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.

A (New) Theology of Yoga Pants

I am convinced that God created yoga pants.

Because really, there’s nothing better than coming home after a hard day at the office, or even an hour or two at church or some other taxing social function, and slipping into a soft, comfortable pair of yoga pants. When I get home, changing into yoga pants or pajamas is the first thing I do, because I can only be dressed up for so long. And by dressed up, I mean wearing anything other than yoga pants or pajamas.

So yes, I’m pretty sure yoga pants are part of God’s grand design, and had they been available for Eve in the garden, she surely would have chosen them over a fig leaf to hide her nakedness.

Turns out, though, yoga pants are getting a bad rap among some evangelicals these days, because apparently they drive men toward lustful thinking. Even more, yoga pants advertise you as “For Sale: Cheap.” At least according to a “Theology of Yoga Pants” now making the rounds in social networking.

Written on the site “The Dad Life,” this particular theology runs through the tired arguments about what women wear, the “different wiring” men have that makes them uncontrollable sex fiends, and the responsibility of women to guard the hearts of men who will look at their yoga-pants-covered butts and think immediately about sex.

Why yoga pants per se get the theological treatment in this essay isn’t entirely clear. The writer describes yoga pants (tight and black, because “black is slimming you know”), and admits that under a tunic or long shirt, yoga pants are great. But, if a woman reveals an “uncovered rear,” she is “pleading with every man in eye shot to check out [her] backside.”

He then explains “what women cannot understand,” which is that every man is looking at her butt when she wears yoga pants. Not just every man, but every Christian man. And older men, too. (“Think grandpa . . . eww” the article tells us.)

Yoga pants are thus to be worn only for one’s husband, in the privacy of one’s home, else you are inviting lustful thoughts, even from guys well past their prime. You don’t want that, do you? Single people, by the way, appear to be out of luck: you got no husband? No yoga pants for you.

Like every other apology for modesty culture, the Theology of Yoga Pants makes women into temptresses, their every act—even wearing comfortable pants—an occasion to cause others to sin. As problematic, this ideology makes men into sex-crazed beasts, always giving into their “basest desires,” as if they cannot help but lust when they see women wearing black exercise pants.

But this particular writer takes the modesty argument one step further, suggesting that older women who wear yoga pants are especially egregious in doing so. In his mind, women have only about 40 years of potential “stunning physical attraction.” (Making me wonder, of course, if my 40 years are yet to come.) A woman who has worn yoga pants, calling attention to her physical form, is setting herself up for failure, because our bodies will become pudgy, our skin will grow wrinkled, the butts we were inclined to show will someday sink to our calves. We’re screwed, essentially, and if we’ve had men only looking at our bodies, when we’re old, they will not be able to see the beautiful souls that might exist beneath muscles and sinew and black lycra.

To which I say what the heck? And, to be honest, a few things I can’t really utter on a public blog.

Because here’s the thing: I’ve been working out at a gym for almost a year now, and I’ve noticed that almost all of the women there wear those insidious black yoga pants or tights (which I imagine are the satanic counterparts to yoga pants). Many of the women at the gym are around my age, which means—I suppose—that our bodies are wearing out, our “perfect curves are beginning to sag,” our worth is fading, leaving us with presumably empty vessels no one will appreciate. According to the “yoga pants theology” writer, we should be hiding our bodies in shame, hoping that people will then be able to see the beautiful souls residing beneath.

This assertion is especially puzzling to me, because when I see these women working out, I don’t see sagging bodies or that which is “quickly fading away.” I see something else entirely: women celebrating the amazing bodies they’ve been given. I see people created in God’s very image, undeserving of any condemnation heaped on them for making the choice to be comfortable when they exercise.

Now, maybe I see women in yoga pants this way because, according to the writer, I am simply “wired differently” and because, as a woman, I “DO NOT THINK like a man” (emphasis his).

Or maybe, just maybe, I understand women in yoga pants differently because I happen to believe women are also created in God’s image, and because of this, we should celebrate our bodies in all their beautifully perfect imperfections—rather than covering them up because they might seem a temptation to every walking man on this earth.

But that’s just me.

I certainly believe God knows yoga pants are comfortable; but God also knows that bodies created in God’s image are holy and deserving of praise.

(As an aside, I do not believe God created those very expensive yoga pants made by a deplorable company whose shoddy products were in the news a lot last year. God has better fiscal sense than that.)

