I am absolutely fascinated by people’s reasons for holding onto stiffly defined gender roles. For that reason, this weekend’s New York Times Magazine article, “Housewives of God,” was an absolute treat. Journalist Molly Worthen profiled Priscilla Shirer, an evangelical Bible teacher who has published numerous religious books and workbooks and accepts 20 out of 300 speaking engagements per year. She is also the mother of three young boys and depends on her husband, Jerry, to pick the kids up from school, do laundry and prepare dinner. As journalist Worthen put it, “Priscilla Shirer’s marriage appears to be just the sort of enlightened partnership that would make feminists cheer.”
But Jerry Shirer is the head of the Shirer household. All phone calls regarding Priscilla’s career and decisions — including what to name the couple’s youngest baby — go through him. Priscilla also sees herself not as a rah-rah-independent woman, but as a “complementarian”: She and her hubby both have separate, defined roles from their gender and are “complementary” to each other.In her sermons, Priscilla Shirer discourages women from listening to “feminist activists” who tell women to “do your own thing, make your own decisions and never let a man slow you down.” In her book A Jewel In His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value As A Woman of Excellence, Shirer wrote, “Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes. … He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that we will begin to usurp it. . . . Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit of submission in their hearts.”
Priscilla, who was also raised by a preacher involved with the Promise Keepers (a group that advocates male headship of families), seems to have submitted to either her husband or her father her whole life. Jerry asked Priscilla’s dad for permission to date her and then for permission to marry her. When the couple disagreed on what to name their youngest son, Jerry asked his “accountability group” — a group of guys from their ministry who help hold each other accountable to God’s word — and they sided with Jerry on naming the baby Jude. (“What made all the difference in the world is he cared about what I was feeling,” she said.)
However, as the Shirers see it, they are succeeding in a literal interpretation of the Bible: Jerry submits to God, and Priscilla submits to Jerry. “If I will follow him as he’s following the Lord, then the responsibility for navigating our family well falls on him, not me,” Priscilla told the Times Magazine. “Gratefully, I’m married to a husband that values my opinion and values my ideas. . . . We have lots of discussions, there are times of discontent.” Like many evangelicals, this makes the Shirers gender essentialists (they believe that “men are a certain way” and “women are a certain way”) as they follow their Biblically ordained roles in hopes of an ideal marriage.
Yet, even if she submits to Jerry in the decision-making, one can’t deny Priscilla leads a life that’s reaped the benefits of 21st century feminism: She does public speaking, earns money, has a husband who is not ridiculed or emasculated for doing chores at home. Some might call the Shirers’ life a balancing act, while others may call it hypocrisy. I really urge you to read the entire article from the New York Times Magazine and judge for yourself.