And Zion Shall Be Called a Mother

An abstract watercolor illustration showing stars and planets and the earth surrounded by a female image, illustrating mother of zion.

This article is a condensed version of the address given on EWC Action Day, Saturday, July 24, 1982, at the Seattle EWC Conference (Women and the Promise of Restoration). The text picks up after the speaker’s introductory remarks.

by Joyce Quiring Erickson Coordinator Emerita, EWC, International

I believe, as perhaps many of you believe also, that we’re at a stage in our growth where we need special guidance about who we are to become…. EWC is not a person. But the analogy between EWC and personhood may be instructive.

We know, as Christians and as feminists, that it’s erroneous to assume that a person is what she does. We recognize that we cannot understand someone merely by knowing what roles she plays. But we also realize that who we are must be manifest in what we do, by the actions we take in the world; not just the actions we take in carrying out our professional and familial roles, but the sum total of actions that constitute all our relationships.

Let us assume that that can also be said of an organization. Assuming this, I would like to focus this morning not on what EWC does, on what actions it takes, but on who we are, or can be — on our being. Since being and doing are reflexive, who we are affects what we do, just as what we do reflects and affects who we are.

In the last fifteen years or so, the women’s movement has concentrated, roughly speaking, on affirming two kinds of truth about women. One kind of affirmation is the affirmation of femaleness — of a woman’s body, of her experiences as a member of what Jessie Bernard calls “the female world.” This affirmation has helped us to realize that it’s okay — yes, even more than okay, great — to be female. Embodiment as a woman is to be celebrated. We are not aberrations of a human norm defined by maleness, but fully human as females. To be told that we think like a man is no longer a compliment. As biblical feminists we have made this kind of affirmation in our recognition that we are beings created in God’s image.

The second kind of affirmation proclaims our ability, our willingness, and our right to participate in the full range of human activities, private and public. This affirmation undercuts the nineteenth-century ideal of woman’s special sphere, a place separate, sometimes even purer and more moral than man’s world. As biblical feminists, we have affirmed our calling to use all of our gifts in ministry in whatever places God has called us to.

Both kinds of affirmation implicitly condemn the oppression of women, based on a devaluation of their human capacities. We have answered Dorothy Sayers’ question, “Are Women Human?” with a resounding “Yes.”

Yet this dual affirmation is not without complexities. In growing up female, we have learned some important things about being human, even though the importance of what we’ve learned hasn’t always been valued by men or by women. Can we continue to remember how it feels to be powerless or oppressed once we have power? To what extent is it necessary to adopt certain ways of being, largely modeled for us by men, in order to prove we belong in the larger sphere that contains both women and men?

An abstract watercolor showing six immigrant women standing on the shore of an ocean looking out.

Women’s Cultural Emergence as an Immigrant Experience

Jessie Bernard in her book, The Female World, draws a comparison between the plight of women today who are asking these questions and the experience of immigrants to another country. In leaving a female world whose limits have been drawn for us and in which we found means to survive — often with beauty and dignity, for another world in which we participate in a different way, we face traumas similar to the trauma of immigrants, leaving one place for a new one.

Most immigrants to North America came here because they were politically or economically repressed in their old countries. They came seeking new opportunities. But they lost something, too. Many first-generation immigrants never recovered from that loss. Often, second-generation immigrants attempted to forget and deny their heritage, ashamed that they were not like everyone else. It was the third generation that was able to see that the culture and values of the old country should be affirmed and passed on, even as these people became part of the new country.

There are first- and second-generation immigrants from the female world to the human world all around us. We can find the first generation in shelters for battered wives, or we can imagine them as individuals lost in statistics about middle-aged women dumped by their husbands after years of immersion in the roles of mother and wife.

We can find the second-generation women in the TV images of liberated women (for example, in the commercial for a certain brokerage house which shows women just as eager as men to give up the amenities of normal human relationships for the “drive to get ahead”).

An abstract watercolor image showing two women sitting on either side of an earth image with a tree growing inside it.

Forging the New World

But how are we as women — immigrants or children of immigrants — going to forge a new world? As Christian women, we know that new world must conform to the new heaven and the new earth, but being open to that vision and undergoing the process is neither simple nor easy. Consider the ambivalence we feel as we continue to affirm our tradition and experience as women, and as we affirm our need and right to participate fully in the process of working out humankind’s salvation with fear and trembling.

