Heathen Women and My Christian Mother

Our mothers are our first and most important teachers.

Stephen T. Abell has a new essay on his “Letters from Midgard” blog on Patheos titled “Thinking of Heathen Women.” The subtitle is “the perspective can challenge the unprepared.”

Heathenry – the recreation of Norse and Germanic beliefs and practices – is different from most other Pagan religions, to the point that many Heathens don’t consider themselves Pagans. Heathens place strong emphasis on the bonds of family and tribe and on individuals’ obligations to their kin. They tend to be politically and socially conservative, as exemplified by Dan Halloran, a New York City Councilman who is a Theodisman and a Republican.

So while Wicca and other Pagan traditions tend to have a liberal feminist flavor, Heathenry – for the most part – does not. This can fire up debates on the role of women in Heathen societies, which Abell addresses in his essay. He points to the goddesses of the Norse pantheon, some of whom take “traditional” women’s roles and some who do not. Abell says “All are women to respect, value, and admire. None are for trifling with.”

What I find most interesting is Abell’s story of his mother, who was a speech pathologist. He makes it clear that she set a good, strong example for him of what women were supposed to be: “intelligent and capable.”

And this brings me to a story of my own mother and one of the most important things she taught me, even though I think it’s unlikely that was her intention.

My father (who died in 2000) and my mother (who recently turned 81) were in many ways a typical couple for their time. My father was the primary breadwinner, while my mother kept the house and took care of the children. She worked part time as an airbrush artist, doing portrait reproductions in the pre-Photoshop era.

My mother also took care of the family finances. My father would sign his paycheck over to her, she’d deposit it in the bank, pay the bills, do the shopping, figure out how much she could save for Christmas or for emergencies, and generally make sure we stayed in the black. One of my most frequent memories from childhood is watching my mother sitting at the kitchen table with the checkbook and a stack of bills, making sure everything got paid and figuring out what was left to spend. We were not poor, but we were a lot closer to poor than to rich. I always had everything I needed and not a lot else.

Though we never had any formal lessons, watching my mother taught me how to manage money.

Then one day, some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the small Baptist church we attended needed a treasurer. I knew what the church treasurer did. This was an independent church operating under congregational polity – we had business meetings once a month where the treasurer gave his report of income and expenses. The treasurer did for the church exactly what my mother did for our family. And so, being young and idealistic (and naïve) about leadership roles, I told my mother “you should be the new church treasurer.”

My mother laughed. And it wasn’t a funny laugh.

When I asked why, she said “the men of that church wouldn’t let a woman handle their money.”

I was confused – I genuinely didn’t understand. What did gender have to do with managing money? I knew there were two things involved with managing money. One was being responsible, and I knew my mother was responsible, because I saw her taking care of the bills (and everything else) week after week after week. The other thing was having some basic math skills. I was very good at math, but I knew most of the other kids who were good at math were girls. Clearly, gender had nothing to do with this.

The more I thought about it the madder I got.

As a rational person (from birth, if the other stories my mother tells are true) it made no sense that gender should be a barrier to a leadership role. Beyond that, this was my mother they were rejecting – how dare they assume my mother wasn’t good enough to manage the church finances?!

It offended me rationally and it offended me emotionally .

I didn’t understand the significance of that incident until many years later. I started becoming aware of the wider world in the early 1970s, at the height of the Women’s Movement. My mother didn’t say much about the Women’s Movement beyond a general agreement with their goals. She was too busy taking care of me and my brothers and the house and the finances and everything else involved with ordinary life.

But every time some man told a woman “you can’t play sports” or “you can’t run for office” or “you can’t be a minister” or “you can’t fight for your country” or any of the many “you can’ts” I heard in that era, I flashed back to the men of that church rejecting my mother and I got mad all over again.

Things have changed a lot in the past 40 years. Most doors are now open to all and society has begun to learn what I intuitively knew as a small child – gender is no barrier to any role that doesn’t require the raw size and strength of a professional football player. Women fill an increasing number of senior leadership roles in business and government, and a woman in such a role is rarely a big deal any more.

Yet we still see examples of patriarchal thinking, as with this week’s all-male Congressional hearings on contraception. We see women struggling for basic rights in many parts of the world.

And that still makes me mad.

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  • Word. And well said.

    I think a lot of women who don't consider themselves feminist (then or now) might actually be feminists, but they're too busy getting it done to sort out the definitions. Like your mother. Like my mother.