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Encounters with Sexism

2009 November 5
by Julie Clawson

Every now and then I get that slap in the face reminder that sexism is alive and thriving in our world. Sometimes it can be easy to think otherwise. I attend a church that affirms my value as a woman, I have intelligent friends, I participate in emerging church forums, and I live in a progressive town. So in my day to day life I can pretend that most of the world actually thinks I’m human.  And many of the people I know are uncomfortable taking a stand for women mostly because they don’t see any apparent problems.  Then come the wake up calls.

I started the week at a women’s book discussion at my church where we are reading through Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter. I love that story of one woman’s awakening, and it served as a significant part of my journey in affirming my worth as a woman. Our discussion this week focused on how language is still often used to demean women. When the worst insults in our culture are to call someone a girl, when women are still pressured to have sons, and apologize for birthing daughters, when in business meetings women are ignored, or forced to be and dress like men in order to compete – sexism is alive and well. The constant blows at who we are surround us, and we all lamented that when we point out this stuff we are dismissed as angry bitches. That whole discussion was reflective and theoretical, but then I went out this week and saw it all in play.

A couple weeks ago I signed a letter to the Presidential Selection Committee for my alma mater Wheaton College encouraging them to consider female and minority candidates for the next President of Wheaton. Dr. Duane Litfin is retiring after 17 years of leading the college with an ultra-conservative hand. He was selected to steer the college away from a perceived “liberal” turn in the 1980s. So he brought his dispensational, cessationist, anti-ecumenical and anti-egalitarian views to the college. My former pastor, a friend of his, told me as I headed off to college that Litfin’s greatest fear for the college was the growing amount of women entering the biblical studies field. And while I was there, great efforts were taken to promote “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” and silence the students for biblical equality groups. But now as he is leaving, there is a chance for the college to break those chains and take a stand for women. Yet even proposing that option has met with disdain. Responses to the mere suggestion of considering a woman or minority include – “You have got to be kidding me. Only in academia and government are such bogus voices funded and stroked. I feel specifically called to buy something with a pink ribbon emblem and then go wretch.” and “This is silliness. And it’s a classic example of what happens when people ignore the Pendulum of Truth” and “I do not think, however, that they should be set on finding a female or minority president. It is very likely that in doing that, they may end up with someone that will lead the school in a very dangerous direction.” Along with numerous assertions that the college should hire the most-qualified candidate, implying that a woman or a minority would not fit that bill. Sexism is alive and well.

Then here in Austin a couple of weeks ago, the DJ’s of my favorite morning radio show were suspended for using offensive language. The British radio host had used a phrase that sounded like a racial slur, and they laughed about the awkwardness of what her phrase sounded like. They were suspended without pay for a couple of weeks and forced to take cultural sensitivity classes. Since returning they have been very careful not to really say anything about other races, even stopping themselves in the middle of stories. But the use of women as insults has continued in full force. They constantly compare people to girls to show how weak and pathetic they are. They use references to women’s anatomy to insult people – especially the ever-popular term “douchebag.” Lesson learned – we have to be sensitive to other races but women are scum to be used however we like.

Similar lesson from this whole recent controvery about the Deadly Viper book. In the promo for the book about men’s intigrity published by Zondervan, the authors made use of Asian cultural references in really inappropriate and insensitive ways. It was obviously offensive, and a number of us in the Christian community pointed out that offense and asked for an apology. I fully affirm that an apology was needed to my Asian brothers and sisters, and the Christian community in general. At the same time, I was disturbed that many of the people calling for an apology were saying stuff like “I think the content of the book is great, I just have problems with the culturally insensitive packaging.” I think they were saying that to be nice and build bridges, but in all truth the curriculum is full of sexist stereotypes that use women as insults. The authors even have a video on their website promoting their Mancave series that is simply a series of gender stereotypes where manly=good and girly=bad. I applaud the efforts to stand up to insensitive racial stereotypes in the church, but wish people hadn’t affirmed gender stereotypes in the process. And I really wonder if that same group of people would put forth the effort to take a stand for treating women in the church with respect just like they asked for Asians in the church to be treated with respect. I want to believe they would, but far too often I see sexism protected by the shield of “theology” in ways that racism can never be in our modern world.

Sexism is alive and well. This week has just been a reminder of how far we have to go until women are respected as fully human and not demeaned for the sake of entertainment.


57 Responses leave one →
  1. Karl permalink
    November 17, 2009

    I’m sorry for the double post, but I should have added Julie, that I’m really sorry that we apparently can’t discuss this issue (along with so many others) without me making you mad. It honestly makes me sad (like, it’s been hanging over me in the background like a black cloud the last few days), and makes me wonder about the feasibility of one of the things I really value – the possibility of dialogue and conversation across ideological and theological lines.

  2. Pippin permalink
    November 17, 2009

    To Melody– “don’t let certain individuals drag you into unproductive arguments… they don’t deserve your energy”. I for one think those are important discussions to be had. I find those to be genuine questions, which have unfortunately been dismissed completely.
    I remember the classic “who is a feminist” question– we were asked in gender studies, “are you a feminist?” Most of us said we weren’t. “Well then, do you see women as equal to men? Do you agree that women should be free from inequality and oppression” Everyone nodded. “Well then, you’re a feminist”
    That is a very loose definition obviously– and the correct term that we use is ‘feminisms’, because while everyone can agree that women should be equal, not everyone agrees with how they can achieve this. Many people believe women should be free from inequality in the home and workforce, but not in affirmative action. Whether you think their conclusions are wrong or not, what I’ve seen here is the immediate labelling of someone who thoughtfully, respectfully disagrees with aspects of affirmative action to be an ignorant, selfish, offensive troublemaker who seeks to drag people down in ‘unproductive arguments’.
    The stereotype of evangelicals is that they refuse to dialogue– but how can they when you don’t allow them to? As someone who is, as I always say “too liberal to be conservative, too conservative to be liberal”, I find the general tone of the responses on this blog to be very disappointing and honestly, quite hurtful. (Although Julie, I appreciate that you appreciate my honesty and I truly hope I’m not out of line by saying this)