On the one hand, we’re finding that the anticipation we feel for an evening out with female friends is as great as, if not greater than, the anticipation we were supposed to feel for that big date when we were teenagers. We’ve learned that women are not natural enemies fighting for male attention, but that our shared experiences provide the glue for bonding that helps us to survive and flourish. On the other hand, we’ve found how exhilarating it is to discover our gifts and to carry out a task to completion, to share important responsibilities with men, with the entire community of people committed to a shared goal.

On the one hand we’ve rediscovered the strength of our unsung foremothers. We’ve come to appreciate the wisdom that has been passed down to us outside of the mainstream of male tradition and culture. On the other hand, we’ve reveled in the joy of discovering that we have been part of that tradition and culture, though hidden, and that we can contribute to and mold it ourselves, along with men.

I recall my response to first seeing television news reports of a recent summit conference where one of the leaders of the conference was a woman. When I saw her, somehow I felt represented in a way that I had not been before. There was a woman at that conference, someone who put on her pantyhose one leg at a time, just like I did. But I deplored Margaret Thatcher’s politics even then, and now events of the past year have thoroughly disabused us, I hope, of the fallacious notion that if women were put in charge of present political structures things would change and there wouldn’t be any war no mo’.

I identified with Margaret Thatcher because she was a woman. But that having been said, I also have to turn away from being seduced by notions of power that are ultimately destructive, that are not the kind of power we’ve been hearing God wants us to have or to help others to have. William Stringfellow has reminded us that human institutions and structures can become principalities and powers that belie even our best intentions. We need more women in places of power and responsibility to create a new world that conforms to God’s design for creation.

My other example above comes from an experience earlier this summer of participating in a family reunion, where I saw some of my aunts and uncles for the first time in years. Sitting around the table, they told story after story of their childhood on homesteads in Montana.

I heard how my grandfather’s first wife died in a cabin, miles from town, of miscarriage and hemorrhage, while he looked helplessly on, left with a two-year-old child. I heard how, in the frozen January, they transported her body to South Dakota to the family burial ground; during that journey a drayman drove the wagon over a frozen rut and the coffin tipped over and the body fell out. I heard how that two-year-old child, my aunt, lived with relatives for seven years until she was sent back to live with her father and new stepmother my grandmother. I heard how that second wife died, leaving four children of her own; how the tears froze on their cheeks as they buried that woman, my grandmother, in the frozen Montana ground in another January. The oldest of those four children was my mother, seventeen years old, handed in a day the entire responsibility of being homemaker and mother to those children. I remembered how she couldn’t go to high school because that would have required her leaving home to board in the town where the school was, though her brother three years younger went. . . . My mother had five children. She got her high school diploma after several of her children had already received theirs. Now she has a master’s degree and she’s just left for the Philippines to teach in a missionary kids’ school.

What strength these women had. What determination. That is a heritage I have inherited. And I learned more from these women than how to make a flaky pie crust. I learned about trust in the Lord.

At that reunion I also saw strong, egalitarian marriages. Yet I’m sure every one of those women, if asked, would say they subscribed to the idea of male dominance in marriage. But they don’t live it. Not one of them would come to an EWC convention. I’m pretty sure they’re pleased about the defeat of the ERA. Yet I am proud to acknowledge these women as those who passed on something to me as a girl and a young woman. They illustrate what Bernard says about the strengths and positive values of the female world.

My family also has skeletons in the closet. Some terrible tragedies might have been averted; some sad, troubled women who, for many reasons in addition to their own weakness, failed, might have flourished if they had not grown up in a society that devalues women. The world of mutuality that we as biblical feminists envision would have been a better world for them. And their daughters, perhaps even more than they, need to hear about the possibility of that world, because they no longer have even the traditional means of emotional and spiritual support in an alienated urban or suburban environment.

