Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Male Headship Isn’t as Bad as It’s Cracked Up to Be – Or as Good (Part Two)

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.


ancho and lefty said...

I am trying to be open-minded, but as an egalitarian I just can't help but find the acceptance and legitimization of male headship frightening. What can I say Beau--- it's easy for you to say male headship is not so bad--- you are a male, after all.

In response to your question in part 1.

Regarding decision-making in rural Costa Rica nuclear households- You find a lot of variation here. The traditional model in the country is not unlike our own historical agrarian model. Women tend the home, while men earn the daily bread and make most important financial decisions. But times are changing. Even if culturally people still say that the man has the final word in a big decision it is likely that he is going to at least discuss the decision with his wife. There are cooperative partnership marriages where decisions appear to be jointly made and there are coercive relationships where the woman "suffers in silence," as one informant once explained.

I would argue from my observations that you find much more cooperation among households where the woman is earning at least a little income as well (although this is usually through some type of domestic enterprise- hair cutting, seamstress, baking cakes, raising pigs for slaughter, etc).
The problem for women here is that there just is not much economic opportunity apart from picking coffee (which is seasonal and pays horribly) or cleaning house (which also pays horribly). A small community only needs so many hair cutters and cake bakers.

Sometimes husbands don’teven want their wives to participate in these activities, despite the fact that the household could use the extra money. Let's also keep in mind that marriage is another thing altogether here- when I talk to women about decision-making in the household, the word “machismo” always appears.

Machismo both promotes and legitimizes male authority (or shall we say headship) and promiscuity. An unfaithful husband is really not all that extraordinary. Machismo also dictates that a woman’s place is in the home. Men literally do not want their wives “out in the street” as they say here. In this way, the idea behind marriage is culturally quite different. When I think about marriage I believe that it is an institution that has the capacity to bring out the best in two people. If I ran this idea by some of my neighbors here they might think me a bit daft.

Maybe Costa Rica needs a Rosie the Riveter. But things are changing, as I said. Currently the married women in this community all lack high school degrees. Their daughters, however, are finishing high school and some are continuing on into university. Some daughters already earn more than their parents, and they have not even completed university yet. We’ll just have to wait and see the outcome- If the economy of Costa Rica can employ these young professionals or if Costa Rica will be an over-educated, underemployed catastrophe. The government already works very diligently to promote the well-educated workforce (read: outsourcing opportunities for multinationals).

Maybe Costa Rica is headed for the title of the India of Central America, whereas, it used to hold the title of The Switzerland of Central America. Only time will tell.

Gruntled said...

Adultery is definitely not part of Christian male headship. I have read that one of the reasons that evangelical Protestantism is booming in Latin America is that it is the most effective tool that wives have to get their husbands to stop drinking and cheating on them.

Do you see that where you are?

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind also that the term "machismo" carries with it a historical connotation (as seen above) as well as an evolved connotation - it is starting to change meanings and disappear in its traditional sense. Slowly, but it's happening.

Gruntled said...

I think Promise Keepers, and movements like it, are an attempt to reform machismo/patriarchalism in the direction of Christian "servant leadership." This would make husbands and fathers responsible servants to their wives and children, and not oppressors of them, or worse. I see this both in the US and in the traditional lands of machismo.

Chuck said...

W. Bradford Wilcox, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia has written a book entitled "Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands." Wilcox compared data from three groups of married fathers: evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, who generally hold to more egalitarian views, and men with no religious affiliation.

In an interview with Wilcox, reported in the October 2005 edition of "Arts and Sciences," a publication of the University of Virginia, Heather Ferngen Morton reports the following: "His findings reveal that although religious practice in general 'domesticates' men, making them more attentive to the ideals and aspirations of their families, this is particularly true among evangelical Protestant men. Evangelical men who attend church tend to be stricter disciplinarians and to share less of the household labor than either unaffiliate or mainline men, but they devote more time to the emotional lives of their wives and children. This defies conventional wisdom in the field of family studies."

Quoting Wilcox, "My findings surprise many of my colleagues and many journalists, who assume that evangelical Protestants are reactionary patriarchs intent on dominating their wives and children. he goes on to add that churchgoing evangelic men have the lowest rates of domestic violence of any major religious or secular group in the United States.

"According to Wilcox, movements like the Promise Keepers and radio programs like pyschologist James Dodson's 'Focus on the Family' emphasize parental involvement and affection. They have also taught that the controversial New Testament of "Male Headship" actually means "male servant-leadership," emphasizing that, far from ruling with an iron fist, men should lead their families primarily by serving and caring for them."

As a mainline Christian, more in tune with egalitarian thinking, and an attorney practicing in Family Court, it has also been my experience that most (not all) devoted evangelic fathers model the servant/leadership role, rather than "ruling with an iron fist," and are typically more concerned about the emotional and moral upbringing of the children in divorce cases, in which the wife does not share, or no longer shares the husband's evangelical views, or opts for a different life-style. After years of experience, however, I have found that in such parenting cases, you serve your client best by emphasing the nurturing, parenting skills of the client, rather than playing the "faith card."

Gruntled said...

Yes, I think "servant leadership" is the richest and least understood aspect of Christian male headship. It really does subvert the whole notion of domination in any sphere, not just in the family.

WI Catholic said...

I have to say that thirty five or more years ago, I noticed the first part of Ephesians 5 was often missed, while the part about wives being submissive was loudly proclaimed. No wife would have any problem being 'submissive' to a husband who followed the instructions for men to love their wives as Christ loved His Church. He died for Her, and He also told His Disciples that leadership meant being servant.

I think Promise Keepers, and groups like it have the right idea. God bless them.

Jesus was never a dictator, telling us to jump and expecting us to immediately ask 'how high?' Nor has He ever wielded a fist on anyone in order to get them to follow Him.

Gruntled said...

Amen. If men took servant leadership seriously, they might want mere equality as an easier route.