Prisoner of Patriarchal Presbyterian Pedagogy: Alia’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Alia” is a pseudonym.
I grew up in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. It was a small denomination, and I hope it’s getting smaller. In the RPCNA, only preachers and elders could be part of the governing body of the church: and preachers and elders, by church law, were always male. The patriarchy was so established that it wasn’t even questioned. I was disenfranchised by my two X chromosomes and barred even from speaking in a worship service or teaching Sunday School classes to a group of adults.
My parents homeschooled their children back when homeschooling was still fringe, and they took patriarchy even further than the RPCNA did. As if being second-class in the church wasn’t bad enough, I was second-class at home. I was not encouraged to go to college, and being in the workforce was considered morally questionable. I might be allowed to be a nurse’s aide or even a nurse, since that was “women’s work,” but becoming a doctor, a four-star-general, or the President was clearly unbiblical. I wasn’t supposed to be in a position where I was commanding and instructing men. Instead I was supposed to serve my (theoretical) husband at home by cooking, cleaning, and popping out babies.
I’m not saying that homeschooling is bad, or that all churches are evil, but the lack of alternate worldviews really messed with my head. If I’d gone to public school, I might have realized earlier that the RPCNA was a weird little radical-right denomination instead of the faithful remnant. It was a bad combination of church and homeschooling that made me who I was.
I was good at schoolwork and raised by intelligent parents, but I was suffocating in a closed system that blocked my mind from true expansion. I was supposed to be learning to be a wife and mother, not entertaining dreams of a career. I was an avid reader and read many books that pushed the patriarchal vision: books from Vision Forum that hid poison in sugary words; racist and misogynistic blatherings from self-satisfied white men in Moscow, Idaho; arrogant screeds on Christian Reconstructionism that advocated stoning Sabbath-breakers and homosexuals. I fangirled over R. L. Dabney and idolized the Confederacy because I thought slavery was biblical and women should know their place.
Writing the above paragraph almost brought tears to my eyes. I had no clue, and it breaks my heart that I didn’t know better. That I thought it was okay to be racist, okay to condemn women who worked outside the home, okay to mock and judge LGBTQ people. I believed what I was taught…it was all I knew. Those beliefs were encouraged at home, and my church, instead of teaching me better, promoted the inequality of women and men. If I was second-class, of course I believed that other people could be second-class too. If I had to obey my father because I was a woman, maybe some people were supposed to be slaves because they were black.
I’ve heard all kinds of speeches trying to pretty up the inherent injustice of patriarchy. It’s been called “complementarianism,” referred to as “equal-but-different,” “the natural order,” and “God-ordained,” which is especially helpful when a church wants to lay the blame on God. “Hey, don’t look at us; God said it had to be this way!” A lot of believers in patriarchy will argue up and down that they don’t believe women are inferior to men. Women are just different, they say, and I cringe because I know what they mean, because I’ve heard all these things before. They mean women are weak, delicate, unable to cope with being in the workforce, prone to gossip, unable to think logically, easily deceived.
Anything I said or thought could be discounted because I was female. If I questioned a teaching, it was because I was using my emotions instead of being logical. If something in the bible seemed wrong, even cruel, it was because I was blinded by the world and unable to appreciate the true beauty of God’s plan. If I questioned the patriarchy, it was because of my rebellious desire to “usurp authority” over men.
I got a job in my late teens, despite many doubts from my stay-at-home, homeschooling mother. I loved it. I saved money and made big plans, bought a car, started studying at a local college, in spite of college being actively discouraged. I was told that women didn’t need to go to college, since they were expected to get married and stay at home raising babies. Besides, colleges were full of worldly teachings that might lead me astray.
But I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t go back to my stifling stay-at-home life. In fact, I stayed away from home as much as possible, unable to handle the constant tension when I walked in the door.
That tension got worse and worse. I started seeing a licensed counselor in secret because I was so miserable, depressed, and anxious. I thought about suicide every day, but with hell looming on the other side of the curtain, I never attempted it. I was torn between my desire to be my own person, and the terrible fear that I was a sinner for wanting freedom.
I had been told so clearly that being my own person was Not Okay. I wasn’t supposed to be focused on myself, I was supposed to focus on God and other people. I remember being nervous about a musical recital that I was supposed to perform at. Instead of giving me the usual humorous advice about imagining the audience in their underwear, my mother told me that being nervous was sin—it meant I was focusing on myself and how I was performing, rather than trying to please the audience. Great. I couldn’t even be nervous without sinning. And doesn’t that just cut to the heart of being a woman in the patriarchy? You are there to please other people.
There’s a lot of danger in homeschooling. My mother worked hard to teach us. She loved us, but she was afraid. My siblings and I lived in an island of isolation containing our home and our church. We grew up being told that there was only one way to worship God, only one way to honor Him (of course God was male!) and that most of the world was going to hell. My mother’s worst fear, I think, was that her children would burn in eternal flames, and she wrapped us in a cocoon of anxiety and rule-following and strict roles to play in this life, hoping it would keep us on the straight and narrow. The anger that often blazed from her was fueled by fear.
But there was something inside me that fought this worldview, something that refused to accept my fate as an obedient female. My mind tried to detach itself from what was happening around me—I was frequently in a state of derealization, aware of myself but not really “in” myself. But I couldn’t turn back time, and with the help of counseling I began to realize that I didn’t have to live in a constant state of guilt over my perceived failure to be the perfect patriarchal daughter.
Slowly, so slowly, I began to accept that it was okay to be myself. I began to take a stand, one decision at a time. I was met with resistance, screaming, shouting, threats of hell. But I hunkered down behind each decision I made like a soldier engaged in trench warfare, creeping across the battlefield. What clothes I wore. What college I went to. What career I chose. Then I moved out of my parents’ house, knowing with a glorious sense of peace that I would never move back in. It wasn’t the end of the war, but it was my Gettysburg, and I was Meade, not Lee.
They said the wrath of God would strike like lightning from the sky. But I stepped out from under the umbrella of patriarchy—and the sky was clear.