On the Sexist Nature of Benevolent Patriarchy

Posted by on August 21, 2011 in fatherhood, Gender roles, marriage, Relationships, women | 225 comments

Last Friday Modern Mormon Men featured two alternative viewpoints on patriarchy: “modern patriarchy” and “reluctant patriarchy.” I was wary of reading the piece on “modern patriarchy” based on a couple of quotes I’d already seen from it, but I read it anyway.  Because I like Modern Mormon Men.  Because I have been saying for a very long time that gender equity will not be a reality in a meaningful way until we seriously examine the gender roles we impose on men, as well as those we impose on women.  And I respect that the MMM bloggers are engaging in that project—the project of asking what it means to be a Modern, Mormon, Man.

Well I read that post, and I tried to do so with an open mind.  And I hit this gem on the nature of “righteous dominion”:

It is children heeding, submitting to, and honoring the counsel of their parents as their parents act within righteous patriarchy. It is wives hearkening to, submitting to, and honoring the counsel of their husbands as their husbands act within righteous patriarchy. And, it is husbands leading, persuading, and gently guiding their wives and children as they follow, honor and submit to the counsel of God.

I felt physically ill.  I kept reading.  And I found an even bigger doozy:

There must be order in all things and there must be one person to be the head of the family. God has chosen men and, for better or for worse, it is this order that we can utilize to edify our families or to crush ourselves against. I know that it is when there is a break in this chain of honor and counsel — the chain that leads from children to wives to husbands and to God — that there is tension, trauma and tragedy in the home.

And the feeling ill turned into feeling violated—emotionally and spiritually, but in such an intense fashion that it manifest in physical reaction.  As if I had been kicked in the chest and could not breathe.

These are not new ideas to me.  I’ve been hearing about men presiding and benevolent (i.e., chicken) patriarchy for my whole life.  And I’m usually one of the women who, disgusted by what they hear, engages with it in an intellectual fashion.  I don’t usually respond in this kind of viscerally physical fashion to ideas that I know are false—coercive power wearing a pretty mask.  I point this out not because I think my typical response is better or more appropriate; I point it out to illustrate how unexpected and searing the soul-deep sorrow, and its accompanying physical distress, I felt was.

But now I’ve had the time to think about it a bit.  I’m no longer reacting in a purely physical and emotional fashion.  And I find myself disgusted by the piece’s lack of integrity and honest self-awareness.  So a response.

First, let me acknowledge the good I see here.  I appreciate that Saint Mark apparently witnessed men abusing their power as “patriarchs” during his childhood and sincerely strives not to commit those same sins.  I appreciate that he is attempting to emphasize love and concern, not power.  I appreciate that he feels enough disgust at the denotation of the word “patriarch” that, were he not able to perform the mental gymnastics the church requires concerning the idea of patriarchy, he would summarily reject the concept.

But.  (And a big but at that.)

No matter how well-intentioned, no matter how thoughtful and concerned with righteousness and love Saint Mark and his exposition of “patriarchy” are, the fact remains that the piece fails to engage adequately with the unavoidable underpinning of patriarchy: power and subjection. And in so doing, it robs itself of honest self-awareness.  In spite of his best efforts to establish parity between husband and wife while maintaining the patriarchal order in which men are always above women in the chain of command, Saint Mark’s own prose betrays the extent to which patriarchy is necessarily about power and subjection, the extent to which it requires inequality between husband and wife. For example, take a look at the beauty of this parallelism:

is children                                                             It is wives

heeding,                                                                 hearkening to,

submitting to,                                                       submitting to,

and honoring the counsel                                   and honoring the counsel

of their parents                                                    of their husbands

as their parents                                                    as their husbands

act within righteous patriarchy.                        act within righteous patriarchy.

