Make a merry gathering/On the bank/Where thousands perished/For brave hurt words/They said.
Be nobody’s darling;/Be an outcast./Qualified to live/Among your dead.
— Alice Walker
The girl is in the box. Look down at it through the clear lid. You can see her there, inside it, sitting on a velvet seat, as if she were a jewelry box marionette. Lift the lid and listen to the music. See how she stands and twirls in the only way she is allowed to do. Look at how well she knows her place. This girl knows her role. She knows the dance that is required to be a woman.
There is a certain safety in performing your role, in accepting the parameters set out for you. In fact, growing up in evangelicalism, it might be necessary to do so to ensure your own survival. The rebelliousness of free thought can be dangerous. One of the core tenants of cultural evangelical christianity is making sure females know their place, and they have no shame in reprimanding them if they dare to step out of it. This indoctrination into a specific form of womanhood comes at you from all sides, and if you grew up an evangelical girl in the 90s, you are probably familiar with one trendy version, Brio magazine. I am sad to say Brio has been resurrected, and is showing up in my mailbox thanks to an unwanted gift subscription for my daughters. They are not reading it, but I am, because I think it can be helpful to analyze how damaging its contents can be, so we can learn how we were indoctrinated into oppression, and therefore what we need to push back on to get free. For example, there is one article in the Dec/Jan issue entitled “What’s So Great About Being A Girl?”, and despite their claims to the contrary, spoiler alert, not much!
The goal of this article is to inform teen girls that there are some characteristics that are given only to females, and furthermore, that these traits are both godly and what makes a girl beautiful.
“He had instilled in Adam the strengths and attributes that are truly male; now it was time for the beauty of human nature to be displayed in femaleness. So God created Eve.” It goes on to say, “Females are created to feel deeply, and this is actually an invaluable quality. Because girls feel and understand hurt, we are more apt to be sensitive to the hurt of others. And how great it is when a woman uses this sensitivity to improve the lives around her…” So females are made to be hurt, but men are not. This would probably be a surprise to men like Rilke, van Gogh, and Baldwin, but ok. Let’s not let the facts of humanity get in the way of sexism.
This article tells girls that the way for them to change the world for the better is by embracing the message that they, and only they, are emotional, insecure, hurt, anxious, and have low self-worth. It tells them that because of having all of these traits they are better able to be kind and forgiving to others, to see the best in others, and to sacrifice their own pain for the sake of others. This is the way of grace, it says.
There are many problems with this article: It teaches women they are only good enough to be trod upon. It contains no discussion of domestic violence or assault. It dehumanizes men by saying that they do not have these qualities, which in fact all humans have. It neglects the ways in which white women have used their kindness to mask hate. It teaches women that their only godly worth is to ignore their thoughts, feelings, and desires. There is no discussion of boundaries or consent or the awareness that emotions serve a purpose — that they can tell us when we have been violated in some way.
The article says, “Loyalty and kind-heartedness are the strong foundation on which good relationships are built. The ability to look past imperfection and to forgive hurt is never a demonstration of weakness — it’s strength. This is a part of our female grit. So the next time you encounter drama with your friends or family, recognize your strength in knowing that these relationships are more important to you than the original moment of hurt. And forgive.”
But what is forgiveness without naming the wrong? And how can the wrong be named, unless there is a standard of right and wrong, of healthy and unhealthy behavior? Why are they telling girls that being wronged is simply encountering drama? And why is it on the female to absorb the pain?
What benefit is there for a person to live smothering their true feelings and emotions? What does a person gain by not having boundaries or being able to express pain? To not be honest? To be told you’re causing drama by speaking up? How does a girl grow into a woman in charge of her own life if she has never been told she has a life to be in charge of?
How much damage is done to the world, to women, to men, when people believe empathy, forgiveness, and tears are merely a feminine trait? And why do they think that empathy and kindness and tenderness can only come from being tread upon?
This theology teaches women to devalue themselves in the name of god. It teaches them that being the sacrificial lamb is more important than questioning why the sacrifice is necessary, and diverts attention away from the one with the blade.
By imbuing murder with the language of grace, they tell women that their pain is part of a bigger picture, as if they are soldiers in a war they never signed up for. These girls will probably grow into women, spending possibly a lifetime denying themselves their own existence, and if they don’t exist as themselves, what are they here for, and what kind of a world are they sacrificing themselves for? Who wins by stripping half the population of their power?
