A Plea to My Millennial Sisters: Channel Your ‘Inner Suffragette’ to Keep the Doors From Swinging Backwards For Your Daughters and Theirs…

A Plea to My Millennial Sisters: Channel Your ‘Inner Suffragette’ to Keep the Doors From Swinging Backwards For Your Daughters and Theirs… October 29, 2015
Promotional photo of the film ‘Suffragette’

by Emily Nielson Jones of Christian Patriarchal Watch List For Parents – From her Linkedin post used with permission.

“But our position on women in leadership is really not a major issue.  It’s just a minor issue to us, not a core matter of faith.”

 (a representative of a popular Ivy League campus ministry speaking about their “complementarian” organizational structure which limits top leadership positions to men)

Have you too heard this familiar refrain?  Or said something along these lines?

Do you ever have this palpable sense that history isn’t just some distant set of events that you read about in a history book but rather feels very real and present?  That was my day yesterday.  The past in the present, the  present in the past.  A quintessential bloggable moment triggered by that nice little, well-intended refrain above.  Just a minor thing…

In the morning, I was beyond overjoyed to open an email with the trailer to the new movie Suffragette, which aired this past weekend.  The movie tells the story of the pioneers of the British movement who didn’t accept that their inequality was a minor thing and insisted on their civil right to represent themselves in the ballot box.  I studied the suffrage movement in college—aka “female emancipation”—with a particular focus on its Christian roots and how it overlapped with the abolitionist movement. It is a plain fact of history that Christians passionately used their Bibles on both sides of both the slavery and suffrage debates. All this to say, I was completely spellbound by just watching the trailer and cannot wait to watch the movie with my daughter and some of her friends and their moms.  Mothers. Daughters.  (Holy) Rebels.

Within just a few minutes of watching the trailer, I found myself in a cordial phone conversation with a very nice man, new to his job, doing his best to manage a sort of prickly topic:  in 2011 my husband and I had supported his organization but after a series of conversations decided we had to un-fund it as we learned more about its “complementarian” leadership policies.  If you are not familiar with this term, count yourself lucky!  It is a term that has been popularized in contemporary American evangelicalism to attempt to hold together our American belief in equality (yes, of course men and women are equal) with a stratified gender norm  (however men and women by design have different roles, the man’s to lead and the woman’s to support and submit) in both the family and the church.

What Would the Suffragettes Do (WWTSD?) Is it not amazing, the capacity of the human mind to hold incredulously incongruent concepts together?  What I wonder would Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and their comrades think of this fresh new veneer on the same old patriarchal interpretations of Scripture that made the struggle for female suffrage so long and arduous?  Those ladies in bonnets and long skirts endured incredible scorn, ridicule, and put their lives on the line for lots of little things–the right to the ballot box, to own property, to have their voice count in a court of law, to be able to work in the field of their choice, to open their own bank account, and live free of coercion and violence.  Their peaceful gatherings to free both the slave and themselves were often greeted by angry male mobs, Bibles under their arms, telling them to get back in their proper place.

All these “little” demands together were for one big, simple demand:  to be treated as full, multifaceted human beings not as a role that could in any little or big way be hemmed in, abridged or subordinated simply because they were born female.  The “major” implicit in all of the “minor” demands, plain and simple, was the same freedom that we all seek to live and move and have our being[1] in the world from the inside-out, to chart our course in the world without being hemmed in from the outside.

All our great social movements have involved the hard work of untangling incompatible ideologies which have maintained apartheid-like social structures well beyond their shelf life. Not all ideologies and isms can hang together.  Liberty and Justice for All! yet “Separate But Equal” has been tried in myriad ways.  Again and again, it has proven to be an inherently unstable confluence that simply does not hang together.  Yet, even today–in the 21st c. after fighting so many inspiring social revolutions–we continue to repackage and recycle the same ancient patriarchal ideas that cruelly and benevolently usurped and stratified the shared, God-given human agency–aka “dominion”–of female human beings.

Some ideas are meant to be left in a museum, but alas the evangelical tribe, like its counterparts in other faith traditions, is still expending a lot of energy fighting yesterday’s battles and trying to freeze-frame ancient cultural norms that plain and simple are not compatible with the more equitable, better world the human family has been working to create, together.

Many Shades of Gray.  For anyone reading this who is outside the evangelical fold, “complementarianism” is a relatively new, uniquely American attempt at separate-but-equal.  The term was literally just coined in 1991 by John Piper and Wayne Grudem in their seminal book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism and within a decade became common evangelical parlance.  The term sought to soften the archaic sting of words like “patriarchal” or “hierarchical” with a hip new spin that evokes hues of complementarity while preserving, and even ratcheting up, a top-down, vertical authority structure that consolidates leadership and decision-making power in the hands of men. The “ism” tacked on to give it an air of a respectable theological construct like “Calvinism” or “Arminianism”.

It was a genius rebranding of an archaic social consruct–patriarchy which in Greek means “rule of fathers”–into a euphemistic language that could be popularized and mainstreamed.  The term sought to counteract a growing movement within evangelicalism to open leadership to women. Ironically, I graduated from college in 1991 and was shaped by this “egalitarian” movement which has done a lot of great work to create more gender-balanced churches and para-church organizations. Without this movement, many of we GenX-ers would have jumped from the evangelical mother ship long ago.

