Does It Hurt Women to be Submissive?

I have been watching with great interest the recent debate engendered by Candace Cameron’s discussion of her wifely submission to spiritual authority. I am glad to see it being discussed again. It a subject that I know a good deal about from my own experiences, from academic theory and from first-hand research.

I spent over four years doing research on exactly this subject. Most of it was spent reading a selection of the hundreds of books written to women on the subject and attending their conferences, seminars and retreats. Women in these circles of faith spend a lot of time and money in mutual encouragement and enforcement of this practice. And there is an entire industry which does nothing but sell the Evangelical model of family in a very wide range of products and forms of media.

The first question that I had was based on the statements of women such as Cameron and on the academic consensus that this is a symbolic act that is given freely. It is assumed that women act with agency acting in roles that are more akin to role-playing or to a symbolic ritual than to the actual loss of freedom or personal agency.

The question that this raised for me is what if a wife does not, for one reason or another, care to submit? What are Evangelical men instructed to do if their wives will not even try to submit?  If whatever gestures of respect or symbolic submission to spiritual authority is not forthcoming, what is a man to do?

The second question that I had is why women believe that it is necessary. Of course all of them point to the Bible’s teachings. But what is it about women, about their basic nature, that makes men God’s chosen leaders and women the followers?

Third, if women are acting with agency, why do they pick religions in which they are treated as second class citizens? Why not pick religious movements in which women are given equality?

The fourth question is what do women do when they find themselves unable to submit. Actually, this question came first. It came to me in Bible College when I discovered that I was constitutionally incapable of shutting up and deferring to a person of the same educational rank as I was who was clearly not as well educated on a subject.

I became especially aware of my inability to be submissive when I was chastised multiple times my first semester in an English class because I simply refused to allow the professor (who had no degree) to misinform a group of students that an adverb modifies a noun. As anyone who is familiar with writing knows, I am dyslexic. And those living in houses constructed of that kind of especially fragile glass should not throw grammar-stones.  So why, I wondered, was I incapable of simply letting it slide?

I was also interested because I saw how my mother’s unsuccessful attempts at submission were destroying her health and her life. She had married a man when I was a junior in high school who was the head of the deacon board, leader of a bus ministry and generally considered “on fire for God.” Theirs was meant to have been a match of two religious powerhouses.

My mother’s spirituality, like mine, is a quiet devotion, an intellectual exercise, and an emotional calibration. Above all it is private and quiet. We do not like attending church for the same reasons that neither of us like parties; they are noisy, full of people and they are emotionally exhausting. This is an extension of our personalities. Both of us are introverts who can masquerade as extroverts.

My step-father’s extroversion and his ideas of what makes a person a good Christian are inextricably linked. He is involved in some church activity at least two nights a week and most of the weekend. He loves to be a part of churches that are noisy, where he can show off and that are demanding of his time.

As a part of this vision of what makes for a good Christian man, my step-father believes that his wife, her appearance and her participation in the church are a large part of the metric by which her husband should be judged. This is a very common beleif in Evangelical circles. In fact, the founder of the famous Promise Keepers ministry is quoted as saying that you can judge the character of a man by the countenance of his wife.

So when my mother (or my daughter, or I) appear in his church, we need to look the part. Think two parts Texas beauty queen and one part Duggard. And we must be sweet, a word that comes with a metric butt-ton of baggage but basically it means that we must remain unchallenging and exude a submissive attitude.

But more important than how my mother looks is the requirement for her to be present “every time that the church doors are open.” Part of my step-father being the spiritual leader of their marriage, and of me when I was a part of their family, was enforcing church attendance for no fewer than six two hour services per week and at least eight hours of additional volunteer work.

My step-father would never dream of being in a marriage in which he was not the spiritual leader. He thinks that this is perfectly reasonable, and both would probably tell you that the submission that she offers is simply symbolic.

While much has been made about how many men no longer extend this call to submission into the making of daily life and family decisions, we seem to forget the awesome power wielded by a spiritual leader. A spiritual leader means that although you seek input from your family, you control where the family attends church, and perhaps more importantly how often and in which church activities your family participates.

But even the symbolic power of this role is simply enormous. Being a spiritual leader means is that you have the right, nay the responsibility, to set the terms on which your wife and children will conduct their spiritual lives. They must seek your God, not theirs. You dictate what God requires and desires for them and you create the measure by which their spirituality or “rightness with God” will be measured. In other words, you are doing what is right and godly when you agree with me and you are doing what is wrong and ungodly when you do not. This supposedly symbolic power cannot be more real and more life-altering for the devout.

