Tuesday, December 11, 2012

#232 Covert misogyny


For as inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly the progressive Church likes to imagine itself, there are still deep, linty pockets of gender bias and old habits that haven’t been broken. And how could they be, if no one has pointed them out? Actually, I take that back. How could the Church realize its biases if if the people in positions of power won't entertain the possibility that they have them? The tragic truth is that the people in power do not need to realize their biases if they don't elect to, and there’s the rub.

Gender bias in Christian culture is so ingrained that it's difficult to identify much of the time. Many women who didn't take their husband's last name or promise to obey him (see, progressive!) are just fine with male-pastor-only denominations. Many men who Mr. Mom while their wives work the day job (and to whom many will ascribe feminist tendencies when he's just acting like a decent human being) can still operate under constraints they haven't examined. We all do it. It's getting to the point where you can dig it up and examine it that's the hard bit.

Straight men in Christian culture simply don't need to examine the ways in which they are sexist, and this is the most difficult factor in the move towards wholeness. Coming to terms with the truth could make men feel awful about themselves. To even be an unknowing participant in something as egregious as gender bias while living in a culture where civil rights and equality are valued above all else is one of the worst things you can do. Far easier to stay ignorant of it. I mean, I would want to. People of privilege can't understand what the margainalized experience day-to-day but when it happens in Christianity in the name of the ultimate gender barrier iconoclast (that would be Jesus), the irony is excruciating.

In a Christian culture whose doctors of theology, board members and published authors are more than 80% male, many men and women still maintain that no significant bias is truly at play. These same people seem proud of the fact that 10% of those in powerful Church roles are women. This is seen by many as a giant stride from where women were a generation ago, but it still means it's 9 times harder to get into a powerful role as a woman. And if you're still having any misgivings as to whether it's really that difficult for a female voice to be considered in the progressive year of 2012, I would invite you to take ornery heed of a Black Like Me-esque experiment conducted by Jen Theweatt-Bates. While commenting on a male theology blog she found that she was engaged with significantly more respect and curiosity when using a male pseudonym, while her female persona encountered markedly more dismissal. Even her doctorate in philosophy doesn't appear to lend her much credibility amongst male theologians. There is no subjectivity in this experiment. Please refer to the statistics she recorded which paint a disturbing mathematical portrait of whose voice we value and why.

A common response to this topic by men in the Church is to deny that it is taking place and to tell women they are misreading the men in power. Those men are actually quite generous with their power! They do a lot of work for civil rights! They even have a gay friend! You are misreading them! I get it. There is nothing more difficult than facing the truth about the ways you perpetuate brokenness within the world and especially in the Church you hold dear. The hardest truths requires such painful realizations that many people live their entire lives without facing them. Summoning the curiosity and making the emotional and intellectual space for these realizations is almost preternaturally difficult. Could this mean they are also outrageously worthwhile?

When gender discussions occur on the Facebook page of this blog, men frequently protest the women's claims that their voice isn't taken as seriously a male voice. In these cases it always takes the voice of a sympathetic dude to point out where sexism is present in order for the disgruntled men to come around a bit. The fact that it takes a person of privilege to advocate for the marginalized and engender understanding speaks disgraceful volumes about how those in power choose to manage their unearned privilege. When defending their role, men will often say "I feel that as I try to defend my position I can't say anything right. I feel that nothing that I say will be considered valid by you. It feels like a vortex and a mindfuck." This is the point where a man might finally understand what it is like to have a feminine voice in this culture.

44 comments:

Unknown said...

My mum tried to become a Elder in her church...went through all the studies. The men almost did not give her the degree due to the fact "she would be distracted by family issues" and "people feel men are stronger in leadership positions in the church". They also complained it took her a little longer to get through the study and blamed it on the family distractions though never complained when a male took longer.

My mum was so disgusted and she has the degree but is angry they actually blocked her from taking any Elder positions because of the genre bias in her church. All the Elders are male and the women who go through the ministry studies? They become church secretaries even though they have the same degree as the men do.

tyler chott said...

women are smarter. they know to stay away from having to pretend like they are annointed by a god to preach to sheep. I hope...

Em said...

The mental gymnastics women go through to try and prove their worth in a disgustingly flawed and outdated organization is astounding to me. And I don't mean trying to prove it just to men in the church but to themselves as well.

