Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Women and the Church

Disclaimer: These are my own thoughts and opinions and are not tied to any one particular person/group of people, congregation, church, etc.

I grew up in a tight-knit family as the only girl in between an older brother and a younger brother. My father was a pilot and was away from home a lot, but when he was home, he spent all the time he could with my brothers and I. Growing up in Iowa, my dad spent his summers teaching us how to be strong, hard-working, and determined. My dad never looked at me as being different than my brothers; he would suit me up in catcher's gear and teach me how to catch a softball without flinching. He played soccer with me in the yard. When I wanted to try out for the tennis team, he waited for me in the car every day after school with a snack and a bottle of water and we would go practice at the local courts. When I wanted to play hockey, my parents signed me up and didn't care that I was the only girl on the team. When I only wanted to wear t-shirts and jean shorts and play in the dirt, they didn't think twice. When I asked my dad for a pro skateboard as a high school graduation present, he happily presented me with one. To my dad, I was no different than my brothers. I was just another one of his kids.

(From left) My older brother, Brandon, my younger brother, Tyler, and me around 1999.
My mother raised me to be fierce and independent. When my dad and brothers were off hunting (this was never something I was really interested in, not something I was excluded from because of my gender), she would read to me and teach me. She would tell me over and over again that she never got the opportunity to get a college degree, but that she wanted me to go after my goals with tenacity and determination. Her greatest wish for me was to grow up and be a strong person who could take care of myself without needing to be dependent on another person. She instilled this in me over and over again.

My parents didn't apply a "gender" to my hopes and dreams and the life I wanted for myself. My goals were just that - goals. It didn't matter that I was a young woman in a family of boys. They taught me that I could do anything and be anything.

I am also a woman of faith. My relationship with God is the foundation of my life, and I look to him for every decision I make in life. 

Now, as a student, teacher, and scholar pursuing a PhD, I realize how complicated my identity is. On one hand, I am a Christian woman who is married to a youth director, a man who has made a career out of ministry. On the other hand, I am a scholar who is serious about education and creating a successful career for myself in academia. I also have an identity as a daughter, a wife, a writer, and, dare I say it, a feminist. 

I feel like I need to take a moment to define feminism as I see it. I am a feminist because I believe that women should have the freedom to choose the path for their lives that they desire. This can be anything - a stay-at-home mother, a doctor, a scientist, a pilot, a teacher, etc., etc. A woman has the right to decide what she wants to do with her life and it shouldn't be decided for her by society because of outdated traditions or patriarchal oppression. Secondly, men and women should be treated as equals. God created us all, and people have been using religion for too long to make women inferior and to prevent them from reaching their full potential. Women are beautiful, creative, intelligent, and fierce beings, and they deserve to be paid the same amount as a man for doing the same job. Women should hold positions in politics. Women need to be listened to and need to be considered on a level playing field.

Now, as I stated before, my identity proves to be a bit complicated when it comes to the church. In my experiences, women are happily accepted and praised in the church...but only if they fulfill a certain role. Many of the women in churches that I have met are uneducated, have several children, and care for the home while their husbands work. (As I said before, I have no problem with this if it is a role that the woman chose for herself rather than a role she took on because she felt pressure from tradition, her parents, her husband, or the church). However, while this type of woman is loved by the church, women like me are often seen as going against "God's intention for women."

I have a huge problem with this. Actually, many people in the church often can't comprehend a woman who is outside what they see as traditional Christian wife-hood and motherhood. 

I get asked all kinds of misogynistic (and very personal) questions from men and women alike in the church. For example, I have a tattoo of a typewriter on my left arm, which represents my love for writing and poetry and also my role as a scholar in the field of English. A woman from a church once approached me and asked if I was a secretary, as if that was the only reasonable explanation that a young woman such as myself would have for having a typewriter tattooed on her body. It was as if my hard work and years of schooling through my bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees has gotten me nowhere and that it will never be possible to transcend the oppression women face daily. I see this misogyny every day in the world, but why is it so rampant in the church? Why are women in the church stuck in the "care" positions as nursery workers and children's directors? Why do churches not ask women to be elders? Why does my gender limit me in a place where they teach that God accepts and loves everyone as they are? I'm sure this woman did not have bad intentions, she is just the result of traditions that teach that women belong in particular roles.

Once during a conversation with some people from a church (both men and women), one of the pastor's wives was talking about her education and her focus during her graduate studies. A man involved in the conversation responded by saying with a laugh, "So basically you have a degree in being a pastor's wife." I seemed to be the only one offended by this comment, but I was appalled. Not only was he completely downplaying this intelligent and successful woman's education and achievements through earning a master's degree, but he was only giving her an identity through her husband. To him, her education didn't matter and she wasn't an individual - she only had meaning through her husband and his role as a pastor. To him, this woman's only role was to support her husband in his endeavors. Her accomplishments weren't even considered.