Little did we know then that this neo-separate-but-equal “complementarian” gender role movement was also taking root, originally at the fringe of the evangelical ecosystem, working to rebrand, redefine, and popularize (through well-organized networks) a highly authoritarian, rigid take on “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” which strangely is gaining ground with many millennial Christians and is spawning a whole crop of new “complementarian” churches and para-church organizations which are bringing patriarchy back into vogue with a hip new face.

As you might be gathering, I am not too keen on this movement : ) but have found a new avocation as a curious yet befuddled “holy watch dog” tracking the many shades of patriarchal gray creeping into millennial spirituality, often under your radar. I am writing this as a plea to my younger millennial sisters of faith (and brothers too!) to keep your eyes open to the larger directional current of gender norms coming into vogue in and around your hip new churches and para-church ministries, like this popular new “complementarian” Ivy League leadership ministry which I share as just one window into what can happen within a whole sector if we are not deliberately keeping our eyes open to “minor” incremental shifts going no where good.

Concern from the GenX.  Sadly, there are others which seem to be caught in this same backwards gender current so please keep your eyes open with me, if not for yourselves and your generation, for your daughters and their daughters’ daughters. And also for the world’s daughters. We live on a small, interconnected planet. What we think and do and how we structure our holy institutions in one corner of the world has reverberations elsewhere. In far too many places, it is still really really hard to grow up as a girl. We are our sister’s keeper.  And our daughters’.

A child of the 1970’s, I am not a “millenial” but see my own Gen X tribe as your older sisters, a bridge between the Gloria Steinem feminism of my mother’s era to yours.  The granddaughter of Scandinavian immigrants, I grew up within the conservative culture of a Southern Baptist Church (the denomination Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter left due to its gender regressions) where my Sunday School teacher would ask “Is there a boy who would like to pray?”  Thankfully, I had Free to Be You and Me ringing in my childlike ears and heart (thanks mom!) to remind me to honor my inner truth and say no thank you to things that seemed imposed from without.

Some how my inner girl feels connected with your generation.  There is something that draws me to you, something I missed and hope for in my daughter.  I am intrigued by your generation and admire you greatly.  You aren’t just climbing ladders, you are looking for meaning in life.  You are are really strong and have a quality of confidence and presumed equality that seems unique to your generation of women.  Yet I am perplexed by you too.  Why are you flocking to these hip new patriarchal churches and ministries?  Why are you reading/watching 50 Shades of Grey?  Why aren’t you looking a little bit more closely beyond the cool homepages and marketing to see and be bothered by policies which bar you from formal leadership positions and circumscribe what you can do and be, and where you can serve and lead?  You have no living memories of the women’s movement of the 60’s and 70’s.  Not that everything was perfect in the world or in the church, but throughout my childhood and young adulthood into the 80’s and 90’s, it seemed like things were directionally moving forward.  Walls and ceilings were coming down.

I admit at times I feel a maternal protectiveness towards you.  You are growing up in a strange sea of confusing, incongruent gender norms where on one hand (because of all of the work heretofore) most of you presume your own equality—so much so that many of you have ditched the “F word”[1] that many of your mothers and grandmothers proudly identified with.  Yet almost everyday your rose-colored glasses are shattered, mine too, by the shocking and horrific gender stories that litter the news: women losing their rights to drive, having to be covered from head-to-toe, girls being subjected to virginity tests, being forced to marry rapists and being snatched and sold into sexual slavery, denominations and networks that had organically allowed women in leadership clamping down and reversing course.  Walls and ceilings that we thought we had knocked down being erected again.  Story after story of normalized sexual violence and women and girls’ basic human rights hanging in the balance and even being rolled backwards, in the name of “Tradition” or “God’s Will” or ‘Family Values” and in the less sanctified patriarchal “language” of pornography which is warping the minds of the boys/men you live with, go to college with, date, and some day may marry with utterly violent and debasing images of your body that are beyond medieval…

How do you/we make sense of it all?  What is going on in your/our female and religious psyche?  Do you/we have eyes to see through the hip terms and inviting websites to see history repeating itself?  This separate-but-equal evangelical construct is really nothing new, it is exactly the mindset your mothers and grandmothers were working so hard to unwind.  It manifests in many faces and myriad shades of gray (pun intended : ) across a continuum of highly authoritarian (aka “hard complementarianism”) to more muted “soft complementarian” expressions. (It does sound a little pornographic, doesn’t it?)  Some organizations which use this term completely bar women from formal leadership roles, while others apply it by creating gender ceilings which allow women to serve and lead in some ways while reserving the top echelon of leadership positions for men only.  Sort of a cake-and-eat-it-too sort of thing.

***But you might be thinking, on a college campus?***  Huh?  Of course there are really conservative sects and churches out there with all sorts of restrictive gender views.  The Mormons, the Amish, the Quiverful homeschool communities, the Bible Belt.  But isn’t college a place where American society has unambiguously and categorically decided that racial and gender ceilings are a thing of the past?  And we are not talking here about Bible colleges or Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.   We are talking about a well-funded, popular ministry at all eight Ivy League schools where young women go brimming with idealism and a presumption of equality that all doors in society will be open to them to fly through.  And to create even more cognitive dissonance, this particular campus ministry–Christian Union founded in 2002–is focused on leadership development… What the ?

