Monday, June 16, 2014

Women and Power

The following are remarks I made during the PC(USA) General Assembly Women's Leadership Institute/Young Women's Leadership Development event on June 13th. 

            My name is Laura. I’m 35 years old, but when I started engaging with the national church, I was 21. I attended McCormick Seminary, and was ordained in the Presbytery of Chicago as a Teaching Elder in 2006. I’m a double-p.k. Both my parents are ordained Presbyterian Teaching Elders.
I am here because of an accident – a mix-up in mailing lists at the Presbyterian Center, which resulted in my parents receiving a mailing from the National Network of Presbyterian College Women, which they passed on to me, a lapsed Christian who was done with church. I went to an NNPCW Leadership Event in 1999, and now here I am, a church professional.
After seminary, I worked with a Lilly Endowment-funded program at McCormick, then at the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), an ecumenical Lilly-funded organization working with emerging scholars of color in religion and with young people exploring a call to ministry, and now am on the executive staff of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, one of the six agencies of the PC(USA).
            Before we begin, a few definition of terms. Sometimes I assume that we all use the same words, have the same vocabulary, but I know that’s not true. Instead of “racial ethnic,” I will use the term “people of color.” Technically, even white people are racial ethnic, in that all of us upon entry to the U.S. are raced, and all of us have an ethnicity. Broader society and social action movements use the term “people of color.” By that, I mean the general groups we usually think of in racial boxes: basically, not white people.
            I am also going to talk about sexual minorities, by which I mean gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender people. This is not about an agenda, this is just talking about social realities. Queer is a term recently reclaimed by people who feel that “gay” or “lesbian” are terms that don’t fit them. “Queer” is more fluid, and political. It denotes an affiliation and an identity with not-straight. The issues transgender people face are about gender identity. We usually think of gender on a binary: there’s male and there’s female. Now, technically, and biologically, that’s not true. There are hundreds of variations on the X and Y chromosome that we in the U.S. rarely acknowledge. And we in the U.S. tend to assume everyone will fall into either the women or man category, when there are many people who feel uncomfortable with either option, or with the option they were assigned, or about how we in the U.S. regulate gendered behaviors and identities. Regardless of what we in the church think or believe about gender identity, people often experience it as more fluid. I will be using binary terms in this presentation, but know that there are many ways in which people identify themselves. I talk about these folks not to force a particular agenda on the church, but simply to discuss the social reality in which we as a 21st century church operate.
I was asked to share a story with you. I am not particularly good at focusing on one story, perhaps because I’m not as linear as I might appear. Narratives for me flow and interweave in how I experience them, so I will do something slightly different.
You may recall that Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, wrote a book about women and leadership that caused a stir, called “Lean In.” I read part of this book, and what I came away with was the sense that her advice for women hinged upon two things. The first was her experience as a white, educated, heterosexual, married woman billionaire, in the technology sector, with typically-developing children. My experience is not very many of those things, so I tried to keep that in mind when reading it. The second is that I came away with the feeling a significant part of her premise is that a primary solution to sexism in the workplace and in the U.S. at large is placing more women into positions of power.
Yes, more women at the top will result in workplace, policy, and cultural changes that will benefit all women.
Let’s have a brief conversation about patriarchy.
Here’s the thing. Patriarchy is an ideology and a system that gives more privilege to some, at the expense of everyone. Patriarchy lives on, thanks to embedded cultural assumptions that manifest themselves in women heads of staff being a newsworthy event, in the assumption that women are somehow responsible for the violence and harassment we experience, in ongoing arguments in many circles about the biblical justifications for women’s ordination.
Patriarchy lives on, thanks to laws and policies that determine each family has to pay for its own childcare, because children are an individual choice, not a shared social responsibility; or in laws and policies that have, over hundreds of years, systematically denied women, people of color, and gay and lesbian people, the capacity and the rights to gain education, property, employment, and protection from violence; or in laws and policies that tell us affirmative action is no longer necessary, because now that there is a woman head of staff at Riverside Church, or because we have a black president, or because there are gay people on television, there must now be a level playing field. There is no more discrimination. Patriarchy, because it is an ideology and a system, does not require individual men, or men at all. Women play a vital role in upholding, perpetuating, and reinforcing patriarchy, because it is the water we drink, the air we breathe, the atmosphere in which we live and have our being.
