Jehovah’s Witnesses are a patriarchal society where women are to view men as their head. Only males are permitted to hold positions of responsibility and teaching in the congregation. Watchtower portrays sisters demeaningly as “belonging in the kitchen.”
If you are a girl growing up in a Witness family, your self worth is being diminished by Watchtower’s view of women. Being aware of this will help you avoid undervaluing your abilities, and be alert to sexist men using such views to victimise you on the basis of your gender.
Image Source: Watchtower 2009 Jul 15 p.9
The Headship Arrangement
Watchtower uses Paul’s comment that “The head of a woman is the man” (1 Cor 11:3) to demonstrate how women are to view men both in marriage and the congregation.
“Women, Why Submit to Headship? … The headship arrangement is of divine origin. After Adam was created, Jehovah God went on to say: “It is not good for the man to continue by himself. I am going to make a helper for him” … You wives, be in subjection to your own husbands…” Watchtower 2010 May pp.12-13 Study Ed.
All leadership roles within Jehovah’s Witnesses are filled by men. Sisters fill only the very bottom position of the organisational hierarchy. The most senior position for women is that of pioneer, and whilst presented as a privilege is really just a sales role utilising free labour to grow the religion.
Image Source: Watchtower 2013 Apr 15 p.29
Sisters are not to teach brothers in spiritual matters, with only brothers given teaching assignments. This is graphically illustrated by viewing the videos on JW Broadcasting, which are hosted only by brothers, predominantly older white men. The following tv.jw.org snapshot was from March 2019.
Watchtower extends this concept to truly pedantic extremes, such as changing the song “Guard Your Heart” to “We Guard Our Hearts” in the 2016 edition of “Sing Out Joyfully” because when sisters sang “guard your heart” brothers may be offended they were being told what to do by women. (Watchtower 2017 Nov p.7 Study ed.)
When I was living at Bethel, sisters were forbidden from sitting at the foot or head of the dining room tables out of respect for brothers, a purely misogynistic rule without any Scriptural support.
Where no brothers are available to handle teaching assignments, leaving no option other than a sister filling to role, she is required to wear a head covering as demonstration of her submission to the headship arrangement.
“Occasionally, though, circumstances may require that a Christian woman be called on to handle a duty normally performed by a qualified baptized male… Because such activities are really extensions of the Christian congregation, she would wear a head covering to acknowledge that she is handling the duty normally assigned to a male.”
Image and Quote Source: Keep Yourselves in God’s Love (2015) Appendix “Head Coverings — When and Why?”
A submissive wife submission is praised. Whilst it is said subjection to men is not undignified, Watchtower makes it so encompassing that it is hardly anything but.
““Let wives be in subjection to their husbands as to the Lord,” wrote the apostle Paul. (Eph. 5:22) This statement in no way suggests an undignified position. … There is also the matter of being economical. A foolish woman likely squanders her family’s hard-earned resources. A supportive wife is not like that. She cooperates with her husband in financial matters. Her way of doing things is marked by prudence and economy. She does not pressure her husband to work overtime. … Being exemplary in a supportive role may be a challenge for a wife when her husband makes a decision she disagrees with. Even then, she manifests a “quiet and mild spirit” and cooperates with him to make his decision work.” Watchtower 2011 May 15 pp.8-10
“Before studying the Bible, I didn’t think that my husband ought to be the head of the family. I liked to make many decisions on my own. … Slowly it became easier for me to be submissive, and my husband has noticed these changes in me.” Watchtower 2008 Nov 1 pp.11-12
Well into the twenty first century, Watchtower illustrations reflect the sexist view that women belong in the kitchen.
Image Source: Watchtower 2012 Jun 15 p.31
The results of a misogynistic, male dominated religion can be tragic, with three areas particularly worthy of consideration:
- Domestic Violence
- Child Abuse
Watchtower speaks out against domestic violence, insisting husbands show love and kindness to their wives, who are permitted to leave an abusive husband.
