A Biblical Feminist Looks at the Andrea Yates Tragedy
by Anne Eggebroten, Southwest Representative
On June 20, 2001, many people were reading and talking about the latest sensational news story: a mother in Texas, Andrea Yates, had drowned her five children.
I barely noticed it because I was dealing with crises of my own–one child leaving for a six-week trip to Costa Rica; another panicking over dress, shoes, and hairstyle for her eighth grade promotion two days away; another depressed, having quit a summer job and postponed college plans.
But seven months later, as the Yates case proceeded through jury selection, I happened to read a Time magazine summary of Andrea’s transition from happy bride to deadly mother. (See Timothy Roche, “The Yates Odyssey,” Time, January 28, 2002.) The article’s author outlined what he called the “fateful, tragic intersection of characters,” including Andrea, her husband, several psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, and various family members.
As I read, I became convinced that the tragedy would not have happened without the presence of one more invisible character: a conservative Christian culture that continues to empower controlling and abusive husbands while telling women they belong at home with their children, as many children as God and their own fertility provide.
Nearly 30 years ago EEWC was founded to address this problem of the church’s role in the continuing inequality of men and women in the home, in Christian institutions, and in society as a whole. Andrea’s story moved me deeply because there are so many points at which intervention could have saved the lives of those children. Certainly the medical community and the family are places where steps can be taken to prevent future tragedies like this one, but we also need to focus on the church.
I noticed several ways in which the choices of Andrea and Russell “Rusty” Yates were influenced by the culture found in many conservative Christian churches today.
Christian Faith and Birth Control
Before marrying Russell Yates, Andrea Kennedy was a successful young woman working as a post-operative nurse. She enjoyed regular swimming and jogging and was apparently from a Catholic family. Their courtship included praying and reading the Bible together–so far so good.
But somewhere in that Bible study, or in the conservative Christian culture that surrounded them, they got the idea that when they married, they would not use birth control. They would lovingly accept as many children as God sent them. This ideal is still being taught by the Roman Catholic Church and by many small independent fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches. The use of contraceptives is considered a sin. There are no allowances for difficult circumstances such as postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, poverty, or rape. By giving family planning the powerful label of sin, these churches entrap women like Andrea Yates, who had five children and one miscarriage during her eight years of marriage.
We in EEWC need to reach as many women as possible with the good news that controlling their fertility is within God’s will. Otherwise, more children will face abuse and even death at the hands of overwhelmed parents or caregivers. At a conference in 1986, EWC approved a resolution that stated, “Because we believe that every human being is made in God’s image, we deplore violence against women and children and the misuse of power within the family.” We need to find more ways to carry out our mission to curb domestic violence.
A Woman’s Place
In addition to telling Andrea she could not limit the size of her family, the church told her she belonged at home with her children. She stopped working after the birth of her first child; she also gave up swimming and jogging and lost touch with some friends. When her older sons were old enough to attend school, she did not give herself a break and just deal with the younger ones at home. Instead she began home-schooling. Many conservative churches press women to do this because they view public school as lacking in Christian values. We in EEWC need to counteract the pervasive message in many conservative churches that a good Christian woman must home-school her children. It’s okay not to home-school — or to home-school. The important point is choice, but many women are not hearing about having options. Instead they are being crushed by an increasingly heavy burden of legalism placed on the woman who wants to please God.
The next link in the chain that dragged Andrea down was the belief that a woman should submit to her husband as decision-maker. Michael Woroniecki,1 a traveling evangelist whose preaching and writings greatly influenced the couple, teaches that God created man to dominate and woman to be his “helpmeet.” As Time reports, “Rusty was head of the household.” In EEWC we have been working on this one since Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty first wrote All We’re Meant To Be in 1974, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Women, Men, and the Bible in 1977, and Pat Gundry wroteHeirs Together in 1980. It seems like such an old issue, one that many of us have already dealt with, but the need to reach other women with our good news is still there.
