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Sarah Griffin

 6/01/01

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 mother’s childhood. My grandmother became a dutiful minister’s 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 father’s 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 father’s mother, forced by her unemployed status and my grandfather’s 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 family’s 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, Don’t break it, Sears Roebuck don’t 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 don’t behave like that,” my mother’s 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 woman’s 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 can’t 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 preacher’s 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 Women’s 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. “She’s tough,” they said, “and a Femi-Nazi.” What’s a Femi-Nazi?- I naively wondered. “She is twenty-eight and not married. I bet she’s a lesbian,” they said.
     I approached the Women’s 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 father’s sister once complimented me as I beamed with pride. “Don’t 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 isn’t 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 1837 America.
     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.

Abbreviations:
NIV= New International Version
NKJV= New King James Version

Sources:
For the complete text of Sarah Grimke’s 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 spirituality.

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