Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Women run the family _ naturally, deftly

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Last weekend I mentioned to an Irish Catholic woman acquaintance of mine that I was going to Washington for a wedding and presumed I would have to thread my way through the huge Promise Keepers rally, adding no Irish Catholic male would dare go home and try to assume a place as head of the family.”Why should they want to take over?”she asked.”Their families are working perfectly well without them.” Women run the family. Naturally. Who else? Deftly and subtly, perhaps, but definitively. The Promise Keepers would have been much better advised to promise they would go home and help out with the housework.

There may still be some would-be patriarchs around who think they are the boss, and some of them may be dumb enough to try and act like they’re the boss. But wise men know herself is in charge and are content to let it be because she does such a good job.

The Promise Keepers rub me the wrong way.

I have a visceral reaction to their evangelical rhetoric _ especially when I’m returning home with a plane-load of them. Life, it seems to me, is a lot more complicated than their simple sincerity realizes. God is a lot more mysterious than their intense, but uninformed, reading of the Bible seems to suggest.

Moreover, simple, sincere, intense faith too easily becomes a club with which to hammer other people. Finally, the problems and the challenges which beset families in America will not be solved _ or even begin to be solved _ by something so simple as a public recommitment to marital promises. Would that such a solution might be enough.

Yet evangelicals are entitled to their rhetoric. All God talk is metaphor; I don’t especially like their metaphors, but unlike the feminists _ who took the rhetoric of the Promise Keepers much too seriously _ I don’t believe the language of the men’s movement should be interpreted literally. Nor does Promise Keepers language add anything to the opposition to feminism that has been characteristic of some elements in the evangelical tradition.

In fact, research evidence shows decision-making is shared in most American families between husband and wife, and among parents and children. Authoritarianism is out because wives and kids won’t tolerate it. Moreover, if the husband/father tries to impose a decision, he’ll usually discover the rest of the family pays no attention to him.

For weal or woe _ and I think it is for weal _ the American family is democratic. Within the democratic structure, the mother generally casts the decisive vote for the simple reason she is more likely than anyone else to be sensitive to the needs of all. She is, in effect, the precinct captain who perceives her job as being the one that keeps everyone happy, to arrive at consensual decisions with which everyone can live.

Of course there is plenty of patriarchy in our legal system and in the occupational market place. Men _ some men _ want to preserve their power wherever they can. But in the family context patriarchy doesn’t work any more _ if it ever did.

The democratic family works reasonably well. Maybe I can afford to see this self-evident truth because I don’t have a wife or a family. Maybe I am ready to admit it because my ethnic group has been run by its women for at least three millennia, and, as my friend pointed out briskly, run remarkably well.

However, no Promise Keeper in this right mind would dare go home and post a new set of ukases for family life. His wife and kids would laugh at him _ either to his face if it’s a healthy family, or behind his back in one less healthy.

If the Promise Keepers are really serious they would promise to do at least 40 percent of the housework _ which would probably quadruple what many of them currently do.