The Patriarchy Fights Back

The Wall Street Journal last week had a story about conservative churches ostracizing "sinners" in order to maintain "church discipline." On Sunday, a host of obituaries celebrated the career of pioneering journalist Frances Lewine, 86. Also on Sunday, The New York Times Magazine ran a photo essay on female genital mutilation in Indonesia.

These three stories are related in subtle - and not so subtle - ways.

Take the story about churches and "shunning." It begins with the tale of 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey, a member of a small church in southwestern Michigan for nearly 50 years. She had taught Sunday school there, and she regularly tithed 10 percent of her pension. Why, then, did her pastor call the police when she came to Sunday services? Why was she led from the church in handcuffs by one policeman, while another carried her Bible?

Her sin was questioning the pastor's authority. He charged her with spreading "a spirit of cancer and discord" and expelled her. This was not an isolated event. A woman in Virginia was ousted for gossiping about her pastor's plans to buy a bigger house. In Nashville, the pastor of a megachurch threatened to expel 74 members - men and women - for suing for access of the church's financial records.

There have been many shunning incidents like this, according to the WSJ. The main reason is usually the "refusal to honor church elders."

The Times story on genital mutilation comes from a different tradition, although one with identical roots - and I don't mean religious ones.

Photographer Stephanie Sinclair was able to document a mass circumcision ceremony for 200 young girls, many under the age of five, in Bandung, Indonesia, in 2006. This was a Muslim ceremonial operation performed by women - not nurses - who had also undergone the surgery when young. They would hold down a girl and "swiftly yet with apparent affection cut off a small piece of her genitals."

Elsewhere on the festival grounds, about 100 young men were also being ceremonially circumcised. But to equate male and female circumcision, you would have to have them remove the entire penis, not just the foreskin.

According to estimates from the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation worldwide affects up to 140 million women and girls in varying degrees of severity. In 80 percent, it involves the complete removal of the clitoris and labia minora.

The reasons given for this specific Indonesian genital mutilation celebration were threefold: To "stabilize her libido"; then to "make a woman look more beautiful in the eyes of her husband"; and third, because "it will balance her psychology."

Stabilizing the female - but never the male - libido is an ancient concern. The Bible is full of restrictions on females intended to make them dependent on and subservient to men.

But this repression has very little to do with sexual activity or even religion. Instead, it has everything to do with power. In any society based on something as wrong-headed as the idea of a dominant patriarchy, you can expect to find the same thing. Burqas in Afghanistan, Saudi women who aren't allowed to drive, clitorectomies in Africa and Southeast Asia, denial of abortions and birth control in America - it's all based on the same premise: to restrain and repress one half of the population of a society in order to maintain the unlimited power of the other half.

Dare I say that any time a society is based - in part or in whole - on some kind of criminal falsehood, you get the same kind of rigid, repressive and doctrinaire support of the status quo. Slavery in America would be a good example, and I would suggest that the concept of private property might fall into this category, as well.

Questioning and challenging authority is an essential part of being human. Any society that fails to teach its young men and women to think for themselves is in great danger of calcification and decay. The Catholic Church made that costly mistake when it repressed for years the truth about pedophile priests. And any pastor in an evangelical church who ostracizes members because they want to question his use of church funds deserves nothing less than a full-scale audit.

Which brings me back to the remarkable career of Frances Lewine. In the 1950s, when most women were still at home and under the thumb of the American patriarchy, she was White House correspondent for the Associated Press for six administrations, then a member of the Carter administration, and then a CNN assignment editor and field producer until her death.

Her obituary in The Washington Post lauded her landmark participation with six other female journalists in a 1978 class-action suit against the AP that "resulted in a $2 million settlement and forced changes in the wire service's policies on salaries, assignments, promotions, pensions and hiring" for women.

It took her and her competitor, Helen Thomas, to bust through the condescending attitudes of the time about women being too soft to cover politics, government and war. Instead of shutting up and covering the "social beat," they stepped up and demanded the careers they clearly deserved. By doing so, they paved the way for their daughters and granddaughters to enjoy real careers in journalism.

Over the past six decades, American women have fought hard - and won much - in the fight for equal status. And no matter what you think of her politics or ethics, there is something stirring about Hillary Clinton standing at the apex of this struggle today.

But the fight is far from over. The patriarchy is still fighting to maintain its status here, and the battle hasn't even begun in places like Indonesia.

A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through Write her at

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