Courtship, Part 1: Eroding Girls’ Self Confidence

When I was in high school, I looked forward to the day when I would take part in a parent-guided courtship. It’s what I wanted. The idea that I could go out myself and find my own spouse was incomprehensible to me. In fact, I even said that I would be open to an arranged marriage. More than that, there was even a point where I wanted an arranged marriage. Why, you ask? Let me explain.

The idea that adult daughters should obey their fathers – an idea central to Christian Patriarchy – is sometimes minimized by pointing out that no one can force an adult daughter to obey her father – she’s an adult, after all. In other words, this can’t be a problem because an adult daughter, in American society, can always simply say “no” and choose not to obey her father.

What is sometimes left out of the picture, though, is why adult daughters in Christian patriarchy – the ones who don’t leave, that is – choose to obey their fathers. There are two reasons. First, they are taught that they cannot trust themselves or their own feelings and desires, and second, they are taught to idolize their father and see him as infinitely trustworthy and as God’s representative and spokesperson to them on earth.

I was taught that my feelings could easily lead me astray. I was taught not to trust them. I was taught that guys would try to manipulate me, and that I must be on guard against them. I was taught not to trust guys, since all they were interested in was sex. I was not to trust how I felt about a guy, because I could be “blinded by love.”

Essentially, I was taught that I could not trust my own judgement when it came to choosing a mate. If I chose my husband myself, I would almost certainly choose wrong, being blinded by love and falling prey to men’s manipulation and desire to get in my pants, or, err, up my skirt. The result was that I was 100% sure that if I chose my own spouse disaster would strike, my life would be ruined, and I would be stuck with an abusive husband.

How, then, could I find a mate?

I was taught that my father was my spiritual authority on earth. I was taught that God could speak to me through him, and that it was my duty as a daughter under authority to obey my father, even as an (unmarried) adult. I was taught that it was my father’s duty to protect me, and that without his protection I was vulnerable to the evils of the world.

Trusting my father came easily. He was a very involved father and was always there for me. He was very well educated and extremely well read. He seemed to know something about everything. He was hard working and a wonderful provider, and invested an incredible amount of time and energy into our family. He was charismatic, the sort of man people naturally look up to. Believing that I could trust him to protect me – and to wisely choose a spouse for me – was really only natural.

In the end, it’s really no wonder I was open to an arranged marriage.

My father, though, was not open to arranging a marriage for me. I think part of him was afraid of choosing wrongly, and the rest of him wanted me to have some say in choosing my spouse. And so, rather than either dating or an arranged marriage, I grew up expecting the staple relationship method of the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements – a parent-guided courtship. And by parent, I mean father.

Ideally, a young man would become interested in me and approach my father. At this point, he would essentially court my father as my father got to know him, mentor him, and learn about his beliefs. If the young man passed my father’s scrutiny, he would be given permission to court me, if I assented. This “courting” would always take place in the presence of family or a designated chaperone. My father would watch the relationship progress and intervene or end it if he felt things were going awry. Eventually the young man would approach my father and ask for my hand in marriage, and if granted permission, would then ask me to marry him.

In some ways, at least in theory, the parent-guided courtship offered a sort of middle ground. My father would thoroughly vet any prospective husband and make sure our relationship progressed healthily, but I would also have the ability to say “no” if I did not want to court a given young man, and also to call off the relationship at any time. In a sense, I would be choosing my own spouse out of a carefully vetted pool of young men who were in a sense guaranteed - through my father’s careful scrutiny – to be upstanding young men.

Thus while I knew that I could never trust myself to safely choose my own husband, I was told that if I followed the rules of a parent-guided courtship I would be kept safe from making a disastrous decision because my father would have the judgement and clear head to evaluate prospective husbands while I would not.

I cannot begin to explain how safe this made me feel, and how protected. I pitied girls whose fathers did not involve themselves, instead leaving their daughters to choose husbands on their own – vulnerable to exploitation, unprotected from manipulation, and open to being blinded by love and led to make a mistake that would haunt them the rest of their lives.

