Subtle sexism and a call to pay attention

This week for a class exercise, I was in a group that had to “defend” a position that women should not be in church leadership. The point was to see how different groups use Scripture and tradition to enforce their position, and to note how Quakers have tried to bring equality of leadership to women and men. The exercise was painful, and yet it was incredibly easy to come up with the argument “against” women. After all, I’ve been told these things, over and over – both overtly and subtly.

People have said that women are too emotional (and not strong enough) to be pastors.

People have looked to the household codes in the NT and used to those to say that woman should be “less than” men, should be silent in church, and shouldn’t teach men. They’ve also used these passages to restrict the “woman’s role” to the home and child rearing.

People have looked to the first chapters of Genesis and spoken that woman was created out of man – and was to be his “helpmate”. And then with the curse, that men should rule over women.

People I’ve talked to have refused to consider female applicants for a ministry position.

And then there are the more subtle ways that sexism and patriarchy invade our every day lives. I would say that most people wouldn’t consider themselves to be “sexist” or even jump up and down on the patriarchy wagon. But yet, these ills permeate our society and our church  culture.

Saying “woman pastor,” while on the surface seems empowering (by acknowledging that woman can/are pastors) is actually a subtle form of sexism. Do we say “man pastor” when referring to pastors who are men? Saying “woman pastor” assumes that if you say “pastor” you’re talking about a man. If you want to specify the gender of the pastor, say “pastor, who is a woman/man”.

I’ve had many encounters with people who when I tell them that I am a pastor (or when I told them I was feeling called to ministry) assume that I’m talking about youth ministry or children’s ministry. Now, these are both very high callings – but can you catch the sexism here? If a man says “I’m a pastor,” do you assume he’s talking about working with kids?

As a continually growing feminist, language, and our use of language is really important to me. I find subtle sexism all over our language – about humanity and about God. A common way to refer to a group of people is “you guys” – it’s like the less-southern version of “y’all” only not, and it’s sexist. Are you talking to a group of only men? Fine. Are you talking to a group of women and men? Than calling us “guys” is not honoring of the wide range of gender expression present. I know, it’s hard to change habitual language. But there are other phrases you can use: “friends” or “folks” are a good place to start – or you could get all southern with a good “y’all” every once in a while. I really struggle with this one, and find myself slipping back to “you guys”. It takes me quite a bit of energy and thought to use inclusive language (which as someone who often speaks before thinking…is challenging to say the least).

Another subtle (or in my opinion, not so subtle…) sexist phrase is “mankind”. While this (may have) passed as a word describing humanity at some point – it really doesn’t. Where is women’s experience in that? How is saying “man” to mean “human” validating to either gender? It’s not hard to add the extra two letters to make it “humankind” or even change it to “humanity,” or to say “human” instead of “man”. I find that I have to have an internal translator to get through many books, articles, Facebook posts, etc… to even engage in the material beyond the language!

I don’t think people who use this language and make these assumptions are in any way bad, evil, “less than,” or even in many cases intentionally trying to marginalize and oppress women. However, by participating in these subtle forms of sexism, people in my life (and probably yours too), and myself, daily perpetuate this oppression. Language and assumptions matter. Pay attention to what you say and what you assume. Let’s work towards a future where we can honor and love each other (all genders) as worthy, equal and valuable human beings.


  1. I love this. 🙂 Wonderful and thank you for sharing. I think I’m getting past the point of “why change the way we talk? It’s not oppressive, it’s just how we talk!” to “THESE are the small steps we can take to change this treatment of humankind. When we try to respect each other more, everyone, we learn to love and be loved better. 🙂

  2. Since our church is so dominated by women; clerk of the meeting, elders, worship, youth, treasurer, fiscal stewards, small group leader, teachers; my take tends to be a bit different. Probably I see things differently being the mother of 3 sons as well. I am concerned that our patch of responsibility is not attracting men to serve God. I think this is a general trend in our society right now. More females graduate high school, more females are enrolled in higher education, female led families are increasing, and women tend to be overrepresented in worship attendance. The Church, just like our biological families, need both genders to fulfill our service to God. The big problems of living a Christian life, being salt to the Earth and bringing the Good News to darkness is my focus. Lynwood Friends Church needs to be a place in which men feel comfortable and find the encouragement they need to follow Christ. Being sensitive to gender terms within our language is worthy, but certainly not a focus. I am sorry your past has been so filled with hurt in this regard. I feel I am taking a huge risk to scathing ridicule by writing this brief note, but I sense that the issues facing our society and the Church warrant someone at least voicing a caution to being oversensitive to language and diluting energy needed in other battles.

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