I write this blog with fear and trepidation, not because I am afraid of coming out as unreservedly feminist (honestly, that much should have been obvious already), but because it is nerve-wracking to dare to offer a critique of a professor whom I very much respect, a man with undoubtedly more knowledge and expertise than I.
So let us be clear from the outset: I am not attacking his character, I am not calling into question his motives, and in fact, I nearly always agree with his theology. The singular issue at stake is that in the midst of an otherwise thoughtful reflection, I noted the unfortunate choice of some careless words. I think that carelessness matters and should be amended. (His review of Rachel Held Evans book concludes with sweeping generalizations concerning the feminist movement, and the generalizations continue in the comment section.)
For example, Dr Olson wrote in one of his responses, “If you’re caught in a patriarchal church culture, leave it. Find one that isn’t (patriarchal),” and later said he doubts you could find a hint of patriarchy in his church. I mean no offense, but this is just plain silly, like a white person declaring we have successfully eradicated racism, or insinuating that minorities should quit complaining and just find a safe community where racism isn’t as pervasive. No one can guarantee there isn’t a “hint” of racism left in their church. Likewise patriarchy is everywhere, but you might not be aware of it if you are a man, seeing as how patriarchy exists to keep you comfortable. Telling women to “leave” the patriarchal culture in which they are trapped would be to tell most women to leave their marriages, and I am not just talking about abusive, unhealthy marriages. Telling women to leave patriarchal culture would be to encourage them to leave the Church altogether. Feminists are those brave souls who face patriarchy rather than retreat from it.
My very own congregation whom I dearly, dearly love and where I, a female, serve as pastor, is still softly and subtly patriarchal. Not on purpose, not because anyone there is mean or power-hungry, but because patriarchy is ingrained in our psyche. Patriarchy is something I live with on a daily basis even though my church is progressive and egalitarian, even though I have “made it” successfully as a female pastor in a man’s world. Patriarchy is something I confront on a daily basis; most people are so enmeshed in it they don’t even know it is still draining their lifeblood away. Most egalitarians I know are still uncovering the patriarchal residue within themselves. It is a lifelong process, and why shouldn’t it be after centuries and centuries and generations and generations of repressive habits? So far, it has taken my husband and I approximately 6 years of being theoretical egalitarians before we really began to shed in practice and in attitude the most toxic elements of patriarchy. I suspect we have further to go, and let me be clear this has been a joint and entirely voluntary journey, in which we have held hands, and the further we travel, the lighter and happier and closer we have become.
There is simply no reason why educated people should remain in denial that feminism is diverse, just like Christianity, just like the Baptist tradition. I certainly do not agree with every feminist author or leader. I am not that simple-minded, and it is a little insulting that anyone would assume that I am. There is a wide-range of people (both women and men) who agree wholeheartedly with the movement of feminism and not one of us embraces every single expression of it.
Let me just tell you a little bit about what it is like to be a woman in a patriarchal world. As a woman in seminary, you have to be the best. No one would admit that, but it is the unspoken requirement and I guarantee you the women know exactly what I am talking about. As a woman, I have to master the perfect blend of masculine assertiveness and feminine charm. If I am too assertive, I will considered a bitch. If I am not assertive enough I will be labeled “too timid” and therefore not quite mature enough for ministry yet. (Thank God I have male mentors to show me the way.) When, as a woman, I try to talk about the unique difficulty of finding my authentic voice as a female, as a preacher, a man always pipes up to gently remind me that men struggle to find their voice too. It is a little presumptuous of them—these men who have been largely affirmed since the first day they walked the aisle with a Call—but I just smile and nod, smile and nod, smile and nod because I know they didn’t mean to minimize our struggle. When I meet older progressive men who learn I am a pastor, they treat me like their granddaughter at her first ballet recital. They have never met me before, but they practically hand me a bouquet full of their pride. And while I truly appreciate the sentiment, I merely smile and nod, smile and nod, smile and nod. Yes, I am sweet with a voice to match, yes I certainly weigh the same in pounds as your twelve-year-old granddaughter, and yes, in many ways I am innocent and perhaps even cute. But you, sir, are innocent in ways I am not, being a man of privilege. I am an easy person to talk over—my loud voice is quieter than your inside voice. I am an easy person to overlook—I get mistaken for a middle-school student on a regular basis (I am, in fact, 27). But I am smart. And I work hard. And I am passionate, and I am sincere, and I take my work seriously, and I am a damn good preacher. (There, I said it.) I have lost family and friends by following this call to ministry; I am a heretic to folks just for preaching the Gospel. I have gotten passed up for opportunities I was more than qualified for. I admit, I sometimes get attention now and again for my young success—I’m the tiniest bit of a “star” in certain small circles, the “token” female if you will, but I sure did not get into ministry for the strange popularity of it. I became a minister to do the work and preach, and that’s what I was repeatedly shut out from doing until I worked my ass off in pursuit of the Call that pursued me first.
One final note. My husband is one of the most pure-hearted feminists I know (granted I am biased). He would tell you that he never would have become a feminist if it weren’t for knowing me. But he would also tell you that with or without me, he’s never going back. I did not exert feminism like a dogma over his head to emasculate him. I simply am a feminist, and that moved him, inspired him, transformed him. If you’ve met him, he’s not what anyone would call girly. But he’s not afraid of his feminine traits either, and as such, he is a more integrated, more balanced, more healthy individual. He wasn’t emasculated by my feminism; he was set free.
Can we all please be more careful with our words, I beg you?