Dominance and Submission or a Cooperative Partnership?

Supporters of patriarchal gender roles and hierarchical marriage relationships often argue that feminists want to pit men and women against each other, but what they don’t realize is that by turning marriage into a relationship based on dominance and submission, they are the ones pitting men and women against each other. In seeking equality, feminism envisions relationships built not on dominance and submission but rather on communication and cooperation, companionship founded on mutual respect, partnership as diverse as the individuals who form it.

This thought came to me during a facebook chat discussion with blogger Sarah Moon. We were discussing this rather terrible article, which rebuked feminism with talk of servanthood. Our conversation centered on a short section of the article:

My dad was a pastor but when I was a little girl, the church was the only place he was a leader. At home, my mum made the rules. She told my dad when to punish us; my dad would always tell us to go to our mum when we asked for permission, and she ultimately made any decisions affecting the family.

And my dad let her. So I not only didn’t fully respect my dad growing upbecause he didn’t stand up to my mum, but I didn’t really trust him to protect me. To come to my rescue if I needed him to. And when I first got married I treated my husband the same way; I bossed him around and got annoyed when he wouldn’t listen to me.

My mum’s mum was that way too. My Nanny and her husband divorced, because he couldn’t please her, and in the end, she committed suicide, because she wasn’t able to get her way and so I come from a long line of willful women.

There is a lot that could be said about this passage, obviously, and Sarah and I only scratched the surface. Still, I thought our conversation brought up interesting points, some of which I need to reflect on further. Here is our conversation, followed by a summary of the thoughts I had as a result of it.

———

Sarah: The line about her grandmother committing suicide because she couldn’t get her way? WHAT.

Libby Anne: Ugh, I know. But I do think it’s important to remember that relationships like the one described do exist—where the woman runs the show. I don’t know if you keep up with my CTBHHM series, but I think women have the types Debi describes too—Command Man, Visionary, Steady. I don’t think her three types are perfect or all inclusive, but I find that they work surprisingly well. Anyway, I think some women are the Command Man type—and remember that while the extreme Command Man Debi describes is clearly abusive, in the real world there is room for balance within that type. But when you couple a Command Woman with a Visionary Man or a Steady Man, you are going to get a situation where the woman ends up running the show.

Sarah: Right.

Libby Anne: And you know what? That’s fine, IF there is communication and cooperation and collaboration and compromise going on. All those C words. It’s fine for a couple to use their strengths in how they run their relationships. But it’s not fine from the evangelical perspective. And in the sort of case that blog post described, it often seems like you don’t have a lot of communication about it. Of course, a Command Woman absolutely can be abusive, much like Debi describes the Command Man. In many ways I fit Debi’s Command type, and I also didn’t have healthy relationship models growing up. So I understand the temptation to be abusive, and I know how easy it would be to just bulldoze. But I very intentionally don’t. I think every person’s strengths can be used for good or for ill—and that’s true of each of Debi’s types.

Sarah: I think I was a Command Woman in my last relationship and was really hurtful because of it. But feminism actually taught me to have a more healthy relationship and communicate with and respect my current partner more. So the idea that all feminists are just controlling of men is frustrating. I agree—any relationship with different personalities can be worked out as long as two people respect each other.

Libby Anne: Right! I feel the same way, actually. I think that the blog author’s mother would have actually benefited from feminism, and I’m also going to go out on a limb and guess that she probably had a love/hate relationship with her own dominant role, because of her belief that she was supposed to be submissive. At least, I saw that pattern growing up. Also, feminism teaches to see relationships not as competitions, but as collaborative partnerships. That’s HUGE.

Sarah: Exactly! Just viewing a relationship not as a competition or an exchange of goods but as a partnership changed my life.

Libby Anne: Also, when you grow up with the belief that women are supposed to be dominated by men, you’re going to be freaked out that if you give up the reins and stop being dominant yourself, you’re going to get screwed over.

Sarah: Yup. That was my last relationship, even though he was a nice guy. And sadly that fear is justified too often because so many men want to dominate.

———

Let me finish with a few additional thoughts.

While Debi’s Command type seems more prone to what we readily identify as abuse, each of Debi’s types have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Command type can be a good leader and decision maker or can be an abusive tyrant. If women have these same types—something Debi would very much deny—they also have these same potential strengths and weaknesses. So it’s absolutely true that a woman can absolutely embody the extreme abusive Command type outlined by Debi—and this seems to be the sort of situation the blogger quoted above is referencing.

There’s something else to bear in mind, though. Every partnership between two individuals looks different, as it should—and partners generally split up the duties and decision making. Thus in a partnership between, say, a Command Woman and a Visionary Man, it would only make sense for the two to focus on their strengths, and thus for the woman to do more of the day to day decision making. So long as this is mutually agreed upon and not abusive, it’s only natural and fine—but it’s something that doesn’t fit the patriarchal playbook, which prescribes that men are to make the decisions and women are to take the back seat. And I think the blog author quoted above was influenced by this mindset when she watched her parents’ relationship.

Finally, I want to get back to what I started with: Supporters of patriarchal gender roles and hierarchical marriage relationships often argue that feminists want to pit men and women against each other, but what they don’t realize is that by turning marriage into a relationship based on dominance and submission, they are the ones pitting men and women against each other. In seeking equality, feminism envisions relationships built not on dominance and submission but rather on communication and cooperation, companionship founded on mutual respect, partnership as diverse as the individuals who form it. Feminism eschews both patriarchal proscriptions for how relationships should look and abusive tactics and ploys within relationships. And somehow I don’t think the author of the blog post that started this entire line of thought is aware of that.

What would you add to all this?

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Why Josh Duggar's "Teenage Mistakes" Matter
When the Perpetrators Matter More than the Victims
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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