The Patriarchy We Object to

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Tell me what kind of patriarchy you object to. As Orthodox, we probably object to that kind of patriarchy as well.

There was one chaplain at a university who, whenever a student would come in and say, “I don’t believe in God,” would answer, “Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that kind of God either.” And he really had something in common with them. He didn’t believe in a God who was a vindictive judge, or a God who was responsible for all the evil in this world, or a God who was arbitrary and damned people for never hearing of him. And the chaplain wasn’t just making a rhetorical exercise; he didn’t believe in many kinds of “God” any more than the students who were kind enough to come and tell him they didn’t believe in God. He really had something in common with them.

There was one book I was reading which was trying to recover women’s wisdom from patriarchy. I was amazed when I was reading it, as it talked about the holistic, united character of women’s knowing, and how women’s knowledge is relational, how women know by participating. What amazed me was how much it had in common with Orthodox description of knowledge, because the Orthodox understanding of knowledge is based off an essential unity and knows by relating, participating, drinking, rather than by analyzing and taking apart and knowing things by keeping track of a systematic map.

What Orthodoxy in the West would seek to recover from the West looks a lot like what feminism would like to recover from patriarchy. Part of what may confuse the issue is that feminism lumps together two very different forces as “patriarchy.” One of these forces is classical tradition, and the other is something funny that’s been going on for several hundred years in which certain men have defaced society by despising it and trying to make it manly.

The reason that women’s holistic, connected knowledge is countercultural is something we’ll miss if we only use the category of “patriarchy”. The educational system, for instance, makes very little use of this knowledge, not because patriarchy has always devalued women’s ways of knowing, but something very different. The reason that there’s something countercultural to women’s holistic, connected knowledge is that that is a basic human way of knowing, and men can be separated from it more easily than women, but it’s a distortion of manhood to marginalize that way of knowing. And there has been a massive effort, macho in the worst way, that despised how society used to work, assumed that something is traditional it must be the women’s despicable way of doing things, and taken one feature of masculine knowledge and used it to uproot the the places for other ways of knowing that are important to both men and women. There are two quite different forces lumped together in the category of “patriarchy.” One is the tradition proper, and the other is “masculism” (or at least I call it that), and what feminism sees as patriarchy is what’s left over of the tradition after masculism has defaced it by trying to make it “masculine,” on the assumption that if something was in the tradition, that was all you needed to know, in order to attack it as being unfit for men. “Masculism” is what happens when you cross immature masculinity with the effort to destroy whatever you need to make room for your version of Utopia. What is left of the tradition today, and what feminism knows as “patriarchy,” is a bit like what’s left of a house after it’s been burned down.

With apologies to G.K. Chesterton, the Orthodox and feminists only ask to get their heads into the Heavens. It is the masculists who try to fit the Heavens into their heads, and it is their heads that split. This basic difference between knowing as exaltation and expansion, participating in something and allowing one’s head to be raised in the Heavens, and domination and mastery that compresses the Heavens so they will fit in one’s head, is the difference between what “knowing” means to both feminists and Orthodox, and what it means to masculists.

The difference between Orthodoxy and feminism is this. Orthodoxy has to a very large measure preserved the tradition. When it objects to masculism, it is objecting to an intrusion that affects something it is keeping. It is a guard trying to protect a treasure. Where Orthodoxy is a guard trying to protect a treasure, feminism is a treasure hunter trying to find something that world has lost. It is a scout rather than a guard. (And yes, I’m pulling images from my masculine mind.) Feminism is shaped by masculism, and I’d like to clarify what I mean by this. I don’t mean in any sense that feminism wants to serve as a rubber stamp committee for masculism. The feminist struggle is largely a struggle to address the problems created by masculism. that’s pretty foundational. But people that rebel against something tend to keep a lot of that something’s assumptions, and feminism is a lot like masculism because in a culture as deeply affected by masculism as much of the West, masculism is the air people breathe. (People can’t stop breathing their air, whatever culture they’re in.) For one example of this, masculism assumed that anything in the tradition was womanish and therefore unfit for men, and feminism inherited a basic approach from masculism when it assumed that anything in tradition was patriarchal and therefore unfit for women. It’s a masculist rather than traditional way of approaching society. Orthodoxy has been affected by masculism to some degree, but it’s trying to preserve the Orthodox faith, where feminism has been shaped by masculism to a much greater degree and is trying to rebel against the air its members breathe. Feminism is a progressive series of attempts to reform masculism for women; if you look at its first form, it said, “Women should be treated better. They should be treated like men.” Later forms of feminism have seen that there are problems with that approach, but they have been reacting to a composite of masculism and earlier versions of feminism. Feminism has been a scout, rather than a guard.

