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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When Marriage Looks Like the Only Escape
Steve Is a Man: On Minecraft and Gender
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.

  • Christine

    I’m sure that Nietzsche is considered a horribly evil influence by these people. But his ubermensch idea has always resonated with me. Specifically, the part that says you can never attain it, because the instant you stop striving you have lost it. Basically, being content with your state, no matter how good it is, is the worst thing you can do – you should always be trying to improve yourself.

  • Karen

    There is some value to accepting situations that can’t be changed immediately and making the best of them. No one enjoys the company of the complainers. That is not at all the same as telling someone to be content with her pinched and dreary life instead of striving to make things better. In fact, it has been my experience that the complainers are usually the ones least likely todo anything constructive. My husband’s family, especially his mother, were experts at the passive- aggressive “see how miserable we are; we will just have to be content with out grim and dismal lives.” They think God gives them Brownie points for sitting in the dark when they could change the lightbulb.

    • E

      Exactly. The learned helplessness of misogynist teaching conflates the two, when they are not the same at all.

  • Stony

    The patriarchy seems to equate being someone who strives for betterment and personal development with being a materialistic grasper. I guess seeing woman as a thing that cleans, cooks, and shops, they don’t understand the idea of woman as full human being, with maybe even a — gasp — career. But even someone who chooses “homemaker”, male or female, should not necessarily be content with their lot. This breeds stagnation, doesn’t it?

    I can’t believe I’m using my MIL as a model here, but when they could not afford the weekend property they wanted, she took it upon herself to do a bunch of side jobs for cash so that they could make the down-payment. She could easily have said, “Okay, dear, you’re right.”. But because she strived for it — note that she did not badger “the breadwinner”, she won the bread herself — they now own a property that has proved to be a great investment.

  • dj pomegranate

    Progress never stems from contentment….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.”

    Sounds to me like they know exactly what foments revolution and they are doing their darnedest to convince women that there is a “godly” order to accept what they know is a lesser role.

  • Stony

    Sorry to dominate the conversation, but something else just crashed into my brain. When my parents were in the long torturous process of divorce, my mother said, “I’ve kept the finances and paid the bills for years and you have never once helped me!”. To which my (somewhat clueless when it came to Mom) father replied, “Well, you never once complained! How was I to know??!”. By creating content non-complainers, the patriarchy gives themselves plausible deniability. Snort.

  • Kit

    I really despise this kind of rhetoric – I think it’s fundamentally insupportable and requires that you deny reality to accept it.

    I mean, in the first excerpt, they make this assumption that any woman who has ambition and a career, etc, must necessarily be unhappy and “missing something.” In order to do that, they have to ignore the many thousands and hundreds of thousands of women who are perfectly happy balancing their careers with their families. As a young (female) lawyer who deeply loves her chosen career (actually; my boyfriend complains that I go work in law, go talk law with my friends, go to extra law lectures and then I come home and talk to him about the law), the fact that people just assume I must be unhappy is really very galling. If I were unhappy, would I KNOW I was unhappy?

    • Nea

      The standard religiobabble line seems to be “You only think you’re happy.” I’ve heard that an awful lot.

      • smrnda

        I get a bit irritated by that one too. I mean, I’m not the one who can’t get through life without constantly reminding myself to ‘be content.’ I do what I feel like doing, and I’m pretty happy with the results.

      • Anat

        The response to that should be ‘you only think I’m not’. How would they know?

      • Anonymouse

        So, doing what suits you temperamentally and fiscally cannot possibly make you happy, but passively sitting there accepting whatever crap is dumped on you *will*? Gee, that’s kinda crazy.

      • Nea

        I know, smrnda! That reply makes me nuts every time I hear it, even though Anat’s right, it’s very easy to blow off. The thing that makes me happy? Is having the autonomy to change what makes me unhappy. FOR MYSELF. I don’t have to pray or wait or hope or make “be content” a mantra, I can do what I want – heck, what I *need* – to make my life better.

