chance, a woman ended up without either her father or any brothers? Would an uncle or grandfather take up the role of authority? And if they were absent as well? Have they ever thought about this? (I understand that due to frequently being enmeshed with the Quiverfull movement, a woman not having any brothers is highly unlikely, but please humor me for the duration of this thought experiment.)

    • Rosa

      It seems like, from the various stories I’ve read, what actually happens is that the woman ends up under the direct authority of her pastor.

      In real-life patriarchal, family/clan based societies, there’s almost always a family member to take charge. But American patriarchalists mostly come from families that don’t share their beliefs.

    • Libby Anne

      The Botkin sisters make the following recommendation for a young woman whose father refuses to be her authority:

      Until you’re married, alternative authority figures would include your mother, a responsible brother, and/or a group of godly older men like the elders of a church…”

      • Anat

        And what if it turns out the husband refuses to be the wife’s authority, or perhaps relinquishes the authority after the couple has been married for a while? What if the husband says ‘with my authority as your husband I tell you to think for yourself and make your own choices’?

      • shadowspring


        That’s how we finally got around the stupid rule and justified it doctrinally! I read that very thing in one of Douglas Wilson’s books. It went something along those lines, delegated authority if you will. It’s so funny now to think how happy I was to have found that justification. I would even say to my husband, “So, you’re saying I can make this call with your full blessing?” To which he would happily agree.

        Now, I only ask his opinions if the decision I am about to make involves us both, and still most of the time he trusts my judgement without question: roofers, plumbers, paying the bills, taking folks to the doctor, whatever. The only decision I would never make without him is a decision involving his golf clubs!

  • Karen

    My mother was raised Catholic, in a very, very patriarchal family. I don’t know how much the patriarchy in her family was church-related, but she strongly believed that the man is the head of the household and she should submit to him. My dad was a laid-back, non-church-going Lutheran, and as far as he was concerned, Mom should be able to define her own life and not expect him to do it for her. Quite a pair, eh?

    So Mom mined Dad’s comments for the slightest suggestion that she do or not do this or that, and submitted accordingly. Then she’d turn around and gripe about it to me. This worked increasingly less well as I proceeded through (Catholic) high school, where those subversive nuns taught girls that we were equal to boys, and that sensible people resolve issues through negotiation. Mom would start in on “your father wants” and I’d cut her off with “go negotiate it”.

    So despite my mother’s best effort to raise me in a patriarchal household, Dad didn’t buy into it, the nuns didn’t buy into it, and the whole scheme failed.

  • Froborr

    “My mother taught my sisters and I that our bodies belonged to our father.”

    This is the most frightening and heartbreaking thing you have written since I started reading your site (right around the time you moved to Patheos).

  • smrnda

    If one person is owned by another, the idea that the person who owns the other person can be benevolent is 100% pure bullshit – once a person believes in male authority over women, the idea is that the man takes ownership of the ability to decide if things are going well or badly – the woman who buys into this system ceases to be a person who can think “wow, this man is NOT making decisions in my best interest” – since she’s been taught that she should submit she isn’t likely to give herself permission to view her husband and his authority in a possibly critical light.

    Edward Fitzhugh was a man who wrote a defense of slavery on about the same grounds – the slaves were exempted from the decision-making that would just stress them out, which was a burden and not a privilege, and his other point was that since they were valuable property, they would be cared for well. To me, the Christian patriarchy view is absolutely the same. (My take on slavery is that it was complicated, and I’d also argue that before the progressive era many “free” workers were essentially just as badly.)

    Men who are promoting this idea are just a bunch of insecure, narcissistic losers who can’t handle relationships with women who would have individual personalities or ideas, opinions or wills of their own. They need to also feel that their distaste for equality and demand for people to submit to them is evidence of their innate desire to benevolently lead rather than what it really is.

    I’ve been living more or less independently, without any male authority over me since I was 16 and went to college. If people who are telling women that being independent is this terrible, horrible experience I’ve got to tell them, in this day and age, with the opportunities out there, they are lying. It’s true that I had to do things like work and make decisions, but I did get a life I wanted. The idea that submission is liberating can only be pushed on women who never got a chance to make their own decisions – you scare them with the unknown and convince them that every woman who didn’t stay under some male authority ended up in some horrible mess. I’m sure they can find a few horror stories (probably women who converted) but they just cherry pick anecdotal evidence that back their position, not representative narratives. It’s the same with ex-gay narratives.

  • Sue Blue

    This is so heartbreaking, and it angers me deeply. It sounds like the only differences between these Christians and the Taliban is that you didn’t have to wear a burqa (although some groups insist that women wear long dresses and have long hair), you could go to school, and your brothers and father probably wouldn’t kill you over their “honor” (at least I hope not). I admire you for breaking away from such an oppressive, overwhelming atmosphere of control and intimidation.

