09/20/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Turning Marriage Right Side Up: Lilith on Top

After almost 50 years of feminist thought and activity, women remain the targets of prejudice and discrimination. Continuing to be underrepresented in major leadership roles in business, academics and government, they work harder to get paid less and are still burdened with the majority of household and child rearing responsibilities. The stress of trying to balance personal and work life is taking its toll, and women are searching for answers.

The source of the problem is buried deep in history and ingrained in the fabric of everyday life. While calls for equality have resulted in some gains for women, necessary systemic changes have not arrived. These changes will not happen until there is awareness that the problems lie deep in the heart of the issue -- marriage. Until marriage is turned right-side up, women will continue to face obstacles in society.

While the story of Adam and Eve is viewed by some as just a myth, it has served to define and shape the way the institution of marriage is understood, even today. Simply, Eve was created to be Adam's helpmate. Add to this that her punishment for eating the apple was to be ruled over by the man. Lest one thinks that this ancient myth no longer impacts modern marriage, consider the following.

The majority of women still take on their husband's last name -- giving up part of their identity. Ask a man to even consider such a thing and he laughs nervously. Women are expected to wear their sexuality at their weddings as they walk down the aisle wearing a white dress. No such expectation exists for men. While some will say this is just a remnant of the past, that is the point. History continues to define the present.

Some clergy continue to ask during the wedding ceremony -- "who gives this woman away?" As if women are property to be passed from one man to another. Some clergy pronounce the couple to be MAN and WIFE, not husband and wife. This language shapes how women are seen and how they are spoken about. Even though many may reject these religious ideas, their influence is difficult to erase. These attitudes are so deeply woven into the texture of relationships, that their impact is not easily seen.

Even in marriages that are more egalitarian, it is the husband who is "giving up" some of his rightful privileges. It is the husband who is said to "help" with the family chores, instead of simply "doing his share." Egalitarian marriages are variations on traditional marriages, not a radical departure from the past. Scores of articles point to the pent-up demands of women who are addressing a social structure that limits their options while granting men a pass. Women's frustrations are a direct reflection of their struggle against the ingrained pattern that finds its home in the Adam and Eve myth.

Considering the struggle women face at home, it would be naïve to think that this has no effect on society. The ingrained patterns established in marriage seep out in conscious and subconscious ways. A man who expects to be head of household and master of his castle will have difficulty deferring to a woman's authority in the work place. When a man is asked who wears the pants at home, his masculinity and identity are challenged. Men, who have notoriously fragile egos (ask any woman), must maintain their sense of authority even when they are supposed to report to a female superior.

It is time to turn marriage right side up. To do this, we need to embrace another ancient myth: the story of Adam's first wife, Lilith. Lilith simply wanted to be "on top," but Adam didn't like this idea, with all the authority that would have conferred on her. Lilith's fate was to leave paradise, go to the dark side and seek revenge. She was said to be responsible for the death of infants. Lilith's story is a warning about what an angry, powerful woman will do when she doesn't get what she wants. This set the stage for the centuries-old belief that women are either kind, sweet and subservient to men like Eve, or they are evil, vengeful bitches who will ruin your life, like Lilith.

It would have been better for marriage and society if Lilith were on top because women are far better leaders then men.

Recent research supports the notion that women are better financial stewards. Perhaps the recent economic crises wreaking havoc around the world might have been less severe if more women had been in boardrooms. Grameen Bank, a group that offers micro-loans, knows that women are better investments. The bank gives 97 percent of its loans to women.

Women are better communicators than men. Not only do they listen more than men, women read non-verbal cues and emotions more effectively. But none of this really should come as a surprise. We don't need to read all the research to know what we've experienced in our daily interactions -- on the whole women are more sympathetic and empathic than most men. Women are there for one another -- caring, concerned, attentive. Women seem to be focused on the widest vision of what is best for family and business.

The qualities that women naturally possess are the kinds of qualities that make for good leaders in a world where physical strength no longer is the key to success. Cooperation, listening and empathizing are the skills needed to not only solve immediate disagreements but to lay the groundwork for establishing long-term relationships that value mutual respect.

We live in a time when teamwork is essential to building sustainable and thriving companies, communities, institutions and countries. Women bring to the table all of the essential skills to build these relationships in this global world.

Women also bring to marriage the type of wisdom and strength that benefit families. If women were on top, not only would families be stronger, but what happens in the home could then be moved more easily to society as a whole. In order for society to be strong the core paradigm of the relationship between men and women must change.

It is time for marriage to be turned right side up. It is time for Eve Marriages to go away and Lilith Marriages to arise. For when women are on top, everyone will ultimately benefit.


Jill Bley, Ph.D., has provided marriage and sex therapy as a therapist in private practice for 30 years. Dr. Bley is keenly aware of the issues women face as co-founder and co-director of Women Helping Women/Rape Crisis Center and lecturing on various aspects of female sexuality, battered woman syndrome, and intimacy across North America.

Robert B. Barr is the Founding Rabbi of Congregation Beth Adam and one of the founding rabbis of Barr is known for challenging assumptions while blending creativity and intellectual honesty to give voice to contemporary Jewish thought for over 30 years. His podcasts can be heard on iTunes.

This essay is based upon the research Barr and Bley have done for a book they are writing.