I was recently asked for forgiveness, an apology coming from a woman who had done something terribly wrong to me and it is always in my interest to want to improve my relations with people, to find that forgiveness and move on as friends. Her state of mental health at the time was certainly not well due to her partner being very abusive towards her and she has claimed that was the basis of her decision to do this wrong. At the time, she was very supportive of him and it leads me to this very question of whether there is a moral obligation held against women who support bad men or is there an existing void of moral responsibility where psychological abuse has been inflicted? I can clearly sympathise as I too had once experienced bullying and not been consciously aware of my responses, but I can also state that I developed anxiety and depression as a response to an unconscious awareness that something was wrong. My intuition had reason prompting me – without words – that told me something I already understood but not at conscious level that I could articulate using language. I fought and resisted subjectively. She knew that he was bad as we each understand what bad behaviour is since every culture and society has a universal understanding of good and bad forms of behaviour; something else compelled her to submit.
Violence does not necessarily need to be physical; indeed, in the Serious Crime Act 2015, it is an offence to inflict “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship,” and further still in § 1(d) that “(person) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on (person) B.” Types of coercive behaviour include stalking (including cyber-stalking), intimidation and emotional abuse where the person feels unsafe and afraid due to the threat of abuse. Indirect threats and psychological games are just as violent as physical abuse; so if a woman is aware that her partner has a history of such behaviour and continues to support him, are they morally liable since they ought to know that his behaviour may have a serious effect on someone else?
This is a pretty tricky question.
Returning back to biblical scripture, women in the Bible also represent a dichotomy between the evil ‘adulteress’ and the good ‘woman’ where no woman, save for perhaps Deborah and the Queen of Sheba, are both good but also empowered with righteousness and intelligence. A ‘good’ woman appears to be motherly, submissive and serves while a ‘bad’ woman enjoys compelling and controlling men or as said in Proverbs 5:3 “For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil” and a warning, yet again, for men rather than for women. This rather patriarchal language explained different symbols of how a woman should be viewed rather than teaching women how they should behave, giving men the authority to dictate this socially and culturally over generations, and leaving women today without any real understanding of what a ‘good woman’ actually means. Indeed, right from the beginning with Adam and Eve or even when reading ancient texts like Lysistrata, women have a sexual power over men that men ought to be cautious of, that they have the prowess to control men’s behaviour and responses (when Adam points at Eve and blames her for the temptation, it only verifies a lack of moral accountability on his part).
However, to be honest, there are instances where even I myself have witnessed the submissive nature of men toward rather silly women, where men can follow and do what their partners tell them to do, probably best articulated with the power Jezebel had over the King. The warning, to some degree, seems fair. In apocolyptic literature, there exists a ‘bad woman’ or the whore of Babylon who appears to be like the character of Jezebel that paints a picture of a woman interfering in good and moral behaviour. She is drinking ‘the blood of the prophets’ or basically all the effort the prophets have made in the name of God to teach people what is right and appears to be riding this ‘beast’ or this bad man who is aligned with the devil or dragon (as beast tends to refer to “Kings” or governments, although given this is the whore of ‘Babylon’ the dragon and beasts could be symbolic of ancient Mesopotamian mythological creatures such as mušḫuššu).
Conversely, there exists a ‘good’ woman who appears at the beginning of the coming end, from the Book of Revelations or even other texts such 2Esradas 10, who appears favourable as the bride of good behaviour and epitomises what a righteous woman should be doing, which is calling people to good but doing so with a sense of empowerment or as said in Micah 4, with “horns of iron” and that through her a man is born. A ‘motherly’ figure does not imply a literal mother, but rather, as Jesus is the son of God but not literally, a mother is symbolic and illustrative of the care for and love of God’s children; it describes or is indicative of a covenant, a promise to uphold unconditionally the principles of good behaviour that lead men toward trusting the right way to behave. A submissive and obedient woman is not reasonable neither it is safe for women to believe that being good is being quiet and doing what you are told, on the contrary this is a mindlessness that has perpetuated violence against women.
Unlike Adam and Eve, a woman is not born by the rib of man but rather ‘good men’ are only possible through ‘good women’. For instance, if this whore of Babylon is exercising power over the beast by riding him, is it her fault that he is the beast? Herodias remained loyal to immoral behavior by ordering her husband to kill John the Baptist to the joy of Herod, her uncle and husband at the time. She supported and even used his bad behaviour to play out her own and while she may not be directly involved since Herod wanted John the Baptist dead, she is certainly vicariously liable for his death. She acted in bad faith and she is seen as a bad woman. And she is.
When I think of power and psychological issues like Battered Woman Syndrome, it really depends on the circumstances to confirm moral culpability. If a woman is aware that her partner behaves badly such as lying or stealing, remaining by him and even supporting him is morally reprehensible. I would imagine that while their support may have underlying mental health concerns, if they believe in and agree to remain close to such men, they are no longer within a moral dimension and are themselves devoid of agency. It is not as severe as being directly accountable, but the defense of insanity just wont cut it either. I think that an empowered woman, someone who is independent and convinced of the importance of moral accountability and agency, who fights the good fight no matter the threat, that is what women should aspire to. Generations of women support men because they may have been taught to do so, threatened into subordination, but ultimately there exists reason and it will always stand supreme.