or “How Patriarchy unintentionally saved me”
(feel free to listen to this song in the background for inspiration.)
There are a few guys in my circles of radical clergy with a certain public following. I love their tweets and facebook posts because they’re sometimes funny and sometimes biting, and they’re almost always so certain.
Which, for those of you who have known me for a long time know, is exactly how I used to sound.
One of the big ironies of my life is that my biggest bump in with patriarchy is what started me down a path that I wish was available to my incredibly certain brothers: the path into humility in the midst of the righteous cause.
The reason this matters to me is this: the big, fancy, daunting word “postmodernity.” As we transition out of an era where facts and science won the day (the modern era), my theory is we’re moving into an era that is not at all resistent to facts and science (which would be anti-modernity, which we see in fundamentalism of all religious stripes) but into an era where facts and science aren’t all there is, where mystery and humanity and the complexity of our lived experiences interplay in important ways with data. In other words, we’re moving into an era where having the facts doesn’t allow you to be a dick, especially when your interpretation of facts may not line up with someone else’s interpretation of the same facts. Again, this is different than anti-modernity, where someone’s facts come into conflict with someone else’s opinions. To make a long story short, I believe that the postmodern era demands voices that embrace complexity and maybe a little grace, too.
Back to the story, though…
When I was in seminary, ministry candidates had to go through a three-day intensive psychological evaluation with lots of tests, small group discussions, one-on-one time with a psychiatrist, and feedback about our strenghts, weaknesses and growing edges in order to serve well in the ministry. On the enneagram, I was apparently the 8, the power personality type. The justice seeker. The Martin Luther King type. “And obviously with your voice and your size, you could easily dominate people and bully them into your position,” the evaluator said to me as if all of us in the small group couldn’t help but notice it. And obviously it logically followed that I had to work really hard not to dominate my congregation during my ministry.
I remember sharing that story with a colleague of mine a few years ago and him saying “That’s one of the most sexist things I’ve ever heard.”
The interesting thing is that I think they were both probably right.
In addition to being an 8 on the Enneagram, I’m also an ENTP. Extrovert, intuitive, thinker, and not always a thoroughly linear and organized individual. (Apparently, this makes me the Weasley brothers in a recent online post that correlates Myers-Briggs types to Harry Potter characters.) I’m a thinker. I rely on logic more than on emotion, and if something’s practical, my inclination is to move it forward and assume it makes as much sense to others as it does to me and that we’re all functioning out of what makes the most sense.
I have seen that work for male colleagues of mine, sometimes, but it definitely didn’t work for me, and it also didn’t work for the kind of community I wanted to be a part of.
My ministry colleague was right; he wouldn’t probably have been cautioned in the same way, because, well, patriarchy.
But that caution ended up making me a little more humble, a little more open, and a little more willing to engage emotions and mystery in dialogue with my hard nosed practical (let’s call it what it is) self-righteousness.
- I think about this when I see my male colleagues’ clever, righteous and aggressively confident posts about issues I care about just as deeply.
- I thought about it when I attended a meeting of the International Socialist Organization, where I agreed with everything everyone said and also found myself thinking “ah, so this is why they’re not reaching all the people they should.”
- I thought about it when I read the post of a local political operative who was enraged at people’s opposition to our mayor’s enforcement of a (likely unconstitutional) ban on after-dark protests, her intent being to stop shop windows from being broken. He saw this as a completely different issue from police reform, which he supports, and didn’t understand how anyone could oppose her ban unless they supported breaking shop windows.
The guy I’m dating and I have lighthearted debates about whether the differences between men and women are physiological, genetic, socialized, or some combination of those. (He leans towards physiological with a little genetic and socialized mixed in; I lean towards almost completely socialized…I know I might be wrong, but until we lean too far in that direction, I’m going to keep all my weight on that side in the hopes of moving us a little more towards balance.) I’m not sure we’ll ever agree. What I can say, though, is that I was given one advantage over my male counterparts because of socialized gender norms:
I was told that I couldn’t get away with just logic and loud voice. I had to cultivate a little empathy and a little complexity. I had to tap into some traditionally feminine values if I wanted to be embraced by the community I served.
And I think it’s given me some advantages as I live and work in a complicated, complex community with lots of feelings as well as facts and a lot of mystery as well as science. Sometimes it means I don’t sound as certain as I would like. But I’ve discovered that opens doors that help me be in conversations I couldn’t otherwise participate in. And it means that when I actually articulate something forcefully, people know to pay attention.
In some ways, patriarchy pushed me into a less patriarchal way of being. Chris Crass’s new book Toward Collective Liberation reminded me that this kind of freedom is available to both men and women.
I wish all of my male colleagues the same kind of liberation I experienced, because I think uncertainty is a less lonely place to live.
