Becoming a Feminist in the Bible Belt
Like many people in the South,
I claim direct descent from a line of conservative Protestant
folk. My grandfather was a minister, having abandoned a life
of alcoholism sometime during my mothers childhood. My
grandmother became a dutiful ministers wife, hosting a
never-ending flux of visiting preachers and their families in
her home. Imagine the strain on my poor, confused mother as she
went from being the abused daughter of a whiskey drinker to the
token child of a righteous family, constantly being dragged from
one convention of Saints to another.
My father came from the proverbial
"other side of the tracks." My fathers father,
having committed but one highly publicized transgression that
even still follows my family in the history books, landed himself
a brief stint in the county jail. My fathers mother, forced
by her unemployed status and my grandfathers absence, moved
her family to the projects. A strong woman, she fought hard to
keep her family together, meanwhile remaining married to a man
she would later claim never loved her.
My parents were meant to be together.
As youngsters, they frequented the same places, and as teenagers,
they knew some of the same people though they went to rival schools.
My father was forced by his familys poverty to drop out
of high school, while my mother graduated at the top of her class.
They met one heady night as my mother, a shy, sheltered young
woman, walked across the parking lot from her orange Dodge Dart
to the neighborhood pharmacy. Dad, always the charmer, noticing
the beautiful and well-endowed young woman meekly walking by,
catcalled and shouted, Shake it, Dont break it, Sears
Roebuck dont make it! The same behavior today, one
realizes, might land a man a healthy sexual harassment suit.
My formative years were spent in
veritable isolation. Damned if I know why: maybe it was because
I liked Batman more than I liked Barbie. Once, I ripped a brand
new dress to shreds when I wore it while riding around on my
Knight Rider three-wheeler. Young ladies dont behave
like that, my mothers mother, a fire and brimstone
holy woman, soundly reprimanded me. I have been independent,
my mother says, since I was knee-high to a mushroom.
I grew up in church. I learned
the Gospel, as follows: God created the earth. Eve ate the fruit;
sin came into the world. God sent Jesus to earth, Jesus was without
sin, Jesus was crucified and resurrected on the third day, Jesus
was a sacrifice so that our sins might be forgiven, and God forgives
those who believe in Him. God, of course, is male. Sin entered
the world by a womans hand and sin was forgiven by the
death of a perfect Man. Therefore, man is head of the household
and woman serves man.
In some ways, my parents perfectly
match the gender roles assigned to them by society: Dad is a
police officer and carries a big bad gun, while Mom is a nurse
and cares for sick babies at the hospital. In other ways, they
are deviant: Dad cooks dinner while Mom does work in the yard.
My mother makes more money than my father, a fact that does not
perturb him in the slightest bit. My mother, however, is greatly
distressed by what she believes a woman is supposed to do for
her husband. Our house is disheveled, and she blames herself
for not being the perfect wife. Your mother is lucky,
my grandmother, her mother, tells me. Any other man would
leave her because she cant keep house.
When I became a teenager, I thought
my life would be incomplete without a boyfriend. I thought I
would marry my high school sweetheart and become a good wife
and mother while he brought home the dough. I met my perfect
guy and we promptly became the token couple within our clique.
When he broke up with me (because I was too needy), I thought
I would die. Soon after, however, I became a Christian and realized
that my life had more purpose than that of a slave.
My conversion was nothing short
of a Road to Damascus experience. No one has ever, nor will they
ever, be able to convince me that God does not exist or that
my faith is for naught. The church, however, is a human and therefore
imperfect institution, and as I later discovered, one that wrongfully
perpetuates the sexist ideals of our society. The girls in my
church became my role models after my conversion. They were all
well mannered, thoughtful, and full of faith. The older ones
went to seminary school: not to prepare for the Ministry, but
to learn how to be proper preachers wives. It is commonly
known about our local Bible College that any girl can get a diamond
ring in their first year.
I chose to further my education
at a private Christian all-female college. I believed I would
grow stronger in my faith, receive a quality education, and separate
myself from male distractions during my higher education experience.