We blatantly use gender screens in how we hire and select leaders. but no worries, this is not a major thing for us.  Let’s just politely agree to disagree and chalk it up to one of those difficult theological nuances.  Not a core matter of faith to ruffle your feathers over!  No biggie, so much so that we don’t even bother telling you our students and donors about this little policy we have.

Those Who Have Eyes To See.  The backdrop to this call was that we had made this donation to help Christian Union launch a ministry at our alma mater, Dartmouth College, with some little “yellow flags” which gradually turned bigger and redder as we learned more about what this “complementarian” leadership policy actually looked like:  No female board members. Women not allowed to move above a certain level in the org chart. And from all accounts, a preference for male student club presidents.[2]  

You know, just minor little things… which you would not see with those rosey glasses on, which you would fail to notice without a curiosity that looks beneath the surface of things, beneath the glossy marketing and the elite rhetoric to what is really meant by “leadership development”.

We had been doing global philanthropy in a formal way for a few years and had gotten to a point where my maternal heart was literally aching by how hard it is to be a girl around the world. Basically, we felt a compelling need to formally adopt a policy of using a “gender lens” in all our philanthropic investments. We had encountered a number of organizations that were working to alleviate the symptoms of gender injustice yet themselves were still caught themselves perpetuating incongruent gender norms.

Using a gender-lens in philanthropy and investing basically means asking good questions and taking seriously how gender-balanced an organization or company is/isn’t and if there are any formal or informal policies around gender–little and big– that in any way encourage or restrict women at any level of the organization. If you are interested in more about how to use a gender-lens, check out All in For Her, a report put out by Women Moving Millions, a network  I am apart of with women across the country who are putting their assets and their skin in the game of getting all in for Her.  In The Powerful Philanthropic Intention behind “Women Moving Millions” the Non-Profit Quarterly describes

“The organization defines giving with a gender lens as donors thoroughly “examin[ing] how culturally entrenched gender norms affect women and men differently, and then tak[ing] these distinctions into account when identifying both the problems and the solutions.” The presumption behind using a gender-lens is that most organizations and businesses today in fact want to create more gender-balanced cultures but often do not prioritize this and need some nudges to do so. Sadly, most faith-based organizations are way behind their secular counterparts in working to create more just, gender-balanced subcultures.”

The present stuck in the past.  As we began engaging globally in problems like human trafficking, my maternal heart (my daughter was ten at the time) and rose-colored glasses were utterly crushed as I began to see and experience how tragically low the bar still is around the world for girls and women’s basic human rights.  A natural optimist, a good American, I just presumed their was a sort of autopilot forward trajectory in the world, one that was at least trying to level the playing field.  It is not at all an exaggeration to say that females are still the most marginalized, discriminated against class of human beings.  Yes we have laws on the books, thanks to our suffragist forebears, but common law attitudes still prevail everywhere which greet girls right from the womb saying you are a role not a full human being, you are a pre-wife meant to perpetually live under male authority.  This devaluation of female human agency makes girls vulnerable to unspeakable neglect, abuse, overwork, malnutrition, underinvestment, and being treated as a transaction to increase a family’s wealth and honor and all to often as a sexual object for someone else’s pleasure and gain.

It is not an exaggeration to say that our world is still very much caught in the tension between the Old World and the New, between contemporary ideals of shared human rights for all and ancient social norms— that go back almost four millennia—which continue to treat being form female as a second class status. This manifests in myriad minor cultural practices and humanitarian symptoms—child marriage, dowry/bride price, female genital cutting, domestic servitude of girls in their own homes, sex trafficking, sanctioned domestic violence/rape, incest, on and on—which together add up to a really scary macro humanitarian pandemic now being called “gendercide”.   At the root of all of these distressing gender-based humanitarian struggles is the persistence of a very ancient gender norm, which arose alongside of slavery, which treated and still treats females throughout their life cycle more as a subject to be owned, ruled, and transacted rather than as a human agent in their own right.  Voice after voice is calling the global human rights violations of girls and women the “chief moral crisis of the 21st c.”:

In the 19th century, the central moral challenge was slavery; in the 20th century, it was totalitarianism; but in this century the issue dominating moral debate is gender inequity.

~ Nicholas Kristoff & Sheryl WuDunn

Small hinges.  Relative to this big ugly global humanitarian scourge, a college ministry with gender ceilings on its eight Ivy League campuses is not the biggest problem facing the planet.  But the global is local and the local is global. Everything is invisibly hitched together.  Can we really expect to put a dent in the harsh humanitarian scourge of gendercide while still holding onto the underlying ideas and sacred cows which maintain and perpetuate a male presumption of power?  Big changes don’t happen without lots of little micro changes in the way we think and act and the everyday social institutions that form the fabric of our human society. If we truly seek to go beyond mere palliative care and charity to establish full justice for girls and women, we have to attend to all the “minor” ways in which we continue to create a stratification across the gender line. A gender-lens very intentionally looks at the “little things” and asks is this policy or practice leading to more gender stratification or less? If you scaled up this “minor” idea, belief or practice does it lead to more gender balance in our world or less? 

Little” things matter, do they not?  The micro is in the macro, the macro in the micro.  Ideally all the micro policies of any institution or system are flowing in the right macro direction.  It takes spiritual discernment to gauge the directional flow of all of the micro, “minor” things are flowing in. But in my book it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a PhD to see that a new college ministry establishing gender ceilngs is going nowhere good. As W. Clement Stone, esteemed business entrepreneur/philanthropist who gave over $275 million away in his lifetime to civic groups and Christian organizations,

“Big doors swing on small hinges.”

