(I wrote this in response to a thread where a woman was complaining that the men in her area all expected her to kowtow because she was female…a couple of women who believe in submitting to their husbands jumped in, and the rest can be picked up from context, I think.)
I think subordination, submission, and coercion are extremely different, and I think this thread touches on all three of them in somewhat different ways. Women choosing to submit is not the same as women being subordinates, or as women being coerced into submission. The three are different.
To me, subordination implies duty: in a particular context, person A is expected to obey person B. Children are subordinate to their parents; employees are subordinate to their managers. It’s a contractual obligation, and dissolves when the contract is finished. A grown-up child no longer has to obey his/her parents; my boss’s right to give me orders ends at the office door.
Submission, on the other hand, implies trust. It’s essentially choosing someone else as your leader. It can be a statement of weakness–following someone because you don’t know what to do, or because circumstances force you into it. But it can also be a statement of deep strength, and trust: a samurai who swears fealty to a lord is not weak, but an independent entity choosing to back someone that s/he loves and trusts, and who returns that loyalty. As I understand it, wives who choose to submit to their husbands aren’t (necessarily) doormats, they merely acknowledge him as the leader in the relationship; she provides input, but he makes the final decisions. She trusts him to lead their “group” (i.e. couple), and therefore surrenders the final couples decisionmaking to back him. In that context, submission can be a strong positive statement. But that kind of gift is a mutual commitment on both the part of the leader and the led, and it *must* be a free-will choice. Otherwise it becomes personal weakness, or coercion, both of which are intrinsically unhealthy.
What is coercion? Coercion is forcing someone into a subordinate position against their will. It’s what Wendy is (rightly) upset about, and it’s quite different from what Sarah, Dinah, and Caroline mean when they talk about the positive side of submission. Wendy is in an area where women are socially subordinate to men, and the men around her are trying to push her into that role whether or not she wants it. This is Major Bad Juju. This is power-over, not power-with, and consent is not a part of it. It’s no less abusive than rape or domestic violence, it’s just not as obvious.
The fundamental difference between an abusive relationship and a submissive one is precisely choice. In a corporate setting, I am subordinate to my manager, because that’s the contract. If I don’t like him, I am free to go elsewhere, to “fire” him by signing on with another company, or to reject the entire structure by becoming a contractor, or starting my own company. So insofar as I’m his subordinate, that’s my choice; and if I choose to offer him my personal loyalty, that’s my choice too. But if I didn’t have that choice, if it were taken away from me the way the local guys are trying to take it away from Wendy, then that would be coercion, and evil. I’d fight, just as she is.
When people talk about the positive side of submission, I look for choice. Sarah chooses to submit to her husband, and it is therefore OK; Wendy does not, and it is therefore VERY not OK for the local guys–or anyone–to demand it of her. Women are often forced into subordinate positions through society’s expectations, making a choice to submit very unclear–this is why stay-at-home moms are often considered weak, for “knuckling under” to a society that expects it of them. Chosen freely, absent coercion, submission can be a strong statement of love and trust; but to know the difference requires tremendous strength of character.
In general, I’m very careful about who I choose to trust in that manner, and I don’t see myself ever choosing that with a partner (not in my nature). But I think it can work out well, *if* the choice is truly free. In Wendy’s case, it’s not.