Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy, Sherri Bothwell

Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy, Sherri Bothwell January 5, 2024

Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy

Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy
Sherri Bothwell

Sherri Bothwell was introduced to Christianity as an 11-year-old child. As a result of the trauma she endured as a woman, she began working with abused women and children. Hearing their courageous stories, she faced her questions and shared her own story of abuse, and because of patriarchal Christian men, she eventually walked away from the faith. Her speech is Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy.

I was lucky to create a Leaning Forward conference with all these women and their wisdom!



Leaning Forward is the title of a book by Karl and Laura Forehand about moving beyond the confines of organized religion. It is also the title of an online conference we have hosted for several years. This year, we decided to host a series of podcasts primarily to help us understand religious trauma and how to move forward. We are also hosting an online conference with the understanding that amplifying women’s voices is probably the most important component.

This is a conference powered by women but designed for men and women who want to heal from trauma and identify ways to do better in the future!
Sherri  shared:
“Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy: Taking Back the Narrative by Telling our Stories.


The complete version of Sherri’s talk is on YouTube! 



I was a pastor’s wife for many years within Christianity and was in various leadership positions. In my particular sect of Christianity, women were silenced and that was my trauma. I was silenced by the men in the church, and even the men in my life that I had a relationship with. I am currently in therapy, and I am doing EMDR therapy, which has been brutal, but phenomenal. Most of the time I don’t want to go, but it’s always more than worth it to do it.

A big part of my recovery is telling my story, reclaiming my voice from the patriarchy, taking back that narrative, and letting my voice be heard. A lot of people ask me, “Why do you talk about it all the time? I would prefer just to leave the past in the past and move on.” I say, “Different strokes for different folks”.  Not everyone is the same, and things work uniquely for different people when it comes to therapy and recovering from these things.

Using my voice and being heard and seen and understood has been probably the single most helpful thing that I have experienced so far.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

The therapy that I’m doing is actual trauma therapy and I think that’s different from typical talk therapy. You watch this ball go back and forth and you hear it, and it lights up both sides of the brain. It keeps them online so you can pull things from the subconscious mind into the conscious mind so you can deal with them. It’s about replacing a negative thought or a toxic belief with a positive thought or a positive, accurate, and realistic belief. It’s very simple. You wouldn’t think that it would work because it is so weird. Even my EMDR therapists say that all the time. It is strange and unpredictable. There is no dumb question because everybody is so different.

You wouldn’t think that something as simple as watching a ball go back and forth on the screen for 15 seconds, for six or seven passes would do what it does. But it is truly a powerful therapy. It isn’t for everybody. For some people, like my husband, it is re-traumatizing and a little bit too much.

I think the reason that I can do and have success with It is because I have CPTSD from being in trauma mode for 33 years of my life. I have had to do a lot of therapy on my own up to this point with therapists before they were willing to recommend EMDR to me. I had to get to a certain point of healing that not everybody does.

I’m super excited to be where I am because I feel like I’m on my home stretch of recovery and healing. Recovery is hard and some therapists tell you that a lot of these things you might have to deal with for the rest of your life. That may be true, but when you have the tools to deal with them, it makes it a lot easier.

Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy, Taking Back the Narrative by Telling Our Stories

I know it’s a long title, but I wanted to get the word usurping in there because that is so used against women when they tell us not to usurp the authority of men by speaking in the church. Usurp means basically to take back by force and that is something that I have had to do in my deconstruction. In my recovery from religious trauma, I have had to stand up to men in my life and say, “You don’t get to silence me anymore. I am going to talk about this. I’m going to expose the toxicity of these beliefs, and in doing so, I’m going to normalize it and make it a safe place for other people to come out and talk about it as well.”

It has been really hard because people don’t understand. I am constantly tone-policed. I am often accused of having wrong motives, and it’s always mostly by men and some women who feel like they have to uphold the patriarchy. But it’s mostly by men and even my husband expressed, “I just don’t get it,” because he’s still a believer and I’m not.

