Episode 12: Breaking Down Patriarchy and the Women who Enforce it – with Heather Sundahl, Caroline Salisbury, & Heather Renfro

In this episode we tackle the particularly tricky topic of how women can—intentionally or unintentionally—become enforcers and perpetrators of patriarchy. Fortunately, we have not one, but three spectacular guests help us unpack this phenomenon by sharing their own experiences, emotions, and insights.

*Please note that this episode contains some explicit language, as well as limited discussion of sexual violence*

Episode 12: Breaking Down Patriarchy and the Women who Enforce it – with Heather Sundahl, Caroline Salisbury, & Heather Renfro

Heather Sundahl shares how she was raised to fear feminism, and how this ultimately led her to question the nature of power structures.

Carrie Salisbury talk to us about philosophy, patriarchal paper cuts, and the difficult journey to her own feminist awakening.

Heather Renfro trusts us with a brief, but deeply resonate re-telling of a formative, feminist memory.

Our Guests

Heather Sundahl

Heather Sundahl (she/her) is a writer and editor and studying to be a marriage & family therapist. Her favorite pastime is swapping stories with family and friends.

Caroline Salisbury

Caroline Salisbury (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, California where she works as a musician, educator and business entrepreneur. Caroline is mother to three children with her husband, pianist-composer Benjamin Salisbury. 

Heather Renfro

Heather Lewis Renfro (she/her) works as an educator at a high school in the San Francisco bay area and as a University Supervisor for beginning teachers. She is also a mom to two awesome teenagers.

PART ONE – Heather Sundahl

When the Oppressor is One of Your Own

I grew up in the 70s when the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment raged. Our family were typical Mormons, with my dad going off to work every day while my mom stayed home to raise us four kids. And gender roles, while not rigid, were enforced. Boys weeded. Girls vacuumed.

The leaders in Salt Lake City encouraged the Relief Society–the all-women’s organization in our church–to support the anti-ERA movement, headed by conservative activists like Phyllis Schlafly who created the “STOP ERA” campaign (STOP was an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”—chew on that for a minute!). While I wasn’t exactly sure why I was supposed to hate Bella Abzug and Sonia Johnson, my mom made sure I knew they were dangerous, like swimming after eating, or washing pop rocks down with Coke.

She assured me that Phyllis Schlafly was “one of us,” a woman who knew that equality was a dangerous threat to femininity. I asked why I was supposed to hate the ERA when equal rights sounded good? Mom explained that if the ERA passed, women could be put in combat, or worse, have to share a bathroom with a man. But if women were supposed to stay at home, why had Mrs. Schlafly run for Congress in 1952, 1960 and 1970? My mother muttered that she was an exception, and women like her would keep women like us safe.

my mom made sure I knew they were dangerous, like swimming after eating, or washing pop rocks down with Coke.

Though I was too young to articulate it, I was learning that within patriarchal structures, only a few special women were allowed in and given access to power. I wanted to be one of the chosen few, an elect lady, who was smart and talented without the caveat of “for a girl.”

When I got to BYU, it felt like there was a certain prescription for femininity and I didn’t have it. I became dismissive of most of the women around me. They were vapid and lacked ambition. Maybe men were in charge because they were better. I felt lonely. I prayed to find my place.

I attended a devotional that was featuring one of the few women who made up the church’s highest leadership (There are about 100 men at that level, and only 9 women). I don’t remember her name or what her topic was, but I will always remember this one line, “Sisters, women don’t need to be astronomers because we can sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to our babies.” It was ridiculous. I returned to my dorm and told my roommate, mocking the speaker’s voice, high and sing-song, and we laughed and laughed. But at some point I realized my guffaw had become a gasp. I was crying.  I wondered if God had made me a woman to punish me, allowing me the desire to reach for the stars, knowing I would be shamed if I tried.

