Often times my identity in the world feels simple. Uncomplicated. I am Christian. I attend a Pentecostal university. I aspire to enter into the field of Biblical Studies when I graduate and attend grad school. The overarching identity that binds me together is my gender, being a woman. Yet it is this last item that holds my entire identity in tension.
My dreams and aspirations, and even my religion, has limitations for my gender. The history of Christianity has not been exceedingly egalitarian in regards to women. Even now only a small amount of Christian denominations hold an egalitarian view compared to the overwhelming complementarian majority. Biblical Studies, though now more diverse, still has a history of being dominated solely by old white men. And lastly, being a woman in itself is rife with hundred of years of oppression.
Growing up ignorant
Inequality between men and women was always fable-like to me as a child and an teenager. Being raised in a conservative Christian environment, I quickly learned that “feminism” was a dirty word. And despite what the media would tell me, men and women were equal and any activism was whiny and inefficient. When I truly began to explore Christianity in my later high school days, I still believed these things but also that the differences between men and women were rooted in something else. At my young and impressionable age, I truly thought that women were equal to men but still beneath them.The familiar story of the Fall in Genesis 3 can be used easily to support this view. Eve sinned first, and then she caused Adam to sin as well. Her punishment are women’s periods and extreme pain in childbirth. What is most sobering is the end of 3:16, which says “…’yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.'” (NASB).
Here this passage gave my adolescent self enough ammunition to state why the world would always remain the way it was, and likewise why women should not be bold or fight for themselves. This passage also caused me to think less of myself and what I could do with my life. I think the worst aspect of this time was that my local congregation seemed to offer no other alternative message.
I attended a small Assemblies of God church where I was heavily involved. The Assemblies of God, unlike other conservative denominations, licenses and ordains women as pastors. The Assemblies of God fully believes in the equality between men and women, but despite that this was their stance, I rarely saw this in play at my church. There were plenty of women leaders in my church, but most of them were not pastors nor licensed through the Assemblies of God. All of them, however, were married, had children, and their primary role was in the home.
I think there is something holy and wonderful in motherhood and traditional femininity, but I don’t think this is what I really needed during that stage in my life. I was still trying to form my beliefs and figure out what Christianity was and how to live it. And despite meeting some amazing women who did not adhere fully to these stereotypes, I began to believe that my purpose as a woman was to bear and raise children, as well as support my godly (future) husband. I thought it was by doing this that women were able to atone for their sin at the beginning. My church didn’t mean to teach me this, nor the Assemblies of God, but it’s what I learned from observation. It wasn’t until college that these beliefs began to change.
Everything is not what it seemed
Coming to college has been an tremendous period of growth for me – both intellectually and spiritually. It was in the middle of my freshman year that I became unsatisfied with my beliefs and what I wanted to do with my life. I had a few lackluster, short relationships, and I had begun to experience the pain of being a woman living in the city. Men would approach me with such cavalier bravado that I was equally scared and repulsed. I was frustrated with being treated this way. A new word sprung into my vocabulary: feminist.
I embraced feminism and allowed it to empower me. I didn’t really know what it meant, nor its history, but I knew that it must offer some way to stop the treatment I was receiving. I felt relieved that my life was not to be only for producing children, but that I could have a career. I could do whatever I wanted. Enthralled, I remember going to my university’s library and finding a book on feminism. I read a few pages of it and stopped out of frustration. The book was misleading, and was essentially a complementarian commenting on a Christian feminist’s book and calmly telling her that she was wrong by using the same old rehashed arguments. It was disheartening to find in my university’s library.
Attending a Pentecostal university in itself has been a unique experience in regards to feminism. For, despite being very egalitarian in its structure and values, it still did not always live up to them. For one, there was a great disparity between the amount of donor scholarships available every year for male and female students. The majority of the scholarships were specifically designated for men, especially men going into ministry. The remaining would be mixed gender, and a handful would only be for women. This did not reflect the reality that our school had more female than male students.
Likewise, the culture at the school, especially within the student body, did not always reflect an egalitarian mindset. I remember my freshman year a lot of my male peers made it a point to be “chivalrous,” which to me resulted in all men awkwardly holding open doors for me when I didn’t need nor want them to. Even now, men still do this to me on-campus and they seem to do them in a more begrudging way than out of actual kindness.
As mentioned in another post, discourse about certain issues has been a certain struggle in of itself. For example, it has always felt “edgy” or “controversial” to bring up feminism or women’s rights in classroom discussion. Whenever it has been brought up, I have always felt the overt pressure by everyone for it to be resolved quickly or for the subject to change. I’ve witnessed many of my male peers grow noticeably uncomfortable and talk about these things as if they are a non-issue and that there is no real need to continue to talk about them. I have even seen this from female peers as well. This too has been disheartening, for it makes me question how much our male peers view us as equal and what my female peers think of the role of women. I fear how much these will impact the next generation in the Church.
We must continue to speak
I think that the real issue, with not only my troublesome beliefs as a teenager and my progressive angst as a college student is that the discourse surrounding women’s rights and the inequality we face daily. Discussion has tended to be a one-time event, and we need to continue to talk about these issues. We cannot pretend they don’t impact the Church because they impact half of our congregation. I can understand the hesitancy in regards to the discussion becoming circular and the same points being said over and over. However, we must continue to talk despite our discomfort. Men are equally a part of the conversation as women, for we all must work towards a common goal.
Perhaps what was said in Genesis 3 is somewhat true. Men may rule over and oppress women, but that is a choice that they have made. The world in which we see today is not what was intended. By continuing to talk and work on these issues together, perhaps we can reverse the effects of this curse. For women to no longer be considered a lesser being but a human one.