I have been thinking about submission lately. No, not the kind of submission where you send in a piece of work to a judging panel, but the kind where you feel the weight of a burden, and you see how much grace you can summon while you’ve got it on your back.

Islam means submission. To be a Muslim (Semitic languages, Hebrew and Arabic, work around 3-letter roots: SLM is the root here.) is to submit, freely and with joy, to the will of the Almighty. This is a concept found in most of the great religions—Christian monks vow obedience, Buddhists (whose cosmology doesn’t include the specific concept “God”) cup their palms and accept what the world might give them, devout Jews work their lives around their understanding of how the Lord wishes them to behave in daily life.

(This isn’t to say that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even Buddhists don’t rage against the will of God as well. But we’re not writing a book here, so let’s leave free will and the Divine Being’s encouragement of independent thought to the side for the moment.)

The interesting thing is, submission is a thing women are a lot better at than men. (And please don’t for a moment believe I am advocating the acceptance of an abusive situation: we’re talking about burdens that need to be carried, not those that need to be dumped and walked away from.) It could be that we’re born that way because our genes are designed for it—after all, in a species where the young are tied to the mother for an extended period, it’s not smart to endanger the next generation by making a habit of in-your-face maternal behavior. Or it could be that females learn the behavior patterns of submission because that half of the race is generally smaller and less hormonally reinforced for aggression, thus reinforcing the consequences of risky behavior. In either case, taking into account the basic mammalian reality that once a child is born, the mother’s life isn’t her own for a while, it’s probably a good thing for the race—if not for the individual—that submission is a skill we women learn.

Not always easily, or willingly, but we learn.

Submission spills over, and becomes something other than a skill used to ensure the survival of infants. In a mixed group of siblings, male and female, which are most often expected to care for sick and aged parents, the sons or the daughters? If a couple has two equally demanding jobs and a kid gets ill, does Dad stay home fifty percent of the time? If two careers are equal and opposing jobs call, which is expected to pull up roots and follow the other, husband or wife? Truly egalitarian attitudes when it comes to caregiving are even rarer than equality in the workplace.

Of course, the question also crops up, do women get given the extra burdens because we can carry them? Because our brains are more efficient when it comes to double-tasking, and our bodies are ultimately the stronger of the two sexes when it comes to the stamina stakes?

The interesting thing is, the submission of women is often treated as a lesser achievement than the submission of men. The comment that someone’s a really good mother may be warm and approving, but to say that someone’s a good father often contains a faint note of surprise mingled into the approval. The labor, flexibility, and creativity that go into caregiving are denigrated by anyone who hasn’t done the job. And on the spiritual front, the amount of effort male religious figures go through to achieve the level of submission reached by countless women throughout the ages is extraordinary. It reminds one of the anthropological theory that all male coming-of-age rituals (even those not as blatant as adult circumcision) are a societal means of making men feel the equal of the women, whose coming of age is marked and unequivocal.

Most women I know are quietly, privately, sometimes even unconsciously aware that they have what men strive for. (In a very small way, this was the impetus behind the Russell books, following a young woman in the process of discovering that the scorned “women’s intuition” may be precisely the same thing as the much-vaunted deductive process of a great mind.) Women secretly suspect they they are stronger than men in all the ways that count. Women who have reached great age and some wisdom (although alas, the two do not always go hand in hand!) know this down to their ostoeporitic bones, and tweak the male pomposity openly, sometimes wickedly. Even younger women laugh among themselves at the preening exercises of their male peers.

One begins to wonder if a lot of religious doctrine isn’t just a way of encouraging men to be more like women.

Seems to me things would go a lot more smoothly if everyone just admitted this, and got on with it.

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  1. Tish on September 21, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    Wow. Thanks

  2. caroline on September 21, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    I may print those last two sentences on a t-shirt. Oh, hell, MANY t-shirts.
    lovely post. May your burdens be shared and lighter, chica. If you care to, let us know how your husband is doing. all the best.

