the adventures of ernie bufflo

things magical and mundane


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I am not Trayvon. But I AM the woman in the elevator.

The whole country seems to be unsettled now that the trial is over and George Zimmerman has received zero punishment for the undisputed fact that he provoked a fight with and then shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin. All I keep thinking is imagining myself in his parents’ shoes, my baby killed and getting no justice. But the truth is, despite all the folks saying “We are Trayvon,” I’m not, and my babies *aren’t either. We are *unlikely to be perceived as threats based on our race. We *are unlikely to be held to a higher standard of suspicion. We *likely won’t be required to moderate our clothes or behavior or whereabouts in order to make others feel safe and thus ensure our own safety.

And Questlove has written a great piece about what it feels like to be like Trayvon, to be black and male in this country, to constantly be worrying about how others perceptions of his danger level affect his own safety. And I think we should all read it, and I think we should all think hard about the way racism and segregation affect our own day to day lives, and the fact that a lot of us live in neighborhoods where seeing a black man walk down our street would be so unusual as to be perceived as a threat. My friend Kyran, for example, has been asking some great questions about the intersection of economic and racial injustice in our communities.

But at the same time, the central story Questlove tells, about how hurt he felt by a woman who lived in his building clearly perceiving him as a threat when she was alone with him on an elevator, well, I am that woman, and I can’t say I blame her. If Questlove wants us to all walk in his size 14 shoes, then he needs to know a thing or two about that woman’s high heels, about what it means to be a woman in rape culture.

We are told over and over again that rape is something that happens to girls who aren’t vigilant enough. Who walk down the wrong streets at the wrong time in the wrong company. Who have too much to drink. Who wear the wrong clothes. Who send out mixed signals. You are constantly on your guard or you “get raped,” a phrase that has always bothered me because it’s like “got milk?” As if I went and picked it up at the store or had some say in the matter.

I’m not often alone in public these days, but I chronicled lots of harassment and intimidation from the days when I used to be, which you can find under my Bus Stories tab. It was daily, and the general message I got was: to be female, alone, in public is to be at risk.

When I am alone in an isolated place, my keys are between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon, and I have my phone out and ready to dial 911 if I need to. I would certainly be wary to be on an elevator with a strange man of any race, because an elevator is an isolated place. And this vigilance is exhausting and numbing, and there were days I have come home and literally cried because one more man yelled something ugly and intimidating at me as he drove past.

To be a woman in public is ALSO to be told you “aren’t shit,” as Questlove says he’s learned. It’s to be told you are an object for the taking, a message made clear not just by words shouted out of moving cars like “HEY SUGARTITS,” but also in the looks, and in the ways people talk about those unvigilant girls who get themselves raped.

I think, somewhere, there’s a place where Questlove and that woman in the elevator have something in common: patriarchy tells them both they ain’t shit. They both have varying levels of privilege, him as a man, and her as a white woman. It’s only in taking down the patriarchy that they can both feel safe in public.

*Words changed slightly from original post in response to comments and in an effort to make clear that I am attempting to recognize the privilege afforded to women perceived as white in this country. I don’t want to leap to the assumption that we are never seen as threatening by others, simply recognizing the fact that we usually aren’t.

**Traffic and comments keep rolling in on this post, and while I’m really happy with the attention it’s received, I’m also busy chasing 16 month old twins, and don’t have time to reply to every comment. I would also urge you to check out this beautifully-written, painful post that’s another take on the woman in the elevator. The comments and responses to this post have been thought-provoking and inspiring. I’d say a great step toward dismantling the system I believe hurts both the “woman in the elevator” and Questlove is to think about our fears, confront and examine them. I believe there are reasonable steps toward self-preservation, but there are also walls and barriers that separate us from one another. I need to focus more on reaching out.


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Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig? Uh, no.

IMG_1935Wow. What a question. But it’s been a Salon headline, thanks to an excerpt from a new book about Femivores, and as a result, has been re-blogged in several places. And now I’m asking too. Only I’m also going to answer the question.