I say that feminism has been a scout rather than a guard, not to criticize, but to suggest that Orthodoxy has been given something that feminism reaches for, but does not have in full. It is a bit like the difference between maintaining a car and trying to go through a junkyard with the wrecks of many magnificent things and reconstruct a working vehicle. In a junkyard, one sees the imprint of many things; one sees the twisted remains of quite a few items that would be good to have. And one can probably assemble things, get some measure of functionality, perhaps hobble together a working bicycle. And if one does not have a working car, there is something very impressive about doing one’s best to assemble something workable from the wreckage. It is perhaps not the best manners to criticize someone who has combined parts to make a genuinely working bicycle and say, “But you were not given a working car!”

But in Orthodoxy, there is a very different use of time. Orthodox do not simply spend time filling the gas tank (there are many necessities in faith like filling a gas tank) and maintaining the car (which we periodically break), necessary as those may be. Having a car is primarily about living life as it is lived when you can drive. It is about being able to travel and visit people. It is about having more jobs open to you. If a car isn’t working, dealing with the car means trying to do whatever you can to get it working. It means thinking about how to fix it. And feminism is trying to correct masculism. If a car is working, dealing with the car is about what it can let you do. It’s like how when you’re sick, your mind is on getting well and on your health. If you’re healthy, you don’t think about your health unless you choose to. You’re free to enjoy your health by focusing on non-health-related pursuits.

What does Orthodoxy have to contribute to feminism? To begin with, it’s not simply a project by men. Feminist tends to assume that whatever is in patriarchy is there because all-powerful men have imposed it on women, or to put things in unflattering terms women have contributed little of substance to patriarchal society. That may have truth as regards masculism, but Orthodoxy is the property of both men and women (and boys and girls), and it is a gross mischaracterization to only look at the people who hold positions of power.

Feminists have made bitter criticism of Prozac being used to mask the depression caused by many housewives’ loneliness and isolation. Housewives who do not work outside the home have much more than housework to deal with; they have loneliness and isolation from adult company. And perhaps, feminists may icily say, if a woman under those conditions is depressed, this does not necessarily mean Prozac is appropriate. Maybe, just maybe, the icy voice tells us, the solution is to change those conditions instead of misusing antidepressants to mask the quite natural depression those conditions create. Feminists are offended that women are confined to a place outside of society’s real life and doing housework in solitary confinement. One of the most offensive things you can say, if there is no irony or humor in your voice, is, “A woman’s place is in the house!” (and not add, “and in the Senate!”)

But Orthodoxy looks at it differently, or at least Orthodox culture tends to work out differently. And, like many alien cultures, things have a very different meaning. The home has a different meaning. When people say “family” today, we think of a nuclear family. Then it was extended family, and thinking of an extended family without a nuclear family would have been as odd to people then as it would be odd today to take your favorite food and then be completely unable to eat anything else. Traditional society, real traditional society, did not ask women to work in isolation. Both men and women worked in adult company. And the home itself… In traditional society, the home was the primary place where economic activity occurred. In traditional society, the home was the primary place where charitable work occurred. In traditional society, the home took care of what we would now call insurance. In traditional society, the home was the primary place where education occured. Masculism has stripped away layer after layer of what the home was. In Orthodox culture, in truly Orthodox culture that has treasures that have been dismantled in the West, a woman’s place really is in the home, but it means something totally different from what a feminist cringes at in the words, “A woman’s place is in the house!”

America has largely failed to distinguish between what feminism says and women’s interests, so people think that if you are for women, you must agree with feminism. Saying “I oppose feminism because I am for women’s interests” seems not only false but a contradiction in terms, like saying “I’m expanding the text of this webpage so it will be more concise.” It’s not like more thoughtful Catholics today, who say, “I have thought, and I understand why many people distinguish or even oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church with God’s truth. But my considered judgment is that God reveals his truth through the living magisterium of the Catholic Church.” It’s more like what the Reformers faced, where people could not see what on earth you meant if you said that God’s truth and the Catholic Church’s teaching were not automatically the same thing.