My sophomore year I stayed home to work and went on a study abroad winter semester. Most of the teachers were men, but their wives were wicked smart, had advanced degrees, and cultivated their talents without apology. They were Bible scholars, renowned organists, PhDs. And they listened to me. Encouraged me. Made me feel seen. But I could still hear the Mistresses of Patriarchy in my head, telling me that a career focused education would be a waste if I wanted a family.

I became dismissive of most of the women around me. They were vapid and lacked ambition. Maybe men were in charge because they were better.

When I returned to BYU I sought out mostly female professors who supported women and began my feminist awakening. I started to better understand how patriarchal structures are designed to control who has power, and how the women I’ve come to call “Mistresses of Patriarchy” are created by such toxic systems, granting status to the few at the expense of the many.

Let’s talk about power for a second. Brené Brown observes that there are different ways of viewing power, that some “work from a position of power over” while others “work from a position of power with/to/within.” In a 1968 speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Power is the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to effect change.” There is no control in King’s definition. One group hoards power and views it as a finite quality which is used to manipulate; the other group believes that power expands when shared and is transformative.

Imagine then, what happens in a patriarchal structure, where power is finite and held almost exclusively by men. If there are positions open to women, the women chosen will be the ones who not only share the same “power over” view and who will uphold the status quo, but they will defend the structure and guard the power more aggressively than most men, because they live in fear of being rejected and continually have to reassure the patriarchy of their compliance.

I call them “Mistress” because of that word’s many meanings. A mistress is a woman in a position of authority or control—but usually one given that authority by a man. She is also the illicit companion of a man, betraying another woman in the process. Think Margaret Thatcher. Dolores Umbridge. Phyllis Schlafly. Betsy DeVos.

We all know these women and if you belong to a conservative religious tradition, you have seen them up close and personal. The president of the women’s organization who insists on running every decision by a male higher-up.  The girls’ camp director who takes pleasure in enforcing rules and may even make them more rigid than specified, especially where modesty is concerned. The youth chorister who will only let the boys sing “I hope they call me on a mission.”

It’s heartbreaking really. When power is exclusive and held only by a few, it’s easy to adopt the pie analogy and think that if more power is given to one, then power must necessarily be taken from another. This misconception encourages people to see anyone who’s not them as a threat: men vs, women; whites vs. POC;  cis-hets vs. queers, and on and on. It also makes out-group “token” people who are allowed access to power more likely to support an institution that actually oppresses them.

Recently I was helping my mom with a Storyworth question. My sister and I had bought it for her 88th birthday, hoping to get her to record her life in bite-size pieces. The question was, what is the bravest thing you’ve ever done? She was stumped and asked me because I’m the family’s story-keeper. I knew what I wanted her to share, but I was a little nervous. My mom is a rule follower and is proud of her loyalty to the religious authorities in her life, but she is also deeply compassionate and a good steward over whatever flock she serves.

In her 30s she had readily followed the council of her leaders into battle against the ERA. She was competent and compliant and was routinely put into positions of power (power over women—there are almost no instances in the Mormon church where a woman is in charge of a man). But by her 50s my mom had learned about some of the limitations of the patriarchal structure. My dad’s work did not provide insurance, so with two kids in college she took a job as a reading specialist at an elementary school that provided healthcare and supplemental income. After decades of staying at home, she liked working. She was well respected and made a huge difference in many kids’ lives.

In the mid-80s the head of the church gave a talk entitled “To the Mothers in Zion,” urging women to be wives and mothers. Full stop. No ‘and’. He quoted the previous prophet in saying, “I beg of you, you who could and should be bearing and rearing a family: Wives, come home from the typewriter, the laundry, the nursing, come home from the factory, the cafe. No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother—cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children. Come home, wives, to your husbands. Make home a heaven for them. Come home, wives, to your children, born and unborn. Wrap the motherly cloak about you and, unembarrassed, help in a major role to create the bodies for the immortal souls who anxiously await.”

