When I think of the most patriarchal of all organizations, it is not the Church that comes to my mind first. Oh, the Church makes the Top Ten list for sure, but there are so many other secular organizations that overshadow it.
At the top of my list is the military. I have heard countless stories from women veterans about the sexism they faced during their military service. And one only has to look to the number of sexual assaults that today’s female service members are reporting to understand that sexism is virulent within the military community.
The Church has, at the very least, acknowledged that there is role within its institution for women. The military has railed against any such notion. And when it comes to sheer physical intimidation, a vicar has less raw physical power over women than say a Sergeant with a side arm.
The whole institution of Law would be next on my list. Remember, for the bulk of our history women couldn’t bring a case in their own name, and couldn’t testify on their own behalf. Consider even yet today the difficulty women face in being able to genuinely adjudicate a rape case. It wasn’t until our modern era that a woman in the West could obtain a divorce without an act of the Legislature. The law-making branch and the law-interpreting branch have a long tradition of silencing women.
Wall Street continues to be an oppressive place for women. Muriel Siebert was the first woman to buy herself a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. But while Siebert may have blazed a trail, it has not been a well-traveled one. Currently, the number of females who hold CEO positions in Fortune 500 Companies is less than 5 percent. Don’t even get me started on the representation of women in governmental affairs: Senate: Twenty out of a 100. House: 78 out of 435.
So, no, for me the most egregious oppression of women does not occur within the community of Faith. On the contrary, my most ardent feminist friends are the men and women I have encountered within the Faith community. I have faced far more sexism in newsrooms than I ever encountered within the church. That’s not true of every newsroom where I worked, of course. Nor is it true of every church where I’ve worshipped.
I am not talking about the sort of feminism stereotype of a male-bashing lesbian perpetuated by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. (Rush has cultivated a well-paying gig employing sexist rhetoric). I mean the sort of feminism that Sarah Bessey refers to in her thought-provoking book Jesus Feminist.
My husband is the most devoted of all feminists. Even before he was the father of three daughters, Tim was a practicing feminist. He has never abided by the notion that one’s sex determines some contrived prescribed Biblical role. That happened to work out well for us when it came to marriage because I spent a good deal of my formative years in a household of women only. There wasn’t a man around to do whatever job it was a man was supposed to do.
Prior to marrying a feminist, I happened to have benefited a great deal from being mentored by pastors who were every bit as egalitarian as my husband. Until I was a young married woman with children, I had never actually encountered any men in leadership in the church who didn’t grant women an equal place at the table.
True, there are people I love dearly who adhere stridently to a creed that says God made men to rule over women. That saddens me but I don’t see it as my job to “fix” them.
In my book Where’s Your Jesus Now? I recount the story of a pastor who deferred my calls to his wife because he felt it was out-of-place for a male pastor to speak to a female congregant.
I left that church in very short order. My husband lives by a simple theology. It’s one I’ve tried to adopt. It’s a little crass but it goes like this: “There is no point of pissing in the wind.”
The local church is but a microcosm of society. Should it surprise us then that women are sometimes silenced within the Church? Consider how much marginalization of women goes on in the culture-at-large. Perhaps the failure is not within the doors of the Church but beyond it.
I bet if we did a head count we’d find more women in pulpits across this country than in Fortune 500 boardrooms.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain.