By Letha Dawson Scanzoni
(With responses by Kendra Weddle Irons and Melanie Springer Mock)
Much of the media buzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has focused less on what I consider the book’s intended message and more on the unending debates about whether women can combine marriage and children with pursuing a career outside the home—often boiled down to the overly simplistic question, “Can women have it all?” Apart from the fact that the question isn’t asked of men—nor is it even acknowledged that no one can possibly “have it all” (a point Sandberg herself makes)—I think it’s the wrong question and the wrong goal.
Rather, I think life is not about “having it all” but about “being it all”—all that we can possibly be (or as Nancy Hardesty and I suggested four decades ago through the title of our book, aspiring to be “all we’re meant to be”). For some women, that may mean one thing; for other women, something else. And it may vary during certain periods of our lives. But overall it means living up to our full potential as human beings made in God’s image, capable of both creating and relating.
Yet, often something stops us—holds us back from being all we’re meant to be. Years ago, during the time when I had a car, I started up the engine one day to get on my way to wherever I was going. The engine started right up, but the car wouldn’t budge. I checked the emergency brake; it was off. I got out and noticed the back tire was hot from the attempts to get it to move. I called my motor club and had the car towed to a repair shop. The mechanic later explained that the back brakes had somehow slipped out of alignment and the emergency brake cable had caught on something, locking up the wheel. No wonder I couldn’t go anywhere!
I think that’s what often happens to us as women as we expect to go forward. We think the brake has been disengaged. After all, here in the United States, many impediments to moving forward that formerly held women back have been removed through hard-won changes in laws, attitudes, and customs. And opportunities for women have opened up that in another time would have been impossible to imagine. This is not to deny that there are very real structural problems and systemic biases and work arrangements that still hinder women’s advancement. But often there’s something more hidden away that is stopping us, blocking our wheels from turning.
The “something hidden” is a belief system composed of internalized ideas that are part of female socialization. They’re what Jean Lipman-Blumen has called “control myths.” She named nine such “control myths,” and I can think of additional ones as well. We don’t have space here to deal with all of them, but we might want to examine just a few of them to see how they operate. Lipman-Blumen said that “once internalized, these myths become potent social mechanisms used by males and females to keep themselves and one another in their ‘appropriate’— but vastly unequal—places” (In Gender Roles and Power, Prentice-Hall, 1984, p. 75).
The late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire similarly observed that one of the ways oppressive systems operate is by “depositing myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo.” (in Ch. 4 of his Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Patriarchy is one such oppressive system that has distributed such myths. (I’m not talking here about individual males here but patriarchy as a system of male power and privilege that views women as subordinate and secondary and that affects how we define ourselves and others. It hurts both women and men by the expectations it imposes.)
How do gender myths operate to keep us from being all we’re meant to be?
If, as a woman, you’ve ever found yourself doubting your competence and hesitating to even try some endeavor because you’re convinced a man could do it better, you might be buying into the belief that Lipman-Blumen calls Control Myth Number One: “Women are weak, passive, dependent, and fearful; men are strong, aggressive, independent, and fearless.”
If a woman displays what are considered “male traits”—the same qualities that are considered to be characteristic of a mature adult when gender is unspecified (such as strength, independence, assertiveness, and fearlessness) — she’s considered “unfeminine”and on the receiving end of insults and name-calling.
A recent example can be seen in responses to Senator Diane Feinstein’s standing up to Senator Ted Cruz as he condescendingly lectured her on the second amendment to the Constitution. A similar attitude showed up in responses to the testimony of outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she dared to display strength, grief, and justifiable anger (which would likely have been praised in a man) while being interrogated in a congressional hearing over the terrorist attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. A typical example of reactions to these strong women was this comment sent in after a report on a Fox News blog. The commenter said, “ Sorry Hillary and Feinstein, you can’t intimidate us with your aggressive retorts. Save it for your wimpy husbands, you dumb broads. We’re not impressed with your self images.”
Both of these illustrate what Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, calls “double binds.” Two of these “binds” facing women are illustrated in the examples cited in the preceding paragraph. In Jamieson’s words:
- “Women who are considered feminine will be judged incompetent, and women who are competent, unfeminine.”
- And “women who speak out are [considered] immodest and will be shamed, while women who are silent will be ignored and dismissed.” (In Double Binds by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 16.)
That brings us to another of the nine “control myths” on Lipmen-Blumen’s list that can keep us from living out our full potential and being all we were meant to be. It’s the myth that women talk too much. Believing the myth—and it is a myth (studies show men in mixed-sex groups talk more, initiate verbal comments more, and interrupt more than women)—women often don’t speak up “and thus also keep themselves from being perceived as knowledgeable,” says Lipmen-Blumen. Why do we do this? Why do we censor ourselves, hold our tongues, when being quiet prevents us from being seen as leaders? We’re afraid of being judged, not only by men but also by other women. Or we second guess ourselves and doubt our own capability and knowledge.
For Christian women, a lot of this comes from what we’ve been taught about certain biblical passages without regard to their historical and cultural context. So we internalize “let the women keep silent” literally. Or we accept without question the idea that women are by nature more nurturant, altruistic, and self-sacrificial and more moral than men —another of the control myths that Lupmen-Blumen cites. “This notion that women meet their own achievement needs through the success of others is strong,” she writes. She says that “by instilling women with morally valued but self-enfeebling attitudes and behavior, and men with expectations that women should assist others and work for little or no pay, the society ensures business as usual.”
One thing Kendra and Melanie do so well on their “Ain’t I a Woman” blog, often using satire, is to deconstruct some of the images that are taught as part of “biblical womanhood.”
I, for one, am glad that Sheryl Sandberg’s book is stimulating renewed conversations about these attitudes that are so deeply rooted in our society and that hold women back. I don’t understand the criticism that she is “blaming the victim” by pointing out that “in addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves” and that “we hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” She is not “speaking down” to women. “This is not a list of things other women have done. I have made every mistake on this list.” she writes. “At times, I still do.”
She emphasizes that we women need to help each other, work together, form a coalition for change. I agree, and I think this needs a lot more discussion, including about the very practical matters we can learn from each other about work of all kinds, careers, families, and life in all its fullness. How can we validate each other, encourage each other, and help each other be all we’re meant to be? I think, at this point, I’ll turn the question over to Kendra and Melanie and look forward to their wisdom.
Moving Beyond the Myths — A Response by Kendra Weddle Irons
As a young girl I probably began assimilating several myths about what it meant to be a girl long before fourth grade; however during fourth grade I clearly remember learning one of them then: boys are supposed to win. Since I grew up on a farm where we had dogs and cats, horses, and cattle, my sisters and I learned at a young age to be pretty self-sufficient. I vividly recall how on beautiful spring days, my younger sister who was enrolled in half-day kindergarten would quickly eat her lunch so she could take off across the pasture with tackle in tow in order to round up our horses so that when my older sister and I arrived home from school around 4 pm, we had time to ride for a couple of hours before Mom expected us back to help get dinner on the table.
Sure, we had things that scared us on the farm: rattle snakes that blended in with the dirt paths we walked; mice who always scurried into the shadows the moment we opened the barn door; a horse that bucked us off or ran out of control. And yet, we also knew that if we could conquer our fears; we had much to enjoy from our farm life, especially those long horse rides.
As much as I loved being on the farm, I also relished going to school where I sought to be the best student in my class, mostly because it meant you got to play games while the others caught up. In fourth grade, one of the benefits of finishing work ahead of time was the opportunity to play checkers. It was a race, really, to get through the work sheets and run to the back of the room to pick your checker color (I always chose red). It was in telling my parents one night about this checker playing that I learned I had violated the gender code. “Do you think the boys always want to lose to a girl?” my parents asked.
The myth that boys are better than girls (and should win even if it means girls should let them) was born in me that day, and as Letha points out, it has played a large part in my life, in part, because Christian teaching has reinforced this assumption in myriad ways.