My last name is often confusing and complicated for people, as well. My name is legally hyphenated, but professionally (at school, teaching, and in my publications) I use the name I was born with. I was given this name by my family; it is important to me and I have a strong connection to it. It's part of who I am. I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees under that name. I'm not upset when someone refers to me by my husband's last name because I love my husband and like knowing that people see us as a unified team. However, I also feel like it diminishes my identity and the way I choose to identify myself. People don't ask a woman what her last name is; they assume it is their husband's last name because that's what patriarchal society has taught us our whole lives. But there's more to my identity than my husband's last name. I kept my last name because I'm attached to it and because it is my connection to my family. I didn't become a new person when I married my husband. I gained a life partner, but I'm still the same Kristin. I appreciate my husband in so many ways, and one way is that he honored my decision to keep my last name when we got married and even offered to hyphenate his. My individual identity matters to him. My family matters to him. My husband doesn't view me or anything else through a patriarchal lens. Women in the church don't often keep their own names when they get married, and if they do, it's met with confusion and judgement. This shouldn't be the case; it should be the woman's choice to choose freely without judgement.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I want to feel comfortable in church. I want my identity to be mine alone, not an identity that is based only on the fact that I have a husband. I love and adore my husband and he is one of the greatest blessings in my life, but he is not the source of my identity, God is. God created me, God guides my steps, and God creates the path for my life. And God brought me to where I am now in my life - a married, 27-year-old, childless woman who is still in school. And I am happy. I am so happy because God has brought me here. God created me to value education, to have a desire to teach and create, and to enjoy my marriage and spend time with my husband one-on-one. I'm no stranger to the weird looks people give me when they find out my husband and I have been married for almost four years and have no children. The looks and personal questions I get are hurtful. Since when is it okay for other people to inquire about my body?

It is unreasonable to think that all women have the time, money, or resources to be home with children all the time in contemporary society. According to the United States Department of Labor, 57% of women in the U.S. are employed and 70% of women with children are working mothers. Working is inevitable - the cost of living is always increasing, and women want to be able to give themselves (and their children, if they have them) a good life. Many of these women are attending or have attended college to educate themselves for the job they want. According to a 2014 article by the Washington Post, "For 35 years, women have outnumbered men in American colleges. Federal data show that female students became the majority in 1979 and for the past decade have accounted for about 57 percent of enrollment at degree-granting institutions." Despite these statistics, during the fall semester at my campus, there was a group of Christian men with demeaning signs that said "God's Role for Women" with a list of qualities. I've included an actual photo of the "protest" below that was taken by one of my classmates on Bowling Green's campus.

In case you are having a hard time reading it, it says the following:

God's Role for Women
Submission - Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. (Eph. 5:22)
Motherhood - Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. (1 Tim. 2:15)
Keepers at Home - The young women are to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children. To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. (Titus 2:4-5)
Quietness - A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. (1 Tim. 2:11-12)
Beauty - Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. (Pro. 31:30)

This sign was on my college campus and these things were encouraged by a group of Christian men! To say I was shocked and astonished is an understatement. I am not a theologian, nor do I know every verse of the Bible and its intended usage, but to see men of faith at my college campus discouraging women from achievement and education was a tragedy. We are on the same side - we all love God and want his will for our lives. I know God has called me to pursue my education at Bowling Green and I know he has called me to teach college students, so how can these men who know nothing about me or my relationship with Christ stand there and tell me what God has planned for me? The sexism, misogyny, and oppression facing women in the church is great. Is this what Christian men want for their daughters - to have them do nothing more than marry, procreate, and care for the home? How could these men use God's word, something holy and sacred, to make me feel lesser, like something inferior? What would these men think of me if they really knew me - a woman who is pursuing a higher education, who has always worked outside the home, who has no children, and who kept her maiden name? Why should these choices define me? Why should my gender determine my worth?

Roxane Gay, an author, professor, and feminist, wrote a book called Bad Feminist which is a collection of essays on race, gender, politics, and society. In an essay titled "Bad Feminist: Take One," Gay writes,

"This tension--the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman--is ongoing and pervasive. We see this tension in socially dictated beauty standards--the right way to be a woman is to be thin, to wear makeup, to wear the right kind of clothes (not too slutty, not too prudish--show a little leg, ladies), and so on. Good women are charming, polite, and unobtrusive. Good women work but are content to earn 77 percent of what men earn or, depending on whom you ask, good women bear children and stay home to raise those children without complaint. Good women are modest, chaste, pious, submissive. Women who don't adhere to these standards are the fallen, the undesirable; they are bad women" (303-304).

This is society's view of what is necessary in order for a woman to be labeled as "good," but I would also argue that this view is even more strict in the church. In a place where women (and people in general) go to feel loved and accepted, they are met with judgement and a harsh set of qualities and characteristics a woman must have in order to be "good." The bottom line is that men and women are different, and if we cut women out of the equation when it comes to church leadership, ministry, and responsibilities other than those in children's ministry, everyone is missing out. Women have a lot to bring to the table and, I feel like it needs to be said, we are valuable beyond our reproductive potential. Women throughout the Bible (Ruth, Esther, Judith, etc.) have done some pretty incredible things, and God chose them and orchestrated their journeys. Why can't he choose us too? Why aren't we being listened to?

As Gay points out, there is no right or wrong way to be a feminist. She states,

"Essential feminism suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman...[to] hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don't cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, don't shave. I kid, mostly, with that last one. This is nowhere near an accurate description of feminism, but the movement has been warped by misperception for so long that even people who should know better have bought into this essential image of feminism" (304).

No one is a perfect feminist, and feminism isn't about "hating men" or only "focusing on a career." My family and husband are my greatest blessings. I love my husband, and if I had children, I would love them too. Feminism isn't about one or the other, it's about being able to have both a family and a career if a woman chooses to and to be able to choose a lifestyle without judgement. Women should receive equal pay and should receive equal help from their partner in household tasks. Women should be in leadership positions in the church. Women are fierce warriors for God. Women make up a large percentage of the workforce and make up the majority of college students. Women are going places and are changing the world.

Instead of being looked at as an anomaly in the church, I want to be seen as an individual with leadership potential. Gender should not be part of the equation. Women in the church need to know that feminism is fighting for them to be able to choose the life they desire without fear of judgement. If the church doesn't get on board, women outside the traditional "role" will continue to feel ostracized and will leave the church, and everyone misses out when women aren't included in the conversation