 ~ W. Clement Stone

If you want to doors of the the world to swing in the direction of justice and equality, you need to make sure that each little hinge, no matter how cherished and laden with tradition, is swinging the world toward more justice and equality not less.  Little ideas can have big consequences.  In the flow of history, there are times when creaky old hinges simply need to be retired.

Needless to say, what we uncovered in our gender-lens questioning was rather stunning: not just the usual gender blind spots and inertia that you see in many work environments but rather a very deliberate, formal spelled out hiring policy which creates a gender leadership ceiling within their eight campus organization. The more we asked questions the more we uncovered. Not that any of this would be any less stunning at other colleges or universities, but a new Ivy League ministry dedicated to leadership development shamelessly using a blatant gender screen in their hiring and student governance policies? What in God’s name is going on? How could this be? At my own college right here in my backyard?

It’s a small world where history and the world are more close and present than we often realize. We don’t always feel this, but we are still apart of those civil rights movements we learned about in our history books. Each of these movements is in fact still unfolding and still needs us in our own generation to keep the needle moving forward. Have you felt this today with all of the painful reminders that the ideas and attitudes which created and perpetuated the American institution of slavery and Jim Crow are still alive and well in our world? The present stuck in ideas that should have been left in the past… Have you like me encountered a distressing shift within American evangelicalism from the “soft complementarian” to the more authoritarian “hard” variety that is with renewed vigor creating and fortifying gender ceilings and the consolidation of power in the hands of men. Thankfully not everywhere, but sadly within many “mainstream” evangelical organizations that have brand appeal and trust yet all too often behind the scenes and not exactly advertised on organizations’ home pages.

In an off-the-cuff remark a recent global leadership conference, Bill Hybels, well-known author/speaker/pastor at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, poignantly described this gender regressive shift that has been happening off the radar screen of many:

“Somewhere in the middle 90’s, I think, I said, I don’t have to carry that flag anymore.  Because the whole church gets it; we are done with that.  We’ve crossed over.  In the last ten years, I am embarrassed to say, it’s gone the other way.  There is a generation of leaders coming up now who are back in the old school of limiting the potential of what women can do; limiting where women can serve; limiting their potential service in the church.  I don’t get it. But I freely admit that I misjudged where I thought the church was going.  Corporations are way in front of us, universities, my gosh the military is in front of us. And churches are lagging behind on this. If I could do it over again, I would have kept the pressure up until every last church that I could influence would allow women to serve, and to use their gifts, and to be full image bearers in the church.” [3]

~ Bill Hybels

Have you seen this ripples of this regressive movement in your neck of the woods?  In my faith pond here in New England, there are six or seven church planting networks starting very hip, millennial churches that talk the talk of “justice”–even “radical” justice–but have all-male “ruling elders” and many are part of a nationwide men’s movement encouraging men to see themselves as the “prophets, priests, and kings” of the family.  Seriously, seriously, seriously, what in God’s name is going on?  Just a few years ago, most of the evangelical churches in this area seemed to be slowly shifting toward a model of shared leadership between men and women.  It was too slow by my standards, but it seemed to be happening.  Church by church.  Policy by policy.  You know, just those “minor” things.

(In my effort to map and track this befuddling and distressing shift happening in a part of the country where we should know better, I created this watch list to shine a little sunlight on these neo-patriarchal regressions.  When things are hidden from view and orchestrated behind closed doors, this is when the needle can easily slip backwards, one “little” hinge at a time.  Bringing the light of awareness is central for stakeholders to know what they are signing up for.  Take a look if you are so inclined, there may be some organizations that you recognize, support, and/or participate in.  If you are bothered by any of what you see, please don’t be shy about speaking up.  Consider sending an email or two!  Feel free this email if it might help!)

Channeling your Inner Suffragette.  As I was listening to the nice development officer that had been assigned to deal with the “problem” donors explain that, no, the board is not considering any changes to its complementarian leadership structure but really this is a minor not a major issue for us, I felt the spirit of the suffragettes with me. Thankfully, they did not allow their own equality to be treated as a trifle but rather as a “major” human concern central to both faith and our highest American ideals. They wrote great orations, which they often had to have a man read, and had great systemic minds which looked for key leverage points to create change. They had curious minds that dared to ask good questions and challenge settled social and religious conventions. This might sound cheesy, but I felt myself hearing this familiar polite refrain through their ears. Calm down nice Christian ladies, whether you can vote or not is not core to the Christian faith, go back to your children and your laundry and praying and Biblical Gender Roles. You know, the core things…

Many of these brave women actually did love their Bibles, but as their hearts and minds opened in empathy to the struggle for freedom of their African brothers and sisters, they were able to see a deeper truth running through the pages of their Bibles than the verses used to keep both slaves and women in their “proper” place: Slaves, obey your masters. Wives, submit to your husband and stay quiet. As they threw themselves into freeing the African slave, something was awakened within them to see through this accepted Biblical convention to see that they too were in chains and deserved emancipation.

“The enslavement of women is the darkest page in human history.”