How my step-father has wielded this power as a spiritual leader has had devastating effects on my mother. To be spiritual according to his terms which means endless church services, at least twenty hours a week of church volunteer work and she must do it all while setting a good example which includes a clean house and looking like Baptist Barbie. This little bit of symbolic authority is actually nothing short of dictating a person’s entire way of life, her friends and her self-identity.

My mother tried mightily to be submissive, to be an outgoing religious workaholic. But she simply does not have it in her nature. She quite literally had a nervous breakdown trying. So over the years my mother has developed a way of subverting her husband’s authority without needing to confront it. She became morbidly obese, effectively destroying his desire to show her off at every church occasion. And to get an exemption from his demands for church participation she developed a host of physical illnesses. Those that were not self-inflicted in something approaching Munchhausen are things that could be fixed if she were willing to seek proper medical care.

I used to try to help my mother become healthy until my daughter, in one of her first really astute insights, pointed out to me what a high price my mother would pay if she ever achieved that health. She can stay relatively sane as an introvert, submissive and married as long as she sacrifices her health. But the day that she gets healthy and capable of living a full life, the marital crap will hit the fan. That is the day that her husband will expect her to be the wife that he always envisioned and that he believes she is required by their God to be. There is no possibility for a marital compromise when God is giving the orders.

Unfortunately recovering her health is no longer a possibility for my mother. She has gone past the point where her illnesses could be reversed. At the age of 64 she is so disabled by things that were at one time treatable that she can no longer support her own weight standing let alone walk across the room. She is needlessly bound to her bed and wheelchair.  I am saddened for her in ways that I cannot explain.

Those of us who are committed to gender equality need to understand that women like my mother are in a position of bounded choices. Yes, in theory, they have a choice in which religion they participate in and whether or not they practice submission. But what most people do not realize is that there are extreme and severe consequences for choosing liberty, consequences that those outside of these religions do not know and often cannot understand.

To say that my mother exercises agency and chooses to be submissive is like saying that my husband is exercising his agency when he does not sleep with Susan Sarandon. My husband has no realistic possibility of meeting, hitting it off with and having sex with Sarandon.  Furthermore, it would be cheating under the terms of our marital agreement. And such infidelity would have some pretty earth-shattering consequences. So while my husband is in some ways exercising his agency, his choices are greatly constrained.

The cultural, marital, family and financial consequences faced by these women often includes being shunned by their children and their friends and living in poverty. Even if they manage to dodge those consequences, these women believe in a God which will not hesitate to punish them for stepping out of line. And God does not hesitate to hold these people’s children as hostages to ensure the parents’ submission.  I was often told that my children’s health was a gift from God which could be taken away because of my insubordination.

For my mother, the choice is between health and freedom both of which seem like pipe dreams and relative financial stability, a community of sorts and escape from the punishment of God.  In other words, her choices are the devil and the deep blue sea.

For women like Cameron, who already enjoy nearly every privilege imaginable except that offered by gender, perhaps a little symbolic submission is not harmful. But I have never met a woman who practices it, and I have known thousands, who has not suffered because of it.

However, that still leaves us asking if such relationships are harmful to women. Let me answer that question this way: There are far too many stories of people who have found it harmful for us to ignore their stories. If you need to see evidence, check out the story ran on XO Jane or anything at the website No Longer Quivering.

But there is another more insidious form of harm. From what I have seen, true intimacy is not possible in a relationship of inequality. Inequality ultimately creates resentments, on both sides. (We would do well to remember that bit of wisdom as we work to end racism, sexism and other forms of inequality as it explains such nonsense as reverse racism.)  Relationships of inequality are ultimately harmful for all involved, not just women but also men and children and people who do not fit into the neat little boxes of heterosexual nuclear families. It is sad and ironic that my step-father no more has what he wants in this relationship of submission than my mother has what she needs. In fact, one could make the argument that he is the bigger loser in that no-win marriage.

So what about the other questions that I raised during my research?  Next week, I will be explaining what it is about women that requires them to be submissive according to these beliefs.  After that, we will talk about the diversity in submission commandments, those that range from women being forbidden to speak out in a Sunday school class to those who believe in mutual submission. After that we will be covering what Evangelical men are expected to do about unsubmissive wives. And we will wrap it all up with a discussion about why women chose religions requiring submission.

Please email me your questions: lynnbeisner@gmail.com or you can drop them on my facbook page or tweet me.