Laura Jane Fridley
Bessie Mae Harris
These are the names of my grandmothers four and five generations back, who, according to my research, were alive during the 1918 influenza pandemic and survived. During this lockdown, it’s been really comforting for me to imagine my grandmothers watching over me in spirit all the way back through the generations and helping get me through this coronavirus situation.
I’ve been one of the very privileged people who has stayed healthy, and employed, and able to work from home during COVID-19. But like a lot of people, I feel lonely and isolated and cut off from in-person contact. In this current state of isolation, sometimes I feel like the only means I have available for me to make a human connection is with my words.
And that is what this piece is about: the power of our words, not just to draw us together, but to draw us forward.
This is not a new theme for me. I only have one drum, and I feel very grateful to be invited back to be able to beat that drum for you again. I’m a professor of communication, and I’ve been working on this project at the intersection of feminism, religion, and rhetoric for at least the past twelve years. In a big way, this speech is an updated take on the message that I’ve always tried to send in my plenary addresses for CFT, just this time delivered as the person and the teacher and the scholar who I am now, in the context of where feminism is now in 2020.
My perennial thesis is that Christian feminism is usually done theologically, but it can also be done rhetorically. Words themselves have their own power to dominate or to liberate. And in a digital environment, words and images are actually experienced as at least as materially real—if not more real—than our physical world.
Becoming a Thief of Language
I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of communication scholar Cheris Kramarae, who is a Senior Courtesy Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon. Kramarae developed a form of feminist rhetorical activism called becoming a Thief of Language. She studied the ways marginalized groups steal the language back from the dominant culture that has used it for silencing, and to work creatively with words as an interruption of injustice.
So there are three steps to becoming a thief of language:
- Recognize how current communication practices, even at the level at which words do and do not exist in everyday discourse, serve to erase marginalized groups.
- Honor the language creativity that’s already going on within those marginalized groups to advocate for ourselves.
- Identify the gaps and fill them. Ask, what are the experiences that haven’t been legitimated by being given names, and then create the language to name them.
I want us to become thieves of language on behalf of our own community of Christian feminists.
Step One: Doing Language
The first step in our language thievery is to take a look at where current communication patterns are used to dominate marginalized groups. There is a concept in my field of study that claims that communication is symbolic action. And that’s come to mean a lot of things, but at its most basic, it means that just like the practical physical actions of sewing, or parenting, or watching Netflix, communicating is also an act of doing in the world. And to this, I would add that especially in a digital environment, communication isn’t just symbolic action, it’s one of our ONLY actions.
When we’re online, all we have to act upon are our words and our images. And that reality has really been underlined by the current virus pandemic, where we can only live most of our lives through a screen. So it’s not too far a mental jump to then understand that if words are actions, and sometimes words are the real actions, then the words we choose can become a matter of literal life and death.
Just as one example of the lethal consequences of word choice, the practice of deadnaming a transperson—which means to use the name that they were assigned at birth that does not align with their true gender identity—contributes to the heartbreaking statistic from the National LGBTI Health Alliance that transpeople are eleven times more likely to attempt suicide than their counterparts.
My friend, former student, and fellow language scholar Amiko-Gabriel Blue has given me their permission to quote them as saying, “Suicides within the trans community are actually the culmination of collective murder on the part of trans-hostile people. They create an unlivable atmosphere of hatred, shame, violence, deprivation, and isolation. The majority of this collective murdering takes place through the medium of language. There’s a difference between offending someone and reducing their life chances. It must be nice not to have to worry that someone else’s speech will reduce your life chances. I don’t have that luxury. Neither do many minorities.”
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, one of my very favorite Christian feminists speaking and publishing today, wrote about this connection between human communication, isolation, and the stakes of life and death in her book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. She talks about how both Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot let Jesus down during the time of his arrest and crucifixion: Peter of course by denying three times that he knew Jesus, and Judas by betraying him to the priests of the Sanhedrin.
Reverend Bolz-Weber says that one of the things that differentiated Judas from Peter was that after receiving his thirty pieces of silver, Judas isolated himself, with deadly consequences. Whereas Peter, despite all his impetuousness and imperfection, returned back to the circle of apostles. Judas removed himself from his community, and that means that he deprived himself of hearing any word of grace that might have been offered to him by the people around him.
