This is a post my friend Ginna Baker and I wrote together, imagined as an interview, based on a Facebook conversation she started.
Nikki: So Ginna, I saw a post on your Facebook page this week asking your friends about their relationship to feminism:
“Was there a first moment when you thought, ‘Maybe those feminist-type people are onto something. Or maybe I am a feminist.’?”
And after only a few hours, there were many comments, sad stories from women who grew up in your church. I’m curious what motivated you to post on this topic?
Ginna: I have so many happy memories from the church I grew up in, where adults showed interest in me and talked to me every week about our lives. I felt absolutely cherished there. I knew that I wanted to follow Jesus and be active in the church for the rest of my life. Sometimes I told the worship leader that he sang my favorite song that day, and he loved it. He would ask me what songs we should sing next week. I was treated like an important member of the future body of Christ.
But sometime in the process of growing up, that feeling left. As I went to college and then into my 20’s, my guy friends were taken into the inner circle of the church leadership, asked for their opinions on major church decisions, and encouraged to attend divinity school. And, although I was much more serious about God than those same male friends, I grew through those same ages with a growing sense that I was the church’s ward instead of a leader.
Don’t get me wrong — I was still cherished by all my wonderful friends. I still contributed to my church, and even directed some music and children’s programs. I was encouraged to participate and to bring food to things, to babysit people’s kids, and to give money to the church. But I started to notice that my thoughts and feelings about the direction of the church were not considered.
Things changed in my personal life, too. I was a model student, told I would go far; but then I had a series of abusive bosses who told me that I was stupid, asked me when I was going to get married, and commented regularly on my work clothing as it related to my professionalism. I started my first job thinking that feminism was for power-hungry non-Christian women who wanted to subjugate men. But by my mid-20’s, with 5 years of work experience under my belt, I had started to think that maybe women’s experience in church and public life really was lacking. Maybe feminists had a point — we needed to pay more attention to making women’s lives better.
I was experiencing a lot of abuse at work, and ideally the church would be a place I could go to escape that. But that wasn’t the case. I started to play with the idea of being a ‘feminist’, although the word still had fairly negative connotations to me.
Now in my 30’s I’m wondering — did my playground pals from that first church have similar experiences? Did they feel that shift when they woke up one day at age 22 and realized that they were no longer important in their churches? I decided to put out a Facebook poll to find out.
Nikki: Some of the stories women told about things that happened to them in the Church really disturbed me. And one of the most distressing things about those answers is that they are SO COMMON. I have heard every one of these stories before!
What elements struck you from the stories that people shared?
Ginna: One theme I saw repeatedly was that my friends had grown up and started to become targets of criticism. While as children they were the apple of the church’s eye, as young women they were found wanting.
One friend, the daughter of two pastors, said:
“I think I’ve always been the wild sheep of the family (something I take so much joy in), but one time my parents told me that I should learn how to tone myself down because women were much more attractive and holy when they are of “a gentle and quiet spirit” and that the way I am I can easily intimidate and scare off the good Christian men looking for a doormat to marry. I told them that if I intimidate someone and he doesn’t like it, then he’s not the one for me. They didn’t like that.”
This reminded me so much of my own experience. I was always an outgoing little kid who would be loud and dress up and want to tell people things. Around mid-elementary school, probably age 6 or 7, my mom started talking to me about a “gentle and quiet spirit.” She didn’t like it when I talked a lot in front of other people or wanted to play the piano for them, and after social gatherings would often admonish me with Proverbs 31. That method of discipline really worked on me, because I felt absolutely ashamed of doing something wrong in front of other people.
I guess I wish she would have just said, “Pipe down,” if I was talking too much, instead of using the Bible as a sort of weapon to shame me.
Nikki: The message that women who have strong personalities are somehow made wrong and/or living wrong is a very common one in the church. We are told that we need to settle down. There is only one right way to be a godly woman. We must constantly erase ourselves to make room for the man (or even potential men) in our lives.
We are taught to live in fear and self-doubt – we are taught to ask not “Who did God make me to be?” but rather “Who should I be so that men will find me attractive?”
Ginna: I wonder why that is, sometimes. I think because people have this feeling that men have worth and women are worthless, so the only way a woman can be worthy of a man is to jump through a bunch of hoops.
I remember at my church, I had an experience where a pastor came up to me during the service and started praying loudly for the spirit of rebellion to leave me. I was 13. I wasn’t feeling angry or rebellious at the time, but sad because of a rough week at school. That was definitely an experience that left me feeling like I needed to try harder to earn God’s favor, and to get the sad and angry feelings out of myself in order to have God’s forgiveness It felt almost like an exorcism for young women who weren’t smiling enough.
