When I was still riding in a car-seat, my mom liked to play Christian songs for kids on tape. One of them went,
“I’m in-right, outright, upright, downright happy all the time!
Since Jesus Christ came in
And cleansed my heart from sin
I’m in-right outright upright downright happy all the time!”
My mom would often tell me that if I had a bad attitude or was in a sour mood, I should smile until I felt better. Contentment was the solution to being unhappy. If you are unhappy with your life, it is important to change your attitude about your life. Not only is it sinful and selfish to be unhappy with the life god had given you, enjoying it is required.
There are some crucial beliefs that keep patriarchy in place. All of them rest on a fundamentally flawed premise: that all humans are either men or women. This is not true. Both intersex and non-binary people demonstrate that there is a full spectrum. Under this assumption, there is the belief that women were created to complement men. Furthermore, purity culture teaches that god has “the one” picked out for your perfect marriage. Women, as individuals, are created to meet the unique needs of their specific destined husbands. I really believed all this for many years. It is still a daily struggle to separate reality from the abusive, controlling, diminishing teachings. Believing these things keeps girls and other children assigned female at birth from fighting back or trying to get out.
My mom did far more to reinforce the notion of patriarchy than my dad ever did. She was a leader among local homeschooling moms, hosting discussions on the bible and other books. One of the books she taught multiple times was called “Created to be his help meet” by Debi Pearl. She encouraged younger women to submit to their husbands and defer to them on decision-making. When I was 18, I read her companion book for younger women, “Preparing to be a help meet.” It was overwhelming how much perfection was expected of me. I needed to educate myself so I could homeschool my future children. I needed to be driven, but also be willing to accept correction and direction from my future husband.
It was never explicitly stated, but another rule was about myself. I had to avoid expressing my needs. I spent years being anxious about meeting the needs of others at the expense of myself. This took a toll on me, because I rarely stopped to ask myself what I wanted, needed, preferred, or liked. My ability to make decisions was so stunted, I was always the last person to decide what kind of ice cream I wanted when we made a rare visit to an ice cream shop. Even in my adult life, I’m often told I’m ridiculously indecisive.
I lived in a constant state of fear. I was afraid of not pleasing god – to this day, I hesitate, fighting the idea that I’ll piss him off if I don’t capitalize his name and masculine pronouns even though I don’t believe he even exists. I was afraid of not pleasing my parents, because I hated being yelled at, scolded, shamed, and physically punished.
There was also the problem of being shamed by my peers. There were other girls trying to compete for the attention of the boys, and I was losing this competition. Of course, I know why now: I wasn’t feminine or obedient or subservient or submissive enough. At the time I internalized it as a personal failure. I didn’t know how lucky I would feel looking back. Getting married to a man within that culture would have been indescribably horrible.
Many people may deny that they agree to these fundamental beliefs while reinforcing the overarching assumptions therein. This is not limited to extremely patriarchal subcultures. Transphobia and intersex denial/erasure are rooted in the belief that only two kinds of people exist. Saying “You’ll find your special one someday” reinforces the idea that everyone has a specific perfect partner out there. Even an offhand comment like “she’s a good catch,” or “she’s a keeper,” imply that women are prizes to be won and owned by the men around them.
What is the purpose of a daughter under patriarchy? Girls’ purpose is to serve as a daughter, to be prepared for becoming a good wife and mother. As a non-binary person, I tried desperately to make myself fit into the mold I was expected to fill. I had been taught from birth that I needed to care deeply about pleasing god. I naturally cared about pleasing my parents, and they were both difficult to please. Anything short of perfection was subject to ridicule and punishment.
The picture below was posted in 2009. My mom shared it on Facebook with praise for how grateful she was for my dedication. I remember spending a long time that day carefully cleaning the kitchen – I did all the dishes, and even wiped behind the appliances and flour and sugar canisters to get it perfectly clean. It’s one of the few times I ever remember feeling like she was proud of me.
To fill the daughter role, I went above and beyond. I wasn’t forced to wear dresses, but I wanted to embrace feminine expression because it was what I thought was the right thing to do. I worked hard. I took care of my younger siblings. I cooked and cleaned. I took pride in being as perfect as I possibly could be. I was learning to run a family. This was practice for becoming someone’s dutiful, dedicated wife someday.
I had been in college for a couple of years when I read an article by Sarah Henderson on Homeschoolers Anonymous. It was called “Oh Daughters of Fundamentalism, take upon yourselves the cloak of self-deception.” It stopped me in my tracks, halting my entire life journey up until that point. Here is a quotation from it:
“This is a very difficult concept to understand if you did not grow up in patriarchy. How can women not only agree and allow themselves to be oppressed, but also seem to be happy and flourish in their own oppression? […] Because they are taught to believe it…in the ideal scenario they will actually start to enjoy the fact that they are fulfilling their purpose, and own their own oppression.”
That purpose, to be a good Christian spouse who brought up more good Christian children, was reinforced from the moment we were born. In the fundamentalist Christian tradition, it’s wrong to be unhappy with your life. You don’t have any power over your life because this is what god wants for you. You don’t have any power over the future because it’s in god’s hands, and dreams could deviate from his perfect plan for you.
There is only one thing you can do about being stuck in a situation that you can’t even describe in negative terms. That is to be happy all the time. When all the other options are closed off, those relegated to the role of women in patriarchal culture embrace their own oppression.