The former Freshman composition instructor in me would have squealed with glee to get a student paper with such a gorgeous parallelism.  Too bad for Saint Mark that this elegant parallelism makes a point quite contrary to his larger argument (and does so with crystal clarity): women are to men as children are to their parents (or, fortunately for an unmarried woman like me, wives are to husbands; maybe I should stay unmarried or, at the very least, plan on marrying a non-Mormon man).  In other words, patriarchy makes women and men inherently and always unequal.  And then Saint Mark follows it up with another perfectly gorgeous rhetorical move that begins with antithesis establishing the difference between children’s/wives’ role and husbands’:

It is wives                                                             And it is husbands

hearkening to,                                                      leading,

submitting to,                                                      persuading,

and honoring the counsel                                  and gently guiding

of their husbands                                                their wives and children

as their husbands                                                as they

act within righteous patriarchy.                       follow, honor, and submit to

.                                                                              the counsel of God

And that last phrase about husbands presents another parallelism (although slightly less perfectly rendered), this time between wives’ (and children’s) role and husband’s role:

It is wives                                                              as they [husbands]

hearkening to,                                                      follow,

submitting to,                                                       honor,

and honoring the counsel                                   and submit to the counsel

of their husbands…                                              of God.

The point is clear: women are to men as men are to God.  As illustrated by these beautifully executed parallel structures, men exist between women and God.  Women relate to men in the same fashion in which men relate to God.  Women (at least married women) do not ever relate directly to God.  This is, according to Saint Mark, God’s ordained order.  No matter how nice his “modern patriarchy” allegedly is (and I’d argue that its very niceness makes it all the more sinister and pernicious), in it women are and always will be subjugated to men, men do and always will possess the only direct chain of communication to God and therefore are and always will be the only ones with any real power to act.  In other words, perhaps Saint Mark’s “modern patriarchy” superficially distances itself from the overt abuses of “ancient patriarchy,” but at their heart they are the same thing: a system in which men rule by divine fiat. And given the ambiguous nature of inspiration, that essentially boils down to men having unquestionable power—after all people claim to have been inspired to do terrible things all the time.  So long as any form of patriarchy, whether modern or ancient, is the model for relationships between men and women, the power structure is one in which men can and do and always will subjugate women.  Modernity and niceness cannot rob patriarchy of its definitional inequality.

I don’t doubt Saint Mark would be a bit horrified that this is the conclusion I’ve reached based on his argumentation.  According to his piece, the notion that “patriarchy” means “the supremacy of the father . . . , the legal dependence of wives and children, . . . broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power” is so repugnant that he would summarily reject it if it were not for the softening effect of church rhetoric about fathers presiding and patriarchy.  He implies that good Mormons, like him, should be horrified by the notion that “patriarchy” means “men rule” and that therefore Mormon patriarchy is benevolent and good, not a form of power and male domination.  Sound familiar?

It did to me.  Just a few short months ago, Michael Otterson made an almost identical rhetorical move to start off his exposition of “what Mormon equality looks like.” So, as I did with Otterson, I’d like to take on Saint Mark’s assertions, one at a time.

Claim the first: Feminists “reverse-subjugate masculinity and patriarchy in the name of retribution for the past centuries of women being subjugated.”  Patriarchy is not “misogynistic” (thus saith the square quotes).  This leaves men not knowing how to be (because they can’t be a patriarch, i.e., masculine).

This is an old argument.  That feminists want to subjugate men, control them, dominate them, deprive them of all that they hold dear in order to get compensation for all we’ve suffered.  We demand men make a type of blood atonement to pay for their forefathers’ sins against us.  This argument fails to recognize that the feminist project is not one of inversion to gain retribution and control, but of leveling.  Do men appear to lose in this project?  Sure.  Because in that leveling project two things happen: 1. women are brought up out of the pit of non-existence, in which they not only have few opportunities but are literally the property of father or husband; and 2. men are brought down from the structures of improper power that perpetuated traditional gender roles by prescriptive dictate and kept men in charge.  Both moves not only appear to but actually do remove power from men as a group.