Judas couldn’t generate that sense of grace for himself, Bolz-Weber says, because “the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to God’s broken and blessed humanity” cannot be achieved individually, but must be told to each other. I want to say that again.
The beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to God’s broken and blessed humanity cannot be achieved individually, but must be told to each other.
The words we use can either speak grace to our human family, or they can speak death.
Step Two: Intersectionality, Kyriarchy, and the Poisoned Casserole
The second step to becoming a thief of language is to identify how marginalized groups are currently pushing against our erasure. It is especially important for me to acknowledge that I am not sweeping in and trying to innovate or fix things, but instead to recognize and amplify the ongoing hard labor that the people in marginalized groups have always been doing for justice.
One really powerful example of that—one of the most important neologisms to have been created by feminists around the turn of the twenty-first century—is “intersectionality.” The idea has been around for a long time, but it was most famously articulated by law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1999.
Intersectionality is the theory that multiple dominations don’t occur one at a time, but instead, in an interlocking matrix.
Most people have some identities that carry privilege (for instance white, cisgender, heterosexual, American citizen, middle class—which is very wealthy by global standards, and highly educated).
I’m recording this speech in a state that wrote into its founding documents its intention to become a utopia of white supremacy. And that legacy continues to this day, when the state of Oregon has one of the lowest percentages of BIPOCs (which stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color) in the country.
So the first step is to acknowledge the ways I have benefited from a system of privilege that I did not earn. But it is also true that within the same person, there might also be other identities that carry marginalization (in my case, feminine gender, psychiatric disability, and body size).
Intersectionality posits that:
- One cannot and should not isolate gender to the exclusion of other forms of domination.
- Multiple marginalized identities create a unique and compounded experience of oppression.
So if you will please permit me a silly metaphor with a serious point: If sexism is rotten eggs, and racism is curdled milk, and homophobia is expired cheese, a Black lesbian woman will not experience oppression as if eggs, milk, and cheese were all slopped together in her bowl as batter; instead, she will experience casserole. Not delicious casserole, this is poison. A straight, white woman like myself will experience being pelted with rotten eggs, but without the addition of the milk or the cheese. I am having a legitimate experience of sexism, I’ve got eggs glopping all over me. But when my fellow humans are being force-fed this poisonous casserole, I cannot look at them while I’m covered in eggs and think that we are going through fundamentally the same experience just because we have rotten eggs in common.
If intersectionality was a word coined to describe the concept that we resist not just patriarchy, but an entire matrix of intersecting dominations, then we need a word to name that matrix. I am really vicariously proud to say that that word we use for that idea came from one of our own Christian feminist scholars. In her book But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls this “kyriarchy.”
Kyriarchy breaks down into its Greek roots. Archon means rule over, just like democracy and monarchy include that same Greek word for governing power. And kyrios means lord or master, just like in the chant kyrie eleison from the Greek, Roman, and Anglican church traditions, meaning “Lord have mercy.” Kyriarchy, broken down, means “the rule of the master or lord.” But here, Fiorenza is not referring to Jesus as the Lord. Instead, what she’s pointing to is the antiquated system of feudalism in which the lord of the manor held power not just because of his masculine gender performance, but also simultaneously by right of his class, his race, his sexual orientation, and so on.
“Kyriarchy” describes the environment in which people are oppressed because they have multiple identities that our culture pushes into the margins.
Intersectionality is worth talking about repeatedly, because it is such a critical element in feminism that there are a lot of people who believe that if our feminism isn’t actively intersectional, it is not just inadequate, it is harmful. To focus only on gender oppression without acknowledging how other marginalized identities within the same person compounds their experience, is to perpetuate that marginalization.
The church, which should stand for justice for the most vulnerable, is instead an institution that, of course as we know, perpetuates and legitimates kyriarchy. And that’s even more ironic when I think about the example of Jesus himself, who lived his own human life under kyriarchy.
With my very dear friend and spiritual mentor Letha Dawson Scanzoni, we came up with a list of ways Jesus might have been interpreted today as having experienced a matrix of multiple marginalizations:
- Politically, he was born in a country under Roman occupation and subjugated by colonization.
