We are doing a bible study on Thursdays on women in the bible. It’s a very good study, and I am enjoying the readings very much. But it is also bringing up for me some personal reflection, frustration, and struggle. As we learn about and read about these women in the bible who were, in many cases, just attachments to men (for example, if they couldn’t have sons or didn’t have sons, they weren’t valued), who were often abused and mistreated by competing women (Sarah towards Hagar, for example), who were shut down and silenced, or punished unfairly (Miriam being punished for something both she and Aaron were involved in, and then her voice simply disappearing from the texts), I’m realizing both how far we’ve come, but also, how many of these ways of seeing, treating and mistreating women are still in play. And I found myself reflecting on several examples from my own life:
1. I was part of a group of pastors scheduled to speak to a congressman about poverty issues in CA. The group met ahead of time to plan and organize our conversation. When the “leader” ( an older woman) came to me, she asked me, “How do you want to be introduced? Barbara? Pastor Barbara? Rev. Barbara?” I responded that I didn’t actually care, but that if she was going to say “Rev. Barbara” she should use the full title, which was “Rev. Dr. Barbara”. Her response? “Oh, we don’t want to intimidate the congressman.” Huh. She had had no problem introducing the men using their titles. After all, the men would be heard better when carrying a title with a certain weight – they will be given greater respect, and generally valued more for their opinions, if they are seen as having more authority. But as a woman, my title apparently was “intimidating.” And, as the dutiful woman that I was, rather than pointing this double standard out, I just “didn’t make waves” or rather, “didn’t becoming uppity” and instead just said, “well, whatever you want to use then is fine.”
2. I was part of a group of pastors who recently wrote a letter confronting a certain decision that had been made in the larger church. Again, I was one of several folk, though each of us wrote our own parts. A person who read the letter made a comment to me that I obviously had a temper issue, one that was inappropriate for me as a pastor, based on the part of the letter I wrote. I went back and re-read the letter – ALL of it. I hadn’t felt angry when I wrote my part, just matter of fact. I stated my opinion, but not in harsh or attacking language. In contrast, one of the other pastors even said in their part that they were “angered” by the decision that was made. But this other pastor was not “confronted” or accused of being angry. I was upset by this, but also curious about it. So, as an experiment, I took the letter, took out all names of authors and just put “Pastor A, Pastor B, Pastor C,…” under the different sections and sent it to a couple different friends. I said, “Based on just the words, tell me what you can about each of these writers.”
Without the names (which indicated the genders) of the writers, they read each of the parts. Pretty universally the conversation following went like this, “Well, it sounds like there are some well- thought out comments here.”
I would ask, “Did any of these pastors sound angry?”
“Well, the one pastor said he was angry, but otherwise, no, it just sounded matter of fact.” (Again, this was in reference to another pastor’s writing, and not the part I had written).
Hm. There is often an assumption of “hysteria,” “anger,” “emotionalism” attached to women’s words. My portion of the letter would probably have carried more weight, been less easy to dismiss as “emotional” or “angry” if I had left off my first name and just used initials.
3. In the last twenty years I’ve been witness to several situations in which a male pastor has used his power inappropriately towards a female parishioner, taking advantage, crossing lines, becoming “involved” despite the rules against it. While we have many studies on this now that outline how this happens, the power differential that is at play and the damage that this does to the victims of this behavior, in each case when the male clergy has been confronted in this behavior, people have been quick to defend him, and equally quick to attack the woman parishioner. She has been accused of “seducing” or “using her feminine wiles” to “bait” him. In one case, the woman was just barely 18, but it was still seen as her fault, as if the male pastor, with all his power and authority, simply could not be expected to have self-control or restraint around women.
4. I cannot begin to tell you how many times parishioners have commented on my appearance. By “commented on my appearance” I don’t mean saying things like “I like that dress” or “those shoes are cute”. What I mean is that male parishioners have made comments about certain parts of my appearance, including comments about the size of certain body parts. It has become less common in recent years (is this due to a growing awareness of the inappropriateness of this, or is it because of my age?), but it still happens occasionally even now.
I am happy with how far we have come. When I read these stories in scripture and realize that women can now be pastors, can now even be Vice-President of the United States, I see how very far we have come. But we still have a long way to go, baby. And I’m hopeful we will get there sooner rather than later.