When Russell wanted to moved out of their four-bedroom house into a trailer, and then into a bus-turned-motorhome, Andrea sold the furniture and went along with all this. By June 1999, she was caring for four children in the bus (only 350 square feet) after the whole family had driven in the bus from Houston to the Grand Canyon and back. No wonder she tried to commit suicide — the conditions of her life were unbearable, and to challenge them would have been to oppose God’s will. A psychiatrist provided medication, but no one was giving her other choices. Finally, after the family lived with her parents for a while, Andrea’s parents became “adamant that Rusty not take her back to the bus” (p. 47). The family moved into a three-bedroom home.
By this time, another sign of Russell’s control was that he allowed only one friend to visit Andrea. She was a prisoner in her own home, without even the resources of friends at church because, according to the Time article, “Rusty had not found a church he liked” (p.48). The decision of what church to attend was not made by mutual submission, though it affected the whole family and contributed to Andrea’s isolation. Wifely submission to the husband was the only Christian model Andrea and Russell had. We in EEWC need to remember that our good news is not merely abstract — lives are being stunted today because of the oppression being preached as God’s will.
Distrust of Mainline Denominations
Another prominent element in fundamentalist Christian culture contributed to this tragedy: the distrust of mainstream religion. Many born-again Christians avoid large denominations with their squabbles and their tendency to approve policies more liberal than some of the individual congregations. Instead, some seek out independent or loosely connected groups with magnetic leaders who claim to have special access to God’s truth. In the Yates case, the traveling evangelist built on Russell’s fear of churches with buildings, sold them his bus, and wrote in letters to Andrea that “the role of woman is derived… from the sin of Eve” and that bad children come from bad mothers (as quoted in Time, p. 48). This trust in free-lance strangers may be the hardest aspect of contemporary fundamentalist Christian culture to change; after all, these preachers behave like Paul and the other apostles. Back in 1974, EEWC was founded specifically to work for women’s rights in Christian churches other than the mainline denominations, which often already had task forces on women.
Simple Living: Unequal Burdens
Another insidious attitude that contributed to Andrea’s downfall was the belief in simple living advocated in some churches. Russell and Andrea were trying to avoid the materialism of mainstream US culture. The big attraction of the bus to Russell was that it represented a simpler lifestyle like that of the traveling evangelist. Russell’s goal was to “travel light,” according to Time reporter Timothy Roche. “We just kind of lived,” Rusty said to him. “We took it easy” (p. 46). Maybe this life was easier for him — no lawn to mow — but living with four toddlers in a bus was not easy for Andrea. When they were back in a normal home, Andrea confessed to Russell that “she felt she had ‘failed’ at the simple life in the bus” (p.47). Christian churches need to warn their members that simple living must be done in a context where both husband and wife are making choices and sharing the work. Otherwise it becomes just one more impossible ideal for a mother to live up to. [Ed. note: When the fledgling Evangelical Women's Caucus first met in 1974 (as a task force at the Second Thanksgiving Workshop of Evangelicals for Social Action), we drafted a list of proposals which included this statement: "We also urge that changes in economic lifestyles not be designed so that women are forced to make greater sacrifices than men."]
The final nail in the caskets of Andrea’s children was the verbal abuse she received from both her husband and the church. The traveling evangelist had beaten her with sharp words: the sin of Eve… bad children… bad mother. Russell “belittled her for every goof” when she was trimming his hair, according to the Time article. Chances are he did this at other times as well. After her 1999 suicide attempt, Russell told a social worker that perhaps he could “treat her with more respect” (p. 47). Andrea was absolutely convinced that she was a lousy mother, that she had failed her children. When she was interviewed by police after the murders, an officer asked how long she had considered this act. “Since I realized I have not been a good mother to them,” she answered, quoting Matthew 18:6, that a person should be flung into the sea rather than cause a child to sin. She felt that drowning her children would guarantee her own execution and also free the children from further pain.
Mothers Need Nurturance
Andrea’s words remind me of my own conversations with a therapist when I had two children (5 years and 2 years old) and was expecting a third. I felt bad about my lack of patience and my inability to cope with being home alone with toddlers from early morning until late in the evening. “I’m a such a failure as a mother,” I would conclude. The therapist would reassure me that I was a good mother, teach me coping skills, and urge me to take time for myself. I ended up returning to a teaching job, partly for my own sanity, but that led to a new set of problems as I juggled both roles.