In this culture, someone who is trying to be pro-woman will ordinarily reach for feminism as the proper vehicle, just as someone who wants to understand the natural world will reach for science as the proper vehicle for that desire; “understanding the human body” is invariably read as “learning scientific theories about the body’s work,” and not “take a massage/dance/martial arts class”, or “learn what religions and cultures have seen in the meaning of the human body.” A great many societies pursued a deep understanding of the human body without expressing that desire the way Western science pursues it. They taught people to come to a better knowledge of their bodies—and I mean “of,” not just “about”—the kind of relational, drinking knowledge that feminists and Orthodox value, and not just a list of abstract propositions from dissecting a cadaver (a practice which some cultures regard as “impious and disgusting”—C.S. Lewis). They taught people to develop, nurture, and discipline their bodies so that there was a right relationship between body and spirit. They taught people to see the body as belonging a world of meaning, symbol, and spiritual depth—cultures where “How does it work?” takes a back seat to a deeper question: “Why? What does it mean?” Orthodoxy at its best still does teach these things. But Western culture has absorbed the scientific spirit that most people genuinely cannot see what “understanding the body” could mean besides “learning scientific theories about the body.” And, in this context, it seems like a deceitful sleight of hand when someone says, “I want to help you understand the body” and then offers help in ways of moving one’s body.

But I want to talk about some things that are missed within this set of assumptions. Feminism can speak for women’s interests. It normally claims to. And women are ill-served by an arrangement when people assume that criticism of feminism is at the expense of women’s interests. We need to open a door that American culture does not open. We need to open the possibility of being willing to challenge feminism in order to further women’s interests. Not on all points, but if we never open that door, disturbing things can happen.

If you ask someone outside of feminism who “the enemy” is to feminists, the common misunderstanding is, “Nonfeminist men.” And that’s certainly part of the problem and not part of the solution, but the real vitriol feeds into jokes like “How many men does it take to open a beer?—She should have it open when she brings it to him.” The real vitriol is reserved for the contented housewife who wants to be married, have children, and make a home, and not have a professional career because of what she values in homemaking itself.

Feminism is against “patriarchy.” That means that much that is positive in the tradition is attacked along with masculism. That means that whatever the tradition provided for women is interpreted as harmful to women, even if it benefits women. Wendy Shalit makes an interesting argument in A Return to Modesty that sexual modesty is not something men have imposed on women against their nature for men’s benefit; it is first and foremost a womanly virtue that protects women. We now have a defaced version of traditional society, but to start by assuming that almost everything in the culture is a patriarchal imposition that benefits only men, sets the stage for throwing out a great many things that are important for women. It sets the stage, in fact, for completing the attack that masculism began. (The effect of throwing out things that strike you as patriarchal on a culture has much the same effect as killing off species in an ecosystem because you find them unpleasant. It is an interconnected, interdependent, and organic whole that all its members need. That’s not quite the right way of saying it, but this image has a grain of truth.) Masculism scorned the traditional place for men, and was masculine only in that it rebelled against perceivedly feminine virtue. Feminism does not include a large number of women’s voices in America and an even larger number worldwide—because feminism lumps them all together in “The Enemy.” At times feminism can look anti-woman.

So everything will be OK if we resist feminism? No. First, if the tradition is right—let us say, in the controversial point that associates women with the home—that doesn’t make much sense of today’s options that don’t really let women be women and don’t let men be men. What is the closest equivalent to women reigning in one of society’s most important institions? Is it to be a housewife with a lunchtime discussion group, which seems to work wonders for depression caused by loneliness? Is it for women to keep house and work part time? Is it to work full time, and find an appropriate division of labor with their husbands? I have trouble telling which of these is best, and it doesn’t help matters to choose an option just because it bothers feminists. I think that women (and, for that matter, men) have an impoverished set of options today. Unfortunately, some of the most practical questions are also the ones that are hardest to answer.

Second and more importantly, reacting against feminism, or much of anything else, is intrinsically dangerous. If feminism has problems, we would be well advised to remember that heresies often start when people react against other heresies and say that the truth is so important they should resist that heresy as much as they can. Reactions against heresy are often heresy.

Let me explain how not to respond to feminism’s picture of what men should be. You could say that feminism wants women to be more like men and men to be more like women, and that has a significant amount of truth. But if you dig in and say that men should be rugged and independent and say, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!”, and women should be weak, passive creatures that are always in a swoon, there are several major problems.

The phrase “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!” is something that nobody but God should say. Someone greater than us is the master of our fate, and someone greater than us is the master of our soul, and that is our glory. To be a man is to be under authority. Perhaps it irks feminists that the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands as well as telling husbands to love their wives with the greatest and most costly love. (I’ve heard some first class citizens pointing out that the Bible requires something much heftier of husbands than mere submission—loving and loving their wives on the model of Christ going so far as to give up his life for the Church.) But the tradition absolutely does not say “Women are to be second-class citizens because they are under men’s authority and men are to be first-class citizens because they have the really good position of being free from authority.” To be a man is to be under authority, to be a woman is to be under authority, and to be human is to be under authority. To masculism this looks demeaning because immature masculinity resists being under authority or being in community or any other thing that men embrace when they grow up. But Orthodoxy is a call to grow up, and it is a call to men to be contributing members of a community and to be under authority. To tell men, “Be independent!” is to tell them, “Refuse to grow up!”