So that has been a big part of our therapy and marital counseling and how to deal with these intricacies. But we are in such an incredible place because we are together, and we genuinely love and respect each other. We love each other for who we are, not for our beliefs or our agreement on things. Our core values are still very much the same. I know everybody is not able to navigate that and I’m so grateful that we were able to stay together through this.

But that’s also another subject that I’m very passionate about talking about and I would love to talk to anybody and everybody who is on that journey and share what has worked for us and what hasn’t. It was hard for him to let me talk about these things on Facebook and do podcast interviews because it feels like a betrayal. A lot of the problems that we had that led to us leaving the church and me leaving the faith had to do with me speaking about these things. The collateral damage was that everything hit the fan and people lost their ever-loving minds because I was saying things out loud that they didn’t want to be said out loud.

My voice threatened their power and control, and I did it by telling my story and storytelling is so powerful. It is why movies are so popular because you get sucked into that storyline and you can feel what the characters are feeling. You can empathize with what they’re going through. There aren’t words to express the effectiveness of telling your story and just being transparent and authentic and courageous enough to know that people are going to misunderstand you. They will falsely accuse you of having wrong motives, and they are going to call you every name in the book, like apostate, Jezebel, reprobate, and heretic. I have been called every name in the book, but it is okay because I am telling my story, and the reason that there is backlash is because these people know that their power and control are being threatened by women sharing their stories and taking back the narrative that has been perpetuated by patriarchy for millennia.

In many ways, they are finally getting a taste of their own medicine which is something that my husband realized and that is why we were able to stay together.  When he shared his faith and talked about his beliefs with me, it was traumatizing to me. When he tried to help me with his beliefs, it was re-traumatizing to me. He had to learn to stop talking about it and that was hard for a preacher. I had great compassion for him because I know what that’s like and I told him, “You know, as hard as this is for you and as unfair as this seems for you, you have been experiencing this for a very short amount of time compared to my lifetime of experiencing this on steroids by everyone around me.”

It is probably not forever. Once I recover some more, maybe we can talk about these things, or maybe not. But he had to come to the point where he could respect that, and I also could not talk to him about my beliefs. In that way, I still have to be silent, but when it comes to freely talking about it to other people, we both are free to do that. It has been so powerful for me to do it and I’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of women from all over the world reach out to me and thank me for telling my story and being authentic.

These women talk about all that they have to lose in telling their stories because part of their stories are caught up in other people’s stories. They feel like that’s not their story to tell but how do they tell their story without vilifying other people? I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve realized that if people wanted us to talk or write warmly about them, they would have treated us better. People don’t talk or write warmly about me and I haven’t mistreated them at all. So it happens and it’s okay to tell your story and you can still do it in a way that’s respectful of other people and careful of their feelings and still be truthful, even though it seems like that might be uncomfortable for them.

How We Got Here

One of the first experiences that I had with men silencing me was in a Baptist Church as a very new convert. I was saved when I was 11, but by the time I was 13, I had a large portion of the Bible memorized and I was able to quote it to make the stories come alive and help people to see, hear, feel and even taste touch what the characters of the Bible stories were going through. I just had this ability to tell these stories and so they assigned me as a Sunday School helper at first. Then, later I was teaching Sunday school by myself as a 13-year-old to young kids.

I also did Vacation Bible School for four- and five-year-olds by myself. I was the primary teacher, so I had the privilege of teaching these young kids, but I was told what I could tell them and what I couldn’t. It was very much regulated by the men, and then as I grew up and got older, I was limited even more to small children and other teen girls or women. It was very carefully regulated as to what I was able to share and what I wasn’t.

Even though I never had to submit an outline or anything, if there was anything that anybody disapproved of, it was immediately taken to the pastor and it was corrected and, nine times out of 10, their correction was wrong. It wasn’t just that it just didn’t fit their narrative, but their correction contradicted the Bible.  It was just a little bit too truthful or convicting.

