Zelophehad’s Daughters

Chicken Patriarchy Dissected

Posted by Kiskilili

Not infrequently statements from Church leaders contain instances of full-fledged Chicken Patriarchy in all its muddled, labyrinthine, self-contradictory splendor. But in other cases, both patriarchy and equality are being taught separately as appropriate ideals.

I’m not exactly wedded to what I’m about to propose, but I thought I’d float the idea here and solicit your own impressions of Church discourse, specifically the distribution of contexts in which these mutually incompatible ideals are being advocated. To some degree, does the Church preach equality to the men and subordination to the women? There are forums in which women are asked to submit to their husbands, but the counterpart seems to be lacking in the Church: contexts in which men are taught to dominate their wives.

For example, in the last Conference Elder Scott told the men specifically to practice egalitarianism in marriage:

The family proclamation states that a husband and wife should be equal partners. I feel assured that every wife in the Church would welcome that opportunity and support it. Whether it occurs or not depends upon the husband. Many husbands practice equal partnership with their companion to the benefit of both and the blessing of their children. However, many do not. I encourage any man who is reluctant to develop an equal partnership with his wife to obey the counsel inspired by the Lord and do it. Equal partnership yields its greatest benefit when both husband and wife seek the will of the Lord in making important decisions for themselves and for their family.

Several aspects of this statement interest me: (a) most strikingly, Elder Scott seems entirely oblivious that women might ever be required, for example, to hearken to their husbands, an undeniable instantiation of patriarchy; and (b) Elder Scott suggests that where equality does not prevail, men are the ones hindering it (apparently assuming husbands are by default the more powerful parties in the marriage).

Perhaps Church leaders, when they become aware of some women’s profound unease with instances of gendered hierarchy, attribute misbehavior to individual men, thereby sidestepping examination of structural inequalities. If so, men are being encouraged to treat their wives as equals specifically as a palliative for women’s discomfort with the patriarchy that the Church itself continues to advocate in its halting, non-public manner. My suspicion is that this only exacerbates the situation. Men are asked to take the heat for a systemic problem and can only scratch their heads that women get upset, where women wonder why men are blind to the inequalities that are being pushed on them at the institutional level.

As a tendency (and not necessarily a rule), does this fit your experience? If not, how do you see the distribution of the Church’s teachings about equality and patriarchy?

18 Responses to “Chicken Patriarchy Dissected”

  1. 1.

    Really interesting points, Kiskilili.

    Perhaps Church leaders, when they become aware of some women’s profound unease with instances of gendered hierarchy, attribute misbehavior to individual men, thereby sidestepping examination of structural inequalities.

    This is an often-used strategy, isn’t it? I recently read Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and I remember her making the point that women in post-WW II middle class America were treated as being mentally ill in at least some cases if they didn’t want to be SAHMs. Wasn’t this also a communist-era Soviet strategy? Don’t like the Party? You need some medication and/or incarceration. Not for punishment. For treatment. Anyway, I guess it’s always easier for an institution to decide that its goodness is axiomatic, and any troubles that arise from its practices are by definition traceable to the weaknesses of the participants, not of the institutional practices.

    Is that rambly enough?

    Also, do you think perhaps a better strategy would be to preach subordination to both? It would require a more rigid division of audiences than is typically achieved now, but perhaps if both partners put the other first, things would be better than if one group were told to be submissive and the other told to treat the other as equal.

    Of course perhaps preaching equal partners to both groups might be best. :)

  2. 2.

    Of course perhaps preaching equal partners to both groups might be best.

    You’re right. I’m glad that’s what they are doing. :)

  3. 3.

    I have thought before about how patriarchy is discussed or not discussed in Relief Society. It seems like we often talk about how to support priesthood leaders (the Prophet, the Bishop), but I haven’t been in very many lessons in which following the priesthood leadership of husbands is specifically discussed. It is hard for me to imagine a RS lesson in which the teacher asks questions like, “What are some things we can do to follow the Priesthood leadership of our husbands?” or “If you are not married how can you prepare to follow the leadership of your future husband?” or “How can we better listen to our husband’s counsel?” It seems that these questions would make most RS lessons awkward and uncomfortable. However, in light of the proclamation on the family, it seems like these would be reasonable questions to ask. Maybe most people brush over how men should lead in the home and how women should support them in that leadership because it is too touchy a subject.

  4. 4.

    My guess is that an awful lot of the General Authrities would strongly disagree with teh idea that systems translate into behavior. Blaming individuals for their faults may keep inherently discriminitory structures in place, but I have at the same time, I think it is ludicrous to name Church Patriarchy as the primary factor in wife beating or verbal abuse or really, any manner of unrighteous dominion.
    It has a very “devil made me do it” ring to it. The Social engineering approach has never seemed to have had much admiration with the Brethren. Just look at this talk, in which President Benson contrasts the way “the world” would take a man out of the slums, but Christ takes the slums out of the people.

  5. 5.

    Good question, K.

    My read of recent statements to men and women is a lot like yours. It seems accurate to suggest that men are being told to be egalitarian, while women are being told to submit.

    This creates a weird interaction. Women beat themselves up over submitting and being Mothers Who Know; while many (though not all) Mormon men are actually very good about being equal partners. Or at least, the men don’t demand a patriarchal role — though, paradoxically, Mormon women sometimes force that kind of role onto their husbands.

    The whole structure, at least as stated by church leaders today (Elder Scott, President Hinckley, The Proclamation) seems to be a sort of Gift of the Magi formulation. Men should offer equal partnership (though women should in fact defer to men’s presiding power); while women should offer sustaining of men’s presiding role (though men should in fact treat their wives as equal partners).

  6. 6.

    I always think it’s kinda funny when people talk about the (dreaded?) patriarchy (dun dun duuunnnn). I’ve held alot of different callings in alot of different wards ( I’ve moved alot) and I have found it at least equally likely if not much more likely to see a RS Pres or an irrate female member strongarming some bewildered bishop as it is to see some sanctimonious bishop patting some poor woman on the head before sending her away. The fact is someone needs to lead, I’d say who that person is depends on your point of view (since I’m not sure anyone can deny that, for example, Gordon B Hinkley was barely short of outright worshiping his wife) But teaching women to respect their husbands and allowing them to lead and teaching men that leadership is really code for service does not strike me as very contradictory. It is a type, perhaps of Christ, where we can feel free to love and serve knowing that love and service will always be returned.

  7. 7.

    haha, Kaimi, just saw your comment, hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is Gift of the Magi!

  8. 8.

    I have to agree with Ray on this. I don’t see much evidence for the two distinctive teachings from the general authorities. Maybe there is a case for a need for revision in the temple, but I have it third hand that day will come. (Apostle->Mother of the guy who baptized me-> Me)

  9. 9.

    Doc, I wonder, if systems don’t translate into behavior, what is their purpose? I’m not sure who here is fingering Church Patriarchy as the culprit behind wife beating; for the record, I’m blaming patriarchy quite simply for being an offensive theoretical arrangement regardless of how people behave.

    Yeah, Kaimi, I have to laugh whenever I read statements from women about how they can “get their husbands to preside.” It all sounds like a weird little game.

    Traci, as I read your comment you’re advancing two very different arguments. On the one hand, you contend that women (seemingly?) have as much power in the Church as men. This is manifestly false. Headstrong RS presidents brandishing Lee Press-on Nails may be strongarming hapless church-goers, but when it comes right down to it it’s the bishop who’s actually making decisions for the ward. President Hinckley may have worshiped his wife (let’s hope, though, for his sake, that he wasn’t practicing idolatry), but the fact is, he was the one running the Church.

    Your second argument, as I read it, is that someone needs to lead and this is acceptable since it parallels our relationship with Christ. I don’t think someone needs to lead in a marriage–I believe partnership is possible–and while someone needs to lead in matters of Church governance, on its face this has nothing to do with gender. And I don’t believe the situation adequately parallels that between the Church and Christ. Put simply, men are not gods. Leadership and followership are not defined as mutually loving and serving one another. That’s an egalitarian arrangement.

  10. 10.

    I’m fascinated by the assumption in that quote you cited from Elder Scott that men are the ones who have the power to decide whether the relationship is an egalitarian one; ironically, that actually sounds like an implicit acknowledgment of the inequality in the relationship. Why aren’t women lectured about the need to treat their husbands as equal partners? Presumably because they’re not seen as being in a position where they have the power to make that kind of decision. In the model described here, women have the privilege of being in equal relationships only if their husbands decide to grant it to them–which raises some serious questions about the possibility of genuine equality.

    A common response to feminist angst is to focus on the problem of individuals exercising unrighteous dominion; that concern certainly shows up frequently in places like Conference talks, at least. I suspect this is at least part of the reason that men get chastised again and again for abusing their power (while women are reassured that their lack of power doesn’t mean God loves them less). But that focus, as you point out, leaves the underlying structural inequalities completely unaddressed. The problem is framed as that of individual men who don’t choose to have an egalitarian relationship, but the question lingers: why are men the ones to make that decision?

