Authority on Her Head

When Paul says that women should cover their heads, is he subjugating them or liberating them?

The interpretation in this post borrows heavily from M. D. Hooker’s 1964 article in New Testament Studies titled “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of 1 Cor 11:10.” As far as I call tell, the article isn’t available online, but should be in most university libraries. I’ve reproduced the passage in bold print, with comments (again, closely following Hooker’s reading) following.

1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
Paul introduces here the main point of the passage: that some relationships can be paralleled to other relationships and that what we know about one relationship, we can apply to its parallel.

2 Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.
Mormons should remember that ‘brethren’ here doesn’t mean church leaders; it is simply the plural of ‘brother’ and may very well include women. Note, again, the idea of parallel relationships–this time tied to the notion to ordinances.

3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
This is a verse that will give most feminists the willies. But note that the parallel relationships here (Christ:God::woman:man [SAT flashbacks?]) connote several things:

(a) Women are paralleled with Christ. This is worthy of more pondering by feminist thinkers.
(b) The relationship of woman to man–as paralleled to Christ and God–is not eternal. Else, the parallel would collapse unless you think that Christ is Heavenly Mother. This is an important point to me: I think that many LDS feminists don’t make a distinction between sex differences that are part of our fallen world and things that are eternal. I’d challenge those who struggle with the story of the Creation and the Fall to pay close attention to which differences between Adam and Eve are present before the Fall (hint: none, or, virtually none) and which only come into play once they are fallen. And since Christ ultimately inherits all that the Father has, it implies that the heirarchical aspect of the male-female relationship is temporary.
(c) Because unity charactizes the relationship between God and Christ, unity should be the goal of the marriage relationship.
(d) This leads us to a difference worth mentioning, or a point at which the comparision between the relationships breaks down. We’d probably be safe in assuming that God and Christ don’t disagree on anything and I would imagine that there is no mechanism in their relationship for resolving disagreements. This is, obviously, not the case in the marriage relationship (would that it were!). Our Church leaders have taught repeatedly that men cannot use their status in the relationship to have ‘the last word’ or ‘the final say’ or ‘the ultimate decision-making authority.’ We’ve been taught that in the case of disagreements in a marriage, the partners must continue to talk and pray until an accord is reached.

4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.
The physical head–and whether it is covered–reflects one’s attitude toward the metaphorical head. Hence, for a man to cover his head is to, in a sense, deny that Christ is his head. So, when a man prays, his head must be uncovered.

5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
When a woman prays with her head uncovered, it is as if she is praying to (or needs the mediation of) man. This is not OK with Paul. But when she covers her head, it is as if man is no longer her head. Notice also that the unquestioned assumption of this verse is that women will be praying and prophesying in public.

6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
At this point, Paul resorts to making an argument from nature/culture: women have long hair ‘naturally,’ which teaches us that their heads should be covered. Most readers today will not find this a persuasive argument.

7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
This basically restates or re-explains the arguments about physical and metaphorical heads.

8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

Here’s another willie-inducer. But before you curse Paul, at least read verse 11, which suggests that there is no distinction (of the kind that we are discussing, anyway) between men and women when they are ‘in the Lord,’ but that this verse applies to mortality (specifically, the second creation narrative, where Eve is created after the animals are shown not to be companions suitable for Adam). In other words, I see v8-9 as describing not an eternal reality (because then they would contradict with v11), but rather the state of fallen humanity.

10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
This is a very important point. Why do women wear the veil? They do it as a symbol of power or authority. We would normally, when thinking of fallen humanity, think of power and authority resting with the male. However, when the woman veils her head (and I believe the suggestion is that she is doing this herself; she isn’t being forced to do it nor is someone doing it for her), she is literally ‘covering up’ (or denying) the idea that man is her head. When the woman chooses to veil, she is choosing to exercise power or control over her head–physical and metaphorical. In the context of praying or prophesying, a veiled woman is one in a direct relationship with God–man is no longer her head. Further, remember that the veiling is not done all the time, but only while engaging in prayer or prophecy. This is important: it points out that, particularly while in that relationship, the woman has direct access to God and, as her physical head is covered, so her metaphorical head (i.e., man) is covered or denied. While some have interpreted Muslim (and other uses of the veil) as oppressive to women, this is a gross misreading of this particular text, where the veil is a symbol of women’s liberation from man’s headship.

11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.

The RSV translates v11-12 thus:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

Note that at this point in his argument, Paul feels the need to reassure the reader that a woman’s veiling does not make the woman completely independent of man. This is a nonsensical argument if the veil subjugates the woman; it is only necessary if the veil liberates her.

13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

Again, Paul is making an argument from nature/culture that probably won’t persuade many modern readers. (If you live in a place where it is not considered disgraceful for a woman to cut her hair, then the argument has lost its point.)

16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
This verse makes it sound as if Paul is throwing in the towel on his insistence that women cover their heads. (Which, of course, doesn’t make much sense, because they clearly do have ‘such custom’ or he wouldn’t have been writing about it!) The translation is difficult here but I like the RSV: “If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.” In other words, even when some hothead gets contentious, we aren’t backing down from our practice!

Final thoughts:
(1) As is usual for Paul (at least the way that I read him), we find a mix of deep doctrinal insight and cultural baggage. It is intertwined in this passage, as he alternates making his argument via cultural prediliction and doctrine.
(2) A theme in the interpretation of this passage and the stories of the Creation and the Fall is the difference between sex differences that are eternal (if any) and those that are a result of our fallen condition. One might rightly ask why those differences should be a part of the fallen state. I like how Hugh Nibley explains the nature of the fallen relationship between Adam and Eve:

There is no patriarchy or matriarchy in the Garden; the two supervise each other. Adam is given no arbitrary power; Eve is to heed him only insofar as he obeys their Father—and who decides that? She must keep check on him as much as he does on her. It is, if you will, a system of checks and balances in which each party is as distinct and independent in its sphere as are the departments of government under the Constitution—and just as dependent on each other. (Hugh Nibley, “Patriarchy and Matriarchy,� Old Testament and Related Studies, page 92f.)

In other words, while we often emphasize the fact that Adam presides, until recently cultural prejudices have prevented us from spending much time on the idea that Eve judges. Now, this isn’t new doctrine (when Brigham Young stated that he never counseled a woman to follow her husband to the devil, he is implicitly acknowledging that Eve will judge Adam’s counsel as she decides whether to follow him), but its emphasis in the ‘equal partners’ language is new. Two things that I like about this interpretation are:

(a) Instead of Adam and Eve’s relationship being designed to OPPRESS and SUBJUGATE her, it suggests that it was designed so that Adam and Eve would help each other return to the Lord’s presence by each taking a role in strengthening and correcting each other.
(b) It makes coherent what some see as the conflict between the ‘equal partners’ and the ‘preside’ language.

And, finally, let me say this: this is a blog. It is the appropriate place for speculation, exploration, and interpretation. Let me make clear that large swaths of the above are exactly the kind of thing that you would NOT hear if you attended a Gospel Doctrine or Institute class taught by me. I happily admit that, in some cases, I go beyond the established doctrine of the Church in what I have written above. But I still think I’m right.

[I’ve decided to close comments. I originally explained my reasons for doing so in language that could be misinterpreted, so I’ll try again: This subject raises a number of concerns, and could lead to conversations that I don’t think belong on a blog. I don’t have the time to closely monitor comments right now, so I’m closing them for this post. You are welcome to email me if you would like.]