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Sarah Lindsay

No, Patriarchy is Not Good for Women

Gustave Dore's Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness
Gustave Doré, Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness, woodcut from Doré’s English Bible, 1866 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Last week, John Piper once again riled the internet by claiming that egalitarian theology and social practice was to blame for the widespread abuse that people are bringing to light in the #MeToo movement.

This argument is, of course, patently ridiculous. #MeToo has gained such momentum because women’s voices reached a critical mass that could no longer be ignored and silenced — a critical mass no doubt helped along by the slowly-growing social sense that women are people, too.

I honestly don’t care to spend more time responding to Piper. Rachel Held Evans and Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, both have excellent responses that I recommend if you want a point-by-point response to Piper.

But I do want to address the notion at the core of Piper’s assertion, that patriarchy is good for women. This argument can be found both inside and outside the church, far beyond the reaches of Piper, and it underlies much resistance to equality between men and women.

So let’s ask the question: is patriarchy good for women?

I confess, I react strongly to this question. I resent the idea that my life would be significantly better if I just deferred to men — let men run the government, the church, the home, abdicating my own ideas to follow men. And I chafe at the idea that I could only gain influence at the pleasure of men. The clichés that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, or that behind every great man is a great woman, may have some truth. But they also reduce women to the invisible influencers, reassured of their importance but excluded from formal positions and the rooms where it happens.

So no, I don’t think that patriarchy is good for women. It reduces women — reduces me — to the eternal supporting role. And then it has the nerve to tell us that this supporting role is for our own good because we couldn’t possible handle the lead.

But maybe this is just me being an emotional woman, upset over something I don’t actually understand. So let’s think about how patriarchy has protected women throughout history:

  • Patriarchy has protected women from that pesky business of owning property. Who wants independent means of support if they can hope that their husband, son or brother will provide it?

  • Patriarchy has protected women from the horror of studying the nude male body. Women artists of the Renaissance may have wanted to paint or sculpt highly prized nudes like a Michelangelo or a Donatello, but what woman wants to endure the horror of anatomy lessons?

  • Patriarchy has protected early modern women from the rigors of studying rhetoric. Why should women concern themselves with the art of persuasive speech, when important topics like politics are too taxing for them to contemplate?

  • Patriarchy has protected women from the danger of running marathons. After all, who wants their uterus to fall out because of all that running?

  • Patriarchy has protected women from the responsibilities of leadership in the church. What woman wants to risk becoming an Eve (or worse, a Jezebel) because she thinks that she is just as much a member of the body of Christ as a man?

Patriarchy claims that it protects women. But often what it protects is not real women, with emotions and talents and passions and fascinating things to say and create, but an idealized image of womanhood. This idealized woman protected by patriarchy ought to be grateful, submissive and supportive. She certainly doesn’t question why she must follow rather than lead. And she never attempts to upstage men by growing wealthy or leading countries or setting athletic records.

Women who can fit themselves into this mold of idealized womanhood do benefit from patriarchy. They often get to exert influence, bask in reflected glory, and enjoy other social benefits of fitting the ideal.

But they do this by denying their own talents and desires, and the influence they have depends upon the men who grant it rather than their own intelligence or effort.

And where does this system leave the women who do not, by choice or circumstance, fit into the idealized model of womanhood?

If we look at history, over and over again we see that patriarchy only protects the women it deems valuable. Poor women seldom fit this view, or sex workers; women of color rarely see the same “protections” that white women do. Marginalized women don’t benefit from patriarchy because they, by their marginalized status, cannot be ideal women.

So a medieval knight could rape a peasant woman with no consequence. A southern slave owner could whip a black woman and still be considered chivalrous. An Alabama lawyer could assault the teenage daughter of a poor single mother and go on to have a public career as an outspoken defender of family values.

This is because patriarchy doesn’t protect women. Patriarchy protects men.

I imagine that people like John Piper would argue that sin has twisted patriarchy: it should protect women, but instead sinful men misuse it. And I’m going to be honest: I can’t defeat that argument, because in this view patriarchy is clearly good and any example of its problems is evidence of sin, not a problem with patriarchy. This stance is like a conspiracy theory in that any argument against it ends up twisted to support it.

But the multitude of ways in which patriarchy hurts people (men as well as women, although that’s a subject for another post), points to patriarchy itself being the sin.

Tagged: feminism | MeToo