Posted by: emjb | August 7, 2006

Head uncovered, speaking in church, devoid of submission

(post contains cursing!)

I’m reading Under the Banner of Heaven, Jan Krakauer’s book about the polygamist sects of Mormonism, and it’s hard going. Because I keep wanting to throw up, and then to jump in my car, drive to Utah, and shoot several child-raping, incestuous, godbag assholes in the head.

Instead, after loosing that stream of invective, I’ll tell you why I am a raging feminist and have a violent reaction to the apostle Paul.

Mostly, it’s because of this little beaut of a woman-hatin’ set of verses.

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God…For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man…

and then this

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Oh, and this one:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Probably, if you were raised in the strain of fundamentalism that I was, especially if you’re a woman, those verses will be painfully familiar to you. They are the verses that are waved in your face from the time you’re a girl, telling you why you can’t ever be as good as a man in God’s eyes, why your talents and your body (especially your uterus) belong to other (male) people, why you matter less.

Oh, it’s dressed up in pretty words, words like “headship” and “servanthood” and “serving the Lord” and “fulfilling your purpose in life” and other vaguely S&M-sounding phrases about how great it is that you get to get stepped on, because after all, that’s what you were designed to do! As though you do not really exist except as a reflection in a man’s eyes; as though you, yourself, were not an entire soul. Unless you were good at having kids, and then only maybe.

I won’t really try to get into all of Paul’s justifications for writing such hateful and misogynistic claptrap and irreparably damaging all the women who were to be part of the growing church (and lots who weren’t) except to note that his doctrine that “them what’s created first should be in charge” seems to imply that the animals should be running the show, since they came before Adam. But I digress.

I sat in church for years and listened to this stuff, and tried, because I was a good Christian girl, to believe it. I mean, I tried. I prayed. I came up with the theory that if I found the right guy, why, it would be ok and easy to submit to him. I worried that I was too proud.

And then one day, I snapped out of it.

I said to God, OK, if this is real? Count me out. Because I can’t go with it. I am not just someone’s helpmeet, and I don’t believe there is a man out there so wonderful and perfect that I could be ok letting him make all the decisions for both of us. And if you, God, are real, then you made a big mistake giving me a complete brain and then telling me to turn off 85 percent of it to please the male half of this species. Either you don’t exist, you’re a real jerk, or Paul had serious issues with women and was lashing out by telling them to sit down and shut up.

Maybe he was jealous. After all, Christ spent a large amount of his time on earth with women, many with some means of their own, who supported him. He never said anything about wishing they would just be more submissive and shut up already so the menfolk could get to work.

Maybe that created a contingent of independent minded women in the Church that Paul found threatening. He was busy consolidating, establishing priestly hierarchies in a way similar to those of the Jewish faith he was raised in. Uppity women didn’t fit his paradigm. So he used his power to shut them up, as the church has done ever since.

It’s called Patriarchy, and it’s the ugly scar running through all of recorded human history. It may be the very first prejudice, the first time one part of humanity said to the other part “You are not as human as we are, therefore we can do what we like to you.”

Patriarchy has taken some hits ever since Christianity (in the form of various apostate rebellious sects) and then the Enlightenment came along. Every time things have gotten better enough that women were able to get hold of education and money, they have gained a little ground here, a little there. They lost ground many times, but have always come back, always pressed against the boundaries. Democracy helped, a free press, and then getting the vote. We still have a ways to go.

Be that as it may, we don’t see Patriarchy so nakedly in our daily lives, here in America, most of the time. Sexism is more underground, less talked-about, less overt, most of the time; it’s no longer acceptable for the government to kill women for daring to make their own choices. That still happens in Kabul, in Saudi, in other places around the world, but not legally here.

Except in places like the enclaves that Krakauer talks about. There we see that even here, even in our forward-thinking, enlightened country, all it takes is a few crackpots who are able to isolate themselves and their families for Arizona to turn into Afghanistan. Patriarchy is very old, and feminism’s victories are very new. There are still people in this country who think women are property, who think God wants them to rule as slavemasters because of what’s between their legs, that the patriarch can never be wrong because he is the patriarch, and God has made him the head of the woman, who exists only to serve him.

I will never go back to the church I was raised in, because they are merely on the milder end of the curve of this hatred, because they have made it more important to pursue the flawed doctrine of fundamentalism than to address the injustice of denigrating just over half of the human race to secondary status. In the nineteenth century, Paul’s words were also used to justify the abominable practice of slavery. This is no different. My church isn’t alone; it has lots of company on that woman-hating spectrum, which is why I stay outside of most church walls.

When I first began to understand that because I was female, I was a target for a vast assembly of rapists, loudmouth harrassers, flashers, grabby scumbags, abusers, and even the majority of serial killers, it was a hard blow to recover from. It still is. It’s like being a deer in a society filled with hunters; maybe they’ll come after you, maybe they won’t.

