Rethinking Gender HierarchyBy: Nate
My extremely unpopular post of last week caused me to do a little soul searching. I recently took the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, a test which rates just how sexist you are, and whether you are a hostile or benevolent sexist. I came out as a strongly benevolent sexist, and I think there is some truth to that. (I’d love to see if any of our other readers also score as benevolently sexist) RAH had asked me:
“how do you practically put that in practice in your own house? Do you and your wife interpret this to mean that when it comes down to it you have the divine right (after listening in love and compassion, discussing, praying together etc) to make the final decision for all temporal and spiritual matters if in the end you feel strongly about something? Or does it mean something else for you?”
In my last post, I did not mean to suggest that the man should make final decisions by divine right. Let me try and clarify what I believe the hierarchy means from a practical point of view.
The Hierarchy is a Formality (not a relationship of power and subservience)
The endowment was changed in the 80s to say that a wife hearkens to her husband only if he is hearkening to God. For all intents and purposes, this means the woman follows God, if it so happens that His will is made manifest through her husband. Otherwise the hierarchy exists only as a formality, one that defines a certain order. The church has softened Biblical language relating to hierarchy because it recognizes that it has been used unrighteously.
This formal hierarchy is not an excuse for the man to demand obedience from his wife, even if he feels he is acting in the name of the Lord. He must take her as she is. Whether or not she hearkens to him is a matter between her and the Lord. The man has no say in it. “The unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse”. In the end, both the husband and the wife are beholden to the God, and to God only for the discharge of His will.
The Man Must Also “Hearken to His Wife”
Like the wife, the husband is also often commanded by God to accept her will as his own. This is a clear pattern in the scriptures. In the endowment, Eve has the foresight to partake of the fruit, and convinces the passive and reluctant Adam to partake of it, which is part of God’s subversive will. This pattern is repeated in the lives of each of the three patriarchs of Genesis.
Abraham: Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out of the house, and that Isaac become the birthright son, against Abraham’s objections. However, God tells Abraham, “Hearken unto the voice of thy wife, for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
Isaac: Isaac prefers to give the birthright to Esau against Rebecca’s wishes. She contrives to fool the blind Isaac, who mistakenly gives Jacob the birthright blessing. Isaac, instead of correcting his mistake, decides to simply follow the will of his wife, and allow Jacob to keep the birthright.
Jacob: Jacob desires to marry Rachel, but her father Laban conspires with his older daughter Leah, to trick Jacob into marrying Leah. Leah’s child Judah becomes the birthright son, not Rachel’s son Joseph, even though Jacob preferred both Rachel and Joseph to Leah and her sons.
If the early patriarchs had had their way, Ishmael, Esau, and Joseph would have been the birthright children. However, their first wives felt differently, and in each case, the Lord honored the desire of the wives over the objections of the patriarchs. This sets a pattern that I see frequently in my family and many others I know. The wife often gets her way, and the Lord often honors the will of the wife.
The Woman Active, the Man Passive
In the domestic and spiritual realms, we can see that women are often the true power brokers. Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah were active, taking matters into their own hands according to their wisdom, passion, and righteousness. Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were passive, waiting upon the Lord, and hearkening to their wives as the Lord commanded.
While men are active in the world, in work and in warfare, they naturally take a back seat in the home. They want to come home after a hard day’s work, smoke a pipe by the fire without being bothered by domestic troubles. I’m not talking about men who are abusive and domineering in the home. Dominant men are not more active “domestically,” rather, they like to exercise unrighteous dominion in their little kingdom. As far as the running of the house and the raising of the children, they are not particularly committed to it, even if they are highly critical.
The woman’s biologically mandated domestic activism often goes unheeded by the man, and the woman must patiently repeat herself over and over (derogatorily reffered to as nagging.) In this activism, the Lord is often on the side of the woman. Since the woman is usually right, a typical marriage has its share of strife, as the man tries to nurse his pride, and the woman tries to get what she feels is the right thing done.
However, the Lord gently commands the woman to “hearken” to the man, and respect his “official” status as head of the house, thus encouraging her to soothe the man’s tender ego, while at the same time empowering him as a partner in the home and giving him responsibilities to make decisions and suffer their consequences. This does not mean that the woman stops encouraging the man to do the right thing, nor does it mean that she can’t take her own path when she feels strongly that it is right. Ultimately, this hierarchy is only there to help mitigate the battle of the sexes and brings the man and the woman together.
Abandoning Gender Roles Altogether
I think the battle of the sexes can be overcome, and these gender roles can become obsolete. A truly mature man and woman are completely equal in all things. They council together and make decisions jointly. I believe the gospel points us in this direction.
I would venture to say that many of those who object to my stereotypes are highly educated, upper-middle class, somewhat liberal Americans. They are in high functioning marriages that are quite equalized. But in other cultures outside the US particularly, traditional gender roles are extremely entrenched. When the church supports gender hierarchy, it works within the traditional gender framework, while challenging the man to overcome unrighteous dominion.
And even in the high functioning marriages of my blog readers, I’m sure there are echoes of the primal gender differences. You cannot take the woman out of the woman, nor can you take the man out of the man. We must allow ourselves to be true to our nature, even as we seek to bridle and tame it.
My Own Marriage
Just to respond to RAH’s question specifically, my wife and I make decisions jointly. The priesthood sometimes comes into play when my wife asks me for direction and advice, and I give blessings or turn to the Lord for guidence on a particular issue. But I also go to my wife for wisdom and direction in these matters as well. When there is a conflict, sometimes I bend to her, and sometimes she bends to me. But I don’t believe I have the authority to make any demands or any decisions contrary to her will. I find the dynamics in our marriage often reflect those I have described in this blog. I have often hearkened to my wife, sometimes grudgingly, but found, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that it was the best way in the end. She also often hearkens to me, trusting me when I feel my judgements are inspired. Her trust and support have been a great blessing in my life. But an even greater blessing has been her willingness to speak up when she feels I am in the wrong.