NO.

I’m a feminist, I bake my own bread, and oh hey look, I dealt with all of this stuff in a post back in 2010.

To recap, what I said then is true now: yes, it’s sexist and inaccurate when food writers express nostalgia for a Good Old Days that never existed. As Emily Matchar makes clear in the excerpt of her book that Salon posted, and as is clear to anyone who watches Mad Men, it’s simply not true that our grandmothers ate better, more wholesome food than we did. My grandmother’s most famous recipe involves a jar of Cheese Wiz, for example. You’d have to go back to my great grandmother on the farm to get to something close to “slow food,” and then you’d also have to consider that she was living a life of drudgery during the Great Depression with many many mouths to feed. So yes, it’s absolutely a valid criticism of folks like Michael Pollan to ask that they please lay off the pre-feminist nostalgia.

It’s also one thing to note that feminism led many women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, and another to blame all our current food woes on that fact. Sometimes, it has seemed that Pollan has done this, but in a rather large body of writing I must charitably point out that overall, I do not get the feeling that he’s truly a sexist who thinks cooking is women’s work, as he himself is a man who cooks. Still, we need to consider that the lack of home cooking in this country might be precisely because FEMINISM ISN’T FINISHED YET, and true equality would have as many men getting into cooking as women getting out of it.

This brings me to my frustration with the “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig” chapter/article heading. It’s like Jay Smooth’s awesome video about racism: you need to keep the conversation about what the person said/did, rather than on who/what they are as a person. Absolutely Michael Pollan has written some sexist things. But calling him, as a person, a sexist pig, even in a semi-joking headline, really goes too far, especially when there are so many actual sexist pigs out there not doing good work and fighting the good fight, save for a few statements.

I guess, as a bread-baking, yogurt-making, pastured-egg eating, feminist, stay at home mom, I wonder what people think is exactly the problem in this movement, one in which people who have other options are choosing something based upon important values and beliefs. I don’t want to fall too far into the choice feminist camp, because I believe even feminists can make problematic choices, and that the personal is political, and the choices we make perpetuate a system larger than ourselves, etc. etc. etc. BUT. There are a lot of us, women and men, for whom food and other seemingly small choices are deeply important, even spiritual. We may find joy in a system of farming, cooking, and eating that is healthier for ourselves, for the workers who make/grow/produce our food, and for the planet.

Matchar writes, “As should be obvious to anyone who’s peeked at a cookbook from the late 1940s or early 1950s that promotes ingredients like sliced hot dogs and canned tomato soup, we’ve been eating processed crap since long before feminism. Yet the idea of the feminist abandoning her children to TV dinners while she rushes off to a consciousness-raising group is unshakable.”

But in a way, Matchar seems to echo this early criticism of feminists, and seems to think we’re choosing these domestic pursuits to the exclusion of other, worthier causes:

“Many smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid, are now immersed in grassroots food organizing, planting community gardens and turning their own homes into minifarms complete with chicken coops.”

But you know, we’re the people who have time to show up to the pro-choice rally with homemade muffins in tow. It’s like when you show interest in supporting a charity for say, animal welfare, and someone reminds you that there are starving people in the world who matter more. Well, it’s amazing how boundless my interests and passions can be. I can care deeply about the food I feed myself and my family and also about social justice and politics. And I can be part of a slow food movement while still recognizing that it has major problems with privilege, a lot of the time.

And you know, I have a feeling Matchar feels the same way, too. She mentions in her piece that she’s “been learning to can jam, bake bread from scratch in my Dutch oven (though my husband is better at it), and make my own tomato sauce from a bushel of ugly tomatoes I bought at the farmer’s market.” It’s entirely possible her book reflects my tone of largely admiration for the work of slow-foodies while also seeing a few shortcomings. It’s just unfortunate that she (or an editor?) are (even jokingly) calling one of the “good guys” a “sexist pig” in order to sell a few more copies.


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on re-reading The Awakening

The graduate student in her native environment.

