Family

Misogyny Among Jehovah's Witnesses

Wedding cake with plastic bride and groom on top

Origin and effects of female submission


At a Jehovah's Witnesses wedding, amid the joy and celebration, a striking moment is captured through a child's eyes. The child presents a handmade gift to the bride. It's a drawing, simple yet heartfelt, depicting a happy couple holding hands with a black puppy between them, all smiles. Above this innocent portrayal of marital bliss, the child's handwriting, uneven and unsteady, conveys a biblical quote: "You wives, be in subjection to your husbands, as it is becoming the lord." This quote is then followed by a personal message, reflecting a belief ingrained from an early age: "Which means Dave is the boss." This note, while touching in its naiveté, unwittingly echoes a deeper, more complex issue within the Jehovah's Witnesses organization – the systemic misogyny that impacts its members from the youngest age.

Misogyny, the ingrained prejudice against women, manifests in various societal and cultural contexts, including religious organizations. The Jehovah's Witnesses are among the denominations that are well known for putting a strong emphasis on feminine subordination. This article aims to dissect the layers of misogyny within the Jehovah's Witnesses, exploring its doctrinal roots, cultural expressions, and the psychological and social ramifications for women in the faith.

Child's drawing and note to a brideDoctrinal Foundations

The literal interpretation of scriptures that is a hallmark of Jehovah's Witnesses siginificantly influences their perspectives on gender roles. Central to their understanding is the concept of "headship", based on texts such as Ephesians 5:23: "For the husband is head of the wife" and 1 Corinthians 11:3: "...the head of the woman is the man." These verses, written by the the Apostle Paul, form the basis for the modern teachings of the Watchtower regarding the roles of men and women.

The Apostle Paul lived in a complex socio-cultural milieu shaped by Greco-Roman influences. The society in which he lived was hierarchichal and patriarchal, with women being largely relegated to domestic roles. Their participation in public life was limited; they were not allowed to speak in public gatherings. These standards were the cultural norms and they shape the context of Paul's writing.

Also, Paul's heritage as a Jew and his expertise in Jewish law played roles in the perspective from which he wrote. According to Jewish law and tradition of the time, women were not equal to men. One example of legally-supported misogyny involved accusations of adultery: the law allowed a husband to accuse his wife of adultery and punish her based solely on suspicion, with no requirement for evidence or witnesses. This allowance of groundless judgment did not apply to accusations from the wife.

Selective Adoption of Biblical Standards

Interestingly, the Watchtower uses Paul's writings on women as one of the bases for their own interpretation of gender roles, yet they selectively ignore other doctrinal standards that Paul promoted. His teachings on slavery, for example, demonstrate a notable inconsistency in Watchtower's interpretations. 

While the Watchtower fully uphold his teachings on gender roles, they do not endorse his acceptance of slavery as a social norm. Yet both of these topics, a woman's subjugation to men and a slave's subjugation to their masters, were frequent themes in Paul's writings. The entire letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, for example, is a personal letter to a slave owner, Philemon, concerning his slave, Onesimus. In the letter, Paul never demands emancipation of Onesimus, instead asking Philemon to treat his slave kindly. 

The Watchtower never adopts Paul's views on slavery; their treatment of that topic reflects a modern understanding that views slavery as morally and ethically reprehensible, a violation of modern society's standards of human rights. While not taking a literal interpretation of Paul's instructions on slavery, the Watchtower selectively adopts his views on women as the foundation for their own doctrines. This is an example of interpretive flexibility, allowing the religion to set aside certain first-century cultural norms that are not acceptable or relevant today, while strictly adhering to others.

The doctrinal stance on women’s roles is deeply embedded in the culture of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It influences marriage dynamics, where wives are expected to be in subjection to their husbands. This dynamic is reinforced again and again in Witness life: through frequent articles and study material discussed at meetings and repeated references in meetings parts. A wedding talk at a wedding of Jehovah's Witnesses almost always features the officiant (always a man) reminding the new bride that she will not be treated equally and that she should humbly accept her role as "helper". In public and in private, men and women are often given counsel and advice in personal situations, where women are encouraged to be supportive and submissive, even in challenging circumstances.

From a young age, both boys and girls are socialized into these roles. Literature for children and young people, as demonstrated in the child's letter to Dave's bride, often depicts women and girls in traditionally domestic and submissive roles. The organization's literature and broadcasts frequently reiterate these themes, setting a clear expectation for young women's futures centered around marriage, motherhood, and congregational activities where they play a supportive role.

This environment can have profound psychological effects on Jehovah’s Witness women. The internalization of submissive roles can impact self-esteem, personal autonomy, and mental health. Women in the religion commonly feel undervalued or even trapped in unhappy marriages, as divorce is condemned except in cases of adultery. 

In fact, if there is one area in which Witness men and women are given unilateral treatment, it is in the permanence of marital bonds. The husband is bound by the same rules as the wife; in other words, even if both spouses are unhappy in their marriage, they are each stuck in the union unless the other one strays. In that regard, at least, male and female Witnesses are equal.

Biblical Interpretation Cognitive Dissonance Critical Thinking Doctrinal Origins Family Misogyny Morals and Ethics Women's Roles and Rights

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