When I was a pastor’s wife, I wasn’t allowed to teach boys over the age of 13, but I was allowed to teach girls of any age and younger kids. With the children, their parents were always on me, especially the dads. They disagreed with what I was teaching, and it was usually things like “Life and death are in the power of the tongue and choose life and don’t choose death and this is how you do that by changing, renewing your mind and changing the way that you think.”

But these people were so caught up in these toxic mindsets that they reacted to things I taught that should have been okay. We learned about neuroplasticity, that you can change the pathways in your brain from toxicity and unhealthy to positive and very healthy. And you do that by renewing your mind. And of course, as a Christian, I used reading the Bible and indoctrinating myself consistently. But just putting that little bit of Neuroscience into the lesson was enough for them to encourage me to throw it all out.

It didn’t make any sense. I had teenage boys that I was teaching all the time and their friends were here so we would talk about things. I was teaching them all the time, but within the church setting, for some reason, I wasn’t allowed to use my spiritual gifts. I wasn’t allowed to teach them. That was left up to the men and it’s just so weird how these patriarchal beliefs of submission to men get all convoluted and tied up. like it’s a slippery slope, they like to say, eventually, it becomes not just women submitting to their husbands, but women being in submission to all men, including 13-year-olds, regardless of the age of the women.

It is pretty ridiculous and toxic, to varying religious trauma degrees in different churches. It is silencing and it does lead to religious trauma.

I think you don’t realize that you have trauma until your body starts telling you. I realized that my body started telling me that I was experiencing religious trauma when I was a young teenager, and I didn’t know the signs. I didn’t realize that my body was telling me something was not right here, even before my brain could catch up with it. Because I study neuroscience, I know that the brain damage that is caused by prolonged indoctrination is very real and that’s why the trauma is real. Your brain is damaged, in the way that you think. You have to shut your prefrontal cortex off because that’s where your critical thinking ability comes from.

When you start critically thinking about these things, they don’t make sense. You have more questions than answers and you have to accept these beliefs by faith. Faith, by definition, is belief despite a lack of proof. To accept things by faith, you cannot use your critical thinking, logic, reason, and abilities.  As a result of this, my amygdala, and a lot of people’s amygdala, was on fire because I believed in a literal hell. I believed that it was my responsibility to go out and tell every single person that I met about Jesus and his sacrifice and his love so that they didn’t have to experience that.

So I was constantly in this fight, flight, life, or death situation in my brain. Even in my sleep, even in my dreams, I was telling people about Christ because I didn’t want them to go to hell. I would have vivid dreams about the second coming and the trauma of my kids being left behind. There were so many things that pointed to the trauma that I was experiencing, that I began spiritually and emotionally bypassing. That was my coping mechanism because that was what you do when you’re not allowed to question these things. I was not allowed to have these doubts and certainly not allowed to talk about them publicly.

You could take them to the pastor and let him dictate to you what you need to change and why you are a sinner for experiencing these things. But do not talk to anybody else about these things and you certainly don’t share your own independent, rational, logical thoughts with others.

I started to get very ill as a result of this. I was constantly in this battle where I was so worried about everything, it is a miracle I didn’t have ulcers. I probably did and I just didn’t know it. But I had all these physical illnesses. I had no answers. I would go to the doctor, and they’d say “There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s all in your head.” This was very accurate, but your body manifests these things, and I knew that they were real!

I couldn’t go on living like that but somehow, I did. Then I had five very traumatic pregnancies. It was six of them but I lost a baby and that was further debilitating. My religious trauma affected my pregnancies which made all of it like a snowball effect. It was religious trauma that manifested in my body that culminated in 2014 with four specific autoimmune diseases, one of which was Lime disease. They were debilitating. I was in bed for months at a time unable to go to the bathroom by myself. While I was lying there, all I could think about was that I couldn’t tell people about Jesus and warn them about hell. So I realized that this was killing me. There were so many aspects to it.

