The Ain't I a Woman blog examines the many ways Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be. We deconstruct those messages that we find troubling--and, in the process, construct a different message: one that allows Christian women to be all that God intended.

Because God is not a Guy: Why Language Matters

My foster dog, Janey, lives in a state of perpetual fear. She is afraid of walking over a threshold; of any sudden movement or loud noise; of anyone walking toward her; and most directly, of my husband who is decidedly not an imposing figure. Despite letting me pet and walk her, Janey also has trouble trusting me. One moment I can be stroking her fur so that she is momentarily happy, her tail easily wagging. And the next, she will resist coming when I call her and instead backs away from me, her tail firmly planted between her legs conveying just how difficult it is for her to trust me completely. In these instances, I sit down and wait for her to regain her courage and come to me again.

In the three short weeks I’ve been Janey’s care-giver, I’ve learned a lot from her. She has helped me recognize a similar fear within myself, a feeling I had not identified before.

Let me back up and give you the fuller story.

Recently my friend Letha Dawson Scanzoni asked me to reflect on my story about language, to examine how language—about people and God—became so important to me, especially language used in churches. Her suggestion required me to go back through some painful episodes in my life. Here are some of the conclusions I discovered:

  • Language is never separate from our experiences. When several years ago I awakened to how limited our speaking about God in masculine terms was I simultaneously experienced patriarchal patterns of leadership in churches and Christian institutions.
  • Being a woman at a Christian college (when I taught at George Fox University) that employed masculine language for God and exclusive language for people produced in me experiences not just of exclusion and invisibility but ones that felt like personal attacks or violations. You can read more about why it felt this way here: http://jannaldredgeclanton.com/blog/?p=1257. I think that many people assume our language about God doesn’t really matter and that for those who make a big deal of it, we are just being picky or obstinate. Instead, not only does masculine language result in idolatry, narrowing our images of God to just a few, it also works to injure…again and again.
  • Janey’s life must be exhausting as she doesn’t relax around my husband until he falls asleep at night. All other times, she is actively responding to his every move. When he enters a room, she moves to the other side making sure there is at least one obstacle between them. If he makes a sudden movement, she crouches assuming she needs to protect herself. If he is downstairs, she moves upstairs. Her actions are completely determined upon his position. Like Janey who is continually alert to sources of danger, I employ the same kind of guardedness when in faith communities. Seldom can I relax and simply enjoy a hymn or liturgy or sermon but instead I am poised to resist the language bullets that potentially will be shot at me. I must be ready to duck and/or take cover in order to emerge as unscathed as possible.
  • I hope Janey will eventually overcome her fear as she builds trust in new care-givers. It will take time and effort, I imagine, both on her part and on those who will become her forever family. Too, I suppose her path toward healing will not be substantially different from mine where I, also, will need to work on trusting others not to hurt me. Of course this also means that more of us need to take seriously how we talk with one another and how we talk about God. Without such efforts, there are few “safe” places. A few years back, Melanie Springer Mock, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, and I wrote about just this very topic when remembering our experiences of Potluck dinners. You can read more about this here: https://eewc.com/creating-learned-helplessness-one-potluck-time/

I’m aware that I’m not the only one who has had these kinds of experiences in churches and faith communities so I’m interested in hearing more about your encounters with language. Are there ways you have been hurt by language, and ways you have expanded your understandings of God by changing your language?

Becoming Weddle, Again

As a child I can remember waiting for what seemed like an eternity for my upcoming birthday. What presents would I get? Would mom bake my favorite cake? Would I get to invite my friends over to play? The anticipation was both excruciating and exciting.

This year I will celebrate my birthday in York, England, while leading a group of students on a spring break study abroad program. And, while, I no longer look forward to my birthdays with the same childlike anticipation, I think this year it will hold a special place for me as it will be the first birthday in over twenty-seven years that my name represents whom I am learning to be. So, I’ll light a candle in York Minster to mark this change in my life and to ask for courage to embrace the journey.

You see, it is one thing to announce on social media that I am changing my name, returning to the name I was given at birth. It is another step—and I am learning more difficult of the two—to put the decision into action. Now I have to follow through and face the puzzled glances and awkward pauses. Too, there are the painful silences representing, I suppose, disapproval or being dismissed.