- Geographically, he came out of the city of Nazareth from which “what good could come?”
- Economically, he lived with so few resources that he relied on others to bankroll his ministry and had no place to lay his head.
- Religiously, he operated outside the institutional priesthood of his ancestral religion.
- And socially, he consorted with other marginalized people, including women, Samaritans, people who have leprosy, and tax collectors. So that’s guilt by association.
Jesus was not any one of these things. His ministry arose in part because he was all of them simultaneously, and that gave him power.
So inspired by the fact that God chose to incarnate in that body that had been erased by society many times over, our own organization went to the mat in defense of our conviction that if we can interpret the Bible to embrace the full humanity and right to self-determination for Christian women, then we must have an obligation to do the same for LGBTQ people. We took the controversial position that a person who is oppressed by both gender performance and sexual orientation has their own experience of erasure from the church that deserves to be corrected with the justice and compassion that God meant for them.
And because we took that position, CFT has been able to advocate in the church for people all along the spectra of sexual orientation and gender identity. Our own CFT member Virginia Ramey Mollenkott coined the term “omnigender” in her groundbreaking book of the same name articulating a new transgender theology. And in an effort to play with what sounds to English speakers like gendered language in the word “Amen,” our own CFT member Jann Aldredge-Clanton added “Ah-She,” and then our own CFT member Leslie Harrison added “Ah- They” to embrace the gender-inclusive pronoun. So now our blessing is “Amen, Ah-She, and Ah-They.”
So Crenshaw’s coining of the term “intersectionality” and Fiorenza’s coining of the term “kyriarchy” gave those realities power and visibility, and CFT’s members have worked to reform kyriarchy in ourselves, in our churches, and in our world. But we have so much more work to do, and that’s what I want to talk about next.
Step Three: Finding and Filling the Gaps in Language
Kramarae’s third step to becoming a thief of language is the most fun. She encourages us to find and fill in the gaps of language. What are those experiences in the lives of marginalized communities that have been ignored because they haven’t been given words? Articulate those experiences, and then give them new names.
Again, this is one theme that I’ve been working on for more than a decade, trying to build up a new vocabulary for Christian feminism, which I refer to as the Gracespeak Lexicon. I’ve tried to stay open to noticing Christian feminist experiences that to the best of my knowledge don’t already have names in everyday usage. But this is really hard to do.
According to Cheris Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory, what we don’t have words for, we can’t easily perceive, or value, or act upon.
That’s how the silencing happens. So the first part of the work is to look around and really try to make those things visible in our lives.
Once I started noticing those experiences, I brought them to a group of forty-five generous volunteers from all different corners of my life—old college friends, communication scholars from around the country, coworkers, former students who stayed in touch and then became friends, members of my former church, and some dear ones from Christian Feminism Today itself—who collectively brainstormed to suggest names for these ideas.
So some of the ground rules for the Gracespeak Lexicon Project were as follows:
- We couldn’t just make up a word with random letters like “giggledeezoink.” Instead, the neologism had to have immediate resonance with an everyday English-speaking audience.
- We worked as a feminist collective. So rather than identifying which individual coined which word, we committed to all being cited together as a group.
- I took on the responsibility of selecting from among the brainstormed suggestions which one that I would bring to you to describe that experience. Sometimes it was easy to choose because one person’s suggestion really resonated with others in the group. But other times it was really difficult because there were so many creative suggestions to choose from. But it’s also true that what most people end up calling something is a social process that happens through popular usage and time, and so one single person doesn’t really get to decide. And it is also true that there will be dissenters for whom a different word will resonate better and they’d rather use that. And that is perfectly fine.
And so armed with our tools of language theft, it is now my great pleasure to introduce you to some of the work of the Gracespeak Lexicon Project.
The Gracespeak Lexicon Project
Some of the ideas were quick and relatively uncomplicated. So here’s the first one.
The unnamed women of the Bible who deserve to have their names recorded and remembered.
It’s a really foundational memory of mine that at my very first Christian feminist conference in the year 2000, Ann Owenby played us a series of lighthearted but pointed songs that assigned names to some of the unnamed women in the Bible. She named the woman searching for the lost coin “Penny,” and the woman with the hemorrhage of blood “Flo,” and the bent-over woman, “Eileen.” Ann knew twenty years ago that the fact that restoring the missing names of these female saints—these missaints—matters.
