Monday, July 30, 2012

Patriarchy and Feminism

from here

The Caitlin Moran type (“I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion’”*) rather than the Germaine Greer type (which I associate with crankiness and man-hating; I haven’t read any of her books, though, so this may be entirely unjustified). It was actually Caitlin Moran who told me to proclaim that first line, to own it, in her book How to be a Woman, which is “part memoir and part rant” but wholly brilliant and wildly funny; a book that will remain very close to the top of my Favourite Reads Of All Time list**. It should be compulsory reading for all females over the age of 20, and males should probably read it too, although there’d obviously be far fewer “HA! I TOTALLY GET THAT!” moments about things like uncomfortable bras and being wolf-whistled at. I love Moran’s explanation of feminism’s goal (page 308): “’s not as if strident feminists want to take over from men. We’re not arguing for the whole world. Just our share.”

Most women I know are uncomfortable wearing the ‘feminist’ label - you may have noticed that even I can’t say it without immediately explaining what I do and don’t mean by it. I do worry, though, that we women have become so privileged that we’ve started taking feminism for granted and distancing ourselves from something we should be immensely and eternally thankful for. As Caitlin Moran puts it (from page 80):
...we need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 per cent of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42 per cent of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?

These days, however, I am much calmer – since I realised that it’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in society. You’d be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor – biting down on a wooden spoon, so as not to disturb the men’s card game – before going back to quick-liming the dunny.
Today too many of us have no idea what feminism was saving us from, so we’re happy to leave it in the past and move on.... Except that, for women in complementarian churches, we’re still in trouble. I find it really surprising and disappointing to read that complementarians align themselves with patriarchy so shamelessly, as if it was (and so is now) a good and right and biblical thing. In a recent edition of the complementarian Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Owen Strachan casually explains that “[f]or millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism.” 

Even if complementarians shied away from using the actual word for themselves, the links are obvious. In Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures, David Augsburger lists factors that define a society as patriarchal, one of which is when most of its members believe that “[w]omen achieve their highest fulfilment as wives and mothers. No matter what outside job or career she may undertake, a woman is first a wife and mother; within the family, the man remains the prime breadwinner, assuming major responsibility for the family” (from page 216). Does this sound familiar? These words are echoed almost exactly by Wayne Grudem in Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (page 44): “The man’s responsibility [is] to provide for and protect, and the woman’s responsibility [is] to care for the home and to nurture children.”

Even more surprising and disappointing, though, is the fact that patriarchy is presented by complementarian guys like Strachan and Grudem as a knight in shining armour, come to restore men and women to where they were before they were captured by Evil Feminism.  This is a devilish lie. Yes, patriarchy is biblical, if by ‘biblical’ you mean “It can be found in the Bible.” It’s as biblical as murder. Perhaps the better question is, “Is patriarchy God’s ideal?” Considering it shows up in Genesis 3 along with Satan, it’s fairly clear to me that the answer is a negative one***.

In the first two chapters of Genesis we see God creating man and woman in His own image (1:27) and giving them the task of subduing and ruling together under God. In chapter 3, however, after both Adam and Eve usurp God’s authority and try to become gods themselves, unity disintegrates and the consequences are spelled out: to the woman, God says (in 3:16), “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Sin’s birth starts man and woman working against – rather than with and for – each other. They now compete for power rather than sharing it equally, and, as we know from many thousands of awful stories, the one who wins competitions like these is most often the one who can punch the hardest.

The Old and New Testaments document patriarchy in practice and it’s not too fun-looking for the women. For a couple of examples, let’s look at the two (of sixty-six) books that are named after women and focus on their stories: Ruth and Esther. In Ruth we read that she and her mother-in-law Naomi, both widows, are so destitute with no husbands to support them that they have to pick up whatever grain is left behind during the harvest in the hope that the owner of the field will be merciful and let them. He is, thank God. The story ends happily because Ruth gets married and gives birth to a son. Hooray! Two males in their lives! Ruth and Naomi are now far less likely to die of starvation.