But, I have been bolstered in this process by what I discovered about Eve a few years ago when Melanie Springer Mock and I began writing what became If Eve Only Knew. For years I uncritically bought into the myth that Eve was the source of all evil because she disobeyed and enticed Adam to follow her in sin and shame. Upon closer examination, however, when I revisited her story and sought to place myself in her shoes, I began to see that she was someone who made informed decisions. She realized the tree was good for food, was a delight to one’s eyes, and that it can make one wise. These, in any other context, are excellent reasons to eat the fruit.

Even though it appears Eve did not actually hear the prohibition about the tree, she seemed to realize that eating its fruit would result in death. Still, she ate; the other reasons more persuasive than the risk of her life.

Isn’t this the challenge for all of us?

Staying in the garden represents changeless ease and the fear of Wisdom’s fullest potential while taking the risk of stepping out into the world represents letting the power of death transform us into life without reservation.

I sometimes wonder if we have denigrated Eve so thoroughly because we find it easier to let others determine our lives, their expectations driving us to make decisions we know deep down are not reflections of our truest selves.

It would have been less challenging in many ways for me to go throughout the rest of my life with a name that never felt right to me. The damage was only experienced by me, and like most women, I’ve learned to ignore and dismiss my needs. Eve has taught me, however, that I can opt for a different, though more complex and complicated way.

I am now choosing the path of Wisdom, trusting that the process of dying to the old way of succumbing to others’ expectations of me, will bring forth new patterns of living, of learning to be the authentic and whole person God means for me to be.

No more Irons!

My yoga studio recently expanded its fitness offerings making it abundantly clear to me just how out of shape I am, despite having been a fairly faithful yogi for several years. Now, there are high impact classes requiring weights and balls and integrals of jumping jacks or tailbone curls or—my favorite—deep squats.  I suppose when one yoga teacher encouraged me to attend one of these classes, she had my best interests in mind. But with each knee-creaking squat or half-assed donkey kick, I’m reminded that I have, indeed, landed—or more precisely, fallen—into a new phase of life.

I’m not unique, of course. We all wake up one day and realize we are no longer young; our dreams have passed us by and we are left to pick up the pieces. Each of us must face who we are in comparison with who we had hoped we would be. While coming to terms with our bodies as they gain years, we also must wrestle with our identities.

It would be helpful if somehow the sign-posts leading to middle-age were a little clearer, alerting us to slow down earlier, to appreciate the journey, to not rush so much. Who would think months of sleepless nights, or moments of suffocating heat followed immediately by a bone-chilling rush is nearly enough to signal caution? So, with no useful flashing sign I recently woke up in a confounding stupor. How did I become this?

There isn’t enough time or space here to explain the specific details of my recent undoing. One aspect of this mid-life reckoning, however, I am ready to share, if only to add some transparency to my new social media identity and email.

I am dropping Irons from my name.

As a young and idealistic twenty-something I married my high school bestie. While I had been little exposed to the currents of feminism, I had enough farm-inspired independence that I confided to my future spouse that I wished to keep my name. Despite his openness to it, family dynamics were such that I ultimately opted instead for less turbulent waters and reluctantly changed my name, taking his while using my previous last name as my middle name.

For almost twenty-eight years I have lived with a decision that regularly reminded me of my lack of resolve; of being someone at odds with myself; of letting someone else determine the contours of the person I was born to be. The negative feelings associated with a youthful decision have not dissipated over the years but rather have intensified. With each signature and public introduction, with each new book cover or business card, I’ve felt the weight of jettisoning myself for someone else.

In the high impact fitness class this morning, the instructor motivated us, urging us to dig deep and thereby strengthen and tone our bodies readying them for a summer that is just around the corner. I don’t feel strong or toned or even necessarily hopeful that my hard work will pay off in this way.

But one thing I do know: this is my journey and Kendra Weddle is the only one who can take it, one courageous step after another. This is how becoming all I am meant to be begins for me.

