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Fearing the Feminine or Embracing Our Mother

by Kendra Weddle Irons

(With responses by Melanie Springer Mock and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

Woman with LightAs a young athletic girl I knew how to throw a ball. Hours spent in our backyard tossing a baseball (which I preferred to a softball) onto our pitch-back produced a pretty decent arm for my small frame. I took great pride in being able to lob a basketball from one end of the court to another; or to lead a football receiver so that he (because I only played football with boys) didn’t miss a stride while catching my tightly-spiraled pass; or to dart out of my catcher’s stance to throw out a runner at second base.

And while learning to throw with precision and force were positive results for my participation in various sports I also know that part of this early athletic ability included a clear negative image that has stayed with me as an adult. The primary refrain I heard as a young girl learning to use my arm was that I needed to avoid at all costs “throwing like a girl.” Heck, I remember teaching my younger sister that if she wanted to succeed in sports, she would have to quit playing like a girl and instead be strong like a boy.

A current television ad reminds me of the explicit female negativity I absorbed when I was younger. A father and son are playing catch next to the family’s reliable four-door sedan, something the boy will be proud of later in his life in direct contrast to the embarrassment he is sure to feel because his father by his pronounced awkward ball-throwing is not teaching him how to throw well. In fact, the implied message that runs through my head and I imagine many others is: “wow; he is bad; he is throwing like a girl.”

Multiplied over the course of a lifetime, it is easy to see how our culture reinforces male preference at the same time it methodically undermines any sense of well-being and confidence a woman works to cultivate. Our exclusive language continues to make women invisible and in some cases our derogatory language aimed at women reinforces an insidious sexism that is more difficult to expunge than the more easily located, explicit variety. Adding to this difficulty is our deep resistance to embrace feminine language and images for the divine. This rejection goes far beyond traditional theology and instead reveals a deeper-seated misogyny we are loathe to address much less examine.

Women are made invisible by our language giving preference to men: freshmen, policemen, chairmen. Recently as I listened to NPR during my commute I heard Cokie Roberts mention Diane Feinstein referring to her as a committee “chairman” a common occurrence reinforcing the primacy of male leaders. Many people dismiss critiques like this as unimportant and not worth our attentiveness to language. Yet, we begin to uncover the depths of our sexism if we substitute “women” for “men” in these cases. If Cokie referred to a male representative as a “chairwoman,” she would be corrected immediately. It seems to assume women are included in male categories is a positive thing but the reversal—to see men included in a female category—is entirely unacceptable. We would do well to discover the reasons for this stark difference.

Yet, I’m not just talking about language that contributes to female absence. What about terminology that specifically denigrates women through negatively-charged terms? Last year, for example, former Pennsylvania Governor, Ed Rendell, published a book, one I would probably find much to like except that I will not read it because of its title: A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great. I imagine Governor Rendell did not intend to do harm to women by his use of a term that has linguistic connections to the terms “wimp” and “puss” or “pussy.” Yet, this is exactly the problem. There is a pervasive and repetitive mantra reverberating throughout our society each and every day giving preference to men while at the same time not only dismissing women but also devaluing them.

Churches, theologians, and biblical scholars have probably contributed the most to this problem by their insistence upon a male deity and masculine language for God. And while many have done much to rectify this problem, including our own Jann Aldredge-Clanton, the dominant view of God-as-masculine has worked wonders in keeping women under the thumb of a “maled” church. (An interesting note on Microsoft Word and its gendered notion of God: the grammar check highlights “Her” as incorrect while indicating “Him” or “He” as acceptable.)

But a new day is dawning (at least I hope it is!). I see new signs in many places including not only eewc.com but also as students tell me about their willingness to explore the feminine and in the use of labyrinths in schools and hospitals and churches and in the work of those committed to interfaith dialogue who understand the importance of the divine feminine in all of the world’s enduring traditions.

Several weeks ago I was in Wales and England while they were celebrating Mothering Day, their version of Mother’s Day. I was struck by the term mothering because it speaks to the action of being a mother, the intention of doing something, not just being someone. And I thought not only of my own mother whose loving actions are often conveyed through steady companionship and a sense of home but also of my heavenly Mother whose womb surrounds me even as I labor to birth new visions and dreams. Her gracious presence provides buoyancy and lift when the struggles of life seem overwhelming.

How often have I been told not to embrace Her; to see Her as a threat to what it means to be a true Christian? And, how often have I internalized the implicit message that because I am a woman I am naturally less valued than men?

I’m looking forward to hearing from Letha and Melanie about how they have learned to embrace our Mother and to celebrate unabashedly Sophia’s presence in their lives.

 

Even Wikipedia Has a Messaging Problem—A Response by Melanie Springer Mock

Woman Rock ClimbingI’ll start my post by saying I loved the VW car commercial, which I viewed through an entirely different lens. The athletically-challenged father playing catch with his son is laugh-out-loud funny, but also tender in its own way because the father was so intent, teaching his son the wrong way to throw a ball. For me, the commercial recalled the many misplaced efforts I’ve surely made with my own sons, trying to teach them something I don’t know well myself. (Explaining why the sun is so hot comes to mind, or showing them how to do long division.)

