The first time my mom took me school shopping,
she suggested I have a fashion show for Daddy.
I twirled around in my new plaid dress
until my eye caught the look
of disappointment on my father’s face
When I turned to look at him,
his eyes fell to the floor and he asked,
“Why are you dressing her in men’s clothes?”
She said they weren’t men’s clothes–they were plaid dresses which was what all the little girls were wearing. Daddy asked her to take the clothes back. Mom 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 began to pick up these messages after this encounter.
1. It’s Wrong to Dress Like a Man
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 little 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 into 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 any skin at all 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.
2. Men Are Superior
In my family of origin, it was a man’s world. Women were given a supporting role. Men got to make the rules and decide what you wear and if they didn’t like it, they could make you take it back.
The issue of my Dad 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 they had a pact to remain in agreement even when they weren’t.
When it came to music, I could only listen to music my father approved or if he was in a good mood. I have been belted several times in my life for listening to music. I’m not talking about rowdy music, I’m talking Amy Grant and John Denver. Meanwhile, my dad like the song “You picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.” If that was not patriarchal I am not sure what is and I sided with Lucille. If all a man wants you for is to cook and have babies then it hardly seemed fair. perhaps I felt this way because I was the oldest and had enough of changing my siblings’ dirty diapers and fixing their bottles. Of course, if a woman wants to do these things by choice, then that’s a different story. The idea is for every woman to be able to make her own choices just like every man does.
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. But they never bought me one book to help me get my GED.
3. Women Are Not as Spiritual as Men
My mom never did anything to lead our family in prayer or worship. She actually never did anything my dad didn’t 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. We were not a quivering family, but 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 and said he wanted me to learn to drive and have a way to make a living, but somewhere between his ideals and reality he didn’t teach me to drive. Another time he told me if my husband ever asked me what I wanted to do, I should have an opinion and not act passively. 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 didn’t 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 child bearer.
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, but 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 during my childhood, but she still tried to give me the crumbs under the table.
4. Women Don’t Need to Get an Education
The place my father’s control affected my life the most after his spiritual control was my education. My going to school was never a priority for my dad. I was jerked in and out of schools with every move until the day he decided giving me an education was too much work. Then we had no schooling at all. During my teen years, I was told to tell people at our 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 didn’t 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 (like hers) was not made for math. This sort of justification for sexism really confuses a young girl and makes her wonder if she can be good at anything besides cooking and cleaning.
This blog has explained the subtly of male headship to a child. Others have had a much more brutal treatment, but I certainly needed to reframe these events in my life to gain a better perspective. 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.
Did you grow up with different rules and expectations for girls and boys?
How is it affecting your life today?