Posted in musings


I have only watched Barbra Streisand’s film Yentl once in my life – as a teenager, actually! – but it made such a deep impression on me that I still think about it regularly. I believe it was the first time I saw anything explore gender expression and identity with such emotional depth, and I recall feeling simultaneously deeply uncomfortable and deeply resonant with the story and main character (who, for those unfamiliar with the story, is a Jewish girl who creates a male persona (Anshel), so that she can study Talmud, and finds herself entangled in a love triangle of sorts with a fellow student (Avigdor) and the woman he hopes to marry (Hadass)).

In the scenes that have stayed with me most powerfully, Anshel sits at a dining table with Hadass, sometimes alone and sometimes with Avigdor and Hadass’s parents, watching the other woman and pondering her femininity. There’s almost a disgust for it, at times – for the lack of intellectual conversation, for the trivial concerns of cooking and making oneself attractive – and yet also an envy: a two-fold desire both to be the object of this womanly attention and to be able to win the love of another by playing this feminine role. The camera focuses on the beauty and delicacy of Hadass’s face and clothing, on her submissive care for the man she loves, on the softness of her hands as she hands him something. This happens three times in the movie, and while you can find clips of the first two on YouTube, the final brief reprise which has always been the most meaningful to me is apparently stringently protected. In it, Streisand sings of Hadass:

She’s mother, she’s sister
She’s lover
She’s the wonder of wonders
No man can deny
So why would he change her?
She’s loving-she’s tender-
She’s woman-
So am I.

In that moment, caught up in the emotional sweep of the film, I may have wept. “So am I.”

Continue reading “identity”
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it is not surprising that those who neglect the Mother of God also demean and objectify womanhood

A toxic strain of misogyny dwells within Christianity, an infection that pretends to be part of its host. It makes women out to be spun glass or precious china – beautiful objects, of great value and worthy of being protected. Notice that this analogy, while purporting to elevate women, actually paints women as objects, not persons, and portrays them as being unable to protect themselves or others who they love or who are vulnerable and in need. It limits the acceptable competencies of womanhood (i.e., from fighting to nurturing) and removes agency and autonomy from women.

A particularly egregious article from the well-known ministry Desiring God has by virtue of its poor writing made this misogyny more blatant than is typical (or, likely, than was intended). First, the author writes that “our God, our nature, our love must firmly say, You are too precious, my mother, my daughter, my beloved. It is my glory to die that you may live.” Here part of the true reasoning behind the overprotective platitudes is revealed: the pride of men is at stake, and it is a fragile thing! Far be it from these men to endure the long years of loneliness and deprivation following the death of a loved one; no, for them it is the single shining moment of a glorious death that they crave, that though the women they leave behind might suffer and be forgotten, they at least might be remembered and praised for their valiant bravery. No matter that if they had fought together, this man and his mother (or daughter, or beloved) may have both escaped unscathed, or more effectively protected their children or neighbors. The heroics of the man would be diminished, his glory tarnished! May it never be!

I (and I believe I speak for most women here) have no desire to be the token object by which a man’s glory is elevated, a precious thing but a thing all the same. Womanhood complements manhood that the two might fight the battles of life hand in hand, and they are not so dichotomously opposed that is must always be the men who die in glory and the women who remain at home in silence and tedium. The strength of manhood grows more patient and steadfast when tempered by the daily tasks of nurturing and maintaining a family and home; the strength of womanhood gains sharpness and fire when allowed to whet itself on the battlefield (whether philosophical, political, or physical). Though cultural traditions have often mandated otherwise, God has given to some women – like Deborah and Joan of Arc – a vocation of war and public ferocity; and He has similarly given to some men, though their names may be lost to a history that treasures only moments of flashy glory, a vocation of tenderness and private service.