Cedarville University: Where Women teaching Men is Off-Limits

Like most teachers I know the beginning of any semester finds me filled with excitement and anxiety. I’m thrilled by the prospects of new opportunities for learning and discovery and I’m equally anxious that perhaps I have not planned well enough, or that I’ve chosen a textbook that will be all wrong, or that in my zest to try something new, I will have created the world’s worst assignment and all of my students will waste no time posting how terrible I am on Rate My Professor.com.

And while most of us experience these contrasting feelings, I imagine my level of anxiety might be higher than most because of the unique challenges I had when teaching introductory Bible courses for several years at a Christian university.

I still remember my first—and very painful—day in Introduction to the Bible although I’d be thrilled to forget it.

Fresh from an across-the-country move where I had taught Bible courses at two universities and in both cases had used not only standard introductory texts but also the widely-accepted New Revised Standard Version Bible, I was ill-prepared for the landmine that I stepped in that first day. Despite all of my diligent planning, I had failed to anticipate the level of animosity that would soon to be aimed at me for having violated the sacred place of the New International Version of the Bible in the evangelical world. I had obviously chosen the wrong text.

But that wasn’t the extent of my errors. The other was that I was a woman—a woman teaching the Bible—and that violated the evangelical ethos, too, although in a much more sinister way. Many students spent the entire semester trying to outsmart me by asking unrelated questions and since I was the new female professor in a department otherwise composed of men, I patiently answered each one, affirming my students’ supposed interests. Until finally one day a courageous young man came to my office to confess he, along with several others, had only been hoping to catch me off-guard, to make me feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed.

So, it is with a fair degree of empathy that I wonder what life must be like for the lone female professor in the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio. This Christian university has recently experienced brouhaha over gender roles and how those supposed ideals should be replicated at the university. The dust-up has apparently resulted in some faculty leaving (including at least one other woman from the Biblical and Theological Department) and restrictions that ensure no male students will be taught by the one remaining woman.

Even more than my empathy for a marginalize professor, though, I worry about the students and the messages they are learning from their university. They have seen first-hand how to discredit and dismiss women because of their gender. They have witnessed how to employ tools the majority enjoys to further reduce the minority among them. They have learned how to utilize religion to extend the prevalence of sexism. And, perhaps, worst of all, they no longer have the opportunity to be challenged by a different perspective.

Many will dismiss Cedarville and its shift to the right as simply the craziness of American fundamentalism, an illustration of just how bizarre some juxtapositions can seem: an institution of higher learning stipulating men can only learn about religion from other men, hardly a viable example of the kind of critical thinking most post-secondary institutions claim is paramount to a successful career in today’s global world.

On the other hand, Cedarville may not be so far removed from numerous evangelical universities where complementarian assumptions are not enforced per se, but where a culture of polite sexism continues to thrive beneath the surface. Women, like me, may be invited to join the ranks of religion professors and there may be female chaplains and even some women in administrative positions. Overall, however, many evangelical institutions have still failed to examine how their easy acceptance of patriarchy continues to foster the sin of sexism.

For these universities progressing to the next step of true equality will require diligent and genuine listening to the experiences and theologies of women. These, if truly fostered, will be difficult because they will involve taking seriously the extent to which the Bible is a problematic text.

Cedarville clearly isn’t positioning itself to do this but I have great hope for evangelical universities to move in a different direction. You see, the young man who admitted his error in trying to discourage me is now working for justice in a university (coincidentally, in Ohio) and I know he is a champion for women and for inclusive theology.

Change is coming!

When “Acting Like a Boy” Gets You Expelled

This week in the world of Christian craziness, stories about the death of Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps brought lots of responses, some—including this one by Marg Herder—expressing far more grace than I ever could for a man who picketed veterans’ funerals, letting mourners know that “God Hates Fags.” A few days later, the online evangelical conversation turned to the decision by World Vision to allow gays and lesbians in married relationships the opportunity to work for the non-profit organization, with various bloggers responding in ways I found hopeful and depressing.

But while these important events made me a little sad and cynical and also willing to Try Harder and Be Better, this smallest of stories—reported in several of the news outlets I follow—made my heart break. An eight-year-old girl named Sunnie Kahle was deemed unfit to continue attending her private Christian school because she had short hair, wore “boyish” clothes, and enjoyed playing outside.

My heart broke, because I was that girl. (And maybe still am.)

I didn’t get kicked out of Christian schools, but my preferences for short hair, boys’ clothes, and playing sports made me an easy target for bullies. I looked like a boy—or what we assume a boy should look like—and was often chased out of women’s restrooms for trespassing. To this day, it’s hard for me to walk into a public restroom without worrying that someone will tell me I don’t belong there.

