Thank you for such a rich letter filled with both fascinating insight and personal stories of your growing up. I appreciated your words on current events (the complexities of gender in the election) and I also thoroughly enjoyed the pictures you shared with us from your childhood and teenage years. Your photos give me such a sense of your spunk and enjoyment of life. And I so wish I could hear you play the trombone!
There is so much to respond to in the issues you raised, but I think I will begin with where you began—on the topic of gender fundamentalism.
When Rebellion Takes Faith
You said, “We need to help people distinguish between femaleness (a biological fact) and femininity (a construct or expected role that societies assign to persons born female and which varies from culture to culture and in different times over history).” As we have discussed at length in previous posts, there are many churches that still refuse to acknowledge this separation. Many loud and influential evangelical pastors are still busy outlining a certain, narrow model of femininity as the only way to follow Jesus if you are a woman. (And as one of our readers pointed out in response to your last post, there are equally harmful messages about masculinity, coming from both churches and at times feminist groups, too.)
Furthermore, when you brought in the research of Mary Pipher, I was reminded that our gender fundamentalism does not just exist within church walls; in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, she writes of a pervasive “girl-poisoning” culture. Religious fundamentalism might have a different look than the secular brand of gender fundamentalism, but both are equally harmful in creating caricatures. And, thankfully, there are researchers like Michael Thompson who are now starting to offer much needed insight about the plight of America’s boys, and the importance of protecting their emotional life and broadening our notions of masculinity.
But, for the purpose of this letter, I will focus more on the gender norms I heard talked about in evangelical subcultures, particularly as they applied to me as a young woman. As I have shared in previous letters, I experienced religious fundamentalism in my teen years, though it actually pales in comparison to the conservatism and spiritual abuse I see happening now in my late twenties. However, even the dosage I knew as a young woman was very hard to work out of my system: it has been challenging to both receive the good that was present in that spiritual community and work through some of the harm.
I remember how in college—when I started making more decisions authentic to my own person, and not in line with the expected norms I had heard talked about for “godly” Christian femininity—my growth felt like nothing short of rebellion. When I first developed a feminist consciousness, when I started re-thinking some biblical interpretations, when I started reading the marginalized voices—I was certain I could now only be a “heretic.” I had no other word for it.
As a college sophomore I went into the office of my professor of Christian Doctrine, breaking down in tears and telling him why I was going to give up my faith. I could not submit to these expectations of submission and subservience placed on my femininity within the church circles I knew, and I could only assume there was therefore no place for me within Christianity. I was either committed to women’s rights or I was a “Bible-believing” Christian. I could not, surely, be both. (It seems that my black- and-white, either/or thinking, so trained in me by fundamentalism itself, was even at work in my recanting!)
My faith was very dear to me at that age—up to that moment, I had tried to do it all correctly, just as I had been instructed. But the ambivalence as an awakening 20-year-old woman was too acute. I had to be honest. I had to name the harm that I believed lived in systems of patriarchy, the harm that Christianity so often seemed complicit in.
My professor was a kind and good man who cared about his students and cared about Scripture. That afternoon in his office, I put the Bible on trial, as I spoke between waves of grief and anger. He listened well to my voice, and at times he would gently ask me to examine what certain verses might look like without centuries of patriarchy put on their interpretations. Still, I didn’t know how to resolve it all. I didn’t know where I fit in my Christian community if I broke with the norms of gender fundamentalism, because those norms had laced Christianity for as long as I had known about Jesus.
Furthermore, I wasn’t far enough along in my thinking to be able to differentiate between what is supposedly essential to being a woman and what is constructed—I didn’t even have the language to begin to nuance such differences. I had Bible verses, read in a very constricted way, which seemed to outline the only way to be a Christian woman. I had seemingly centuries of patriarchal traditions weighing down on my faith, and church pulpits that never questioned whether such a system of hierarchy was made by God or people.
But I was seriously questioning gender fundamentalism, and in the process, coming to whole new ideas about Christian discipleship, social justice, and the priorities of Jesus, which did not seem to look much like the priorities of the evangelical church.
It was a lonely process of awakening for me.
As you know, Letha, I recently had the privilege of spending several weeks in Boston on a personal writing retreat. It was a glorious time, and one of the absolute gifts that came my way while there was spending time at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. I had stumbled upon the library, but what I found brought me to tears: collections of letters, diaries, and other notable papers of women like Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Emma Goldman, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Especially poignant for me, though, was that the library had just finished showing an exhibit, called Women of Spirit: Religion, Voice, and Social Justice. Here’s an excerpt of the description of the exhibit:
From the Temperance Movement of the 19th century to the Vietnam War protest in the 20th century, women religious leaders have influenced and shaped the public discourse about social justice. Ironically, many have had to fight a personal battle for public voice and recognition in their own churches. The women featured in this exhibit have sacrificed much and gained much in their search for authority and power in the realm of religion. This exhibit includes women who fought for suffrage, against slavery, for human rights, and against war.
I was so touched that the library would want to acknowledge the intersection of these women’s faith lives and their work as pioneers for social justice. So often I have felt as though I need to hide my feminism while in spiritual circles or hide my spirituality while mingling in feminist circles. But that afternoon, I had intimate access to the lives of women who had changed history and who had been clearly influenced by their faith; yet they seemed to neither hide it nor flaunt it. Their faith was a genuine core to their work as peace-keepers, suffragists, and reformers. Reading about them, I felt as though I had found a family scrapbook.
Stepping into a Story: Alice Paul
While in the library, I ended up spending most of my time diving into several manuscripts of Alice Paul. As you know from my previous post, I am quite excited about Alice Paul these days! I have been studying the passage of the 19th Amendment, and I helped to organize an event last weekend for 100 women to reflect on this feat of history, catalyzed in many ways by Alice Paul’s leadership. At Schlesinger Library, I was able to hold in my hands her college journal, letters to her mother while campaigning for suffrage in England, and her spiritual writing. It was a thrill! (That’s my hand touching her journal.)
What I experienced with Alice Paul that afternoon is something like I felt when I first starting writing you, Letha—that I had suddenly found something of my place in this story. Before knowing the work of my foremothers, I had always felt on the fringes of Christian spiritual tradition. I didn’t think I fit. I wanted to fit—to be accepted and belong—but too much of what I was hearing from Christian churches did not fit my authentic faith experience.
Sitting with Alice Paul for an afternoon and reading page after page of her spiritual writing, I wondered why I had never heard of this woman before my 27th year. Somehow, I had not been exposed to the women who had gone before me who had always linked their faith to causes of social justice and women’s rights. I had not seen that I was actually hoping to be part of continuing their story. I had always felt like a misfit, and here I was finding myself with “clouds of witnesses” who had gone before.
It is ironic to look back at the moment in my professor’s office and realize that just when I thought I was giving up on my faith, I was actually stepping into a story much deeper than I knew, a story that would take me many years to read— and a story that I could even hope to be part of.
Which is why I feel particularly grateful when you share your stories. Letha, when you wrote about being a young girl and believing “girls and women should be able to achieve anything that boys and men could achieve,” you reminded me some of Alice Paul, because she was raised to believe in that fundamental equality, too. It’s a truth many of us know when we are young, and yet the constructs in society—both inside and outside of church walls—“clip women’s wings,” as you wrote in your last letter. But like Alice, and like centuries of women who carried the feminist consciousness before us, we know we are part of something larger than ourselves.
Well Letha, I know there was so much I have left unaddressed from your last letter, but I fear this letter has already gotten long. I will say, though, that I appreciated the authors you mentioned, and I hope to do some research specifically on the writings of Emily Hancock and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. I always appreciate your making such good reading suggestions. Also, I just finished Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World, another inspiring book. I love the chapter where she quotes your writing. (Wow! I like to see you first and foremost as my friend and pen pal, but sometimes I just take a step back and realize you are also this incredible leader and writer who I have the honor of knowing and conversing with!)