Biblical Housewives in the Modern World

Should women submit to their husband's will?
Should women submit to their husband's will?

There’s a movement afoot to bring back ‘biblical womanhood’, a rosy notion of divinely ordained gender roles in which women submit to the will of their husbands and live in service to god.

Of course there is. We’re all familiar with the conservative Christian movements that advocate keeping women in subservient roles. Drive through the Bible Belt and roadside billboards proclaim bible verses about a woman’s duty to her husband.

What interesting about the biblical housewives of 2010 is how very modern they are. In this week’s New York Times Magazine article, “Housewives of God,” we get a look at a group of chic, powerful, savvy women who are crusading for old-fashioned, anti-feminist values.

Priscilla Shirer, the central figure in the NYT piece, is doing it with the help of a husband who not only does 50% of the domestic chores and childcare, but has quit his own job to support his wife’s career.

Shirer is a preacher’s daughter, and a preacher herself. Except she’s not exactly a preacher: she leads motivational sessions and scripture workshops where she lectures women on the importance of accepting their “biblical” roles. She’s always very clear that she’s speaking with her husband’s permission, and under his authority. In certain settings, she avoids wearing pants so no one will think she’s straying from her appropriate role.

Seriously. Pants? I thought that one was settled a century ago. Are there really still people who imagine that what you wear to keep your legs warm has anything to do with gender? Or God’s plan? If God thought pants were so freaking awesome and manly, don’t you think he might have given them to all the men, not just the modern European ones?

Obviously, I am not a proponent of the “traditional” gender roles thing. For so many reasons. It’s a myth, for starters. Throughout history, most women have worked, earned and spent money, and made their own life decisions. They’ve just had to do it hobbled by cultural perceptions that the “right” way to be a woman is to be a pretty plaything angelically sitting in a corner doing needlepoint while your man provides for you and your peaceful children.

It was never the case that most women were housewives. Most women were poor, and still are. What has changed over the past few generations is the number of middle- and upper-class women who choose to work outside their homes, and the attendant expectation that men will take on more domestic work.

Ms. Shirer’s lifestyle is made possible by the advances of feminism.

More importantly, Ms. Shirer is fortunate to have an apparently loving, supportive, responsible husband. In a family like that, if you wish to make a private agreement about who holds the reins on directing your family life, go for it.

Gender equality protects women when things aren’t perfect. When your husband is abusive, or leaves you for a shiny new grad student, or gets hit by a bus and you find yourself needing to support your family on your own. Gender equality protects queer women, and single women and transwomen and anyone who isn’t in a happy heterosexual marriage.

I personally love having a diverse culture with many different types of families. Priscilla Shirer might think the world would be better if everyone had a happy marriage like hers. But given that they don’t, surely we all deserve to be happy with the hand we’ve been dealt, instead of being taught that submitting our will to one vision of right living is the only way to be.


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