“Different but Complementary” and “Separate but Equal”

I recently ran across a short post on Kaelee Bates, a blog run by a woman with previous experience with Christian Patriarchy. Here is an excerpt:

“Different but Complimentary.”

I cannot shake how similar that phrase is to, “separate but equal”

I have attempted to write on this subject numerous times, but the truth is I am still too angry and raw. I just want to scream at everyone, “THIS IS NOT EQUALITY!” …

There is no way for me to write about this subject and keep my anger out of it. …

Like Kaelee, I was always taught that Christian Patriarchy wasn’t about inequality or subordinating women, but rather about simply having “different” roles. I still remember when I first started to realize that this was not equality. And like Kaelee, I remember the anger I felt when I realized how duped I had been. I’ve written about this before:

I have to ask, how can men and women be equal if women were created to serve men? How can men and women be equal if men’s role is to act in the world and women’s role is to serve men? I don’t understand how I didn’t see this as a child or a teen. I totally bought the lie that men and women have separate but equal roles. I never felt pushed down as a woman. Rather, I prepared to excel within my female role, being the best I possibly good be and serving God by serving my husband. How was I so blind?

It’s not just me, though. This lie helps to keep women in the Christian Patriarchy movement, persuading them that they are not being treated as inferior, or being degraded or used. Indeed, they are convinced that their role as wife, mother, and homemaker is of equal worth and value to men’s role as protector and provider, and work to excel within their role, for which they gain praise and admiration from their companions. By some slight of the hand, Christian Patriarchy convinces women to willingly and eagerly be subservient slaves while seeing themselves at the same time as being of equal value to their masters. You have to give some credit to the Christian Patriarchy movement: such a feat is as mind-boggling and impressive as it is horrifying and tragic.

The standard defense of the idea that men’s and women’s roles are equal in spite of their differences that I have heard is that a man couldn’t make it without his wife. This meant, somehow, that men’s roles and women’s roles were of equal worth, both necessary in building the Kingdom of God. Well, I have news for you. The plantation owners in the antebellum South could never have “made it” without their slaves. That did not, however, mean that the slave owners and the slaves were “equal.” Rather, one side had all the power and the other all the drudgery.

And I’ve written about it elsewhere as well:

Let me ask a question. If I said that whites and blacks are different but equal, that whites are created to be leaders and blacks to be followers, what would you call me? If I said there is an ordained chain of command, and that whites are to lead while blacks submit, but that in their leadership they must lovingly take into account the needs of blacks, what would that make me? If I said there could be no democracy in a nation that was made up equally of whites and blacks, where each would vote for their own needs, and that therefore whites must make the decisions and choose the direction for society while blacks acquiesce, what would I be? A RACIST. And, when you make the same exact arguments on the basis of gender rather than race, you are a SEXIST. This isn’t equality. Let me say that again: this is absolutely and positively NOT equality.

I’m not sure what more I can say. The idea that men are to lead the family while men are to submit, the idea that men are to have any of a variety of careers while women may only be homemakers…it is this idea I was sold on, and this idea I somehow thought constituted equality. Complementarianism, some call it.

I agree with Kaelee: This is not equality, and after having been duped into think that it was for so long it’s hard to write on this topic without anger.

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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.

  • Dianne

    How can men and women be equal if men’s role is to act in the world and women’s role is to serve men?

    Because it’s a cookbook!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist the nerd joke.

  • http://terelatimer.blogspot.com.au/ Tere

    Only just yesterday I listed a bunch of links to articles on this very topic! (see my blogsite)
    Thanks Libby for keeping the conversations flowing!

  • Noelle

    This idea of complementarianism is so foreign to me that when I stumbled upon it a few years ago amongst people my age and younger on the internet, I was quite surprised. I was living under the assumption those ideas were ancient and dying out with GenX and more diluted by GenY. Very tricky and stubborn it is to weasel its way into the present under a different name. I’ve had a few entertaining altercations with such young men. I’ve been called pandering and paranoid. Which is a pity, as I was going for sexist and condescending and mean at the time.

    Its not myself I’m particularly concerned for. I’ve gotten my education, am stable in my career, marriage is going good, and already birthed all the kiddos I want with the hubby taking the V to put that business to an end. It’s my daughter I fight for.

  • smrnda

    It’s amazing how if you replace gender or sex with race ‘complementarianism’ looks like absolute bullshit. Though I’ve had a few conversations with people who believe in it. One guy was arguing that racial distinctions are artificial and that there is no such thing as ‘race’ but that ‘male’ and ‘female’ were distinct categories. The problem is the whole belief that ‘men and women are inherently difference’ was used the same way with different racial groups as a way or arguing that certain groups were (basically) only fit for heavy manual labor. I was recently reading an essay by George Orwell where he wrote about how stereotypes about how Indians were inherently different than Europeans was used as an argument in favor of imperialism.

    Though some people try to sell this philosophy a different way – they argue that men are vulnerable, that their fragile little status based egos need a boost and that they are too insecure to handle equality with women and so women have to submit or “o the poor menz!” It’s like you take all the worst stereotypes about men, believe they can’t be overcome, and then argue that if women don’t stay in their proper place men can’t help but be miserable.

    I just don’t see why someone else’s insecurities ought to be *my* problem.

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com from two to one

    You may be interested in Rachel Held Evans’ recent “Week of Mutality” (hashtag #mutuality2012), a compilation of posts and guest posts on the benefits of egalitarianism over complementarianism: http://rachelheldevans.com/mutuality-2012-posts.

    • teaweed

      Good stuff. Thanks for the link.

  • Minnie

    You have every right to be angry, little girls all over the world need you to be angry. I hate the bible and christian MEN for what they did to me and the women and little girls in my family.

    These quiverfull men are the christian taliban, they have no more love and respect for women and little girls then men who own sex slaves. They are pro-reproductive slavery of not just grown women but under age girls too. These men do not have to push a nine pound baby out of their genitals, but they love telling little girls they have to every year of her life for twenty years. These men can kiss the mans ass who raped me when I was a little girl, I have no more respect or trust for these vile christian men then I do the man who used me as a child sex toy. He was a misogynistic cretin and so are they. There are two groups of men who are consumed with female submssion to men, christian men and men who own sex slaves in bondage. These men are selfish perverts! I pitty any little girl who has one of these female slave breeders for a father, I would rather not be born.

    • Liberated Liberal

      I’m so sorry for what you went through. There is no excuse, in any circumstance.

    • smrnda

      Agreed 100% – the other thing I find disgusting is how sexual predators get an easy get out of jail free card in the fundamentalist world, and the victim is forgotten or blamed for what happens, and the whole ‘everybody is equally a sinner’ is just a way so that people who do really bad things can turn the people who want to hold them accountable into the villains.

  • http://www.americannaussie.katyannewilson.com Katy-Anne

    “The idea that men are to lead the family while men are to submit”

    You might want to change it to “while women are to submit”. ;)

  • http://agardeninthesun.blogspot.com/ Renoliz

    Hi Libby Anne,

    I love your website, by the way.

    This complimentarian viewpoint really does seem so much like the seperate but equal racist attitude that I was pretty much infuriated by the time I left Christianity. Thanks for keeping this topic alive. Our society is filled with the attitudes of men need their egos artificially boosted by being at the top of the food chain in the family and women fighting the attitudes that we are supposed to be support personnel for men.

    I don’t mind being supportive but I don’t think we should be locked into one role in life! Women should be able to be bosses and leaders along with men. The most able people should be doing jobs not this job is for men and this job is for women.

  • http:.//thisbitchwontshutup.blogspot.com EEB

    I’m really lucky that even though my parents were conservative evangelicals, they didn’t believe at all in complementarianism. They had an egalitarian marriage from the start, and I could see that their marriage was much stronger than the marriages of my friend’s parents, who all followed the Gothard teachings (with the exception of one family, that it seemed to really work for ::shrug::). My mom would not put up with my repeating what I learned in Sunday School and from friends. I remember one Sunday, when I was eight or so, I came home from church and informed her that a woman couldn’t be president because she was too irrational and emotional to lead, and she needed a man’s steady guidence. I spent the rest of the afternoon plunked infront of encylopedias and books as Mom made me read up on Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher.

    I was something of an outcast at church because Mom wouldn’t let me go to the Gothard meetings, and Dad refused to get me a purity ring or promise to guard my heart and body until a proper Joshua Harris-type courtship, no matter how much I begged. It’s so embarassing now, but back then, I truly thought I wanted to get married and have 15 kids. (The no-dating thing wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t attracted to boys, but it took me a while to figure that out.) Now, I’m incredibly grateful. But I guess a lot of young kids get led by the crowd and rebel against their parents to try to fit in? It’s kind of funny that my rebellion and attempt to get in with the “cool kids” led me to long skirts and submission, but there you go.

    • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

      “and then turn your … dyke lovers into women.”

      OK, this was hilarious. The rest of the parody needs work, still.

      • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

        replied to wrong post! Sorry!

  • Ibis3

    I hate to make such a trivial comment, but

    complimentary = something that makes someone look good, something to do with giving people compliments, or something given extra for free

    complementary = something that completes another thing, to make a whole (cf. supplementary)

    It’s the latter that should be used in this context.

    • Ibis3

      Ah. I see that you’ve got it right in your post (complementarianism). I’d only read the title where you have complimentary.

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    It’s astounding that anyone even considers “complementarianism” anything but a synonym for sexism.

    All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others?

  • Darren

    Not sure how i came across this website but you feminazis are insane. Men and women are not the same!
    We are different in so many ways. Women have babies, please don’t tell me a pregnant woman, a nursing woman, a child rearing woman should be anywhere but with her growing child?
    Or perhaps she would hire a “female nanny” to do her job?
    Suppose the world collapses, no more electricity, men will be the protectors again! We are larger and stronger. No one says we are smarter, but it’s common flipping sense. Embrace what women are, and quit wanting to be men!
    Everything you claim to despise about men you want to become yourself!
    Racism has nothing to do with any of this.
    I think you all just idolize men so much you hate everything feminin. What is the definition of a feminist?
    I thought it would be one who embraces feminist traite. Now you all want to be masculine. and then turn your boyfriends and husbands or dyke lovers into women. totally crazy.
    Kids need a woman role model/mother, and a father role model, not 2 men role models!
    you guys are all whacked out and hate yourselves too much, so sad, and then to go as far as hating purity rings given by fathers???
    And I’m sure if I read a bit more you’d all be praising the 1000000 abortions each year, Mothers deliberately killingtheir own babies, kind of ironic the 50% of those murdered babies are female as well, treated like objects, treated like objects!!!sound familiar.
    God is Good!

    • Tapetum

      Darren – you are far too simple in your analysis. People are different, not just genders. You and I are different in a thousand ways, only one of which is our gender. I wouldn’t take bets on your being bigger and stronger than I am – are men bigger on average, sure! But that says nothing about any given man or woman. I’m a large, muscular, trained woman. I’m stronger than an untrained man my own size (and have proved this directly). I’m not large and strong because I envy men, but because God made me this way – should I throw it away to be more properly feminine? And I’m far from the largest or strongest, or best trained woman I know. If men are the protectors because they’re bigger and stronger, than what should the six-foot woman do?

      Expand that to every “complementary” area. Should I hand the household finances over to my husband, even though I do them well and he hates them? Why should I handle our social life when I’m quite introverted and he’s an extrovert? In our household I’m the more nuturing parent because that suits my personality well, but in my brother’s household, he’s the one who watches kids when they’re sick, because he’s excellent at it, and his wife not so much.

      Two individual people might complement each other quite well, and take over different roles within the family unit, but that’s individuals, not gender categories. Pretending that every woman fits into the same slots is exactly that, pretending. People are complicated, the range of possibilities is huge, and simplifying it down is denying the true range and abilities God has given us.

    • Azel

      And I’m sure if I read a bit more you’d all be praising the 1000000 abortions each year, Mothers deliberately killingtheir own babies, kind of ironic the 50% of those murdered babies are female as well, treated like objects, treated like objects!!!sound familiar.
      God is Good!

      Do you know that the overwhelming majority of failed pregnancies are due to natural causes ? Natural miscarriages, fertilized eggs not implanting in the uterus…So if every act of God is good, it follows that not letting an embryo live is good. If it is not, how do I tell the difference between a good and a bad act of God ?

    • Korou

      Darren, there are real differences between men and women, and there are culturally imposed differences between men and women. The first can’t be changed, but the second can, and they’re much more important.
      Feminists – which includes men – don’t want women to become men, they want humans to have their equal rights recognised, and for some humans to stop being given privileges based on their having a different set of sexual equipment.

    • Anat

      Women have babies, please don’t tell me a pregnant woman, a nursing woman, a child rearing woman should be anywhere but with her growing child?

      Some women have babies, some don’t. Even those who have babies, usually this takes a small part of their adult lives. A pregnant woman can do quite a lot of other stuff while carrying the fetus, and once the baby is born there can be plenty of arrangements for taking care of said child. Parents split the childcare between them one way or the other (evenly or not) and may decide to add other carer(s) to the mix, whether family members, friends or hired people of either gender. Taking care of children is just one of many things going on within families and like all other tasks each family figures out how to go about it.

      People are different. Some (male or female) find caring for children satisfying and rewarding, some find it frustrating. And the same about many kinds of work. And many people do best when they do a mix of different activities for part of the time, such that they keep growing in different ways and limit the amount of time they are frustrated. Kids do much better when the people caring for them are not frustrated from being around them. As for role models – kids do well with any kind of healthy adult role models of any mix of genders, and said role models need not be restricted to those living with the child.

  • Elizabby

    Thank you for describing exactly how I feel. I’ve been married for over 12 years and just in the last few months have started reading about Christian equality in marriage and mutual submission. I really didn’t know until a few months ago that it was possible to be Christian wife and to lay claim to being equal. I feel kind of silly, and yes, I’m starting to feel angry. I do not in general think of myself as a stupid person – why did I fail to see through this massive deception which is “complementarianism”? Your example of the striking similarities to racism is spot on – how did I not realize this before?

    I am excited as to where this new phase of life will lead, but can I also admit to being a little frightened? Previously I knew all the correct answers, even if I didn’t always like them. Now, I’m asking completely different questions and the answer book I thought I had is no longer applicable… It is a larger world than I thought, which is a little bit scary – but I think the journey in it will be a richer one and will hopefully make me a better person and make better use of my gifts, for the benefit of all (both men and women) and especially for my three daughters. They need to know this too.

  • http://www.exilemusings.blog.com Amaranth

    The worst part of complimentarianism is not that it’s unfair. No, the worst part is that a lot of the people in the system KNOW that it’s unfair and unequal, and *they don’t care*. They *say* so.

    I once made this exact argument to a staunch proponent of complimentarianism, comparing “different but complimentary” to “separate but equal”. They looked at me and said “Why do you expect God to be fair? Why are you applying human standards of fairness to God? Who are we to question how God does things??”

    I was so floored I couldn’t even think of a response.

    • Steve

      That’s essentially how William Lane Craig defends genocide. “Who are we to say that god killing people is wrong? It’s god! If he wants to commit genocide that makes it right.”

  • Loretta

    I am another who had never heard of complementarianism until recently, and I find the entire concept distasteful. I have been in a long-term marriage that could be called egalitarian, in that sometimes my husband has the final say, sometimes I do. It depends on the situation, and our own strengths and weaknesses. That said, I am a stay-at-home wife, though I have worked in the past, as finances have required. My stay-at-homeness however is not a matter of conviction but of my natural lazy streak, a pathological aversion to getting up early, and a deep-seated need for my days to run on *my* schedule.