What about women? Shouldn’t they be passive and dependent? Let’s look at one of the Bible’s most complete treatments of what a woman should be like. I’ll give my own slightly free translation from the Greek version of Proverbs (31:10-31):

Who can find a valorous wife?
She is more precious than precious stones.
Her husband wholeheartedly trusts her, and will have no lack of treasures.
Her whole life works good for her husband.
She gathers wool and linen and weaves with her hands.
She has become like a trading ship from afar, and she gathers her living.
She rises at night, and gives food to her house, and assigns work to her maids.
She examines and buys a farm, and plants a vineyard with the fruit of her hands.
She girds her loins with strength and strengthens her arms for work.
She tastes how good it is to work, and her candle stays lit the whole night long.
She reaches her hands to collective work, and applies her hands to the spindle.
She opens her hands to the needy, and extends fruit to the poor.
Her husband does not worry about the men at home when he spends time abroad;
All her household has clothing.
She makes double weight clothing for her husband,
And linen and scarlet for herself.
Her husband is respected when he engages in important business at the City Hall.
When he is seated in council with the elders of the land.
She makes fine linens and sells belts to the Canaanites.
She opens her mouth with heedfulness and order, and is in control of her tongue.
She clothes herself in strength and honor, and rejoices in the future.
The ways of her household are secure, and she does not eat the bread of idleness.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, according to the deep law.
Her mercy for her children prepares them, and they grow rich, and her husband praises her.
Many daughters have obtained wealth, and many have worked vilantly, but you have surpassed them all.
Charm is false, and a woman’s [physical] beauty is shallow:
For a wise woman is blessed, and let her praise the fear of the Lord.
Give her the fruit of her labors, and let her husband be praised at the City Hall.

I have several things to say about this text. To open with, I’ll understand if you say this is an intimidating standard to be held up against, but if you say this affirms the ideal of women as passive and delicate, I’m going to have to ask what on earth you mean. Second, if you read the text closely, you can see hints of how important homes were to business and charity. Most business and charity were based in the home. Third, most translations use not quite the right word when they say, “Who can find a good wife?” The word used is not just “good”. It’s a word one could use of a powerful soldier. Fourth, at the risk of sounding snide, the words about not measuring womanhood by physical beauty beat body image feminism to the punch by about three thousand years. Fifth and finally, the text talks about this woman as a lot of things—as strong, as doing business, as farming, as manufacturing. But there’s one thing it does not say. It does not interpret “woman” in terms of “victim.”

There is something somewhat strange going on. If we ask what is the wealthiest nation on earth, it’s the U.S.A. If we ask what nation wields the most political clout on earth, it’s the U.S.A. And if we ask some slightly different questions, and ask what nation feminism has had the most success reforming the culture, the U.S. might not be at the very top, but it’s at least near the top. The same is true if we ask what nation women hold the most political clout in: the U.S. is either at the top or near the top. If we ask what nations women hold the most civil rights, and have most successfully entered traditionally male occupations, the U.S. is probably near the top. Now let us turn to still another kind of question: what are the women in the most powerful, and one of the most feminist-reformed, nations in the world, doing? If we’re talking about uneducated and lower-class women, the answer is simply living life as women. But if we look at educated, middle-class women, the answer tends to be simple but quite different: they are Fighting in the fray for the lowest rung on the ladder of victimization.

To be fair to feminists, I must hastily add that it’s a fray because it has a lot of participants besides feminists. The handicapped, gay, and racial minorities are also fighting, and it seems that everybody wants in. For that matter, a good many able-bodied, straight, white men also want in on the action; many middle-aged white applicants complain that affirmative action has biased the hiring process against them. To many of those who do not belong to an easily recognized victim’s group, the cry is, “When can I be a victim so I can get some rights?” It seems that fighting for the lowest rung on the ladder of victimization has become the American national sport.