The talk was controversial, with some women feeling vindicated and superior, and others feeling shamed and judged. It was a Molotov cocktail tossed into the brewing Mommy Wars.

One day a large box arrived from Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City. It contained hundreds of pamphlets to be distributed to the women of several congregations, over whom my mother presided. The pamphlets contained the “motherhood” talk.

My mom wrestled with her dilemma, whether or not to distribute the pamphlets. Many women in our congregations worked and for a variety of reasons. Who was she to judge? Would feeling guilty make them better women? Ultimately, my mom decided “it was between the sisters and the Lord, not me.”

My mother, who had so often been the only woman in the room, who had not abused that power but not challenged it either, had reached a tipping point.  She never distributed the pamphlets. She says she still wonders sometimes if she made the right decision. But forty years later, and with a better perspective, she stands by it. And it made a huge impression on my teenage self, seeing my mom use her power to choose women over patriarchy.

Like a Mistress of Patriarchy, Moses was raised to oppress his own, to keep them in line, to be the exception, but ultimately he could not turn his back on his people. Not for all the power in Egypt. In my mind I imagine my mother driving to the church parking lot at midnight and tossing the boxes into the dumpster. I picture her taking out a can of aerosol hairspray—Aquanet—and using a lighter to set the pamphlets ablaze. It’s like a burning bush and it is beautiful.

PART TWO – Caroline Salisbury

Papercuts of Patriarchy

In 1760, enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had this to say about educating women: “The woman’s entire education should be planned in relation to men, to please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, to care for them as adults. These are women’s duties in all ages, and these are what they should be taught from childhood.”

This Rousseau quote seems so exaggerated, almost like a caricature of what a man might believe about women, and most everyone I know would consider this an extreme view today. But in considering the layers of teaching, training and taming I’ve experienced over a lifetime of lessons from men and women, religious leaders, relatives and teachers, this view of women’s education and role in relation to men is still in effect in many places in the world.

It sure was the way I thought about myself and my talents for a very long time.

The most harmful impact patriarchy has had on my personal life over time is the slow, but relentless erosion of my inner sense of desire and autonomy. Upon adulthood, I had come to see my own abilities and talents as resources to be harvested for the service of others rather than skills or opportunities to chase my own ambitions. Patriarchy made it clear that my will, my hunger, my want and desire were only mine to surrender and never wield. I believed my worth was determined by how well I functioned as my assigned gender role in “God’s Plan of Happiness” for individuals and families.

It didn’t happen all at once, ignoring my own inner wisdom and wishes for the sake of checking off the boxes from the lists of “How to do female life correctly” which I had been given over the years. No, this death of desire came from the 1000 paper cuts of patriarchy, and it started when I was just a child.

In the deeply patriarchal religious culture where I was raised, there was a very specific chain of authority to be respected. God was a supreme male being who created all of us and made specific plans for our lives. Our happiness as individuals and families depended on the exactness with which we learned about and followed this proscribed plan.

The most harmful impact patriarchy has had on my personal life over time is the slow, but relentless erosion of my inner sense of desire and autonomy.

The plan was written by men, ancient prophets who documented commandments as scripture and was taught and interpreted by what my faith tradition calls “living prophets” – specific men in authority who were given exclusive access to interpreting God’s scriptures and commandments for all of the adherents to our faith. From a male god to our male prophet and the local congregation leadership (also men), we were taught that the husband and father presided in the family as the head of the home. These men were granted authority and stewardship by virtue of their priesthood.

All the members of the religious community and my family knew this system, followed it, and perpetuated it. In many respects, no one person is responsible for placing the full weight of patriarchy on me – as each teacher, mentor, and relative similarly impacted by patriarchy was only playing their own role within the same scripts.

The collective teaching by these men, both alive and preserved in scripture on behalf of our shared male God included the following:

“Not my will, but thine be done”


“I am here to do the will of my father.”