  3. Anonymous on September 21, 2006 at 4:40 pm

    Damn straight.

    If only it worked. Unfortunately, three-quarters of the time, it seems to have the opposite effect.

  4. Anonymous on September 21, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    For a few years, I was a member of a church that didn’t allow women to teach adult Sunday School classes, amongst other restrictions. I was of the opinion that if that really was what God ordered, it was because He was trying to get the men up off their backsides and do some work.

  5. Emily on September 21, 2006 at 6:24 pm

    The leaders of my church (Mormons) have said similar things to this several times. It basically amounts to the reason that men hold the priesthood and women don’t is beacuse men need the priesthood to make them as good as women naturally are.

    A great way to look at it, methinks.

  6. Sonja on September 21, 2006 at 6:56 pm

    I know, you know, we know. But they don’t and never will, because it’s too hard to imagine.

    Bees form a very funny example for the things you stated, Laurie… The workers (females) do what their names suggest; they work. But they are also running the colony. And the queen (also female, of course) is taking care of the offspring by laying eggs. Last (and maybe least), the drones (males, which are born out of unfertilized eggs) are only responsible for fertilization, to make more useful workers. The remaining time they would have zapped all the time, if they’d had a television of course. 😉

    So I guess it’s in their (males, not only bees) genes. Pour things…

    To Anonymous and Emily: it’s indeed a great way to look at it! 🙂

  7. Trix on September 22, 2006 at 1:00 am

    That is utterly amazing.

    Despite some of the comments others have made, I don’t think it justifies the “separate roles” ideas that some churches have, because they still do not privilege the women’s role, despite all the lip-service.

    Thank you for the marvellous food for thought – I’ve linked it in my Livejournal.

  8. Bronwyn on September 22, 2006 at 1:32 am

    I think every woman has been in a relationship (of any kind) with a man and thought to herself “How can you not GET this most basic thing?” When you look at what Christ taught – love, forgiveness, kindness, etc. they are pretty much associated with the feminine. So maybe you’re right… it certainly makes sense to me, but then, I’m a woman, so I’m probably biased.

  9. Patry Francis on September 22, 2006 at 3:59 am

    A most interesting perspective.

  10. Roxanne on September 22, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    So much FOOD for thought–my brain needs to let out a few notches to accommodate the feast. Absolute ambrosia–especially: “One begins to wonder if a lot of religious doctrine isn’t just a way of encouraging men to be more like women.”

    Your “mutterings” re: Submission have caused me to think a great deal. I am forced to consider the weight of my own burden(s) and how much–if any–grace I display under pressure. Perhaps I need to rail less and cup my palms more…

    In the OED, the last definition for submit is “to put (the female) to the male.” How/why did women come to be the caretakers? Is it nature or nurture–that old biology vs. conditioning nut? Personally, I primarily credit the power of societal pressure and cultural coercion for the status quo. Whatever the explanation(s) for the female burden of submission and caretaking, having recognised our (expected) role, I have oft expressed the need for a wife, rather than a husband, in my life. At least then the partnership 😉 would be more egalitarian.

    BTW: as a result of your Russell series, I am now in the midst of reading all of A. Conan Doyle’s works about Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle certainly did not have a high opinion of “women’s intuition,” did he? I actually feel sorry for the man each time the sentiment is expressed through one of his characters.

    Thank you, Ms. King, for a wonderful and thought-provoking post. Perhaps, sometime, you should write a book on this topic. I would love to read it!

  11. WDI on September 22, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    Wow, indeed. I am in awe that you manage to pack so many wonderful ideas into such a brief post, and that you are taking the time to think about these things and share them with us. Thank you a hundred times. And best wishes for much grace . . .

