In the first part of my response to Stephanie Gordon’s Ask Your Husband: A Catholic Guide for Femininity, published by TAN Books, I drilled down into the foundation of Tim and Stephanie Gordon’s shared understanding of Christian patriarchy to show how the concept of a “male household priest” is foreign to the Catholic understanding of the baptismal priesthood and domestic church. Today, I will explore the specific duties that Gordon ascribes to her rigidly constructed image of “the Catholic wife,” as well as the grave risks posed by the things she considers moral imperatives to women’s spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being.
Resisting Feminist “Infiltration”
Fulfilling the role of the “authentically feminine” submissive wife involves following a number of rules Gordon articulates throughout the book. These rules are both explicitly and implicitly “anti-feminist,” (p. 34) and revolve around the two absolutely “morally mandatory” requirements of wives and mothers being physically at home (p. 106) and that all things a woman does “take place so as to accommodate the husband” (p. 96).
By no means an exhaustive list, here is a selection of the guidance offered in the book to the aspiring anti-feminist wife:
- “the Lord doesn’t view childrearing by daycare and public school as an alternative to that of a loving mother attending the hearth of the home.” (p. 22) This assertion comes in the context of repeated denigration of the use of outside childcare in order for a woman to pursue her own work or career, labeling it “childrearing by daycare” and assuming it constitutes abandonment of maternal duty. Gordon backs up her religious prescriptions here with citations from social science research to claim that daycare is damaging to children’s mental and physical well-being (pp. 108-109).
- “Going to work at a job is never a valid wifely answer to the question ‘what do you do in your spare time?’.” (p. 28) This prohibition of women’s work outside of the home is absolute and applies even to St. Gianna Molla, a physician and mother, about whom Gordon spends more than six pages explaining that she committed sin so grave that it could rightly be analogized to St. Paul’s pre-conversion slaughter of innocent Christians “as a distinction of degree, not kind: one is bad; the other is worse.” (p. 113)
- “The Church teaches the woman is to be the practically ever-present heart of the home” and not leave it except with her husband’s permission (p. 30)
- “Even though certain activities enhance and strengthen our vows, our fulfilment ultimately comes by means of our vocation as wives and mothers,” not through work (p. 30)
- “As my sex dictates, most everything I’ve learned about the faith has come from the tutelage of men: my husband, his fellow students, Church Fathers, and of course from the male writers of Scripture.” (p. 40)
- “female education in the Catholic tradition is permissive, not mandatory, and if done, faithful Catholic woman [sic] should be educated in one of the classical, not practical, disciplines” (p. 49)
- “A wife must have fun with her husband lest she lose her status as his best friend.” (p. 71)
- “Men with families must work. Yet they are now applying for jobs they are statistically less likely to secure than they once were. As such, they now constitute the disadvantaged sex. Today, woke companies prefer to hire less qualified women in place of more qualified men in the name of inclusivity and diversity…If more women took themselves out of the workforce, then it would be easier for your (and others’) heads of households to find jobs that provide competitive wages.” (p. 101-102)
- “If conditions in the home are such that poverty begins to approach destitution, and one parent needs to work a second job outside the home, it must be the father.” (p. 106)
- “Being ‘made for birth and children’ means that one forsakes all pursuits that prove to be distractions from birthing and childrearing.” (p. 151)
- Quoting St Josemaria Escriva’s assertion in a 1972 interview: “Women are responsible for 80% of men’s infidelities” (p. 212)
To any woman who reads this list and objects, Gordon’s responses are often flippant and argumentative or dismissive. “The short answer is suck it up, buttercup. The long answer is God called you to the married vocation and you chose it. Take it up with him,” is one such characteristic reply (p. 107). The end of her chapter against working wives is even harsher:
“So, if you’re a woman who doesn’t enjoy homemaking or find it unfulfilling, ask God to change your heart. More aptly, cope. Do your job (your real job): caring for your own home and family. Soon, you will find dignity and joy. You alone, by your own actions and decisions, can grant yourself the surest path to earthly happiness and even a heightened chance at otherworldly salvation. And no, you can’t hire some other random woman to do that for you either.” (p. 169).
