It was just before my sixth birthday when my Mom took me school shopping for the first time. As we went from store to store, I tried on dresses while she adjusted the collars, then she had me twirl around so she could look at all sides of me. I reveled in her attention because we’d had very little quality time since my youngest sister’s birth six months before.
When we got home, Mommy suggested I put on my new dresses and have a fashion show for Daddy. I ran to my room full of excitement to be the center of my parents’ attention. I threw on one of my new plaid dresses not bothering to take off the tags, but carefully adjusting the collar just like Mommy had shown me.
I ran back out to the living room and twirled around—until my eye caught a look of disappointment on Daddy’s face. As I turned to look at him, his eyes fell to the floor and he cleared his throat, then he turned to Mommy and with a disappointed voice asked, “Why are you dressing her in men’s clothes?”
Mommy said they weren’t men’s clothes–they were plaid dresses which was what all the little girls were wearing in 1969. Daddy asked if she could take the clothes back. Mommy said it wouldn’t matter because it was the only style in the stores at the time.
As they continued to argue about my new clothes, I lowered my head and slunk back to my room. There was no use in trying on another dress, everything we bought—including my lunchbox was plaid.
This was my first experience with male headship. No one called it that, but I picked up on several things in this encounter.
1. It is Wrong to Dress Like a Man in any way
As I grew older I was told that long hair was given to a woman for a covering and it was wrong to cut it. I was not allowed to wear jeans because they were men’s clothing and it would be a dishonor to God for me to dress like a man. I once started to hand my brother a purple towel, but I was told not to give him purple. This confused me.
While I was not to dress like a boy, I was also not encouraged to wear many girly things because they fit under the category of vanity. All nail polish, makeup and jewelry were forbidden. I was once threatened with belting for wearing tinted chapstick. I was told it was inappropriate to show skin or swim with boys and I was taught that what I wore might cause some boy to sin, so I had to be modest at all times. My parents read and followed a little book called Creeping Compromise which was about the evils of external behavior.
2. Men Are Superior and Always in Charge Except for the Kitchen
It’s a man’s world but women are given a supporting role. Men get to make the rules and decide what you wear and if they don’t like it, they can make you take it back. This issue of being in charge went beyond clothing. It covered just about any part of my life. It meant that food must be ready the minute my dad came in the door. That if he was in a bad mood, I had to tiptoe on eggshells and do whatever he wanted or I would be belted. Sometimes it seems I was belted just because he was in a bad mood. When I was small, my mom used to say she hated it when my dad punished me in anger, but she didn’t stand up for me because they were a team and had agreed to remain in agreement even when they weren’t.
When it came to music, we could only listen to music if my father approved it or he was in a good mood. In order to keep control of me, my parents decided to keep me out of school to protect me from getting contaminated by the world. Basically I stayed home and worked as their slave for most of my teen years. From an early age I was expected to bake six loaves of bread every week, do a large portion of the housework, cook large meals for a family of six and babysit my siblings.
3. Women Are Not as Smart or as Spiritual as Men
I knew this was true because my mom never did anything that my dad did not want her to do. She deferred to him in everything except cooking and cleaning. In that realm she was in charge, but she still had to have supper ready when he was ready to eat. Everything in our home rotated around my father’s moods. While we were not a quivering family, my parents’ had specific expectations for women and they did not include me learning to be independent.
The weird thing was that my father once told me that he felt bad because his mother never learned to drive, so he said he wanted me to learn to drive and have a way to make a living, but somewhere between this idea and reality he never taught me to drive nor found a way to help me go to school. Another time he told me if my husband ever asked me what I wanted to do to have an idea and not act passive. I got the idea from both of my parents that my opinion mattered—but only as long as it agreed with theirs.
It’s the saddest mystery in my life that my father actually tried to encourage me to be a strong woman, but then told me not to be like other strong women we met. When a woman showed leadership, my parents said she wore the pants in the family. If a woman did not have children, she was called selfish. If the pastor’s wife worked for a living, she was called worldly and material minded. The women we met were none of these things, but to a young girl this made an impression that I had no right to do anything but be a housewife and please my husband.
Nowhere was this idea of men in charge more obvious than when it came to what we believed about God. My mom taught me to trust God and obey and I will always have a special place in my heart for her loving ways of teaching me about Jesus as a small child. As I got older, my dad was the only one in charge of worship and then only if he was in the mood.
My maternal grandmother was a Bible worker who brought nearly a hundred people into the church in her lifetime, but my father never agreed with her about God. If Grandma began to teach me something she was reading about, it almost always guaranteed that my dad would end up in an argument with her. When we drove away, he would say she never went to theology school and didn’t know what she was talking about. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I discovered my grandmother had a much better picture of God than I had grown up with. She was powerless to speak to me much about it, but she tried to give me the crumbs under the table.
The place my father’s control affected my life the most after the spiritual expectations was my education. School was never a priority for my dad and he didn’t see it as one for me. I was told to tell people at church I was being homeschooled, but they never bought the books. If I asked for books and complained about not keeping up with kids my age, I was called spoiled and selfish.
When I finally went to college, I had few career choices that seemed acceptable to my family. My interests included psychology which was considered evil, becoming a pastor which was out because my father had tried to talk me out of attending the Christian University I chose because they had a woman preacher. And there was no way I could consider anything in the medical field because I had never had science since the sixth grade. It seems that from my father’s perspective, my obvious career choices we just as inappropriate as those plaid dresses he wanted my mother to take back. Because I was so unprepared, college turned out to be a very confusing and depressing time in my life.
If I gave the impression my father did not love me, that’s not true, but there was this dichotomy between his words and his behavior. My mother contributed to my role expectations too because she told me in third grade that my mind was not made for math like hers. This sort of headship mindset really confuses a girl and makes her wonder if she can be good at anything besides cooking and cleaning.
While I am not angry about my childhood at all, I certainly had to reframe events so I could heal from it. This blog has explained the perspective of male headship from my own childhood and teen perspective, but others have had a much more brutal treatment. I don’t believe that what I experienced is the norm. Many children who grow up with male headship struggle in different ways. If you are one of those, please feel free to share your experience with me, I would love to hear your story.
In my next blog I will discuss why I believe male headship is NOT God’s plan.
Did you grow up with different rules and expectations for girls and boys? How does it affect your life today?