Mormonism’s Chicken Patriarchy

On the forum for The Exponent, there’s a recent discussion about Mormonism’s “chicken patriarchy,” which is in response to what one Mormon man had called “modern, righteous patriarchy.”

Like a chicken, it won’t let itself be caught. It won’t let itself be pinned down as “bad” because it wraps itself in the language of equality and righteousness. Rather than asserting unabashedly patriarchal arguments for why women should have less ecclesiastical authority than men, it asserts instead that men and women are “different, but equal” while at the same time maintaining the traditional aspects of inequality.

It didn’t used to be so chicken-like. As a 2007 post from Zelophehads Daughters explains, back in the 1970s, Church leaders were blatantly patriarchal. Consider this excerpt from a 1970s Ensign article:

Let us begin by saying that a Latter-day Saint husband or father presides over his wife and family in much the same way a bishop, stake president, or elders quorum president presides over the specific group to which he is called. . . . Imagine, for example, the confusion that would result if two bishops were appointed over your particular ward . . .

Similarly, should two people preside over each other in marriage, particularly when one holds the priesthood and has been divinely designated to preside? . . . The mystery may not be so much in the manner in which a wife submits herself to her husband as, in fact, the way a husband will preside over and interact with his wife and family.

Twenty years later, as the post explains, a lot ofMormons simply cannot stomach this kind of blatant patriarchy. It’s been replaced with chicken patriarchy. A church leader will say that a man and woman enter a marriage as equals, but yet leave it unclear as to how this matches up with the doctrine of the man “presiding” over the woman who must “harken to” the man. It’s like the patriarchy is too chicken to stand up for itself nowadays.

One commenter from the ZD thread recounted:

In Sunday School a few months ago, when coming upon the language of Paul that God is to man what husband is to wife (paraphase) the teacher said something like, I find it is easiest to imagine this like a triangle, with God on top and husband and wife equal.

I couldnt help but think to myself, It might be easier to imagine it that way, but that is not what the scripture is saying.

The teacher gave no explanation of why her model was different than that described by Paul, nor did anyone ask her about it (including me: guess Im a chicken, too!), but it struck me that IF there is a difference between what we believe on this point and what Paul says, we should be able to articulate it.

It is bizarre and frustrating for people to gloss over problematical language about hierarchy… by saying we believe this other (but somehow not contradictory) egalitarian thing. If we do, why do we have the hierarchal language?

Good question.

Some Mormon men refuse to be the patriarchs in their families, and find themselves at odds with their Mormon wives who insist they be good patriarchs. As an astute commenter suggested, though:

I sense that you consider yourself more enlightened than your wife. If only she would understand that you don’t want to subject her, your enlightened view would create equality, the sun would shine, and cats and dogs could get along.

I tentatively suggest that perhaps your attitude towards your wife is the exact attitude that warps divine patriarchy and makes it into the monster that hurts so many people. You are so focused on roles and shoulds, that you are not respecting your wife. Granted, the roles you prescribe are different than the roles focused on by traditional patriarchy, but the focus is still in the wrong place; on the roles, rather than the people.

Unfortunately, the role thing is spelled out in scripture and modern-day propheteering… I mean, prophisizing. Since both Mormon men and women are taught to be humble to church leaders, it’s hard to push through an argument that things are supposed to be different than the way they currently are. You can see this when Mormon men argue that because men submit to other men in the Church, therefore the submission can’t possibility be gendered, or about people dominating people, but must somehow be about everyone following scripture — particularly if both women and men agree that this is the case.

However, chicken patriarchy creates uncomfortable contradictions as noted in the comments above.

8 thoughts on “Mormonism’s Chicken Patriarchy

  1. I read that Exponent piece too — it’s excellent. It illustrates quite clearly how easy it is for people to listen to the modern ambiguous talk of equality and still hear the old-fashioned ideas you quote from ZD. After all, the serious patriarchy really is backed by Paul and by the LDS temple ceremony.

  2. The last quote reminds me of the struggle in my own marriage. We both support gender equality, but I have a tendency to expect my husband to speak for me, take care of the important things in our marriage, be the primary money-maker, etc. Funnily enough, it’s not because I grew up with a patriarchal worldview – I would definitely characterize my family as matriarchal. It’s because I’m the 8th of 10 kids, and husband is the 2nd of 7. I’m used to being the baby of the family who everyone takes care of. Husband naturally doesn’t want to subjugate me though, and he’s constantly helping me get over my neurosis about being independent by refusing to take charge.

    The commenter might think that it’s disrespectful to deny one’s wife the role she wants to play, but if the role she wants puts him in a role he doesn’t want either, then nobody wins. You don’t solve problems like that by forcing someone into a gender role they don’t want, just because the tradition is there. You talk about each person’s needs vs. wants. You ask if you want is founded in a neurotic worldview. The point is you talk about it; you don’t condemn each other for wanting what they want.

  3. Parts of the Bible are 3,000 years old. Paul wrote almost 2,000 years ago. Half the letters attributed to him were not even written by him.

    The Bible and Paul’s letters are not a cook book for our life. Most of the Bible’s insights do not apply literally to us but need to be extracted carefully and thoughtfully.