If my experience is any guide, this is why so many daughters of Christian Patriarchy openly and willingly and even eagerly embrace the practice of the parent-guided courtship. It’s really the perfect recipe: erode girls’ self confidence by teaching them that their own attempts to chose a husband will end in disaster, lead girls to place their faith in their fathers by teaching them that their father has been placed on earth by God to protect them, and then watch as these girls react with enthusiasm to the idea of a parent-guided courtship.

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.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com JW

    I think the typical teen girl should be careful when it comes to guys. I don’t think parents teach their kids enough about dating issues though. Girls should really be taught about how to recognize when a guy really likes you for who they are vs. really wanting you for sex. I think some girls can figure it out while others need to be taught.

    Just like guys, hormones rage and some guys who to use those hormones to get a release by using girls for their own benefit. Other guys will not do that and then you have guys, like myself, when I was a teenager I was totally scared of girls. It was a psyche thing I had going. Therefore, I never had a girlfriend and in my 20′s I attempted this once and as a result my fear of the female gender cause my body to go into a type of aneroxia mode. Meaning, my stomach would literally make me sick so I have to search for excuses not to eat or eat something soft such as soup.

    Just so you know, I did not grow up in a fundamentalist church. I grew up in the Lutheran Church but the family stopped going when I was around 10 years old. I usually only share this type of information when I comes across what appear to be heavy subjects and those who write and those who read read with understand and not out to point fingers.

    JW

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

    I think the typical teen girl should be careful when it comes to guys. I don’t think parents teach their kids enough about dating issues though. Girls should really be taught about how to recognize when a guy really likes you for who they are vs. really wanting you for sex. I think some girls can figure it out while others need to be taught.

    Yes, I absolutely agree. But I do want to point out that I’m not talking about teen girls here. I’m talking about adult women. A courtship is an attempt to find a marriage partner, and is not generally entered into until the girl in question is at least eighteen, and frequently in her twenties. So when I talk about the idea that a girl has to trust her father to help her find a husband, I’m not talking about a fifteen year old who wants to start dating, but a twenty-one year old looking to marry.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      …Athough if that twenty-one-year old has been completely sheltered from normal, friendly interaction with men that she isn’t related to, she may not be that much better at judging character than a 15-year-old. In a way it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The way to learn how to judge people’s motives is generally to hang out with people, in this case, male people–and that seems to be exactly what “guarding your heart”-minded parents don’t want their daughters to do.

      I also believe it’s important to talk to kids about properly evaluating people’s motives in dating–not just girls, but boys too. But I don’t believe in scaring girls with a bunch of “you know guys are only after one thing” talk. Frankly, if you’ve raised your kids to be able to judge character well, that’s naturally going to extend to judging the character of people they could potentially date. And I think the way you do that is to not shelter them, let them interact with who they want to and keep the lines of communication open so you can talk to them about their friends, what they’re doing, and give advices as needed. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

      And it’s not like there’s some checklist that determines when a guy is after you for just sex or for something more. It really just comes down to whether a guy treats you with respect or not, and that’s hard to quantify. Respect your own kids, teach them to respect others and expect respect from others (at any age and from anyone) and they’ll know respect when they see it.

    • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com JW

      Hmm, a girl in her twenties having to rely on her dad to find a marriage partner. Yeah, that could be a problem and yet it all goes according to how the culture norms are. In this country something like that would be frowned upon and yet in the Middle East it is the law or unwritten law.

      Is it really the quiverful thing that a girl must have direction from her dad to make the right decisions? I find that crazy but then again it all depends on how the family is as well and where they live. Everyone is different and every family is different and yet at one time for me there was a time when I actually wished , internally, that my mom would just set me up with someone because girls scared the mess out of me until I was age 20.

