Meet Priscilla Shirer. She’s the Phyllis Schlafley of our time, making a successful career out of telling other women to submit to their husbands and the Lord. The author of the piece does a good job at pointing out the various hypocrisies and nuances of Shirer’s position, so I won’t go too far into them here, but suffice it to say Priscilla’s life path and her choices fly directly in the face of what she evangelizes as “natural” for women. Women, according to the peddlers of Biblical Womanhood, are naturally emotional. We’re naturally submissive. We naturally want men to take care of us. We naturally fall back behind a male leader.
Men, by contrast, are naturally unemotional. They’re naturally aggressive. They’re natural leaders. All of which, the article points out, stands in stark contrast to the thousands of men crying and hugging each other as they listen to speeches at Promise Keepers rallies.
The “naturally” submissive women have also been leading areas of the church for centuries. And male church leaders have created all kinds of rules to reign them in and make sure that they don’t get too powerful. Which is funny, isn’t it, to spend centuries telling women from a variety of backgrounds and cultures that what they all seem to be doing is totally unnatural? And when the telling doesn’t work, to go with “God said so” and the stick instead of the carrot? One would think that the “natural” wouldn’t take so much convincing.
That, to me, is what is most interesting about Priscilla Shirer and Phyllis Schlafley and all of the women who have made careers out of telling other women to be submissive, and who have achieved their success by aggressively angling themselves as authorities of a movement which tells women that passivity and submission to male authority are the hallmarks of true and good femininity. They lead a movement that tells women not to be leaders; they succeed in careers outside of the home by telling women that success in a career outside of the home is a man’s job. They embody the fundamental human desire for recognition and for appreciation, and for success in what you work hard at — all while saying that those very things are unnatural in Godly women.
And women respond; women seem to love them.
The “don’t-have-a-career careerists” are hypocrites to be sure, but they’re also incredibly useful insofar as they carve out a space for women to exert some power and authority when they might otherwise feel powerless, all under the cover of acceptable feminine behavior. Religious institutions — and Christian institutions in the United States and Europe are the ones with which I’m most familiar — have long functioned in the same way. Women who might not otherwise have much power in their day-to-day lives can lead a church group; they can teach a Sunday school class; they can become a valuable member of an organization that is bigger than themselves, and that makes them feel like they’re making a positive difference, taking on significant responsibility, and teaching and leading others. Women attend religious services in larger numbers than men, and tend to be more active in their houses of worship; I suspect that one reason behind that is that church (or temple or synagogue or mosque or wherever one worships) can be a source of pride, community and authority for women who may not get that same kind of recognition and power in their homes or in their paid jobs.
But female authority in male-dominated and male-created institutions can go only go so far. Women can teach Sunday School, but they probably shouldn’t teach adult men in Bible study. Women can organize and lead the choir, but they shouldn’t be behind the pulpit. The rules vary from institution to institution — and there are more than a few religious organizations where women can have any role they desire — but in the more traditional and conservative denominations, female leadership is welcome insofar as it helps the institution, but not to the point where women might have any real authority over men, and definitely not past the point where women might think that because they’re capable leaders in their roles serving their house of worship that they’re capable leaders at home or in the secular world.
At the same time, the secular world has changed quickly, and women are not content to be treated like second-class citizens (and, if one looks at the history of a wide variety of religions and religious movements, women have never been content to take a back seat and simply follow men because God said so — Second Wave feminism hardly invented the pushy broad or the capable lady). Religious institutions — even conservative ones — have to adapt to cultural shifts with losing either credibility or their followers, and without damaging a power structure that is quite dear to the men it benefits. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Women like Priscilla Shirer, though, help conservative churches to walk the tightrope. Shirer herself benefits from all of the things that women aren’t supposed to want — authority, power, prestige, financial and social success. Other women can look up to her, and can have their own totally normal, totally human desire for success quietly justified; they can also feel like their own leadership in their churches is Godly and appropriately submissive and feminine. At the same time, Priscilla Shirer draws lines that fall neatly within the interests of male church leadership, but which sound less patriarchal and outdated coming from a woman. Speaking from a place of power as a woman, and telling other women that their own power has limits — that it’s ok to be an individual and help the church, but that you have to be complementary to your husband and let him call the shots at home, because God says women are naturally inclined towards submission — sounds like female wisdom coming from Shirer, whereas it might sound a little more finger-wagging and abusive coming from a man.
It’s not a religious conspiracy, and Shirer isn’t exactly a hapless tool for the church to use to keep women in line. She actually seems like quite a bright and self-aware woman. But she benefits substantially from this arrangement — she gets the successful career and the feelings of accomplishment and the financial windfall, while convincing herself that God is using her as a mouthpiece to inspire others to behave in accordance with His rules. “God wants me to” is an awfully good way to resolve any cognitive dissonance (especially when the men who believe they have a closer ear to God’s mouth seem to agree). And it benefits other women, sort of, at least in the short-term and in very particular communities — they get to lead without feeling guilty about leading. And of course it benefits men — female leadership is appropriately curtailed, but there’s a little taste of power and leadership so the ladies feel important and no one gets uppity or actually challenges the status quo, so men get to keep on running things and reaping the real benefits.
The problem is that human beings — even women! — are rarely satisfied by a small taste of anything. And power, respect and accomplishment? Those things taste good.
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