For Andrea, however, any easing of the heavy burden of motherhood was not possible. She had accepted the whole nine yards — making cakes from scratch, sewing Halloween costumes, home-schooling, obeying her husband whatever his demands, and not using birth control. The Christian culture Russell and Andrea lived in told them that this was what a woman, carrying the sin of Eve, had to do.
Over the next few months we will probably hear about Andrea’s trial and what kind of punishment she should be given. These questions are not my focus here as much as what we can do to reach other women caught up in similarly desperate circumstances. As teachers, writers, and leaders in the church, we biblical feminists have a big job to do.
Every few years EEWC goes through a crisis of identity and purpose: Does the organization still need to exist? Do we have work to do that is not being done by other groups? The story of Andrea Yates tells me there is still a need. We need to carry on our ministry begun nearly 30 years ago, because there are still women like Andrea — women who have been oppressed by the teachings of conservative Christianity and who need what we have to offer.
1 Michael Woroniecki is a 1980 graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. He continues to travel the US and Mexico with his wife and six children, preaching a virulent form of misogyny. He and his family typically target large sports gatherings and college campuses, where he is reported to have called women “contemporary witches” who neglect their families by pursuing careers. More information is available through newspaper reports about him on the Web. A compilation of articles may be found at Apologetics Index. See also Suzy Spencer, Breaking Point (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.)
Anne Eggebroten serves as a Southwest representative on the EEWC Executive Council and is working on a book about the conflicting demands of being a wife, mother, teacher, and feminist.
© 2002 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 25 number 4 Winter 2002
O Texas, Texas
by Anne Eggebroten
Editor’s Note: After the verdict of guilty was announced, Anne Eggebroten, author of “A Biblical Feminist Looks at the Andrea Yates Tragedy”, wrote her response and shared it with EEWC’s members-only e-mail discussion group list. This is what she wrote:
“O Texas, Texas, thou that killest the sinners and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 24:37-38). 1
Jesus speaks words like these at the end of a fiery speech against the hypocrisy of his day.. Seven times he repeats, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
Today we have another kind of hypocrisy judging Andrea Yates sane and guilty of first degree murder at the time she drowned her five children in a bathtub. The prosecuting attorneys argued that Yates was sane because she acted methodically, with secrecy, and knowing right from wrong.
One attorney, Kaylynn Williford, said, “She made the choice knowing it was a sin in the eyes of God and a crime in the eyes of the state.”
The jury accepted this argument, but let’s examine these two claims separately.
Yes, Andrea knew that killing her children was a crime in the state of Texas. She fully expected to be executed for this crime–in fact, she called the police in immediately afterward to set in motion the wheels of Texas justice. She wanted to be executed.
But she did not see the drownings as a sin in the eyes of God. In fact, she felt she had already committed the greater sins–being a bad mother and producing children who were ruined and would go to hell if allowed to reach adulthood. She quoted Matthew 18:6, that a person should be flung into the sea rather than cause a child to sin. She had twice tried to kill herself for this sin and failed.
As a last resort, she decided to use the state of Texas. First she would kill her children–an act of mercy in her eyes, sending them to heaven rather than letting them reach the age of accountability and go to hell. By this act, she would force the state of Texas to kill her–a punishment she felt she deserved for being a bad mother, sins committed long before the drownings.
Yates judged and sentenced herself in the confused years before June 20, 2001. She lived in a horror-filled fundamentalist culture where people like the raving Michael Woroniecki still shout to strangers, “You are going to Hell!” and “Satan owns you.” His flyer, “The Witch, the Wimp” states, “At birth a woman inherits the contentious nature of Eve… unless you face this SIN NATURE you will be tormented and blinded by its vexations.”2 Yates’ increasing psychosis made it difficult for her to sort out reality from the dire spiritual terrors that these people spun in the air. She couldn’t toss these ideas in the trash bin as most of us do.
The laws of the state of Texas meant nothing to her. She and her husband didn’t even trust the state or city enough to send their children to public school. She decided to do what was “right” for her children–and then to use the state justice system to carry out her own judgment on herself.
Having convinced herself that this plan was right in the eyes of God, she carried it out methodically, with secrecy, and with full knowledge that Texas would punish her.