My question is, why is that a bad thing?  Men have lost forms of power and prestige that were premised upon the false conception of women as deformed aberrations of the real human form: male. Under that premise, women are inherently less—less intelligent, less capable, less rational, less deserving of autonomy, less trustworthy, less human.  Men physically and materially controlling women’s existence supported that lost power: physically by laying claim to her body at will (spousal rape was impossible, women passed as a possession from father to husband); and materially by controlling the resources necessary to life (with few exceptions, women couldn’t own land or wealth, men controlled their wives’ incomes, most professional avenues were closed to women and lost prestige and earning potential once they opened to women).

So why is it that stripping this kind of abusive power from men constitutes “reverse-subjugating” them?  It doesn’t. What it does do is acknowledge that women are men’s equals, equals deserving of the same opportunities and rights to the material necessities of life, to autonomous control over their own bodies and lives, and to self-realization.  This acknowledgement liberates both women and men by establishing that no one should be denied the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness based upon their sex.  Rather than navel gazing about how they no longer know how to be “masculine” or “patriarchs,” I’d suggest that men get down to the business of living good lives and stop thinking about fitting a prescription.  Just as I suggest the same thing for women.  Make those rights–life, liberty, happiness–realities.

Claim the second: “Modern patriarchy” (aka righteous Mormon patriarchy) means to protect, provide for, and preside over one’s wife and children, but does not constitute inequality between husbands and wives.

Saint Mark clarifies that he’s got the “protect” and “provide” down pat with relative ease, since it means “lock the doors” and “earn some money.”  The word that throws a wrench in the works for him is “preside,” which keeps him up at night writing blog posts.  He never actually resolves the problem of that word.  Instead he just reproduces the church’s chicken patriarchal doublespeak in which men simultaneously occupy a position of power above women (preside) while sharing power with them (equality).  This argument has been rebutted at length elsewhere and I’ll say little about it other than that one cannot negate the denotation of a word by simply saying it’s other than it is. If one class of people always presides and the other class never has the opportunity to do so, there is an inherent and undeniable inequality in that system.

What I’d like to tease out is the ideas of “providing” and “protecting,” which Saint Mark does not examine.  Men providing means more than just relegating women to the private sphere and foreclosing educational and professional opportunities for them.  It perpetuates the historical sexist power structure in which men control the material necessities of life and their family’s physical being, and, by so doing, subjugate women.  Consider, for instance, the case of a 26-year-old mother of 6.5 children (encountered over at Mormon Missionary Position) trapped in her marriage because of her faith in the church’s prescription for gender roles (which led to a very young marriage and utter dependence upon her husband as provider).  Her husband controls her access to the material necessities of life to such an extent that were she to leave him, it’s entirely possible she would struggle to provide for herself and lose her children.  Consider the situation of a mid-30s mother of four (a friend of mine) with no work experience, a life-threatening health condition, and a troubled marriage.  Her husband controls both access to daily necessities and access to life-saving medical care. These men may be great guys.  They may practice the kind of benevolent “modern patriarchy” Saint Mark endorses.  Certainly his version of patriarchy does not allow for “unrighteous dominion,” for men willfully controlling their wives and children as an end in and of itself.  But none of that negates the fact that these women, and so many others in similar situations, are completely in the control of their husbands by virtue of the fact that they took seriously the church’s dictate that men provide/protect, and women nurture. If a man feels inspired to dictate behavior and access to resources in order to provide for or protect their wives and children, there is no check on their power because the system is set up to deny women any real power.