The idea that despite not being included in the most famous artistic depictions, women were present with Jesus and the twelve disciples at the Last Supper.
We all know who prepared, and served, and cleaned up after that Passover seder. We all know who paid for it. The Essential Unknowns were there, and we paint them ourselves back into the picture.
To have always known something intellectually or spiritually, but to receive empirical confirmation from your body that it’s true.
This one comes from a personal story of mine, and here I want the point out that our personal stories also deserve to receive these names.
I had an experience of this while I was staying in Seattle a few years ago. We all know intellectually that the color spectrum goes way beyond what our human eyes can perceive and our brains can process. We accept that, we can prove that with spectrometers and the like. But accepting it intellectually is nothing like experiencing it directly. One of the side effects of the gnarly medical treatments I was undergoing allowed my brain to process colors more vividly for a while. I would walk down the street just staring at flowers as if I’d never seen them before because their colors all looked like they were on fire. The intensity of those colors has always been there — we’re taught from our elementary school days that flowers have colors beyond human perception. But it was just a different thing to confirm that knowing by the direct experience of my own body. So often, people who have marginalized identities are taught to deny the visceral wisdom of our own bodies. But it can be so powerful when we acknowledge and honor that knowing.
To viscerally, unmistakably experience the presence of the Divine in a place. And to viscerally, unmistakably experience that presence as feminine.
This entry into the Gracespeak Lexicon is intimately meaningful for me because of another personal story. I’m an academic. I have lived my entire life in my head with books and podcasts and computer screens. But I have had one mystical experience that went so far beyond intellectualism that I will dine out on the memory of that for the rest of my life.
While I was teaching in the study abroad program in Spain, we went on a group excursion up into the dumbfoundingly beautiful Picos de Europa mountains to the breathtakingly astounding Basilica of Covadonga. This is the burial place of Don Pelayo, who is referred to as the first king of Spain. And a few hundred feet from this basilica is a cave, and a waterfall, and a pool.
There are a lot of tangled legends about this area. Before the Romans Christianized Spain, the Celts had occupied that area and associated the waterfall and the river that feeds it and the fertility fountain that is also there with a female water spirit. And then later, this same cave became associated with a statue of the Virgin Mary. In the eighth century, this land became the site of a battle between Don Pelayo’s Christian forces and the Muslim Moors coming up from the south. In one version of the story, a hermit hid the statue of the Virgin Mary in this cave of Covadonga to preserve it from the battle. And then King Pelayo called upon the Virgin for protection and victory, and miraculously his armies won the battle and began the Reconquista of Spain (with all its historical implications). They set up a shrine to Our Lady of Covadonga in the cave that you can still see today. You can see here that the statue of the Virgin stands in the back of this open-air cave on an altar surrounded by flowers.
I wasn’t raised Roman Catholic, so I have no Marianology in my own religious background. But when I sat down in that cave, I tell you I felt a palpably Divine presence, and my perception was that it was palpably feminine. My body vibrated and trembled and shook. I sat in the pew of the chapel weeping without really understanding why. My poor students were standing around and they didn’t know what to do. Except take pictures. That’s what they do, they take pictures. So I have photographic evidence of this moment. I don’t believe the feminine aspect of the Divine cares one whit what we call Her. Call her Sophia, call her Hochma, call her Holy Spirit. And I don’t believe Her power was literally in the statue of Mary itself. But one thing I do believe is that I felt Her presence thrumming through my nervous system in that cave.
The word “Theophany” comes from the classical Greek, and it means “the phenomenon of a god manifesting before a human.” My moment in the cave of Our Lady of Covadonga in Northern Spain is the closest that I’ve ever come to an experience of theophany. And it was so precious to me as a Christian feminist that the way I was given to experience the presence of God had a feminine feeling. Sheophany.
Successfully maintaining the unstable position of the both/and. From the Latin for balance scales, libra.
