Wifely Subjection: Mental Health Issues in Jehovah’s Witness Women
Kaynor J. Weishaupt, M.S., M.F.C.C.
San Rafael, California
Michael D. Stensland
The Watchtower Society, commonly referred to as Jehovah’s Witnesses, exerts a great deal of control over the everyday life of its members. Women, in particular, suffer from psychological stresses in this high-control environment, as it is also a culture where patriarchal attitudes limit women’s personal power and predominate in their relationships with men. A group of women responded to a questionnaire about their experiences during membership in the Watchtower Society and after leaving. The results indicate that while in the Watchtower Society, women experience a higher degree of mental health problems than they do after they leave the group. They also report experiencing more egalitarian attitudes in their relationships with men after exiting the group.
Little research has been done focusing on the experience of women in “high-control” or cultic groups, despite the fact that women make up a large proportion of the membership of such groups. The type of group referred to here as high-control is defined by the degree of control and restriction the group exercises over the everyday life of its membership. Such a group can be focused on religion, politics, militarism, psychotherapy, meditation, commercialism, or simply a “special” leader (Tobias & Lalich, 1994). A high-control group differs from other groups in that individual behavior is excessively limited by rules and regulations, access to information is restricted or managed (especially information critical of the group), pressure is high to conform in thought and behavior to group norms, and members must put the group’s interests before their own. The leadership in this type of group is absolute and considered infallible; outsiders are generally viewed as dangerous or evil; and members leaving the group are generally punished or shunned. While all members of such groups pay a psychological price (as well as reap certain psychological dividends, such as a sense of belonging and purpose), women often face particular difficulties in groups that are patriarchally based.
This article explores the relationship between women and the high-control social climate of the Watchtower Society (WTS), commonly referred to as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The article reviews literature bearing on the Watchtower Society’s control practices and patriarchal organizational structure, analyzes psychological implications of WTS’s social climate, and reports on the results of a survey of 20 female former members of the Watchtower Society. The survey explored three areas: (1) the degree of patriarchal versus egalitarian attitudes subjects felt existed while they were members of WTS compared to what they experienced after having left the group, (2) subjects’ perceived psychological distress while in the group and after exiting, and (3) subjects’ perceptions of the degree to which the group controlled everyday life and isolated members from outsiders. The latter area included a comparison group of women from other religious backgrounds.
The Watchtower Society as a High-Control Group