Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Gender Roles, Schmender Roles

When I was growing up, a "feminist" was a very bad, man-hating, prideful woman who was trying to push her agenda (which was, obviously, to be a man!) and confuse the natural order of things. We tossed around the term "feminazi" casually, jokingly, anytime we encountered one of these liberals.

Today, I can't believe I bought into that view so thoroughly. And I don't know how to explain it except to say that when you grow up in a church that teaches you that you can do certain things but not others because you're a girl, you kind of just accept it as truth. You think: they're good people, they wouldn't lie to me. And I should be clear: I wasn't even part of one of those ultra-fundamentalist churches that made women cover their hair or not speak in church. Just your basic Bible-based non-denominational evangelical church.

But I remember dreaming of becoming a pastor one day - after all, I loved Jesus and wanted to preach about Him - and telling my mom about it. Mom informed me that as a woman, I just couldn't be a pastor. Something about it not being right for a woman to teach men. I was a little indignant about it, but I was also a fairly young kid so I think I just accepted it and went on with my life. I think Mom said I could be a missionary, though. (Wait - what? I can't teach men in my own church, but I could go far, far away and teach foreign men?)

Anyway, that's what I grew up with: men were in charge. And I mostly accepted it - the whole headship of man, the whole symbolism of Christ and the church modeling the husband-wife relationship, and vice versa...there was a strange mystical appeal to it.

Even so, I didn't completely accept it. I started having issues with "wives submitting to their husbands" many years ago, though at first I attributed it to my stubbornness and obviously selfish desire to "rule" over my husband. (Another example of, if I disagree with something my faith teaches me, obviously I am in the wrong and need to examine my heart for my real (sinful) motives.) I have since developed a real disdain for marriages where men act as the spiritual "head" (and the 'head' in all other matters) and the wives act as support. Or, perhaps I should say: no way in hell do I want a marriage like that. For one thing, the simple truth for most of my twenties was that I was more spiritually mature than most of the men in my local Christian dating pool. For another thing, I had a lot of opinions about things, and made a lot of decisions about my own life, so the idea that I would have to delegate decision making to someone else made me squirm. I wanted to be treated as an equal in my own marriage, and had no interest in a husband who might abuse the notion of his headship, and get controlling on me. (A close friend of mine got into exactly that kind of marriage, which was very emotionally abusive.)

Over time, my marital role discomfort broadened to become a more generalized discomfort with how women are allowed to participate (or not participate) in their church communities. When I was exploring Catholicism, it really bothered me that my boyfriend was against any potential daughter of ours being an altar girl. (I guess that wasn't allowed until semi-recently (?), and the boyfriend was super old school on that kind of thing.) I know now that that was just him, but his attitude made me take a step back and observe how most churches view women and women in leadership.

So it has taken a very long time for me to see the sexism that permeates the doctrine and practice of Christianity, and the power dynamics that relegate women largely to sitting in the pew (unless they are running the nursery and childrens' ministries). Isn't it odd that, at the same time, there's this funny critique out there that the church is becoming feminized, and men are leaving, or staying away, from the church in droves? How can this be, when women still aren't running the show?!

Basically my views have undergone a big 180. Today, I would say I'm a feminist... but not because I signed up on the list, but because I fundamentally believe that half of the human population needs to stop being shut out of the centers of power and decision-making, where those in control get to decide things that affect them.

But here's the funny thing: even today I feel slightly uncomfortable listening to women pastors preach. I have been so conditioned to see it as wrong and unnatural, that even if I am thinking "yes! you go, pulpit woman, follow the call God has put on your heart!", emotionally and physically I still feel a little ill at ease. (Ugh. I am still working that particular piece of conditioning out of my system.)

I will say this: I give my parents a ton of credit for never putting gender-based limits on what I could or couldn't do - even my mom, who inadvertently crushed my dream of being a pastor. I am one of three girls, and we did everything from cooking and sewing to mowing the lawn, taking care of all of our pets, and cleaning Dad's boat. Mom and Dad pushed us in our academics and fully expected us to go to college. Dad in particular did not want us ever to be dependent on a man so he encouraged us to pursue whatever we wanted, as long as we could make a living at it. I credit my parents with giving me an independence and self-confidence that allowed me eventually to question what my church was teaching me about what I could and couldn't do or be.


Heather said...

**For one thing, the simple truth for most of my twenties was that I was more spiritually mature than most of the men in my local Christian dating pool.**

I have an evangelical friend, and a Baptist friend, and both have said the same thing. They are years ahead than their male counterparts. I wonder how much of that has to do with how the males are raised? Because it sounds like there are entitlement issues going on, with the men. They are entitled to the leadership position, to making the decisions and guiding everyone, and knowing that the woman will always submit. They don't have to really 'work' for the woman's respect, it must be automatically given.

In any other circumstance, that tends to produce immature people -- when they expect something like that.

Slapdash said...

*** I wonder how much of that has to do with how the males are raised? Because it sounds like there are entitlement issues going on, with the men.***

Very interesting idea! I have developed a whole theory of male immaturity in the church and how it screws up dating relationships among many other things... but I had not connected it explicitly to entitlement issues before now. Do you think this is unique to particular denominations? What has your experience been?

Heather said...


**Do you think this is unique to particular denominations? What has your experience been? ** I can't speak to how it works in Catholicism, though if conservative, I imagine it's the same. Especially with the emphasis of only men are qualified to be priests.

My one friend is a non-denominational Protestant, conservative, and the other was raised Baptist. So I think it's a conservative Protestant occurance, at least.

As for my experience, I was fortunate. I was raised in a 'heretical' religion, which emphasized that we are all equal under God. There were no restrictions due to gender, and my parents never told me I couldn't do something due to being female.

Spiritbear said...

Here is my 2 cents worth:

1) Complementarianism (aka women are not to lead) is fueled by many women. I am a man and I have had women get in my face with this. Whey because it lets women off the hook and allows for passive agression. I believe women are stronger or at least more strong willed in the Church and love to control people and say, its my husband. I am so sick of women who wont make a freaking decision without asking husband. Passive aggression is of the devil. I rarely see men preach against women. its women. Control freak churchie (usually middle aged) women. The reason this bugs me is its all a head game.

Anyway, I am not at all sexist. I am egalitarian. I believe all the Bible verses that are used to justify sexism are either mistranslated or totally misunderstood. Here is a good one. Many denominations claim to be egalitarian (equal) in doctrine, but complementarian in practice. I have yet to meet a truly egalitarian Christian outside of my own family.

Women must lead. But they must not do it by passive agression.

I see a disturbing trend. Women giving up on God. I blame Church for this. Not God. Church is fucked up

On the good side, I know women who would make much better leaders than most men. That is if they could just be straight up and do it

As far as immaturity and lack of sense, I see that in men and women. Dont turn this to man bashing.

Spiritbear said...


What heretical religion was this? Sounds interesting