Since I was in bed and not able to do all the things that I felt like I needed to do as a Christian, like read my Bible and pray, I had a lot of time to think. I got to the point where I said “I’m done with this. I either want to die or I’m going to change everything because this is killing me. I’m dying from this, and this is not how I want to live.”

I would lay there, and I would think about how I wanted my life to look and what I wanted my story to be. Before, I would always tell people “Jesus is the author of your story, stop taking the pen from him and just let him write it.” I realized that if that was true, he sucked at creating stories for people because my story sucked. I wonder if I took the pen from him what my story looks like. So, I began rewriting it and loving myself. As I did that, I realized that everything in my life was always for other people. It had never been for me or about me in any way. We used the acronym J-O-Y which meant Jesus first, others second, and yourself last.

In this system, you are always put on the back burner. As a woman, everyone else, especially Jesus, comes before you. Self-care and self-love were vilified so I just decided that I wasn’t gonna do that anymore. I was going to love myself. I asked myself if I could do anything and money wasn’t an object and other people’s opinion opinions didn’t matter, what would it be?

I thought, I want people to be set free from these limiting beliefs. I want them to be able to create their own story, to live their dreams, to dream big, and to see them come to fruition. So, I began to share with people what I wanted my life to look like and, as a result, I had people reach out to me and say, “Hey you know I have this at-home business opportunity that I think that you would be great at. It could be a platform for you to share these things while you’re also sharing a product that is going to help people.”

At the time I was all about that. I was very successful at these home-based businesses, and it exponentially expanded my reach and my ability to help people and share Jesus with them. As a very wonderful bonus, I was beginning to make money. I had my own business, and I was doing something that I enjoyed for myself. I got to the point where, within four months, I was making more than my husband made as a pastor.

I was also sharing my story and talking about my trauma and about how this idea of submission to men was killing me. Nothing is loving about expecting another person to place their will voluntarily under another as if their will is inherently sinful and wrong and bad and has to be placed under somebody else’s authority and leadership. I realized I would never ask my kids to do that. I would never ask or expect anybody to do that, least of all my husband. It wasn’t okay for him to do that to me either.

People were saying, “You can’t be submissive to your husband and be successful at the same time.” I did a Facebook live video talking about whether we could hold submission and success together because I fully believed at that time. I was teaching women could be submissive to their husbands and still be successful. With that, the men of my husband’s church lost their ever-loving minds over just that one thing. They said that I was teaching women not to be submissive to their husbands because I was telling them that if they wanted to write women’s devotionals, teach a Sunday school class, or open a bakery, they could! These things were not wrong because they felt that this was what God had given them the ability to do and had called them to do. They also believed that they should do it, and they should obey God rather than men.

Since they had spiritual gifts, they had freedom in Christ, I believe they have just as much of the Holy Spirit as men do.

I was still all in, and I was teaching that women have equality and women have a voice. I was also calling out abuse, which was calling these men out for being abusers. They did not like it and accused me of normalizing and minimizing actual abuse by calling them abusers. I felt like they were the ones perpetuating this, and they don’t get to tell other people how they are supposed to feel or respond, and whether they get to talk about it.  That’s gaslighting and there are layers to this abuse and the more you tell your story, the more the gaslighting escalates. There was so much tone policing and false accusations to get people back under control. They tried to frighten and silence people so they would feel that shame, fear, and guilt that propped up their belief system.

As a result of all of that, I proclaimed, “I’m just not doing this anymore.” So, they called me a new-age, Jezebel feminist. I didn’t even really know, at that time, what feminism was. I shared a meme recently that said, “Nothing pushes women towards feminism harder and more effectively than dealing with patriarchal men.” Once I started looking into feminism, I said “I’m not a feminist but, I’m gonna be one!” At the time, to temper it down, I called myself a Jesus Feminist because I felt like he was too, and he would agree with these things.

