I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.
I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.
(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)
In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.
(Perhaps it is no wonder that we keep to ourselves.)
Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)
“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?
This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.
It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.
Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)
If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.
I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.
Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.
We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.
(For Kandyce, who asked.)
If you can control a woman’s body, you can control the entire trajectory of her life.
You can keep her at home, endlessly pregnant, and caring for numerous children. You can prevent her from getting an education and a fulfilling career and achieving even the basest level of respect in society. Don’t give her unfettered access to contraception or abortion. Don’t let her make any choices about her body and thus her life until you have given her explicit permission. Don’t let her assume for a second that she is a free agent. Keep her in her place, preferably with violence or harassment, both in public and in private. Constantly remind her that even her body is not her own. And finally, preferably, express all of these limitations with the backing power of your religion.
I have been thinking about physical autonomy lately — specifically, a woman’s body from the perspective of religion.
Far and away, religious institutions are the groups most concerned with controlling and restricting women’s rights, specifically, her body and her ability to make decisions about it.
This troubles me, as a person, and specifically, as a person who identifies as a Christian.
A hallmark of the most conservative branch of every major religion — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — is the urgent need to control women’s bodies. This is a natural belief, because women have traditionally been seen simply as the property of men. From the beginning of recorded history, women have not been human; women are objects, to be used, bought, sold, and controlled. Drawing from its patriarchal roots, fundamentalist religion is therefore obsessed with sex and ownership of a woman’s body. When she is young, her virginity is her most important quality. Centuries ago, brides were subjected to bloody-sheet tests; today, an American girl is bedecked with “True Love Waits” rings or publicly shamed for being a “slut,” both practices reminding her that a preserved mythical hymen and a virginal reputation is her highest calling. Keeping her veiled, literally, from male attention is crucial. She ought not be trusted to take care of herself; the male authority figures in her life will take care of that. Mutilate her genitals so that she cannot experience sexual pleasure. Keep her perpetually cognizant that her body’s sole purpose is for man’s use and for the production of offspring. When she gets a bit older, get her and keep her pregnant. Don’t let her make any choices about when to get pregnant and if to stay pregnant. Marry her to an eligible man, who will then assume responsibility for her body. She will still not be trusted to take care of herself. A man will do that for her until she dies.
I am a Christian, but I confess that it is sometimes hard to be one when I think about these historical remnants. I am even more troubled by the still-prevalent Christian attitude toward women’s bodies and autonomy. Today, Catholics and most conservative Protestants are very concerned about controlling a woman’s body and decreeing its proper uses, all with the purported backing of God Almighty.
Because I am only qualified to write about Christianity, as it is the religion I know well, I am thus limiting this discussion to Christian women. (But I’d still love to hear from you on this topic if you are familiar with other religions. Please chime in.)
As I have written before, Jesus valued women as human beings, which is really saying something, considering the time in which he lived. The early church also valued women as human beings, and we know that women were called apostles and priests and served as deacons and as leaders in the church.
But not too long after its founding, Christianity fell back to its strongly patriarchal roots. The revered church fathers — Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, among others — and later early reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley — have all said appallingly hateful things about women, along with hundreds of their fellow male theologians.
Church leaders today are a bit quieter about their hatred of women, but misogyny is still palpable in many of the conservative church’s teachings. For me, denominations obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and sexuality are the most vivid signifier of this entrenched Christian belief that women are evil, untrustworthy, and lesser creatures.
In the United States, there is a frightening trend of anti-reproductive rights, inspired by conservative religion. As the gay rights movement in the United States is increasingly achieving success with marriage equality, the women’s reproductive rights movement seems to be losing ground.* (*A point that Jill Lepore made in her recent New Yorker piece on the legal history surrounding reproductive rights and the choice justices made between privacy and equality.) Because we, as a culture often politically motivated by Christian thought, don’t care about women’s equality, corporations get to decide whether women can have access to affordable contraception and the right to a safe, legal abortion is being curtailed wherever possible. If you can control a woman’s body, you can control her entire life.
So, why is conservative Christianity fixated on women’s bodies and how can I still call myself a Christian and a feminist?