Recently, for example, I listened to a Focus on the Family radio interview of Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Mary Kassian about their popular new Bible study: True Woman 101 Divine Design. This is not my first encounter with complementarianism (nor, I’m sure, my last) but what struck me as I listened to DeMoss and Kassian lash out against feminism was the fear they have for the movement, as if everything they deem unseemly or wrong about our culture is a direct result of the evil feminists.
Couching their message in the age-old assumption of divinely-ordained gender roles, DeMoss and Kassian assert binary gender distinctions are, in fact, biblical principles that can and should be applied to each generation. And, while they admit application of these principles will be different for each different situation, they also claim some applications are simply more right than others as in a man will always be better at earning a living and taking the lead and a woman will always be happier in the home rearing children and providing nurture to those around her. Sure, there could be others ways of living, but they are obviously less godly than this universal model.
For DeMoss and Kassian if gender roles are jettisoned, their entire conceptions about God will follow and this fragility creates their fear and fuels their urgency. Similarly, over the course of the last couple of weeks as I have listened to the strident reactions to Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In, I have wondered if this reaction isn’t also emerging from a place of fear, in this case, fear of a society where power is equally shared, where women are just as often in places of leadership as men, where it isn’t a rare occasion that cultural authorities accurately represent the culture itself, and where our faith communities are shaped by women and their ideas and experiences just as much as they have been shaped by men.
Letha’s analysis that the media discussion over Sandberg’s book has largely missed the point rings true. As long as we continue to have these debates over “doing” we will never move forward to the more important point of “being,” as in embracing the true reality of what it means to be people made in the image of God, not figures manipulated into someone’s notion of gender roles.
I imagine Sandberg’s book, if taken seriously, is a worthy tool to help women embrace their full talents and to move beyond the gender myths our culture perpetuates. And even though the church at large unfortunately does more to support and undergird these myths than to deconstruct them, I am grateful the EEWC is a community that encourages all people to embrace our divine gifts and provides numerous ways in which we can share them with others.
When Leaning In Means Pushing Back — A response by Melanie Springer Mock
March has not been a great month for women in the news. As Letha pointed out, media buzz about Sheryl Sandberg has rehashed tired ground about women’s work/life balance. Even before the official release of Lean In, Sandberg was taking it in the chops, with negative reviews from feminist sympathizers and opponents alike.
And then, on March 17, two teenage football players were found guilty of raping another teenager in Steubenville, Ohio. Both defendants received a minimum one-year sentence for the August 2012 crime, in which the young men allegedly drove an intoxicated 16-year-old girl to several parties, raped her, and texted photos and a video of her to friends.
Media response to the sentencing was swift. And, stunningly, much of it was sympathetic to the football players who had been found guilty of perpetuating a heinous crime. On CNN, for example, reports emerging immediately after the court sentencing were overwhelming focused on the accused, with reporters Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow discussing in detail the emotional courtroom outbursts of the teenaged boys whose lives had been ruined by the sentencing.
At one point, after viewing coverage of the boys sobbing in court, Harlow says it was “incredibly difficult” to be an observer “as these two young men — who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students — literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.” Little mention was made of the victim, whose life as she knew it was no doubt ruined by the young men with promising futures; no word either on her own promising future, transformed by an August night.
Although CNN has taken the brunt of criticism for its Steubenville coverage (see, for example, this Huffington Post article), plenty of folks have expressed sympathy for the football players and their ruined destinies. The blame-the-victim mentality, perpetuated by a rape culture, assumes women ask for what they get; and because the girl in question was drunk that August night, she does not deserve sympathy. Thus she has received death threats for her accusation of rape, while the Steubenville football players have been lauded as promising young men who just happened to rape a woman.
The Steubenville case and its aftermath seem, to me, a powerful (and sobering) reflection of the control myths about which Letha writes.