  • Lirel

    And don’t forget that girls can just want sex sometimes, too. Kids/teens need to learn how to use judgment and assess other people. Potential love interests, yes. But also friends, employees, employers, etc. And yes, sometimes they’ll make mistakes and get burned. Fact of life. Parents do their best to minimize it, but it’s likely to happen. And that’s how people learn.

    • Rosie

      Yes. It seems to me that parents would do their children more good by teaching them that relationship mistakes are NOT the end of the world, than by trying to prevent relationship mistakes from happening. I was raised to believe that sex was a big, scary deal, and my early relationship “mistakes” were pretty traumatic for me. But I now know people who were raised to believe that “sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you”, and they came away from their early relationship “mistakes” thinking, “hmm, guess I won’t do that again”, but certainly not scarred for life. Also, the depth of the misunderstandings that can arise when a girl raised with the former attitude tries to date a boy raised with the latter (before either have the life experience to realize their worldview isn’t the only one) are not to be underestimated.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Agreed. Another really important message to transmit to your kid is that making a mistake is not the end of the world. It might FEEL like the end of the world at the time, but that needs to be balanced by an adult’s perspective. This is yet another reason why I can’t stand the entire concept of “virgnity.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes at the ends of films that involve a girl breaking up with the first guy she had sex with because he didn’t turn out to be the guy she thought he was (even if he will later be revealed to be that guy after all so they can go tripping off into the sunset by the end of the movie…)–and weeping over the loss of her Precious Flower that she will NEVER GET BACK and which she WASTED on a guy that wasn’t PERFECT or was maybe even kind of an ass. It’s a terrible message to send. Most people these days don’t marry the first person they sleep with and we’re none the worse for it. When a relationship doesn’t work out, it hurts, sure, but it should hurt because something nice is ending not because OH NOES YOU’VE GIVEN UP SOMETHING FOREVER! No, you didn’t lose anything, all you’ve done is GAIN an experience. Feel your pain, process it, and move on.

        Years ago, when my grandmother was still living, I was ambivalent about whether or not I should get involved with a friend I’ve mine with whom there was serious mutual attraction. I wanted to but I was scared. My grandma said “Just do it! It might be great. And if you get hurt, you’ll get over it! You’re young.”

        Wise words from a then-87-year-old lady who was raised as a very sheltered, Orthodox Jewish girl.

  • smrnda

    I don’t think an adult woman raised in that type of environment really has the freedom to just say “no” once she reaches 18. The QF type of life doesn’t seem to develop any skills that would help a woman live independently and don’t really teach social skills or anything that anyone would call even a little bit of street smarts.

    What I don’t understand is this – QF philsophy seems to think that men can only be interested in sex, but what makes the fathers and sons of the QF world exempt from this? If women’s feelings cannot be trusted, why can the opinions of men be trusted so much?

    If your father was uncomfortable with this, it might have been that he had grown up in more or less normal culture and probably found this to be too extreme.

    I also think that wanting sex or something else are not binary exclusives. You can want both.

  • http://pslibrary.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    Okay, so the system starts with the presumption that most guys are crap, right? That’s why women (and their families) have to be so careful in choosing a mate. The solution is to defer to a different guy to make the choice for her. How does that make sense? If a woman is in great danger of selecting the “wrong” man, wouldn’t she also be in great danger of having been born to the “wrong” man too? And, if that’s the case, how can such a man be trusted to have so much power over her and the course of her life?

    Or are all jerks sterile?

  • http://pslibrary.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    One thing this has me thinking about is my own dear old dad. He’s awesome and very liberal and all that, but it also took him a long time to come to terms with the idea that I was an adult. When I presented my “intended” to him, he was very gruff and insulting (my husband is Russian and has a slavic name – my dad asked if his name was a kind of yoghurt). I’d say it took him a solid 5-6 years before he finally started treating my husband like someone who might be worthy of basking in my radiance.

