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Fascinating Womanhood: always obey

woman reading

Helen closes out her chapter on “The Leader” by reiterating many of her earlier points in stronger language, but she also takes the opportunity to preemptively combat what she thinks may be some common objections, or situations readers could describe that would make her teachings difficult– or impossible. To do this, she begins with a longer discussion of what she means when she tells women to obey their husbands:

The first Law of Heaven is obedience, and it should be the first law of every home. It is the foundation of an orderly home, a successful family, and the successful lives of the children. The wife is the key . . .

When [children who had disobedient mothers] are turned out into the world they have difficulty obeying the law, or a higher authority . . . The problems of rebellious youth can be traced to homes where the mother disobeyed the father or showed lack of respect for his authority.

As will become a pattern in this book, Helen uses children as threats: don’t do what I say, and your children will grow up to be criminals. You don’t want your children to become juvenile delinquents, never get into a good school, and spend their life in prison, do you? Well, that’s what will happen if you don’t _______ . Here, it’s “obey your husband.” But, oh, it get’s better, when she decides to quote C. Northcote Parkinson, who she describes as a “satirist”– which is interesting, because he was not. He was a naval historian and public policy scholar. I’m also confused why she chose “satirist,” especially since satire usually means the opposite of what it literally says, and this is what she quotes:

He [said] that the trouble in American colleges is based on disrespect for authority learned in the home. “The general movement, I think, begins with the female revolution,” he said. “Women demanded the vote and equality and ceased to submit to the control of their husbands . . . [In my childhood] Pop’s word was law and Mother’s most deadly threat was ‘I shall have to inform you father.’ Nowadawys, the mother can’t appeal to the children in that way because the have denied paternal authority themselves.”

Since she gives no citation of any kind (except that he was “in L.A.”), I have no idea what the context for this comment was, but Helen presents it seriously: everything that is wrong with American youth today started when women decided they had the right to a voice in their government.

I made a comment in my first post about Helen being more anti-feminist than Debi Pearl. This is one of the reasons why. Because what’s the point of women voting if they just vote the same way as their husbands, amiright? The only reason why Helen believes women wanted to vote on their own was so they could vote differently, and that’s against everything Helen believes about women. A woman not agreeing with her husband’s political vision? Sacrilege. Blasphemy.

But, next, she gets into one of her most interesting moments, because she finally uses an anecdote from her own marriage. Finally, we can get some sort of idea of what her marriage has actually been like, instead of her twisting historical and literary characters beyond recognition. She begins by describing a conversation she had with her adult children, and they say that she was “the key” to their obedience, that because she obeyed their father “even when it was hard,” that they knew that they should, too. And Helen actually gives us an example of what “immediately” came to mind when her children said she obeyed her husband “even when it was hard.”

They had planned a vacation to the Florida Keys, and everyone was very excited about it. But, before they got there, her husband called their son, who was in Sweden, and discovered that he was ill and coming back to the States because of it. She thought he could just come to the Keys with them, and recuperate there, and thought her husband agreed. It wasn’t until she “woke up in the middle of the night” that she found out they were headed north, back the way they had come. She was tempted to “put her foot down,” but she remembered the children and didn’t.

That’s it.

She didn’t get to go on vacation.

This incident was her immediate recollection of obeying her husband when it was hard.

Talk about privilege.

Now, granted, I’d be horribly disappointed, too– and I’d think my husband was being kind of a jerk for pulling a juke like that on me. But seriously? This is what you think of as “hard,” Helen? I can think of a dozen examples so much more horrible and nightmarish than this during my engagement to a man that I didn’t even marry in my attempts to be “obedient.” If this is one of the hardest things Helen’s ever had to endure in her marriage… I’d say she’s been pretty dang lucky.

The next section is entitled “Problems in the Patriarchy” (oh, yes, she did), and this is where she starts breaking down possible scenarios for women who, unlike her, are married to less-than-stellar people, or for women who have reasonable expectations and concerns.

Problem #1: “When the wife fears failure,” which is code for “the wife thinks her concerns about her husband’s plans deserve to be heard, but she’s wrong, they don’t.” Here, she uses Abraham Lincoln as an example: just think, if he didn’t have an amazingly supportive wife, who just earnestly believed that “he’ll be a great man someday,” he never would have become President of These United States. And you want your husband to be a great man, don’t you? Well, he won’t, unless you become like Mary Lincoln. Which, granted, Mary Lincoln supported her husband’s political career, but she wasn’t exactly a saint about it. She was well-known for her temper, which Abraham Lincoln certainly did not escape.

Problem #2: “When the wife rebels,” or, as she quotes from Orson Pratt:

The wife should never follow her own judgment in preference to that of her husband, for if her husband desires to do right, but errs in judgment, the Lord will bless her in endeavoring to carry out his counsels; for God has placed him at the head and though he may err in judgment, yet God will not justify the wife in disregarding his instructions; for greater is the sin of rebellion than the errors which arise from want of judgment; therefore, she would be condemned for suffering her will to rise against his.