The unfortunate article in question, however, does not content itself with this first statement of objectification. In the concluding paragraph, the author states that “God’s story for all eternity consists of a Son who slew a Dragon to save a Bride.” Conveniently, it seems, he forgets or ignores the great foremother of that Son, of whose seed – not of Adam’s seed, note – the Lord promised that the Savior would one day come. Conveniently again he forgets or ignores the Mother of that Son, who suffered the ignominy and shame of an unwed pregnancy to bear Him for the world, who raised Him in poverty and exile to know and love the Scriptures, who protected with her own body the Savior who that Dragon was waiting to devour. In His person, Jesus united deity with humanity, and though He took the form of a man, He ensured in the person of His Mother that womanhood was not omitted from the salvific narrative, a mere passive item to be protected and preserved. In her, womanhood also fought against the temptations and forces of Satan, and by her obedience and faith – by her willingness to be thrown into the center of the battle for the souls of all humanity – the Son of God was able to be the Son of Man as well, and so die and rise again to bring life to us all.

Of course, it is so much easier to forget about Mary. She comes with theological baggage enough to make any Protestant uncomfortable, especially the Reformed persuasion at Desiring God. But when we write her out of the story, we run the risk of writing out womanhood in general, from social and cultural mores as well as from the life of faith. You can keep your precious china, locked away in your home, safe from the dangers of life until it fades and grows brittle with the years of disuse. Let me instead be a woman like Mary, if I can dare to even dream so high – a woman like Deborah, like Joan of Arc, like Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, like the saints who fought for the faith and the martyrs who died for it; I am like them a woman, a child of God, and I refuse to be objectified.

Posted in musings

pastor barbara and the out-of-sync girl

Once upon a time there was a church which had a female pastor. Now, this pastor wasn’t the lead pastor, or even the primary teaching pastor; she led the family and children’s ministries, actually, and spent most of her ministry time with women and youth. But she had the title of pastor – Pastor Barbara.

She was beautiful. She had long, curly brown hair and a nose with that perfect spark of defiance bringing its straight lines singing up from her face. She had a gentle way of moving – never too fast or too sudden – and a gentle way of speaking – never too loud or too harsh. And when she saw the children she loved and taught and prayed for, her whole body would glow with that love and light, like an emanation of the Holy Spirit through her presence.

There was a small girl at this church who adored Pastor Barbara wholeheartedly and unstintingly, although mostly from a distance as she was a quiet child. She enjoyed above all the new songs that Pastor Barbara would sing with them! For her, songs were a release from the uncertainty of social interactions, because the songs (at least the children’s songs that she knew) would specify how you were supposed to act. Take for example “Father Abraham:” no one would ever move that way in everyday life, but the song says to do it so everyone does it and no one has to worry about being out of sync.

Continue reading “pastor barbara and the out-of-sync girl”

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learning who I want to be; remembering who my foremothers were

On Friday my therapist asked me who I wanted to be: what positive self-image I wanted to move towards. If we’re going to make a therapy plan, after all, it helps to have a long-term goal.

I couldn’t think of anything.

I have a very clear mental image of who I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be the one with the chronically messy/dirty house because she’s too lazy and undisciplined to get things cleaned and organized. I don’t want to be the mom who lets her kids watch TV so she can get some quiet time or a nap in the middle of the day, because she cares more about herself than about her kids’ developing brains. I don’t want to be the mom who over-schedules her kids’ lives so they have no time to free play and explore; I don’t want to be the mom who lets her kids wander around in self-directed ways so much that they bother the neighbors and never learn manners and miss out on awesome events and opportunities. I don’t want to be seen as discourteous or ignorant. I don’t want to admit that I can’t handle the beautiful and blessed life I’m living because other people handle lives that are so much harder with so much more ease and grace. I don’t want to be who I am, because my self-image is all wrapped up in shame.

So I’d been thinking about her question since the appointment, and as my daughter smiled at me that evening I remembered the women who have always been my inspiration, the women who made me want a daughter of my own so I could pass on their memories someday:

The great-grandmother who passed away when I was six, who shines so brightly in my mother’s memory that I wish I could have known her myself, who knew a poem for every circumstance (and wrote her own as well), who always had an open door and good food, who saw the world through rose-colored lenses that enabled her to believe the best of everyone she loved – whose faith in God, in humanity, in her family, was deep and strong.

