Saturday, March 15, 2008

Blessed by A Community of Women

In my last blog entry, I lamented about being relegated to the world of women. Lest anyone assume that I do not value relationships with other women, let me now present the flip-side of that argument.

One of the reasons I can complain about my situation is because I have such wonderful relationships with other women. When I first became a Christian, several young women took me under their wings and mentored me. They taught what it meant to be a Christian. They bought me my first Bibles. They led small groups that I was a part of. And they saw the gifts for ministry in me before anyone else. They advocated for me and opened the doors that began my journey towards ordination.

Today, I have a wonderful network of women that I am a part of. They are all ages, in various stages of life, scattered all over the world. Some of them mentor me. Some of them I mentor. Many of them are what some would term “holy friendships,” ones that support and encourage me, walk alongside me in the faith, cause me to strive for excellence, and remind me continually of God’s presence. These women have been incredibly important to me for a variety of reasons.

The world gives women (well, all of us, but women in particular) a lot of mixed messages about who we are and who we are to be. The patriarchal systems and the sexism that persists today is at times blatant, but often much more subtle. When it is blatant, my women friends can laugh with me and rage with me, helping to remind me that my identity is in Christ not with those who devalue women. When it is more subtle, women friends can help me see those patterns, to stop doubting myself. They can share similar experiences. Some have gone before me and can offer advice. Some have come behind me and can remind me how far we have come.

But it is more than that… these women help teach me each day what it is to be a woman. What do I mean by that? It used to be that we grew up in communities, extended families, places where traditions and knowledge and secrets were passed on. Okay, perhaps only the healthy communities. But where today can you truly talk about some of the things that are truly unique to being a woman? Or perhaps are just truly unique to who you are but you are terrified they will cause you to be marginalized and silenced because they are too “feminine.” For example… I am a crier. For some of you that may be difficult to believe, but when I am under tremendous stress, or have not slept, or perhaps in the midst of my period, or someone evokes the issues I’ve had with my father… I cry. I can’t help it. I have tried to work on it. I have had a few bosses that have had to weather through it. Where can you talk about that?

Where can you talk about the changes you are going through when you are pregnant or going through menopause… especially when you are a pastor and the entire congregation is watching?

Where can you talk about the struggles of how to dress professionally… and feminine… and to indicate that you are available… and to reflect your personality… and to feel good about yourself… and not provide a temptation to anyone… and appropriate for the culture you are working in… and….

Where can you talk about the choices you are making in your career… and your personal life… how those things are not separate for you… how they don’t fit together neatly or easily… how they lead to lives that meander and wander rather than following a linear path up the corporate ladder?

In Elaine Lawless’s ethnographic study of a group of women clergy, Holy Women, Wholly Women, she writes of the need to “hear one another into speech.” How finding safe places to speak the stories of our lives is crucial to living an abundant life. Her study is worth looking at if you are interested in a peak into the world of professional clergy women. In reading her book, I was reminded that there are many women who have not been blessed by the relationships I have had with other women. They have been deep and meaningful, formative and fulfilling. Which is why, despite how they operate in my own life, I still feel that women’s groups are vital to the church and to our world. Every woman should have the opportunity to be blessed by relationships similar to the ones I have shared….

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Relegated to a World of Women

I have been reading in the area of feminist ecclesiology and feminist research recently. So much of the women’s movement and the Christian feminist movement is centered on the idea of women gathering together to form communities of worship that are uniquely feminine. This entails a difference in both structure and content. Most of feminists pride themselves on the non-hierarchical nature of their communities and gatherings. In addition, they attend to aspects of God and of humanity that are uniquely feminine, seeking to expand our image of God beyond the limitations of gender as well as attending to God in all aspects of a woman’s life. This means expanding language for God, attending to women in the Biblical texts, and creating rituals that mark the physical changes in the bodies of women over time.

I think of myself as a feminist these days, but I have to admit that such a group has little or no appeal to me these days. I realize that it has something to do with my personality. I like structure and I am a bit task oriented. And while I consider myself very feminine, I see very little of my style of femininity reflected in Christian communities these days, even those with a feminist emphasis. These feelings grow even stronger when I consider the women’s groups without a feminist emphasis. I have been to a few Women’s retreats and conferences, but I have never felt at home at any of them.

While some of this has to do with personality, much of it has to do with our cultural construction of gender. Now, I should say that I am speaking primarily about white, middle-class, evangelical women. The cultural constructions are somewhat different in different cultures. Yet, I recognize that it is often my single status in combination with my gender that provides the most difficulty.

I have often resisted women’s groups because so much of the focus is on their roles as wives and mothers. Women so often construct their identity around the primary relationships in their lives and these are most often with their spouse and children. Working women also add in their professional identity, but their struggles often have to do with the tension this provides in their other relationships. This is not always the case. Working wives and mom’s face discrimination in the workplace struggling with racism and sexism just like the rest of us. As do stay at home mom’s. My resistance has nothing to do with resisting these roles or diminishing the challenges that go along with them. It is simply that participating in groups that highlight these roles, I am forced to forever be reminded that I have not been blessed with either of them. And, while it is not generally intentional, being in these groups, rather than empowering me as a woman make me question if I will ever fully be a woman.

This has been my general response up to this point and I still hold to it, but I have come to understand one other aspect of my resistance in recent days. Gathering with other women is supposed to be empowering. It is a chance to get away from a male-dominated world and fully live into who we are as women. But for me, rather than making me feel connected, gathering with other women makes me feel marginalized. Because I am always with other women. Almost always.

As a single women, my life has been relegated to a predominantly female sphere. It seems that once you pass a certain age, you are expected to primarily have relationships that are the same gender. This is not so say that I don’t have male friendships, but they are extremely limited in scope. Most of my friends are women. I have so many single women friends you would think that the church is full of them! And when I enter a new community or a new work setting, I am immediately introduced to more women friends. And it seems that the church assumes that these single women friends will meet all my needs for friendship and intimacy. But, of course, don’t get too intimate… though, we would all understand that if you didn’t get married you would have to meet your physical needs somewhere and we would rather you do that off to the side with your women friends rather than sleep around with the men. (I know this is crass, but I have had people actually say this to me!)

It is not that I don’t think women’s groups are important, it is simply that I am with women all the time! I love them dearly! But it often seems we are considered some alien culture off on the margins of the church never to fully integrate into the lives of everyone else. I realize I am exaggerating a bit and that not all single women in the church feel this way… but it makes me very sad. Mostly sad that these women’s groups that are supposed to be so empowering and so supportive, the very fabric of women’s relationships in the church, now feel very marginalizing… I feel marginalized within the groups and as a part of the groups, relegated to the world of women. It should be a feminist fantasy come true… relegated to a world of women! Instead, it becomes another way that sexism and our cultural constructions of gender confine us, all of us, into separate spheres rather than allowing us to live together as the body of Christ, male and female, in the image of God.