When We Are Angela Merkel

Way back in the early years of my career at George Fox University, a colleague (from another department) approached me at a faculty gathering, exchanged a few niceties, and then offered to help me develop my scholarship. He wanted to give me advice about how I might get my first book published, and how I could begin getting my work into academic journals. Given his success as an author, he said, he knew he could help me get going on my own writing.

When we had that conversation, I had already published my first book.

Along with several other articles, in fairly prominent periodicals.

Because I was a young faculty member, and because I wasn’t yet tenured, and because he believed himself the Man About Campus, I thanked him for his gracious offer, and told him I’d connect with him at some point for his advice.

Which is why, when Angela Merkel eye-rolled Vladimir Putin’s mansplaining at a G20 summit meeting several weeks ago, I felt immediate kinship. Just in case you haven’t watched the beauty of that moment 100 times, as I have, here it is:

 

 

Most women have been Angela Merkel at one time or another. We may not be the chancellor of Germany, or the leader of the free world, or have a doctorate in physical chemistry, or be conversant in European politics, but we’ve had to stand by while an entitled man—perhaps even an entitled man without our qualifications and experience—explained in detail something we already know.

I can think of several instances, even in the last year, when the Merkel eye roll should have been employed:

  • When, on numerous occasions, a fellow runner in town stopped me on my own training runs to share with me details of an awesome marathon he finished years ago, what his time was, how hard he trained for the only marathon he’s completed, never once asking me about my running history or about the marathons I’ve run. (I’ve done 49.)
  • When a student discounted my authority as an English professor because I hadn’t read Milton since I was an undergraduate, and my interest in contemporary literature and memoir meant I was not adequately trained in the greats of the western canon, despite my doctorate in English.
  • When one of my beloved sons explains to me the plot of an 80s rom-com that I’ve already watched a thousand times, or tells me I don’t know anything about a sport I’ve been doing for 35 years now. (Okay, so maybe all teenagers believe their parents are stupid, but still . . .)

In each of these instances, I simply accepted the lengthy mansplaining, because I am kind and hate confrontation, and because my culture has taught me to listen politely to the male people in my life, even on the occasions when they are patronizing me. Because I am passive-aggressive, though, my internal monologue is far less kind, and I’m often eye-rolling hard in my mind, my serene countenance covering a broiling white-hot rage.

If only I could be like Merkel, though, eye-rolling for all the world to see at the G20 Summit. This was not some kind of mainstream media fake news event, but a prominent leader, telling us—in essence—that after several decades in politics, she has had enough of the mansplaining, and despises being patronized by leaders who lack her credentials and her experience but still treat her as a little woman to be coddled.

Or ignored, as Donald Trump did earlier this spring when, during a visit to the White House, he refused to shake her hand or look her in the eye. That moment, replayed again and again on (Fake!) mainstream media, made me proud.

Proud to be a woman, that is. Not proud to be an American. But I’m sure someone will see fit to explain why I shouldn’t adore Angela Merkel after all. I’ll be waiting, and will have a perfect response.

Namely

 

 

 

Do Ten-Year-Old Girls Need Empowerment?

By design, my husband and I chose raising boys over raising girls. When we decided to adopt, we were asked to state a gender preference, and chose boys, because 1) We discovered that the waiting lists for boys were far shorter than the list for girls and 2) Having tortured my mother from about ages 12-19, I didn’t think I could stand the same kind of treatment from my own girl child.

So we adopted Benjamin and, three years later, Samuel. I don’t regret for one moment the choice we made. My sons are the best part of my life, even on days when I have to tell them, for the millionth time, to brush their teeth already and please stop drinking my Diet Cokes.

Lately, though, there are moments when I wish I’d had a daughter, too, especially when I see other mothers having close relationships with their daughters. Living with only boys and men has been great, but I’d love for someone else at home to even things up a bit, gender-wise—and Nellie, my dog, can only provide a little female solidarity. I’ve also borrowed my friends’ daughters once in awhile, just to get a taste of what being with girls might be like, and it’s definitely a different kind of fun than with my boys, in all the best ways.

The first weekend in June, I participated in a girls-only event called Girls on the Run, a nationwide-program for girls in 3rd to 5th grade. The girls train two times a week for ten weeks, but also build skills in leadership, communication, and friendship. The program culminates in a 5K run, and I was partnered with a 10-year-old girl as a “running buddy” for the final event, plus one practice event in May.