In fact, it’s because of my involvement in the women’s movement and in EWC that I can see what my mothers and aunts and grandmothers and all the other foremothers have contributed to my life — and to the life of humanity. And if there’s one thing we in EWC should be sure they hear — those women who aren’t here, people like my aunts and even my biological sisters, all of them active participants in evangelical congregations — if there’s one thing these women should be able to hear from us loud and clear, it is the first kind of affirmation I mentioned earlier. It’s the affirmation that being a woman is a good thing, and that, despite the oppression and difficulties women have experienced, they have much to contribute right now. They don’t have to first get a Ph.D. and wear a power suit or know how much to tip the redcap at the airport, or even how to explain the intricacies of 1 Timothy 2.

In order for us to carry out our mission, we have to reach out to those sisters in Christ in our churches who are threatened by our insistence on justice and opportunity. We can’t stop insisting, for their sakes we can’t stop insisting; but for those of us to whom much has been given, from us much is required. I’m not talking about smoothing over or placating. I’m not even talking about being gentle. I’m trying to suggest that we hearken to our experiences as members of the female world as a means of empathizing with these sisters. The same is true, of course, for our relationships with women who are not in the church.

As an organization, then, as we affirm what it means to be women, we also affirm those women in churches: all those nursery attendants, those ladies’ aid societies, the missionary societies determined to send single women out to foreign lands. Women who, despite obstacles, made sacrifices to act on and live out their calling.

An abstract watercolor image showing a large group of women with their arms raised in a praise position

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

Some of you, I’m sure, know the lovely passage from Ecclesiasticus which begins, “Let us now praise famous men.” As an affirmation of our foremothers, known and unknown, I’d like to read that passage now, with some revision. I would ask the men in the audience to perform the act of identification so often asked of women — to include yourselves and your brothers even though the men and fathers are invisible in this particular reading of the passage.

Let us now praise famous women, and our mothers that bore us.
The Lord has wrought great glory by them through God’s great power from the beginning.
Such as did bear rule in their kingdom, women renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies;
Leaders of people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions:
Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing;
Rich women furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations;
[Not] all these were honored in their generations, though they were the glory of their times.
There be them who have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.
And some there be which have no memorial; who perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they bad never been born; and their children after them.
But these were merciful women, whose right bath not been forgotten.
With their offspring shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.
Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.

Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44

There’s irony here, even in the original version that celebrates the names of those who have left no names, and even more in the loss of our foremothers’ names, who have left no name, no memorial — except us …….. And it is we in Evangelical Women’s Caucus, who have acknowledged and understood the anguish of not having or leaving a name, it is we who must memorialize them by our lives.

I’ve been suggesting that we must call upon our experiences as women, as members of the female world, to generate solidarity. But our history also tells us that this common experience, though necessary, is not sufficient. We’ve exulted, rightfully, in claiming ourselves as daughters of Sarah. But if we claim that heritage, we also have to own what Sarah did to Hagar. Female bonding was not enough to prevent jealousy and exclusion, exclusion that nearly led to death, except for the intervention of Yahweh.

An abstract watercolor image illustrating three women standing on different sides of a gaping fault line chasm.

Fault Lines

Certainly, the history of struggles within the women’s movement has shown that sisterhood is not enough. Even in EWC, some of us have been aware of threats of divisiveness that have the potential for disaster. Jessie Bernard uses the geological metaphor of “fault lines” to illustrate divisions that threaten the solidarity of the female world. Those apply to us, too. For example, as we’ve already been reminded, divisions of race, class, or age. Though I will not focus on those fault lines this morning, our individual and corporate seismographs must always be operating to alert us to attitudes and practices that might weaken. In nonfigurative language, if differences of race, class, and age are substantive rather than descriptive, we are sinning. But there are other differences, what Bernard calls “issue related fault lines.” Some of the issues that are divisive to the women’s movement as a whole also trouble EWC — our views about homosexuality, or abortion, or a simple lifestyle, or pacifism. We have taken no official position as an organization on any of these issues. People on all sides of the issues have pressured us to do so, and perhaps that pressure is good in that it forces us to reexamine our motives and goals and, above all, does not allow us to become complacent about the need for justice.

And if feelings and beliefs about these important issues weren’t enough to weaken our solidarity, we have those issues that people take sides about in the evangelical community. Are the Scriptures inerrant? And what precisely do we mean by the term inerrancy? Is a free form of worship preferable to a liturgical form? Are conservative politics preferable to liberal politics? Should we participate in ecumenical endeavors or retain a separatist stance? And on and on.

