Libby Anne: Christian Patriarchy and Bodily Ownership

(Note: This is cross-posted from Love, Joy, Feminism. The original is here.)

By Libby Anne

My mother taught my sisters and I that our bodies belonged to our father. She told us that if we wanted to alter our bodies by a piercing or tattoo, that had to go through him – even if we were adults. She told us that once we married, our bodies would belong to our husbands, and we would likewise have to get permission from them to alter our bodies in any way.

Christian Patriarchy teaches that every female has a god-given male authority, or male “head,” to whom she must submit. And submit means obey. Christian Patriarchy teaches that God speaks to women through their god-give male authorities, and that by obeying these male authorities they are obeying God. In fact, some go so far as to argue that a woman is justified in breaking the law or even sinning if she does so on the order of her god-given male authority, because God will honor her decision to submit to and obey the authority he has placed over her. (Somehow I don’t think law enforcement would do the same.)

A woman’s first god-given male authority is her father. If her father dies before she marries, the oldest of her brothers becomes her god-given authority (yes, I really did believe this). Once a woman marries, her god-given male authority is her husband. The wedding ceremony is a symbol of the very literal transition of authority as the girl is transferred from her father to her husband. Some even hold that if the father does not give his approval to his daughter’s marriage, her marriage is null and void. (Somehow I don’t think the civil government would agree.)

Christian Patriarchy goes to great pains to argue that this isn’t about women as a whole being under men as a whole. Men and women, they say, are equal. I’ve heard Christian Patriarchy proponents laugh at the idea that “women” should submit to “men,” arguing that that is absolutely not the case at all. Rather, they say, each individual woman has an individual male authority placed over her by God to protect her and guide her. It’s not about women submitting to men. It’s about a woman submitting to a man. Somehow, that’s supposed to make it sound acceptable, rational, and certainly not extreme at all.

For my mother, female submission to male authority was more than just an idea. It was very real. And for my mother, female submission to male authority was more than just obedience. It was ownership. In some sense, of course, the idea that an adult daughter should have to get her father’s permission to alter her body is not really that different from the idea that she should have to get her father’s permission and approval to go to college, begin a relationship, get a job, or even, in some families, go to the grocery store. But in another sense it is.

Perhaps most important, implying bodily ownership makes crystal clear that there is little difference between Christian Patriarchy and slavery. Or really, no difference.

Of course, proponents of Christian Patriarchy will emphasize that fathers and husbands are to care for and love their daughters and wives, not simply treat them as objects to be exploited. The system is set up to promote the well-being of everyone involved, they insist, and women are simply designed to follow and be protected while men are designed to lead and protect. Interestingly, slavery apologists before the Civil War made these same arguments, insisting that African American were not intellectually fit to be independent and that slave owners were actually protecting and caring for their slaves, not exploiting them.

Dress it however you like, if one person is expected to submit to and obey another, if one person’s body “belongs to” another, that is slavery.

  • layne

    This is seen even in the complementarian evangelical communities. If a wife’s godly duty (and role, as mapped out by the bible) is to submit to her husband in marriage (ie, marrital decisions), she gives up full possession of her body. Such as, if he wants to have (more) children and she does not, in the end, she has submit to becoming pregnant and carrying a child because he makes the final decision. He believes god wants to “grow their family” so she had better get a baby in her or else she will be outside of god’s role for her life. Slavery, indeed. No thank you.


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