When I announced to peers that I wanted to play football, they laughed at me, because of course girls didn’t do things like that. I chaffed against wearing dresses to church, and my mom fielded phone calls from church ladies, letting her know I needed to change. My mom, bless her, allowed me to wear pants. I hated home economics, and wanted to take shop, but that was for boys. Several teachers told me I was too opinionated (. . . for a girl, was the clear subtext).

So my heart breaks for Sunnie Kahl, who apparently loved her Christian school, or at least her friends there, and who reportedly cries every night, wanting to go back. My heart breaks because I know the shame of people interrogating you, wondering aloud whether you are a girl or a boy, letting everyone know you are somehow odd or different. I also know what it’s like to have other people judge you because you don’t fit their expectations for what a girl should act or be like.

In a letter to Sunnie Kahle’s grandparents, who have adopted and are raising her, the school says “students have been confused about whether Sunnie is a boy or girl and [the letter] specifies that administrators can refuse enrollment for condoning sexual immorality, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.” The letter also argues that they have made this decision based on “biblical standards.”

Like a lot of assertions made by the crazier components of Christiandom, I’m not entirely sure what “biblical standards” Timberlake Christian is addressing, but the assumptions in their letter, and the small-mindedness, and the ignorance, and the hatefulness, makes me think they are reading a different Bible than am I.

Although I couldn’t ever live up to expectations about society expected of girls (and especially of female preacher’s children), my parents also never expected me to change; they allowed me to be who I wanted to be, Wrangler jeans, tennis shoes, feisty opinions and all. This no doubt saved me from a lifetime of trying to squeeze in to some kind of “biblical standard” box unfit for me: though of course I still try at times, wanting to be what society tells me I should be.

I have thrived because of my family, and because of my marriage to a husband who loves me as I am, knowing full well my limited domestic skills and my impatience with high heels and a zillion other things a supposed “real woman” should cherish. And I’ve thrived because of friends, both in my childhood and now, who don’t shame me into being someone I’m not, and who help encourage me to be the person God intended me to be.

I hope the same for Sunnie Kahle: that she will find people who love her for who she is, and not because she follows some “biblical standard” for femininity existing only in the minds of small-hearted Christians, who cannot abide a girl who looks and acts a little different than what is expected.

(Another news story, published after I wrote this post, reports that a girl in Grand Junction, Colo., has been kicked out of school for shaving her head as part of the St. Baldrick campaign to fight childhood cancer. Bald heads on girls = not acceptable. Gratefully, the school has changed its policy.)

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My eighth grade basketball picture and Sunnie Kahle, both of us no doubt happy being just who we were meant to be.

 

 

 

Women’s History Month: The Real Challenge of HerStory

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I vividly remember my day in Wittenburg, Germany. My husband and I had taken the train from Berlin in order to see the sights connected with the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Oh, sure, most people who travel to Wittenburg are there to learn about Martin Luther, to stand at the church door where he nailed his 95 Theses, which rather than leading to profitable theological conversation, eventually resulted in his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church and subsequently into hiding.

But I had made this pilgrimage to learn more about Katharina von Bora, Luther’s eventual wife who previously was a nun before leaving the convent after hearing about Luther’s views on God and the church. Who was she, I wondered, as I toured Lutherhaus, the home she later ran with skilled attention and keen oversight once she and Luther married?

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A statue in her honor has been placed outside of the family home and many exhibits throughout praise Katharina for her work: apparently she knew how to stretch a lean budget; entertain endless house guests; raise several children; all while supporting the man we credit with changing the course of Christian history.

Like Hannah Anderson who recently wrote on Her.meneutics that we have a lot to gain from knowing about women who have traveled this road before us, I, too, think understanding our past is invaluable. Realizing the part Katharina von Bora played in the Reformation not only humanizes Martin, who tends to be viewed as a hero who did no wrong it also calls attention to the fact that movements for change require people working together, each doing what is necessary irrespective of social norms or theological assumptions.

Learning about women’s lives is critical to providing a fuller picture of our shared history, helping us to see previous lives more accurately.

But this is just the first step in valuing the experiences of women, experiences that frequently go unnoticed. Once we bring women’s lives into our assessment of our past—and, indeed our present and future—we must confront a second necessary shift in our thinking.

In giving attention to the stories of women, people will soon discover, like Hannah points out, the gender debates are older than we have imagined. But more to the point, women throughout the history of the church have often called into question patriarchal assumptions and theologies. Learning about women means we, too, must look squarely in the eyes of Christianity’s misogyny. From Mary Magdalene to Perpetua, from the Beguines to Hildegard of Bingen, from Katharina von Bora to Sarah Grimké, women’s lives require us to reconsider everything we thought we knew about our faith tradition.