Both Christian and feminist. Both Christian and queer. Libraneis is a constant, ongoing work because that both/and position that we’re trying to maintain is inherently unstable. We deal all the time with cultural forces on both sides that tell us these two parts of our identities are mutually exclusive. But the pressure doesn’t just come from outside. We also have to contend with the internal forces that make it hard to constantly be performing multiple identities all at the same time. For me, and I trust for most of you, our openness to doing that hard work of libranesis comes from being a Christian first. I’ve concluded through scripture, prayer, mystical revelation, and liturgy that my Christianity compels me to be a feminist. I stand for feminism because my practice of Christianity demands feminism. That is how I try to maintain my libranesis, by knowing where the balance comes from.
And now I want to take that idea one step further to argue that I stand for intersectionality because my practice of Christianity demands intersectionality. The Gracespeak Lexicon wordmakers generated a lot of suggestions for what to name this, but I couldn’t settle on any of them. So I would really like to invite you to participate in this work and suggest your own name for this idea, that our Christianity compels our intersectionality.
More Exciting Work to Be Done
We know that we have an immense amount of work to do to resist and interrupt kyriarchy in the church and center the voices that have been silenced. Nadia Bolz-Weber really provides a theology to explain why practicing an intersectional Christian feminism is so sacred. Let’s go back to her argument about the difference between Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot. Because we live in a world of kyriarchy, the mouth from whom we hear a word of grace matters.
If people are erased from our churches and our society because of their multiple oppressed identities, then their voices that would have spoken grace to all of us are silenced.
And it is also important to speak from those aspects of our identities that do carry privilege in our culture. Reverend Bolz-Weber has often told the story of how when she originally founded her Lutheran church in Boulder, Colorado, it’s called the House for All Sinners and Saints, the tattoos on her body, and her recovery from alcoholism, and her foul mouth, and her story of being bullied as a kid for a medical condition attracted an eclectic congregation: queer punks and burly bikers and people with addictions and all kinds of others who might not have felt welcome at any other kind of church.
But then she got famous. And suddenly, she looked out from her pulpit to see a congregation filled with… muggles! The normies. The vanilla people who learned about House for All from the books and newspaper features they’d read, but those people could have been comfortable stepping into any other church in town. And Nadia Bolz-Weber admitted that she started resenting the muggles’ infiltration into the magical cool space she had created for her community. She felt some resentment, that is, until a young gay kid in her congregation told her one day how much it meant to him, after having been disowned by his own biological parents, to have mainstream, suit-wearing, dad-looking bankers in the church who could look at him like a parent and say, “God loves you and so do I.” So those parts of our embodied identities that have been ascribed privilege are also needed to speak our word of grace where it’s appropriate.
There’s a lot of talk right now about how individual convictions and actions are not enough to make justice. We have to move on to dismantling the system under which people passively benefit just by accident of the identities that we were born into. But, if we are going to dismantle a system of inequality, we have to use systemic tools. And—here’s the cool thing— language change, because it is inherently a social process conducted only together with large groups of other human beings, is one such tool.
So I invite everyone who’s here reading this speech to claim the identity of an intersectional Christian feminist who is not just part of a theological community, but also a speech community. Welcome to the life of a thief of language who can:
- Recognize rhetorical silencing when you see it,
- Respect the language creativity that the silenced have always used to assert our voices,
- Fill in the gaps by speaking God’s inclusive, radical love with new language.
I’d like to leave you with one last entry from the Gracespeak Lexicon, one that I hope comforts your heart in the way that it has mine during this virus pandemic. In memory of Eveline and Laura and Alice and Bessie Mae and all the rest, I offer you a novel blessing.
May the cloak of protection woven by the love and prayers of your great-great grandmothers surround and protect you.
Amen, Ah-She, and Ah-They.
© 2020 by Alena Ruggerio and Christian Feminism Today. All rights reserved.
“If our feminism isn’t actively intersectional, it is not just inadequate, it is harmful.” – Dr. Alena Ruggerio in #TheGracespeakLexicon on @EEWC_CFT.
“If people are erased from our churches and our society because of their multiple oppressed identities, then their voices that would have spoken grace to all of us are silenced.”
– Dr. Alena Ruggerio via @EEWC_CFT.
Listen to a Christian Feminism Today podcast featuring another presentation by Dr. Ruggerio.