The experience was amazing: Getting to race with my new ten-year-old friend was fun. Running with several thousand girls and their mentors, often parents, was a thrill. Seeing girls feel strong and healthy and capable was inspiring.

But when I told my own sons where I was going, what I was doing, one said to me “What 10-year-old girl needs to feel empowered?”

I told him, that question alone answers the question. But then, I told him that he should know better, asking me a question like that, especially after hearing me lecture (both at home and in actual lecture halls) about gender inequity. And then, I gave him a lecture anyway, because apparently it hadn’t sunk in the first hundred times I talked to him about misogyny and the unfair treatment of women.

Ten-year-old girls need to be empowered, I said, because they hear from a very young age that they are not as worthy as boys, that their achievements—athletic or otherwise—are not as important as boys’ achievements.

When they go to movies or read books, and see that most of the protagonists are boys, they learn that boys are always heroes, and that the endeavors of boys always supersede that of girls.

When they go clothes shopping, and see that a great deal of what passes for girls’ clothes highlights their budding sexuality, they learn that their sexuality will define them, will be their source of power to allure. (If they are in Christian culture, they will also learn that their sexuality is to be sublimated, and that they will be at fault when boys lust after them.)

When they are at school, they will learn that girls are bad at math, and by the time they turn six, they will assume that boys are naturally smarter than girls. Popular culture will reinforce this belief in them, with its shirts and Barbie dolls proclaiming girls are bad at math.

When they take part in religious communities, they will hear that God is our Almighty Father, and—by extension—that boys are image-bearers of God in ways that girls are not. They will also hear that God has designed boys to lead, to have strength and power and discernment, and girls are designed for submission, to quiet their voices and prepare for the “special” roles God has created for them.

They will learn, eventually, that the world can be a hostile place for girls, that one in four girls will be victims of sexual assault, that nearly 80 percent of teen girls worry about being too heavy, that more than nine out of 10 adult women wish they could change some aspect of their appearance.

On an early Saturday morning, when I was running the 5K with my new friend, though, we were focused on finishing. On having fun. On celebrating strength and community and the joy that can come from accomplishing something new. And, in the process, perhaps we learned a bit more about what it means to be a strong and capable girl—one who, in the near future, might change the world. I’m banking on my running buddy to lead this transformation, and on other 10-year-old girls who may not need to be empowered right now, but will someday soon.

Women Who Blog (And the Pastors Who Let Them)

In the last month or so, a few faithful readers have noted that this blog has not been as active lately. I’m grateful that readers have noticed our relative absence; but also, thanks for making us feel bad.

No, but really. There are a few potential reasons why we haven’t written much:

  • We are completely overwhelmed by the many ways misogyny continues to be part of the Christian experience in America. Where do we even start?
  • We have both run out of words, given our busy and fractured lives.
  • Both Kendra and I lack any ecclesial structure to hold us accountable for our work, and lack the proper authority to write on religious biblical things. Thus, we have wisely chosen silence.

Maybe you didn’t see the article in Christianity Today? The one wondering about the rise of women’s blogging in evangelicalism, and whether that has created a “crisis of authority”? The one suggesting that maybe women bloggers (okay, maybe all bloggers, but this isn’t clear) should have more accountability? The one that called out Jen Hatmaker especially, because she’s recently come out as supportive of LGBT folks, and therefore here theology is somehow suspect and needs to be kept in check?

Perhaps you missed the vividI would love to blog and write freely about my ideas. But first, I will ask for my husband's permission.  discussion that broke out on Twitter, with even heavy-hitters like Rachel Held Evans responding, pointing out the deep flaws in the article, especially because the “crisis of authority” has never really been an issue until women also found their voices in cyberspace.

Did people wonder what kind of “ecclesial structure” superstar male bloggers like Matt Walsh are beholden to? Wring their hands when Bryan Fischer made claims about Jesus that seemed theological suspect? Of course not. Because in all things Christian, women must be held to some Higher Standard, especially if they have ideas that might make people think (differently).