While driving home from school today, I was thinking to myself about all of the stuff I’ve been reading this semester. I’m taking a women’s lit seminar and a “literature of the Americas” seminar (Latin American and Native American) and really enjoying the readings for both, which has stirred up a lot of thoughts. I realized, in a sort of meta way, that I tend to think almost in essay form. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the school I’ve had, or if I like all this school precisely because I’m constantly composing essays in my head, but my musings tend to become thesis statements and paragraphs in my mind. Of course, the problem is, I rarely get a chance to write them down, what with actual assignments to do and something about two babies to take care of….

But, I do have a blog, and I can at least get down these essay embryos and maybe one day return to them and turn them into something if I want.

One of my most striking realizations stems from re-reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It’s the story of an 1800s wife and mother experiencing a literal awakening to herself and her place in the world and her realization of her profound unhappiness the more she gets to know herself. When I read this novel for the first time, I believe I was a college freshman. I was 18, and it was a purely academic exercise. Now, I’m reading it nearly 10 years later as a wife and mother, and I’m practically a completely different person reading a completely different book.

Upon first reading, I vaguely remember feeling sad for Edna Pontellier, but I didn’t really understand her in any meaningful way. She wasn’t a very sympathetic character to me, and I found her largely selfish and annoying. She has a live-in nanny, for crying out loud, and she’s supposedly stifled by her role as a mother?! Of course, she’s still a little annoying, with her privileged white girl problems, and I think even Chopin would admit her protagonist is selfish (though how hilarious is it that Edna reads Emerson, perhaps the paragon of selfish male introspection, and he doesn’t get such criticisms). However, now I have a much greater personal window into Edna’s frustrations, even as I realize that maybe it’s precisely because I read The Awakening and other books like it before I became a wife and mother that I largely do not share her pain.

It is precisely because of characters like Edna Pontellier that my greatest fear before becoming a mother was that I would somehow lose myself. Edna argues with the great mother-figure of the book, her friend Adele, about what she would be willing to give up for the sake of her children, baffling Adele with her insistence that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up her self. Adele does not understand the difference. And of course, Edna does not understand Adele’s happiness, either, unable to comprehend that a woman who sees almost no distinction between herself and her role as a mother could be truly happy and fulfilled.

The problem for Edna is not that there is something inherently wrong with being a wife and a mother, or that no woman can be fulfilled in those roles, but that not all women are, and for Edna, there were few other options. She is not an Adele Ratignolle, joyfully consumed by her children, but neither is she content to remain a single woman like musician Mademoiselle Reisz. For all her supposed failings as a mother, the Edna we see in the novel is a woman who deeply loves and is very tender with her children. One scene that stands out is her tender rocking of her child to sleep when “the quadroon” is unable to get him to bed. She misses them when they are absent at their grandmother’s house. She would miss them were they not in her life at all.

She is a woman of privilege, even has the much-coveted “room of one’s own” in which to paint, and the childcare to give her time to do so and to think and wander the city as well, and yet she has no meaningful activity outside of her home, and no one in her life who truly understands her. She is a woman who favors the relationship of motherhood but is not well suited to the jobs of motherhood, a distinction made in this very compelling post from Ask Moxie.

Unlike Edna, perhaps because of Edna, I have remained determined to finish my graduate education and continue pursuing my dream of being an English professor. Because of Edna, I know how crucial it is that I get time away from my girls to tend to my other interests, because it makes me a better person and therefore a better mother. Because of Edna, I am grateful for a marriage to a partner who knows me deeply and loves me as a person, not for any prescribed roles I might fill. Unlike Edna, I got to go to college and get to know myself, to become an adult on my own terms before I became a wife and mom, and to discern what it is I want to do with my life and how to define my place in this world. Unlike Edna, I have options.

Somewhere between reading The Awakening for the first time and reading it for the second, I have had many, many awakenings that have made this experience of Edna’s story completely different from my experience the first time around. And in that difference, and in the difference between her life and mine, there is much much gratitude.