Who benefits from a docile femininity? Who is empowered by telling teen girls that, “Although insecurity is not unique to females, we do experience a unique form of anxiety when we struggle with our self-worth. But this can also be an indicator of a special part of female nature: the ability to discern. Your awareness of the people around you comes from an innate sensitivity to see past their words, their style, their attitudes. And while this may lead to insecurity within yourself, it can ultimately prepare you for dealing with others,”? What worth is there in being told your purpose in life is to be broken in order to make others feel better? Why must women always be told to look past words and attitudes? Why must we always settle for good intentions, as if that is the only bar that humans have to cross to be considered decent? This article is vapid sentimentality that could just as easily have come from a Grace Livingston Hill novel.
But we are no longer living with a 19th century femininity, and it is not just because the years have passed. What it means to be a woman has changed because we have felt the pain and damage from the beliefs of the past. We are being honest about our lives and the damage that this theology has done to us. Modern womanhood, with its careers, equality, and assertiveness didn’t come about for the sake of a trend. Women are reclaiming their lives because we were born to live.
Becoming a woman is learning to name and undo all the abuse that has been done to you in the name of patriarchy. It is learning how the powers and principalities of the world have worked their restrictive magic upon you. Escaping the box marked ‘female only’ is like opening your eyes to see that while inside, you have also been buried in a rock slide. Not only do you have to climb out of the box, but you also need the strength to throw off what wants to keep you buried. Being a woman is to have developed that strength over a lifetime of carrying the burden of being female. Of shouldering the weight of expectations. And while our strength doesn’t define us, it does empower us.
This article makes a claim as to the godliness of being a specific kind of woman. But there is nothing inherently good about a meek and mild woman. Woven into this mythical ideal of the proper female is the idea that performing kindness is the same thing as performing goodness. But it was the evangelical wet-dream June Cleaver generation of white women who were at the forefront of defending segregated neighborhoods. Evangelical femininity is not known for its courage in standing up to oppression. How could it? It believes being oppressed reveals grace.
I n contrast to this article, there is an essay by Alice Walker that gives another look at how women might use their pain not to shrink themselves for the benefit of the oppressor, but as a means to empower themselves.
In the essay, “The Black Writer and the Southern Experience”, she describes how a black community was routinely victimized and dehumanized by the local white community. In the telling, she focuses on how the black women did not use their hurt and pain in service to the white women they knew and worked for. They did their best to not participate in their own unjust oppression, and instead, by focusing on their own needs, were able to not only survive, but also to be generous towards the other women in their community; “For their lives were not about that pitiful example of Southern womanhood, but about themselves.”
Walker gives us examples of female strength and dignity that is rooted in a refusal to play the docile, submissive female role. And despite what Brio says about godliness and suffering, she assures us that faith can be formed in this self-possessed form of womanhood, describing the solidarity of her parents and their community by saying that “…their lives testify to a greater comprehension of the teachings of Jesus…”
Brio’s understanding of what it means to be female instills in girls the idea that being hurt is something to expect, and that it is ungodly to advocate for themselves. Evangelical teen girls are still being taught to be sacrificial lambs for everyone in their lives.
Being a female does not mean sacrificing your feelings and desires for everyone else. Being female simply means being one type of human being. Learning how to be a healthy and happy human is something all of us have to do, whether we are a man, woman, or anywhere in-between. The role of being a woman is to be played by the woman herself, not by those who wish to control her.
There is nothing selfish in standing up for yourself, to refuse to be silent to spare other’s feelings. There is nothing wrong with setting boundaries, with being secure and self-confident. There is nothing shameful In being a woman with thoughts and opinions and desires. And there is nothing wrong in rejecting the messages that tell you in order to be godly, you must be broken.
Brio was right in one respect. It is a sacrifice to be a female in the evangelical church. Standing up to a theology that leaves room for abuse and violation will mean the loss of that community. Which is not that great of a loss, to be honest, but it is still a loss. It is an unmooring of the deepest sense, especially when it is the only world you have known.
But let the passive, mild, nonthreatening form of femininity die. Let a bold, courageous, unafraid womanhood rise instead. Don’t be the church’s darling. Be an outcast. Qualified to live among the ones they wish didn’t exist.
As Walker says elsewhere, “Women must be prepared to think for themselves…which means all kinds of heartache and misery and times when you will wonder if independence, freedom of thought, or your own work is worth it all. We must believe that it is…”
This essay originally appeared at Fundamentally Free.