“Should the battered wife leave her husband? The Bible does not treat marital separation lightly. At the same time, it does not oblige a battered wife to stay with a man who jeopardizes her health and perhaps her very life. … Since the Bible does not forbid separation in extreme circumstances, what a woman does in this matter is a personal decision. … Spouse abuse is a brazen violation of Bible principles. … No husband who claims to be a follower of Christ can really say that he loves his wife if he abuses her.” Awake! 2001 Nov 8 p.12
Whilst allowing separation, Watchtower exerts social pressure for victims of domestic violence to remain with their husbands. Articles praise sisters that remain with abusive husbands, enduring violent abuse with the hope that the non-believing mate with be “won over,” change and convert.
“Selma recalls a lesson she learned from the Witness who studied with her. “On one particular day,” says Selma, “I didn’t want to have a Bible study. The night before, Steve had hit me as I had tried to prove a point, and I was feeling sad and sorry for myself. After I told the sister what had happened and how I felt, she asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. As I did, I began to reason, ‘Steve never does any of these loving things for me.’ But the sister made me think differently by asking, ‘How many of those acts of love do you show toward your husband?’ My answer was, ‘None, for he is so difficult to live with.’ The sister softly said, ‘Selma, who is trying to be a Christian here? You or Steve?’ Realizing that I needed to adjust my thinking, I prayed to Jehovah to help me be more loving toward Steve. Slowly, things started to change.”After 17 years, Steve accepted the truth. Watchtower 2012 Feb 1 p.29
In 2018, Jehovah’s Witness wives were again encouraged to endure domestic violence as a way to praise Jehovah, on the off-chance an unbelieving “mate became a true worshipper.” Separation was only sanctioned for “extremely physically abusive” situations, and wives that remain despite extreme abuse are praised as “loyal Christians.” This shockingly dangerous advice creates social pressure for Jehovah’s Witness to remain as victims of severe abuse and violence.
“He might be extremely physically abusive, even to the point that she feels that her health or life is in danger. He might refuse to support her and the family or severely endanger her spirituality. … some Christians have personally decided that … a separation is necessary. But other Christians in comparably difficult situations have not; they have endured and tried to work on improving matters. … Many loyal Christians have remained with an unbelieving mate under very trying circumstances.” Watchtower 2018 Dec p.14
The article advised against separation, suggesting the battered wife consider the “challenges” of separation, explained on page 12 to be her material and sexual needs, loneliness, and ability to raise her children “in the truth”.
Whilst Watchtower articles paint the violent husband as an unbelieving mate, domestic violence also occurs when the husband is a Jehovah’s Witness. My Father dealt with Domestic violence as a Circuit Overseer, describing to me the difficult position of having to remove a number of elders for domestic violence.
Misogynistic teachings about women and headship foster domestic violence.
“As theology professor Steven Tracy wrote in 2008: “It is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.”” ABC News: ‘Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God 22 Oct 2018
Watchtower handling of child abuse accusations applies to both genders, but is included here as it is more common to affect female Jehovah’s Witness children. Watchtower has come under extensive criticism for how it deals with accusations of child abuse, with the 2015 Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse highlighting numerous ways Watchtower policy protects the guilty in favour of child victims of abuse. The antiquated processes show evidence of being formulated by old, mostly childless, male leaders.
When a judicial committee is formed, it is entirely inappropriate that a young woman is required to sit alone in front of three older male elders to determine their own guilt and that of the pedophile. Such an arrangement would never have been instituted if women had a role in assisting establish Watchtower policy. There is Scriptural precedence for women to be involved in working alongside elders, as the Old Testament speaks of Deborah as a Judge and Prophet. There is no reason that an older sisters could not be involved in a Judicial Committee, in the same capacity as the elders, or supporting the accused.
An indication Watchtower’s male leaders are clueless in formulating policy around child abuse is a questionnaire answering elders whether they felt “the victim was somewhat at fault or willingly participated in the acts?”
Watchtower used to say women can bear responsibility for being raped.
