As I sit down to write this letter, I find myself sipping tea, listening to Rachmaninoff, and surrounded by many piles of books and articles! I have been delighted this evening to have several hours to read, and I somehow ended up reading about inspiring Quaker women of the past including Margaret Fell, Lucretia Mott, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Once again, I am amazed by how little is new under the sun: all of these women suffered from the same kind of ridicule and prejudice that infects our churches today. All were criticized for speaking publicly, being leaders, and pushing the norms on the “role” of women. None quite fit the popular expectations of “femininity.” The more I read the inspiring words of these writers, the more I experienced a physical sensation of being thirsty for their stories.
Margaret Fell (the wife of George Fox) was a Quaker preacher and advocate for women’s rights in the church in the 1600s. She penned brilliant exegesis for the same Biblical passages that are still being used to keep women silent (I Corinthians 14:34-35 and I Timothy 2:11-12.) I love her passion when she writes, “And how are the men of this generation blinded, that they bring these Scriptures and pervert the Apostle’s Words, and corrupt his intent in speaking them?” She believed the oppression of women came from “The Spirit of Darkness,” and cites over and over the Biblical precedents for women having powerful and prophetic voices.
The Grimke sisters, who spoke publicly against slavery, were chided by a group of ministers for stepping out of a “woman’s proper sphere” in the course of their work as abolitionists. As you know, women were not expected to be so bold as to speak publicly to mixed company. In response to the ministers, Sarah then wrote the “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.” Angelina also wrote a fascinating letter on “Human Rights Not Founded on Sex,” in which she talks about the “anti-Christian doctrine of masculine and feminine virtues.” Men, she says, have been “converted into the warrior and clothed with sternness” and women have been taught to be an “appendage of his being.” (I thought to myself how men are still being trained to be warriors to show their masculinity.) She also discusses how hierarchy between men and women brings out the worst traits in them both. Men grow dictatorial and selfish, and women are admired merely for their “personal charm,” and are “robbed of the right to think and speak and act on all great moral questions, just as men think and speak and act.”
Within Every Binary is Hierarchy
Reading these writers, I thought of your last post, Letha, when you talked about the carefully demarcated rules for “masculinity” and “femininity.” For hundreds of years women have been decrying these false, “anti-Christian doctrine[s] of masculine and feminine virtues.” (I love how Angelina Grimke says that!) As you noted, these virtues based on gender expectations are really in place to keep a hierarchy of traits—to keep in place male authority. One of my favorite writers, the psychoanalyst Muriel Dimen, says that within every binary exists a hierarchy. And that is certainly true of the way gender and gender roles are getting defined by many powerful, complementarian Christian leaders.
In your last post, you mentioned how some men (like Podles) fear “feminization.” That comment really got me quite worked up (as you already know because I called you almost immediately after reading your letter!) The reason I responded so strongly is because I hear many evangelical male leaders talk about the need for men to reject “femininity” and return to “masculine” traits. What they are really doing is teaching men to devalue aspects of themselves not considered masculine. And when they devalue the so-called feminine aspects of themselves, how will they not devalue those very traits when they see them in women? Of course this dogma of Christian manhood feeds not just on sexism but on homophobia, too; if men are taught that being a certain way makes them look “gay,” then of course their fear will drive them to shame and cut off parts of themselves that don’t fit the “warrior,” heterosexual model of manhood.
I was talking to a man just this week who shared with me some about his early initiation stories of boyhood. Crying “outed” him from the group and got him called a “girl.” When he did something considered weak, he was demoted to the other sex! It seems some of the playground bullies now occupy pulpits, because I have heard similar language coming from pastors, like Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church here in Seattle. (Only Mark doesn’t call these “weak” men “girls,” but instead likes to label them “chickified.” If you want to watch a 5-minute excerpt guaranteed to raise your blood pressure, watch this video of Driscoll’s teaching on the subject.)
How Far Have We Come?
Letha, when I hear pastors like Driscoll, I get frightened that somehow all the work of women pioneers is going to be unwound, and the next generation of Christian women is going to inherit this harmful neo-fundamentalism. How far do you think we have come? What was life like for you when you first started your work, and how do you compare those times to today?