If the lives of women before us are to be truly instructive we must take up the radical task that Rita Gross, a scholar of women and religion, proposes: own as our birthright the responsibility of naming reality.

Mary Daly once suggested that the Genesis narrative—when Adam named other species including his partner, Eve—illustrates how completely patriarchy has taken the power of identity away from women. In doing so, male experience became normative while women’s experiences were discounted as inaccurate or secondary.

In response to Daly, Gross argues for the fundamental shift that must occur for religions to move beyond their patriarchal bias. Women must recover the right to bring our experiences back into focus as trustworthy and meaningful.

Can you begin to imagine how Christianity might be re-envisioned if women took this claim seriously? How would our faith be different if it had not been transferred to us in male-only experience and terminology?

It turns out, knowing HerStory requires more than knowledge. It calls for a commitment to work for justice beginning with owning our power and right to name.

This Girl Hates Math: Is That So Wrong?

mathcantdoitMy eldest son turned twelve last week. Back in 2002, when we were spending languorous days in Vietnam waiting for his paperwork, I could not imagine how quickly the last twelve years would go. Or that the days of diapers and bottles and middle-of-the-night feedings are a distant, distant memory. Or that he would develop so swiftly into the funny, creative person he’s become.

Or that, one day, I would struggle to help him complete his math homework.

Several years ago, there were signs that math homework would soon be an issue. In fourth grade, when the boys started doing story problems, I flailed about for solutions to a few equations. On at least one occasion, the answers I helped Benjamin reach turned out to be flat wrong. So the teacher said.

My kids are both doing algebra now—simple algebra, presumably—and I am completely over my head. When they ask for help in the evenings, or to even to have me check their answers, I generally 1) look at their work, and 2) feel an immediate sense of dread and exhaustion, and 3) suggest trying their dad for guidance. If Ron is away, I tell them to wait until dad gets home, to go watch TV or something.

And then I flog myself, just a little, for the message I’m sending my boys for being exactly like the “I hate math” Barbie, but without the kickin’ body and bendy legs. I also feel like I might as well go out and buy the entire lot of “Girls are Bad at Math” t-shirts, one for each day of the week.math is hard

This is not the message I want to send to my boys, that girls are inherently bad at math. I’m bad at math because I’m bad at math, not because I’m a girl. Or, woman.

So what do you do when it turns out you fit gender stereotypes, the ones you try so hard to defy, just to prove that they are only stereotypes, after all? How do I help my boys learn that I like baking, not because I have a uterus, but because I like baking (and, really, just eating all kinds of dough)? How do my boys learn that their dad is analytical, into statistics, and good at math because God’s given him these gifts, and not because of the chromosomes with which he was born?

Is it possible to carry a feminist card and also teach your boys, even subconsciously by virtue of your own actions, that there are just some things that women can’t do?

Part of me thinks I should just suck it up, sit down with an algebra book, hire a tutor, whatever it takes to understand the math my boys have been assigned. Another, larger part of me thinks I have other things on which I want to spend my time, and figuring out the whatever of x+y=z would truly be soul-sucking for me; and that my creatively-focused mind won’t be able to keep up, especially not when there is high school mathematics yet to come.

I want so badly for my boys to recognize that even though we are all—male and female—created in God’s image, God creates us each uniquely. I also want them to know that God longs for each of us to be all God has created us to be.

The question on my mind right now is, can I teach them these things, truly, and also avoid helping them with their math homework?

What are you reading?

Do you ever get in those phases where you pick up a book and simply cannot put it down?

Well, lately I have been completely taken over by books even though according to John Ensor’s blog post (thanks, Melanie) I probably should have watched more Olympic coverage of pair ice skating so that I can learn the beauty of complementarian marriages.

I have been buried in an Ann Patchett world, devouring her new This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which, by the way isn’t really about marriage but rather is a collection of fascinating non-fiction narratives based upon her life experiences. It was my first Ann Patchett book and I enjoyed it (and her interview on NPR) so much I immediately loaded my Kindle with Truth and Beauty, Patchett’s earlier nonfiction book based upon her intimate friendship with Lucy Grealy (The Autobiography of a Face).

I often do not reflect on why something resonates with me so much as simply that it does—or doesn’t. So, if you press me about why all of this sudden love for Patchett, I probably cannot tell you. Just that for whatever reason, her life spoke to mine and now that I have finished these books, I feel a little lonesome.