The grandmother whose life has been full of challenges, who endured miscarriage, mental illness, and a string of alcoholic husbands after her first marriage fell apart, but who never lost her heart for helping others or her buoyant optimism and goofy joy, who managed a warehouse of donated goods for those in need as a volunteer when she herself was quite poor, who got down on the floor and played with my boys with energy and zest for life, who as a young white woman in the 50s and 60s wanted to adopt children of all different ethnicities, who has such a love for children that she fostered more in addition to raising her own – whose hope through suffering and trials never died.

The mother who always seeks to honor her family and friends with her words and doesn’t let a disagreement or a quarrel turn into bitterness or lasting anger, who taught me the joy of baking and cooking and watching people enjoy the fruit of your labor, who gives of herself unceasingly to the people she loves and the responsibilities she takes on, who is never sentimental but always supportive, who defied the odds of her upbringing to earn not only a bachelor’s but a master’s degree in engineering, who has a song for every situation, who thoroughly gets into the competitive clash of board games and card games and teases us mercilessly – whose love for her family is self-sacrificial, unwavering, unconditional.

I am not any one of those women, nor could I be some amalgam of their best qualities alone; I’m as human as they were, and I have my faults and weaknesses as well. But I see in them the full ripeness of seeds that lie buried in my own soul also, which I would be honored and privileged to have blossom in my life. Can I have the generosity of spirit which made them spring up like a fountain of blessing for their families and communities, or the exuberance with which they approached life, or their ability to find joy and see beauty in the little things, and thus hold on to hope and faith and love when the big things are hard and broken?

I am sure those things will take on a different form in my life than in my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my great-grandmothers, because I live in a different time and place and am a different person. The hard work now will be in discerning exactly how they might look for me, here and now, because I know now that their image, their fallen human image reflecting God through brokenness and redemption, is the positive image I want to work towards.

Posted in musings, quotes

is it really that bad to want to be a homemaker?

Indeed, while a vibrant Cuban women’s movement flourished in Havana during the first part of the twentieth century (Stoner 1991), the writings of early Cuban feminist Mariblanca Sabas Alomá ([1930] 2003) make clear that the desired outcomes of social and political reform for many poor urban women in Havana were economic and conjugal stability – meaning the possibility of remaining within the unpaid domestic sphere with the support of a male breadwinner – rather than the right to work and autonomy from men. – Elise Andaya, Conceiving Cuba: Reproduction, Women, and the State in the Post-Soviet Era, pg 41

The perspective of this author seems to be that the highest goal for women, the most progressive and ideal, is to join the paid workforce and be free of dependency on men. While I agree with her that the ability for financial independence is necessary, I take issue with the demeaning tone she uses throughout her book to describe women who live out more stereotypical female roles in the context of marriage and child-raising. It is consistently presented as the lesser option, the choice of the unenlightened and ignorant, or (alternately) the luxury or prison of the wealthy.

I think even in the United States today, where women have the right to work outside the home, can be financially autonomous and self-sufficient, and are culturally encouraged to obtain an education and pursue a career, a lot of women still desire the stability offered by marriage as well the ability to devote substantial amounts of time to their young children that the financial support of a partner enables. We have found that we can achieve autonomy, but that it is a hard and lonely road, and that the interdependency of committed marriage and family life can often bring joy and fulfillment. The simple truth is that while many women choose careers that bring them incredible satisfaction and purpose, many other women work simply out of financial necessity (often occasioned by family breakdown) and would love to spend more time making their homes and neighborhoods places of beauty and community and raising their own children instead of outsourcing their care. The benefits they can bring to their families and communities in the context of the “unpaid domestic sphere” are not the less for being monetarily unrecognized, and it is a harsh devaluation of the family, the child, and the task of raising the child to act as though the financial remuneration for a job is its only source of worth.