The only way to get away from men possessing all of the power in marriage relationships, to truly foster the kind of equal partnership the church allegedly endorses, is to jettison all discussion of patriarchy and of roles universally delineated along the lines of sex.  We cannot prescribe as universally applicable men’s role as provider/protector and women’s role as nurturer if we genuinely want to foster equality between men and women inside of marriage; when we do, we lead to a situation in which men preside by default because they ultimately control the resources.  It might certainly be the case that some couples decide that the male/provide while female/nurture breakdown is what works best for them and I have no problem with that.  But as soon as we turn this into a universal ideal, we create a power imbalance where men by definition control and women by definition accommodate their men.  In such a power structure, men rule.  The philosophical underpinnings of such a power structure matter, no matter how nice the realization of it may be in some particular circumstances.

Claim the third: But “patriarch” really just means “father.”

Then lets stop using the word “patriarch” and start using the word “father.”  I absolutely agree that fathers can be wonderful.  I adore my own father.  He’s smart and funny as hell and loving and kind.  He taught me through example that there is no such thing as “women’s work” that men don’t do.  When I expressed the desire to do the kinds of activities he took my brothers on, he took me, too.  He has always told me not to change who I am—my intelligent, outspoken, opinionated passion for conversation and my refusal to conform to stereotypical femininity—in order to catch a man.  I adore my father.  I celebrate him as someone who has made sacrifices for his family and loved them and cared for them.  He is not without his problems, but he is wonderful.  I just don’t see why I need to use the word “patriarch” to describe who and what he is.  Father does quite nicely, thank you very much.  And if what we really mean by “patriarch” has nothing to do with men ruling and taking precedence over women and children, then we should shun using a word which not only has that denotation but also an undeniable and very, very strong connotation of inequality between the sexes.

Claim the fourth: Priesthood, man, and patriarch are interchangeable; therefore all scriptural admonitions about how to exercise priesthood power can be used to redefine “patriarchy.”

No.  Actually, they’re not.  These are three very different things.  The fact that all current priesthood holders are men does not mean that priesthood = men; the category “man” is much larger than the category “priesthood holder” (not to mention the fact that priesthood is a power or office, not a person or group of people).  And, of course, there are biblical passages and modern precedents and practices that support the idea that women will hold the priesthood.  The priesthood is an office, the power to act in the name of God; it is not a group of people of the right sex, no matter how much we use the word in that way.

Nor does “priesthood” mean “patriarchy.”  There are two overlaps between these two terms: man and authority.  I’ve already addressed the overlap of “man” (not all men hold the priesthood, nor do all patriarchs; the simple fact that both patriarchs and priesthood holders are men does not mean that they are therefore identical categories anymore than the fact that all ripe strawberries and all stop signs are red means they are identical categories).  So let’s address the overlap of “authority.” Priesthood is the authority to act in God’s name only when called to serve others in certain capacities.  As such, not every priesthood holder will occupy a position in which they use priesthood as a mechanism for exercising authority over others.  In some circumstances in which a man exercises his priesthood, he actually exercises authority over others (think bishop or stake president); in others, his exercise of authority is not about exercising authority over others at all but instead about serving them (think blessing to heal the sick).  In other words, the exercise of the priesthood does not necessarily mean the priesthood holder in question is acting with authority over other people.  And patriarchy is, by definition, about exercising authority over other people.  Its etymology specifically contains the idea of “ruling.”  The conflation of priesthood and patriarchy in order to adopt the guidelines for appropriate exercise of priesthood as a redefinition of patriarchy simply does not work because priesthood and patriarchy are two different things.

Claim the fifth: women relate to men as children relate to parents; men relate to women as God relates to men; this is so because it’s impossible for a family unit to work without one person being in charge and God has said that person will be the man.

No.  Just no.  I am not a child.  I do not need a man to mediate my relationship with God.  I do not need a man to be a final arbiter of what is right for me or us to do.  No matter how kind and thoughtful and considerate that man is.  What I need is a partner.  I do not need that partner to use his penis as a trump card.  As soon as he does, there is automatic imbalance and I become a second-class citizen.  True, my benevolent, kind, considerate ruler may take my view under advisement, but his word is the final word.  He has the power.  I do not.  And that is not right.  Discrimination is wrong, no matter how nicely it is dressed up in scripture and rationalization.

