On being female

IMG_7120Having come out of a subculture that was obsessed with modesty of both dress and speech, it took me many years to express interest in men I liked. Looking back, I can see clearly at least three instances where I was attracted to someone who liked me back, yet I refused to flirt, refused to show any interest beyond extremely subtle signs that apparently fell by the wayside. I thought showing restraint (and basically nothing but restraint) was the right thing to do. Two out of three of these men decided I wasn’t into them and married someone else within the year.

So thinking back over all this, it is unsurprising for me to realize that in traditional Christian culture, the two sides of being female are presented starkly as virgin/whore: Mary, the chaste, the untouched; and conversely, Mary Magdalene, the one used by men to her own detriment. As the whore, Mary is bad but somewhat ambiguous; she may be the seductress or she may be the abused; she is either wicked or having something wicked done to her — or perhaps both. She becomes Christian by reforming her ways and presumably acting like the Virgin Mary. The two extremes: virgin/whore; good/bad; which category do you fit into?

Although motherhood is often celebrated in the church, there is no divine imagery of the mother or motherhood in Christendom. Mary comes closest, but Protestants tend to downplay her and Catholics focus on her perpetual virginity. The Perfect Wife is described in Proverbs 31 with a wide variety of characteristics, but Protestants name her above all things virtuous, the Puritan Goodwife who presumably also puts out because it’s her duty. Catholics are bit less prudish about it: they translated the word as valiant: “For who can find a valiant woman? Her price is far above rubies.”

As for the woman who is strong and sure of herself, sure of her power apart from what anyone else says about her, the Bible gives us Jezebel, who was so wicked she ended up cast from a window, her blood eaten by dogs. A Christian friend of mine recently confessed to me that she really liked Jezebel, whose only crime, she says, was staying loyal to the religion she was raised in after being married off to a foreigner.

A few thousand years past the Bronze Age, there are many in this country who still aspire to Biblical gender roles. However, to get a good picture of the lives of Biblical-era females, look no farther than the headlines Orthodox Jewish males have made over their refusal to sit next to women on airplanes. Women weren’t even allowed in the synagogue in Biblical times; that was reserved for men; men alone read the Torah. Women were innately contaminating; they were kept off to the side in the Women’s Court and well out of sight while the Torah was read.

But in spite of this negative heritage, in spite of having the virgin/whore dichotomy stamped into my psyche in a variety of ways, I read what I choose and I go where I please. Now I am strong, sure of myself, apart what anyone says about me — or at least I aspire to be. I say what I mean directly, to the people I directly wish to address, a far more compassionate route to the males of my environs. This means that I say yes when I want to say yes as much as it means I say no when I want to say no. And vice versa. This has taken some practice, and will for a long time. Though screeching to get attention and reactionary dithering have no place in my vocabulary, shamefaced wallflowering doesn’t either.

Because of this, I am more self-assured than I have been before. Now I am strong with a dark ferocity, and I will protect myself and those I love. I am strong with laughter in the daylight, my body is strong through use, my mind is strong and demanding. I am feminine, I am slight, but my spirit is unflinching. Many have tried to push me into the mire and have failed. To them my best vengeance is to rise, to show them I have endured their humiliations more graciously than they themselves have. I am not invincible but my triumph is invincible.

I am woman. Hear me roar.

IMG_7117

It’s a basically-accepted fact that the most dangerous thing known to woman is man. There are two extreme temptations here: claim that the only antidote to this is more man, or that the only antidote is avoiding all men. Both, when examined, are patently ridiculous. Saudi Arabia hasn’t solved rape by insisting that women need to be chaperoned everywhere by honor-bound male relatives. And short of becoming a recluse, it’s impossible to actually avoid men altogether.

One News Years Eve several years ago, three friends and I decided to go watch the fireworks on the Champs Elysees. We were in Paris, and this seemed like the obvious choice. After midnight, however, this very quickly devolved into us finding ourselves in the middle of a crowd of maltov-cocktail throwing revelers whose first choice in entertainment appeared to be trying to grope females in the crowd. Namely, us. They appeared to think we were tacitly agreeing to this by being in their midst. We quickly came up with the plan of linking arms, all four of us, and marching down the street aggressively in search of a café. This did not deter the gropers, however, until I started hurling curse words at every man who came within two feet of us. Then, aggrieved, offended, they backed away, hands in the air. All shreds of tacit agreement dissolved into the chaos and the broken glass of midnight.

The great irony is that one of these women is related to Doug Wilson, who insists on male protection to avoid harassment. But he and his family, thousands of miles away, were impotent in this situation — so much for male protection. The protection we got came from our solidarity and my nasty, loud, female mouth. My knowledge of French curse words, French culture, French accent; I came across as a pissed-off local who would raise hell. Not a lost, easily-preyed upon American.

