In 2012 when Django Unchained was released, actress Kerry Washington reflected positively on playing a Black slave woman who gets to be the ‘damsel in distress’. She observed that Black women have seldom been in the position of being seen as worthy of saving. Rather, society expects Black women to save others. Black women appear in pop culture as indomitable sages who do the work of healing homes and cleaning up communities. For this reason, Washington experienced her damsel positioning as refreshing, not merely regressive.
Research that I have done among Black women in a Southern Baptist church suggests that the desire to be a damsel extends beyond cinematic depictions. Southern Baptists use the concept of ‘helpmate’ to describe the wife in a marriage. Unsurprisingly the helpmate role and its exclusive application to women has created quite a stir within the Southern Baptist Convention for some time. So much so that there is an official statement about both the role and why women cannot be ordained as ministers on the Convention’s website. For some contemporary women, such a helpmate concept is wrongly submissive and diminishing. Southern Baptists prize the helpmate for her support. Their job is to be of help to the head of household—her husband—and their family.
Pretty cut and dry, right? Or so I believed when I began my dissertation interviews work back in 2015 in a predominantly Black Southern Baptist church in Southeastern Louisiana. I began these interviews unable to imagine how someone could feel powerful while being labeled a ‘helpmate.’ Turns out the role was more nuanced than I imagined. For the Black women I interviewed, the helpmate is not just a role, but an opportunity. For many of those with whom I spoke, being a helpmate is not something exclusive to female partners. To be clear, most respondents did not believe a woman could be the head of a relationship or of the household. But they imagined themselves as an interdependent, not merely dependent, partner in these relationships. Though many women referred to the husband as the caller of shots, they still expected their needs and thoughts to be honored in whatever final choice their husbands made. As one respondent explained, she expected her husband as the ‘head’ to “defer to the thing that would make me happy rather than the thing that he wants and that’s not like the ‘oh happy wife, happy life’ it’s the like he has been told to esteem, to esteem me like it is right as the person who has chosen to live life with me to make sure that he is doing everything he can for us to have a life that I am excited about.” Her sentiments summarize what I heard from many women about what being a helpmate to their partner truly is. For these Black women, their work as a helpmate does not make her a servant to her husband. It makes her someone worthy to be taken care of and respected.
This doesn’t mean the role is not problematic. Many of the women in this study would not adopt such a role outside of their religiously ordained marriage; they specifically underlined they wouldn’t be a helpmate at their workplace or in their friendships. This is a role with a ritual injunction for mutual care, and they trust in that faith system to keep each party—husband and helpmate—in check with their responsibilities. The religious frame makes possible an understanding of men as the inherent leader of the home. Once the Biblical belief and teachings are removed, there is little to maintain this relational dynamic. Sticking to their church is therefore requisite for these women committing to this role as helpmate.
This seems to set up a church world and a household in which women are excluded from decision-making power. Yet historically African American families have been far more accepting of dual-earner households and have had far more representation of female-headed homes. So, in a legacy of relationships dating back to slavery where both partners worked outside and inside the home what is the place of the religious woman expected to defer to the decision-making and leadership of her husband? It seems to lie somewhere between the strict traditional gender roles of the mid-twentieth century and the more progressive outlook on gender roles in the home. For my sample, the helpmate was not a homemaker nor a passive onlooker when decisions were made about the home or the family. The helpmate is integral to decision making. To be clear, if the two could not agree then she deferred to her husband as the tiebreaker. Since respondents saw marriage as a religious relationship, they modeled their marriage roles after what they have read in the Bible, heard in church, and seen from other married couples. If and when they needed to defer to a husband with whom they did not agree, they understood that as a moral commitment to the Bible and their church, not a submission to a man.
My study makes clear: submission by women as helpmates is not about being told what to do by your husband. It is about establishing terms of a relationship in which each person submits to the relationship and the family ahead of their individual interests. In the history of Black women, this structure of submission is unique. Society expects Black women to be strong and independent; systemic racism contributes to a reality in which Black women are generally overworked, over-used, and seldom granted the privilege of needing a break. The ability to come home and leave the final say so to someone else may be a true reprieve. Here is one space where they don’t have to be indomitable and resilient; they can be cared for in a relationship of faith.
My research demonstrates that submission was not an oppressed role but a shared idea of family relations in which decision-making is cooperative and clearly in service of their family enduring. Feeling reasonably taxed by the demands of their workplace, their service or community involvement, and their roles of leadership in their respective church the women of my study saw submission as a space of relief from the pressures of the outside world. The women in my study are not reinventing the wheel as much as they are nuancing it. When taken into context the historic and present social standing of Black women and the (many times negative) social perception of them, the church as a mediating figure in the relations of Black marriage offers an interesting alternative. White women have long found ways to capitalize on relations of submission. That Black women do, too, should come not only as no surprise, but also as a kind of radical reclamation of rest.