It’s hard to believe that women in a family would not do all they could to come to the aid of a dying infant. But that is what happened in the case of David Hickman. The infant was born two months premature and died nearly nine hours after birth in 2009. The cause of death was respiratory distress, a condition common in preemies whose lungs are usually not fully developed. The baby’s parents, Shannon and Dale Hickman, are currently on trial in Oregon for failing to provide the baby medical care. The couple belongs to the Followers of Christ, a church that believes that only faith healing can cure the sick.
While on the witness stand, Dale Hickman said his son seemed fine at birth, even though the infant weighed just over 3-1/2 pounds. Then, several hours later, Hickman said he noticed that the baby was having difficulty breathing. And yet, David Hickman stated, “There was nothing that could have been done” to save his son, so he just held him until he died.
As shocking as it is that a father would not rush to the phone and call 9-1-1 in such a situation, it should also be noted that there were several female church members attending to the newborn, including his grandmother, Karen White. White testified that the infant’s breathing was audible and she “could hear something in his throat.” Why didn’t these women—upon viewing a child that weighed as much as a large grapefruit and who was not breathing normally—rush him to the emergency room?
Because they were members of a church that believed that women must always defer to men. When asked why she didn’t call 9-1-1, White said, ”I am a woman in the church,” adding, “It’s not my place to do that.” When Shannon Hickman was asked the same question, she replied, “The wife submits to the man, and he’s the head of the household.” And so, the family simply prayed and anointed the dying baby with olive oil.
We shouldn’t necessarily forbid women from practicing religious customs that are rooted in patriarchal beliefs. We should acknowledge that many such women are victims of oppression and risk too much to go against the grain. However, they are adults, who often have the ability to walk away from oppressive religious communities in search of more progressive ones. Plus, women commonly uphold religious patriarchal beliefs. For example, many Evangelical Christian women justify the dictum that they “submit” to their husbands. And last week, Muslim women in Paris held a press conference protesting France’s ban on the wearing of Islamic face veils.
Here’s a more pressing question: What affect does religious patriarchy have on children? Sure, not all kids raised in patriarchal religious cultures fare poorly, but, just as in the case of the Hickmans, a child’s well-being tends to rely on what kind of guy their father is. If he’s not a power-monger in the home, or if he is courageous enough to reject his community’s patriarchal beliefs, chances are his children won’t be too harmed by them.
But what if neither of these things is true? Or worse, what if the father or another man in the community is abusing a child? If that happens, there’s little chance that the abuse will stop. Why? Because children cannot look to the women of their community to protect them. Time and time again, we hear about cases in which women can’t or refuse to stand up to men who are harming children, to say nothing of reporting them.
Take, for example, the mother of televangelist Billy Graham. From what Morrow Graham writes in her autobiography, it’s apparent that the young Billy could not count on his mother to rescue him from his father’s harsh physical punishments:
Billy was always full of pranks; sometimes he carried things a bit too far, and off came his father’s belt. Mr. Graham never punished in anger or desperation, but when he did see the necessity for correction, I winced. At such times I had to remind myself of another Proverb: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die” (Proverbs 23:13). More than once, I wiped tears from my eyes and turned my head so the children wouldn’t see, but I always stood behind my husband when he administered discipline. I knew he was doing what was biblically correct. And the children didn’t die!
Many women in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have willingly handed their underage daughters over to men in the sect to be “spiritually married.” One such victim was Elissa Wall, who was forced to marry her nineteen-year-old cousin when she was fourteen. Wall was just interviewed by Anderson Cooper who asked whether family members tried to stop the marriage. Wall explained that her father had been excommunicated and her mother had been “resealed” to another man. “My mother didn’t have the ability to say no,” said Wall. “The women . . . don’t have the ability to protect their children. And I was a representation of that. She couldn’t step up and say, ‘No, my daughter is fourteen.’”
If a mother, a grandmother, and other women in a religious community can’t or won’t protect children from maltreatment, where does that leave us? What kind of a society interferes with a woman’s natural desire to protect children from being denied life-saving medical care, from being beaten, from being raped?