        And that makes me very happy indeed.

    • Monika

      I always think the important thing is that thinking you are happy and actually being happy are indistinguishable from the inside of your head. So it doesn’t actually matter right? Do what you think makes you happy as long as you are not harming anyone else.

  • Tracey

    I saw nothing wrong with your first quote- IF the pronouns were all neutral. Some people can get trapped in thinking they want more and more even when they have enough. There are people who need to slow down and breathe.
    There are also people who thrive and only find pleasure in always pushing themselves to have more, do more, be more.
    Which type you are is independent of gender. Some of the extremes you blog about are frankly shocking to me- as in I almost cannot believe they really teach this stuff anywhere.
    Does the male female difference in patriarchy stem from that Genesis Adam’s rib stuff? Like they believe all women are actually quite different (and incomplete) from men who are whole? I was raised Catholic, and the only thing I ever remember learning about men vs women was that men are the head of the household. With my parents it was obviously more English monarchy though. Like, sure Dad you’re the (cough) leader.

    • Christine

      As was said at the brunch after some relatives got married: The man may be the head of the household, but the woman is the neck. She turns him in the direction she wants to go.

  • Jaimie

    It’s such a weird message. I am grateful for what I have but if I were to settle (that is, being content) I would have never decided to go to nursing school. Of course, in that world, any achievement by women is wrong. A threat. A personal attack on men.
    I don’t have all the answers but there are two things I am completely convinced of. 1. Strong men like strong women. 2. Weak men want weak women.

  • smrnda

    Teaching contentment just to women sets up a situation where the man can basically do whatever, and no matter how badly he screws up he’s never failed in his role, since the woman isn’t allowed to ever view her husband (or father) as having fallen short because she’s supposed to be content and supportive no matter what.

    The other thing is, when I think of a word like “ambition” I think of someone like Napoleon, or Isaac Newton. The sons of Christian patriarchy aren’t probably going to be the next Napoleons and Newtons, the best they can likely hope for is to run a small business that will barely provide for their double digit sized family. I mean, I’m all for encouraging everybody to be all they can be, but there isn’t enough room in the world for all men to be visionary leaders and achievers. I think the language here is designed to give men inflated egos – the man isn’t just a guy who runs a small business, he is a *godly visionary entrepreneur* who is establishing some holy kingdom on earth.

  • prairienymph

    The contentment message that tells girls not to question their fathers and husbands doesn’t stop there. It really keeps girls from trusting their intellect and questioning what they are taught about God. I am convinced I would have deconverted sooner if I had received more affirming messages about my desire to learn, question, and trust my own brain instead of the ‘shut up, daddy knows best’ trope. How can you question if you are told that it is a sign of discontent with God which is automatically evil?

    • Red

      This is closely tied to another double-standard that runs rampant; when girls trust their instincts they are called strong-willed and selfish. When boys trust their instincts, they are called responsible.

      • prairienymph

        Exactly! The whole message about Eve being evil and going against God’s plan for her by desiring autonomy is messed up. If I had voiced any desire for leadership, I would have been called out as ‘rebellious’ and ‘sinful’. When any males did, they were praised as ‘responsible’ and ‘following God’s plan’.

  • Rovin’ Rockhound

    This is another case of a word, “content”, meaning different things in Christianese and real-world English. For the last year or so my shrink kept insisting that I should aim to be “content”. He was using the real definition of the word: to be in a state of peaceful happiness, to be aware and relaxed enough to notice that the leaves were turning, the dog was extra fuzzy, and that dinner was really good. You can still be ambitious while being content and work hard for that promotion/higher grade/whatever it is that you want – you just don’t constantly live under a dark cloud. In Christianese, it means “to settle”. You hate your job, you are unhappy with life, your husband abuses you, you can’t stand the weather in your city and you want to move? Tough luck. You are under the thumb of the patriarch, and whatever he chooses to do is “god’s will”.