Jesus was not just a savior for us, but a template for how we, too, should submit to the will of the father. And the cursing of Eve, “Thy desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over thee.” applied to all her daughters as well.

…no one person is responsible for placing the full weight of patriarchy on me – as each teacher, mentor, and relative similarly impacted by patriarchy was only playing their own role within the same scripts.

In relation to what sort of sexual feelings or desires I had, I was taught to “Bridle all my passions.” The passions of a woman must be like a wild horse in need of steering or harnessing, I supposed. I came to learn that this extended beyond my dress and behavior, but my ambitions for a life beyond the home sphere as well.

Once the women and girls in my community were fully indoctrinated with these beliefs, we became a self-policing entity. Older women monitored younger women, young women shamed, judged and bullied each other for deviant behavior. The buttressing of patriarchal norms continued, under threat of a male gaze, even with no men present.

As a teenage girl, there were many times when established patriarchal norms disrupted my comfort: on a co-ed youth river trip, having the inseam of my shorts measured by the Bishop’s wife in front of my peers, or questions about my chastity and moral cleanliness, including sexual activity and masturbation, being asked by my Bishop during the biannual youth worthiness interviews. As a college student, it was the intense scrutiny on the part of my father who confronted me with his suspicions about whether or not I was having sex with my boyfriend at the time. Or when my grandma called me a slut after coming home too late from a date while staying at her house. In each of these cases, I felt intensely violated, embarrassed and ashamed.  While this discomfort might have alerted me to the wrongness of their words and actions, instead I ran it through the only filter I knew: God’s will surpassed my will, and it was my role and duty to submit to God. The only way to know a male God’s will for me was to find out commandments from his male prophet’s words, who instructed that my local male clergy leaders (Bishop, Pastor and Father) were the authorities of my life and could dictate to me what my desires were allowed to be. I was only allowed to have righteous desires. I was to bridle my passions.

End of discussion.

The disruption to my inner knowing concluded with, “Well, it feels off and I don’t like it, but it checks out with what I know about the rules for how life is supposed to go.”

The consequence for disobeying always ended with the wrath and vengeance of a displeased God, who would judge me to hell for my impurity.

It was very clear to me that the most righteous and worthy women were those who submitted to their husbands, and the chain of male authority on up from there. A vision of this type of woman began to form in my mind, a conglomeration of lessons, sermons, youth camps and the example of other women I knew. This particular righteous sort of woman married a certain type of religious and ambitious man. She was educated and clever but only for the purpose of how her knowledge and skills would help her children. She did not work outside the home or have a job that demanded time away from her family. She should be attractive and fit, but also modest and reserve all expressions of sexuality for her husband. She must be married as a virgin in the highest religious ceremonies in the holy temple, dressed all in white. Once married, she should only work if it was to support her husband’s education or business pursuits and she should not delay having children. She should have many children and raise them in righteousness. She would never seek divorce no matter how bad a marriage might be for her because she could always make it work with her own personal righteousness.

I didn’t invent this woman out of whole cloth. She was described in detail by church leaders and modeled by women in my homogenous community. Women who failed to meet these expectations were openly self-criticizing, and judged by others. I didn’t know at the time that patriarchy had created different lists for women of color that included many of the opposite expectations. Historically and still today, Black women are expected to work, often raising other people’s children instead of their own. As a young woman raised in a lower-income white family, the ideal white woman in a heteronormative marriage stayed home from work and raised her children on her own, without caregiving relief or government assistance.

With this detailed list of what God’s plan of happiness for white women included, I set out to start achieving the proper benchmarks.

I turned down the invitation to study abroad in Costa Rica – it was much more important to work and save money that summer. I broke up with a man I deeply loved because he wasn’t religious and we couldn’t have the expected temple wedding ceremony. I set aside my desires of being an orchestral musician – who would put my children to bed if I was playing an evening concert? I put away dreams for graduate school – I would need to work and put my husband through graduate school first.