It was a logical choice for an intelligent woman of faith such
as me. I settled comfortably in my new environs and excelled
in my studies. During my second year, the college introduced
a new Womens Studies course and added it to the core curriculum.
We all grumbled: why did they have to subject us to this nonsense?
Rumors proliferated about the woman assigned to the project:
Dr. Carol Anne Vaughn, a young and accomplished historian. Shes
tough, they said, and a Femi-Nazi. Whats
a Femi-Nazi?- I naively wondered. She is twenty-eight and
not married. I bet shes a lesbian, they said.
I approached the Womens Studies
class with a certain level of anxiety, a fear of the unknown.
Soon, however, I began to look forward to our biweekly meetings,
where we discussed our unique experiences as women and applied
the philosophies of First- and Second-Wave Feminists to our own
lives. I learned that I do not have to hate men to be a feminist
and I can hope for more than a life of subservience. Most importantly,
I began to reevaluate my blind faith in an inherently misogynist
system created by men. I began to realize that the God I had
committed to serve cherishes me as a Woman and does not desire
another person to rule over me simply because of biological sex.
This, one of any faith must understand,
is a highly controversial concept to the traditional Christian
Southern folk from which I came. Changing my worldview required
a level of open-mindedness and courage that I did not readily
acquire through avenues of childhood socialization. My family
taught me that women do not naturally come by positions of leadership.
Women are not supposed to speak in the church. It is better to
be seen than to be heard, as the saying goes. You are so
smart, my fathers sister once complimented me as
I beamed with pride. Dont ever let a man see your
intelligence, she continued, and my face fell. You
will never get a husband like that.
I recall participating in a conversation
a few years ago with the other women in my family, resulting
in a minor altercation due to my bull-headed nature. The church
was awash in controversy: some independent-minded Jezebels were
trying to introduce a gender-neutral Bible. Someone said something
to the effect of, Are we going to start calling our Lord
the Goddess now? Why not, I interjected. After
all, God isnt really either male or female. Why must we
say Him and He to describe a God that
is sexless? All eyes in the room directed toward me, glaring.
I might as well have been damned to Hell at that instant. If
only then I had remembered the question God asked of Job: Does
the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose
womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the
deep is frozen? (Job 38:28-30, NIV). No other Scripture
I have seen so accurately shows the androgynous nature of the
God in Whom I believe. I can see God now as both Mother and Father
to those of this earth!
I have of late been indulging in
the letters of First-Wave Feminist Sarah Grimke to the head of
the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, Mary S. Parker. Sarah
Grimke wrote with such strength and belief that her words seem
to jump off the page and enrapture me. She believed fully in
the ability of women to act as equals to men in all endeavors.
I am unable to learn from sacred writ when woman was deprived
by God of her equality with man, Sarah stated. But
was woman, bearing the image of God, placed under the dominion
of her fellow man? Never! Jehovah could not surrender his authority
to govern his own immortal creatures into the hands of a being,
whom he knew, and whom his whole history proved, to be unworthy
of a trust so sacred and important. God could not do it, because
it is a direct contravention of his law, Thou shalt worship
the Lord thy God, and him only (italics hers) shalt thou
serve. [Matthew 4:10] Such courage and authority
can rarely be found in the writings of an average woman from
I now approach life with greater
fervor than I ever have, knowing that I can confront any of those
difficult questions posed by skeptics from either side of the
continuing feminist controversy. I can believe with the heart
of a Saint and write with the authority of one like Sarah Grimke.
Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such
a time as this, Mordecai once asked of the courageous and
godly Queen Esther (Esther 4:14 NKJV). The time is come now for
the Feminist Third Wave, and I am ready to do whatever is necessary,
using the talent with which I have been blessed, to reach for
full equality for women of all faiths.
NIV= New International Version
NKJV= New King James Version
For the complete text of Sarah Grimkes Letters on the Equality
of the Sexes, visit: http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/grimke3.html.
Read a response to this essay,
which includes links to a number of books that explore women's