14 years ago, when I graduated from college and entered the job market and the national church, I used to think it was awesome to be with women in leadership. They must be so different from what I imagined men in leadership were like. More nurturing, or something. Stronger. Tougher. But, you know, aware of dynamics of power and privilege. They are probably less likely to make fools out of themselves through their ignorance of other cultural groups, or their bigotry. And I met plenty of women who proved me right.
That positive feeling toward women in leadership, especially preferring women in leadership to men, didn’t last. It didn’t last, because women are human, and because patriarchy is a system and an ideology.
The consequence of patriarchy is that sometimes, women can be the worst midwives. Women can undercut women’s leadership just as well as men. Women can disregard the voices of other women, especially white women and straight women, who disregard the voices of women of color and lesbian and queer women. Women will often follow the exact same rules and policies that discriminate against women, people of color, gay/lesbian/queer/transgender people, people of other religions and nationalities. The partners of patriarchy, or perhaps its consequences, are racism and a whole host of other isms. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean we are somehow exempt, or special, from participating in and upholding systemic discrimination and bigotry. We, too, perpetuate sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and all the rest.
In my experience, having worked with and for both women and men of various generations, racial backgrounds, and sexual orientations, more women in leadership will not solve our problem.
Sure, women in leadership is a necessary step. It says something to see women in all kinds of leadership. Women in top levels of society and the church are absolutely effective in helping change our dialogue. Women at the top are necessary, but insufficient.
The entire system has to change, and this change is much deeper than just changing the faces of those in leadership, changing the faces from male to female, changing the faces from white to people of color, or at least getting something else in there besides the usual suspects. You are familiar with tokenism, yes? Or what antiracism organizers call the “looking good” strategy. Plug in a few “others” who might be women or people of color, but often also dress like you, talk like you, went to the same schools you did, understand which utensils to use when at a fancy banquet, and there you have it. You look good, like you are helping to end racism and sexism.
What I learned is that most women in leadership, including myself, play a game. Because women before me played the game, and paid the price for it, I am more free to be myself. But many women in leadership, and as I have noticed, in a white-dominant, older church system like ours, now play a game that closely resembles the white, heterosexual, upper-middle class male game. As long as our society and the church are biased culturally and systemically toward white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, baby boomer men, this is a necessary game for women. We do have to find a way for those in power to take us seriously, if we want to create systemic change.
But this game can twist us, in part, because not everyone understands this is a game in which almost everyone loses a piece of her or his humanity while playing. Obviously, the church doesn’t look just white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, baby boomer, and male. That’s because there need be no white, heterosexual, upper-middle class, or male people involved in the game for it to be perpetuated. We have all bought into it, one way or another, because we believe in it, or because of a little phenomenon we call the need for survival. Everyone has to pay the bills. Most of us don’t have the energy, or the time, or the will to fight the system of the church, when sometimes we just want to be able to walk in, sit down in a pew, or walk in, stand in the chancel, and do our thing. This game doesn’t have to be played the same way by everyone, and in fact, some of us can help stop it.
            For a long time, movements of people of color have prioritized race over gender, asking the women to not make such a big deal over sexism, because once the racial group is free, then we can address women’s issues. For a long time, movements of women have asked the women of color to prioritize gender over race, asking the women of color not to make such a big deal about racism, because once women are equal, we can address racism.
Patriarchy creates the sense that there are limited resources, and it pits us against each other. Men tell women, be patient, wait, it’s not your turn. Older women tell younger women, it’s not your turn, we haven’t had our turn yet. White women tell women of color, be patient, it’s not your turn. Straight people, in very recent history, told gay people, wait, wait, be patient, the church isn’t ready yet, it isn’t your turn. And people of color, we do it to each other!
Now I’m really getting into it. This is what we call real talk. I do not like having this conversation, because it’s uncomfortable, but someone needs to say it.
Men of color tell women of color, wait, be patient, it’s not your turn. Asian Americans tell immigrants, wait, it’s not your turn, we haven’t had ours yet. One group of people of color will tell another group of people of color, wait, be patient, the church hasn’t yet dealt with racism against us, so it’s not your turn yet.
