What Do You Call It?: A Response to Dr. Alena Ruggerio’s “The Gracespeak Lexicon” Presentation

An open book and magnifying glass

A ViewPoint by Anne Linstatter

This piece was written in response to the July presentation given by Dr. Alena Ruggerio in The Humble Gathering presentation series (presentation transcript here).

What do you call it when women get together and talk?

In 1970 in the United States, you called it consciousness raising.

In 1400 in England, you called it gossip. That term came from the Old English godsibb (God-relative), meaning a godparent or sponsor at a christening; later, it meant any close friend, and by the 1560s, “By 1811, gossip had the meaning we give it today—unimportant talk or rumor. Since around 1300, it’s been used mainly for women and women’s talk.

In the 1500s and 1600s, women talking together became dangerous and was sometimes thought to be a sign of witchcraft.

But women talking together can be magical—a powerful experience of community in exchanging ideas and experiences. CFT members have felt this kind of magical or Spirit-led community at many gatherings and conferences over the years, starting in 1974.

This rush of Spirit-led sharing occurred again in July, 2020, during the Zoom conversation following Dr. Alena Ruggerio’s presentation our biennial get-together converted to an online event.

One of Alena’s theses is that “Christian feminism requires a whole new vocabulary.” The first step in constructing this vocabulary is to identify women’s experiences that don’t yet have a word to represent them. Toward this end, I take note of the euphoric experience some of us shared via Zoom after her lecture, and I hope some of you will suggest possible names for it.

During that conversation, Alena said that the evolving of a name occurs naturally as the situation to which it refers changes. She mentioned as an example changes in the name for this organization, Christian Feminism Today, since our founding over forty years ago. In 1974, as a subgroup of an Evangelicals for Social Action gathering, we called ourselves Evangelical Women’s Caucus. There was also a Black caucus and others. The early 1970s were a time of great political change, and the word caucus felt right.

In 1990, ten years before Alena’s first conference, we added the world ecumenical to our name, and she identified with that term rather than evangelical. She remembered being at the 2005 council meeting in which we changed the name of our publication to Christian Feminism Today, later adopting that name for the organization, too.

I’ve always felt a bit apologetic in explaining these complicated name changes, but in the discussion after her talk, Alena pointed out, “Language is a living thing. Meaning does not lie in words themselves; meaning is created among humans interacting together.” As we humans change and learn, the meanings of our words evolve and we make new words: snafu, motel, smog.

Shortly after Alena’s presentation, I happened to hear more about the word caucus. I’d always assumed it was a Latin or Greek word originating in a masculine world of politics. But Gloria Steinem says caucus is a Native American word rooted in a matriarchal culture. Her source is Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1987 to 1995.

In the 2018 Broadway play Gloria—A Life! the actress playing Wilma (DeLanna Studi) explains that Cherokee culture is matrilineal and that the language has no gendered pronouns—no he or she. Women have noticeable power, causing white men to call Cherokees “the petticoat nation.”

“At the heart of our governance is the caucus, an Algonquian word that means talking circles,” Wilma reveals. Sure enough, Online Etymology cites an Algonquian word caucauasu, which showed up in American English in the 1760s as the word caucus. I’m happy CFT’s first name included a Native American word that originated in a culture where decision-making was shared between men and women.

In every culture, as time passes, words coined for a specific situation become outdated. Christianity Today magazine was founded in 1956 as part of an attempt to unify many conservative church groups under the term evangelical and to move beyond fundamentalism. Then the term ecumenical became popular as Protestants and Catholics tried to overcome differences, and many kinds of Christians joined forces.

In the Q&A after Alena’s talk, Catherine Bailey mentioned that after forty years the term feminism feels too limiting. “It’s not big enough,” answered Alena, adding that, for some, Christianity is not big enough either.

Another measure of change: for decades our goal was to be inclusive, but now intersectional better expresses our understanding of how oppression works and how we can work for change.

Words have always been no more than tools, ways of representing what we see and understand, even as our understanding changes and grows. The good news is that change is occurring and we feel freer to invent new words and expressions: Black lives matter, oppression is intersectional, ChristSophia reigns.

Women are talking together about more aspects of our lives. We now have words like sexual harassment, mansplaining, #metoo, and woke to critique and change our culture.

Thank you to Alena and our technical team for starting off our Humble Gathering with a firecracker of an event. Even a pandemic has not been able to keep the women, men, and non-binary people of CFT from having an empowering, exciting Gathering this summer.

As Gloria Steinem once said, “I’ve come to have great faith in the magic of people talking after a shared experience.” Let’s come up with a word for that kind of talking.

Interested in learning about The Humble Gathering? Find out more about CFT’s online presentation series here.

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