The first question merits a simple answer. There is power in tradition, and power begets the desire for more power. Conservative Christian denominations (Catholics, evangelicals, many of the so-called reformed church movements) care about controlling women’s bodies because (a) they always have done so and (b) they don’t want to be usurped. Subjugating women is an excellent way to maintain the power of the patriarchy in the church. Keep women “in their place” by denying them the power to regulate their own bodies. Don’t ordain them. Don’t let them hold any positions of leadership in any sphere, whether at home or in the church — and in this way, keep sinking your denomination further into oblivion and cultural irrelevance.
This, therefore, is my sincere hope: that denominations that refuse to accept women as people will die out. Hold to your precious patriarchal ideals for as long as you can, but I believe (and I think I have to believe, for my sanity) that such a misogynistic theology (and, indeed, many of the men who hold fast to it) are slowly and actually dying.
This hope is how I can still be a Christian and a feminist. I belong to a famously progressive denomination that ordains women and gay people, and this branch of the church gives me hope. I am blessed to know women priests who are changing the way that the church interprets gender. I am inspired by their faith and their hope for transformation. I believe that I belong to a religion that was intended to be FOR half of its most faithful adherents — women. We certainly got off to a rocky start, and we are still stumbling, but I don’t think we’ve seen the endgame of Christianity in relation to women.
In the meantime, what can be done for the majority of American Christian women suffocating under the weight of patriarchal tradition?
Campaign for churches to ordain women. Until women can be accepted at the highest levels of church leadership, major Christian denominations will never truly respect women as human beings and equal children of God. Elect women as leaders in a public, congregation-facing way. Start conversations about women in church history. Educate the clergy and laypeople; help men see women — and women see themselves — as equally valid partners in the kingdom of God. Preach equality. Don’t stop talking about this. And in this way, perhaps, women’s bodies — and hearts and minds — can be freed from the shackles of conservative religion.
The other day, I glimpsed the profile of a young man who was the spitting image of a freckled fundamentalist boy from my childhood. I blanched and suddenly felt a spasm of terror. It wasn’t this boy, grown up (ostensibly because this boy still lives in the basement of his parents’ house), but I was still shaken. On the whole, I had a very happy childhood, and my parents are these lovely, fun human beings, but I dislike being reminded of the community I was raised in: the fundamentalist homeschooling enclave.
Primarily, when I remember that time, I recall the crushing sensation of misogyny. Of existing in a network of people in which you have no agency on account of your gender.
To list all of the overt and subtle misogyny I faced as a homeschooled girl would be exhausting. The anecdotes and comments still rise to the surface, however, in my daily life, even though I now feel so personally and ideologically removed from that community. Being told, by an adult man, that I was projecting sexual promiscuity because I wore lipstick to church once. When a young man, just two years older than me, told me that I ought to take his plate after he finished eating, because that was my job, as a docile, submissive woman. Reading comments from two fathers of my friends, on my teenaged blog, that I was a handmaiden of the devil and an agent of whoredom for writing that my friend should not be imprisoned at home by her father for 40 days for hugging her boyfriend. Countless remarks about how I should dress, how I should act, how I should submit to and serve men and boys.
My parents, thankfully, did not force this attitude on us. I wore power suits and heels so that I could tower over the scrawny boys in debate league. My sister was a champion in hockey (arguably one of the least traditionally feminine sports). But there were still vestiges of this pressure at home, to be the good, quiet Christian woman — even though my mother modeled leadership and authority, divorced from male control, on a daily basis. My sisters and I all turned out to be independent, confident feminists, because that is what my mother is, even if she would never call herself that.
Gender discrimination is the only discrimination I’ve experienced, and so I cling to it, like a bitter badge of honor. I swap horror stories with other women. I delight in making eyes widen at parties with tales of indignities from my strongly patriarchal past.
I have become appallingly sensitive to misogynistic attitudes in other people, in art, in culture. Like my fearful German shepherd, my hackles go up at the first hint of danger and disapprobation.
If no one’s ever despised you for your sex, it is difficult to care about sexism because it is necessarily foreign to you.
