The recently published photograph of some 50 of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs' wives took me aback, but maybe not for the reason you'd expect. The young women, all wearing long-sleeved pastel-colored dresses and arrayed as if they were posing for a class portrait, reminded me of my own eighth-grade graduation photo from Seattle's Holy Names Academy more than 50 years ago.
Like the ``celestial wives,'' we were all young, pretty, and wearing what, in 1957, was considered appropriate clothing for 13 and 14-year-olds. My dress was white, but most of my classmates' dresses were in those same pastel Easter egg tones so beloved of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints women. Our skirts were almost as long, and the neckines of our dresses covered us up to our collarbones.
There were several huge differences of course. Unlike Jeffs' brides, we knew our lives were just beginning, that years of education lay ahead of us, and that myriad choices were opening up for us. The nuns who were our teachers kept encouraging us to set high goals and work hard to achieve them. I can remember being told over and over again ``don't let anybody ever tell you that you can't do something just because you're a girl.'' And I think I can safely say that all of us in my class were virgins, and none of us were part of a selective breeding pattern intended to bring heavenly glory to one older man.
One of the things that distressed me as I've learned more and more about the very strange and very sick goings on in the FLDS, was that some of the leaders of the church were applying principles they used in breeding their cattle to the selection of their wives and the begetting of children: one old (and very perverted) bull servicing a field of heifers. ``Celestial wives'' were selected for their breeding potential, and intimacy between them and their husband were governed by a schedule based on the women's cycles, with the aim the conceiving as many children as possible. If this isn't the ultimate objectification of women, reducing each of them to little more than a receptive uterus, I can't imagine what else could be.
As I was reflecting on this, thoughts of a popular reality television program kept coming into my head. I am referring to ``The Bachelor,'' a program on which 25 willing young women are presented to a man who takes them on a series of exotic dates with the aim discovering which one is the right one for him. I actually watched this show one season with the kind of fascination one would bring to observing the aftermath of a train wreck. The potential brides are arrayed in their finest clothing, jewelry, hair styles, and makeup, and are falling all over one another in their efforts to demonstrate that they're ``there for the right reasons'' and that they're ``there for (fill in Bachelor's name here).'' They don't even know who the man is when they start the show, and yet they were all vying to demonstrate their willingness to do anything this potential mate asked of them, and ultimately to marry him.
They may have been dressed more fashionably than the FLDS women, but their roles weren't terribly different. They mainly hung out around the harem -- a big house in the hills above Malibu-- until they were summoned to spend some time with the bachelor. Certainly they have better control of their fertility than the FLDS women, but their time in the ``fantasy suite'' with the bachelor struck me as sex almost as ritualized as it apparently was on the special beds Warren Jeffs had made for the temple on the YFZ ranch in Texas.
Then last night I happened to catch a segment of ``Toddlers & Tiaras,'' a reality show tracking child beauty pageants. I covered these when I was a journalist working in Louisiana, so the excesses that were shown on the program weren't particularly surprising to me. There's the grotesque display of three-year-old girls wearing false eyelashes, false teeth, full-body makeup, earrings, massive wigs, and more sequins and glitter than you'd see on a Vegas showgirl.
I saw one mother rehearsing her child's ``talent'' presentation. (Trust me, the threshold for ``talent'' for a three year old is pretty low). She encouraged the child to turn her back to the judges and shake her bottom, with the mom calling out ``tushie tushie tushie'' to encourage her daughter's efforts. And another mother commented to the camera as she was supervising the application of makeup on her daughter's face that she wanted her child to look so good that ``the judges would want to take a bite out of her.'' The contestants who were old enough to remember any dance steps were performing moves you'd expect to see done by Lady Gaga's backup dancers, not by little girls still too young to write their own names.
You can tell me about scholarships and poise and opportunities for these little girls until the cows come home, and you can also point out that there's a companion show to ``The Bachelor'' in which a young woman gets her pick of 25 male candidates. But at bottom, both of these shows remind me of what Warren Jeffs sought in and did to women. It's the objectification and commodification of females that just gives me shivers. Factor in the premature sexualization of toddler girls, and there you are, back in FLDS land, in my opinion.They're all terribly disempowering to women.
And this all takes me to Anders Behring Breivik who last month slaughtered more than 70 people in Norway. I've read many parts of his lengthy manifesto and seen his video, both of which are available in many places online. What does he hate and fear more than anything else? It's the idea of the matriarchy and the empowerment of women. He was unsuccessful in reaching his primary target, Gro Harlem Bruntland, who was Norway's prime minister for more than 10 years. Bruntland, who was Norway's first female prime minister, is a physician who went on to serve as president of the World Health Oranization after leaving government. She's affectionately known as ``landsmoderen,'' or ``mother of the nation.''
Breivik blamed Bruntland for the ``feminization'' of Norway and the ``emasculation'' of white male-dominated Europe. And what did Warren Jeffs say to his celestial wives, many of whom were barely even pubescent? He told them to ``keep sweet,'' and explained that this meant being ``submissive and obedient.''
It strikes me that this is all related. Rule by the patriarchy is, I hope, in its death throes. But it's dying hard and as that dinosaur thrashes around on the ground, lashing out with its teeth, claws and tail, the most bizarre excesses are played out before our eyes: ``spiritual wives'' being ritually deflowered before an audience in a temple, young women in a reality show cattle call to see if any of them please the designated bachelor, three-year-old hoochie mommas performing in eye shadow and bare midriffs, and, finally teenagers shot down in cold blood because they were daring to build a diverse, democratic and open nation.
I'm not a bitter separatist. I'm the daughter of a man, the mother of two men, sister of a man, widow of a man. I'm blessed to have wonderful kind compassionate creative smart and competent men in my circle of friends and I'm grateful for the richness they've brought to my life. But I don't have any use for the patriachy any more, not in any form whatsoever. It doesn't seem to have done the world a lot of good.
That doesn't mean I want to set the matriarchy up as the dominant paradigm either. We women have our excesses, too. I guess what I'd like is a neither-archy, and a movement beyond any kind of ``power over'' with an egalitarian ``power with'' mode in its place. Goddess only knows we don't need any more of the patriarchy's abuses. As a Pagan woman, I've chosen a non-patriarchal religious life, and I only hope this option will someday seem desirable to those I'm seeing so heavily under the patriarchy's thumb.