Rather than dispassionately engaging with complex moral questions, Gordon denigrates anyone who disagrees or is uncomfortable with what she has to say, frequently using social media buzzwords and phrases like “cope” and “facts, as they say, have no use for your feelings” (p. 15).
Assertions, not arguments
In this book, Gordon presents countless assertions that one could engage at length, particularly about working women and the authoritative teachings of the Church on this issue. That said, she does not seriously engage opposing views or make strong arguments for her positions. In some chapters, Gordon attempts to use Aquinas’s disputed question approach to respond to what she anticipates are possible objections to her position. But unlike Aquinas, who would take his opponent’s strongest argument and systematically address it, Gordon often takes on weak counter-arguments or presents unconvincing analogies to related issues. In some cases. the arguments act as a sort of window-dressing for lengthy block quotes from Scripture or Church documents that are favorable to her position, while waving away others that do not.
To be clear, Ask Your Husband does not set out to persuade its readers as much as it tries to present Gordon’s answer to the question she asks in the penultimate chapter, “What would an authentically feminine woman do?” (p. 219) in various situations. In making her case, the promises she makes and warnings she gives are geared towards appealing to the reader’s values and emotions. This approach is probably far more effective at persuading her audience to adopt her understanding of being a Catholic wife than her arguments.
Gordon also makes many admonitions and condemnations in this book. The purpose of these is twofold: they will affirm for readers the value of the book’s recommendations that they are already doing, and they will induce guilt or shame for making choices that don’t align with the book’s ideological views. To be clear, Ask Your Husband condemns many things the Church allows, such as working outside the home, finding fulfillment in a career, sending children to daycare, or even having personal interests. What this book proposes not only contradicts the Church, but is also harmful to women. It preys on fears of displeasing God or husband while leaving women little recourse for reconciling any difficulties in their own consciences.
The notion of “discernment”—or even the idea that not all of these rules apply in every situation—is not part of the book; there is just the ideal and repeated encouragement to attempt to reach it. Pity is only reserved for those who, due to circumstances, cannot attain this ideal. She concedes that a widowed or abandoned wife is allowed to work due to necessity (but ought not enjoy it). In fact, even a woman having her own ideas of what might be best—or God’s will—for her are viewed with suspicion. As Stephanie Gordon said in the video for the book’s release:
“Even good Catholic women, myself included, you don’t realize how infiltrated you are by feminism until you really star taking a deep dive and look at yourself and just kind of your habits, and the things that you’re doing, and the way you’re relating with your husband. And so even for myself, you know, daily and weekly I have to kind of check myself.”
Duty, not discernment
Throughout the book, there are calls for self-examination, as well as a laundry list of “musts” and “nevers.” These foster mistrust in women regarding their own experiences and prayerful discernment. Stephanie admits that she still must “check” herself and be suspicious of her own motives and actions. And she presents this as a sort of healthy self-examination.
This duty-driven approach to the wifely vocation is ultimately Pelagian, and for Gordon becomes explicitly about earning heaven by heroic efforts. As she tells the tales of the “authentically feminine woman” (p. 219) in chapter seven, the emphasis is on how these women make themselves “indispensable” via self-sacrifice, exhaustion, and long-suffering. There is apparently no rest for the authentically feminine wife. This is especially evident in her telling of her own harrowing pregnancy and birth stories, or in her references to how she has personally seen the Lord use women in their husbands’ conversions. This nod to women in difficult marriages praises and reinforces the long-suffering “wife’s love, faithfulness, patience, and devotion to prayer [that] will earn her notice from her Savior,” (p. 261) and particular attention is paid to Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who is used as a model to draft a letter “intended for desperate Christian wives to share with their derelict husbands” (p. 287). Rather than emphasize God’s presence in wifely suffering and desire to console weary and discouraged women, Gordon instead points ahead to the heavenly reward which must be earned in order to motivate the reader. Perseverance in submission is the only option.
This spiritual message denies women the knowledge of the consoling grace and mercy which God offers, and downplays women’s belovedness by God in order to uphold a system of constrained female roles in the service of men. Coupled with the idea that the man alone possesses the lay priesthood, women find themselves also deprived of the great dignity that comes in being conformed to Christ, and called to participate in his priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices in their unique way. Women who eventually emerge from a system such as this will have to reject, therefore, not only their ideas about marriage, but about God Himself. This sort of deprivation of a true, intimate relationship with God is nothing short of spiritual abuse of women. But just as importantly, the regressive ideas in the book pose a risk of temporal harm to women, their husbands, their children, and their marriages.
