Yes, you read that right.
I’m a feminist because I love patriarchy.
Did you hear that loud groaning sound? That was the sound of every self-respecting feminist turning over in her grave. And that brief pop? That was the law of non-contradiction exploding. Oops!
But before you write me off as a crazy person, hear me out.
One of the fundamental tenets of feminism is that patriarchy is bad. Like, really bad.
Patriarchy, loosely defined, is the social structure that enables men to exercise dominance over women. The word itself means “rule of the father” but patriarchy itself encompasses all levels of society, from the relationship between husband and wife to culture, religion and the state.
On the one hand, when feminists bag out patriarchy, they are usually condemning the same things I condemn: the abuse, oppression, and condescending infantilisation of women. On the other hand, I am a Christian and a traditional one at that, and we Christians have a lot of patriarchy.
Christians believe in one God, the Father Almighty and maker of all things, including human beings beginning with the man Adam. Although man sinned and fell, God established covenants with the patriarch Noah, the patriarch Abraham and the people of Israel; he gave Israel male kings, male priests and male prophets who were His representatives.
We believe in one Lord, the only-begotten Son of God who became a male. He is the Second Adam (Rom 5) who came to reveal the Kingdom of God (Mk 1) and God as Father (John 17) and to redeem us by His death and resurrection. We believe in one Holy Spirit, the “spirit of sonship” (Rom 8:15), who makes us adoptive sons of God in Christ and by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:5-6)
And in the Church, a divine hierarchical institution built on the foundation of the twelve male apostles, we have priests we call Father, bishops who are typos tou Patros (image of the Father), actual, honest-to-God patriarchs (i.e. of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem), and even a Holy Father to top it all off.
And that’s barely scratching the surface.
So what gives? How could I possibly be cool with both feminism and patriarchy?
We can distinguish between the intrinsic character of something and its abuse, even when abuse is always present to a greater or less extent. It was C. S. Lewis who first clarified this for me.
Lewis says that he is a democrat; he believes in political equality. But he does so not because people “are so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice” but because people are “so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.” He believed in democracy because he believed in the Fall and in the reality of Original Sin.
He goes on,
I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen…patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that ‘all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. The authority of father and husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin), but because fathers and husbands are bad. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. Even the authority of man over beast has had to be interfered with because it is constantly abused.
I agree with Lewis.
I’m a feminist – but not because I think undifferentiated equality is actually good and right. I actually love patriarchy. I believe in the authority, as Lewis says, of parent over child, husband over wife, lord over subject, learned over wise, man over animals, and God over all.
But this authority exists not so the one above can use it to his (or her) own ends. It exists so that the one above can love and serve the one under. Authority, in the Christian understanding, exists for service. We see this most clearly in the perfect human being, Christ who,
“though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Php 2:6-8)
He is King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and yet He “came not to be served but to serve.” (Mk 10:45) This is the model for true God-given authority. It is the model for parents who give everything for their children. It is the model for governing authorities who are “God’s servant[s] for your good” (Rom 13:4). And it is the model for husbands and wives. As I’ve written elsewhere, “our hierarchy… is a hierarchy of agape, of sacrificial, servant-hearted love.”
If you’re thinking this sounds all very idealistic, you’re right.
And that’s where feminism comes in. Feminism challenges the abuses of men’s authority, whether in marriage or the parliament. It demands legal, social, and cultural rights for women because these rights should have been guaranteed anyway. Feminism is a stop-gap because those who should have been the strongest protectors of the dignity and well-being of women failed. On both an individual and societal level, men abused the sacred authority entrusted to them by Almighty God.
To be clear, I’m not blaming all men for this, or even most. In some cases, men were and are personally culpable. But much of the time, the universal human inclination to sin distorted patriarchy. It’s just that men had more authority to start with and so they had more to abuse.
Thus, in some sense, I am a feminist because sin exists.
But paradoxically, I also believe feminism can heal and restore authentic patriarchy. Feminism reminds us all of the inherent dignity, worth and equality of women and men and that is essential for patriarchy to work as it should. After all,
“The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”
As a feminist, I can be secure enough in my own worth that I can submit to my (future, currently hypothetically) husband, not because I have to but because I want to. As a society that has embraced feminism, we can preach the authority of husbands and be more confident that this authority will be exercised for the good of wives because it will be understood in that context. (Wait, think being under authority is inherently degrading?)
As a result of feminism, we will also have far more legal protections present to deal with abuses of patriarchy. And that’s only good news for patriarchy. I almost think of feminism as a necessary pruning of patriarchy – a much-needed detox or righting.
Of course, it will never get there completely – or even mostly – while human beings are sinful.
But one day, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb will come.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the lion with the calf, and “a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6) Mercy and truth will meet, and justice and peace will kiss. (Ps 85:10)
And you never know, maybe even feminism and patriarchy will too.