The first line of defense against rape is not men, particularly not the men who are statistically most likely to do the molesting — take note, statistically, rape victims are assaulted in their own homes by people they know more than any other single place or group of people.

So the first line of defense is you. It’s your voice. Your loudness. Your insistence that you will tell the truth. You screaming for attention instead of playing it safe and polite. It’s also your community, your female friends, your male friends — whoever stands with you against the crowd. Whoever comes along to link arms in the night. I tell this to my nieces, too, when they express concern about bad guys: your voice is a powerful weapon. If you are in danger, if you are afraid, use it. Call for help. Do not be quiet. If they say you must be quiet, they are lying.

In Paris, the four of us found a café, and then we sat on the banks of the Seine and made up songs about our evening. I still get texts from one of these friends, every New Year: bonne annee, the salutation of every man who tried to touch us. I can laugh about it, because I was loud. I was loud, and they retreated.

I am a woman. I will raise my voice when the need arises.

 

Photos are of Madaleine Sorkin in Krabi, Thailand — far and away the best climber, male or female, I’ve ever met. 

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12 thoughts on “On being female

  1. Very nice and strong piece. Yes, in my mind I am as feisty and clear as you, but by way of christian coding sadly find myself stuck, frozen, unable to act when indecently approached by man. Silence is consent, apparently, and speaking up for your needs makes you bossy and a bitch. It takes a lot of power to retrain oneself after growing up being told to listen to anyone older and any man. Older men by that rule are the ones to always obey to and when attracted to older men as I am, I’ve been hurt because I could not feel entitled to speak against them. I feel you.

  2. Right on! Mousiness in the face of unwanted advances is completely counterproductive. I would argue that rather than Jezebel, Deborah is a good example of a Biblical woman who is strong and sure of herself apart from what anyone says about her. And that blather about her only getting her job as God’s judment on all the weenie men around is a bunch of convoluted hooey. If you go read the book of Judges, she was actually the best of the whole lot and her rule resulted in 40 years of peace. If she was what God’s judgment looks like, maybe the Israelites should have asked for even more retribution and not even worried about that repenting stuff.

  3. What a beautiful post Katie, thank you so much for writing it. In 1975 my three little girls attended a day camp where they all learned to sing “I Am Woman.” Perhaps some would think it was silly to hear three little girls twelve, ten and six proudly belting out:

    “You can bend but never break me
    ‘Cause it only serves to make me
    More determined to achieve my final goal
    And I come back even stronger
    Not a novice any longer
    ‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul”

    but they (and I) believed it then and believe it to this day that those words are true and empowering My husband and I have the pleasure (and frankly, the pride) of raising three gifted, strong women who make a difference in this world every day. They have in turn raised strong daughters and sons. Young women must never have limits placed on their gifts and ambitions. It is not that they, or anyone, can achieve all they may hope for but that they must never allow anyone to put them aside simply because they are women.

    Rose Huskey

  4. Long time reader, first time commenting. I was in the Christ Church/NSA community for about 5 years, and while I am grateful for my time there, I have really appreciated your analysis of some of the community’s unhealthy trends.

    I just wanted to make a few comments about Biblical woman. You seem to be implying that there aren’t very many strong, Biblical women (and that the few we do have, like Jezebel, are wicked). Oftentimes, Christians have omitted, downplayed, and misinterpreted the Bible’s female characters, but I don’t think the problem is in the text. In fact, the Bible is one of the main reasons I take issue with certain aspects of patriarchy. For example, I don’t believe that God’s will is only communicated to husbands…because of what I see in the Bible. Most of the matriarchs in Genesis (esp. Sarah and Rebekah) seem to have a much better idea of God’s will than their husbands do. In fact, God even has to tell Abraham at one point,“Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.” (Gen. 21:12)

    I get frustrated when people seem to think that they have to pick between loving strong women and loving the Bible. That’s a false dichotomy. There are plenty of strong women in the Bible: Deborah, Jael, Abigail, Miriam, Jochebed, Esther, Ruth, the woman in the Song of Songs (who speaks more often than the man), Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the many women Paul mentions in his epistles, to name a few.

    Speaking of Mary Magdalene, you’ve also hit upon one of my pet peeves: the conflation of all the Marys in the NT as “Mary Magdalene, the prostitute.” In the Gospels, we read about the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet, the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus pardoned, the Mary who eschewed housework to study with Jesus (my personal hero), and Mary Magdalene, who had seven demons, and who was the first witness to the resurrection. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that all these women were conflated into Mary Magdalene, but again–that’s not in the text. It annoys me, because it takes a handful of amazing women, who all deserve their own attention, and reduce them to simply one. This also doesn’t help the impression that there are only a few strong women in the Bible.