6 thoughts on ““I enjoy being a girl””
Thanks, Sandhya. I agree that you received a sexist comment that more males, particularly in religious “leadership” need to hear. That’s always the way, isn’t it? As I have been thinking about a pending call to a role of “religious and moral leadership” in a multi-faith setting, I cannot help but believe that the age of the Protestant Great Preacher to the University is long past. I like to think it died a glorious and noble death with Peter Gomes. My challenge will be to change the putative model from “leader” to “convener.” A convener with strong convictions, a deep and specific faith, given to decisiveness, yes. But one who recognizes that real and lasting community change emerges from a multiplicity of voices. It will be fascinating to see how the balance of modeling speaking one’s truth with conviction by way of encouraging others in the community to do the same plays out in reality. Minority status might serve me well in this case–at least one would hope.
I am not sure that uncertainty is any less lonely, though. There are always people who long for their leaders to shout with certainty in order to drown out their own discomfort with ambiguity.
Thanks, Maurice! It’s interesting; as soon as I hit send, I remembered something else I had wanted to mention, which is that I think there are times and places for certainty, particularly for people facing oppression. Maybe it’s ok for me to assert things with certitude when I am directly impacted by them or am clearly speaking in solidarity with a community of accountability who invited me into that prophetic space. So race and gender and orientation and class therefore play an important role in this conversation. (I think this crossed my mind because the Black women who were kettled by Oakland police on Thursday for … seriously … nonviolently protesting after dark had reason to assert their rights with certitude.)
I think you’re absolutely right that a lot of traditional church folks are part of church BECAUSE in a rapidly changing world it is what they can count on, and they do not thank their priest kindly for disrupting that. I think that’s why I make my tent more often these days with activists, so I don’t have to be the expert or authority, and I can nudge anyone who tries to be the expert or authority unnecessarily. 🙂 I wonder if your students will be genuinely grateful for a convener in what the Black Lives Movement refers to as “a leaderful movement” with “low ego and high impact.” I hope so.
And God bless Peter Gomes. No finer finish to that legacy could there be.
Excellent article, Sandhya. Your descriptive contrast of postmodernity with anti-modernity is extremely well articulated. I’ll be stealing that at some point. It’s interesting working as a male nurse. Many patients assume I’m the doctor. Patients often indicate–directly or indirectly–that I am smarter and more trustworthy than female nurses because I am male. I used to think that I used a pretty normal tone of voice and had a demeanor that was not overly confident or authoritative. I now see that I really did–and do–use my privilege in those subtle (maybe sometimes not-so-subtle) ways, and more often than I’d like to admit. Simultaneously, many people will ascribe confidence and authority to me simply because I’m male. I try to be aware of these dynamics and do my best to fight against them while trying to be empathetic and provide quality health (and spiritual) care. Like you, I also feel that I am less certain and confident about many of my pronouncements than I used to be. However, I know that my own use of privilege and others’ perception of it mean that my hesitancy and uncertainty don’t come across the way I’d like them to. Sorry for the rambling comment. Again, really well done article. Thank you.
Thanks, John. Really astute and self-reflective. Thank you! I wrestle with some of those same issues in the opposite way: should I wear a collar even though I believe in the priesthood of all believers because as a woman I walk into a room with less authority to begin with? Do I need to bring a little more certitude to my statements because the men with whom I am in discussion will already be granted some authority by default? Like you, I find myself not sure there’s a way to do it perfectly, but helping others to be aware that dynamic exists is a big part of the struggle. So grateful to be in that struggle at your side.
Sandhya, I really appreciated this piece, especially in light of the fact that I have spent the past year trying to figure out for myself what it means to be both a “Type 8” and a woman in ministry. I also got a kick out of your reference to your psych eval because I just had mine this past week and was informed that my “masculine” traits are “very high,” my feminine traits are “very low,” my ability to express anger “high,” my repression of anger “quite low”… All apparently very “unusual” characteristics for a woman going into ministry. I have spent this past year embracing that holy complexity you speak of and choosing silence more and more over speaking so that when I do choose to speak, people listen. It’s funny how my “8-ness” is both my cross and my joy. I am struggling to learn how to bear it well, and it sounds like you are too. I would love to hear more about your thoughts and experiences with all of this. Thanks for sharing!
Amen, Keri! Thanks so much. Grateful to know I’m not the only one. 😉 And I do think you’re right…it’s a cross and a joy. It’s hard work for me, and it’s ironic because these days people know me as “the process person” and sometimes think it comes naturally to me since girls are more inclined that way. In fact, that’s the one thing that makes me cranky: I think it’s probably just as hard for us as for guys — we just make it look easy because we LOOK like what process people are supposed to look like. (And we do it backwards and in heels, to borrow the joke about Ginger Rogers.) Go us, for making it look easy. 🙂