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"Father of the family must be master in his own house" -- Who agrees with this?

I was shocked recently when I read some tweets, and then an article, by Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail talking about Environics research on shifts in Canadian and American values and how they've changed over the years. Some of it was as you expect, but one of the questions in the research, surprised me. It was the question used to measure how patriarchal a society is, namely the extent to which people agree with the statement: "The father of the family must be the master in his own house." 

I know there are still a fair number of misogynists out there, so I thought maybe 10 to 15 percent would agree to something like that publicly (maybe a bit more in the US and a bit less in Canada). But I was shocked by the numbers.  Here are the results from Michael Adams presentation for Environics Institute.


I know that North American culture is still incredibly patriarchal, but I (mistakenly) believed that a lot of that was more subconscious, i.e. people believe that men and women are equal and that mothers and fathers are equal, but we just haven't found a way out of the trappings of the old ways of doing things. Habits die hard, people are invested in current hierarchies, and therefore change is slow. But for people to come right out and admit that they believe the father must be master astounded me. Plus if you look at some of the data for some of the years (e.g. USA in 2004), this means that both men and women must be agreeing with this to some extent, meaning that women are consenting participants in their subordination.

I also found the numbers astounding because it spoke specifically of the home, an area that is often spoken of as the women's domain. Marketers understand that women are most of then the decision makers in terms of household purchases and that they are the ones determining how the family's money is spent, as well as managing the household. So what exactly are these "masters" responsible for? Just putting their foot down now and then?

I'm also disconcerted by the trend in Canada of the number of people who agree rising. The research draws parallels between the political environment and values (e.g. does a Conservative government mean a more patriarchal society?) and that could be one explanation, but I'd like to see us on a different path.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Are you surprised that so many people agree with this statement? Is the "father of the family" the master in your house?


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Reader Comments (23)

Besides the government explanation, I wonder if the economy has anything to do with it? When things aren't going well financially, are people going to feel like maybe the "good old days" had it "right?" Or they are reaching for some sort of stability and believing in a defined structure (patriarchy versus equal household leadership) gives them that feeling of security?

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTopHat

I wonder if increasing (or decreasing) immigration from nations with more conservative or restrictive ideas about gender roles/relationships could be a contributing factor to these changes.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPenny in TX

Had you asked this question of me even six months ago, shock would have been a mild word. After the whole Nursery of the Nation business and more recently the discovery of the Domestic Discipline movement, I'm not surprised in the least. Sure, the aforementioned are extremes, but I found those extremes were more commonly accepted than one would have thought. Therefore, there have to be many closer to the middle. The middle, sadly being: Father as Master of the House.

It's sad.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter@Wolf_Mommy

Think you might have your I & y's mixed up for misogynist, no?

Anyway, I would agree with that statement. I don't think that makes me a lesser person, nor do I hate women. (Really!) Actually, people who don't know my husband and I well often think I "wear the pants" so to speak, but if push comes to shove I will always defer to him.

Part of it is my religious beliefs. Women are to submit to their husbands. Frankly, I have no problem with that, because in case of conflict my responsibility is clear (it's a bit like wearing a uniform to school. No worries about picking clothes!) But here's the thing - it only works because my husband's responsibility is equally clear and in my opinion it's much harder: he has to love me the way Christ loves the church... If husband's doing his part properly it isn't like I end up as a downtrodden wife that has no decision making power or has to spend all my time doing laundry (actually laundry is his thing, not mine)

We run a small business and one of the first pieces of advice we got was that one person should have veto power to avoid stalemates that paralyze the company. I think that's even more true in marriage. Negotiating who that is for every single decision would be exhausting (and inefficient). Is it arbitrary to do it based on gender? Sure. But it does work :)

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

I think that the choice of "master" is really interesting. There's a positive version of master, like when we master an art or master a skill. In that regard, I would hope that my husband is equally a master in his own house in that I want him to be able to be equally adept at handling those duties as I am. (Just as I want us to equally master our respective professional fields.)

More than likely, though, this question means "master" as something more like "command" or "control," and that seems to be how you are reading it as well. It also seems to be more damaging than something like "leader." I think that my husband and I could both be "leaders" in our household, but it seems like only one of us can be "master."

I know I didn't really add anything of substance here, but I found this an interesting read.

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBalancing Jane


All fixed. I also made a typo in "subconscious". That is what happens when I write a post quickly in 15 minutes between conference sessions and forget to run the spell check.

With regards to the meat of your comment, I don't find negotiating on every issue to be exhausting. I think in a strong partnership you have enough in common or enough ability to recognize which person feels more strongly about that particular issue, so that it isn't always a negotiation. If there is a negotiation, then it is obviously something that both people feel very strongly about and that negotiation is incredibly important.

Through our own definition of roles in the family, I think we both defer to each other on different issues, rather than there being a blanket deferral of one person to the other.

June 26, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Balancing Jane:

I agree that I think that both parents, or ideally all family members, should equally be "masters". From that perspective, I found this particular phrase to be very patriarchal because it put the father specifically at the forefront in that position to the exclusion of the mother or any other family member.

June 26, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I'm guessing it's a religious thing. Most Christian denominations at least nominally preach that wives should submit to their husbands (based on roughly the same chunk of text that also urged slaves to obey their masters, so no, that's not dated, it's an eternal precept for all humanity). So many adherents at least nominally declare themselves in favor of the man being the master in his house, even if this does not really happen in practice.

