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Southern Baptists to Women: Submit to Male Leadership

 Southern Baptists to Women: Submit to Male Leadership

June 14, 1998

Meeting at their annual convention in Salt Lake City, 8000 plus -representatives of the sixteen-million member Southern Baptist church on June 9 amended their essential statement of beliefs to include the declaration that a woman should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s leadership. According to their newly elected president, the amendment was a response to “a time of growing crisis in the family”.

Now, from a woman’s point of view, this is very intriguing stuff. Having been born and raised in Arkansas, home to many a Southern Baptist, the adoption of this one-size-fits-all solution comes as little surprise. I wonder if there might have been added incentive to adopt the declaration because the convention was being held in the heart of Mormon country, where possessing male genitalia is all that’s needed to qualify you for consideration as a leader. After all, the Southern Baptists are openly attempting to convert Mormons, and such an outright declaration of male domination just might sway those Mormons on the edge. It seems evident that the delegates, in voicing concern over what they perceive to be the “moral breakdown” in our society, came to the conclusion that the blame lies with women, and their solution is to tell women to get back in place behind men.

That this is not the first time religionists have played the blame game against women should be noted for the benefit of those who have been sheltered from religion’s history. For instance, the creation story of Genesis 2:18-3:24, depicting Eve being created from Adam’s rib, and the two of them eating of the tree of knowledge, has long been used to justify domination over women. (An interesting note: there is an earlier passage in Genesis 1: 27-28, which briefly describes the simultaneous creation of man and woman, but it is not often mentioned by Bible literalists because it lacks the necessary storyline to successfully manipulate women.) In 1883, Elizabeth Cady Stanton passionately spoke against the monstrous idea that woman should be cursed in her maternity, which is a facet of the second Genesis story; for many years it was cited by clergy as justification for denying painkillers to women during childbirth.

An astute observer of American culture will recognize the version of history currently being peddled by the religious and political merchants of virtue. In a backlash against the Sixties, when women’s rights became a major issue, the ’90’s are proof-positive, so the virtuecrats say, of how immoral our society has become and why we need to return to those halcyon pre-sixties days when it is presumed that Mom was at home, baking cookies, tending to scraped knees and worrying about the shine on the kitchen floor (all while immaculately dressed, I might add… this is a fantasy, after all); while Dad was making all the big decisions about business, politics and life for his little brood.

My perspective is that of a mother who stayed home while raising children. No workaday job is more demanding, and I don’t regret it. As many women do, I managed to accomplish it while remaining at the very least mentally engaged in those big issues, even as I soothed scrapes and pulled cookies from the oven, usually while wearing old jeans and a baggy shirt.

But I’ve also experienced the other side of it, as a girl in the South of the Fifties, a time that so many today, including young women, inexplicably look upon with nostalgia. My personal experience is that it was emphatically not a better time for women nor families, regardless of, and too often because of, male domination. At that time, when few risked public censure by not attending church, and a large majority of women were still full-time workers at home, there were high levels of alcohol, prescription-drug, wife and child abuse.

In those days, when a man decided to enforce his authority over wife and tots, violence or flight were often the only options. If a woman sought help from the church, she was often told to go home and try harder to be a good wife. The rationale flowed directly from the Bible: 1 Corinthians 11:3-15, wherein the Apostle Paul (a man, after all) set up a chain of command which places God over Christ, Christ over man, and man over woman (The Seven Mightly Blows to Traditional Belief, A. J. Matill). Women did not have equal status with men under the law, largely because of prevailing religious beliefs.

As I ponder what seems to be a return to imposed standards of morality, the courageous women who fought against religious patriarchy more than 100 years ago come to mind. Those atheist, agnostic and freethinking women would be shocked at the thought that women living at the close of the 20th century might willingly relinquish to authoritarian religion the independence which 19th century women never experienced.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who openly expressed her frustration with women for their refusal to recognize how religion had harmed them, said in a speech to suffragists in 1870: “It is as disastrous… to teach all womankind to submit to the authority of man as divinely ordained, as it is to teach all mankind to bow down to the authority of kings and Popes as divinely ordained.” The Southern Baptists’ attempt to make their declaration more palatable to contemporary women by comparing the relationship of husband and wife to that of Christ ruling the church would surely be rejected by Mrs. Stanton; in 1888 she said: “They not only tell us that we enjoy the position of inferior and subject, but to reconcile us to the situation they tell us of the dignity and glory of “subordination”… The chicanery and tergiversations (note: equivocation) of these crafty teachers in trying to reconcile woman to being robbed of all her natural rights to life, liberty and happiness is exasperating beyond measure…”

But in an undated manuscript sometime before her death in 1902, she was more hopeful in her assessment: “Thanks to the law of Progress, woman is awaking to the degradation she has endured in the name of religion, and is interpreting the laws of life for herself.”

Speaking as an awakened woman, I fervently hope that women… including Southern Baptist women… will prove she was right.


The image of the woman tied in rope, between the two hands of a male praying, was designed by Dave Feroe. We are grateful for his artwork.