It’s tough representing your entire gender.
I feel the pressure every time I climb those super-intimidating stairs to stand behind one of those super-intimidating old-school pulpits to give a sermon I spent extra hours preparing because a small part of me still believes I’m unworthy to give it. I feel it every time I post a blog or write an article or publish a book, every time I give an interview or am asked to speak.
“We wanted to feature a woman’s voice,” a well-meaning conference planner will inform me with excitement, as if mine is sufficient to capture the experiences of 3.5 billion human beings.
I’ll desperately scan the program for another woman’s face, trying to shove the old adage from Clare Boothe Luce from my mind: “Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.”
Luce’s insight, illustrated brilliantly by XKCD, is not a helpful one to share with a perfectionistic overachiever who takes herself way too seriously and who retreats to the company of complex carbohydrates when she’s nervous, which is to say, all of the time.
I’ve got just enough hubris to accept this ridiculous responsibility myself, shouldering it on behalf of my gender like Atlas in a sensible pencil skirt and blouse, as I work too late, take on too much, over-prepare, over-achieve, and over-compensate so that everyone will know we ladies have what it takes. I’ve got to earn more money than the guys, generate more impressive blog stats than the guys, make better arguments than the guys, and know and please all the important guys, just to be taken seriously. I’ve got to respond to every dumb thing John Piper says, be ready to debate 1 Timothy 2:12 on demand, and agree to every conference looking for female participants, because….I don’t know if you’ve heard….we need someone to represent the women; we need a “woman’s voice. “
And when I speak, I better find the sweet spot—that elusive, ideal combination of smart and cute and not-too-intimidating or else they’ll call me a bitch, or they’ll call me dumb, or they’ll call me emotional, or they’ll call me a traitor. But they won’t just be calling me those things. They’ll be calling all women those things, because I’m here to represent my gender; I’m there to speak with a woman’s voice. Should it falter, it will falter for many.
Now, I don’t know how much of this complex of mine represents the harsh reality women really face, or how much of it is a projection generated by my own self-importance and pride, but I do know I am much happier and healthier when I move through the world without it.
In fact, I’ve found that the most subversive, liberating thing I can do these days is to show up to that pulpit, or that conference, or that terrifying blank page and speak with my own voice—
not a “woman’s voice,”
not a “man’s voice,
just Rachel’s voice.
East Tennessee accent and all.
Because really, that’s all I’ve ever had to begin with.
So men, if you want to help me in this effort to avoid self-destruction, beware tokenism. Don’t tell a woman she’s been brought into a project to represent the perspective of her entire gender; that’s too much pressure and not all women see the world the same way. I know this usually happens simply because we share the same goal of seeing more women at the table, and I honor that and am profoundly grateful for the ways in which we partner together to make that happen, but I can’t be held responsible for speaking on behalf of all women; I can only speak for myself. So the more voices, the better. The more backgrounds and stories and experiences and areas of expertise, the better. And if a woman falters or struggles at her work, please don’t universalize it by declaring that all women suck at math, or all women are disinterested in theology, or all women struggle with public speaking, or all women are bad teachers. Some of us are just having off days…you know, like humans do.
Women, speak with the unique voices God gave you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too masculine, or too feminine, or too feminist or not feminist enough. Tell your story, and tell it with the accent, tenor, and tone that story gave you. Tell it in your own voice.
Oh, and while you’re at it, go ahead and fail. Our gender will survive it. I know because I totally bombed the first-service sermon at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids last year in front of, like, 2,000 people who were used to hearing from Rob Bell. And while I’m sure there were people in the crowd who took the opportunity to conclude that women make bad preachers, I only cried about it for two hours and then I stopped caring. In fact, it was something of a relief. It had finally happened: I’d bombed and lived to tell about it; the pressure was off. (And who ever did I think I was to imagine I’d go through life without that happening?) It’s not my job to succeed every time for every woman. If someone concludes from one bad sermon that women suck at preaching, well then that person hasn’t heard enough preachers, and that’s his problem, not mine.
Sometimes the person I need the most liberating from is myself.
I’m still super-intimidated by those high pulpits, and my hand still trembles sometimes before I hit the “publish” button on my computer. Luce’s adage goes through my mind at least once a day. But more and more I’m learning to let go, to quit this fool’s errand of proving to the world that women have what it takes, and instead to go about the hard, unglamorous work of just showing up…as Rachel.
It’s nice when the voice echoing through the sound system, imperfect as it is, sounds like my own.
This post is part of Christian Feminism Week.