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“women are here to stay” or, we ain’t neva left

I spend a lot of time hanging out in my university library between classes. Usually I’m busy looking over materials for class, or checking in with my internet world, but sometimes I let my eyes wander over the shelves wherever I’ve settled, just to see what catches my eye. Recently, a tall book caught my eye, its title visible over the tops of all the other books: Women are Here to Stay. “Of course we are!” I said to myself, “Where else could we go? Who could manage without us?” I pulled the book off the shelf and read the subtitle: “The Durable Sex in its Infinite Variety Through Half a Century of American Life.”

Intrigued by this strange title, I opened the book, and realized it was a book of pictures. Often, hilarious pictures.

This lovely lady wore this cat hat as a costume at the Vanderbilt Ball.

clearly badasses.

But it turns out, published in the 1940s, this book had a feminist mission. One which is sadly still necessary today. Check out the introduction and see if you can relate:

The American woman today must be an expert housekeeper…She must be a wise, conscientious, and loving mother, always there when her children need her, but standing aside when her presence might threaten the full development of their individuality. She must be a delightful, helpful, thrifty wife, ready to administer comfort or to share in gay adventure. She must be a useful member of the community, informed on broad political trends as well as possible danger spots in the local school boards. She is also a citizen of the world and should be able to name the current President of France, have constructive ideas on what to do with the atom bomb, and say what’s wrong with our foreign policy.

That isn’t all. She is expected to read, look at, listen to the important new books, pictures, music, for women are the traditional guardians of culture. If she’s young, she should be cultivating some interest against the time when the children don’t need her. If she’s old, she should be happily occupied in some moderately useful, unspectacular fashion, keeping herself decently to herself, and not interfering with her juniors and betters.

And at all times, and at all ages, she should be, if not actually beautiful, as good-looking as perfect grooming, a disciplined figure, and good clothes can make her. (This part is very easy. The advertisements tell you how.)

It would not be surprising if women gave up entirely, crushed by the barrage of abuse and advice, and paralyzed by the impossible goals set for them. They don’t though. They keep on living–longer than men, as a matter of fact. It is indeed a durable sex.

Now, in nearly all books about women, the authors assume that women think and act first of all as women, not as individuals, and this assumption leads into the habit of thinking that they’re all pretty much alike. It is my intention to demonstrate that there are a great many different kinds of women (just as there are a great many different kinds of men) and that it is impossible to generalize about them– tempting though this may be, and very good fun as a pastime. (1)

On the one hand, this is laughable– of COURSE women are all special snowflakes, individuals, whose allegiance is first to ourselves and then to our sex. But is this not still our struggle? To be our individual selves, despite the monolithic mold that seems determined to bend us into some sort of ideal woman?

This gorgeous lady would be at home on a red carpet today.


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Weiner’s weiner and “porn for women”

So, by now you’ve probably heard the story of Weiner-gate, and if not, by all means, Google is your friend. Basically, a US Representative (edited because I previously called him a Senator) who happens to be named Weiner (it could only be this funny if it had happened to him or John Boehner), may or may not have* tweeted a picture of his boxer-brief-clad crotch. And, much like the time Brett Farve texted some pics of his crotch, the event has sparked a conversation around the very concept of sexting, particularly the sending of pictures of crotches to women.

The Washington Post has the audacity to declare “Naked man parts? Not so sexy.” In a headline.

I’m so glad a few randomly polled women quoted in a national publication are enough to declare, once and for all, that certain parts of men’s bodies, the parts most associated with sex, are universally not sexy. How problematic is this? Let me count the ways:

1. Women. We are many and varied like so many special snowflakes. Just because 5 ladies in the Washington Post say something isn’t sexy TO THEM doesn’t mean that it isn’t sexy to many many other women. While I am very sure that there are some ladies who would find a photo of a man cleaning their gutters sexier than a picture of a penis, I’m sure there are also some ladies who would find a picture of a man in high heels or wearing a dog collar sexier than a picture of a man cleaning gutters. If there is anything the internet has to teach us, it’s that for any given thing, there are lots of people who find that thing sexy. And lots of people who don’t. So perhaps the number one takeaway could be: know what your partner thinks is sexy. Maybe ask him or her and talk about it. Send him or her pictures of things that person thinks is sexy. Because you know what IS pretty much universally sexy? When someone gets to know you and wants to make you happy in ways that actually make you happy. Personally? I would not be happy to receive photos of any body part on my cell phone. But that’s just me. It might be right up your alley.