If enough women left the church there would be no more church. I think we've all seen studies/reports that show women are more likely to attend church services well into older adulthood, more likely to volunteer, etc. They are its backbone.

I'm not saying I blame the ladies for the sorry state of affairs; however, imagine if they used their considerable resources and talents to work for women's equality and rights OUTSIDE of what is a pretty hopeless organization. So pretty much in summation: let it burn. Not worth getting leadership in a sinking ship.

S. Norris said...

First of all, for disclosure's sake, I'm one of the privileged elite: a white, heterosexual, American male from a Protestant background who did not grow up in poverty.

One of the things people fail to realize about historically-ingrained injustices and civil rights is that equal access does not mean equal opportunity. Any time there is a ruling class that is mostly homogenous in one way or another, those who do not share that trait will find limited opportunities to enter that circle, regardless if they have access to the necessary steps or not. This is why concepts such as affirmative action are so crucial anytime there has been a gross historical imbalance due to systemic exploitation of people with (or without) a particular trait.

A policy of affirmative action and specific promotion/assistance for women who want to lead in churches would help right many of the wrongs that have been done throughout the ages and that are still being reinforced by the laissez-faire attitudes of men in the ruling elite whose opportunity has always been more equal than everyone else's. In this case, affirmative action would not be 'reverse sexism' as some would cry, but would literally be engendering opportunity within the ranks of female parishioners.

In any sociological system, the status quo always acts as a barrier to change, even when its members do not wish it to impede the progress of others.

ed cyzewski said...

Thanks for this post and for the link to Jen's project. Your last few sentences of this post really hit home. THAT is a great analogy that I hope to use in future discussions.

Tony D. said...

Now this is an intriguing post. Is Stephy transitioning from critiquing white American evangelical culture to critiquing white liberal mainline Protestant culture? Do I need to re-asses what "Christian culture" means on this blog?

stephy said...

The mainlines have their own culture that has nothing to do with what Jesus was on about. :)

Anonymous said...

Atheism seems to be the only belief system that appreciates women. Leaning more and more into that flame daily. So sick of the one God and the three religions ascribed to him and his followers' pathetic take on women.

Billy said...

Well, to be fair, I have known many atheists who mistreat women and are proud of it.

Ren said...

And there are masses of discussions in atheist groups about why so few women speak at conventions, are featured in blogs, and about how they regularly have their voices dismissed. Atheism has its own shiny brand of misogyny, and worse: they have no "God-ordained" excuses to make them feel like they're doing the right thing.

This is of course not to say that Christians should feel like they're doing the right thing by propagating any kind of misogyny. And it carries over outside the church. My Baptist-preacher/theologian father, when he heard me express my frustration with a former, most-likely-sociopathic boss, said, "I've heard that women make worse bosses than men." To which I said something along the lines of "I've had awful male bosses and awful female bosses and wonderful male bosses and wonderful female bosses, you're being an ass."

Of course, he (having had a career in the church) has never had a female boss as long as he has been alive. How is he going to provide support for a career-successful woman who attends his church if he thinks she is naturally a bad boss? It's time for that to change, if the church is to provide any kind of support and empathy for its congregation.

On the flip side, feminism is about letting women do what they want with their lives. If they don't *want* leadership roles, it is just as misogynistic to force them into it. But I don't think that's the problem, here.

Snommelp said...

Two things, neither of which is related to the other except that both relate to the blog post.

First: when you talk to us straight white men about privilege, a lot of the time we don't get it. We're blind to our own privilege. We're quick to point out how "white people can be poor too" or "women have so many opportunities" or something like that. I apologize for when I have been complicit in such behavior.

Second: what can I do? As the "we" language above made clear, I am a straight white male. So when I try to speak in defense of feminism, it ends up being a male voice speaking on behalf of women, which seems to defeat the purpose. But as you noted, currently the female voice is often ignored, her criticisms dismissed. What can I do to support you without taking your voice away?

Daniel A. Kaufman said...

In the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jewish communities, women can serve as Rabbis and Chazzans and increasingly do. (Our current Rabbi is a woman.) They also serve in leadership positions institutionally: for years I was the assistant to the Dean of the Undergraduate College of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who was a woman.