That quote is especially interesting, especially since Orson Pratt gave up his Apostleship in the LDS church to support his wife, who had accused Joseph Smith of propositioning her. Later, however, he “realized” his wife was “mistaken”– and Sarah Pratt went on to become an outspoken anti-polygamist activist, despite the fact that her husband and Joseph Smith destroyed her reputation and ruined her.

I don’t know if Helen is aware of what happened between Orson and Sarah Pratt, but, if she is, this quote is highly disturbing. Because, even if a husband “errs in judgment” (and apparently believing his wife counts as an “error”), it’s much worse for the wife to “rebel,” and she’ll be “condemned” for it– in other words, have everyone you know go on a campaign to completely destroy her life.

Problem #3: “When he flounders,” or, “when you must be extremely careful and delicate and not hurt his fine porcelain ego.” She’s telling women that if you think his fears are “groundless,” you’re supposed to “assure him” and “build his confidence,” but– remember, you must not be braver than he is, because that’s emasculating. And then she gives the delightful example of a “groundless fear”:  if he’s concerned about taking a chance that might make it harder for him to support his family. Yep. That’s totally groundless. There’s no reason to be worried about providing for your family at all. After all, we’re “willing to make the necessary sacrifice.”

Problem #4: “when he won’t lead,” which is easily resolved: “read him Scriptures which appoint him as the leader,” tell him that he’s “more qualified than you,” and then just dedicate yourself to your domestic duties, and he’ll step up. Because marital relationships are never complicated, lack any sort of nuance whatsoever, and all problems are easily solved when you proof text verses out of context and then go do the dishes.

Problem #5: “when he leads his children astray,” which, thank God, Helen tells you to “take them out of the household” if he’s “leading his family into corruption.” Of course, you’re not allowed to divorce him, no matter what, and you have to make it clear that you’re not removing his children because you are condemning him for his actions. And, taking away a man’s children is always a piece of cake when you don’t divorce him. That’s never called kidnapping or child snatching anything. There’s no possible way an evil man could pursue legal action against you for that. Nope. That never happens. Abusive, evil, corrupt men always let you do whatever you want with their children without contest.

That’s it for this chapter, but it should be glaringly obvious that Helen lives in a different world than we do. In her world, the worst thing your husband can do is cancel the family vacation for a valid reason like your sick son coming back from Sweden. And if you do face some sort of serious hardship, like your husband “encouraging your children to be immoral,” the solution is always magically easy. You read the Bible, and problem solved.

Her “solutions” are not unlike an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

That is called co-dependency and enabling. But, co-dependent relationships don’t exist in Helen’s world. No one struggles with serious problems, no one faces anything worse than an uncertain, vacillating husband. And, on the off chance that your husband is seriously abusive (which Helen defines far too narrowly), all you have to do is “get out.” Because that’s a piece of cake, and everything becomes instantly better. Because money and a place to live falls out of the sky. But, ho, it’s your “moral obligation,” so that’s the only thing you have to be worried about. Certainly not an abusive man coming after you and ruining your reputation in front of your entire religious community.

That never happens.

Feminism, Theology

complementarianism and the genesis fall


As a young teenager, I had an immense respect for my cult leader’s wife. I was best friends with her daughter, which meant that I was one of the few people who were frequently invited into their home. I spent many weekends having sleepovers at their house, watching John Wayne movies until the wee hours of the morning, playing army in the backyard for hours on Saturday. The first time I ever had grits was in her home, the first time I made cookies she taught me, the first time I went garage sale-ing I was with her. I admired her– her frugality, her work ethic, her constancy in her faithfulness to her husband in all things, the sacrifices she made for her family, her earnestness in raising her children… she was a large part of what I pictured in my head when I envisioned the ideal wife. My parents marriage was, and is, healthy, but my cult leader’s wife fit more easily into the mold I was being taught was the biblical role for a wife. Even to this day, when I’m reminded of the Proverbs 31 woman, I think of her.

One Sunday morning, after the cult leader had disbanded any kind of “youth group” and told the teenagers that our regular Sunday school was canceled and we were expected to attend Sunday school with the adults, the cult leader preached a message on marriage. I don’t exactly remember the context of the entire sermon, but I do remember feeling relieved that his wife hadn’t been there to hear it– she had been keeping nursery that morning. My mother leaned over to my father and whispered “thank God Miss Dianne* wasn’t here to listen to that.” But, in church, he said the exact same thing:

“Husbands, you know how it is, you know what it’s like. Sometimes, you just really don’t want to be married anymore. Nothing about marriage seems worth it, and it would be better if you were just alone. Can I get an Amen?”

While a few men in the congregation muttered an unenthusiastic amen, I looked over at Miss Dianne, and I will never forget the look on her face. She was crushed, devastated– destroyed by the husband she submitted to.


Growing up, I didn’t know the word complementarianism, officially, but what I did know was that a wife was intended to “complement” her husband. A husband and wife, united, made up for lacks in each other. They filled out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Even today, I can appreciate the core of this idea, even though it is frequently over simplified and reduced down to ideas like “opposites attract.” There’s a certain beauty in two people meeting together and becoming stronger because of each other. That’s what I find most stunning in the imagery of becoming one flesh.

