While many of the male-dominated forces in society are now criticized openly, a nagging question lingers. Why do some women in our society support institutions that are destructively patriarchal?
Members of the religious and political right, both men and women, seem bent on maintaining the institutions that, to outsiders, appear harmful and archaic. The popularity of books like The Rules and the recently released The Surrendered Wife shows that many still look to conservative solutions to manage relationships.
Homemaker Elizabeth Whelton said her choice to give her husband control means security and peace of mind for her. Her view of submission in marriage and her church is determined by her interpretation of the Bible.
“Men have certain needs and women have certain needs. In Genesis, God said men would have to toil and labour, so they want to provide for a family, and women would have pain in childbirth. Childbirth is very important for women,” she said.
Whelton believes women who are in leadership positions or earn more than their partners, create problems.
“My protection is under [my husband’s] umbrella of responsibility,” she said. “In this marriage, he’s the president and I’m the vice-president. That’s how I see it.”
Not all conservative Christians agree with this interpretation of scripture. Margo Husby, professor of General Studies in the Faculty of Communication and Culture, has a different take.
“My personal perspective is that the Protestant reformation was not good for women. Calvinism doesn’t allow for convents, so spirituality had to stay in the home,” said Husby.
“There was a loss of the idea of a strong independent woman, and the idea of female spirituality outside the home. [Bible verses] like ‘wives obey your husbands’ became legislated by churches, so there’s no place for a woman to be strong unless she’s attached to a man.”
Husby is a former mainline Protestant who converted to Catholicism after feeling put down and restricted in the Protestant system. She does not perceive her switch to conservative Catholic doctrine as a contradiction in terms; instead she contends that women have more spiritual and intellectual freedoms in the Catholic church.
“I live in paradox,” said Husby. “One of the titles of the pope is the servant of the servants of God. Not the dictator of God. It’s hard for men to be servants in a culture that celebrates their dominance.”
Author and counsellor Sheila Rogers said that despite the security provided to women in a conservative system, the cost can be high. Rogers, who completed her Master’s of Social Work at the University of Calgary, conducted empirical studies of Christian women who had escaped abusive husbands. Rogers found that a patriarchal biblical interpretation contributed to women staying in their marriages longer.
“I don’t believe that the structure caused [the abuse]; these women were fragile to begin with. But the system supported it. It contributed to their dependency and maintained it,” said Rogers. “Women made idols of their husbands and the patriarchal system fed into that.”
Despite the personal cost of submitting to male-centred culture, thousands of women continue to choose it as a way of life. Likely, they will continue to as long as it remains part of dominant religious and social beliefs. What will happen next, however, is up to today’s young men and women, who have witnessed the ups and downs of feminism, sexism and conservatism. They will choose what happens next in society as the future of relational and spiritual life takes shape.