You all know I had a bit of a rocky time with my parents upon reaching adulthood. Well, I recently learned something I had not known that occurred during that period, and it surprised even me. I think I need to give a little backstory to make what I’m about to say make sense. I’ve told this in pieces, so let me sum it up.
Upon completion of homeschool high school, I went away to college. I chose a secular college, with my parents’ approval, because I wanted to finally win converts for Christ and had never had a chance to do so as I’d never been around nonbelievers. It was some hours away from home, so I lived in a dorm. Halfway through college I switched from believing in young earth creationism to believing God had created through evolution, and around the same time I started dating Sean, a young man I’d met at college. I got my parents’ approval first, and I called it courtship. After some months, however, my parents ordered me to stop seeing Sean. I refused. I was twenty years old at the time.
What I learned last week—and what I had not known at the time—is that when I refused to break up with Sean, my father sent a letter to Sean’s father telling him that I was now his responsibility. That’s right—Sean’s father’s responsibility. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder. Sean’s father didn’t respond to my father, largely because he couldn’t figure out how to do so. Sean’s father is religious, but he is of the opinion that once children turn 18 they are responsible for themselves.
But this post isn’t just about some weird thing I just learned that happened way back when in my own past. I think this is worth talking about because it sheds light on a crucial piece of my parents’ patriarchal beliefs—that a woman cannot be, or should not be, responsible for herself. My father believed he was responsible for me, but he knew I was not doing as he ordered. He was trying to take care of me, to protect me, to ensure that I was safe, but it wasn’t working—I wasn’t listening. So apparently he felt the need to pass the responsibility for me on to someone else, and he chose Sean’s father.
Sean’s father, to his credit, never acted on this “responsibility” thrust at him by my father. No, Sean’s father let me make my own choices and plan my own future—he let me be an adult, which, well, I was.
I once told a coworker about the beliefs about unmarried adult daughters remaining under their father’s authority that I had been raised with and she said something that pulled me up short. She looked at me and laughed, and said do you really think those ideas are confined to your background? She told me that she was forty and had a teenage daughter, but that even so, because she had never married and was single her father felt a sort of patronizing responsibility toward her that he certainly did not feel toward her brother—and she clearly wasn’t pleased with it, either.
Our culture has patriarchal roots, so it’s not surprising that these ideas about every woman needing a man who is responsible for them are still there, albeit with less force than in the past. Two hundred years ago, under the laws of coverture, a woman who married was literally subsumed into her husband’s legal identity, meaning that he was responsible for her. This was part of the justification for wife-beating being legal—how else was a man to keep his wife under control and ensure that she didn’t go out and make trouble that he would then have to clean up?
I should clarify that there was nothing wrong with Sean, back when my parents ordered me to stop seeing him. He wasn’t doing drugs, or abusing me, or committing any crimes. No, his crime was that he, too, believed God had created through evolution. They saw that I was changing, forming my own beliefs, and concluded that it was all Sean’s fault—that what I was actually doing was bringing my beliefs in line with Sean’s. This, too, was sexist—they didn’t see a woman as capable of forming her own beliefs rather than simply adopting her father’s or husband’s beliefs. They were wrong then, and they are still wrong today.
Interestingly, years later, after I had married Sean and after Sally and Bobby were born, my mother came around and began reconstructing the past such that my father didn’t actually want me to break up with Sean. She claimed that if I’d done as my father ordered me, I still would have married Sean in the end. She said look what a wonderful husband and father he is, look what a hard worker he is, look what an upstanding young man he is, of course your father would have let you marry him. It just would have been on God’s timing, she said, rather than my own timing, and I would have avoided the broken relationships.
I don’t think my mother can accept that I was right, and my father was wrong. I don’t think she can accept that I could be successfully responsible for myself. After all, my wayward refusal to submit to my father’s authority should have led to disaster and should have rendered my life a ruin, but it hasn’t and it didn’t.
One last point I want to make. The justification for unmarried adult daughters remaining under their father’s authority, or having someone “responsible” for them, is to keep them safe, protected. The idea is that a young woman is too controlled by her emotions and flightiness to actually think straight and determine what is best for her, so she needs a mature adult male to do that for her. But guess what? I managed to keep my emotions and flightiness under control (yes that’s snark) and make decisions that have turned out very well for me, all on my own. I seized the reins and was responsible for myself—and I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.