The pedagogy of patriarchy taught me to edge out other women. To resent and judge women who acted on their own desires. The wounds I felt from patriarchy, I inflicted upon others. How dare they get what they want!? None of us can!

The funny thing was, I couldn’t always just swallow the pills patriarchy was giving me. Every once in a while, I came up for the sweet air of self-determination. The summer I turned 18, my father tried to forbid me from moving out to attend college where I had been given a full ride music scholarship because he didn’t like my viola professor. I worked two jobs, paid cash for a car, packed up all my belongings and left anyway. When working with that professor came to a natural end, I sought out where I wanted to study next, transferred and graduated without input or help from anyone else. I worked to provide for myself and lived alone for several years. I was responsible, got excellent grades, made new friends and had wonderful romantic relationships.

And then in my 4th year at college, I was sexually assaulted by a man in my music department. I felt the world shatter around me as I realized the vision of the perfect Mormon woman I was supposed to be could never be my reality. Because now I was ruined, impure and unworthy. 

The pedagogy of patriarchy taught me to edge out other women. To resent and judge women who acted on their own desires.

I had shut down so many wants and desires, deferred my discomfort by scapegoating it as part of God’s plan, but how could that pain be part of my path unless I was going completely the wrong direction?  My passion horses had escaped their bridles, apparently.

I understood the rape to be a message from God that my life was dissatisfactory to him, that I was deserving of punishment and shame.

I told no one. I sought no healing nor help. It must have been my errors that brought about the attack. Perhaps I was too alluring, or I should have known better than to go into his house alone. I should have guarded my virtue with my life.

I retreated into myself and determined to correct my course.

I concluded that the only way to reclaim the vision of that perfect, plan-following woman was to completely shut down desire altogether, and that a lifetime of servitude and penance might somehow redeem me for my sins.

I hid my pain and loneliness behind masks of stalwart cheerfulness. Even to my unsuspecting husband who has never once tried to subdue me, I assumed I knew his will and submitted myself to it. The desires I still had burned a fire of shame through my core as I suppressed them deeper and further down. In my temple wedding ceremony, I promised to “hearken” to the counsel of my husband and “gave” myself to him as part of the wedding vows – language that was not reciprocated. I carried the scars of shame of unworthiness through years of infertility – further proof that I had not done enough good in my life to counteract the wrong. Too many visits with aggressive male doctors and invasive vaginal ultrasound procedures triggered the same frozen response I had during college – “I don’t want this! But I’m frozen in fear and cannot move.”  The only way to cope with gynecological and obstetric exams was to disassociate from my body to avoid feeling what was happening to me with their cold metal speculums.

The trigger point where I felt something begin to change was in seeing a feminist petition signed by women from my faith community. Their joint statement   Until slowly and gradually a sunrise of understanding began to grow in my mind: maybe I was worthy, and maybe the crime committed against me was not my fault and didn’t reflect the kind of person I was. Maybe I didn’t deserve it because God was unhappy with me. Maybe I didn’t deserve it at all! Maybe God, if there was a God, was a limitless vessel of love and light and was not sending me messages of pain and torment to teach me a lesson.

Without the appearance of angels or any other divine catalyst, when left to my own quiet thoughts I finally concluded: I decide if I’m worthy. No one ever again is allowed to tell me if they think I’m worthy or not. And if they do, they can fuck right off. And that includes God.

The wounds of this patriarchal system were deeply embedded in me personally. They affected my marriage and other close relationships. The patterns were present in my family and local community. It was the backbone of the religious institution I grew up in, and it shaped the societal laws and policies of the government where I lived.  From the most internal, to interpersonal, all the way to institutional, systemic patriarchy has hurt me my whole life.

Now that I can see the ways I’ve been injured, and the ways I’ve used the same tools of patriarchal oppression to injure others, my focus turns to healing. For myself and for all women.

Breaking down patriarchy for me comes in the small, innocuous and radical act of doing what I want and finding no guilt in my desires.

