by Melanie Springer Mock
(with responses from Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Kendra Weddle Irons)
Recently, one of my students—someone I like very much, and whose artistic skills I admire—posted on Facebook that she was tired of women complaining about their oppression, that women needed to buck up, that as far as she observed, nobody was oppressing women except themselves.
Her Facebook comment disappointment me; I thought the student a much more enlightened and thoughtful person than her rant reflected. My initial impulse was to respond with my own kind of tirade, about how sexism is rampant in our Christian college environment and outside our campus. I wanted to provide her examples, direct her to articles about misogyny in evangelicalism, tell my own story about what it’s been like as a mother working at a Christian institution and who regularly feels condemnation for my life choices.
Instead, I said—or wrote—nothing.
In part, I chose not to respond because I’m increasingly finding that Facebook is not an appropriate place to engage in such complex conversations. I’ve unwittingly dived into several Facebook discussions lately that quickly turned volatile, a seemingly innocent comment fueling misunderstanding and name-calling and hurt feelings. Plus, it sometimes feels awkward for me, as a professor, to respond to students’ Facebook posts that seem more pointed to their peers than to the likes of me.
But I also remained quiet despite my better impulses to make this a teachable moment. Because although I can be fairly opinionated—and also forthright about my Christian feminism identity—I also sometimes wonder when it is best to speak up and let my voice be known, and when it is better to remain quiet. I imagine most people who believe strongly in something must face the same tension: showing courage in one’s conviction but also knowing there is a time, and a place, for those convictions to be known.
Perhaps I’m just justifying my actions. I don’t know.
When I was in my early 20s, the age of my student, I would have recoiled if someone expressed strong opinions about feminism. Sure, I believed strongly in equity between genders, and often chaffed against the expectations established for me as a Christian woman. Were I ever to mention how I felt about my limited place as a woman—or the injustice I saw between what I could do, and what my male peers could do—I would always couch my statements with qualifiers like “I’m not a feminist, but . . .”
The mentors in my life at the time were feminists, although they did not openly identify as such. Instead, they taught me by example what it meant to be a Christian feminist negotiating evangelical expectations by what they said in classes and in church, where they fought for women’s rights to speak; by how they raised their families, by co-parenting with their spouses and balancing life and work; even by how they read texts, deconstructing literature and its traditions, so that I could understand how women’s voices have been silenced, and how women writers found ways to share their stories anyway. I became more comfortable with the ideas of feminism, because these women and men whom I admired lived the ideology they embraced. I was almost ready to call myself a feminist.
Until I wasn’t.
After college graduation, I joined an intentional Christian community in Pittsburgh, and one of my housemates was outspoken in her feminism. She’d gone to a Mennonite college, and had received a women’s studies minor. And she believed really, really strongly that we should all use inclusive language when talking about God. I had never been formally introduced to such an idea, and didn’t know what to think: the belief that God might be more than the Father I’d learned about for 20 years seemed radical, unsettling. I wanted to sit with the idea, mull it over, talk with people I trusted about what they thought.
But my housemate was insistent, cornering me on several occasions to find out exactly why I didn’t use inclusive language. I couldn’t tell her exactly why, nor could I really defend my use of masculine language for God, beyond saying that I had a loving relationship with my father, and liked to imagine an equally loving relationship with God. The best I could come up with, but it wasn’t good enough. She kept pushing, insisting, and instead of opening myself up to seeing God differently, I clung more tightly to my entrenched beliefs, resenting my housemate, too, for being so pushy, so vocal about her feminism.
It would take several more years, and several more women showing me by example what it meant to be a Christian feminist, before I returned again to the identity I was just beginning to hold. I’m grateful for that journey, and for the women who served as a kind of midwife and a guide, and who continue to help me understand what Christian feminism might look like.
So I’m more inclined, now, to seek this gentler path, hoping that my life speaks my beliefs, and that I can help young women and men toward understanding Christian feminism rather than brow-beating them into accepting my viewpoint. Still, I know that this is not necessarily the only—or possibly even the best—approach to take. Sometimes, when I don’t respond to what I consider an offensive comment, when I let claims about “how women should be” go unchallenged, even when I bypass a teachable moment (as with my student), I wonder if I am merely a coward, unwilling or unable to put myself out there not only for myself, and my feminist identity, but also for my sisters and brothers who are oppressed, if only by the church’s expectations about what it means to be a woman, or a man.
I don’t know. I suppose I’d like to hear how others finesse these moments—when they decide to speak, when they decide to stay silent. Perhaps then, I could better sense what I also should do. Because while I’m positive it’s important to stand by my convictions, I remain unsure about how I should most successfully convey those convictions to others—especially those, including my students, about whose lives I care most deeply.
As one who dared to write controversial articles promoting gender equality for an evangelical magazine in the 1960s (when even much of secular society was not ready to welcome feminism), I’m not one to urge you to keep silent in the face of misinformation!
But at the same time, I congratulate you on following the scriptural principles found in Proverbs 16: “Good judgment proves that you are wise, and if you speak kindly, you can teach others. . . .You can persuade others if you are wise and speak sensibly” (verses 21 and 23, Contemporary English Version).
Knowing what to say, when to say it, and how to say it are all important.
I think you are wise in realizing that your position as professor puts you in a delicate position in deciding whether —and when—to engage in sensitive conversations taking place among your students through a venue such as Facebook. That’s different from discussions in the classrooms or in informal settings.
