Friday, January 25, 2013

A new kind of feminism?

I grew up in a family of women.  When I was a child, my great-grandmother was still alive, feisty, and living alone in her own home after outliving multiple husbands (and looking for her next mister up until her death at age 93).  She had six daughters and a son, who was the baby of the family.  My grandmother had only my mother, after losing stillborn twins.  My father died when I was five, and my mother's father died when I was in high school, so family get-togethers were a hen house of clucking and cooking and bossing each other around.  Women wore the pants in this matriarchal system, and I didn't realize it could work any other way.

I think I was born a feminist.  I always knew I wanted to work and have a family, and assumed I would have an equal partnership in my marriage (although I figured I would get more of a was, after all, my model).  My mom, the more traditional one in the family, even more so than her elders, tried to teach me about what it meant to be a submissive woman, to let the man be the "head" of the family and to "be sweet" and not always speak what was on my mind.  God bless her heart, she really tried.

We lived in a small town where "traditional" values reigned.  Women did the cooking and stayed home to raise the children, while men did the "hard work" and brought home the bacon (for their women to fry up).  I never felt at home, even though I was born there, and was always pushing at the boundaries that seemed too restrictive.  Perhaps that's why I landed myself in a job that is still the source of contention, an ordained minister in a tradition that still struggles over whether women can be called to pastoral leadership.

But now, I feel torn and uncertain.  Personally, I feel blessed to have found my calling as well as a place that accepts my gifts for ministry and celebrates who I am.  My greatest gift is a husband that is an equal partner (and yes, he does let me get more of a say, probably more than I deserve most times).  I am passionate about raising our children without restrictive gender stereotypes although it is more difficult than I imagined and more worrisome now that my son is in school and begins to learn the lesson of "conform or be ridiculed."  But I worry, too, about a new generation that struggles with a view of feminism that seems to me to be restrictive and impossibly unhealthy.

As a chaplain at an all-girls university, I see these wonderfully bright and strong young women exercising the freedoms that were hard-won by the generations before us.  They are able to freely speak their minds, to debate and protest, and to dream of "having it all"...whatever that means.  They work relentlessly as they have learned from the culture that models the necessity of doing it all.  To be a success, you must be smart, busy, involved, a leader, outspoken, friendly, fierce, competitive, funny, thoughtful, creative, hard-working, reserved, bold, political, current, trustworthy, and a beautiful size zero.  You must work hard to reach the top, even if it means stepping on people to get there.

It seems to me that feminism's greatest gift should be the freedom to choose which path one wants to follow. It should level the playing field so that gender is not an issue that excludes one from following a dream.  Each woman, then, should be able to determine what her dream is and to follow that without criticism.  And yet, we have the "mommy wars" and competitive blogs and Pinterest that make all of us feel inadequate in some way. If we're not doing it all, we're failing. And yet, ironically, we learn that to be successful in one area often means letting go in another.

How my grandmother would have loved to go to college, and she always dreamed of being a teacher.  My mom, however, worked her fingers to the bone at multiple jobs as a single mother with a high school education and a family to raise.  Her greatest unrealized dream was to be able to stay at home to raise her family.  After having the freedom to make my choice (thanks to the sacrifices of my family and the work of many women before me), I feel that everyone should be able to make her own decision.

Let us dream the dreams inside of us, and not the ones the world tries to hand us.  If you aim for success in the workforce, go for it, and may the sisterhood of women support you on your way up.  If you long to be a stay at home mother, you have my respect.  May you find your way to peace and have pride in your work.  Listen to the voice inside, and the voices of your family and know that you are enough and don't have to "measure up" to any standard that someone else has set.  If you aim to find a way to balance both, you should be entitled to do so.  With courage, strength, and flexibility, it is possible, although sometimes it means altering your expectations.

One of the greatest strongholds preventing women from advancing is, sadly, the church.  It was born out of a patriarchal system that has not evolved to meet the changing times (likely due to the lack of women in leadership positions).  Although Jesus had female disciples, spoke to women from the cross, and appeared to them first with the good news of his resurrection, women have been told that we have to stand behind, be silent, and be involved, but not lead.  Women have been trapped in abusive relationships under the commandment to be submissive to the men in their lives.  I can't believe that the God of love, the God who created man and woman side by side to be helpers for one another, intended this.  I can't doubt the voice of God that called me, yes me, to be a minister, and who brought me together with such a kind, supportive, loving man to be my husband and partner.

I look forward to hearing more as this conversation and movement begins, as we explore and redefine what it means to be a feminist today, and what roles we carry as women.  One of my favorite writers, Sarah Bessey, is working on a book entitled Jesus Feminist.  For some, the title sounds like an oxymoron, but I have hope that we can all grow as we begin to explore and redefine women's roles and contributions in this new age.


  1. I loved this blog post, Jenny. It's so relevant and so important. I definitely agree that feminism does not necessarily mean going out and obtaining a position as a CEO. Feminists can desire to be a stay at home mom and be just as fulfilled. Feminism, for me, is all about support. (No pun intended. Haha.)

  2. Jenny, I always enjoy your blog! Beth Reads it regularly. I'm really proud of you and what you do for all of those young women! What a mentor you must be!!

  3. Jenny, I always enjoy your blog! Beth Reads it regularly. I'm really proud of you and what you do for all of those young women! What a mentor you must be!!