In the same week but on a much smaller scale, another example of victim blaming occurred in the coverage of a “Tweet heard round the tech community.” Adria Richards, a “developer evangelist,” was at a technology conference called the PyCon, and heard several men making sexist jokes behind her during a plenary session. Richards took a photo of the men and sent it out on Twitter with the text “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me.” She followed this with several more Tweets, indicating her location in the large conference hall and reminding conference organizers of their code of conduct, which forbade such discrimination. Within moments, organizers found the men and removed them from the hall; the men were subsequently fired from their positions with a tech company.
As was, a few days later, Richards.
Although Jezebel and a Mercury News articles say the firing will be hard to defend, according to Jim Franklin, CEO of SendGrid, the company that had employed Adria Ricards, her decision “to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders — and bystanders — was not the appropriate way to handle the situation. … Needless to say, a heated public debate ensued. The discourse, productive at times, quickly spiraled into extreme vitriol.” (From Jim Franklin’s comments on the company’s blog as quoted in a report by Dan Nakaso for The Mercury News.)
The vitriol was focused predominantly on Richards, rather than on the men whose sexist jokes initiated the “public debate.” In comments on her own website, Richards was blamed for taking things too seriously, for lacking any sense of humor, for being a prude. “This is a satire of what an overzealous feminist would do, right?” someone asks because, of course, only an “overzealous feminist” would call out sexism when she sees it.
In a male-dominated field like technology, Richards was already a minority, dealing with a culture that was (at best benevolently) hostile to women’s voices. According to another woman working in technology and responding to a Jezebel article, “I get sexually harassed or treated like I’m a moron because I’m a woman frequently. I don’t complain about it officially because there IS no real way to complain about it officially. No rules, no protocol, and honestly, no way to do it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize yourself professionally and open yourself up to harassment and being blackballed. So Ms Richards came up with her own way to handle it, because there is basically no other way to deal. I guarantee you she knew the risks and backlash she faced, and I respect her at least standing up knowing this.”
Both the Steubenville and the PyCon events—and the media coverage of those events—suggest the control myths about which Letha writes remain in full-force, despite the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world, urging women to “Lean in” and be all they were meant to be. This month’s media coverage is no exception; I see these myths play out in the media all the time. I see them play out in my own life, and in that of my friends.
I also see them play out in the lives of my students, faced with messages about who and what they can be as young Christian women. Kendra and I started our Ain’t I a Woman blog with our students in mind, hoping that we could help deconstruct Christian popular culture so these women could see the mythologies they believe for what they are: mythologies, rather than biblical mandates.
Despite this month’s media coverage that has filled me with despair, I’ve also seen signs of hope this month that people are pushing back against these messages, and succeeding. I witnessed signs of hope in the many, many writers who called foul on the Steubenville media coverage, and whose message of outrage and of sympathy for the victim spread out over the social networking ether waves.
I saw hope here on my own campus when Rachel Held Evans, one of the hottest voices in Christian egalitarianism, spoke in chapel and was well received for her message that the Bible praises women of valor, rather than condemning women to the submissive roles evangelicals force them into. I saw hope in the clusters of women and men who lingered after chapel to talk with Rachel and with each other about the power of her message and of their longing to be all they were meant to be.
And I saw hope last Tuesday night, when I joined several young women at my campus for a panel discussion on women, work, and religion. About 75 students came out on a cold and rainy evening, right before spring break, to hear us dialogue about what it means to be a feminist, a person of faith, and a woman faced with those “controlling myths” Letha writes about.
I was impressed with my co-panelists’ answers: one, an African-American student who has blossomed in her four years at George Fox University, becoming a strong and articulate feminist who will make a change in the world; the other, a Muslim woman from Afghanistan and a feminist, who has endured four years at an Evangelical university and will return to a country with its own controlling myths about what and who women should be. In the voices of these women—and in the nods of assent from young men and women in the audience—I see signs that things will change, and are changing.
There are people everywhere pushing back against the cultural mythologies that have, for too long, told women who and what they could and could not be. So that despite a bad month in the media, when women are blamed for rapes, and condemned for calling out sexism in their industries, and critiqued for telling women to “lean in,” I still have hope that someday soon, young women and men will truly be free to be all God intended them to be.