~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton

It might seem inflammatory to be linking today’s gender struggles with slavery but the two systems–slavery and patriarchy–are more intertwined than we tend to think.  Both arose in the same cultural soil where it came to be accepted that you could own someone else.  In this construct, females came to be seen as property in a patriarch’s real estate along with the land, the cattle, the house, the family’s possessions, and the slaves.  If you engage with gender issues around the world, you feel very acutely how these chains of the past live on today in the social norms which continue to enshroud girls and women’s day-to-day lives. All too many experience marriage itself, and all of the puberty rites leading up to marriage, as enslaving and a loss of personhood.

Holy Impatience.  Less than one hundred years separates us from the passage of women’s suffrage in the U.S.  All those ancient gender norms described above were brought here to the New World.  The timeline of women’s suffrage here and around the world[4] progressed slowly throughout the 19th and 20th centuries with some countries in the Arab world still working to pass universal suffrage into the present. The history of opening colleges to women is even more recent with many elite schools like those in the Ivy League just opening their doors to women in the 1970’s. While we may crossed a “tipping point” with women’s suffrage and access to higher education, but the same underlying cultural and religious norms that at one point were used to deny women the basics of suffrage, access to schooling, and basic civil rights (e.g. inheriting/owning property, equal representation in a court of law, marrying and divorcing on equal terms, driving, etc) have yet to be put into a museum where they belong next to  the Confederate flag.

Women’s human emancipation is an unfinished journey that our mothers and grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers bravely began, often to their own peril, but is in our hands to bring over the end line and into the 21st c.  It may sound obvious, but to keep the needle moving forward, we cannot so politely and patiently let it slide backwards. There are flagpoles we still need to scale.  There are ideological flags we take down and package and once and for all leave in the past.

The women’s movement has spanned decades, centuries, even millenia, yet  sadly we are still dealing with some very basic, foundational principles that have yet to be fully established in our world.  That we are human beings, not a role.  That healthy relationships require shared agency and power.  It can be hard to keep your guard up so continuously just to assert this foundational truth in the face of seemingly endless “minor” setbacks.  All things being equal, most of us really do not want to have to keep fighting with banners and slogans.  We don’t want to have to attach ourselves to an “ism”.  We just want to be ourselves.  And live our lives.  But there are times when the status quo requires something of us… to rise and say no, this is simply not ok.  

A few years ago, I attended The Justice Conference, a popular annual event for Christians engaged in social justice, in Philadelphia and was utterly shocked beyond belief to discover that the board overseeing the conference was comprised of all men.  Some how all those big ideas about “radical justice” were yet to be applied to the little detail of gender-balancing their leadership board.  I was expressing my dismay to an older woman who worked for the organization and she shared a story with me about how she had served for many years on a missions board and then suddenly, just like that, she was told to step down because the missions board decided it was “unbiblical” for women to be in leadership roles.  I asked her how she handled this and she admitted to being bothered by it but she overall she just accepted it.  “See honey, you just have to be patient” she kept saying, “yes, it’s annoying but these things happen.  Change is slow.”  Patience has its place, but you know what, so too does impatience.  Yes, change is slow, but do we normalize these all these little infringements that seem to be cropping up everywhere by being so polite and patient?

We don’t allow women into certain top positions in our organization, but don’t worry, this is not a core matter of faith… You know more like one of those “minor” theological trifles we can politely agree to disagree about: sprinkle or dunk? praise music or hymns? pre-millenial eschatology or post? or neither? Calvinist or Arminian? wooden pews or soft comfortable chairs? “complementarian” or “egalitarian”?

Have you heard this familiar, amicable response?  What do you do with it?  Do you feel irked but say to yourself why make such a big deal, there are bigger problems in our world?  Who am I to question what an elder board, a church planting network, or a well-respected religious man with a lot of degrees to his name says the Bible says?  Be patient, things will change… 

I am the first to admit to being an impatient activist.  For my own girl child and  for girls around the world who you and I will never have a chance to meet, this is a moment in time to not be so polite and patient.

It has been said of old… It is not easy for we humans to change or edit our traditions, is it?  We love our symbols and we like things to stay the same.  We see this in religion but also on our college campuses.  Both for too long were old boys clubs with lots of ideology that propped up the exclusion of women.

“Men of Dartmouth, give a rouse for the college on the hill!  Men of Dartmouth set a watch lest the Old Traditions fail!” For the sons of old Dartmouth, the loyal sons of Dartmouth…”

~ excerpts from the original Dartmouth Alma Mater

But the only thing that stays the same is this mind and heart expanding thing we call change.  Traditions hold our values but were created by us and are not fixed and immovable.  Things change.  Women now proudly attend most of these prestigious, formerly all-male colleges.  Women have always been part of the church, even in the Bible both “sons” and “daughters” are shown using all of the spiritual gifts and serving in all of the roles as prophet, priests, and “queens”.  We have such incredible examples in our collective treasury of people who were on the leading edge of change, honoring the highest and the best from the past but calling the human family to open their eyes to see a new horizon around the next bend of the river that is more inclusive of the whole human family.  The suffragists are one such example.  They have existed in every generation.  Right back to the “Garden of Eden” that dwells in each of our hearts calling us to shed the lies and false conventions that have sought to divide and rank order Adam and Eve and the whole human family. And they took even little things, like the words of songs, seriously.  They changed traditions during the coeducation years to include not just “sons” but “daughters”:

“Dear old Dartmouth, give a rouse for the college on the hill!   Dear old Dartmouth, set a watch lest the old traditions fail!  For the sons of old Dartmouth, the daughters of Dartmouth…”

~ excerpts from the revised Dartmouth Alma Mater

Little words matter.  They represent big things.

