When it comes to patriarchy, the Church is all over the map. Husbands preside, but husbands and wives are equal partners. “While the husband, the father, has responsibility to provide worthy and inspired leadership, his wife is neither behind him nor ahead of him but at his side” (Boyd K. Packer). The two are “equally yoked” side by side, but the husband “provides leadership,” implying that the wife supplies the “followership”–not from a position behind him, but rather at his side: perhaps they are meant to walk sidewise? (This all sounds more awkward than a three-legged race.)
Some rejoice in this doctrinal hodge-podge, reasoning that any of the Church’s various positions on what patriarchy involves can be selected and advocated for as the “official” stance with a reasonable stamp of approval from the magesterium. Statements can be pulled willy-nilly from a wide array of publications to form the cornerstones to individuals’ idiosyncratic conceptions of, and attempts to implement, what the Church teaches about gender and marriage. The trouble, though, is that the Church does not acknowledge its many faces of patriarchy, preaching as though its doctrine on the matter is uniform, unambiguous, immutable, and universally incumbent on its members. Even as it shifts wildly around, the Church behaves as though it has a single position on the patriarchy map that can be located and honed in on, whose scenery can be consistently described.
It’s no secret there’s been a doctrinal drift over the last few decades, away from reiterations of strict patriarchy and toward softer, more egalitarian language; statements such as the following, taken from the February 1973 Ensign, in which the author laments the regrettably deleterious effects on society of so-called “democratic” marriages, in which partners fail to uphold biblical patriarchal norms, are less common (though not unknown) today:
Let us begin by saying that a Latter-day Saint husband or father presides over his wife and family in much the same way a bishop, stake president, or elders quorum president presides over the specific group to which he is called. . . . Imagine, for example, the confusion that would result if two bishops were appointed over your particular ward . . . Similarly, should two people preside over each other in marriage, particularly when one holds the priesthood and has been divinely designated to preside? . . . The mystery may not be so much in the manner in which a wife submits herself to her husband as, in fact, the way a husband will preside over and interact with his wife and family.
Although it’s clear from such quotes that the presiding authority in the home, the husband, is required to counsel with his partner, it is also clear that he is the ultimate authority. Unity, it is supposed, cannot be achieved unless one party’s interests are consistently subordinated to the other.
In contrast, a good twenty years later President Hunter would assert that “a man who holds the priesthood accepts his wife as a partner in the leadership of the home and family with full knowledge of and full participation in all decisions relating thereto.” Unfortunately, if this is the Church’s model, it’s anything but clear how husbands preside or how wives hearken to their counsel.
Today, a certain wanderlust regarding what patriarchy entails has infected most of the Church’s discourse on gender, which bops around between the two poles of patriarchy and egalitarianism without any clear destination. In the past, the waters were less muddied: husbands were granted divine authority over their wives, who were required to submit to their righteous leadership–an objectionable stance, perhaps, but not an inconsistent one. In the present, the Church has adopted a new stance but without giving up its old one: now wives not only submit, but they are also equal partners. (It’s unclear what this is supposed to look like on the ground–sort of like when dictators hold “democratic” elections they mysteriously win?)
This rather mind-boggling situation, in which the Church simultaneously embraces most of the spectrum on gender roles from traditionalist positions to egalitarianism, is not simply soft patriarchy, although a recent tendency to soften patriarchal language is one important ingredient in the mix. Neither is it traditional patriarchy; nor egalitarianism. Chicken Patriarchy never allows itself to be pinned down to a single perspective; chameleonlike, it alters its attitude from day to day and sometimes even from sentence to sentence, too chicken to stand up for what it believes. By refusing to settle down in any one place on the map, Chicken Patriarchs can embrace egalitarianism and still continue to uphold time-honored traditions of male authority.
Unfortunately, Chicken Patriarchy lacks the moral backbone to repudiate unequivocal occasions of patriarchy still observable in our scripture, ritual and organizational structure. It can never exorcise the more-or-less dead ghosts and occasional live demons of women’s subordination or expected subordination because it fails to take a consistent stand, emitting as it does a storm of mixed signals. In the spirit of Elijah, I wonder: How long halt ye between two opinions? If patriarchy be appropriate, follow it; but if egalitarianism, follow it.
If patriarchy is God’s will, why not stand up and take the flak for advocating values that have been taught from Adam to Paul, from Joseph Smith through most of his heirs, from the temple to the pulpit? If it’s not, why continue to cling to patriarchal language and women’s ritual submission to men?