I was talking yesterday with someone who asked me how I would define patriarchy, and I didn’t have a definition ready. This movement overshadowed much of my childhood and teen years because of organizations like the Advanced Training Institute and others. Yet patriarchy as a term can be so casually thrown around, and it can be a spectrum with fuzzy edges. What is it really?
Here is a working definition I came up with to help me: patriarchy is any system in which women are considered (either explicitly or implicitly) to have value and purpose only in relation to men, and are governed accordingly.
In other words, in a patriarchal system, a woman is valued in her relationships to men, as a daughter first, maybe a sister, and then as a wife, and hopefully afterwards as a mother. These roles in her life are what give her value and purpose, and these roles come with guidelines of what she can and cannot do.
Some systems are blatantly patriarchal, and the rules are explicit. The more insidious, though, are those where ideas like “women get their value from men” would never be directly stated because they might be immediately rejected as falsehood. Instead patriarchal ideas and rules are implied and assumed, in systems where you might know something is wrong but it can be hard at first to put a finger on what.
I don’t think patriarchy is Biblical at all, though historically it has often been present alongside Christianity (as well as with other religions). But the last few decades in America have seen a Christian movement toward patriarchy, I think in a pendulum-swing reaction against the radical feminism of the 60s and 70s. When the culture seems filled with gender confusion, and when parents pursue careers at the expense of their families, it can be very tempting to swing away from that chaos toward a patriarchal system with clearly defined roles and expectations.
And a Christian patriarchal movement can easily jerk Bible verses out of context to support itself. For instance, I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s good for a wife to show respect to her husband (and vice versa). I certainly hope to respect my husband, and I try to apologize and make it right when I’m demeaning. But the concept of respect can be stretched to become a lifestyle of silent subservience, with the understanding that a woman’s purpose in life or basis for value is in being a respectful wife, and that is the sum of who she is.
Patriarchy can take Biblical principles, and stretch them and add to them, until what God intended for freedom becomes chains in a system of bondage.
Patriarchy gives women a mold to fit into that demands she sacrifice huge parts of herself. The parts of her life that are daughter, wife, and mother are allowed. But that is all.
When I was a teenager in these organizations, the mold was that I was a daughter learning how to someday become a good wife and mother. That was true about me, and it was important, but it was not all. I also wanted to be a good student and a good writer. But those didn’t fit the mold.
Today a patriarchal system would look at me and begin to nod and smile—I’m a wife in a happy marriage, and I have three children, one of whom is bouncing on my knee as I write this. But wait … I also want to be a teacher? A writer? Someday a counselor? Patriarchy doesn’t have space for these other dreams that women have.
There is much we learn about God from the Bible, and also much we can learn about God simply by looking at creation. For instance, anyone who thought that God didn’t like bright colors could simply look at the varieties of flowers and fish that suggest otherwise. With women’s gifts, it’s just the same. If God wanted us to only exist as a daughter, wife, and mother, He would not have created us with so many more capacities and gifts. But He did create women with leadership abilities, academic skills, desires for all kinds of work, and big dreams. Why would He have given us these if He didn’t want us to use them?
I remember in college, realizing that I loved philosophy. I genuinely enjoyed reading Plato or Aristotle or Nietzsche (I’m crazy, I know). And in Metaphysics, I felt like I was standing at the edge of a canyon, looking out into wonder. It made my brain hurt, and I loved it. I remember thinking, I would never have realized I liked philosophy if I hadn’t been to college. I have a mind to understand and enjoy it. But throughout history, how many women would have potentially excelled in philosophy and were gifted in that direction, but never got the educational opportunity that I did, to find out? Is that why most of the philosophers are men? Wouldn’t the world be a richer place if these women had been given a voice to contribute to it?
Because here’s the thing—when a patriarchal system comes up to me and says, “We allow you to be a wife and mom, but not a student and writer,” it’s like they are cutting off one arm and one leg to squeeze me into a mold. And it doesn’t just hurt me. It hurts everyone.
In my recent Bible study, I was struck by 1 Peter 4:10: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.” This is how I paraphrased it since I’m all about Bible paraphrasing these days (I blame Jen Wilkin): “Since each of you has received a gift from God, put your gifts to work for the purpose of serving each other, knowing that the gift belongs to God and you are a steward to manage it well, and it is a gift of His favor and His variety, different for each person.”
Women must steward their gifts by developing them and putting them to work to serve others. When half the world leaves many of their gifts unused, everyone suffers.
I think of when God looked at Adam and said it was not good that man was alone. I don’t think He meant at all that it was wrong to be single, since we see from the Apostle Paul and so many others that you can lead a fulfilled life unmarried. I wonder if God meant that it is not good for men to try to do it all by themselves, and that they need the voices and gifts and perspectives of women alongside them to succeed. It is not good for men to be alone, gardening in Eden, or shaping and ruling and writing about and working in the world, without women alongside them contributing.
It is not good when men alone use their gifts, and there is no space for women to do so. It is necessarily incomplete.
It is not good when women are reduced to fit a patriarchal mold and denied the gifts God has given them. It’s not good for women, it’s not good for men, it’s not good for anyone.
What do you think?
(This is my older sister and I in New York City I think twelve years ago, when she had just started a new job and I was about to start college, and we were trying to figure out our purpose in life and our futures. We’ve both learned and grown a lot since then … and, there’s no way I would fit into that shirt anymore.)