Advice for women in theological places

/ 12 April 2019

I think this piece for The Concord was from 2016:

Our understanding of gender is changing and transforming, and is clearly much more than a dualism, but for now, in theological settings, I feel like we are still mostly stuck in a “male/female” dichotomy. Given that reality, the advice that has come to me from women over the years has been very important because it has drawn me into a circle of empowering relationship that stretches through time, both into the past and towards the future.

The first thing these women have taught me is that religious communities – and hence religious meaning-making – are permeated with sexism. Much of that sexism is deeply rooted in misogyny, which is more than one woman, or even large groups of women and men together, can change in a generation. Unlike some feminists, I believe that the theological concept of original sin is useful here, particularly if you keep a feminist consciousness handy. That is, we are born into a system of profound brokenness over which we have no individual control but beyond which Christ invites us into liberating relationality. We need to acknowledge that sexism exists, and with God’s grace we can resist it.

The second thing women have taught me is that sexism is only one of a number of intersecting systems of oppression. For me that has meant that knowing the deep pain of sexism means I cannot ignore or disbelieve the experiences of people who suffer in our systems of racial oppression, of economic inequalities, of ableism, and so on. I could share story after story of the painful ways in which sexism has impacted my life as a theologian who is a woman. That pain drives me to listen for — and more urgently, to hear — the stories of people who also suffer from systemic forms of oppression.

Having been silenced, ignored, treated disrespectfully, deliberately refused access, and so on because I am a woman also makes me doubly committed to fighting racism. Having been on the receiving end of the sharp stick of one form of oppression, while benefiting from another (that is, racialization), means that I try very hard not to be in denial about my white privilege, or the ease of access that comes with being a US citizen. I hate it when men refuse to hear women. I do not want to be that white woman who refuses to hear of my own racism, let alone recognize that of a society that has been systemically structured to reward white people.

That brings me to the third thing that women over the years have taught me: see the systems. It is all too easy to fall into believing that what is happening to you is happening only to you, or only because of you. Consciousness-raising is a part of every movement which struggles against injustice. God calls us into community, into deep relationality, and when you put yourself at the foot of the cross, when you share God’s body in the Eucharist, you open yourself up to that relationality. I love the serenity prayer – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” – because seeing systems is hard, and figuring out what to do once you see them is even harder.

“Trust, but verify” was an old Russian saying that came into use in the Reagan era around nuclear disarmament, but I feel like it could be said of many systems. In any given instance, is it sexism that is causing people to act as they have acted? Or is it something that I bear responsibility for? Or is it a bit of both? I try very hard to always put a generous spin on what I observe, but there are times when the group doing discernment with me has helped me to see that the woman I thought was helping me was actually maneuvering to help herself to my disadvantage. I was deeply frustrated, for instance, by Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “lean in,” because it was advice that refused to acknowledge her embeddedness in systems that privileged her (as a white person, as a person of economic power, as a person from the US). Acting on her advice when you do not have those privileges can be particularly dangerous.

Bluntly stated: don’t assume support from other women, and remember that sometimes your best support may come from men. Discerning which is the reality has to be done in community.

And that is the fourth thing I learned with and through and from the women who have taught me over the years: develop intentional networks of support. Parker Palmer calls this kind of support a “circle of trust.” Some of my most profound learning has happened in groups of women who came together intentionally and lovingly. It was my mother and the women in the Women’s Show of Oshkosh, Wisconsin (a community improvisational theater group) who woke me up to the reality and consequences of sexism. It was the New Haven Women’s Center board who drew me into embodied activism. It was my mother-in-love and the Women’s Theology Circle of Columbus, Ohio who sent me off to graduate studies. And now there are groups of women who continue to empower and sustain me in the midst of my work as a theologian and educator.

I do not believe you can be a pastoral leader by yourself. And as a woman you must find ways to discern amidst intersecting systems of oppression, what you can actually do in a given situation. The best articulation I’ve found of how to do that comes from Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan. They suggest approaching any situation with an eye to learning deeply from it by telling yourself the following:

  • There is probable merit to my perspective.
  • My perspective may not be accurate.
  • There is some coherence, if not merit, to the other person’s perspective.
  • There may be more than one legitimate interpretation.
  • The other person’s view of my viewpoint is important information to my assessing whether I am right or identifying what merit there is to my view.
  • Our conflict may be the result of the separate commitments each of us hold, including commitments we are not always aware we hold.
  • Both of us have something to learn from the conversation.
  • We need to have two-way conversation to learn from each other.
  • If contradictions can be a source of our learning, then we can come to engage not only internal contradictions as a source of learning but interpersonal contradictions (i.e., “conflict”) as well.
  • The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and the other as meaning makers. (Lahey&Kegan, How the way we talk can change the way we work, Jossey-Bass 2001, 141).

This kind of advice makes it possible to resist “curving in upon yourself,” while at the same time not internalizing the insidious messages of sexism our cultures offer to us.

I want to conclude by sharing an insight from one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, which resonates for me deeply with the Gospel: “All that you touch you change, all that you change, changes you.”