Posted in musings

womanhood in the image of Mary

It’s no secret that one of the most glaring differences between Protestant (particularly Evangelical/low church) and Catholic Christianity is in their beliefs about and attitude toward Mary the mother of Jesus. To a Protestant, the Catholic veneration of Mary looks disturbingly like idolatry. But I’m beginning to have significant qualms about the almost callous disdain some varieties of Protestantism have towards Mary, not least because of the implications it has for their understanding of femininity and their treatment of women.

If we believe that Mary was chosen essentially at random, that God could have used any woman to be the mother of His Son because all He needed was womb space and human DNA, we reduce our understanding of womanhood to that of physical maternity and that all-too-distasteful word, breeding.

If we believe that Mary was chosen through God’s will alone without regard to her personal choice, as strict Calvinism logically implies, we reduce her “yes” to a meaningless appearance and reduce our view of women to less-than-free agents. We open the door to rape and abuse because we turn God Himself into a rapist.

By removing from our faith a vision of Mary’s beauty – of the cosmic power of her choice to cooperate with God’s grace and enter into His redemptive plan – we lose our vision of the full beauty and power of women in general. Sisters, what matters most about us isn’t our ability to bear children and bring babies into the world. What matters most is our choice to say “yes” to God’s plan, our ability to change the course of history by choosing to live for Him.

In the Catholic understanding of Mary, we see God choosing a woman to play the most important human role in His salvific plan. That’s the kind of thing He does: He takes the weaker, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and glorifies them. And people who by nature and social norms are accustomed to power and respect are unnerved or threatened by that. Maybe that’s why the certain churches reduce Mary’s role to her womb. But what Catholicism offers is is a vision of womanhood glorified and beautified by grace, lifted up in queenly majesty as it offers itself to Him in free love and humility.

That is the picture of womanhood I want to emulate and grow into personally, and it is the perception of women that I wish could permeate our families, churches, and society at large.

Posted in musings

the reception of love

When I’m closest and most intimate with my husband, my mind ponders the nature and essence of woman as woman and of man as man. I believe that our bodies and our souls were both designed by God for function and beauty, and that as a result our bodies reflect truth about the nature of our being. Put another way, our bodies are gendered, so some aspect at least of our being is gendered, and understanding our femininity or masculinity is necessary to understanding the fullness of our being. Our bodies of course are broken and subject to sin, and the image of ourselves and of God that we see in them is faulty and incomplete. But even in the beginning, when the world was unstained, “God made them male and female.”

I’ve never come across another definition of the essence of masculinity and femininity (and the difference between them) quite as beautiful and succinct as Leila Lawler’s over at Like Mother, Like Daughter, where she describes the man as the one whose vocation is to give and the woman as the one whose vocation is to receive that she might give in return. So in marriage the man gives his love and the woman receives it, and in the receiving gives back the love in the creation of the child. (Read her post for more depth – I don’t want to take her ideas and anyway, she expresses them more beautifully and clearly than I ever could).

This understanding of man and woman then becomes my springboard for understanding the church. For the church is the bride of Christ. We are all, in the cosmic sense, in our relation to God, feminine. A church that relies solely on the masculine image of God, that sees the good only in the initiating, powerful, authoritative things, will fail to understand who God is (God in whose image both male and female were created) but will even more completely fail to understand its own nature and purpose as the Bride. We, the church, are intended like the woman to receive love that we might pour it back out in return. God bestows, we receive; and our reception is not the end of our love and vocation, but the beginning. The church gestates within herself the new life that God is preparing for His children and for all creation, and it is through the church – through our labor of love, through our suffering in childbirth, that the new life will finally come into its own. It is of course His life in us, His love in us, that is making it all happen. But He has chosen to make it happen in us and through us, just as He chose the new life of the baby to come about in the woman and through the woman, though without the life-giving seed of the man it could never have come to be at all.