However, in conservative religious environments, there are limitations and boundaries to what complementing your husband can look like. I grew up with this idea that women were to be “keepers at home,” that there was a universal standard of femininity I was expected to live up to, that my role and responsibility was in being a wife and mother. I was taught that envisioning a role for myself that included roles in addition to a maternal one was sinful and selfish. If I attempted to be a wife, a mother, and a career woman, I would most definitely become depressed, maybe suicidal, my marriage would be ruined, and I would fail as a mother.

On top of that, I was also taught that there is one biblical structure for marriage: a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the Church. I am called to obey and submit to my husband in all things, regardless of how my husband might behave toward me. If he was treating me badly, I was taught that it was probably because I was not practicing biblical submission. All I had to do, in order to ensure a beatific marriage, was be a submissive wife, and the rest would fall into place.

I can’t really deconstruct everything that is wrong with those particular set of teachings, but I want to talk about where these teachings come from, and why complementarianism is exalted as the “only form of biblical marriage,” and why the egalitarian position is frequently dismissed because, supposedly, we don’t read our Bibles.

The first place that many complementarians will go to in order to argue that complementarianism is biblical is Genesis 2 and 3. They begin with God’s decision to create Eve:

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

The key word there is helper. There’s a lot to be said about this word (‘ezer, or עֵזֶר). At its most basic, “helper” really is probably the best translation for the word, although “help meet” is used as well. Many complementarians argue that this means that women were created to help men. That was the reason for Eve’s existence, and continues to be the definite, primary purpose of women today. This passage seems to “very clearly and plainly say” that this is why God created women. We are helpers, not leaders.

But let’s take a quick look at where else this word is used. First of all, Genesis 2 is one of only three places that ‘ezer is used to describe a person or a people; the other fifteen times ‘ezer appears, it’s to describe God. It’s used twice in Deuteronomy, where God is described as someone who “rides through the heavens to your help” and as a “shield of help.” It’s used again in the Psalms, where the God of Jacob is called upon for protection, for him to send “help from the sanctuary.” In other places in the psalms, God is a “help and a deliverer,” or as the one responsible for all of creation.

If God is helping Israel, if we’re going to be consistent in our hermenuetic, it means that he is in a subservient position to Israel. He is not leading, or directing. He is not the one making the decisions. He’s helping, that’s all. Israel is the leader, God is the helper.

I think it’s also interesting that when this passage eventually comments on what their relationship is going to be, it’s in the directive for men and women to become one flesh. To me, that doesn’t say hierarchy, or that one is to be dominant over the other. That doesn’t make any sense, really. My body is one flesh. How does any part of my body have dominance over another? In fact, when, a “part” of me does have dominance over another “part” of me, it’s usually to my detriment. When my head rules my heart, or when my heart rules my head, there’s imbalance, and it’s dangerous. I’m not operating in a way that is true to all of me, to every part of me.

Complementarians also use Eve’s deception to show her up as weaker, as more fallible, than Adam. Some have even claimed that the serpent went to Eve because he knew that he wouldn’t have been able to deceive Adam. Except, Adam was with her. He was there, listening to the same deception. Some have argued that Adam only ate the fruit because he knew that God would send Eve out of the garden, but he loved her too much to let her go alone.

I don’t have to space to tackle all of that right now, especially since the biggest argument that complementarians pull from this passage is after the Fall, when God is cursing Adam and Eve. When God curses Eve, he tells her that her pain in childbirth will be multiplied, that her desire shall be for her husband, and that he will rule over her.

Those five words provide much of the foundation for complementarian ideals; they argue, over and over again, that it is God’s design for men to rule over their wives. That’s the way it should be, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If women violate this God-ordained order by not allowing our husbands to have the rule over us, we are inviting our own destruction. We will be unhappy. We’ll be miserable. Because, deep down, we know that submitting to our husband’s headship is the way it’s supposed to be.

Except… morphine exists, as do C-sections, and epidurals.

Why is it that women are “fighting against the natural order” when we want equality with our husbands (note: complementarians frequently argue that a husband and wife are equal-we have equal, but separate roles. This is a problem, because complementarians are not defining “equality” the same way, because women in the complementarian role are to submit to their husband’s headship. If there’s a hierarchy, they’re not equals), but there isn’t a problem with reducing our pain in childbirth? Or, while we’re on this subject, why is it that no one talks about “violating God’s ordained order” when we try to get rid of weeds, or when we develop reapers and irrigation to help combat our difficulties?

I’d like to highlight something that is present in this passage: when God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, it’s to send them to work the ground. He’d just finished cursing the ground, but he still sent them to till and harvest it, to survive– and to eventually thrive.

Yes, the Genesis passage curses Eve with a husband who will “rule over” her. But it also includes the hope that this is not the way things are supposed to be. God didn’t create our relationships to work this way– he created us to be “one flesh,” in complete unity. And he sent Adam and Eve out into a world that would be hard, and full of struggles– but struggles and trials they could defeat together.