Watching the discussion unspool on Twitter, I started to wonder what manner of authority I have to write at all. I do have some credentials, including a PhD in English, with specialties in composition and rhetoric. Twenty years of teaching writing. A master’s degree earned by writing a thesis on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. That’s got to matter for something, right? I mean, c’mon, writing on Lewis and Tolkien should give me some cred with religious folks!

Maybe it’s okay for me to write about writing, but not about religious stuff? Or maybe, I can write about religious things, but only with the endorsement of a pastor?

So here’s the thing: perhaps I should also demand that those who write for publications also have some credentialing in writing. Because we all know there’s some pretty bad writing getting published these days, all in the name of “Christian truth.” Hear that Mark Driscoll? Time to sign up for my college writing class—maybe then, you’d understand why you can’t simply plagiarize when you are publishing books.

A few years ago (yes, back when we were more actively blogging), we highlighted an article written about a woman blogger, wondering if she should even have a platform, because that meant she might have male readers, who might (gasp!) learn something from what she’d written. The advice was wonderfully sexist. One idea was that she could have her husband read the posts before they went live, thereby offering her the authority she sought.

This seemed entirely ridiculous at the time, as it robbed the woman of any agency, any sense that her thoughts were valid without a man’s endorsement. But the Christianity Today article strikes me as more of the same impulse, in a bigger forum, written by an ordained pastor. I guess, at least, the ordination makes the CT article legit. And also, shows that there is plenty of sexism left in the church for us to address.

Running as a Feminist Expression

Today’s running of the Boston Marathon marks the 50th anniversary of Kathrine Switzer’s historic effort to defy expectations about what women could and could not do. In 1967, Switzer became the first woman to finish the Boston race with an official number, having been given entry because her registration under the name K.V. Switzer allowed her to pass as a man.

Those familiar with Switzer’s story know the iconic image of that race. A marathon official, Jock Semple, was riding on the press truck, saw Switzer in early miles on the course, jumped into the crowd of runners, and tried to push her from the field while also attempting to rip off her race bib. Switzer’s then-boyfriend, running alongside her, pushed back, and Switzer continued running, finishing the race in four hours, 20 minutes.

In other words, after being assaulted by a powerful man, after being yelled at by members of the press, after other runners on the course shouted obscenities at her because she had entered a male-only space: after all these things, she persisted. And in doing so, she opened the door for countless other women to experience the wonders of running.

Including me, of course. But when I started running in 1982, not even twenty years after a woman finished the Boston marathon for the first time, I knew nothing about Switzer’s amazing courage nor about the limitations placed on female athletes. (Nor did I know, in 1984, that Joan Benoit Samuelson’s Olympic marathon win was also ground-breaking, the first time women had run longer than 800 meters in an Olympics.)

On a run this weekend, I listened to an interview with Switzer on my favorite podcast, Another Mother Runner. There, Switzer talked about what running has given her over the last fifty years, how it has been a source of empowerment for her and for countless other women, who have discovered that the simple act of running can transform them completely.

I thought about the ways running has enriched my life: it has made me feel strong and capable; it has given me a sense of accomplishment; it has carried me through the loneliness of graduate school and the stress of being a new mother; it has sustained me as my kids have grown into teenagers, which has introduced all kinds of new stressors. But most significantly, my 35 years of running has given me my best friends and confidantes, a tribe of like-minded women whose strength, courage, humor, good-will, and downright bad-assness makes me want to be a better person, too.

In a lot of ways, running is a selfish endeavor. (Maybe in all ways.) I run for my own enjoyment, for the social time with friends, because I know it makes me healthy and strong. I have spent countless dollars on this hobby of mine, and countless hours. I am generally more tired, more grumpy, and also more gimpy because of running.

And, I have never run for a charity, and don’t plan to, because I don’t want to obfuscate the real reason I run: for me. Admitting this is hard, especially because Christian woman are so often told that self-sacrifice is the highest, best goal to which we should aspire. So much so, in fact, that we often sublimate our own needs for the good of everyone else.