2. “Porn for Women” when defined only as photos of men doing household chores like making beds, folding laundry, or organizing a refrigerator, is a very damaging idea. The fact that women are supposed to find photos of men doing housework hot suggests that housework is women’s job, and if men do it, it is a super special favor that should be rewarded with sex. It also suggests that sex isn’t something women actively desire, pursue, and enjoy, but rather something they begrudgingly consent to in order to please and/or reward men. This is what leads to damaging ideas like grey rape– the idea that sex is, at best, something women must be convinced or coerced into having, and that a “no” is negotiable. I know it might seem like a leap to go from “sexy” photos of men folding clothes to the idea of rape, but it’s part of a larger problem of seeing women as sex objects who reluctantly give up sex, instead of active participants in the wanting and having of sex. Fold laundry because you live here, not because you want a sexual reward. Have sex because you want to, not because you feel you owe it to someone or that you have to be talked into it.

3. Bodies are sexy. I’m always quick to point out how uncool it is to shame women about their bodies. Telling men that part of their body is universally unsexy is also uncool. Sure, as I actually said when the whole Brett Farve thing went down, a picture of a penis outside of any context, certainly when unsolicited, can be jarring and confusing and even violating. But bodies and their parts can also be very very sexy, even if said bodies aren’t involved in mopping floors or whatever. One stereotype I think is particularly damaging is the idea that men are visual creatures but women aren’t. Different people are aroused in different ways, but for many many women, visuals are indeed arousing. Even visuals of naked men. Just as I believe women deserve to be with men who think ALL of them is sexy, men deserve the same.

4. The thing that makes the Brett Farve and Anthony Weiner pics unsexy is that they were also unsolicited. This goes back to my earlier post about enthusiastic consent. Don’t foist pictures or activities or anything on someone unless someone has enthusiastically consented to that picture or activity. Because it turns out rape/assault is decidedly NOT SEXY. **The Weiner pics would be increasingly unsexy if they prove to have been taken and/or posted without Weiner’s consent, making him a victim as well.

My pithy final words? Don’t send penis pictures to people who don’t want them or don’t find them sexy. Don’t assume that women do not like sex, that they do not like men’s bodies, or that housework is their job. Don’t assume that the four people you interview for your piece are representative of all people of that gender (or race, or socioeconomic group, or, or, or).

*Late breaking update: he did it, he confessed, he’s not resigning.

**added after the fact because a commenter felt I was unclear about Weiner’s alleged involvement in the picture and its posting.


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asking for it and enthusiastic consent

Rebecca St. James is clearly asking for it in that turtleneck.

I barely remember her from the bad Christian pop of the 90s, but apparently Rebecca St. James is still some sort of authority on modesty and whether or not someone deserves to be sexually assaulted because of what they are wearing. I say apparently, because Fox News had her on to discuss a recent spate of “Slut Walks,” which I would describe as a sort of updated “Take Back the Night” rally, in which women march wearing whatever they want, in order to make the point that being perceived as a slut, whether because of one’s clothes or other reasons, is not justification for sexual assault. It’s largely based on lampooning the very concept of the word “slut,” since it can’t be an insult or a justification if those to whom it is applied refuse to be shamed by it.

Anyway, back to Rebecca St. James, she of 90s CCM fame. This is what she said on Fox News (video here):

“I think there has to be responsibility though for what a woman is wearing,” St. James told Hannity Monday. “When a woman is dressing in an immodest way, in a proactive way, she’s got to think about what is she saying by her dress.”

“They’re asking for sex,” she continued. “They’re asking for sex if they’re dressed immodestly.”