That wasn’t a super common occurrence at my church, but one of my friends shared an experience in the facebook comments in which women were seen to be more dangerous than men as a rule:
“Sophomore year of [Christian] high school, my English teacher told me that the only opinion (on a work of fiction) that mattered was his, and if I wrote my own opinion, he would fail me. That same year my Bible teacher told me I wasn’t allowed to raise my hand again because my questions about the Bible were rebellious.”
At her school, women’s thoughts and opinions didn’t matter. And as if that weren’t a bad enough thing to see in the Body of Christ, so many women I know are told that their thoughts and questions are evil and need to be silenced.
Nikki: Based on the additional information your friend posted, subjugating women was a major theme at the church that was affiliated with this school:
“The affiliated church was like patriarchy personified. Women weren’t allowed in any leadership role, and could only stand at the back of the church to pray. There were many sermons on women’s roles in the home (submitting; being always sexually available; making babies) and male headship.
Domestic violence was a problem in that church, and continues to be a problem for women my age who are still affiliated with that hell hole. When they try to leave abuse, they get shamed and ostracized and asked what they did to make their husband so angry and violent.”
Domestic violence in a hierarchical church is incredibly common. It reminds me of my other friend who was encouraged by her churches to stay with her abusers because marriage is so much more important than the health and safety of the people IN the marriage. It exemplifies the link between seeing women as lower than men in God’s eyes, and the deep darkness that perspective can lead to, such as physical abuse.
Ginna: And this is where it really gets scary — women in her church are being beaten and roughed up by their husbands, and then instead of getting help for their own anger problems, the husbands are turning around and saying, “What did you do to make me so mad?” This is a case where good church leadership can make such a difference in giving men a reality check, provided the church leadership believes in keeping women safe.
Nikki: But it should rarely come to that. Because if you’re in a church where men and women are both deeply and equally valued, people teach each other from a young age that our bodies are important and need to be respected, regardless of whether they are men’s bodies or women’s bodies.
Women are devalued in hierarchical churches, systematically. We are reminded in a million different ways of our subordinate “place” – even, as the women in the last story mentioned, by being sent to the back of the church to pray! And the pastors and future pastors of our churches take our lower status for granted, as we can clearly see in this woman’s story:
“I was a lukewarm feminist until seminary grad school – glad I could vote, not so convinced that sexism was that bad today.
A turning point came after hearing male classmates — future pastors — tell rape jokes. When other women and I said it wasn’t funny, they told us we were overreacting. And I finally started to see how male privilege and patriarchy operate. Once I started resisting sexism, I saw it everywhere.”
Future pastors telling rape jokes! Laughing about the violation of human beings! And when women, fellow future pastors, protested this dehumanizing behavior – the men deflected and blamed the women for “overreacting” rather than realizing that they were disrespecting daughters of the Most High God and changing their thoughts.
Ginna: Yes. We had a situation at a secular class on programming that I attended where a male student in his 20’s was glamorizing rape in front of other students, and the school asked him to leave. It’s sad that at a seminary, men can joke about rape in front of other students and there’s no one to say, “That was out of line.” Or at least no one that the men respect… I guess when a techie jokes about rape, it’s not ok, but when future pastors joke about it, it’s somehow fine?
Nikki: That’s crazy. How can we expect these men to treat the women in their congregations? How will they respond if a congregant comes to ask for help after having been raped (which they believe is something to laugh about)? Or abused (if rape is laughable, abuse must be hilarious)?
It’s also important to think about what that kind of teaching does to women’s relationships with God. When girls grow up in churches that emphasize the subordination of women, that define women by their marital status, that teach girls to hide themselves so they can achieve the pinnacle of womanhood (marriage), that devalue women by victim blaming and laughing at our violation – we become women who sincerely doubt that God made us well. We become women who feel inherently wrong – inherently bad. Or worse, we doubt the goodness of God Himself.
Is this the truth of Christ? NO! He made us well! He made us each on purpose the way we are so that we can shine His love in all the different ways He loves! He came to set us free! He made us new creations – and He calls us GOOD. There is life in the truth of the Spirit:
“[My friend] introduced me to a book on feminist theology the year after I graduated from college and it blew my mind. I realized that so much of the hurt I’d experienced growing up in a conservative Christian church and home was not biblical and was not my fault. It was liberating to hear that so many of my personality characteristics (being tenacious, wanting to take charge of situations, questioning the motives of authority) were not ‘sinful’; they made me powerful.”
God is Love. Love is patient and kind and encouraging. Love is not arrogant or rude or proud. Love is serving one another and lifting each other up – never shoving each other down. Love is following the voice of God – and, by extension, letting each other follow His voice, whatever He has called us to do. Love is earnest and pure.
Is your church filled with Love? The kind of love that makes *all* of these stories impossible? Are we Christians filled to bursting with the bondage-breaking love of Christ Jesus? The extravagant, life-giving love of God? The peaceful, comforting love of the Holy Spirit?