I find it interesting that these sorts of institutionalized gender biases exist in the more liberal Protestant Churches, who I thought were at least as progressive as the non-Orthodox brands of Judaism. Indeed, I am surprised by it.

stephy said...

Snommelp, the only answer I have for you is to access your outrage and go from there. It's how all civil rights were won.

Tony D. said...

Our gracious hostess said:
"The mainlines have their own culture that has nothing to do with what Jesus was on about. :)"

Oh, no doubt. So does every other Christian faction (my own, Orthodoxy, most assuredly included). I just thought that the working definition of "Christian culture" on this blog was specifically its American evangelical protestant incarnation, that's all. If you're branching out you'll have lots & lots of additional material. Have fun!

JTB said...

to add my 2 cents to snommelp's question: I think there's a real strategic difference between speaking for/on behalf of, and using your platform to amplify the voices themselves. Both use the existing power of privilege to be heard, but in the first strategy, regardless of content it's still your own voice and not the voices actually missing from the discourse being heard (as you note). In the second strategy, your own voice relinquishes center stage to others'. As a practical example--entering the convo as yourself and then quoting and giving credit, or like my friend Chris Dowdy did, using his blog space as a forum for other voices.

Thanks Steph for the link!

stephy said...

Tony D, totally. To me it almost feels like these postures that are traditionally evangelical are bleeding into the mainline a bit. I don't know for sure though.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could attribute this quote/paraphrase, but seeking poser as a woman in Christianity is a bit like wanting to become Grand Wizard of the KKK as an African-American. The misogyny is not incidental, it is fundamental.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I even have a thought about sexism, it makes me want to throw up: Because everybody is so willing to throw up on each other.

I had a Finance professor tell me, since I was one of the only 'normal' (hetero white) women of the classroom; he looked straight at me and said:

'And, there are those of us who have priorities unrelated to the field of finance that may want to examine another career and major, due to higher priorities like family.'

I also had a career aptitude professional tell me I am very rare and could be a great artist, but I need to be an educational psychologist for its flexible hours.

I went out and played soccer leisurely with a guyfriend and after stealing the ball from some guy Ive never met nor communicated in any way to, charged into my face, spitting, about feminists.

I am now a professional artist, not married, no children, who doesnt really give a flying f anymore because Im making money with discretionary spending options, investments, and I am all of this due to the incidences above making me so enraged that I couldnt see me Not being a great artist, not being a feminist, and not completing my degree.

It makes me want to throw up, every day. I cant even Think about what black and asian women go through.

Rebekah said...

I can't tell you how much I love this post. This was so well said.

Becky said...

A few random thoughts for those men who are tired of talking the inclusive talk and want to start walking ...

1) Check your RSS feed, podcasts, books, etc. to ensure you are connecting with voices outside of your comfort zones.

2) Shake up your conference going - for a period stop attending events hosted by those who are like you - see what happens when you inhabit the space of other voices. While in this space, sit and listen.

3) In your writing and speaking, see what might happen if you changed the focus from an "I" focus that presents your story as a reformed apologist who needs to share his transformation from homophobe to holy. (Said move almost always comes accompanied by a book deal).

4. If you are one of those dudes who is on the author/speaker circuit, refuse to participate in any conferences or cutting edge publishing deals when it's clear the line-up will be same old, same old. If enough people do this, the market will be forced to change.

BTW-where I see this bleeding into the mainline is when you have mainline author/speakers who ply their wares on the evangelical author/speaker circuit - you find them playing safe so they can secure their speaking gigs and the cycle continues. The mainline has it's own set of issues without a doubt - but there are signs (see Believe Out Loud blog) that there are pockets where some truly transformative stuff is starting to happen. :)

Anonymous said...

Covert? A standing categorical rule against having a woman pastor isn't covert. It's straight up unapologetic sexism. A panel of deacons who point blank refuses to grant a woman position as an Elder in their church, even when she's been qualified according to their own standards, isn't covert. And the evangelical Christian disdain for Catholics' 'praying to Mary' is about as overt as it gets for religious sexism. Christianity is in practice rigged to value men as superior to women (as is Judaism). The only person in the Bible who speaks with a feminist voice is Jesus; but you'll hear Paul, the original Christian male chauvinist, given the louder voice in most Christian communities. A Christian church member knows better than to ask about such things out loud, especially if she's female. That's how you get 'asked to leave' by the deacons, whose first allegiance is to comfort zone, not inclusive faith.