Back to the question asked above:  WWTSD? if they were in college today (or had children applying to college as I do) in the 21st c. and were part of a college ministry that over forth years after coeducation was still using the same tiring cultural and religious that they fought so hard to change to stratify the Masculine and the Feminine?  How would they see the unique work of this particular moment in time?  What would they do if they found out an organization they were supporting or a church they attended was using blatant gender ceilings in hiring and in governance?

Little policies matter.  They represent big things.

And WWJD? (aka “What would Jesus do?”) if he were alive today seeing college ministries and millennial churches holding on and repackaging the same stratified social norms that prevailed in his day that elevated some as masters, lords and kings and gave others such low status?  The man who never treated women as a subordinate role but always as a person.  The man who Christians believe ushered in a new epoch where all the walls in the temple that classified people into Gentiles and Jews, clean and unclean, male and female, were torn down.  Again and again, Jesus called people in his generation to see a law more true and timeless than any of the religious and cultural conventions thrown at him.  It has been said of old, but I say unto you… Jesus was actually a pretty dang awesome change agent, wasn’t he?  He called religious experts to become like little children to see the world anew.  His words and his life example remind us in every generation that faith is not an airtight belief system or rules and stratifying roles, but rather is a little “seed” that awakens deep within that can see through any conventional wisdom to move mountains and throw poisonous trees into the sea.

What do we do with the traditions handed down to us?  How do we honor them yet let them change?  What is meant to be left in the past and what is meant to be carried forward in the present and into the future?

Given that women’s history at Dartmouth and other Ivy League schools is still so recent, I acutely feel the tension between the ideals of co-education (which really just happened in a big way in the 1970’s) and the traditions of the past as I wrestle to get my GenX mind around how an organization like Christian Union, with such an anachronistic gender stance, has successfully spread to eight Ivy League campuses without any apparent protest.  How could this be?

You millennial women are strong and empowered and wow you have your acts together!  I am in awe at all the young millennial women I meet who are forgoing comfortable career paths to start and run their own NGOs to make the world a better place for all human beings. Your adventuresome spirit and your passion for justice, your graceful yet strong bearing and confidence would make your grandmothers and their grandmothers proud! Keep going, keep doing you, keep presuming your own equality, and keep asking what is yours to do to make our world more just and humane. Presume your own equality but don’t take it for granted. Keep your “gender-lens” engaged to watch out for and ring the bell in the face of gender regressions that are going no where good.

“Micro” Regressions Matter.  Honestly, do you find yourself asking What century are we living in? Who could this be? In the 21st c. after so many social movements to shed the social stratifications of the Old World to create a level playing field for all human beings? Is the needle moving backwards for femalekind? What the heck is going on in our world? Do you feel this sense of tenuousness in the cells of your body too? As Dr. Gail Dines, a sociologist at Wheelock and anti-pornography activist with Culture Reframed often says,

There are many places along the patriarchal continuum where girls and women capitulate their equality bit by bit, one denial of their humanity after another.

~ Dr. Gail Dines

You see this in particularly acute form in the horrors of human trafficking—a highly gendered problem, over 80% of human trafficking victims are female—where by the time a girl or woman is trafficked she has typically suffered layer upon layer of someone usurping her human agency, often in her own home and community, sanctioned by ancient gender norms which persist today which treat her right from the womb as meant for submission and subjugation. Many of the suffragettes were white affluent women whose lives looked very charmed on the outside but who found solidarity with their black and working class sisters. Theirs and ours is a sisterhood past, present, and future. What kind of world are we giving to our daughters and their daughters’ daughters? What is ours to do in this generation to finish the work they began?    

Our challenge today is similar yet different than theirs. Theirs was more blatant, ours more latent and at times so micro and “minor” that we drop our guard and don’t even know when regressions are happening. Did you know that many of the early female abolitionist society meetings were surrounded by angry male mobs, Bibles in hand, which even burned the buildings they were in to the ground. There is still blatant and shameless misogyny in our world today, but most of the work of continuing the long, (way too slow) journey of female emancipation today is in the terrain of more latent, micro “little hinges” that can be so invisible and seemingly “minor” that they are all too easily be dismissed as making a big deal out of nothing.

Needless to say, we ended up withdrawing support for the organization but have maintained a conversation asking, almost pleading with them, to review and revisit their gender policies. Para-church organizations like Christian Union have a powerful shaping effect on the culture of American evangelicalism. Roughly one quarter of Americans identity as evangelical so this religious “pond” has a powerful influence on American society. This influence is in fact the raison d’etre behind the founding of Christian Union. Here is how the founder of Christian Union, Matt Bennett, describes his reason for launching ministry of leadership development focused in particular on Ivy League schools:

“Christian Union’s vision for changing culture requires reaching an especially influential segment of the US population with the Gospel. The need is profound; the worldview of this unreached people group affects us personally, shaping our economy, government, media, and education. Christian Union focuses energy toward developing Christian leaders at eight universities and select cities because of their extraordinary influence on our culture and society. The universities are: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale. Out of the 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in the country, these eight produce 50 percent of the most influential leaders in our nation. Graduates from these schools also have extraordinary influence on the international scene.”