Eventually, I said, “You are complimenting me. All of your insults, and all of your fearmongering, is just confirmation and validation of everything that I know. Thank you for that. I appreciate it!” If it weren’t for these men doing what they did and treating me the way that they did, I wouldn’t be free today. I am clarifying that I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I’m not resentful. I’m grateful to these men for being the jerks that they were because it set me free! That’s what it took for me to have the courage to leave this belief system that I thought I would die for.

I don’t want anybody else to have to go through what I went through to be set free from the bondage of these beliefs. So, I just want to encourage every woman to share your story, be authentic, be transparent, and walk into and lean into that fear. All of the freedom that you desire is on the other side of that fear.

It’s worth it and you can do it! And it’s not just for you!

The Let Us Prey documentary came out last weekend. It was such a confirming, validating experience to see how powerful sharing our stories is. You are not a human if you can watch that and not be moved by their stories. To feel what they felt going through this is powerful. They did such a phenomenal job of just being themselves and telling their stories, no matter how it made anybody else look. It is going to set other people free and that is my purpose.

I do have a lot of religious trauma and it’s not sexual trauma. My therapists have told me that the level of trauma that I have is the same as if I was raped. Essentially, I was raped spiritually in these churches and that was hard. It was hard to hear but it was so true, and it was so validating because I know that my trauma is real and it’s big and it’s hard to overcome. Even talking about these things naming names and letting myself let other people look bad because that’s not who I usually am. I am kind to a fault.

I had my EMDR therapist two weeks ago tell me, “You have these men telling you that you are so angry and you’re so bitter and so resentful.” She said, “Your body is telling you that You’re not angry enough! You’re not bitter enough! You’re not resentful enough!” I was storing all of that in my body, instead of letting it out, instead of asking them and admitting it. I started saying, “Yes, I am mad. I am bitter. I am resentful. I have every right to be. Why aren’t you?”

That was the first time anyone told me that I wasn’t angry enough over the things that happened to me. They are real and they matter, and this is, in many ways, a life-or-death thing for a lot of people. I know a lot of women who would rather just stay silent and stay within the belief system than risk losing what I risked losing in telling my story, which was my marriage. First of all, I risked losing my livelihood, as somebody who was being paid by the church. My home, my kids, and the only community I had known for my entire life were in jeopardy. My entire extended family on both my husband’s and my side were Christians and I risked losing all of that. I have lost almost every Christian friend that I had before I deconverted as a Christian. I don’t have any contact with any of them but thankfully my family, my kids, my husband, the people who matter in my life who know me and know my heart, have stuck with me and they’re very respectful, very loving, and it was worth it. But that’s not everybody’s story and it is really hard, but it’s worth it not to live in a system and be broken and sick.

I am so grateful for Tik Tock Deconstruction. It has been a lifesaver for me and very validating. It just made me think and have so many light bulb, aha moments. It’s people sharing their stories that’s what TikTok is. I love TikTok, but I also encourage people to look for a religious trauma-informed therapist. They are very few and far between which is why I want to become one. I want to become a religious trauma-informed sex therapist because that would be like striking gold for me. At this point, if I could have that, I would give anything for that.

I have read so many books that have been my resource. I vet my therapists and I ask them questions. I make sure that they are ethical, and they don’t have to be religious trauma-informed. They just have to know that they can’t impose their own beliefs into the therapy. It is unethical and unacceptable. So far, I’ve been able to find really good therapists who have master’s degrees that have helped me and my husband so much.

I’ve had to do a lot of healing on my own and I’m so grateful for communities, like The Desert Sanctuary, so that other people don’t have to do that.

To see other speakers and a few extras, access the following link:
The videos below are from the conference held on December 9th. They are free to access, but please consider donating to help offset expenses using the scan below.
Usurping Women’s Voices from the Patriarchy
Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Out into the Desert, Leaning Forward,  Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart, The Tea Shop and Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authenticity.  He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary podcast and community.  He is married to his wife Laura of 35 years and has one dog named Winston.  His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply! You can read more about the author here.

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