Tony D. said...

But Anon, Stephy clearly isn't referring to Evangelical (capital-E) churches here. Want proof? It's in the opening words: "For as inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly the progressive Church likes to imagine itself..."
Nobody would assert that Evangelicalism is remotely covert about its patriarchal views!

Kayfabe said...

Wonder why women are desperate for power in a powerless church anyways

stephy said...

When you have been the powerless figure in a structure such as a church, you know firsthand just how powerful a church can be. Women are desperate for the equality that Jesus taught, not power per se.

Still Breathing said...

Kayfabe, The church isn't meant to be about power, it's men who have made it that way.

Sherm said...

To me it almost feels like these postures that are traditionally evangelical are bleeding into the mainline a bit.

Definitely. When I was growing up, my mom was a minister in the ELCA, about as close to a mainline, liberal-inclined a denomination as there is, at least in the US. She eventually retired and pursued another career, because as she said; "it wasn't the church I took my oaths to anymore." The funny thing about it was, it was the oldsters who were more accepting of her leadership, as befit a denomination that ordained its first woman in the early 70s. It wasn't until the church started to flirt with the trappings of Evangelical culture and values in order to bring in more people that the church started its shift away from whatever modicum of egalitarianism that it once had. The acceptance of gay marriage and acceptance of partnered gay and lesbian ministers a couple years ago was a hopeful sign that it was receding, but I couldn't tell how comprehensive it is. After watching mom fight chauvinists and misogynists when dealing with other denominations in ecumenical work, the prospect of watching it happen in our own church was too depressing. I left and haven't looked back.

Kayfabe said...

Still Breathing,

I agree 100 percent. I also believe the Church is the people "called out ones" and not a building or a denomination. As a matter of fact I have left Institutional Christianity and now attend a Home Church and I have never been more joyous in my walk with God. These Men have perverted the meaning of Church. The One Man Pastor leader Model is not biblical anyways.

Felipe said...

"While commenting on a male theology blog she found that she was engaged with significantly more respect and curiosity when using a male pseudonym [...]"

I think you've set up somewhat of a red herring here. Subtle (and sometimes unconscious) sexism is not unique to church environments. Unfortunately, 'chilly climates' for women is a big problem in many male-dominated professions such as technology and science.

See here for what I mean:
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2011/07/20/is-it-cold-in-here/

I agree with your main point, however, that the fact that there -is- gender bias can't and shouldn't be denied.

Will said...

This is a great post. I think we need to talk about and confront misogyny more. It is still destructive.

Lia said...

I think along the beautiful points you made in this post, a lot of people both in the non-Christian institutions/communities and those of their Christian counterparts have difficulties in separating woman from sex. Not to say every culture think of women as sex demons, but that there is an unbreakable link between woman and sex (fertility, sensuousness, pleasure, immorality, and all things associated).

Oppression has had an advantage time-wise in creating these biases that they are so ingrained and unseen.

Anonymous said...

Scripture plainly states that an ELDER is a MAN, there's nothing wrong with that.

Ruby said...

This blog helps me understand why growing up white-bread Protestant felt so confusing and surreal. 97% of what went on in church seemed empty, a waste of time. Yet church was held up to me as one of the most important things in life. I dimly intuited something essential and divine in Christianity, but in actual practice, it was obscured and tangled in a lot of stuff that seemed mainly designed to make people feel comfortable and safe. The comfy safe stuff had 'spiritual' labels pasted on it, but all the really potent, electric stuff in the Bible was anything but. Flaming trees, starving in the desert, talking angels, loving people you can't stand. Wrestling with a stranger who won't quit until you come clean. It confused the hell out of me that all this was taught and preached in an atmosphere of carefully controlled cleanliness, correctness, propriety, and great attention to financial statements. Where the only permissible mood was cheerful peppy confidence. I turned myself inside out trying to resolve this conundrum. This blog helps me understand there is no resolution.

Dale Deakins said...