I cannot describe to a guy what it feels like to know there are actually significant numbers of men out there who will put date-rape drugs in women’s drinks, who will stalk them and kill them, who will say filthy things to them in the workplace and then threaten to fire them or worse if they tell. You cannot imagine. You really cannot imagine. It is not the same as being afraid of a random mugging. It is not the same as being afraid of a murderer on the loose. It is a fear specific only to being a woman in a world that has, for most of its history, seen me as nothing but a piece of meat, property to be stolen, bought, and abused.

The first time a stranger tried to stalk me was when I was 10. My friend Erica saw him; I didn’t. Thank God she was with me. We were walking to the burger place down the block, alone, two 10 year old girls. She said to me “That man’s following us.” A nondescript man, mustache, gray jacket, slacks. Maybe glasses. I didn’t really believe her, but to be sure, we ducked into a store that sold appliances and crouched down behind the washing machines. The man came into the store. He looked around for a bit, frowned, and left. We never told anyone; we didn’t really understand how dangerous it was.

The second time I was in high school, taking a walk through my parents’ neighborhood. A rusty gray car, out of place in our neighborhood, passed me slowly, and then slowed down some more. I got nervous and walked up away from the street, onto people’s lawns and closer to the houses. The car passed, and I kept walking, thinking, I’d imagined it. Then the same car appeared at the end of the street, coming back toward me, more quickly. I quickly turned and cut between the houses to my parent’s backyard, and ran into my house. I liked to exercise, I loved to explore, but it was hard to keep going for walks after that.

Ever since, I keep my eyes open. It’s normal for me, for millions of women, to keep our eyes open. To never walk alone in dark places, to maybe carry a gun, mace, a whistle. To always be a little bit afraid. To often feel like it’s too dangerous to leave the house. To be in a mobile prison of fear that we carry everywhere. To know that even if we get assaulted, survive and report it, someone will try to say we deserved it, we weren’t careful enough, because we did leave the house, we didn’t wear a burka, we had a drink, we smiled at a stranger in a moment of unguarded friendliness.

That’s Patriarchy. That’s evil. It has to stop. And until the church recognizes that, it’s participating in evil, too, and I have nothing to do with it.



  1. I followed the links here from your comment on FPMama’s blog, and have been enjoying the pictures of Nathan. 🙂

    I’ve been on a reading spree about Mormonism recently, including “Under the Banner of Heaven.” I have to offer this response, especially to your final lines, where you identify “Patriarchy,” and Paul’s statements about women, with women being in danger of assault. I think you are equating two things which are actually strongly opposed to each other. I do believe the Bible teaches that women should submit to their father or husband, but not to men in general. By limiting a woman’s submission to one specific man, the Bible in fact protects women from the claims of all other men – which was a revolutionary change from the oppressed status of women in the Middle East and indeed the whole world before Christ. Insofar as women remained truly “oppressed” in the Christian era, I think it was due to men maintaining an attitude which was contrary to the Bible. The Victorians invented a lot of things about women being “weaker,” and needing to be coddled, and hardly being able to move outside of the home, and so on. The Bible, on the other hand, portrays the model woman as actively in charge of a large commercial enterprise (Proverbs 31, I’m sure you know it), while also being centered around her home and family. That’s definitely not how the Victorians, or medieval Europeans, or Muslims, or other typical “patriarchal” societies, thought of women.

    I know how you feel about those passages from Paul, because, even though I am firmly committed to believing in Jesus Christ and obeying the entire Bible, I have to admit that I struggle a little with those verses. But let’s not make things worse than they are. Paul was definitely not condoning the actions by men which create the fear that you talk about. And, the Mormons, and especially the polygamist ones, are way outside the mainstream of orthodox Christian thought and practice.

    Also, this doesn’t depend on being with “the right guy.” God didn’t say, submit to your husband if he’s a decent sort. God also did not say, husbands be faithful to your wives if they’re reasonably attractive. It works both ways, unconditionally.

  2. Alice, thanks for your thoughtful commentary. The issues you raise are familiar to me (though I’d probably need a book to address them all). So I’ll stick with the short version of my response, which is, that requiring obedience of a woman to any man…father, husband, or priest…is making her less than a fully autonomous person. Even if that man loves her and protects her from other men who don’t, it is not enough. The freedom to be a whole person making their own decisions should not belong to men alone.

    It may be that Paul (and the writer of Psalms) had a kindler, gentler view of patriarchy which included noblesse oblige towards women; but I think you can understand, that is not the same as granting them full personhood and the rights that men have–to move about freely, choose how to make their living, or choose whether and whom to marry. Or whether to use their intelligence and wisdom to become a leader of the early Church, in Paul’s case.

    I do not say Paul was a rapist, or that the Church advocates violence against women (anymore, though it certainly has in the past!); I do say that his inability to perceive women as his equals is on a continuum with the rapist who sees women as targets for his violence. Probably I wasn’t as clear about that in my post, because my blog is more of a mental clearinghouse for whatever’s on my mind at the moment.

    As the saying goes, feminism is the radical idea that women are people. People in the same sense as men are, deserving of all the same rights and freedoms. To me, that is the only just relationship men and women can have, and if a church can’t recognize that, then it is of no use to me whatsoever.

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