  12. L. Crampton, LAc on September 22, 2006 at 4:55 pm

    Laurie, so much to get at from so many facets. Years ago, I voluntarily shared community life with fellow Christians when we were in a literal phase: I wore headscarves, bit my tongue at times in the effort to figure out how to honor men’s leadership, etc. That community, and I, long since moved on to other homes, phases and spiritual habits. BUT, I realize as I read your thoughts that it was a raggedy, uneven battle for me in ‘submitting’ to caring for Mom over the years of her decline, then hospice, and her passing. I doubt I linked the topics until reading your thoughts this morning. A chosen submission (headscarves)is a different animal than one that life hands you, unasked. Although I did encounter the male presumption that my three brothers would have different roles and attitudes than mine in the circumstances, I also know that the effort/cost of my brothers’ eventual, gradual recognition of their chores in kindness, compassion and practical support was high for them personally. Higher than my own prolonged acceptance of that ‘yoke’? I couldn’t say. Different.

  13. Pat Mathews on September 24, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    I remember reading a non-Christian article saying that in order to move on to a higher level of development, the spiritual task of men was to learn to let go of their egos. The spiritual task of women was to strengthen their egos, their abilities to act in the world, and the use of their minds. That as they develop, they meet as human beings.

    I took it to heart and now am bein dragged back to the “caring” model able to do so as a strong, thinking being. If I can now learn to let go!

  14. Antigonos on September 25, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    Orthodox Jewish women thank God every day for “making me according to Thy will” while Orthodox Jewish men thank Him for “not being a woman”. Lots of ink has been spilled trying to rationalize this. Living as I do in Jerusalem, and watching the ultra-Orthodox woman bearing the burden of frequent child-bearing, all the child-raising, and working to support her husband who sits and studies all day, or the Moslem woman who walks three paces behind her husband while lugging packages and a hefty toddler, while the man strolls along unencumbered, I can’t feel very sympathetic to the man and think a quick kick in the butt, followed by flogging, might improve his “submission” a great deal. Even though I am a moderately observant Jew, I think organized religion–all of them–have a lot to answer for where discrimination against women is the issue.

    On another subject altogether, Laurie, if you would send me the first names of your husband’s mother and father, I would be pleased to put a “pitka” in the Kotel for his “refuah shelayma”.

  15. 2maple on September 25, 2006 at 9:13 pm

    This has been wandering in and out of my thoughts over the weekend along with the whole nature v. nurture thing. My training has been in biology rather than theology…& I see the roots of submission in terms of level of investment. If you think about survival of the species, women have the opportunity to create a limited number of children at the cost of a substantial physical investment, and so have to make every effort to make sure those few children survive to adulthood and carry on. Men on the other hand can create many children with minimal physical investment, so the dynamic for the “survival of their genes” in the population is completely different.

    But, with that as a foundation, much of what we are is learned…we are not limited to pre-programed instict (as opposed to bees – the extreme of an instinct driven society.) I see it a lot as more like Pat Matthews said above that both male and female have to find a center ground; neither complete sumission nor complete dominance work as well. Theology has a place here. Culture has a place here. Learning allows adaptation to change. The difficulties come in when society isn’t supportive or the original intent is subverted for to gain power (tell me the religions of the world haven’t had issues with this one!!)

    I see huge differences in how 20- and 30-somethings I work with, that have grown up with both parents working have a different view of responsibilities in a relationship from the over 60-somethings where typically “the wife” stayed home. From who stays home when the kids are sick, to who’s job is more important, to who cooks or takes care of the cars, to who waters the house plants (ours would all be dead if I did this), I think the difference is a sense of freedom to choose the type of relationship/partnership that works for them. It never ceases to amaze me how different couples organize their lives in vastly different ways that work for them. The two halves have to make a whole. Both my mother & my mother in-law routinely have raised eyebrows with how our household is structured. Ah well, it works for us.

    …and the role of caregiver doesn’t always come easily, especially when one finds one’s plans, freedoms and horizons suddenly altered.

  16. Anonymous on September 29, 2006 at 1:23 pm


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