“Thus if a Christian woman does not cry out and does not put forth every effort to flee, she would be viewed as consenting to the violation.” Watchtower 1964 Jan 15 pp.63-4
“Why you should resist an attacker from the first moment: … Your conscience will be clear. (Even if you are raped, you will not sacrifice your self-respect or cleanness before God)” Awake! 1986 May 22 p.23
It is common for rape victims to freeze in terror, and be unable to scream or fight back. As if the horror and lasting affects of rape is not enough to bear, Watchtower burdens Jehovah’s Witness rape victims with the guilt they may have been responsible and sinned in the eyes of Jehovah. This deplorable concept is unforgivable, as how hard a victim should resist is a subjective measure, leaving victims struggling with the guilt of whether they did not fight back hard enough to be forgiven by Jehovah for being raped. A woman never deserves to be blamed for her own rape, regardless of whether or not she fought back or screamed.
1993 seemed to signify change when Awake! stated a rape victim does not bear responsibility and has not committed fornication.
“Myth: A rape victim bears part of the blame unless she actively resists. …. It is the rapist’s use of force against an unwilling victim that makes him a rapist. Thus, a rape victim is not guilty of fornication.” Awake! 1993 Mar 8 pp.4-5
Yet Watchtower continues to leave victims feeling that if they do not struggle enough there is uncertainty as to how Jehovah will prescribe blame.
“Even so, some Christian women who have been attacked and violated are incessantly pained by feelings of guilt. In hindsight, they feel that they should have done more to prevent the incident from happening.” Watchtower 2003 Feb 1 pp.30-31
My Book of Bible Stories is still in distribution and appeared on jw.org as of 18th Mar 2019. When discussing the rape of Dinah, it asks the question,
“Why did Dinah bear a measure of responsibility for losing her virginity?” Story 20
Whilst it is wise to be aware of dangers posed in certain circumstances, it should never be indicated that a victim “bears responsibility” for rape.
The 2013 art project “What were you wearing?” by Jen Brockman and Dr. Mary A. Wyandt-Hiebert graphically highlights clothing is not the cause of rape, showing a range of clothing styles worn by victims.
Watchtower speaks highly of Jehovah’s Witness sisters, praising their accomplishments and value to the organization. Articles appear regularly discussing the faith and effort applied in the preaching work.
“there are more than 1,000,000 Witnesses in the full-time service. In most lands, the majority of these are women. Jehovah has given women the privilege to represent him. Thus, the words of the psalmist have certainly been fulfilled: “Jehovah gives the command; the women proclaiming the good news are a large army.”” Watchtower 2014 Aug Study Ed.(Simplified)
It is said God directed for women to be respected, and not considered inferior.
“Did God create woman inferior to man? No. What shows God’s concern for women? … the Law commanded honor and respect for both father and mother.” Watchtower 2012 Sep 1 p.4
In light of Watchtower’s view of women in relation to men, this praise is condescending, recognising the work they do in their limited capacity within Watchtower’s organisational structure. Even when appearing positive, Watchtower terminology is demeaning.
“The woman was a gift from God to Adam. And she was a perfect helper for him.” Watchtower 2014 Aug Study Ed.(Simplified)
Paying lip service to equality deflects attention from the core teaching that women are to submit themselves to men. The headship arrangement devalues women and has tragic consequences in situations such as domestic violence, child abuse and rape.
This condescending attitude is a residue from the culture present at the time this 1930s article was written by Watchtower. Here it was posited that once the earth has transformed into a paradise, and there is no more need for childbirth, women may transform into men.
Golden Age 1930 Apr 2 p.446
Samuel Herd, member of the Governing Body since 1999, justified female subjection on the basis that their smaller brain size makes them less intelligent.
“You know, scientists say that the cranial capacity of a woman is 10% smaller than that of a man so now this shows that she’s just not equipped for the role of headship. Her role is one of subjection to the man. Her role is that of submissiveness and that means that she should recognize that she is a woman and be glad to be a woman.” The Value of Our Theocratic Sisters Samuel Herd, Oakland CA 1971
It is disturbing the Governing Body is run by men prone to such ignorant statements. Brain size does not determine intelligence, just ask an elephant. IQ tests show the average intelligence of males and females is the same.
The Governing Body’s view of women and how they address topics such as rape, child abuse and domestic violence should make you question whether they are fit to direct your life. Watchtower’s leadership structure, strict imposition of the headship arrangement and minimisation of women’s role in teaching means positive change is unlikely any time soon. If you are a young woman, do not allow this to prevent you from being the best person you can be, or achieving your goals and dreams.