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.