Or, I felt that way for a couple of days before I remembered Sue Monk Kidd has just completed a new novel: The Invention of Wings. A story based upon the lives of Sarah Grimké, a vocal advocate against slavery and patriarchy and her slave, Hetty, I am now hooked on this fascinating story. A long-time supporter of Kidd since she took the courage to write about her feminist awakening and how it propelled her away from her patriarchal Christian community into an inclusive feminine spirituality, I also resonate deeply with her life experiences, especially those within the church. Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter is one of the best, most honest books I’ve ever read.

Most likely, you are well ahead of me. You’ve been reading Ann Patchett for years and you probably just saw Sue Monk Kidd on her author tour, maybe even at Powell’s (and if so, I’m jealous).

But, if like me, you haven’t found these literary friends yet, you might just put them on your “must read” list. That is, of course, “must reads” that follow after our book, Meant to Be published by Chalice Press.

About Blogging, Books, and a Little Good News

Most of you probably haven’t noticed, but we have: this blog has been a little more silent in the last month. We can have January to blame, only in part; and whew, thank God the darkest, longest, coldest month of the year is over. Both of us also work full-time jobs, teaching college students, and our paying gigs have seemed especially intense lately: shrinking institutional budgets mean bigger classes and overloads, plus more students and more grading, plus all kinds of other responsibilities we try not to complain about, even though we do.

And it’s not like there’s been nothing to write about lately. Evangelical popular culture continues to churn out ridiculous ways to let women know God’s great plan for them: over on John Piper’s Desiring God site, a writer has been inspired by the Olympics to let his wife know her role (you know, because in ice skating, the man always leads); and one of us has uncovered an entire treasure trove of princess-inspired Sunday school curricula, designed to help little girls become daughters of the king. What Sunday morning isn’t complete without etiquette lessons and tea parties?

But here’s the real reason our blog hasn’t been as active lately, and why we will not be posting as often in the future: we got a book contract (!), now signed, sealed, and delivered to our publisher. We are unbelievably excited to be working with Chalice Press, a publisher who specializes in progressive Christian books. We are also a little daunted, because we need to have our manuscript completed by August 1, and while we have completed some work, there’s still work to be done.

We certainly recognize the vagaries of publishing industry, and that getting a book to market is increasingly difficult, and that we are lucky—in evangelical parlance, blessed even—to have this opportunity. So we’re going to put our heads down and work hard over the next few months to write the best book we can. We may celebrate a little bit first, maybe by grading an essay or two.

Google knows our gender bias

You know how sometimes life feels like you just need to keep plugging away: force one foot in front of the other trusting somehow that at some point you will gain enough momentum to look up and take in the terrain all around you? And the goal is to get your task completed. Do what you need to do and in time you might begin to see how this mundane stuff fits together into something more meaningful or beautiful.

I was reminded of this sort of down in the trenches work of day-to-day living recently when I had my students watch the TED video of Malcolm Gladwell where he retells the David and Goliath story in light of emerging historical clues about David’s armor and weapon, about Acromegaly and battle. One of my students in response to this insight remarked about how surprising it is that as readers we have been surprised by David’s success with his sling shot when we probably should expect him to be accurate and deadly with his weapon of choice. David, after all, had practiced this craft day after day in his care-taking duties of watching and guarding his sheep. A successful shepherd would have had ample practice in warding off prey, animals or otherwise.

This everyday practice of being who we are, of exercising our values in real life moments on a regular basis struck me recently when I read about how a study of parental Google searches discovered the majority of searches are for boys who are intellectually gifted or girls who are not as pretty and/or petite as parents would like them to be. According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz there is a clear gender bias in Google term searches that cuts across political and cultural geography. In his research, Stephens-Davidowitz found parents are 2 ½ times more likely to ask “is my son gifted?” than “is my daughter gifted?” Too, parents are twice as likely to ask how to help their daughters (as opposed to their sons) lose weight or 1 ½ times more like to ask whether or not their daughter is beautiful.

What makes this research even more interesting is that there is no legitimate reason for assuming these differences to be true. Girls are not less likely than boys to be gifted. In fact, it may be that girls are more gifted than boys: at least in American schools, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, girls are 11 percent more likely than boys to be in gifted programs.

Likewise, there are no legitimate reasons to assume girls are more overweight than boys; research indicates the reverse more likely is true.

The data is clear: parents show a bias for thinking about their sons’ intellectual abilities and their daughters’ physical appearance. In light of this considerable discrepancy, Stephens-Davidowitz asks, “how would American girls’ lives be different if parents were half as concerned with their bodies and twice as intrigued by their minds?”

It’s a good question to be sure because it asks us for some truthful introspection of our individual values–far beyond just those of parents. This asks each of us what we really hold to when no one (except Google) is looking.