Yesterday I talked about Maggie Gallagher’s subtle argument in Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? a position I agree with almost completely. There is one part of Gallagher’s argument, though, that I think is contestable. She imagines a “male headship” husband saying, “I make all the big decisions and she makes the little ones. Funny how in forty-five years, no big decisions have come up yet.”
Someday I want to do the big study of how husbands and wives really make decisions. I have, though, some evidence and some little studies already. What they suggest to me is that in most marriages, regardless of ideology, the couple has a good working agreement on nearly all decisions, but in the normal course of things, he really does make the big decisions and she makes all the little ones. As my mother reminded me, my father used to say, “I am not involved in any decision that costs less than $10,000.”
A study by my students Lolita Short and Buffy Huffman (Dennis) compared two conservative Protestant congregations, one black and one white. In both Bible-believing churches, men and women thought male headship was commanded by Scripture and matched their personal experience. When we got down to the details of how decisions were made in their marriages, though, both husbands and wives agreed that she decided nearly all aspects of daily life. “Headship” only came up in the big decisions.
Other evidence, though, suggests that even on big matters, such when to have children, where to live, or whether to change jobs, if the wife disagreed with the husband’s inclination, she was usually effective in delaying and modifying the decision to something more to her liking. Christel Manning’s fascinating study, God Gave us the Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with Feminism, described the kind of negotiations that even very conservative Protestant women made with their husband’s theoretical headship. She cites one evangelical wife as saying that she always followed her husband’s decisions, but when they disagreed, that meant that they had not prayed enough to discern God’s will.
Male headship is a more subtle matter than it first appears to be -- both less scary to egalitarians and less authoritative for hierarchical views of marriage.