Who’s the Boss?
Although it is wrapped in a theological veneer–a demonstrably thin one–it is clear that what we are reading about here is Gordon’s own preference for the “Catholic alpha male” (p. 11). “Ask yourselves who the boss is: husband or wife; that is, who sounds like the head and who sounds like the subordinate?” (p. 15). Moving far beyond Pauline instructions to submit–mutually or otherwise–the role has been rigidly defined: one spouse dominates, the other submits (and likes it). The husband is “like a medieval king…calling him boss is the cheapest honorarium we can pay him” (pp. 15-16). (The term “boss” in reference to the husband occurs 24 times in the book; my puzzled chagrin at this fact is waved away by Gordon: “Ladies, your husband is your boss, plain and simple. If you don’t care for the word boss, take it up with God.” (p. 15)) In the video for the book release posted to Tim’s YouTube channel, Gordon put it even more bluntly: “He’s allowed to tell you what to do, right? He can say, ‘hey you guys, I would like this not that; I’d like this meal not that meal; I want; we’re going here; this is where we’re moving; this, I’m switching careers, I’m doing that. Like, he’s allowed to do that.”
The book is about what “the subordinate” and “authentically feminine” (chapter 7) wife ought to do, and it is here that Gordon naively wades into truly dangerous waters by normalizing marital structures of power and control that are well-known to lead to and be a part of domestic abuse and violence. We see this normalization in many of the stories she shares from her own experiences. That so many of these very revealing comments (“My husband had to enforce new rules that led me to delete most of my social media accounts” (p. 34)) and ideas that seem to have been gleaned from personal experience (“if you are currently overweight, his physical attraction to you is severely waning” (p. 185)) made it through the editorial process and into the final book is frankly embarrassing for the author, her editor, and the publisher, TAN Books.
Gordon doesn’t really acknowledge or engage the possibility that some men insist that they are the “boss” so they can control, abuse, or denigrate women. Gordon does not take seriously objections to patriarchy or submission that regard it as dangerous. She instead treats objections dismissively or derisively, and often with weighty culture-war associations—such as to “transgenderism” (in the case of women assuming the tasks of “derelict husbands”) (p. 268). In Gordon’s view, “the culture” causes women to mistake strong heads of households with “alpha psychology” for bullies. She writes, “the culture intentionally blurs the lines between a devoted Christian husband who faithfully executes his God-given role as boss of the house and a bully who must be put in his place.” (p. 84) In contrast to Gordon’s culture-war posture on spousal abuse, Catholic leaders such as the USCCB have acknowledged that: “Religion can be either a resource or a roadblock for battered women. … As a roadblock, its misinterpretation can contribute to the victim’s self-blame and suffering and to the abuser’s rationalizations.”
As is common with many Christian resources on marriage, Gordon assumes “parties of good will” (p. 12) and repeatedly generalizes about “most Christian men” and how they will act, minimizing the “less common” abusive or addicted man and failing to offer any guidance—besides sin—about what might constitute “red flags”. Men are assumed to have good motives, and are to be given benefit of the doubt in all demands. There are no references or footnotes referring women to domestic abuse hotlines or websites, which is generally considered a best practice for a resource of this nature.
The very first mention of possible abuse of male authority in the book is in a dismissive counterpoint: “Most Christian women of our day assume it’s almost an abusive practice for the husband to be managerially aware of his wife’s goings on throughout the day” (p. 18). The reason most Christian women might assume this–correctly–is because “managerial” awareness (as opposed to courteous communication) is indeed a practice of “coercive control,” a type of psychological abuse that is found in almost all domestic abuse cases. Yet Gordon downplays and normalizes the more controlling version in this section, by mixing in extreme versions of control of a woman’s whereabouts with typical forms of communication:
“At some level, intimate couples–even if they don’t consider themselves hardcore anti-feminists–already function to some degree in this manner. Common sense, rather than a control freak husband, dictates that the gentler sex must be cloistered at some level. My husband and I have always been in communication during the day, which is not atypical. This much makes sense even to my non-anti-feminist friends. And when I’ve had to leave home, I’ve nearly never been ‘disallowed’ from doing so. (I say nearly because occasionally, my judgment was lacking by suggesting running an errand to the bad part of town. In such rare cases, I praise Jesus for the protective and loving husband he gave me.)” (p. 18)
This anecdote, paired with the “common sense” assertion about “cloistering” women, shows that Gordon’s “bar” for admitting abuse may be taking place is quite higher than it really is; meanwhile, her own lack of trust in her own judgment about her personal safety is itself quite revealing. This and other advice offered in the book prime women to accept as normal and “Christian” allowing one’s husband to control her movement and personal activities—to the point of accepting that she may sometimes rightly be denied the ability to leave her home.