Here’s the thing. ONLY ACTUALLY ASKING FOR SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED ASKING FOR SEX.

What someone is wearing, whether or not they are drinking, what kind of neighborhood they are walking down the street it: these are not ways of consenting to sex. I’ll put it a bit more clearly:

ONLY ACTUALLY CONSENTING TO SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED CONSENT TO SEX.

St. James seems to believe that rape is an appropriate punishment for women who dare to dress in a way that does not meet her cultural standards of modesty. She also seems to take the very negative and insulting view of men that suggests they are sexbeasts who cannot control themselves in the presence of female flesh. And, possibly, she seems to hold the beliefs that women don’t really want sex, and are unlikely to enthusiastically, verbally, clearly consent to engage in it, and that sex is something men must convince or coerce women into having, either by raping them, or exchanging gifts and time (it’s called dating, romance, or maybe even marriage– since an engagement ring is the ultimate gift) in exchange for sex.

Here’s what I think. Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best (and should only happen) with someone who wants to be having it with you. Both men and women enjoy and desire sex. Sex should only be had with someone who very clearly, obviously, verbally has expressed that he or she wants to be having sex with you. It’s called a standard of enthusiastic consent, and it handily does away with slut shaming, and “gray rape” and other points of confusion about consensual vs. nonconsensual sex. You don’t have to wonder if someone is sending you signals by their clothing, or by where they happen to be walking, or by what they happen to be drinking. You’ll know.


wearing ugliness

ugly doll. Image via Flickr user walknboston under a Creative Commons license.

I have to confess: until The Bluest Eye was assigned for one of my classes this term, I had never read any Toni Morrison. And WOW. She’s amazing. Her prose is amazing. I can’t get over it. I’m so glad Beloved is also on my comps reading list.

I just finished The Bluest Eye and one of the things that stuck out to me is the theme of beauty vs. ugliness. Now, of course, I have to preface this by saying that race and socioeconomic status play huge roles in this theme throughout the book. I am a person of racial and socioeconomic privilege, and I do understand that I cannot fully relate to the characters in the book, but, who really can fully relate to the experience of another, ever?

Anyway, one passage just so aptly described what I KNOW to be true that I have to share it. It’s describing a family that everyone perceives as ugly:

You looked closely at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each of them a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.

I feel like society hands women ugliness every day. It’s the message leering at us from the billboards and movies and magazines full of women who literally do not exist. They have been created in Photoshop and through lighting and makeup and editing and styling to become fictional representations of all that we are not. And these mirages reach out to us and hand us ugliness. They tell us we can be them, if we use the right skin cream, have the proper surgical procedures, wear the right clothes, follow the right diet, but they can’t even be them. They don’t even exist.

Another passage describes a character who comes to believe she is ugly in comparison to the women she sees in movies, women like Jean Harlow. Worse than judging herself, she judges her own daughter by that standard of beauty. She hands her own daughter ugliness:

She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed from the silver screen.

I know so many beautiful women who are utterly convinced that they are ugly. That they are less-than. That they are not worthy. But the truth is, their ugliness doesn’t really exist, not on their faces. It’s just a garment they’ve been handed and they choose to wear it. Eventually it maybe even becomes a part of them, but they weren’t born that way.

Are you wearing ugliness where you should be acknowledging beauty? You don’t have to take it from them when it’s offered, you know.


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Jesus and Gender Part 5: But what about Paul?

Me teaching at Eikon. Image via my friend Kat, who noticed that none of the guys made it into the pic, so it looks like I was only speaking to women.

Today marks the fifth and final installment of my Jesus and Gender series.  If you missed any of the earlier posts, feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading the rest of this post.

As I said in my introduction in Part 1, when I set out to prepare for the talk at my church that led to this blog series, I was thinking I might end up just having to “chuck” some sections of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters.  I thought there was just no way I was going to build a case for the full inclusion of women without having to admit that I think, in some cases, parts of the Bible can just be plain outdated and inapplicable to modern life.  But, to my surprise, I discovered a rich tradition of women leaders in the early church, even in Paul’s writings!