So you want to raise up future leaders to change the world and you have a very particular philosophy of leadership development that your staff must sign to work at your organization, but on your website, there is absolutely no trace of anything that even hints of a “complementarian” leadership philosophy or policies that in any way stratifies leadership by gender.  On your list of “distinctives”—The Christian Union Difference—why not openly describe your “Complementarian Leadership Philosophy” so students and donors know if they are in alignment or not?

Most (if not all) students who participate in this ministry and most donors which support it know nothing of the organizations gender views. Everything we uncovered was just from asking lots of questions of various people across the organization, which sadly, most donors to evangelical organizations don’t do as many organizations are based on an individual support model more based on personal relationships than a thorough understanding of how an organization is structured. Non-profits are not owned by anyone but exist for the common good. Supporters are stake-holders who have a right to know how their money is being invested.  Organizations have a responsibility/right to define their mission and values and, in good faith, be transparent to all stakeholders about what they stand for.

Freedom is Indivisible.  When I was in college in the late 80’s/early 90’s, all of the campus ministries were moving to remove gender ceilings. There is a very positive movement across American evangelicalism to mine Scripture for its deeper message of freedom and equality and move beyond literalistic interpretations which in effect freeze frame the gender norms of the ancient world as if they were meant to be timeless and universal. Every faith tradition has a troubling enslaving, colonialist, imperialist, patriarchal past that it needs to sort through to determine what is truly timeless and meant to be carried forward from one generation to the next.  Our civil rights movement would not have become a movement were it not for the passion of Christians, black and white, who connected their plight with the Israelites bondage in Egypt.

The brave women who fought for female suffrage also tapped into this River of Justice flowing in their hearts and were motivated by their faith to fight for something larger than just the singular right to the ballot box. Like all great social pioneers, they were fighting for a vision of a more just world where there are no walls and gates in the temples which restrict Gentiles from Jews, men from women, slaves from free people. True faith leans toward freedom of all people as children of God. All of our great institutions of higher learning likewise are based on high ideals of knowledge and working for the common good. Most have worked hard to open their doors to formerly disenfranchised populations and create an atmosphere of equal opportunity for all.

When the social plane remains in any way stratified and un-level, and when the ideology supporting this is still held onto, the “slope” is always vulnerable to becoming more vertical rather than more level. It only becomes more horizontal with brave people like the 19th c. abolitionists and the suffragists who threw themselves into untangling the root ideas and conventions, often propped by appeals to the Bible, that gave/give ideological sanction to treating some as an over class with a divine right to rule and others as an under-class not meant to own their own human agency and have a seat at the table in leadership and decision-making.

There are lots of social hierarchies throughout the Bible—lots of slavery, lots of patriarchal household codes, and some pretty grim misogyny—but thankfully in every generation there are those with eyes to see, as Jesus often said, that the stratified power structures of the world that create over- and under-classes were not the main story line of the Bible. The spirit of human emancipation seen in both the abolitionist and suffragist movement was lead by people, awakened by basic human empathy to see a common humanity that unites us across social hierarchies that have cropped up across race, gender, and class lines. With hearts of empathy, Christians were able to see beyond the conventional readings of Scripture to tap into the deeper Story being told from beginning to the end of the Bible:

My own alma mater went coed in 1973. It has had its struggles but overall has made great strides to gender balance its culture to make all students feel welcome. Women are proud to be at Dartmouth and love all its traditions but are not so grateful to be there that they easily turn a blind eye anything that smacks of sexism.   It is hard to imagine a student club or ministry on campus that in any way even considers limiting or sorting roles and positions by gender.

Freedom is a funny thing, once one shackle is removed, once one closed door is opened, it demands that you untie the next cord… Once any group is empowered enough to demand their own suffrage, the human spirit within them is not content to passively accept other social barriers and restrictions. African Americans were not so grateful to be freed from slavery that they just politely accepted Jim Crow restrictions. Every people group desires its own sovereignty. The female “tribe” is no exception. She is human too. She comes into the world like the everyone does with an inborn presumption of equality and a soul that braces under social norms which for centuries have sought to limit and define her as a “role”.  Yet we continue even today in the 21st c. to create euphemistic terms that attempt to sanitize and put a sanctimonious face on the ancient patriarchal ordering of society that, like slavery and myriad forms of ethnic caste systems, is built on an unjust stratification across the gender line. Once you let freedom out of the cage, the human spirit knows no bounds.  It isn’t just content with a larger cage.   Every “little” minor issue is a link on a larger chain.  As Nelson Mandela so passionately spoke into the wold, your plight is connected to mine.

“Freedom is indivisible.  The chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”

~ Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

If there is one thing I have learned from engaging globally and philanthropically with the unfinished work of women and girls human emancipation, it is that if the needle is not intentionally moving forward, it will slide backwards. As we see almost every day in the news, this is particularly true within the religious sphere where patriarchal cultural norms over the centuries have become “Gospel”.  Yes, regardless of what holy or not-so-holy terms are used, the female tribe has been, is, and will be part of humankind’s long Long Walk to Freedom.  We are all deep down wired for freedom yet we continuously find ourselves caught holding onto recycling stratifying ideologies from the past which blind us to the chains that remain on the other.  You can’t in good conscience say, yes tribe X, you can have this right but not that right.  You can vote, but no you still cannot inherit or own property or open your own bank account. Can you welcome women onto a college campus and in good conscience create invisible stratifications which say what she can do or not do?