Putting Women at Risk
Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychologist who works in the area of violence against women, in her book Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, writes about the common signs and risk factors for spousal abuse. These signs include husbands who make demands about “leaving the house,” “wearing certain clothes,” “pursuing hobbies or other interests,” “taking care of the house,” “taking care of your appearance,” “career or job path,” “eating or weight,” and “having sex.” Ask Your Husband not only encourages wives to obey their boss-husbands who make such demands, but gives these forms of control spiritual value and religious justification. This book could lead vulnerable readers to distrust their own instincts and continue to ignore red flags. It is not a stretch to say that the combative anti-feminism in Ask Your Husband veers into enabling abuse.
Gordon is careful to carve out some exceptions, but they are not adequate for a book of this nature—or for the 30% of Catholic women who experience domestic abuse in their lifetimes. That said, she does provide one explicit caveat that women do not need to expose themselves or their children to grave danger, in a section titled “Less Common and More Important: Submission When There Is Abuse, Neglect, or Addiction”:
“Up to this point, this book has assumed that wives ought to be submitting to their rightly ordered (or largely rightly ordered) Christian husbands. Once more, I tender the question for the careful consideration of the reader: does a wife have to submit to a husband who is not living out Christian principles? We have already stated the answer is yes, but there are important distinctions that need to be made. Husbands are not allowed to order their wives to violate Church teaching. Nor are husbands allowed to violate Church teaching themselves. One final important note: submission to one’s husband does not extend to subjecting yourself and your children to harm.” (p. 262)
It is good that she confronts abuse directly, and that she says that women may separate if necessary. At the same time, this is the only part of the book that discusses the harm a woman might suffer, and harms are defined narrowly rather than broadly. Gordon uses the terms “grave danger,” referring to both “physical threat” and “grave spiritual peril,” as well as “real threat to their safety” (p. 262). But she then focuses on a lengthy discussion about the need to reunify the family. Because this section fails to adequately and carefully address the dynamics of spousal abuse, it could potentially contribute to denial by a wife about the gravity of her situation. This is particularly disconcerting given that women in situations of domestic abuse or coercive control are known to rationalize their situation in order to be justify staying, even when the abuse is escalating. Fontes discusses why women stay in situations of domestic abuse involving coercive control, saying, “The victimized partner stays because she is trying to make her life better and keep herself and her children safe. She may remember the good parts of the relationship and think that if only she could change something in herself, the relationship could be good again. She may believe her faith requires her to stay. She stays because she has nowhere else to go.”
In general, women are more likely to deny the gravity of the abuse they are suffering than they are to exaggerate it; therefore, the best practice when discussing potential abuse is to highlight “red flags” and provide resources for help and encouragement to seek them out, not to communicate that separation is recourse limited only to those in the gravest of circumstances.
The guidance given in Ask Your Husband primes women for both spiritual and domestic abuse. That this advice, which could prolong women’s and children’s suffering in abusive situations by enabling coercive control and blinding women to their reality, made it to publication in an ostensibly Catholic publishing house is deeply disturbing. It reveals either dangerously naïve ignorance about the reality of abuse against women or complicity in building and sustaining systems that will prolong it.
The next article in this series will examine the advice the Gordons offer for “making marriage great again” and explore how it contradicts the mutuality of God’s design for the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Image: Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Johannes Vermeer/Woman Holding a Balance/c. 1664,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/1236 (accessed March 18, 2022).
Rachel Amiri serves as Production Editor for Where Peter Is and has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.