  • Holly

    like Rovin’ Rockhound, my first thought was “why not both?” Why not content and striving, but strive without anguish? Strive with a goal and steps to achieve to reach that goal.

  • perfectnumber628

    As other commenters have said, “contentment” makes sense if it means trying to make the best of your circumstances, and not always feeling like “oh my life is so miserable, but if only I had [more money, better house, relationships, etc] then I would be happy.” But I think it’s disgusting that patriarchy is ONLY preaching this to girls.

  • wanderer

    Okay…a couple things:
    1. It’s a random thing to choose to make contentedness this big important virtue. In the scheme of all the traits & characteristics, why make this one so effin important? Unless of course…. we call a spade a spade and admit that this means “women, shut up & sit down”. It is blatant mysogyny.
    2. The passages from the Botkins’ book disturb me because they are basically telling girls to be the grown-up in their childhood. They have to manage their father’s emotions, his ego, etc. They can’t be KIDS. They just be honest “oh I totally want that new (whatever)”, but instead have to become their father’s parent (basically) and not even ask because it might cause him strain.
    ANY mental health professional would tell you that is horribly dysfunctional!

  • Daughter

    I read an interesting book recently, “A Complaint Free World.” The author is coming from a New Age-y spiritual perspective, but he makes a point similar to yours, Libby, citing Jefferson, MLK and others. He challenges complaining, not to admonish people to simply be content with their current situation, but to let dissatisfaction be a springboard to greater vision and ambition. He notes that Jefferson didn’t just list their complaints with the king, but laid out a vision of what society should be: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” And MLK did the same, not just speaking out against the oppression of African-Americans, but calling Americans to a higher standard: “I have a dream…”

  • Julian

    As an hospitable boy who eschews the thrill of adventure and longs for the life of ease and sloth, I must admit this made me giggle a bit. I would’ve guffawed outright if I hadn’t spent my teen years enduring an unending onslaught of this sort of bullshit. As bad as it is for folks who are comfortable with their gender assignment, it’s possibly even worse for those who aren’t. Talk about receiving and internalizing mixed messages…

    • Anonymouse

      Julian, feminists have been fighting for your right to stay home and be hospitable if that’s your desire. Patriarchy hurts men, too.

      • Julian

        Oh, believe me, Anonymouse, I know. And I’m grateful to you all. There isn’t anyone this business doesn’t hurt.

  • Little Magpie

    @Julian (right above me) – good for you. I am absolutely NOT sarcastic, I hope you find an ambitious, driven (and wealthy?) woman to make you her “househusband” (I’m assuming you’re hetero, my apologies if you aren’t. Just rhetorical laziness on my part.)

    @Libby Anne: I hope Sally grows up to be the first astronaut on Mars. (Well, if that’s what floats her boat. I’m projecting a bit, can ya tell?) :D

  • Anonymouse

    “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. ”

    The misogynistic sneer, “Women *can’t* have it all” is so off-putting. Nobody I know wants to “have it all”. What women want is what all people–men and women–want; to be able to use their skills and abilities productively and to be recognized for their successes. Success is different for different people; one might define success as a shiny kitchen floor; others might define it as a successful rover launch after 10 years of planning. Telling someone they must be content in a narrow little box is just cruel.

  • Marie

    Great post! I would go one step further and say that the contentment for women only teachings are outright oppression of women. They don’t want women to make progress. They wish women didn’t have ambition, but since they do, they try to drive it out of them by telling them it’s unnatural. They wouldn’t have to beat the message into women if it was natural for them to be content.

  • Seda

    The comparison of the different tracks for girls and boys in the CP movement almost made me physically ill. How on earth can they be so blind, not only to reality, but to the sacred needs of their own daughters? And not only their daughters, but their sons! Forcing children into boxes regardless of fit is so cruel, and such a waste of human potential. Why not offer them the whole world without limits, and then help them find the way that fits – the “path … for [their] steps alone”?