Mistresses of Patriarchy

I grew up in the 70s when the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment raged. My mom, ever obedient and faithful, was encouraged by the Church to support the anti-ERA movement, headed by conservative activists like Phyllis Schlafly who founded the “STOP ERA” campaign (STOP was an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”—chew on that for a minute!). While I wasn’t exactly sure why I was supposed to hate Bella Abzug and Sonia Johnson, I knew they were dangerous, like running with scissors or swimming after eating.

When I got to BYU in the mid 80s and began my feminist awakening, I started to better understand how patriarchal structures are designed to control who has power, and how, what I’ve come to call “Mistresses of Patriarchy,” are created by such toxic systems, granting status to the few at the expense of the many.

First let’s talk about power. Brene’ Brown observes that there are different ways of viewing power, that some “work from a position of power over” while others “work from a position of power with/to/within.” The former group hoards power and views it as a finite quantity; the latter believe that power expands when shared.

Imagine then, what happens in a patriarchal structure, where power is finite and held almost exclusively by men. If there are positions open to women, those chosen will be the ones who not only share the same “power over” view and who will uphold the status quo, but  will defend the structure and guard the power more aggressively than most men, because they live in fear of being rejected and continually have to reassure the patriarchy of their compliance.

I call them “Mistress” because of that word’s meanings. A mistress is a woman in a position of authority or control–but usually one given that authority by a man. She is also the illicit companion of a man, betraying another woman in the process. Think Margaret Thatcher. Dolores Umbridge. Phyllis Schlafley. Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl.” Betsy DeVos.

We all know these women and as Mormons, most of us have seen them up close and personal. The Relief Society president who insists on running every decision by the bishop for “priesthood approval.” The temple worker who scrutinizes each woman’s clothing, looking for a ribbon out of place so she can set her straight. The girls camp director who takes pleasure in enforcing rules and may even make them more rigid than specified.

It’s heartbreaking really. When power is exclusive and held only by a few, it is easy to adopt the pie analogy and think that if a slice of power is given to one, then power must necessarily be taken from another. This misconception encourages people to see anyone who’s not them as a threat: men vs, women; whites vs. BIPOC; cis hets vs. queer, and on and on. And makes out-group “token” people who are allowed access to power more likely to support an institution that actually oppresses them. Hence, the Mistress of Patriarchy.

The best way to shift our thinking from power over to power with is to look to at the life of Jesus, whose name this church bears. His first miracle was to turn water into wine, something requested by his mother on behalf of guests. It didn’t elevate him or exclude others. There was no sense that by using power to refill wedding drinks it would somehow reduce the power needed to raise the dead. And when he chose his friends and associates, it was not based on who would advantage him. In fact, his close connection with women was frequently a point of contention, even with his disciples. The Savior’s example is that we should not maintain a superior position over others. In washing the disciples feet he was both humbled and exalted. Even his perception of food was not finite, as he multiplied the loaves and the fishes, providing abundance. None of these acts diminished Jesus, but magnified his capacity and influence. His power empowered others, or as the Bible might say, power begat power.

I believe that if we embrace this idea of abundance can we transform our institutions. We must make space for others and stop using toxic patriarchy as an excuse to perpetuate cultural prejudices and “vain ambitions.” Maybe then we will no longer have to deputize women under a system of false power and self-hatred.

My dream is to one day tune into General Conference and see a true reflection of who we are as a people, in all our glory and variety: male and female, queer and straight, black and white, and all the beautiful inbetweens.

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9 Responses

  1. Katie Rich says:

    Yes! I’ve also been thinking about Brené Brown’s definitions of power and how they manifest in the Church. I appreciate your analysis on how abundance in Christ can transform the structures of power that seek to limit and control.

  2. spunky says:

    Beautiful, Heather. Thank you.

  3. With so few positions of (relative) power open to women in the LDS church, and all of those only given to women who are selected by men, it is no wonder this dynamic plays out. Great post.

  4. Chiaroscuro says:

    Love this. Rings true for me

  5. Klee says:

    Brilliant!

  6. EmilyCC says:

    I am often stymied by the behavior of mistresses of patriarchy. I love how you defined them. I wonder what is the best way to work with them (or ahem, neutralize their work) when they are in one’s ward or stake. I feel like people say, “Emily! Don’t you love X and her work to bring women into the picture?” And, I don’t know how to respond or work with a mistress.

    • Heather says:

      I have no clue how to neutral them. And many people can’t tell the difference between a powerful woman and an empowering one which can leave one feeling gaslit. Hem hem.

  7. Joni says:

    One of the ways that we are enticed to stop complaining about celestial polygamy is by being promised that as the first wife, we will be the boss of all the other wives. As if that somehow makes it better…

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