Creating Space for Women's Thriving in the Church and the World
Three weeks ago, Senate Republicans silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren for criticizing attorney general nominee Senator Jeff Sessions. Warren had attempted to read civil rights activist Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter against Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship. Scott’s concerns over whether Sessions would support the civil rights of all citizens seemed particularly pressing. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell silenced Warren anyway. In words that will surely live on, McConnell pronounced, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
The hashtag #ShePersisted flooded Twitter because this silencing of Warren, this silencing of Coretta Scott King, resonated powerfully for women. Despite all the advances of both the civil rights and the feminist movements, women are silenced in everyday life; women still fight for control over our own bodies and lives. And though there has been much progress in this regard, women are still kept from ordained vocations in many religious movements.
McConnell’s words emerge as a stark reminder of how women continue to be treated in the twenty-first century. Men tell women to be quiet, not to make trouble, even if these women happen to be senators. It is a reminder—as if we needed another one—that patriarchy is alive and well. Indeed, this point was sharpened after McConnell’s silencing, when other Democratic senators, who were men, were allowed to read King’s letter.
And yet, after being told to sit down and no longer speak, Warren persisted. She read the letter of Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow outside of the chamber, streaming her persistence on Facebook. The video garnered over 12 million views and shifted across platforms to Twitter and Instagram throughout the day.
Like many other women, I found that McConnell’s words characterized my whole damn life. On Twitter, #NeverthelessShePersisted appeared as an example of what feminists do against the overwhelming weight of patriarchy. It became, as The Atlantic put it, “a weaponized meme” of rage and persistent resistance. McConnell’s 11 words told my story, even if I didn’t want them to. Persistence is my story and the story of most of the women I know.
McConnell reminded me of men who have warned me that I’m too outspoken, too smart, too mouthy, too aggressive, too combative, and too feminist. In middle school, high school, college, and even now, men have explained to me that I am “too much”—code for refusing to be silent, refusing to follow their lead, and refusing to follow the instructions and expectations that patriarchy imposes on girls and women.
Graduate school in religious studies made this particularly clear to me. A few fellow grad students, who happened to be both men and preachers, subtly and not-so-subtly let me know that women were to support the men in their lives, and not strive for their own. My choice to get a graduate degree appeared as selfish to them. I learned to despise the idea of “helpmeet” to describe women’s religious work, because those male students never seemed to recognize what it might mean to expect that all women be helpers. Several male professors “worked hard” while their wives tended to home and children—which wasn’t acknowledged as work, of course—without understanding how expected gender roles impacted their female students. One male professor, in particular, refused to discuss my research but wanted to talk to me only about his kids.
Still, I persisted. Mostly because the messages that those men were sending me weren’t new. It was a message I heard both outside and inside of churches, too. In my early college years, I attended a church that made it clear that women were to be daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Women mattered only in their relation to men and to children. Sermons taught that men were to lead and women were to follow. Committees tasked women with decorating, cleaning, cooking, and childcare, while men were granted opportunities to become involved in planning, finance, and community activities outside of the church. Women didn’t have value just for existing, just for being a part of God’s creation.
I left that church and many others because they were institutions where women were expected to persist even as our humanity was denied. Self-sacrificial, long-suffering women were the ideal, which I couldn’t meet even when I attempted to. (Not that I tried very hard.) It was a limited version of womanhood that bolstered patriarchy. I couldn’t help but want to rebel.
I did eventually find a church that welcomed me as a woman and a human being, but I left it years ago for a cross-country move and the promise of new opportunities. Even now as I research local churches and consider attending, I try to discern how they treat women, and everyone else, by examining their websites. Do women only appear to be in charge of women’s ministries and nurseries? Or do women lead congregations as ministers? Are the churches open and affirming no matter one’s sexual orientation or gender identity? Do women persist in these churches, or do they thrive? Will I have to fight for my right to be a person, or will I find support?
Here’s the thing: I have persisted, but I’ve grown weary of persistence. “Nevertheless, she persisted” is not the rallying cry that I want. While I initially found comfort in this sentiment, I’m less comforted now. These days, I find myself looking for something else. So my questions and concerns about local churches are questions and concerns about whether women are treated as fully human.
I keep picking up Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior: A Memoir (2016), which is about how her marriage imploded. The book offers not only a meditation on cultural expectations of marriage and motherhood, but also a sharp look at what our culture expects of women, as well as men. Early in the book Melton writes, “Every girl must decide whether to be true to herself or true to the world.” Self or world. World or self. “Either/or,” never “both/and.”
It is a false, infuriating choice—one that Melton sees playing out in some churches’ treatment women. Her fury is “for every woman who has been taught God is man and man is God.” Her fury is my fury. What makes Love Warrior such a powerful book is Melton’s ability to show “that there is a difference between submitting to God and submitting to patriarchy”—even if some churches refuse to recognize this crucial difference.
Women aren’t fated by God to be support staff in the lives of men, no matter what men might expect. That’s patriarchy talking. We should learn to not listen. Melton knows this when she writes:
… every time a child gets sick or a man leaves or a parent dies or a community crumbles, the women are the ones who carry on, who do what must be done for their people in the midst of their own pain … They are inexhaustible, ferocious, relentless co-creators with God, and they make beautiful worlds out of nothing. Have women been the Warriors all along?
Yes, yes, we have been. Being warriors means that women have not only persisted, but also resisted, as Nicole Lamarche insisted recently in Bearings. Every day, so many women challenge patriarchy, rather than quietly go along with cultural and religious expectations for them. Women persist. Women carry on. We move toward our own ability to fully thrive. Perhaps the rallying cry I and other women need is “nevertheless, she resisted.”
What can churches do to help women not only persist but thrive? A couple of churches in my city showed their commitment to women by hosting meetings of local Women’s March organizations in their sanctuaries. These church communities continue to show their support by offering space for women, and men allies, to come together to plan local, state and national actions. If other churches follow this example, perhaps women can move beyond persistence to resistance. At least it would be a start.