This is not to say that I’m inured of the explicitly negative cultural messages Kendra mentions about being a girl, throwing like a girl, even running like a girl. I’m not proud to admit that I’ve used one or two of those phrases with my own sons, in jest and before I realized exactly what I was saying. Running a 5K race recently with my younger son, I tried to inspire him to go faster by saying “c’mon, you don’t want that girl behind you to beat you” before realizing what I’d said implied that being passed by a girl might be shameful. I should have been ashamed by my comment. And was.

But as Kendra notes, these messages—that being born female makes one somehow aberrant—have been multiplied over our lifetimes. They are deeply ingrained, and hard to expel from our thinking, despite our best efforts.

Contemporary culture has also done little to help write a new narrative showing that women are not invisible, that they are not “the other.” Even recently, in my own academic discipline of English language and letters, we can see obvious ways that men are considered standard, the norm, and women’s contributions to literature something other.

You can read more about this event, which involved American women novelists and Wikipedia, in an NPR report here, and in The New York Times here. Essentially, sometime in April, Wikipedia created an American Women Novelists category, and contributors began moving the profiles of female writers off the American Novelist page, and into this sub-category. This meant there was a category for American Novelists, who all happened to be male and included some fairly obscure authors; and a category for the others: that is, the women, no matter how important her writing happened to be.

After a significant uproar, the names of women novelists migrated back to the American Novelist page, so (at least in this way) things have been made right for Wikipedia. But this event reflects the deeper and persistent cultural concern that Kendra writes so well about: being male seen as the standard, the norm, in the categories we create; in the language we use; in the ways we understand “strong” and “weak” (because who wants to throw like a girl?!); in the ways we speak within the church about God.

Kendra, Letha, and others in EEWC have helped attune my ears especially to the ways religious language has shaped our reality and created hegemony within the church. I appreciate how they teach me, by example and by gentle instruction. Because people have been central to my own journey toward accepting Sophia in my life—and because I am still learning this acceptance—I try to tread as gently with others who are also on a pathway similar to my own, and who are just now beginning to embrace Her.

Doing so is difficult, of course, when we read that something as mainstream as Wikipedia deals in sexism, conveying the message to women writers that their work is other. Doing so is difficult when these messages are so deeply entrenched, as Kendra mentions. Doing so is difficult when those deeply entrenched messages affect who I believe myself to be.

But embracing Her is also crucial to my own wholeness, my own sense of well-being. So I will try rewriting the narratives we’ve been told about what it means to be more female, so that someday, when I hear that I “run like a girl,” I will know that doing so means I run strong and true in the beautifully complex female body She has given me.

 

Gender talk, God talk, and Equality —A Response by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Steeple with LightSeveral years ago, a friend who taught at a university in one of the southern states told me about a state education conference she had attended. A male professor, assigned to introduce two female graduate students who were presenting scholarly papers, walked to the podium and announced, “I guess I have the honor of introducing these two pretty little girls. And I suppose some people here think I should introduce them as “Ms.” He sounded out the “mizz,” mockingly. “But I’m old-fashioned,” he continued, “and I don’t care what anyone says. A woman is either ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ as I see it.”

When I heard about the incident, I started thinking about how ridiculous it would sound if a female professor used the same approach to introduce two male graduate students who were presenting scholarly papers. She’d announce, “I guess I have the honor of introducing these two cute little boys. And I suppose some people here think I should call them by the title “Mr.” But what really matters, in my opinion, is that the audience be informed about whether or not a man is attached to a woman in marriage and takes his identity from her. Therefore, I introduce to you Married-Man John Doe and Unmarried-Man John Donut.”

In their posts, Kendra and Melanie have turned a spotlight on the importance of words to either sustain or challenge the gender inequality that is such a part of our culture. And while trying to sort out the concerns they were bringing to our attention, I found four different but related issues.

Invisibility of women and their secondary status
In our culture, woman is considered to be subsumed under the category called man, the male being considered the default model or generic representative of what a human being is. Woman, the womb-man, is seen in relation to man.

The most egregious example of such thinking in theological terms is the statement by Stephen B. Clark that “it is the man who is called “Man” or “Human” and not the woman. He bears the name which is the designation of the whole race, and. . . he keeps that name even after woman is formed and he is no longer the only human. What we meet at the end of Genesis 4 is Human and his wife” (p. 25 in Man and Woman in Christ, Servant Books, 1980).

Linguists and social scientists speak of “marked” and “unmarked” categories, which is another way of stating a Gloria Steinem remark that I referred to in my annotation for a link of the day recently. Steinem said males are described with only a noun (for example, we might say “doctor” or “astronaut” or “pastor”) while a woman in the same position has been traditionally “marked” by an adjective (“woman doctor” or “female astronaut.” Or “woman pastor”), signifying she is not “the default” model.

Fortunately, more and more women and many men are becoming sensitive to this and changes are occurring, but such a “marking habit” is still very much alive. It’s the phenomenon that Melanie referred to in pointing out the recent uproar caused by Wikipedia’s attempt to categorize “American women novelists” as a separate category from the default category, “American novelists” (all men with the women subtracted).