Remembering this helps me have mercy on men who don’t think feminism is needed or that women have enough rights already. Most likely, these men have never had anyone oppress them because they were male; the very notion is unfathomable to them. No one has ever told them that, merely because they were born male, they are less intelligent, incapable of leadership, intended to be subservient, or a sex object open to public derision and comment. It is therefore difficult for many men to be empathetic with women on this front.
Lately, however, I have been wondering, what is the point? What is the spiritual fruit of this feeling of having escaped? What heart-based good can experiencing and enduring discrimination yield?
I think I am finally sensing the beginning of such fruit in my life. It is the first time I have been able to say the word mercy in conjunction with the men, both known and unknown, who have belittled me. I probably won’t ever forget the comments and attitudes espoused by the homeschool patriarchs in my past life, but with this added understanding, I can forgive. And that is surely a place to start.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Women have very little idea of how much men hate them. — Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (1970)
After this week, however, I’d posit that women have at least a subtle, perhaps subconscious idea of how much men hate them. Over the past few days, I’ve been surrounded by these astonishing examples of self-directed misogyny, or, women who hate women.
Exhibit 1: Editing an article at work about the effect of hormones on traders’ decisions, on how research indicates that testosterone spikes influence traders to make riskier decisions about their portfolios. The article suggests, without the slightest hint of sarcasm, that it would be a good idea if firms chose to hire “unattractive women” or put “pretty women behind screens” on the trading floor, to prevent men from experiencing testosterone spikes. (Behind screens! That was the actual advice.) The piece went on to say that “married men and men over the age of 30” probably wouldn’t be affected by having women on the floor, though. What bold sexism! What idiocy on so many levels! The article was written by a woman.
Exhibit 2: Editing another article at work, a summary of an Economist blog post, which argues that women don’t get promotions at work because women are too nice and care too much about their families (not showing themselves to be as devoted to their work), unlike men (who are apparently heartless robots). Summary was written by a woman.
Exhibit 3: Let’s call this person an acquaintance. I recently stumbled on her Twitter tagline, which read: “Look like a Girl, Act like a Lady, Think like a Man, and Work like a Boss!” Just, wow. Make yourself appear like a girl, like an infantilized version of yourself; heaven forbid you present yourself as a woman, what you actually are. And think like a man! Because EVERYONE knows that women can’t think! Twitter account of a woman.
Sadly, I see this phenomenon all the time; this week it just seems to be more apparent than normal. You probably do, too. Women love to denigrate their entire sex, particularly if they are in the company of men. We all know women who like to brag that they “just don’t like other women,” that all of their best friends are guys.
Why Does This Happen?
So, where is this coming from? Why would women deliberately present themselves as misogynistic? I think it goes back to the oft-quoted line from Greer. Women sense how much men hate them.
We want men to like us. We have this blinding desire to be validated by men, because we’ve been taught all our lives that we aren’t worth anything unless a man tells us we are.
And so we pander to them. We tell them that we’re not good at anything, really. We tell them that we can think and act like they do. We tell them that we too, like them, mistrust women; women are sneaky bitches; we stay away from them, too.
If you think this isn’t really a phenomenon, I’d encourage you to look around a little bit. You’ll find it; it’s not hard. Misogyny is very alive and well, and women, in many ways, are helping feed that destructive fire. Sexism, primarily hatred against women, runs virtually unchecked in our culture. (Just spend a few minutes reading the mountain of posts on the Twitter feed Everyday Sexism. Or flipping through a magazine. Or watching TV. Or trying to cross the Belmont bridge.)
Women, let’s quit abusing ourselves to appeal to men. We’re only fueling their hatred.
There is the pervasive assumption that “men are just animals” and they can’t change, so women need to hide themselves behind screens and never walk alone anywhere, ever. Men are ruled by testosterone and rage and virility! Men cannot control themselves!
But here’s the thing. The men I know and love CAN control themselves. They don’t run around on their lunch breaks verbally harassing women on the streets. They don’t make lewd comments to their female coworkers. They have never (and will never) beat or raped women. It’s equally offensive to men to assume that they are purely lustful beasts, devoid of human reason. Stop shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Well, that’s just the way men are.” It’s not.