Esther, the second of the two books, starts with a part of the story of another woman, Queen Vashti. Queen Vashti is rejected by the king because she stubbornly refuses to parade herself for him and his drunk buddies one night; the “wise men” worry that other women will get the same radical ideas if Vashti is not replaced. So search parties are sent out to find beautiful virgins for the king, and Esther is one of them: a young, Jewish girl, who was taken from her home and conscripted to the king’s harem because some men thought she was pretty. We’re raised on Disney princesses to romantically think, “But Esther became queen!” I wonder though, if she’d had any say, whether Esther would have preferred just to hang on to her virginity for a little while longer and continue in the life she knew at home with her mum and dad. They’re just two examples of patriarchy at work in the Old Testament, and they’re not even the bad ones. So forgive me, complementarian teachers, for not fully understanding exactly which part of patriarchy-in-the-Bible you’d like us all to return to. It makes complete sense to me that women would find solace in feminism if this is the alternative complementarian Christians are offering.

Moving to the New Testament, though, we get to Matthew and Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, shows up! And he treats women like they matter! He talks to them and listens to them and has compassion on them and commends the one who chooses to sit at his feet to learn rather than the one who chooses to busy herself with the housework! And then Paul begins to follow Christ and later writes letters to his churches teaching that not only should the wife “fulfill her marital duty to her husband” (Of course, think the women, we know that already), but the husband should do likewise! Wait - what?! Consent should be mutual (1 Corinthians 7:5)?! The husband must love his wife as he loves his body, God’s Spirit and gifts are given out regardless of gender, men and women are all one in Christ Jesus? No wonder Paul has to ask the women to stop interrupting the worship in order to ask questions (in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35); these chicks are flipping excited to finally be allowed to participate!

Of course, the cultures we find in the New Testament are still patriarchal, just as the early church is still working out how the gospel reshapes so many other areas of life (circumcision, food sacrificed to idols, etc.). But Jesus opened a door through which the breeze of liberation started to move, and it’s rightly continued to blow over the years as many Christians have kept taking Spirit-led steps forward. And so I AM A FEMINIST, because I like what God declared “very goodin the beginning, because I mean it when I pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and because I believe, fervently, that it was Jesus who started the whole equality-for-women movement a couple of thousand years ago.


* Page 133

** I don’t agree with everything she says, but I think its all important to think through.

*** My husband rightly pointed out that this is a problematic topic despite careful exegesis (as I mentioned in the comments from this post), and so it’s unhelpful to say “It’s fairly clear the Bible says this.“ I agree with him, but I’m leaving it in there with emphasis on the to me“ part, because I am convinced of it, and it is clear to me. This debate will never be solved by collecting passages and arguing around them; both complementarians and egalitarians can find enough verses to back up their case. Where the egalitarian argument wins is in the redemptive movement that flows from Genesis to our world today; read on, and hopefully this will make more sense!


  1. Hi Belle,

    This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I have recently stumbled across your blog via our mutual friend Sonia. Im not even entirely sure how this happened, maybe she posted something of yours once, or one link led to another. However, this last weekend I became hopelessly addicted to your writing (and thinking), and i feel like I should admit my stalkerish eavesdropping of your life. I may have been looking for a way to procrastinate, but on Sunday I began right from the beginning of your blog and started reading, and now I am compelled to continue. This is my favourite post of yours so far. I love it! I have just read 'A year of biblical Womanhood' by Rachel Held Evans, and this post just reinforced a number of things for me, and was also incredibly liberating. Thankyou for you lovely writing and thinking. So many things you have written have made me a) laugh out loud, b) nod in fervent agreement and c) sigh in deep relief that I am not the only person who thinks/feels those things too.
    Although I do have one question for you - how on earth do you read so much?! Is reading your primary hobby?

    From your newest fan,

    1. Oh, Yang-En, this comment is perhaps the best one I've ever received on my blog! Thank you for both stalking me and saying so many kind things. You've totally made my year. :)

      As for reading, it *was* my primary hobby (along with blogging) back in the day when my son was younger and my study wasn't too time-consuming. I still love reading (and blogging), but I don't get through nearly as many books these days.

    2. I'm pleased to have made your year!

      (I was feeling pretty smug with my own reading efforts so far this year, until I read your post listing all the books you had read that year - in categories!)

    3. Please continue to feel smug, I'm sure I've read fewer books than you have this year! I had a lot of time on my hands back then; now, not so much. :/