Do women really want to go back to patriarchy? According to Nicole Russell, women today need and want to return to the practice of patriarchy. Russell wrote an article “What Women Really Want Is The Patriarchy,” published in The Federalist, in which she says: “Women have blindly followed the feminist mantra and now find themselves lonely and confused. It’s time to welcome back the patriarchy.”
Russell’s call for a return to patriarchy is based on her criticism of radical feminism and their view of men. According to Russell, the problem with radical feminism is that the kind of men feminists crave for are not really men: “contraception users are attracted to more passive, feminine men.”
The “feminist mantra” demeans men by comparing them to “those cute lap dogs.” Russell wrote: “Many men, having been on the receiving end of this feminist mantra that repeatedly says man parts are gross, male minds are stupid, male character is lacking (false rape charges anyone?), and male personalities are domineering, overbearing, and disrespectful of women, have slowly shriveled to mere shells of themselves in an effort to avoid the witchy brigade of feminist diehards.”
Women do not want this type of man; they want the type of man found in patriarchal societies. This is Russell’s description of what women want: “Deep down in the confines of her soul where she hasn’t even bothered to look, much less understand, a woman wants a man who exudes masculinity, who remains a steady rock in her current-filled stream of emotions and hormones. Instead of a man who says he’ll eat at the restaurant of her choice for the fifteenth time that month, she wants a man who cooks a meal she’s never tried before.”
I hate to disappoint Ms. Russell, but this type of man is generally not found in patriarchal societies. Her definition of a patriarchal man reflects a poor understanding of patriarchy that existed in ancient societies and which is still prevalent in many societies today. A book that provides a good understanding of patriarchy and how it developed in the fourth millennium B.C. is Gerda Lerner’s, The Creation of Patriarchy.
Wikipedia defines patriarchy as follows:
Patriarchy is a social system in which adult males hold primary power and predominance in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. In the domain of the family, fathers (or father figures) hold authority over the women and children. Some patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage and descent is reckoned exclusively through the male line, sometimes to the point where significantly more distant male relatives take precedence over female relatives.
In patriarchal societies, the male head of the family had absolute power over the dependent females of his family, both legal and economic. In patriarchal households, a man’s subordination to his father was temporary; it lasted until he left his father’s house and began his own family. Subordination of women and female children was lifelong. As long as the wife lived, she was subordinate to her husband. Whenever a female daughter left the home to get married, she became subordinate to her new husband.
Lerner seeks to provide a historical explanation for the rise of patriarchy in ancient societies. She asks: “What could explain women’s historical ‘complicity’ in upholding the patriarchal system that subordinated them and in transmitting that system that subordinated them and in transmitting that system, generation after generation, to their children of both sexes?” (1986: 6).
The answer she provides is complex, but it can be summarized as follows: In patriarchal societies women voluntarily became subordinate in exchange for the protection, the provision, and the economic security a man could offer.
In many patriarchal societies a father could sell his daughter to become a slave, a wife, or a prostitute and the daughter had no say-so in his decision. In a patriarchal society a man could deprive his wife of food, clothing, or marital rights. He also could send his wife away without a certificate of divorce so that, once out of the house of her husband, she could never marry again.
In patriarchal societies today women are deprived of rights and privileges that are afforded to men such as the opportunity to receive an education, the legal right to vote or drive a car, or to go out alone without the presence of a male member of the family. Discriminatory policies in employment and lesser pay for comparable work (if women can work at all) are also common.
Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal society in which women have restricted freedom and rights. According to an article published in The Week, women in Saudi Arabia cannot do these nine things: they cannot drive a car, they cannot wear clothes or make-up that show off their beauty, they cannot interact with men who are not members of the family, they cannot go swimming, they cannot compete freely in sports, they cannot try on clothes when shopping, they cannot enter a cemetery, they cannot read an uncensored fashion magazine, and they cannot open a bank account without their husband’s permission.
Another issue present in some patriarchal societies is the issue of violence against women. The most common forms of violence against women include the following: “intimate partner violence and other forms of family violence; sexual violence; female genital mutilation; femicide, including honor and dowry-related killings; and human trafficking. Under-reporting of spousal violence in particular is common as a result of shame, fear of retaliation, lack of information about legal rights, lack of confidence in, or fear of, the legal system, and the legal costs involved. Under-reporting is highest in case of sexual violence as it remains highly stigmatized in all settings.”
Ms. Russell is right in criticizing radical feminists because their unintended agenda is to promote a modern kind of matriarchy. Radical feminism could be defined as the movement that seeks radical social changes in order to give women more power in society. However, the women’s rights movement is a social and political movement that seeks to obtain rights for women equal to the rights of men. They also seek to emancipate women from these oppressive policies that deprive them of their dignity.
But Ms. Russell is wrong about a return to patriarchy. What she is advocating is what in modern evangelical circles is called “complementarianism.” Complementarianism “is the view that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere.” This view gives the leadership of the home and the family to the man without denying the woman a role in decision-making and other issues related to marriage and family.
This view is represented in the statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The Baptist Faith and Message” states: “He [the husband] has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”
Another view of the relationship between men and women, one to which I subscribe, is Christian egalitarianism. This view holds that men and women are created equal in the sight of God and as such men and women should treat each other with respect and are free to become the kind of persons they were created to be.
When women really understand the implications of returning to patriarchy, the restrictions, the violence, and the limitations placed upon women by patriarchy, I am sure that with one voice they will reject such a return to a primitive and oppressive system.
Freedom from patriarchy means that a woman is free to make decisions that will affect her life today and in the future, such as choosing whom to marry or whether to obtain an education. A return to patriarchy is a return to oppressive submission, to a loss of freedom, and a loss of voice.
If women have to choose between patriarchy and freedom, let women choose freedom.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
HT: I would like to thank some of my friends on Twitter for calling my attention to Russell’s article.
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Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.