Let’s Own our Own Movement.  When did our movement for female human emancipation begin and when will it end? Some say patriarchy began about four thousand years ago with the advent of agriculture when we moved from the more organic, web-like way of living close to the ground and began to settle in one place and accumulate property. Who knows for sure, but we do not that both slavery and patriarchy arose together in the same ancient soil where our religious traditions arose and are highly interconnected, even in Scripture. It will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female slaves I will pour out My Spirit in those days[6] There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus…[7] The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the captives free…[8]

“The history of the past is but one long struggle to equality.”

~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Patriarchy in all of its forms, from “soft” to “hard”, from latent to blatant, is all part of one historic chain that Adam and Eve carried on their backs from Eden.  So too, “feminism” (aka “egalitarianism” in evangelical speak) cannot be isolated to one particular generation or place but rather is a longing for Eden where male and female existed in mutuality and harmony and walked side-by-side with their Creators.

Why is that so few of us, even women, know much about our own movement for equality and freedom? And how could it be that in the 21st c. the “hinges” on our social doors are still so vulnerable to swinging backwards? How could it be that even at elite schools of higher education where we hold high ideals of equality and justice for all that we are still asked to politely accept institutionalized gender ceilings as just a minor issue?

I hope you will go see Suffragette and that it awakens in you a pride of being both beneficiaries of and participants in this powerful, still-unfolding movement that treats women’s full human equality not as a minor trifle to be debated and tossed around with fancy “isms”, but as a major matter of faith and conscience worthy of our full attention.

I felt a sense of peace that I had said my peace as our polite conversation about what in fact a “complementarian” college ministry looks like. I ended by expressing my sadness even picturing such a policy at my own college or and very clearly underlining that no matter how nicely you say it a policy that in any way excludes women from leadership is in fact a major concern on college campuses and in society today. No, this is not a “minor” issue on par with whether you sprinkle or dunk or what you think about whether this spiritual gift or that is for today or not.

For the sake of my daughter, and my sons, and your millennial generation, I will not sit by passively and watch gender regressions happening in my own backyard and my own faith pond. My global activism on behalf of girls and women has a very personal root: What if that were my own daughter? We can’t dilly dally and just wait around for a few more centuries for the needle to slowly move forward. And we certainly cannot politely sit around and watch even minor hinges swing the door backwards. With an alert and engaged gender-lens, we can embrace both the forward momentum that is happening at all levels of society to create a more gender-balanced world while also seeing with clear eyes where the obstacles remain. An easy first step to doing your part is simply keeping your eyes open, asking good questions, and being aware of which direction the invisible current is flowing in.

Millenials holding onto faith, let’s bury our rose-colored glasses but not our gender-lenses or our basic human empathy which was in fact the dividing line between those who used their Bibles to fight for and against slavery and a patriarchal ordering of society which denied women basic civil rights. May we hold firm to the deep essence of our faith that affirms our shared humanity as male and female image-bearers of God created for shared dominion/care of our beautiful yet broken world and leave everything else in the past where it belongs.

I don’t know what will happen to all these hip new “complementarian” organizations with all these new gates and walls being erected around what females can and can’t do. But I hope your generation will start seeing these patriarchal shifts through our forebears’ suffragist eyes and in a larger global and historic context. What is the macro directional current of this “minor” policy or practice I see in my church or ministry? Is this the world we want to give our daughters? And their daughter’s daugthers? And our sons?

I have not yet seen Suffragette but I am scheming to go with my 13 year-old daughter and some of her friends and their moms. I don’t know if the bunch of girls under my watching eye will come to identify with the “F word” or if they will be global gender activists, but I believe in their natural presumption of equality and their kick-butt strong girl spirit.

I hope and trust that they will be smart consumers and investors who will shop around for products, churches, organizations, and ministries that do not question or undermine their full human equality.

I pray they will not lose touch with their own hearts nor be blind to the maddening gender pendulum swings that threaten to unwind the hard work of their mothers and grandmothers. I pray that they will see their own equality as a major to major on and that they will not lose the capacity to be jarred and speak up when they see even little “hinges” swinging things in the wrong direction.

Wherever they go to college, wherever they end up working, I hope they will never second-guess their own equality to take risks and participate at all levels in any organization.

I hope they do not have a need to write a nervy blog like this, but sure hope they are not so polite that they wouldn’t.

I hope and pray for that little flame within to burn brightly to be able to say no, that is not ok to all of the little and big disempowering forces and messages that come their way.

I hope and pray that they will remember–in the cells of their bodies–the strong backs that have carried them.

And that they too, like their suffragette forebears, will have a mother bear instinct that is willing to let out a growl or two to protect her she-cubs.

Every little growl is part of the bigger roar we need to once and for all turn the corner on all shades of patriarchal gray, whether in the ballot box, a brothel, the pews, or an elite Ivy League campus.

Another world is not only possible.                She is on her way.

~ Arundhati Roy

may it be so

[1] Acts 17:28

[2] “feminist”

[3] It’s not clear whether selecting a male student club president a formal or informal policy and how consistently this is applied from one campus to the next.  Since our due diligence, it appears they may have added one female board member.

[4] recorded by Evelia Narango https://www.facebook.com/evelia.naranjo/videos/10153520722582500/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_women%27s_suffrage

[6] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiograpy of Nelson Mandela

[7] Joel 2:28-29

[8] Galatians 3:28

[9] Luke 4:18

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