Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Being Female....

This is part of the March Synchroblog

Hmm… I have found this post harder to write than I expected. When I first saw the subject for this month’s synchroblog – All About Eve: Women’s History Month, I was excited. After all, it was a topic I had requested. I thought about it and had my subject all picked out – I was going to de-construct the foundational issue in the patriarchal theology concerning hierarchy. At some point in the future, I may still write about that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my heart is in a different direction right now. I love to dig into theology and all, but there have already been some wonderful things written that deconstruct the ideas surrounding so called ‘biblical patriarchy’. At the bottom of this post, I will put some links for those of you who are interested.

So… what is on my heart? I have struggled with this post more than anything I have ever written. I’m not really sure why. I guess what's bubbling to the surface makes me feel vulnerable. Deep breath…. I am going to try to describe what it is like, for me, to be a woman.

The first thing that comes to mind is that I have never much identified with being a woman. I know that sounds strange. I have always (nearly 50 years) been female. Even typing that feels strange. It has only been recently that I have consciously recognized that I have never gender identified. That is gradually – oh so slowly – beginning to change. So why, during the bulk of my life, when I thought of myself, it was nearly always in terms of gender-neutral? Well… I think there are a lot of reasons.

The most obvious is probably the childhood sexual abuse. When I was a kid – 7, 8, 9 years old, I did not want to be a girl. For awhile, I even wished I was a boy. Boys had all the power. Boys hurt people – girls got hurt. As I built barriers inside to protect myself, especially after the sexual abuse stopped. I had no ability to relate to normal kid things – socially, I didn’t fit and didn’t know how to. And the pressure as you go into Junior High to start dating and liking boys, was confusing and sometimes excruciating. And I knew I wasn’t normal. I knew I would never be normal. And I knew that if anyone knew what had been done to me, I would never be accepted – I would have a ‘reputation’ – I would be pitied at best and rejected as ruined at worst. So, rather than trying to fit into those roles, I simply withdrew into my own world where gender was of no importance.

All of this happened in the late 60s and early 70s. So there was the added pressure of the very public feminist movement – Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. And we went to a fairly conservative small town church. My aunt was a staunch feminist. My mom was critical – no, condescending – toward her. I remember when I was 11 and began to enter puberty, my aunt took me aside and told me I needed to decide, right now, whether I was going to start wearing a bra or not. My mom gave me no such option. My aunt would interrupt in mid sentence to correct from ‘lady’ to ‘woman’. She would go into lecture mode if any man in the public arena called her ‘sweetie’ or ‘sugar’ or some other such word. Hmm…. She would wear bib-overalls with no shirt or bra underneath. She really didn’t inspire me to her cause with these things.

Meanwhile, my mom was above all that ‘feminist nonsense’, as she seemed to view it. I think she felt like it made women look ridiculous, or something. She was definitely not a fan of Friedan or Steinem – and was not shy about expressing her opinion about them. I remember when Billie Jean King challenged Bobby Riggs to a “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. King beat Riggs handily and I remember my mom saying some derogatory things about the match. But I was secretly rooting for King and felt a small sliver of validation when she won…. I was 10 at the time. Hmm… actually, what I felt was more like relief that she had won. Interesting.

This was all in the backdrop of being heavily involved in various Assemblies of God churches (my dad’s job required us to move a lot). I know A of G is supposed to be egalitarian and allowing women to be ordained and all – and the position paper they put out in August of 2010 is very cool – but the reality in my life in the 60s and 70s was that women needed to stay in their place. Maybe this was as much societal as church. I don’t know, but the reality was that no matter which way I looked, TV, family, church… It was just better – more profitable – to be a boy. And I did not want to be pressed into the female mold that I saw, so I retreated from gender as much as was possible. Hmm… when I was in 8th grade, I was at a marching band competition. I loved band and marching band. I played the trombone and I was first chair. It was lunch time and the guy who sat second chair to me, Pete, and I were sitting under a tree eating our lunch. His mom came up to me and said, “You should play a more feminine instrument and let a boy have first chair in a boy’s instrument.” What? How did gender get in the middle of my favorite class? Pete was so embarrassed by his mom.

The message I heard growing up was clear. It basically sucked to be female. The message came mostly in subtle, not blatant and easily definable ways. It came from church. It came from the media/TV. It came from family. It came from society at large. It came from those that used me even when I was only 2 years old. And this what it said:

·         Girls are to be conquered, boys are conquerors
·         Girls are to be controlled, boys get to do what they want
·         Girls are to be used, boy can say no
·         Girls have no power, boys have all the power
·         Girls are weak, boys are strong
·         Girls, once used, are dirty
·         Girls should follow, boys get to lead
·         Girls are to blame, boys get sympathy
·         Boys are the boss, girls better get in line
·         Boys are designed to lead, girls are designed to follow
·         Boys get more privileges, girls are restricted
·         If a boy hurts you, people take his side
·         IF you hurt a boy, people take his side
·         Boys get away with things, girls get in trouble
·         Boys are celebrated, girls are tolerated

So how does that all shake out now that I am quickly approaching 50? Well, I have rejected church, in general. I have walked away from my parents – haven’t talked to my mom in close to 4 years. I don’t really watch much TV – avoid advertising to the degree that I reasonably can. I read a lot of different blogs and have gained a new respect for my aunt – and for Friedan and Steinem. And I have been in therapy for over 4 years. And I pursue God. And I am gradually beginning to believe that it is okay to be a daughter of God. I have begun to think of myself as a girl, a woman – tentatively, cautiously – like trying on a new coat, unsure if there is something in the pocket that might bite. I have reached the place where I kind of think it might be okay to be female….