    I was raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, and they have many of the same beliefs about women, really taking Paul’s misogyny seriously. They have some other weird beliefs, mainly about diet (no meat), and jewelry (false adornment – not even wedding rings were allowed), and of course they believe the Sabbath falls on Saturday, like the Jews. We couldn’t dance or go to movies or do anything after sunset on Friday. My mother has stayed in her abusive marriage for fifty years because she’s convinced that everything that goes wrong is her fault for not being a “good enough” wife. She thinks that if she prays hard enough and tries hard enough, she’ll finally please my Dad and he’ll change. There is no talking her out of this belief.

    Fortunately for me, this subservient attitude angered and offended me from an early age. I refused to accept that having a penis made anyone better or smarter or more capable than me. I was finally freed completely from lingering Adventist beliefs by my hunger for science and a non-religious college education, but I continue to be appalled by the regressive trends in this country, and the women who seem to willingly go along with it.

    • Elise

      Sue Blue FTW. Well said. Cheers!

  • Tim

    I tried to imagine how some men can just position themselves as ‘head’ of a family so easily. I mean it must take a grandiose amount of ego to think you and you alone are not only capable of directing the life of other people, but also be confident that you know best and better than them!

    And what about the responsibility this position comes with? I mean if you are the sole decision maker then all responsibility for your family lies with you. I find it hard enough to care for (and about) me half the time, but just image how it must feel to be responsible for the financial, physical and emotional well-being of an entire family!

    If I would ever come into a position like this, I would probably be have panic attacks by week 2. Seriously, the idea alone scares the hell out of me.

    • Libby Anne

      “I find it hard enough to care for (and about) me half the time, but just image how it must feel to be responsible for the financial, physical and emotional well-being of an entire family!”

      This was extremely hard on my father, to be perfectly honest. That amount of responsibility can weigh a man down.

    • Sue Blue

      I think it’s only possible if you are raised to believe that women aren’t really fully-fledged humans – more sentient than animals, but not up to the standards of humanity set by men. Some seem to really believe that women are on a par with children, who should be “seen and not heard” and need constant supervision or their vile, sinful temptress natures will take over.
      I think this demeans both men and women. Instead of sharing the challenges of life, the man is constantly under heavy pressure to provide and make decisions for everyone, and the woman is little more than a dependent, a household appliance, a succubus, another mouth that the man has to feed. I can’t see any upside for women or men in this, unless the man is some kind of control freak and the woman a passive person with extreme dependence needs. In other words, it promotes and rewards personality disorders.

      • Steve

        I don’t think it’s necessarily just about women, but humans in general. There are people who are naturally egoistic and narcissistic. As you said at the end, with some it is a genuine psychological disorder. Fundamentalist Christianity gives these people an easy to feed into and fulfill their need to dominate others. Some are happy to just lord over women and their own family, while others become pastors and control hundreds of people.

  • KM

    First and foremost, I am sad to hear that you are no longer a Christian. I’m sorry that you were miseducated during your upbringing as it relates to Bible teachings. I grew up in a patriarchal church and community, so I grew up with many of the same incorrect teachings. I accepted them at face value, until I married an abuser. He was always extremely concerned with a virtuous wife’s duty to submit to her husband, but he failed to submit to God or be virtuous himself. Long story short, the marriage crumbled in divorce. The experience caused me to rethink/restudy many of the traditional teachings that I had grown up with. What I’ve learned has been very liberating and renewed my faith in Jesus and the Bible. Oddly enough, my faith is stronger and more grounded than ever. Some might call me a Christian feminist, although I’m strongly against such labels: feminist, political parties, complementarian, egalitarian, etc. I’m just plain “Christian.” If that was sufficient for the believers in Antioch, it’s sufficient for me.

    “My mother taught my sisters and I that our bodies belonged to our father.”
    Patriarchs usually fail to emphasis stewardship. As human beings, we don’t OWN anything or anyone. We don’t even own ourselves. The earth and everything in it belongs to GOD.
    (Ps 24:1, Ps 50:12) (1 Cor 10:26) (Ex 9:29 EX 19:5) (Job 41:11)
    With that being said, God does entrust us with people and things to take care of them. Example, God made Adam AND Eve stewards of the Garden of Eden, but clearly the garden and everything in it belonged to God.
    As parents, our kids don’t belong to us. They belong to God who created them. We don’t have the capacity to do that in and of ourselves. However, God has made moms and dads stewards over kids, so you don’t belong to your dad or mom, but God made them your stewards to train you into adulthood. Moms and dads are accountable to God for how they have stewarded the kids he entrusted to them, like Adam and Eve were held accountable for the garden.

    As human beings male or female, our individual bodies belong to

    1. God.
    2. are the home of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20).
    3. are part of the one body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13).
    4. If you are married, husbands and wife’s BELONG TO EACH OTHER. (1 Cor 7:4).

    This is a far cry from your father owns you because he is the head of the family kind of stuff. But shhhh because the patriarchs don’t want you to know about other relevant verses. Knowledge is power, and they much rather keep us ignorant, so they can accomplish male domination. Patriarchal teachings of the Bible glorify men. Holistic teachings of the Bible glorify God and his son Jesus.