But here is exactly where the prosecution got it wrong: she and her husband lived in a culture where only the values decreed by true believers mattered. They were determined to follow God’s way and reject the ways of the world, as Paul advises in his letter to the Romans: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2). There are many such passages. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “…the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (II Corinthians 4:4).
Rejecting all secular values, living in a nightmare world, Andrea Yates carried out her plan like an executioner. Her own feelings for her children and their struggles against her did not matter, she was so convinced of the rightness of her decision.
On June 20, 2001, she was obsessed with her sin of having raised these children wrong. This sense of sin overwhelmed her to the point that killing the children seemed right. Now she probably realizes that drowning her children was “a sin in the eyes of God.” But Williford was wrong in claiming that Yates knew this as she carried out her plan. The jury was wrong in deciding that she was sane and therefore guilty of a deliberate, willful act.
So the final act will be left to Jesus, who stopped the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” Jesus said. There is no one without sin in the Yates story–neither the husband, the doctors, the traveling preacher, the seminary that gave him an M.Div., nor the conservative Christian culture that so dominated the life of this family, telling them that contraception was a sin and that a wife’s unquestioning obedience to her husband was a virtue.
But stones are being cast, the same kind of stoning that drove Jesus to cry out “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem….”
Anne Eggebroten serves as a Southwest representative on the EEWC Executive Council and is working on a book about the conflicting demands of being a wife, mother, teacher, and feminist.
© 2002 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus – A Web Exclusive Winter 2001–2002
Editor’s Note: After Anne Eggebroten’s “O Texas, Texas” was shared with EEWC’s members-only e-mail list, a lively discussion followed. Pat Gundry was among those who shared her thoughts, and she has given permission to include them here on our website.
Saying No: Some Further Thoughts on Andrea Yates
by Pat Gundry
Whenever I read about a woman like Andrea Yates I always think this isn’t the real story; the real story is the story behind the story. The real story is: How did she get to that place?
I always want to sit down with her and speak gently, learn what she’s like, how she ticks, who she is, and how she came to make the choices she did. I always want to write her story.
From thinking about many cases, not so newsworthy as Andrea’s perhaps, but just as tragic, and just as preventable, I’ve come to my own conclusions about prevention. I think the place to begin is with the girl. Andrea did what she did, not because of Rusty, who shall always be held in revulsion by women everywhere, not because of the confrontational fool evangelist, but because she could not say no.
Years ago, when I was writing my first book, about equality for women in the church, a woman who’d heard about what I was doing came to visit me. As we sat on my front porch she told me she and her husband were planning to go as missionaries into a primitive area with little in the way of financial support. Her husband had told her they wouldn’t be able to afford the expense of birth control supplies so they would just have to trust God to not give them any children. She thought this foolhardy, but did not have the confidence of certainty since it was her husband who was so convinced of this plan; and lack of faith and doubting God’s power seemed involved. I told her I’d suggest she tell her husband the faith would need to be on his part, in that he’d need to trust God to take away his desire for sex under those conditions, because there wouldn’t be any. I also told her it was a foolish plan and she should have no part in it. She said she thought so, but needed someone to confirm it. She’d say no.
Andrea couldn’t do that. And because she couldn’t say no she was backed up into an increasingly small and dangerous corner. She was very much like a reproductive rat in a cruel scientist’s lab. When she got to the end of her resources, she turned and fought the only way her tormenters allowed a trapped rat of a woman who couldn’t say no to fight.
If you train a girl to not be able to say no to a husband or a male authority figure you set her up for potential tragedy. She’s just waiting there on the curb of the world for a predator to drive by.
We’d all like to know how we can do something, anything, to help Andrea. We also want to find the potential Andreas and head them off at the pass.
I think we can do so something, right where we are, day by day. We can teach our girls, and all the girls we meet, to say no. We can teach them how to decide when to say no and when to say maybe and when to say yes for now, but it’s open to change. We can give them practice saying no and making it stick. We can model saying no and making it stick, without remorse, without guilt. We can teach all the ways to say no graciously–and the few they’ll need to say it not so graciously.
No. The gift for a life, a gift to save lives.
What or who do you need to say no to today?
© 2002 Pat Gundry Used by Permission | Contact: | Website: http://www.patriciagundry.com