And if that weren’t enough, we must deal with what every human community must deal with —differences in personal styles of relationship, of talking and acting, of education, of taste, even of region. All of these “normal” or “natural” differences can sometimes seem very important to us indeed.

Not to mention the difficulties in relationships that occur as a result of the fact that many of our members come to us because they have been hurt and need an extra measure of comfort and tolerance.

No. Mere sisterhood is not enough, just as mere brotherhood has not been enough. It is part of our heritage as human beings, as daughters and sons of Eve and Adam, to make ourselves comfortable by creating solidarity through the exclusion of others; by bonding together against other humans, by purposely or inadvertently relegating others to the category of “other,” of not quite human because not quite like us.

An abstract watercolor illustration of two women feeling the power of a heart in between them.

We Must Not Succumb to the Practice of Exclusion

We, of course, are not the first of God’s people to have experienced and recognized the pull toward exclusion. From the beginning, with our first parents, our self-imposed alienation from God has resulted in our seeing human beings as the other. We are not the first, but all along our God has been trying to gather all of us under Her wings. That is a major theme, even in the Old Testament, the book of the chosen people — the theme that God has been trying to include every human being as part of the chosen people, even though there were people like Jonah who didn’t want to hear the message at all. There’s a tension in the Old Testament (and the New) between the principle of being chosen and set apart and God’s yearning for all of the human family. Perhaps the tension engenders the same feelings that we have between recognizing our special heritage as women and our yearning to abolish arbitrary differences that separate humankind.

There’s a piece of Hebrew poetry that expresses this tension well that celebrates the heritage of Israel and yet expresses the yearning to include all people. It’s Psalm 87, from which the title of this address was taken:

The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob; her foundations are laid upon holy hills, and the Lord has made her home.
I will count Egypt and Babylon among my friends; Philistine, Tyrian and Nubian shall be there;
and Zion shall be called a mother
in whom people of every race are born.
The Lord shall write against each in the role of nations: ”This one was born in her.”
Singers and dancers alike chant your praises, proclaiming glorious things of you, 0 city of God.

Psalm 87

Jessie Bernard’s analogy between emerging women and immigrants is apt. But even as I recognized the aptness of the analogy, I also thought, there is no immigrant status in God’s country. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female. To every human is offered a birthright of being born anew in Christ.

That is the heritage that matters most to us — our common experience as those forgiven in Christ. That is the glue that bonds us together. What EWC must be is a place — a country — where that is all that matters. The constitution of such a country is not based on ideological purity on aesthetic purity, on intellectual purity, even on doctrinal purity.

The purity that we must care about is purity of heart, and that comes as a result of the gift of God’s grace. We, whose experiences as liberated women and men have given us freedom, are called to demonstrate a kind of human solidarity that neither the women’s movement nor alas the evangelical movement demonstrates. As children of this new covenant, we must provide a place where it is enough to be human beings forgiven by God, where we are restored to participation in God’s original design. Where otherness is forgotten in that flash of recognition: At last, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.

 

© 1982 by the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the EWC Update, Volume 6, Number 3, September–November 1982.

The images illustrating this post were created by Le Isaac Weaver using DreamStudio ai.

To read more about EEWC’s history, click here.

CFT 50th Anniversary logo (CFT regular logo in gold)In honor of CFT’s 50th anniversary, CFT is publishing some important historical reflections, articles, reviews, and other pieces. See more from this series here.

Joyce Quiring Erickson
Joyce Quiring Erickson was a cofounder of the Seatle EWC chapter and served as EWC’s national coordinator in 1980 and 1981. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in English, from the University of Washington. She contributed a chapter to the book Embodied Holiness: Toward a Corporate Theology of Spiritual Growth (Wipf and Stock, 2012) and was featured in June Hagen’s book, Rattling Those Dry Bones: Women Changing the Church (LuraMedia, 1995). She taught for many years at Seattle Pacific University, where she also served as the dean of the School of Humanities and later the College of Arts and Sciences. She is regarded as the primary architect of Seattle Pacific University’s innovative general education program, the Common Curriculum.

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