    One thing that may or may not surprise you about Kirk culture is that being a feisty/rude woman is actually encouraged in some ways. There is a legendary story about one of Doug Wilson’s daughter (as a teenager) throwing an ice cream come in the face of a guy who said something forward and then spanked her. It may be hard to see how that coheres with their emphasis on masculine protection, but I think it’s something like this: if you were the type of girl who could stand up for herself, it was fine not to use your dad’s protection. (Like, a girl could just tell an interested guy “no,” rather than say “you have to talk to my dad.”) But if you *weren’t* naturally able to stand up for yourself, the solution was to go to the good men in your life (if not dad, then pastor, etc.) who were willing to stand up for you. Frankly, I think this is an issue of pragmatics more than misogyny for them. If a girl can’t stand up for herself, they’d rather her be protected, even if it means coddling her a little. I tend to live in an idealistic world, where every girl will be empowered to know and to speak her own mind.

    I tend to not get involved in these discussions, but I thought I could offer some nuance to this issue. Thanks for all your interesting and informative posts!

    Tara

    1. Tara, thanks for taking the time to write all of that. I truly appreciate it.

      I don’t doubt that women in the CREC are encouraged in some ways to be loud where outsiders are involved. I’ve seen it. The danger, however, is rarely from outsiders. It’s from those in “authority” over them, from “upstanding” men close to them, and therein lies the rub. In these cases, I’ve never seen a CREC women be loud and get away with it. Of course, many, many people have pointed out that the CREC doesn’t tolerate abuse from enemies; all weapons are allowed where outsiders are concerned. But that’s not really in question. It’s never been the question. The CREC (or, at least, Christ Church) is so adamant on drawing lines along their party loyalties, they sincerely have trouble seeing glaring problems in their own midst.

      1. Yes, I was mostly thinking of outsiders (going off your story about Paris). I’d say young women at CC/NSA are also encouraged to stand up to the younger (insider) men, especially those who are interested in them. If I had said, “I’m not going to give that guy a ride because he gives me the creeps,” I’m sure I would have been supported in that decision, even if I couldn’t give an exact reason–and even if he was well-liked by everyone else. But yes, when push comes to shove, I think there is a tendency to side with the person who is more accepted by the community. And that may be gendered, though I have noticed that men who openly dissent often don’t “get away with it” either. There is a deep respect for authority in the community, which can definitely go awry sometimes.

        A similar thing can happen with father-directed courtships—family loyalties can be so strong that a couple may never discuss a question like, “What mistakes did your dad make when you were growing up?” (It would be especially egregious, I think, for a young man to bring up this question, as that would probably be seen as challenging authority and/or “getting around” the dad. But family-of-origin questions are so important to ask when you’re trying to decide whether to build a marriage with someone!)

      2. I find myself wondering if this feistiness isn’t cultivated on purpose to show the outside world that their patriarchal stuff isn’t what people expect. I read a blog post by a daughter of Doug Wilson who said that her father taught all the girls not to take anything off anybody, and especially not off ‘some man.’ I don’t at all see how that can be realistically balanced with Wilson’s insistence on submission to male authority, especially the extreme submission he advocates in marriages, but I can see that it gives the girls permission to display spunky behavior in some situations. Now that I think of it, evangelicalism has a liking for the perky, spunky, yet somehow still submissive woman.

  5. Tara, you are right that Moscow does not divide its freedoms along gender lines, exactly. If you are supportive of the overall approach and agenda of the Kirk, you have a voice, male or female. If not, your voice becomes more and more marginalized and called into question. Moscow tends to suppose that the solution for women’s woes is always a better functioning patriarchy (and the corollary — that if a woman is under attack her patriarchal covering must be malfunctioning). This is why the Greenfield saga played out like it did. Natalie suffered, so they had to assume Gary must have been failing as a father. Gary had left the Kirk team by that point, so his voice was already mostly inaudible. Katie’s point applies very nicely to both Natalie and to Gary: the best defense for a woman (or a man, for that matter) will not be the hierarchical structure when the structure is already compromised or absent, as it so often is. It will be to raise, and persist in raising, a voice.

  6. Good job speaking up for yourself and your friends. The idea of women as needing male protection at all times is foreign to me as a Catholic. Judith is one of my favorite Old Testament women, as is the unnamed martyred mother with seven sons in 2 Maccabees. We also have a strong tradition of admiring/looking up to our big brothers and sisters the saints, including many mothers like St. Monica, Blessed Queen Blanche, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Gianna Molla and St. Zelie Martin. We also look up to a lot of strong independent women like St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Joan of Arc, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, and many others. We (hopefully) recognize the “feminine genius” that women bring to the world. We do look up to Mary and honor her as Jesus’ mother who received unique graces and was the first Christian, but there is a long line of smart, strong, valiant Catholic women to look to as well who lived out their lives in a variety of ways. I hope that you discover some of these women and draw inspiration from them.

  7. “A Christian friend of mine recently confessed to me that she really liked Jezebel, whose only crime, she says, was staying loyal to the religion she was raised in after being married off to a foreigner.”

    Um she also hunted Moses and killed a man to get his vineyard.

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