Patriarchy, Religion, & the Supreme Court


The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.”

– Justice Samuel Alito, in the majority opinion, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Credit: Creative Commons

We can add “Justice” Samuel Alito, “Justice” Anthony Kennedy, “Justice” John Roberts, “Justice” Clarence Thomas, and last, but certainly not least, “Justice” Antonin Scalia to the oxymoron list since this Supreme Court decision amounted to anything but justice. The five men voting in the majority denied the rights of women, most particularly working-class women employees at “closely-held” (family owned with a limited number of shareholders) for-profit corporations, which actually includes most U.S. corporations, control over their reproductive freedoms generally extended to women at other companies.

The case involved the owning families of the national chain of craft stores, Hobby Lobby, plus a Christian bookstore chain, and Conestoga, a Mennonite family owned woodworking company who claimed and won the argument that the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and in particular, a few specific contraceptive devises covered by health insurance companies, violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 stating that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion….” The decision follows former presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney’s assertion that “Corporations are people my friend,” and clearly shows that million- and billion-dollar corporate families certainly exist more humanly (they are more of a person) and have more rights than workers.
When patriarchal social and economic systems of male domination attempt to keep women pregnant and taking care of children, they can restrict their entry, or at least their level and time of entry, into the workplace, and ensure women’s dependence on men economically and emotionally. As women produce more and more children, expanding numbers of little consumers emerge to contribute to the Capitalist system ever increasing profits for owners of business and industry. The patriarchal imperative to control women’s bodies amounts to imperatives to control women’s minds and life choices.
And when patriarchal social and family structures converge with patriarchal religious systems, which reinforce strictly defined gender hierarchies of male domination, women and girl’s oppression and oppression of those who transgress sexuality- and gender-based boundaries became inevitable.

Credit: Creative Commons

Polytheism and Monotheism
Many ancient and non-Western cultures – including, for example, Hindu, most Native American, Mayan, and Incan cultures – base their religions on polytheism (multiple deities). In general, these religious views seem to attribute similar characteristics to their gods. Particularly significant is the belief that the gods are actually created, and they age, give birth, and engage in sex. Some of these gods even have sexual relations with mortals. The universe is seen as continuous, ever-changing, and fluid. These religious views often lack rigid categories, particularly true of gender categories, which become mixed and often ambiguous and blurred. For example, some male gods give birth, while some female gods possess considerable power.
In contrast, monotheistic Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) religions view the Supreme Being as without origin, for this deity was never born and will never die. This Being, viewed as perfect, exists completely independently from human beings and transcends the natural world. In part, such a Being has no sexual desire, for sexual desire, as a kind of need, is incompatible with this concept of perfection. This accounts for the strict separation between the Creator and the created. Just as the Creator is distinct from His creation, so too are divisions between the Earthly sexes in the form of strictly defined gender roles. This distinction provides adherents to monotheistic religions a clear sense of their designated socially constructed roles: the guidelines they need to follow in relation to their God and to other human beings.
Since the United States is majority Christian in all its many sects and denominations, and all five men voting in the Supreme Court majority follow some form of Christianity, I have extracted just a few of the many examples of what the Christian Testaments say about women. (As an aside, if one shops at Hobby Lobby, when checking out at the cash register, one often sees for sale a small tin of candy called “Testamints.” Really, no joke.)

Ephesians 5:21: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.5:22: Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord.5:23: For the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ also is the head of the church. Christ is, indeed, the Savior of the body.5:24: but just as the church is subject to Christ, so must women be subject to their husbands in everything.
1 Timothy 2:11: A woman must be a learner, listening quietly and with due submission….2:13: For Adam was created first, and Eve afterwards.2:14: and it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who, yielding to deception, fell into sin.2:15: Yet she will be saved through motherhood – if only women continue in faith, love, and holiness, with a sober mind.

Whatever the intended purpose (which seems quite clear) of these texts and multiple others throughout scriptures, individuals, institutions, and entire societies have taken them to justify and rationalize the marginalization, harassment, denial of rights, and persecution of women and girls over the ages.
As I ponder the Supreme Court’s ruling, I reflect on the term “sexism,” which I define as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on males. It is prejudice and discrimination based on sex, especially against females and intersex people, and is founded on a patriarchal structure of male dominance promoted through individual, institutional, social, and cultural systems.
Throughout history, examples abound of male domination over the rights and lives of women and girls: Men denied women the vote until women fought hard and demanded the rights of political enfranchisement, though women in some nations today still are restricted from voting; strictly enforced gender-based social roles mandated without choice that women’s only option was to remain in the home to undertake cleaning and childcare duties; women were and continue to be by far the primary target of harassment, abuse, physical assault, and rape by men and boys; women were and remain locked out of many professions; rules in the United States once required women teachers to relinquish their jobs after marriage; in fact, the institution of marriage itself was structured on a foundation of male domination with men serving as the so-called “head of the household” and taking on sole ownership of all property. In other words, men have constructed women and girls as second-class and even third-class citizens, but certainly not as victims, because through it all, women and girls as a group have challenged the inequities and have pushed back against patriarchal constraints.
The U.S. Department of Labor has found that women overall make approximately 77 cents compared to $1.00 by white men. Looking at women of color, the findings are even lower: Asian American women, 74 cents; African American women, 67 cents; and Latinas, 56 cents.
Though many people of all sexes are fully aware of the continuing existence of sexism and male privilege, and they are working tirelessly for its eradication, many others, however, fail to perceive its harmful effects on themselves and others. This apparent invisibility of sexism and male privilege in many “Western” countries, in fact, not only fortifies but, indeed, strengthens this form of oppression and privilege by perpetuating patriarchal power and control in such a way as to avoid detection.
I have heard some people refer to our current times as a “post-Feminist” era, where sexism and male privilege no longer impose major social barriers. They are referring to “Feminism,” which can be defined as the cultural, political, economic, and civil rights movement for the advancement of equality and equity between the sexes.
For me this brings to mind a cleaver and, I believe, insightful bumper sticker produced by the National Association for Women: “I’ll be Post-Feminist in the Post-Patriarchy.” Unfortunately, however, as we see in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, patriarchy is still alive and fully functioning.

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