Let’s raise our expectations for men in this culture. Let’s believe that they have the potential, the reason, and the souls to be more than just testosterone-crazed fiends who see all women as sex objects to dominate. Let’s educate our sons to view and treat girls and women with full and deserved respect. And women, let’s stop abusing ourselves to pander to our misogynistic culture. I am SICK of it. Just sick.
When I was about 15, I went to my first TeenPact camp in Raleigh. If you were homeschooled and a huge dork like me, active in debate circles, you were aware of TeenPact. TeenPact is a super-conservative camp that indoctrinates teens to become libertarian warriors, trained to infiltrate the government from the ground up. I participated because I was really “into” politics at the time, but after my first day at camp, I began to feel that something was terribly wrong with these people.
If you had the misfortune of being born female and wanted to attend this camp, you had to learn the rules first. Most important of all: You had to follow a Victorian-era dress code, which mandated that you had to be dressed in “business professional attire” for the duration of the camp. Except that their definition of “business professional” meant skirts well below the knee without any slits and all shirts baggy and well below the tantalizing elbow. (You can even read this ridiculous dress code here. They’re apparently still going strong. My favorite line from the Code is on shirts girls can wear, which outlaws any “tight” fabrics, requesting that “no shape [should be] too obvious.” Pretend you are not a girl! Breasts are SINFUL!)
The kicker is that girls are not allowed to wear pants–even pantsuits or trousers. Silly woman! Pants are for men! You can imagine how difficult this was to find any “business professional attire” to meet these standards, especially since I wasn’t one of the homeschoolers who made my own clothes.
On top of this stifling dress code, all of the speakers at all of the events were male. Also, if you were a girl, you were not allowed to lead a committee; only boy interns were allowed to lead committee meetings. Boy interns led all the discussions while the girls participated when spoken to. (Weirdly enough, however, girls were allowed to “run” for office. This struck me as a big contradiction in terms, but whatever.)
When I arrived, I was quickly made aware of the Dress Code Police, a militia of girl interns who ran around armed with needles and safety pins, scanning to make sure all of the girls were very modest and not violating any of the seemingly innumerable dress code rules. I showed up in a floor-length black skirt, which I thought was very safe. It hits the floor! It’s black! Totally unappealing in every way! But I was wrong.
Not half an hour after my arrival, I was taken by the elbow by a girl I’d barely met and pushed into the nearest bathroom. This girl intern looked me in the eye explained to me that my skirt was violating dress code. “Wait, how? It hits the floor!” I protested. She spun me around and pointed to the five-inch slit in the back of the skirt. The back! Apparently, the backs of my knees were a “stumbling block” to my young male colleagues. So, the slit had to be remedied. If you are a woman, you are well aware that to wear a floor-length skirt, slits are essential for movement. You cannot walk more than a half a mincing step if you have no slit. But TeenPact doesn’t care about that! She swiftly jabbed some pins into the back of my skirt and told me I was appropriate now.
My feelings were a little hurt, but I decided not to mind it. I hobbled along for the rest of the day and dutifully attended my committee meetings. My group, led by the cute boy intern, was going to take a field trip to sit in on the real House meeting. We were running behind schedule, probably because some girl was dressing like a tramp, showing a sliver of knee or something. Our committee leaders told us we needed to book it, because we were going to be late.
So, we set off for the House of Representatives. The boys in their pantsuits were striding ahead. We delicate ladies were trailing behind, because none of us could move quickly, as all of our slits had been taken away from us. We minced and shuffled along, trying not to rip our pinned skirts. The boy leader, yards ahead of us, suddenly turned around and shouted at us, “GIRLS! Hurry up! We are going to be late!”
That was it. My AWAKENING. I stopped dead in my tracks. I looked straight at him and shouted back, “YOU try to walk in a skirt that’s all pinned up!” He paused and then looked at us, a group of homely penguins. He even seemed to think for a moment. It wasn’t a great comeback, I know, but I was 15. And the clouds had opened.
This silly story is the first moment that I started thinking for myself and stopped being ashamed of having been born a girl. So, watch out TeenPact. You may have unknowingly birthed a whole army of late-blooming feminists.(This post is for Lauren Lankford Dubinsky, who I think will know what I am talking about…)