    I imagine that my dad isn’t unique. I wonder how many daughters sit on the shelf while their fathers summarily reject all offers from suitors, believing that no man could possibly be good enough for their girls. I wonder how much unhappiness this kind of system must cause…

  • Contrarian

    My father, though, was not open to arranging a marriage for me. I think part of him was afraid of choosing wrongly, and the rest of him wanted me to have some say in choosing my spouse.

    How much of him was of the mainstream culture, where women chose their own husbands, and was therefore uncomfortable arranging your marriage?

  • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

    Also, what happens if the father is not in the picture? My father died when I was 20. Who would have “guided” my courtship then?

    • Anat

      Since this was left unanswered, I’ll say that from my reading of Libby Anne’s writing elsewhere, if a Quiverful daughter (of whatever age) has no father, she has to be under the authority of some other male – a brother or some other man in good doctrinal standing. It is my understanding that if no such male relative is available the duty may go to the woman’s pastor or some other man in her church.

      • Steve

        That’s more or less how it is in Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia. There, a woman can be under the *legal* authority of her son.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Yes, sorry – a brother, uncle, or grandfather would do, or in a pinch the church elders.

  • Carolyn the Red

    It reminds me of the joking: “Oh, you (her father) will have to beat the boys off with a stick!” comments I’ve heard about baby girls. I have had to bite my tongue to say that if a boy is behaving inappropriately, he should be taught respect, but other than that, it’s up to the now-grown little girl to decide if she wants some boy’s attention or not.
    There’s an undercurrent in mainstream society that a teenage girl’s dating life and beginning romance are her father’s business and responsibility. It bothers me more and more.

  • Leni

    I was taught that God could speak to me through him

    This idea is just so patently absurd that I’m having a difficult time formulating words to express it.

    Evangelicals believe in personal revelation right? And plenty of evangelical women claim to have experienced knowing God (or something similar) or knowing God’s intentions etc. I mean, they pray for guidance, correct? Do they expect God to answer to the nearest male relative?

    So how is it that god can only manage to “talk” to fathers? God is infinite, omnipotent, created the universe, miracles, blah blah blah… but he needs a translator to communicate to women and girls?

    So is their god lazy, stupid or cruel?

    • Anat

      Didn’t God (OK an angel) talk to Hagar? (Of course the message was very QF-friendly – go back and submit!.)

  • Karen

    I actually used to want an arranged marriage, even though my parents are totally egalitarian and were completely opposed to such an idea. It was, just as with QF/P girls, a case of entirely devastated self-confidence. I’d been bullied and ostracized most of my life by my peers and had come to believe the things they told me: that I was stupid, ugly, and unloveable. Even so, I wanted so badly to be a wife one day that I figured an arranged marriage was the only way I was ever going to get there – because there was no way I could ever catch a man on my own.

    Furthermore (as I also saw reflected in this blog) I wanted stability. I feared emotions: after all, if one was open to emotions, one was just open to more hurt. I’d had enough of hurt, and falling in love was all about emotions. I wanted logic: a match made for pragmatic purposes, not emotional ones. Anyway, if I were already married to him, falling in love with him wouldn’t be dangerous at all – I would have already passed ‘go’ and collected my $200! Doing things with the final step – marriage – already completed was a no-risk scenario in my head.

    Thankfully, I’ve developed confidence over the years, and I’m learning to enjoy flirting and dating without going into the paroxysms of terror it would have caused me when I was younger – at least not too often. It’s a long process.

  • Anouymus

    I sort of understand the concept of parent guided-courtships, because I am courting a girl right know and yes a very “girls-parent lead courtship” But what about the boys family should they not have at lest a little say in the courtship, the guy is not only going with the girls-parents daughter but the girl is going with the boys parents son, they have raised him should they not have some say in the progression of the courtship. So I was wondering were in the Bible does it say that the guys parents should not have a little more say in the relationship, I don’t believe it does, I agree that a girl should be under her father, but the guy is not going to marry the Dad!!


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