  11. 11.

    I think the confusion lies in the fact that there are areas in which patriarchy needs to exist, and others where it does not.

    In the Proclamation, roles are delineated, though often shared. An equal partnership still suggests deference to the parent/partner with the specific role, when applicable.

    This differs significantly from the evangelical Southern Baptist view that women should submit to their husbands in all things. Women’s roles are placed subordinate to the husband’s role as head of household.

    While in the LDS family, priesthood means something, so does motherhood. Each is viewed as of equal importance, and the experience and expertise of both are therefore of equal importance.

    You will notice that most discourses warn men of not misusing their power. It is because abuse is alarmingly greater from men than from women, although recent studies suggest that is quickly rising to perhaps someday catch up to men’s sluggishness. So, while focused at men, such warnings can equally be placed on women who do not consider the responsibilities and roles she is also responsible for.

  12. 12.

    While in the LDS family, priesthood means something, so does motherhood

    We seem to have a difficult time figuring out what exactly these mean, though–we’re rather vague on specifics. Our view does differ from the evangelical view when looked at comprehensively, for the reason that it’s a hodgepodge of different ideas poorly welded together. But certain not-insignificant segments of it look suspiciously similar to what evangelicals are saying about women.

  13. 13.

    There is a manual produced by the Church on marriage that is in use in some places at the present time. It includes a chapter on “Equality in Marriage.” I ends with a quiz on decision making for husbands and wives to take (with presumably no right or wrong answers.) However the last question couples are to consider is if both feel good about the husband’s presiding role. This is the first time “presiding” enters this lesson and there is no other explanation for what it means. Just a little odd.

    I also know for a fact that at least some folk at Church headquarters are downright “prickly” about the idea of women “presiding”. According to them a RS president or Primary President never presides, which I think would come as a surprise to many of these women.

    in all of these cases “preside” is never defined nor elaborated. It is a little surreal.

  14. 14.

    rameumptum: I think the Priesthood=Motherhood link is problematic on so very many levels.

    The first issue that comes to mind is the place of single women in the church. Where women seem to have less authority to men at any level, saying that the true authority of a woman lies in her ability to have children (and, as it is implied, equate homemaker with motherhood as well) essentially shuts out any unmarried woman from her ability to claim any authority at all.

    Perhaps that is one of many reasons why single women in YSA wards feel more frustrated (from what I’ve heard, seen, and experienced) than do single men. There is more of a frantic feel with the women to get married than the men, perhaps because (well, there are usually a lot more woman than men anyway) but also because most of the men already have a recognized authority (holding the priesthood) regardless of their relationship status. However, under the priesthood/motherhood ideal, women can only gain a semblance of that same recognition after they’ve married and had a child.

  15. 15.

    I work for a company that has a big initiative (for a number of years now) about “Speaking your mind.” I saw that immediately as a sign that they had problems with people not being willing to speak up and say anything even vaguely controversial. And that is exactly the case — no matter how much management (via Communications, of course) protest that they want to hear what employees think, employees know better than to risk socially negative consequences (no one has to be fired for it to be instructive; just like relatively few women are actually dominated or abused) for actually saying anything true. Unwritten rules and cultural norms speak so much more loudly than words. And the unwritten rule enforcement scheme is such that women are the enforcers of “proper” behavior amongst other women, so men don’t usually have to. Keeps everyone’s hands nice and clean and makes it impossible to talk about the real problems and/or how to fix them.

    Yes, there is chicken patriarchy. It’s only “chicken” because of the need to protest overmuch, methinks.

  16. 16.

    To clarify a bit: In my tale above, the women are enforcers in mormon culture, not at my company. ;-) Though they are there, too. Patriarchy, how I do love thee.

  17. 17.

    What about men who do not hold the priesthood and women who have not born children? What is their marriage based on then?

    I hate the priesthood = motherhood argument. Motherhood = Fatherhood. Priesthood = submission. Both adults are parents and ultimately responsible for the nurturing, teaching, and rearing of their children. The priesthood is there to lead and give authority. Women don’t have anything like that.

  18. 18.

    [...] He never actually resolves the problem of that word.  Instead he just reproduces the church’s chicken patriarchal doublespeak in which men simultaneously occupy a position of power above women (preside) while sharing power [...]

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