It seems like I’m mentioning a lot of paradoxes about feminism. Let me mention something else that concerns me. The term “consciousness raising” sounds like something everybody should support—after all, what could be wrong with enhancing someone’s consciousness? But what does this term mean? To be somewhat blunt, “consciousness raising” means taking women who are often happy and well-adjusted members of society and making them hurt and miserable, not to mention alienated. Among feminists today, the more a woman identifies with the feminist movement, the more hurt and angry she is, the more she seems to be able to see past appearances and uncover a world that is unspeakable hostile to women. For that matter, historically the more feminism has developed and the more success feminism has had reforming society, the more women, or at least feminists, are sure the world is grinding an invisible, or if you prefer, highly visible, axe against women. Are there alternatives to this? What about feminists who say that going back isn’t an option? I’m not going to try to unravel whether there is an escape; I’m focusing on a different question, whether “consciousness raising” contributes to living in joy. If an animal’s leg is caught in a steel trap, the only game in town may be to gnaw off its own leg. The question of, “Is it necessary?” is one question, but I’m focusing on the question of, “Is it basically good?” For the animal, chewing off its own leg is not good, even if it’s the only game in town, and taking women who are happy and making them miserable is not good. You can argue that it is the only game in town, but if it’s a necessary evil, it is still an evil, and naming this process “consciousness raising” is a bit like taking a piece of unconstitutional legislation that rescinds our civil liberties and naming it the “USA Patriot Act.” It’s a really cool name hiding something that’s not so cool. The issue of whether there is anything better is one issue (I believe Orthodoxy is a better alternative), but there are two different issue going on here, and it is not clear that “consciousness raising” benefits women.

I’ve raised some unsettling points about feminism. And at this point I would like to suggest that Orthodoxy is what feminism is reaching for. What do I mean? There are a lot of points of contact between feminism’s indictment of what is wrong with patriarchy and Orthodoxy’s indictment of what is wrong in the West. (Both are also kook magnets, but we won’t go into that.) I mentioned one thing that feminism and Orthodoxy have in common; there are a great many more, and some of them are deep. But there are also differences. Orthodoxy doesn’t deliver women who are hurt and angry; Orthodoxy has a place for women to be women, and for women to enjoy life. Feminism tries to be pro-woman, but ends up giving its most vitriolic treatment to women who disagree with it: we do not have the sisterhood of all women, as feminism should be, but a limited sisterhood that only includes feminists. Orthodoxy has its own vitriol, but there is also a great tradition of not judging; even in our worship people are doing different things and nobody cares about what the next person is doing. We don’t believe salvation ends at our church doors, and in general we don’t tell God who can and cannot be saved. Feminism is a deep question, and Orthodoxy is a deep answer.

That is at least a simplistic picture; it’s complex, but I cannot help feeling I’ve done violence to my subject matter. It seems my treatment has combined the power and strength of a nimble housecat with the agility and grace of a mighty elephant. I would like to close with something related to what I said in the beginning, about knowing.

Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom talks about how women do not always feel the need to rush and get to the point, not because they are doing a bad job of getting that task out of the way (as necessary but unpleasant), but because to women things are interconnected, and the things a woman says before “the point” are things she sees as connected that add something to the point. This article has some of the qualities Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom finds in women, and I see things as interconnected. Beyond analysis, there is synthesis. If this article discusses many things that are connected to the point, that is not because I am trying to write like a woman would. It’s not something extra that I’ve decided to add; in fact it would be difficult for me to uproot this from how I communicate. And it’s not because I am trying to balance out my masculinity by being more feminine, or be androgynous, or because I’m trying to be woman-like out of a guilt factor. There are other reasons why, but I would suggest that it’s an example of Orthodox manhood at work. Not the only example, and certainly not the best, but my point is that there is an important sense in which Orthodoxy is what feminism is reaching for. But to immediately get to the point would give an impression that is strange and deceptive, and almost completely fail to convey what is meant by the claim. That is why I’ve been spending my time exploring a web of interconnections that help show what that claim means.

Orthodoxy is about helping us to be fully human, and that includes divinely inspired support for both men and women. It is other things as well, but part of why I became Orthodox was that I realized there were problems with being a man in Western Christianity. Orthodoxy is the most gender balanced Christian confession in terms of numbers, and I came to ask the rather abrasive question, “Does Orthodoxy draw more men than Evangelicalism because Orthodoxy understands sanctification as deification and Evangelicalism understands sanctification as a close personal relationship with another man?” I never got much of an answer to that question (besides “Yes”). And even though I’m looking for more in Orthodoxy than help being a man, one of the reasons I became Orthodox was that it is the best environment for being a man that I found. And I’m coming to realize that men are only half the picture in Orthodoxy.

Because everything is connected, if you hurt men, women get hurt, and if you hurt women, men get hurt… and if you think about what this means, it means that you cannot make an environment that is healthy for men but is destructive to women. Nor can you make an environment that is healthy for women but destructive to men. Orthodoxy’s being good for men is not something that is stolen from women. It is good for men because God instituted it as a gift to the whole human race, not only for men.

There are things that are deeply wrong with Western culture. Would you rather be working on an analysis of the problem, or learn to grow into its solution?

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