Claim the sixth: Men exercising modern/righteous patriarchy (the terms have become interchangeable at this point; funny thing, though–I’m sure ancient patriarchs would have considered their version of patriarchy as “righteous,” too) makes family life strong and healthy and good.

In response, let me re-phrase Saint Mark’s conclusion: When it comes down to it, I believe the best way to foster the health of a marriage and family is to be a spiritual source of love, service and compassion to family members. I know that as we strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ and hearken to His teachings—teachings that require both men and women to love unconditionally, but which say nothing about men “presiding”—we’ll be great partners to our spouses and parents to our children.  No need to muddy the waters with talk of patriarchy and presiding.

In the face of the Inquisition and the requirement to recant on his scientific conclusions, Galileo said:

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.

I have to go with Galileo on this one.  My sense, my reason, my intellect tell me that patriarchy is unqualifiedly wrong; they tell me that equality is right; they tell me that the appropriate and Godly relationship between husband and wife is one of partnership and consensus.  I will hold to that no matter what scripture gets trotted out and twisted to tell me I’m wrong.  And should I die and discover that God actually does want men to preside and to exercise any form of patriarchy, I’ll very happily tell God to go to hell and deal with the consequences.  Because frankly any imaginable alternative eternity is better than an eternity defined by inequality and sexism.

Also, I have never been more glad I am not married or more sure that I do not want to marry a Mormon man unless he is as unconventional in his belief as I.


  1. After Eve and then Adam partook of the fruit and discovered they were naked, God came to visit with them and they hid from Him. The all knowing God already knew what had occurred and that Eve had been the first to partake, yet He first directs His comments to Adam. Why didn’t He go directly to Eve? Additionally we tend to refer to the fall as “Adam’s transgressions”. It seems that he is being held responsible for both their actions. I have heard men defend patriarchy by stating that they are going to be held ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their family so they should be the one to preside. I am not trying to defend that position or make any particular point, just sort of thinking out loud.

    • This discussion, which was not originally about Adam and Eve, but has drifted that way, has led me to think about them as well. I am wondering, why would we base modern male-female relations on a one-time incident (or fable, depending on how literally you interpret the Old Testament) that occurred at least thousands of years ago between two people that none of us have ever met? Attempting to do so doesn’t seem to work very well….

  2. Okay, interesting article in Deseret Newspaper, about how a School Board Administrator, and a local Bishop failed to report a sexual assault. I dare say that is one good example of Priesthood ad Privilege as well as Benevolent Patriarchy at work

    • or could it just be incompetence?

  3. Is there an Amelia fan club I can join?

  4. Yeah, I second Sar’s inquiry. : )

  5. Some things in life are like a family picture; everyone is there at the same time. Other things are like walking through a doorway where one person goes through at a time, and someone goes 1st. I think it would help to look at “presiding” as we have seen it modeled in the Church. You know…… Bishoprics and RS presidencies and the 1st Presidency etc. They take turns presiding and, as near as I can tell, they seem to feel that it is an assignment or responsibility rather than some sort of “Golden Snitch”. As for how presiding applies to Patriarchy in the home, it’s really the same as with the Church. Although there is an order to the list, (God said, “husbands 1st”) it isn’t denigrating to the others down the line. Wives, Grandparents, babysitters, even older children may step into that role in a predetermined order. (Ideally, there would be no significant difference in how the household functioned) Whoever presides should do it lovingly and righteously. Designating the husband 1st does not imply an inferiority of women any more than it does to specify the Grandparents after the wife. It’s probably comparable to designating that: when you both arrived at a 4-way stop at the same time, the car to your right may go first. It’s a point of order/organization. Actually, since presiding is a responsibility requiring accountability, it would seem more of a liability, than a desirability.