Perhaps this is why I think running can be a feminist expression, an acknowledgment that women have agency over their bodies, their time, their resources—or should have agency, at any rate—and that running can be one way we push back against those expectations that say we don’t matter quite as much. That more women than men now finish races in the U.S. (9.7 million women to 7.3 million men in 2016) suggests that running, at least, is one place where women are finding power and strength.

While this kind of feminist expression might seem privileged, something only wealthy westerners can do, Switzer’s new endeavor, 261Fearless, is hoping to foster multi-cultural running communities for women of all abilities, across the globe, so that women can discover their own strength as well as their own tribes. Named after the number she wore at the 1967 Boston Marathon, 261Fearless seems like a promising next step to giving the women’s running boom even more traction.

Of course, when I’m out running with my best running friend, I’m not really thinking about time on the road as a feminist expression or about my own agency as a woman. Not all the time, at least. Much more often, I feel immense gratitude for how this amazing sport has connected me with so many amazing women. And today, I’m especially grateful for Kathrine Switzer, whose entry in the 1967 Boston Marathon defied the expectations of men, like Jock Semple, who said woman couldn’t do what men could. Her successful finish that year—as well as the 9.7 million women who raced in 2016—offers an important rejoinder: Hell yes, we can.

My favorite running picture ever, because it shows my strength and joy, even though I was running alone.

Mike Pence and His (Lack of) Dinner Dates

A social media eruption has recently occurred over Mike Pence’s dinner dates, specifically that his spouse, Karen, reportedly told The Washington Post that Mike never eats alone with another woman or attends a function without her where alcohol is served.

I imagine when Karen revealed this insight about Mike she saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate what an upstanding man her husband is. My guess is that she is surprised that many find this behavior misguided, bizarre, or even misogynistic. And here is where one of our religious fault lines in America raises its head, again.

When I went to seminary in the early 1990s, I entered the evangelical world that Pence in his female-avoidance represents. I remember sitting in a classroom listening to one of my professors (all of them were men) extol his virtuous character because he refused to meet with women behind closed doors. In great detail he explained how he had windows installed in his office so that someone could always corroborate his professional interactions with women. Too, since he could readily be observed, an important safeguard firmly in place, he had successfully eliminated any sexual temptation he might experience being alone with a woman.

While there certainly are important considerations involved in a professor-student relationship, it is the unexamined implications in such a male-centric perspective that deserve more sustained attention.

And so, Pence’s behavior provides us an opportunity to explore this cultural divide where most evangelicals are probably lauding Pence’s dining practice at the same time everyone else who isn’t part of the evangelical culture is wondering what 1950s Leave it to Beaver world has sudden been unleashed on the American public as a whole.

As some have pointed out, Pence’s practice echoes what has often been called the Billy Graham Rule. Originating during a conversation between Graham, the well-known evangelist, and three of his male ministerial friends, they decided the things that tempted them the most were money and sexual immorality. Because they wanted to avoid falling into temptation, they decided to avoid situations where they might succumb to the latter. Hence, don’t eat alone with women.

The reason evangelicals are surprised by the pushback over this revelation is that chivalry toward women is regularly confused with treating women with respect. Many evangelicals think that “protecting” women from the harsh realities of the world demonstrates how much they value women. Of course underlying this assumption is that this is entirely a male perspective. Much like the meeting between Graham and his friends, they extrapolate from their experience, a rule that in their minds applies to all people, regardless of the fact that women are not included except as people to be acted upon. In other words, women are objects, mostly sexual ones. Additionally, in such perspectives, men are sexual animals who cannot be trusted to act appropriately when their male gaze moves to action.

Nevertheless, some evangelicals never acknowledge this important challenge to the culture of chivalry in part because within this world, the comfort of gender roles has been promoted as God’s design for relationships. Such so-called design enables opening of doors and a gentle guiding hand on one’s back, to substitute for the more diligent and difficult work of true equality; equality where sexist structures are identified and addressed.

This is the reason Karen Pence can believe her husband to be a morally impeccable man in how he personally treats women while at the same time disregard that he is serving a president who daily parades his misogyny and who most likely has sexually violated scores of women. Mike is praised because he intentionally avoids the temptation of un-chaperoned mingling with women while at the very same time he is commended for maintaining sexist structures. It is—rightly—a man’s world.