The quote from Annie Dillard is flawed. It promotes a kind of un-M.A.N.-liness that I can't abide. See my insightful blog post about this controversial issue here: http://lifeonmarsmountain.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/stephanie-drury-promoting-non-man-ness/

adam said...

a few days ago i expressed my disappointment that my progressive church only has male elders. they're great men, and great leaders, sure. but it's still not a great system.

when i, a man, pointed this out, i got lectured by a woman about how godly these men are and we have tons of women on leadership, and i shouldn't be judging their decisions in our leadership.

sometimes guys like me try to help set things right, too, and find resistance in peculiar places.

JFShaw said...

hmm... Power. Yes, let's definitely go on about the 'sharing' of or access to it. What's important after all?

Anonymous said...

Great post and really good discussion. Stephy, what do you mean when you call Jesus the ultimate gender iconoclast?

Eugene Stephens said...

Stephy: How about doing a "Stuff Christian Culture Likes" entry on the high priest of misogyny, James Dobson?

Mon Alicia said...

Sometimes the misogyny isn't even covert. Allow me to quote the always entertaining Mark Driscoll:

"And the problem in the church today is it’s just a bunch of nice, soft, tender, chick-ified church boys. Sixty percent of Christians are chicks. And the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks. I mean, it’s just sad."

It doesn't stop there!

"This is what being a pastor is about, guys. If you can’t handle it, go back to teaching yoga or playing My Little Pony with the other girls."

"A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping him either.”

And don't even get me started on the Duggars...

methy said...

I'm sure someone has already said it but John Piper and Mark Driscoll are not very covert in their misogyny. It's more the in your face kind.

prairienymph said...

This article does a good job of explaining why privilege is blind to those who don't have it. I can't tell you how frustrated I've been at trying to explain the misogyny and power imbalances to many of the men (and women) of my old church. https://sindeloke.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/37/

andrew said...

The last paragraph of this post is probably the most important. One of many questions that arises is how we move to a place of one-ness.

Does it mean that whiteish, middleclassish, straightish, protestantish men should shut up? (that might be a start - we talk a lot).

Does it mean that whiteish, middleclassish, straightish, protestantish men should find a way to hold or create space for those who are not part of their old boys network? (there might be some merit there too).

I suppose the challenge for me is, if we want to remain within a sphere that is somehow Christian, how is the playing field evened? How do we hear one another? And do we need to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction for awhile, or is there a place we can rest in the middle, on equal footing, where all have reason to speak and all have an equal or greater reason to listen?

Tessa Doghor said...

The only way to get rid of the schisms in the body of God is by living under grace.
If ever you see any issues in the church, it is just a signal that there is some law keeping going on and the church leaders and the people they teach are equally suffering, only grace sets free.
Five years of being in ministry taught me this. I was a woman unmarried and sick in my body so the prejudices were grievous and hurtful.
When I got healed, they wondered why Jesus would heal a sinner and forgot that they preached divine healing. Wait for it, the women gave me a harder time than the men and only accepted me because I got healed and it was a wonder.
It is only by a miracle that women can come into church and not feel demeaned or degraded in action and after hearing the word preached as if they lived in liberty.
I got born again in college and we had little or no prejudices, we were hungry for souls and hungry for God.
One thing I learnt through it all is that God is still the God of His church, no one takes His throne.
I do think I am done with working in ministry though, I would like to work somewhere else and be a light there; I would like to see what God can do with me in a secular organization. Because when we live the Christ life right, we are a wonder to our world.

D'artagnan said...

The Deacon, and fellow convert, who helped bring me into the Church is fond of saying "If God had not forced men to be the leaders, they would have just let the women do it all" (O:
Granted I do see an anti-women bias in the way Protestants have gone against Christ and allowed divorce, as well as the use of contraception so women can be used as sex toys instead of cherished as part of the one flesh union.

RogueFiccer said...

Of course men protest about complaints that women's voices aren't taken seriously and that there's sexism and misogyny--they aren't aren't the ones not being taken seriously and they aren't the ones being affected by the sexism and misogyny. Privilege blinds them, and it's so difficult to open their eyes. It definitely doesn't help that many women buy into the sexism and misogyny and perpetuate and support it, and men point to them saying, "Those women don't see a problem with the way things are." It's so incredibly frustrating.