Learn more about Caroline’s creative projects, music, and writing at www.carolinesalisbury.com,
or by visiting her on IG and FB @carolinesalisbury  

PART THREE – Heather Renfro

The Moment

I remember a moment when I was 9 years old, riding in my family’s station wagon. My younger brothers were in the back seat, and I was in the front seat with my mom and dad. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I was chattering happily.  I asked, “If I ran for President, would you vote for me?”

The fact that this specific moment has stuck with me for forty years reveals a lot. I can still see the roomy inside of the station wagon, and can still feel the sinking feeling when I heard the answer. Now a parent myself, I know that my 9-year-old self was looking for affirmation. I wanted to know: do my parents see me as capable, strong, trustworthy? I was imagining all kinds of futures for myself–even one where I could be President!

My mom answered first, and she said “No.” She explained that it wouldn’t be right for a woman to be president; it’s not a role they were meant to have. The reasons behind her answer were likely informed by her upbringing in conservative 1950’s Tennessee. And they were definitely informed by her conservative Christian beliefs. In her world, men were intended to be heads of household, leaders of the family, of industry, and of the country. She didn’t work or want to work, and viewed her role to be raising children and managing the household.

Looking back, I’m not angry at her answer, but I do feel saddened by it. I’m sad for the girl who heard that answer–it shocked and it hurt. Even though I had been raised with those ideas for 9 years, it was this moment that made it suddenly real how limited my life could be, because I was female. I think that’s why I remember this moment so vividly.

And from my vantage point now, I’m also sad for my mother. Imagine what had been instilled in her that she could tell her eager, enthusiastic, hopeful daughter that she wouldn’t vote for her. It’s heartbreaking to me to imagine that scenario now. I can’t fathom EVER saying that to my own daughter!

She explained that it wouldn’t be right for a woman to be president; it’s not a role they were meant to have.

And maybe the reason this seems unbelievable to me now is because of what happened next. I asked my Dad, “Would you vote for me?”

“Yes,” he answered.

I don’t remember what happened next, if there was any more conversation, but this small moment represents a lot about my relationships with my parents over my lifetime. They later divorced, and I’ve maintained good relationships with them both, but I have always understood that my mom holds ideas I don’t understand or agree with. My dad was somehow able to see a bigger picture than my mom was. He developed a clearer and more critical view of teachings and values he had grown up with, rejecting those things that didn’t honor and value all people as equally worthy. 

Sometimes I imagine what might have happened if I hadn’t had a parent who said “Yes.” What would that have felt like to me? What effects might it have had on my confidence? My motivation? My views of myself and vision for my life? I can’t know for sure, but reflecting on this memory has helped me think more about the importance of that “Yes” from my Dad. It meant a lot in that moment to have affirmation and a vote of confidence from my parent. But—was it more significant to me because he was my Dad, my male protector and the authority in our house? Was it more significant because I highly valued his male opinion? I think it’s possible, and that adds a layer of complexity to this story that I hadn’t originally considered.  In my story, it is a man who gives me a vote of confidence that I am just as worthy and competent as a boy. Yet I valued his opinion so much, perhaps, because he was a MAN! It’s of course complicated with my love for my Dad, and the greater degree of closeness I had with him than with my mom. But I have to consider that growing up steeped in the brew of patriarchal values impacted me in ways I can’t always see even now. While I strive for openness and criticality of the culture I live in, this exercise has revealed to me how much of a process that is—not an “aha” moment, but a constant examining.

It was lovely of my Dad to say “Yes, I would vote for you for President,” and I will always love him for that. In fact, when I first wrote this piece, I ended it with a wish that every girl should receive a vote of confidence like my father’s. But that wish should be revised. I wish now that every child should be secure in their aspirations, without wondering if their gender will limit them.

Without needing male approval.

I wondered if God had made me a woman to punish me,

allowing me the desire to reach for the stars, knowing I would be shamed if I tried.

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