    For however much you speak of compassion for those who are different from you, it seems to me that it all only occurs on the ‘big picture’ (systemic) level for you. The one who falls into a different category on an ethnic/religious level. But sometimes I think we also need to remember that the ‘othering’ could well occur on a personal level, the ‘other’ could be the one we disagree with, the one we cannot see eye to eye with, the one we wish would just go away because their ideology is not in line with your values.
    Karl, I get what you’re trying to do and I appreciate the points you have raised– these are important things to discuss. But I can’t help but feel too that if Julie feels that this issue isn’t something that she wants to go into a debate/dialogue on with you– although I understand you must feel that your voice has been completely dismissed– then perhaps it’s probably better to leave it and respect that position. To go on for too long about it would be unproductive. There are many online discussions that would welcome your thoughtful posts.

  3. November 18, 2009

    I would really appreciate you guys stop putting words in my mouth and saying that I don’t want to engage with you just because I don’t agree with you. We were dialoguing here, we just happened to disagree. I also kept trying to say that this is deeper than affirmative action, but you guys kept insisting otherwise and labeled my attempts as bulverism. Don’t turn your unwillingness to follow the conversation into an attack on me.

    This isn’t about making me mad. Or about me not being willing to discuss. So please stop dismissing me for that just because I wanted to stay true to what I believe. You are welcome to disagree with me, but don’t accuse me of not being willing to dialogue when you don’t like that I disagree back. I want the discussion. I appreciate the points you make. But I don’t just sit back and take it when people disagree with me. Respecting the other doesn’t mean silently letting opposing louder voices have the last word. So it may be annoying that as a woman I dive in and engage, but I’m going to keep doing that even if that’s not how people want me to behave.

  4. Karl permalink
    November 18, 2009

    Julie, I question how much actual engagement or dialogue has really occurred when your supposed dialogue partner keeps saying “hey wait a minute, you’re misrepresenting me – that’s not what I believe or what I said at all – and why do you keep telling me that I have the worst possible motives whenever I hold an opinion you don’t like.” It would be awesome if you had actually dealt with the substance of what I said. We were in dialogue at first, but after your post in #37 it felt like any attempt at real dialogue was over on your part because in spite of my best efforts to be respectful in sharing my opinions and how I’ve arrived at them, I offended you. My listing of things you have accused me of that were false and unfair and thus were interfering with real dialogue also seems to have offended you. I’m worn out.

    I bet some conservatives have in the past attributed bad motives to you, misstated your position on things and said dismissive things like “emergents are just the disaffected children of fundamentalism – forget the actual issues you’re trying to discuss, you guys are really just rebelling against your parents in an overextended adolescence.” Those people may have thought they were engaging and dialoguing with you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were. They were avoiding the issue by speaking lies about you and telling you WHY (they thought) you held your position, without actually engaging your position on its merits, and then re-spouting the talking points of their own position. I’m sure it didn’t feel like dialogue or engagement from your end of that conversation. I can relate to how you must have felt.

    Don’t fool yourself. Your being a woman with an opinion contrary to mine isn’t a problem for me. Dive in and engage, by all means. But please be fair and honest. I wish you well.

  5. Pippin permalink
    November 18, 2009

    Julie, I only wish you’d understand that the hurt and disappointment that has come out of this has nothing to do with

    1) your position (which, gasp, i agree with)
    2) the fact that you are defending what you believe in
    3) and the fact that you disagree with the disagreements or the 4)fact that you represent an underrepresented voice (gee, what do you know, I happen to be a woman too)

    It is how you choose to dismiss, ascribe the worst assumptions, motives and feelings to the people who disagree, no matter how respectfully they have tried to do it– or that anyone taking a contrary position who feels that they haven’t been able to agree to disagree because the conversation has been shut down rather than been properly debated– is the one being dismissive, or unwilling to hear the truth. I assure you that is not the case.

    But I doubt we will ever come to any sort of understanding on this– so I’ll just take it as a case of two or three sincere voices talking past each other and probably will continue to..

  6. Hannah permalink
    November 21, 2009

    Thank you for writing this and bringing attention a really serious matter. As an Asian American woman, I’m just beginning to come into a more clear consciousness about marginalization, whether it’s towards ethnicity or gender. I appreciate your leadership!

  7. Eileen permalink
    November 23, 2009

    Thank you for this discussion and your blog and book.
    I am in a church full of 30-somethings and their kids. We are an urban congregation of progressive, highly educated, artistic and justice minded folks- Last Spring we put on a play with the kids (ages 6 thru 9) It was Jonah and the whale- and we had a boat constructed of boxes-complete with a steering wheel.

    Right on cue the kids got in to the boat and one of the little pigtailed girls went to the helm and took the wheel– up from the back an 8 year old boy pushed through saying–Hey only boys can steer the boat. The little girl held her ground and said.. NO..and continued to “steer”-

    Made for a lot of conversation at coffee hour.

    Story 2-
    Our church has a female pastor-

    One of our moms has a 7 year old daughter who has grown up in our church community-
    Mom tells the story of when she took her daughter with her to visit relatives and they went to the relatives church. The service started
    and the little girl blurted out loud— mommy mommy… look…. a man priest… a man priest.
    Sometimes I see it’s all inch by inch. Course I was involved in the women’s movement in the 70’s and have a long view.

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