Incidentally, one of the best articles I’ve ever read about women as “marked” was written twenty years ago by the linguist and prolific writer Deborah Tannen for the New York Times magazine. I found it was still available through Georgetown University, where Tannen teaches. Included in that article is a fascinating summary of Ralph Fasold’s observation that if language were modeled after biology, women would be the unmarked sex and men would be the marked ones!

This marked and unmarked categorization occurs in more areas than gender, for example in attitudes about racial dominance. An excellent article in Salon recently showed whiteness to be the unmarked, default category in our culture. Kartina Richardson writes that just as children learn about measurements by starting with the number one, with other numbers seen in relation to that basic number, so it is with black and brown people in relation to whiteness.

“This is called The Default,” she writes. “The belief that the white experience is a neutral and objective experience and white consciousness is the standard consciousness unless otherwise specified.” She says the whole of our society “ suffers from the tragedy of whiteness as the default setting.”

Negative terminology and imagery associated with women
In regard to gender, since men are considered The Default, they are assumed to be in charge, believing they have the right to make decisions affecting women. (Doubt that? Just watch what is happening in many state legislatures now making decisions about women’s health.)

At the same time, women’s experience of the world is often not only ignored but is trivialized and ridiculed. Laura Bates, in an article for The Independent, a British newspaper, writes about various types of terminology that are used to demean women, especially in the workplace. She writes, “The sexist labels used to describe women are often utterly irrelevant to the area in which they are working or the topic they are discussing, but are used as a means of forcing them into a category by which they can be easily dismissed. ” In other words, women can be taken less seriously when addressed by colleagues as “Sweetie” or gossiped about as “damaged goods,” a “slut,” or a “bitch.”

And then there are religious teachings that not only define man as “the default” but regard woman as the fault—the fault that sin entered the world. Here is what Tertullian, one of the early church fathers wrote to women:

“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die.” (from De Cultu Feminarum, “ On the Apparel of Women”)

Internalizing the negativity that society has associated with women
Melanie’s confession that she has sometimes fallen into the trap of implying to her two boys that the abilities of girls are more limited than those of boys shows how we women sometimes internalize society’s negative messages about girls and women. (Although in Melanie’s defense, I also know how she has created in her sons a great interest in women’s sports and an admiration for the talents, strengths, and skills these teams are demonstrating.) But I think her point is that it’s so easy to buy into cultural stereotypes of girls and women. which then serve to create doubt about the very real capabilities of women— ourselves included— even though intellectually we know better. Phrases like, “stupid women drivers!” or “women talk too much,” or “ women are too emotional,” or “women can’t think rationally” can be totally lacking in any factual basis but yet serve to cause women to mistrust their own perceptions.

Concepts of God and Gender
Scripture says that God is Spirit, and of course a spirit by definition is outside the physical and would certainly not have the physical characteristics that mark a person as female or male. I believe that thinking about God as being neither male nor female but beyond a gender classification is not only biblical but liberating. For one thing, it moves us away from the exclusively male metaphor for God that has not only affected our idea of the Divine but has also affected the self-image of girls from childhood forward, as Jann Aldredge-Clanton points out in “How do we teach girls and boys they are equal.”

Both Kendra and Melanie have ended their parts of this latest FemFaith post by talking about the way their lives have been affected by getting in touch with a mental image of God as female, personified as “Sophia” (Greek for Wisdom) or “Christ-Sophia.” Again, Jann Aldredge-Clanton provides an excellent explanation of the use of this name for God.

We can expand our image of God by realizing that our minds can’t possibly grasp all that God is—whether in terms of gender or anything else. That makes it necessary to think in metaphors.

It also helps to realize that God has many names, and I think of Sophia as but one of these many names for God although I actually tend not to use it quite so widely or exclusively as many of my friends in EEWC for whom it is the one name that provides the most meaning and liberation from male imagery. And I appreciate and honor that totally. My somewhat lesser use of it is just personal preference, especially when I have in mind particular audiences with whom I want to communicate and for whom I would have to stop and explain the term, which would then divert them entirely from hearing the point I would be making— a point that is usually “radical” enough in itself! Or in some cases, I am being sensitive toward the feelings of some people who are just taking baby steps into Christian feminism and who need a gradual approach before they can fully understand and embrace female God language. In such cases, I’ve found that starting out with the concept of God as Mother, perhaps referring to passages such as Isaiah 66:13, is often the first step before introducing some of the other names.  (I’ve probably just raised more questions than I’ve answered!) 

But saying all this does not mean that I ever revert to the use of male pronouns, no matter the audience (I stopped that back in the 1970s). And I often pray to God as Mother and find great comfort in doing so, just as I relate to and understand fully the strength and wisdom that comes from the name Sophia. I also love the female “God imagery” in the songs of Kathryn Christian and Colleen Fulmer, both of whom I’ve written about several times in profiles and reviews for Christian Feminism Today.

This rethinking of concepts about God is all part of a journey I think we’re all traveling in these questioning, changing times. I’m sure Kendra, Melanie, and I have lots more to say about the topics under all four of the headings above, and I’m sure we’ll be discussing various aspects of them well into the future.

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