A ViewPoint by Jamie Calloway-Hanauer
Earlier this week, a friend of mine asked, “Have you heard about what happened on Twitter between Rachel Held Evans and The Nines?”
Of course I had.
My online microcosm has been all abuzz with what happened, a Twitter storm of accusatory and angry tweets, as Evans—well known Christian blogger and author—criticized the online leadership conference, The Nines, for having too few women speakers in this year’s line up.
Having four female speakers in a line up of over 100, she wrote, is “not what the church looks like.”
Evans is right. Women make up over half the church, and the number of female leaders within the church is steadily climbing, as is the number of those who support a woman’s call to leadership.
What the Twitter storm made clear, however, is that this is still a very divisive topic. Opinions range from anti-woman beliefs to quiet (and perhaps unconscious) sexism to full support of female leaders. Many have complained that the barrage of Tweets that occurred about and even during The Nines conference detracted from what should be a Christian message of love, and showed a level of discord that shouldn’t be aired on a public forum like Twitter.
I agree that it doesn’t paint a good picture of Christianity to belittle one another in the public square. That said, I also believe that questioning social constructs is exactly what Jesus did and wants us to do, also.
Evans’ original tweet—the one that said “this is not what the church looks like”—was a matter of fact. What came from that original tweet, however, was patronizing and eye-opening. As a woman who engages in these types of conversations every day, Evans likely knew that the conversation would devolve. But what Evans also likely knows is that it is only by airing grievances that the truth will come out and change will occur.
In response to Evans’ original tweet, Nines organizer Todd Rhoades claimed to have invited a large number of women speakers to the conference, but that only four of them accepted the invitation. Rhoades then tweeted his belief that women can offer new perspectives on issues such as “pregnancy, abortion, and marriage.” Evans rightly shot back that Rhoades’ comment is patronizing.
When asked by Christianity Today why the ratio of male to female speakers was so low, Rhoades explained that this year’s Nines theme is “what’s working in churches.” He goes on to say, “No matter what your view is on women in leadership, this is still a largely male role in churches, whether that is good or bad. We [at Leadership Network] work with a lot of great women leaders. Unfortunately, not very many are lead pastors.”
Her.meneutics writer Halee Gray Scott uncovered that this defense was not quite accurate: twenty-two of this year’s Nines speakers were actually staff- or campus pastors, or para-organizational leaders. Women can and do fill these roles, and were certainly available in large numbers for the asking.
Twitter comments from others during and after the Evans-Rhoades exchange reflected animosity towards Evans, as well as claims of reverse sexism in her request to have more female speakers.
With one simple tweet, Evans uncovered the above facts for all to see: the patronizing attitude towards women; the fact that women are not lead pastors in numbers reflective of church demographics; that the defense of this particular male-oriented Christian conference leans towards specious; and that animosity exists and is directed at women who speak loudly for equality within the Church.
Would all this have happened if Evans had emailed Rhoades directly to put forth her criticism? Of course not.
I am glad to see the discussion about equal gender representation happening within the Christian blogosphere and in social media. I also think, however, that a very important part of this conversation is being overlooked, which is the notion that women simply aren’t showing up at conferences when asked.
Last month, blogger Anne Bogel wrote about her disappointment at seeing only one female speaker on the main stage of Story Chicago. Story Chicago’s founder, Ben Arment, replied to Bogel that he had reached out to no fewer than 13 women, and only one woman accepted the invitation to speak. This led Bogel to ask, “where are the women?” Why, she wondered, wouldn’t they show up?
That is where the real rub lies—we desperately need these female leaders to say “yes” when invited to speak. We need their perspective. We need them in the spotlight as effective, competent pastors, and we need them as role models for ourselves and our daughters. The handful of women who show up today increases the odds that two handfuls will show up tomorrow.
CEO and author Sheryl Sandberg has addressed this phenomenon in her infamous book, Lean In. In Lean In, Sandberg acknowledges that discrimination does exist on both a personal as well as policy level, but she also asserts that the real reason women can’t get ahead and aren’t better represented in top-level positions is because they fail to show up. They don’t “come to the table,” so to speak, with the force and authority necessary to make change and prove their worth.
Is this also true for female pastors and church leaders?
Certainly, it would further the cause of gender equality if women could say yes when they are invited to speak at conferences. But, quite honestly, as much as we may want women to “show up” and take a seat at the table, life for most is not such that a woman can simply hop on a plane and leave the kids (and aging parents) behind.
The American Psychological Association reports that “female caregivers may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than male caregivers.” Outside childcare is often prohibitively expensive, and, of course, most church leaders aren’t making six-figure salaries, or even high five-figured ones. Families are more widespread geographically, eliminating the cost-efficient possibility of family childcare, and the need for dual income families reduces a dad’s ability to step in while mom is away.
But The Nines is a virtual conference, featuring five-minute clips of each speaker. So what might be at play here? Perhaps it’s what Evans was getting at all along: the devalued role of woman leaders. Who among us wants to show up just to be looked down on or to just discuss the “women’s issues” that Rhoades pointed to—abortion, pregnancy, and marriage? We have so much more to offer than that.
At the end of the day, Rhoades invited Evans to speak at next year’s conference. Evans tentatively agreed, saying she would speak but only if women and minorities were better represented throughout the line up. To this I say, “why, Rachel?” We need her, and others like her, to show up. We need conference organizers to offer daycare, buy spouses plane tickets, provide a childcare stipend, and give women the stage to talk about more than issues traditionally seen as feminine. We need to be valued for our female voices, and seen for who we are: people who make up over half the church.
It’s a frustratingly circular argument: we won’t get any of the above without demanding it, and we can’t demand it unless we show up, but we can’t show up if we don’t have support, or if we’re afraid of being hurt by belittling attitudes and words.
Strong female leaders of faith are making great, great strides. At this point, we need more male leaders to act in concert with our efforts. Perhaps after so few women accepted Rhoades’ invitation, he should have done as some have suggested—cancelled this year’s event and said, “we can’t go forward without a stronger, more representative line up.” What an example that would have been! Perhaps Arment, who seemed genuinely disappointed at the low number of female speakers at Story Chicago should have asked, “what can I do to help you show up?” I’m sure at least some of the 12 women who told him “no” would have had an answer for him.
Blogger and author Glennon Melton recently recounted her experience speaking at her alma mater, James Madison University. For personal reasons, it was a harrowing experience for Melton, and she didn’t know if she could make it through. At one point, just a few short moments before she was to take the stage, she realized she was on the verge of emotional collapse and needed to regroup. To pull herself back together, she asked the university for what women have been wanting for years: she asked for a room of her own.
She got it, she (mostly) regrouped, and the show went on.
So yes, certainly more women must show up and demand a room of their own. But all the demands in the world won’t do any good unless that room is actually given.
© 2013 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today
Thank you, Jamie, for your comments. I agree that women must be more willing to say “yes” to requests to speak. Part of me wonders, though, what are organizers asking them to speak about? It’s one thing to say they reached out to 13 women and only one accepted. But if the topics offered weren’t topics that provided these leaders the chance to advance the cause of women in leadership in the church, then maybe they were right to decline.
Thank you, Jamie, for writing this outstanding article analyzing the small percentage of women speakers at the online Christian leadership conference and other conferences, and welcome to EEWC!
The ecumenical, multicultural Equity Women in the Church Community is working to change these inequities. Although many denominations have been ordaining women since the 1950s and 60s and the number of women in theological education has increased to almost 40%, only about 10% of pastors of all Protestant churches are women. The percentage of women of color who find places to fulfill their call to pastor is much lower. In many denominations the percentage of women pastors of all ethnicities is lower than 1%. The average compensation of female pastors is much lower than that of male pastors, although clergywomen are more likely to have seminary degrees. So Rhoades is right that there aren’t as many women pastors to invite as speakers. And you’re right about the still heavy demands our culture places on women, the lack of support, and the patronizing of women who do “show up.” Rev. Christine Smith, author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling” also observes that the churches that do call women as pastors are “predominantly elderly, economically strapped and on the verge of closure. Women serving these congregations rarely earn a living wage.”
Working to fulfill our big vision of equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches, the Equity Community held a strategy meeting last month. Clergypersons, denominational leaders, and seminary/divinity school leaders across the country from various races, genders, and 10 denominations participated in this Access and Equity for Women Clergy Strategy Conference. Four members of EEWC participated in the conference. Five activist groups formed to implement the proposed strategies to increase opportunities for women called to ministry.
So along with EEWC, the Equity Community hopes to bring change so that conferences will have an equal number of women speakers, reflecting “what the church looks like.” Thank you, Jamie, for all you’re doing!
Women are frequently invited to give lesser spots with shorter speaking times and way less money than male speakers, dissing them as well as making it even more difficult practically . Also, inviting only thirteen out of a hundred speakers and not bothering to go farther when they couldn’t come shows that justice and equal voices were not at all a priority of this conference.
I am glad that Sojourners is starting to see the light on this judging by their comment on this conference. Several years ago I was profoundly disappointed to see an AAR panel claiming to be about justice and diversity that featured him, several other white men, a couple black men, with only one white woman (Catherine Keller, who took on that sexism brilliantly) and no women of color.