    I can’t believe, I even need to say that. It appears to be self-evident.

  4. That comment is clever and important but it is also unfair because it places husbands into a catch 22 where they are always wrong regardless of what they do. Dominate your wife like a proper patriarch, that’s wrong. Treat her as an equal, that’s also domination.

    That might be a real life problem but it is the implication of an abusive power relationship that is not of the husband’s making. To blame him for that is unfair and abusive.

    Just because two people are equals, it does not follow that they are always equally right. It is very well possible that one is right and the other is wrong. Tomorrow it might be the other way around.

    There is good reason to conclude that couples who create a balance of power are more likely to preserve their mental health, allocate their economic resources more efficiently, and will typically raise children more successfully. Those outcomes are probably normally distributed, so beware of outliers.

    Anyways, my claims about equality are either true or false. Accordingly, one of the spouses is right and the other one is wrong, not withstanding their equality.

    Efforts to insist that those differences be resolved on the merits of the evidence should not be construed as domination. The husband is probably just trying to get it right.

    If his wife could have persuaded him with a more powerful argument, he might have changed his mind. But to change his mind just so that he is no longer “dominant” that would really be condescending.

    Self-confident adults would not insist on that and to ask the husband to give up his point of view for the sake of the correct power relationship is misguided. Likewise, to accuse him of domination just because he insists that he happens to be correct in this particular instance amounts to illogical sophistry.

  5. As a thought experiment, have a look at this intentionally provocative attempt to apply similar language to a very different kind of relationship:

    I love my dog. I reject outdated notions of dog ownership that view him as mere property. Together we form a partnership with each member contributing complementary skills and attributes: for example, he excels at scent-related tasks, while my language skills are better (hence I am the one writing this comment). I hearken unto him when it comes time to find spilled food scraps, and he hearkens unto me regarding other matters. There can be only one head between us, and I accept my divinely assigned duty to guide him gently, and provide for his material needs. Failing in this duty would amount to nothing more than subjugation and unrighteous dominion. Although our roles differ, in God’s eyes we are equally endowed with what we need to live out our potential, canine and human. In fact, I often think that my dog is a more perfect as a canine than I am as a human.

    Suitably interpreted, all of this is perfectly sincere. Yet it would be ludicrous and offensive to suggest that there is no difference between my relationship with my dog and a husband’s with his wife. The first is inherently unequal, while the second either is not, or is unequal in a completely different and far more limited sense, depending on the variations in viewpoint we’re discussing.

    If you can substitute “dog” for “wife” and get something that sounds reasonable, I don’t think you’re addressing the issue of equality. That’s true even of a statement like “I love my wife”, where “I love my dog” is reasonable but also unquestionably has a different meaning. Describing how the two forms of love are different may well have some relevance to equality, but the bare four-word assertion, however great its value in other respects, does not.

    Reading through the original Mormon Men post—which, I acknowledge, did not have the exclusive purpose of exploring equality—and dropping out everything that I thought could be applied equally well to building a good relationship with a dog, I didn’t have much left at the end. The genetic relationship between parents and children stood out, for example, but wasn’t really gone into. And of course there is no “caninism” to study, parallel to feminism. But it seems to me that its value lies almost exclusively in the description of Saint Mark (the blog author)’s thought process in coming to terms with the religious role of patriarchy in Mormonism. At least in this particular post the question “How, specifically, is your marriage different from an unequal partnership, like parent and child or man and dog?” seems to go unanswered.

  6. Let me teach you a little trick that will cut through all the double-speak of chicken patriarchy that you will get from Latter-day Saints (and any number of conservative Christians) when discussing their treatment of women:

    “Separate Gender Roles” = “Women are Inferior”

    As the 1973 Barlow article demonstrates, it was not so long ago that people could teach with a straight face that men are supposed to be in charge and that’s that. But now, openly denying “equality” is a deal-killer, so religions had to re-package and re-market their patriarchy whilst giving lip service to equality.

    Anyone who is teaching that men and women have “separate gender roles” is really just teaching that women are inferior to men. It does not matter how much they talk about “equality” along with “separate gender roles,” what they are really teaching is:

    (1) Subordination of wives to husbands
    (2) Men should work outside the home while women should stay home and raise the kids
    (3) Ecclesiastical male privilege

    The “equality” part is a farce and their vision of the sexes is hierarchical. It may be a soft and gentle hierarchy, but it will be a hierarchy.

    Don’t believe me? When a Latter-day Saint says “separate gender roles,” ask him or her to describe the “roles” women perform in their church that are uniquely and exclusively for women, that cannot be performed by men. The list will be embarrassingly short.

  7. so religions had to re-package and re-market

    I’d actually say that many religions are trying to work their way out of the bind that Hellmut describes instead.

    I still remember reading old lectures (from when the LDS Church still had MMen and Gleaners) about how it might surprise those who were idiots, but women were not property and were not subject to control by their husbands in any righteous setting.

    That got my attention as it seemed (a) obvious and (b) definitely obvious that the audience did not get the point.

    That was long before the 60s, long before any “repackaging.”

    Ah well…

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