What you sensed in the case you described is that the student needed to be corrected because of her misinformation but that she seemed to be itching for an argument, not a discussion. Not only was she unwilling to recognize the discrimination against women that exists, she also accused women themselves of whining, simply because of their awareness that we still have a long way to go in achieving gender equality in spite of gains made thus far.
If you had decided to go ahead and respond, perhaps you could have framed it as a series of questions about why she feels the way she does and then really try to hear her out. What are her concerns? Does she want to share any examples of experiences where she felt women were simply closing their eyes and weren’t taking full advantage of opportunities they had been given?
On the other hand, I gather from your opening comment that she is in some field of the arts, whether in the visual or performing or literary arts. Has she read the history of discrimination against women in those fields? (She might want to see the recent movie about Mozart’s sister. It’s one good example from the past. But as you know so well, there are innumerable examples from the present as well.)
I think when we run into encounters of this kind, we need to realize that when people feel strongly about something they often aren’t open to facts and logic. They respond only with emotions, not reason. That’s why the Internet is so filled with volatility and insults, often resulting in the hurt feelings you mentioned.
There is a time to walk the walk and a time to talk the talk — and most of the time we need to do both. You were persuaded by the actions alone of your professors as a young person, even though they did not use the word feminist. Your own ideas about that word at that time probably came from the media and through opponents of feminism (including a lot of pastors ) who caricatured its meaning and framed it as something undesirable and certainly not Christian. Thus, you didn’t want to apply the word to yourself until you gradually saw its true meaning in the lives of your professors who demonstrated authentic feminism without specifically saying that they were doing so.
Then in Pittsburgh, you ran into the woman who took it upon herself to be a self-appointed “language sheriff” and insisted you couldn’t be a bona fide Christian feminist unless you constantly and exclusively used female pronouns for God. (I’m guessing that was the case by her behavior as you reported it, even though she used the term “inclusive.”) She didn’t simply explain that God is “neither/nor,”as well as “both/and,” when it comes to gender —that God is beyond gender as we experience it. Rather, she apparently skipped explaining and seemed to take it on herself to police you constantly, looking for “gotcha” moments so that she could judge you any time you spoke of God as Father or used a “He” when referring to God.
Understandably, this turned you off. She was ignoring your feelings—your emotional response to less familiar metaphors about God at that particular time. You weren’t yet ready to throw away an image that suggested a close relationship that was familiar and comfortable to you, nor were you yet ready to expand your image of God to embrace the richness of new metaphors.
She may have tried to use logic and reasoning, but you were in the realm of emotions and weren’t open to what she was saying, so you felt understandably resistant and defensive. Instead, she tried to coerce you and shame you into thinking you were not a real feminist. That kind of “witnessing”— whether it’s for Christianity or for feminism— is a form of verbal bullying. No one likes having to be on guard constantly to avoid being judged.
So I guess as I see it, the bottom line is sensitivity, Melanie. We need to listen closely to where people are in their lives, their personal spiritual journey, and their degree of openness to new ideas and questions. And then, when we feel the time is right, speak the truth in love.
Like you, Melanie, I struggle knowing how much to say, when to speak, and to whom. I think I usually get it wrong.
When I first started teaching at George Fox University several years ago, I was given a course called “Men, Women, and the Bible.” Not only was I gratified by the opportunity to teach a subject of so much interest to me, I was thrilled when I learned eighteen students had registered to take the course! As a new professor to the campus, I had not expected so many students would sign on, especially after experiencing more of the campus culture during my first ever faculty retreat.
As usual, faculty gathered at the coast for three days of community-building, worship, and work. I wasn’t sure what to expect from such an event and my initial experience certainly made me wonder what in the world I had done by uprooting my husband and I, moving two-thousand miles, and enlisting in what now seemed to be a very masculine-centered environment.
Sure, there were female faculty members, but not in equal proportions. More than that, though, was the hymn singing that framed our worship times. Having been a member of a mainline denomination my entire life, I simply was unaware that so many hymns this Fox community sang employed exclusive language.
While some of my future colleagues offered words of welcome and promises of future coffee dates in order to get to know each other, I felt invisible. The sexism of what was sung—and apparently beloved by virtually everyone in the room except me—simply overpowered anything else from that early retreat.
As I returned home from the coast I tried my best to forget the experience and focus on my upcoming classes, especially the one where I could bring a feminist critique to the classroom.
Earlier that August I sent in my textbook order. In it, I included an introductory book with “feminism” in the title. As a result, before I even entered the classroom that first day, half of the students had dropped my course. Apparently, a blatant reference to anything feminism was out of bounds.
I had gone too far before I had even started.
Since then I have found more reserved ways of bringing a feminist critique into my classrooms. Through the non-gendered language for God I use in all of my classes, to the strategic narratives I use in my Bible courses, to the requirement I have that students learn to write with inclusive language for people, I am demonstrating what it means to be a feminist when using the term itself might be a hindrance.
This approach, I have to admit though, leaves me unsatisfied. And, much like Letha, I would like to have a larger forum in which to speak more clearly and more strongly about feminism and how my commitment to feminist values has radically shaped my understanding of God.
I’m glad to draw on your wisdom and experience, Letha and Melanie, to help me navigate this often rocky and muddy road.