    • You are going to have to explain what you mean by “they take turns presiding”, because I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that. Unless by preside you mean conduct meetings, which is not the same thing. I have been instructed quite the opposite actually. The bishop always presides over the ward (even if he has assigned one of his counselors to conduct sacrament meeting) unless the stake president, the area authority, a general authority, apostle, or the prophet is present. And if several of those are there, the one furthest along in the list presides. If the bishop isn’t there (or any others in that list) then his first counselor presides. If not him then the second counselor. If not him then the EQ president or high priest group leader (not sure of the order). But ultimately if you run out of priesthood holders then you cannot have a sacrament meeting (even without the sacrament) because there is no one to preside.

      The only way I could conceive of the RS president presiding was in RS class proper. So I went to the online church handbook to see if I could find out if that actually happens. The only place where specifically I found that the RS president presides is during during RS presidency meetings. But even assuming that the RS president presides at RS, and it just wasn’t explicitly stated (and only when a priesthood holder isn’t present), I have a hard time conceiving of that as taking turns.

      Consider if you had a young boy and girl. You let the boy play with toy robots and the girl with toy ponies. Then you make is so that the girl has to let the boy have a turn playing with the ponies. But you never make the boy let the girl have a turn with the robots (in fact it is implicitly forbidden). I guess you could say, “Hey taking turns is happening with the ponies.” But that hardly seems like a fair or good teaching experience to me.

      As far as the door analogy, I really get the point of order argument/position. If it were more flushed out it might go somewhere. But why designate an absolute order to always follow (especially such a narrow one)? I mean obviously in circumstances where the doorway is too narrow for more than one to go through at the same time, a hierarchal order is necessary. But why is the husband to ALWAYS go first? Isn’t it considered chivalrous to hold the door for the women (not because he is willingly abdicating power she does not have, but he is recognizing their inherit equality and deferring to her out of respect of that)?

      Plus I know the four-way stop thing is in the books, but that has not been my experience either. Typically it is whoever gets there first, leaves first. And on the rare occasion that a couple get there at the EXACT same moment, one usually either politely defers or takes the initiative. Doing it this way has never impaired my travel.

      • I wish there was a “like” button for this response! I really enjoyed the examples you used. And you’re completely correct about the 4 way stop thing.

    • “Actually, since presiding is a responsibility requiring accountability, it would seem more of a liability, than a desirability.”

      This is another instance of that whole “women just aren’t as strong as men, let’s not set them up to fail like that” mentality. Choosing to be baptized or receive the endowment is a choice to accept additional responsibility. Which, by your logic, means a liability and something undesirable. So should we avoid those things, too?

      Our mortal experience is designed to teach us to accept responsibility, we continually learn so that we can do so. Stating that a desire to avoid responsibility should make us happy to be free of the priesthood sets up some pretty dangerous parallels/precedents.

  6. Maureen you are right. I did mix up conduct and preside

  7. This post is wonderful. Thank you for writing it.

    I am currently feeling swells of gratitude to God for my unconventional, feminist, mormon husband. Because like you, I’d forgo marriage if the alternative looked anything like the “partnership” described by this “righteous” patriarchy.

  8. The whole idea of benevolent patriarchy makes me think of 2 Nephi 28: 20-21:

    “And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well – and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.”

    Isn’t benevolent patriarchy nothing more than evil under the guise of good? (Inequality with sugar on top.) Isn’t that exactly what the church teaches us to watch out for?

  9. Huge thanks for this fabulous post. So logical and well-written. I’m reading it too late to reply in the comments but at least wanted to say this much.

  10. So, I know I’m really late to the conversation but this post is INCREDIBLE! Thank you. My husband and I read this together and both agreed with every bit of it. I am grateful my husband doesn’t subscribe to the proscription of patriarchy. I am so grateful “preside” is a dirty word in our home.


  1. Invitational Versus Traditional Rhetoric | - [...] concluding paragraph? How does this paragraph relate to Exponent’s recent debate about “On the Sexist Nature of Benevolent Patriarchy” …

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *