Christian Patriarchy and Gender: Contentment v. Ambition

For as long as I can remember, I heard the values of contentment extolled. Contentment, contentment, contentment, contentment, contentment. Growing up in a family influenced by the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements, contentment was something preached on a daily basis. I learned very early that I must be content.

But you know what? This isn’t what the guys around me were being told. While I was being taught to be content, they were being taught to be ambitious. They had to find jobs that would allow them to support a large family on a single income, after all, and they were the ones who were to run for political office and engage in other such activities in an effort to remake the United States into a Christian nation. I was given contentment. They were given ambition.

Leading Christian Patriarchy organization Vision Forum sells a book called Contentment: A Godly Woman’s Adornment.

Any woman who buys into the lie of “You can have it all,” or who thinks she can only be happy “if…” experiences an abiding frustration: what she wants remains always just out of reach. No matter how good she has it, no matter how good the good times may get, there’s always something missing.

But God desires something far better and more lasting for his daughters. And He’s delivered the secret in his Word, assuring women that real satisfaction is found in living for and longing for the right things. Those truths and promises are at the heart of this compact devotional for women, one of four titles in the “A God Woman’s Adornment” series. Each Scripture-centered lesson in Contentment: A Godly Woman’s Adornment helps direct women away from fleeting distractions and toward a true, enduring satisfaction.

While my brothers were taught to move forward and always reach for something higher, I was taught to stop moving, stand still, and smile. I was taught to see any sign of ambition in myself as a “fleeting distraction” that I must push away, an enemy to what would truly make my happy – contentment. Stand still. Smile.

From Books like So Much More by Anna Sophia and Elizabeth Botkin I learned the importance of being content as a daughter at home. Here is an excerpt from something they wrote about how to be a better daughter to your father:

4. Be content in his protection and provision and leadership

Don’t panic if your father makes a decision you don’t agree with. Have faith in God’s ability to lead through your father, imperfect though he is, knowing that God will bless your obedience.

You can help your father by being different from the average girl who is never content and pressures her father to give her a more “normal” life. Some fathers are afraid to lead their families into more biblical paths because of what they know would be their daughters’ response — “No, Dad, that would make us look too different, and all my friends think I’m really weird already.”

You can also help your father by letting him know that he has a daughter who wants to give and not take, and isn’t thing-hungry. Some fathers can’t focus on leading their families spiritually or on fighting the Lord’s battles because they have to work themselves to death as wage slaves to satisfy their wives and children, who are clamoring for more things.

When husbands and fathers know they can depend on their wives and daughters to be content and confident in their leadership, it gives them the confidence to be more peaceful, more visionary, more entrepreneurial, more full of faith, and more bold in their leadership.

In other words, if you, as a daughter or wife, are content, it allows your father or husband to be more entrepreneurial and more successful. Women are to be content. Men are to be ambitions.

Vision Forum offers a list of the qualities of beautiful girlhood alongside a parallel list of the qualities of courageous boyhood. I compared the two lists here. Girls are urged to have “femininity and grace” while boys are urged to have “vision and honor.” Girls are extolled the virtues of “purity and contentment” while boys are extolled the virtues of “virtue and duty.”

The courageous boy is one who longs for the thrill of adventure and eschews the life of ease and sloth. This desire is not a pagan quest for self-glory, but is in pursuit of a higher cause—the advancement of the Gospel and Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

One of the defining qualities of beautiful girlhood is a love for home and hospitality. A young girl watches her mother and looks forward to the day when she, too, will have a family. While other girls are driven by wanderlust, the hospitable girl finds true contentment at home.

While boys are told they should “long for the thrill of adventure,” but the same quality in a girl is called “wanderlust.” Ambition for the one, contentment for the other.

Those who promote patriarchy and send these highly divergent messages to children know Thomas Alva Edison never invented the light bulb by being content. They know George Washington and Thomas Jefferson didn’t found a new country by being content. (Perhaps those abolitionists should have just been content, right? And it’s pretty obvious those civil rights marchers sure didn’t display a lot of contentment!) They know the scientists at NASA didn’t put a man on the moon by being content. (I would have loved to see that conversation: “You know guys, we already sent a man into outer space, don’t you think this drive to put a man on the moon shows a lack of contentment in what we already have?”) And finally, they know Steve Jobs wouldn’t have invented the iPhone if he had simply been content.

Progress never stems from contentment. Supporters of patriarchy know this. It’s not that they actually think contentment is a virtue that should be preached universally. No. Instead, the virtue of contentment is something preached solely to girls. Because the boys are the ones who are supposed to be doing, leading, achieving, creating. The girls are supposed to following. They’re supposed to be support staff while the boys do all the doing. And this is why the boys are taught to be ambitious and reach for the stars while the girls are taught to be content where they are.

Like most of the messages of the Christian Patriarchy movement and evangelicalism’s purity culture, these ideas are not completely absent from mainstream American society. Nisha Chittal touched on some similar ideas in “Let’s Talk about That Ambition Gap.”

What I do notice every day is that most women have been taught from an early age to be nice, above all else. To watch your tone. To not be too aggressive. To not be too greedy. To share the credit for their achievements. To be modest. And as girls grow into women, they internalize those messages and carry the “nice girl” message into their careers. Most women I know constantly wrestle with how to reconcile their high ambitions with the conflicting messages they’ve received to be likeable, and not too aggressive.

While these sorts of messages are subtler in mainstream society than they are in circles that openly advocate patriarchy, they’re not entirely absent either.

As a mother, I’m teaching my daughter Sally to have ambition and dream big. I want her to walk to the horizon and push beyond. I want her to know that she can move forward rather than standing still. And most of all, I want her to know that she is a person first, that her gender is not something that should hold her back, and that my hopes and dreams for her are no different from those I have for her brother. And coming from my background as a child of the Christian Patriarchy movement, that is revolutionary.

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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.


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