It's strange how much ideology shapes our view of our own realities. For instance, my husband and I believe in equality and making decisions together, and I'd tell you there is no "master" in our home. But if I really think about it, because my husband is a SAHD and does most of the household work along with fixing everything, I'd have to say he actually makes most of the day-to-day practical decisions. I'm pretty sure the "submissive" wives do too, and the "master" husbands gladly let them, but they interpret their reality through their ideology, not vice versa.

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDanica

I (an American woman) am surprised people are so open about it... a little. Okay I'm not, actually. What I am is terrified, though.

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSue

I'm shocked and disheartened. Like others, I wonder how closely the view of father-as-master aligns with the practice of conservative religions (not just Christianity).

In our home, I don't know that I would say that anyone is "master." It's a strange word. My husband and I care for our children, each other, and our home. In caring for our children, we teach them, we hold them to age-appropriate expectations, and we set limits on their behavior. But are we their "masters"? I don't think so.

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

The question itself seems problematic to me. The term "master" is, by origin, a noun that refers to a male. If a respondent reads the question and assumes that (a) there must be a master in the household and that (b) a master is male, then the only other option is a son, I suppose. This brings forward a different value question: Does the parent need to be in control (i.e. the master) of the children in the household?

Regardless of which way the question is interpreted by the respondent, it doesn't actually surprise me that almost a full quarter of our population still believes this in this dated power relationship in the home.

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

I agree that this must be partially explained in terms of religion. I definitely want to check out the original survey though. Were certain religious groups oversampled?

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Smock

Balancing Jane and PhD in Parenting: I too find it troubling that so many people agreed with this statement given that it included the term "master." I hear many people describe the "man in the house" as the *head* of the household, but rarely do I hear them describe the man as the *master*. This also invokes in me scary images of command and control and domination.

Or maybe people just don't think about these words as much as I do.

On the other hand, though the percentages still seem high, it's, um, nice to see that this sentiment is falling slightly in the United States? So...yay for "only" 41%?

June 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I do find it pretty shocking. To be honest, my first reaction is disgust, because I find it hard to read that statement as anything other than misogynist. Thank you, Mary, for weighing in with a different view.

I, too, wonder about the methodology behind the survey. It's hard to know what question each person thought they were answering.

June 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergrassideas

Geez... reminds me of a political survey I took one time. When I got to the demographic questions at the end, one was "Is the head of your household male or female?"
I said, "I'm not sure how to answer that question. There are two of us, one male and one female."
The survey-taker said, "Well, who makes the decisions?"
Me- "Uh, we sort of.. both do."
Her- "Well, I need to put something."
Me- "There's no 'both' or 'neither' option?"
Her- "Nope."
Me- "Well, then put female, since that's who you're talking to."

So strange.

June 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAllison

It is very sad that people still think that way. DH and I have been married over 25 years, and not once has he been the 'master', everything has always been shared equally.

June 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlwaysARedhead

I don't think people I know would say yes to this, but it sounds to me like it's a Christian thing. And maybe lots of Christians feel that the right thing to do is to answer "yes" to this question, even if it isn't actually true in their homes. So maybe it doesn't really reflect the reality in American family life, just the perception of the "right" thing to say.

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

I keep reading the title of this post and of the article and the word "master" rubs be the wrong way. A lot.

My husband and I have been together for over 10 years. We became parents 4.5 years ago. There are some household responsibilities that he takes charge of and there are some things I take charge of. Never in a million years would he think I am the "master" nor would I think of him as the house "master".

Such a strange word to be using in 2013.

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

Just when you think derogatory stereotypes about dads are on the decline as fathers take a more hands-on role in child-rearing, along comes an online posting by a major brand that shows not everyone got the memo.

And this one -- published, then pulled, by Clorox -- charts new terrain in depicting first-time fathers as clueless buffoons.


July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Would this be a less polarizing topic had the phrase "master in his own house" been substituted with a more reassuring, realistic, and open-ended phrase such as "leader in his own house"?


I don't think so. Whether it is master, leader, boss, head of household, or any other term that indicates that the father (man) should rank ahead of the mother (woman), then I think it is polarizing. I thought we were past that.

July 4, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Before I would be shocked there is a lot more information I would like.
1. How was the question asked, I would like to see exact wording to know if the is more media beat up.
2. As pp mention did they give option to answer both are master.
3. How did they select people to answer questions, was it outside church on Sunday. I am sure it was not that obvious but unless true random selection and not too many people refused to partake the results will not represent people in US and Canada.
4. The differences between US (or Canada) each year may be purely chance as all surveys have a error margin in their estimate. Without know error or how many people we don't know if differences are real.

Then all the science issues aside I would want to know if both partners are happy with the arrangement. Personally I would not but if works for them and they aren't telling me what to do then maybe we can live and let live.

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCog

Those results shock me, too. I did know that the US tends to be much more conservative and patriarchal than Canada, but it's still alarming to see such numbers. The connotations with the word 'master' are negative and far-reaching. No member of a family has the right to control the others, nor do I think there needs to be a single leader in the family. A couple (no matter the gender combination) should work together to run a family.

July 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFeisty Red Hair

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