This is uncomfortable to say, but remember this is a phenomenon because we actually think we all have to wait to get a turn. We think older people should go first. We think some people of color have experience that take primacy over other people of color, when in fact, we are all waiting on the exact same thing. We cannot end racism against one group of people without ending it against all people. We cannot end sexism without ending racism. We cannot end sexism without ending ageism.
If we continue to think like that, no one is ever going to get a turn, or only enough of us will get a turn so the system looks good, but not enough of us will get a turn, because that would be threatening. The only way we will move ahead is if we acknowledge there are no turns. If we were to actually work together to end patriarchy and all its associated systems, there would be no such thing as waiting for a turn, because there wouldn’t be the need.
I used to fancy myself an activist. I’m not, now. I vote, usually, although where I live has such restrictions on voting that if I’m not available that day (and I’m usually not, since I travel so much), I don’t get the chance. I go to work every day. I rarely have time for rallies or other social actions. I’m thinking of having my anti-Iraq war protest arrest expunged from my record.
I am not an activist. But I’m still part of this church, with influence and voice, as many of us in the room are. I could fool myself into thinking that my very presence as a woman of color in leadership would be enough to transform this patriarchal church system. But it won’t. Transformation will take much more. Transformation requires intentional, careful cultivation, coalition-building, and faith in the mystery we call God.
The midwives Shiprah and Puah were intentional. They weren’t playing a game just for their own personal gain, or just to prove that a woman could get somewhere. They chose their moment to act when it mattered most. They didn’t fall into this. Their faithfulness in their God nurtured the readiness to respond powerfully when the time came.
I went back to school to get my MBA because the game became very clear to me. If I were to continue on this leadership track in the church, I needed more capacities for management and leadership than what I had learned from my life experience and my M.Div. I needed to be taken seriously if I were to speak up about personnel, or organizational dynamics and systems, or the budget, or investments. But this was also because I find many sectors of the church and the non-profit world to be poorly-managed and poorly-led, and the business world to, at times, be overly biased toward short-term gains at the expense of long-term investments in both the economy and the common good, and satisfied with privatized profits while the costs are spread over the larger society, with poor people, women, people of color, and the earth we love paying the most.
            I have a tendency to plan. I plan so much that if something goes awry, I have difficulty readjusting. This makes me not so spontaneous. But this tendency to plan means I do my best to be ready, so I can choose my moment. I have heard tales that the justice-oriented African American, Asian American, Hispanic/Latin@, Native American old guard did just that – chose moments in which to act, in which the church was ready to hear and do something that would resemble racial justice work. I have heard tales that women in the church nurtured relationships, skills, and a deep spirituality, so they could act when necessary, when the time came that called on them to midwife work that was larger than themselves, that was more about their own personal gain, but about helping the church itself be more faithful.
            We can all be ready. We can be ready by building a base of power made up not just of women, or not just of baby boomers, or not just of women of color. We can build coalitions of people who know the game, and know it must be transformed, if not ended, because it is destroying our humanity and compromising our Christian witness. We can see the midwives among us, and be midwives to one another. In these next few days, even in the midst of church, we need to be ready to create coalitions, lean in to what is new and uncomfortable, and serve as faithful, intentional, prepared midwives.


  1. Thank you for this, Laura. Your ability to be prophetic and pastoral, to see and reveal the whole picture, amazes me. Blessings in your coalition creation there at GA and beyond.

    1. Thanks for reading! We have so many good partners in this work. Glad for those who hold us accountable to our words.

  2. Laura,
    Your article is interesting and I want to understand it, but after two readings I am still lost in the nuance and words that I do not know the meaning of. For starters, could you explain more about what you mean when you say "Patriarchy, because it is an ideology and a system, does not require individual men, or men at all"? To my mind, this is like saying farming does not need farmers, but I suspect there is a layer of meaning that is going over my head! Thank you for posting your article, and for any additional insights you can offer.

    1. Hi Randy,
      Thanks for your comment, and my apologies for the slow reply. What I mean by "patriarchy is an ideology and a system" is that many of our "isms" aren't limited to actions (like a man telling me to keep my mouth shut), but have become embedded in our culture, legal system, theology. That means, to me, that in a room with no men, a group of women will still unconsciously elevate men, or operate in patriarchal ways. A group of women operating alone will not suddenly step out of its usual social milieu just because we're the only ones in the room. Does that make sense? Patriarchy is a social structure and a way of valuing humanity and ideas, not just a series of actions, whereas farming is a series of actions.