Other synchoblog participants:

Ellen Haroutunian - March Synchroblog: All About Eve 


And here are some links to examples of some of the more tame, main-stream doctrines in the ‘biblical patriarchy’ camp so you know this stuff isn't made up: Vision Forum: The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy, Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth by Wayne Grudem.


Carie G. said...

Jeanette, I resonate with your story, I'm glad that you shared your vulnerability. I've been through a similar journey. Love that you're a Daughter of Heaven and discovering the joy, strength and dignity of that :)

Jeannette Altes said...

Carrie, thanks! Like I said in the post, this was a hard one to get out. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. :-)

T-Childs said...

Thanks just for being so honest. We men need to hear this often, Christian men perhaps especially. I am a firm believer in equality and let's hope we can make strides towards that every day.

Jeremy Myers said...

Wow. This post brought tears to my eyes. My wife experienced some similar things as you did, and I see the pain it caused her. We are trying to do things differently with our three girls, but sometimes this world makes it so difficult. Thank you for bareing your heart and soul in this post!

Jeannette Altes said...

Tim and Jeremy-
Thank you. It means a lot to me that you guys read and commented. I don't think most people really realize the effects of these gender messages.

Liz said...

Jeannette - thank you for sharing your story and your journey as I think that one of the most powerful things we can do to transform the world we live in (in a good way) is to share our story with others and I think people's stories reveal so much to us about ourselves, life, God and the world we live in. I hope this is just the beginning and that you end up sharing your story with many more.

Jeannette Altes said...

Liz, thank you. I hope so, too. Sometimes, it's difficult to see that talking about is really impacting anyone. Sometimes, it take all the energy available just to find your voice.

T-Childs said...

Hi Jeannette-there's so much unfairness and injustice in the world, and even dwonright evil too. By standing up for other people, and by being sometimes radically honest, even if that upsets people at times, we move forward, as individuals and as groups of people. You need to speak about your experiences because it may help someone else going through the same things. God bless you in your journey, you do make a difference!

Jeannette Altes said...

Tim, thank you for the words of encouragement.

lori said...

I nodded thru your amazingly honest post. You are not alone. I am proud to be a fellow woman with you. Thank you for pushing thru the anxiety to write this. It was a gift to read.

Jeannette Altes said...

Lori - welcome and thank you.

Anonymous said...

Jeanette, Wow! The idea of women not being equal to men never entered my mind until my wife and I had been married many years and unknowlingly began attending a church that believed that hogwash. We stopped attending.

The churches we both attended growing up never taught this stuff, nor did our families. My mother was a career professional. Both my parents worked and both were equal in our home.

This "complementarian" stuff is obviously something some males just invented and try to base on the Bible, just like people try to find something in the Bible that supposedly supports all sorts of idiotic ideas. It is nonsense. I don't mind saying so, and add "I bet you find something in the Bible that agrees with everything you believe." (Not to you - To people who believe this stuff.)

Probably the best thing we can do is ignore these people. They just love to get us to fuss with them so they can pull out Bible verses, theology books or whatever. I think Kathy would call that the "God card" or the "Bible card", as in "how can anyone argue with what God says?" What do you suppose the religious folks had to say about the status to which Jesus elevated women when He was here?

Anonymous said...

Jeanette - The previous comment is from Sam. You know me from Jeremy and Kathy's blogs. Blogger changed me to "anonymous".

Jeannette Altes said...

Hey, Sam. Thanks for stopping by. For some reason, blogger also put your comments in the spam folder. Sigh. I've learned to check there regularly.

I do understand that the doctrine is bs. But growing up in it still inflicted damage. Grr.. :-)

Carol Kuniholm said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story and your struggle in this. There is so much in this I resonate with, and so much that makes me grieve. I find myself wondering if there were any other women in your life - besides your mother and aunt - who might have modeled something different. I will always be grateful for the women God brought into my life in my late teens: one a very strong woman professor, head of her department, who was also a very strong Christian, strong leader, with a great sense of humor. Another was the female director of a Christian camp for girls. She had no interest in the "girls can't" line of reasoning. She let me lead a canoe trip and backpacking trip at the age of 20; at her camp, if women couldn't do it, it wasn't going to get done, so give it a try. Both gave me a vision of something strong, healthy, WHOLE, when what I'd been given up to then felt very hampered, half alive.
It's so sad to me that we still have leaders in our churches, and our families, who think it's okay to stunt women's feet, or squander women's gifts. I hold in my mind Jesus' response when Martha wanted Mary back in "girl land." If Mary wanted to sit, like a disciple, at his feet, she was welcome. And so are we.

Jeannette Altes said...

Carol, welcome!

You know, there were other women, but the messages were so conflicting and had to be filtered through the STRONG personality of my mother, who ran the house and decided what true and not....so she didn't really allow people to get to close to me.

That story about Martha and Mary is one of my favorites, too. If it were not for Him holding on through all of it, keeping the connection personal, I would not have even servived.