Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has been asked about her complementarianism. How can she submit to her husband, while at the same time be a leader of a country? This is nothing new. Sarah Palin encountered these same concerns during her vice-presidential run in 2008. At that time, David Gushee posed questions for complementarians in USA Today, one of which was, "Do you believe that Palin is under the authority of her husband as head of the family? If so, would this authority spill over into her role as vice president?"
One question recently presented to Bachmann was this:
[Y]ou described a moment in your life when your husband said you should study for a degree in tax law. You said you hated the idea. And then you explained, "But the Lord said, 'Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.'" As president, would you be submissive to your husband?
Bachmann answered in part:
Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th. I'm in love with him. I'm so proud of him. And both he and I -- what submission means to us, if that's what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband. He's a wonderful, godly man, and a great father. And he respects me as his wife.
Though I'm a feminist, I'm personally not bothered by the private decisions others make in the context of marriage, unless they entail physical or emotional abuse. The part of complementarianism that bothers me more is the women-in-leadership issue. However, I'm still intrigued that many women truly do not submit to their husbands. Rather, they negotiate it, which exposes submission as an empty Master-Signifier as articulated by David Fitch and Slavoj Zizek.
Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism, says that individuals believe insincerely in Master Signifiers and participate in rituals that cynically reinforce their ideology. It seems like wives who negotiate submission to their husbands end up doing so insincerely and cynically, in an unintentional way. Also, submission is the conceptual object to which complementarians give their allegience, thus shaping themselves as a group.
Bachmann's and Palin's political involvement could be considered an irruption of the Real, breaking in and exposing the emptiness of the Master Signifier of submission. It reveals the contradiction of a woman president who must defer to her husband.
Bachmann negotiates being both a female member of a conservative religion and possibly the leader of the free world by being sure to point out, "He respects me as his wife." Many other complementarian wives negotiate submission as well. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore pointed out a few years ago that, in practice, many evangelicals are "unwittingly" living as feminists:
Evangelicals maintain headship in the sphere of ideas, but practical decisions are made in most evangelical homes through a process of negotiation, mutual submission, and consensus. That’s what our forefathers would have called feminism -- and our foremothers, too.
I verified this while writing a paper in college. One study, by sociologists John P. Bartkowski and Jen'nan Ghazal Read, surveyed devout evangelical wives in central Texas. Bartkowski and Read noted that women use the reportoire of their faith in strategic, creative, and subversive ways to meet practical demands of everyday life. Therefore, women can keep up with "changing gender norms," such as working outside the home and running for president, while still holding to their faith.
The language of submission enabled wives to draw boundaries between themselves and secular, feminist women. However, each wife qualified her beliefs. One complementarian stated outright that her husband doesn't have authority over her. These women who embrace wifely submission frame it as their decision to let their husbands lead in the marriage. And practically, the submission process involves negotiation, discussion, and compromise. Like Bachmann, the wives in the study interpreted submission as "respect."
Another study, by sociologists Sally K. Gallagher and, one of my favorites, Christian Smith, concluded that, rather than holding to traditional hierarchicalism, evangelicals espouse symbolic traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism. Symbolic male headship serves as an ideological tool evangelicals use to "maintain a sense of distinctiveness from the broader culture of which they are a part." In the same way that Bartkowski and Read framed this creative re-working as "negotiation," Gallagher and Smith see evangelicals as "reconciling" modern economic life with their family life.
The "trump card" that husbands enjoy in complementarian marriages is never played. Each couple makes decisions jointly, and one husband, when discussing whether he would invoke his authority, said he "wouldn't even try," despite the fact that he self-identifies as a complementarian.
If male headship in marriage is truly empty at its core and more of a symbolic boundary-marker, I would find that very encouraging. Now, I hope that prohibiting women from having authority over men in all contexts will simply become an empty conceptual object. Perhaps we are already seeing this? John Piper stated it was acceptable for a man to "listen to" Beth Moore, as long as she doesn't become the man's pastor or shepherd. Piper's response in the video contains qualifiers, just as respondents in the above studies had to qualify their beliefs in male headship.
I couldn't find complete versions of the studies online, but please email me if you are interested in a copy of one or both of the studies. Amazingly, I still have my zip drive from college, which contains copies of the studies. My packrat tendencies have paid off for once!