Women were actively involved in the forming of the first church immediately after Jesus’ death.  From Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”  Acts also speaks of a fairly remarkable set of sisters, though perhaps what is most remarkable about them is that Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t consider them remarkable at all. In Acts 21:9 “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” To prophesy is to preach, and Luke presents four unmarried women who preach, and deems it normal, unworthy of any particular comment or condemnation.

But what about Paul? Verses from Paul are often used to make the case that women are not to speak in church, women are not to teach men, and women are to be modest.  My argument is that, in light of what we know about Jesus’ radical interactions with women, we have to look at Paul again.  Is it possible that we have misunderstood Paul by failing to look at the entire context of his writings?

After all, it is Paul who has the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”  According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “The phrase ‘in Christ’ implies one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; but it also implies one’s being in the family of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the body of Christ. For those ‘in Christ’ or in the church, the body of Christ, it is irrelevant to ask if one is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” (163)

Paul also establishes that the primary criteria for determining who should serve in what area of the body of Christ is whether or not an individual has been gifted by God in that area, not gender, or ethnic status, or any other human criteria.  This becomes apparent in Romans 12:4-8. If you have a gift, you are obligated to use it.

Even in the midst of the bizarre 1 Cor passage (11:2-16)* in which Paul demands that women in Corinth cover their heads in church, he affirms their role to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.”  At the time, “prophesy” was the preaching portion of their worship, and Paul does not call for women to be disallowed from prophesy or public prayer, just that they cover their head while doing so. His later instruction that women “should remain silent in the churches” and save their questions for their husbands for when they are at home, rather than interrupting those who are praying and prophesying cannot therefore undermine his support of women as the ones doing the praying and the prophesying. This is a section about maintaining order in the worship service, and his instruction is to keep silent while others are teaching and praying, not that women are not permitted to teach and pray.

And Paul was a man who had no problem with women as equal partners in ministry, as with Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and he has no problem calling women deacons and apostles, as he did with Phoebe and Junia.  Phoebe appears in Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe is described in Rom. 16:1 as what is sometimes translated “a servant,” but this word, “diakonon,” the root of our word “deacon,” was used for anyone engaged in any form of ministry, and is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25). According to McCabe**, the words used “points to a more recognized ministry” or “a position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard (99).  Other women were deacons: Pliny, writing during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), describes female deacons in Bethynia.  He also describes these same women as “ministers.” And, in his commentary on Romans 16:2, early Church Father Hatto of Vercelli stated “at that time not only men, but also women presided over churches.” (McCabe 109)

Another noteworthy woman was Priscilla, who appears in Romans 16:3. Significantly, she and her husband are listed as “Priscilla and Acquila” (the most important of a group was usually listed first, which is why we conclude Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ women disciples, because she was always listed first). BOTH are Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ.” Both “risked their necks” for Paul, and for them Paul and all the other Gentile churches give thanks.  A church meets in “their” house.  Priscilla and her husband are equal partners in ministry.  In Acts, Luke describes Priscilla and her husband teaching a man, a Jew named Apollos: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)

This brings us to the apostle Junia, who appears in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” There is some debate about whether or not this should be translated Junia or Junias, but many scholars support translating it Junia, and note that Junias is not a common Roman name, and has not been located elsewhere in other ancient texts, while Junia was a common name for Roman women at the time of Paul.  Despite this, for years, translators went with Junias instead of Junia, because of the word “apostle” next to her name. They reasoned that women can’t be apostles, so the text must be wrong to name her Junia.  My translation, the TNIV, names her as Junia, as does my English Standard Version. Most newer, more accurate translations go with Junia.  Early Church Father Chrysostom (344-407 AD) writes of Romans 16:7: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (McCabe 121)

Finally, I have to mention Euodia and Syntyche, who are found in Philippians 4:2-3 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”  These are two women whom Paul calls his co-workers, his equals, his fellow ministers.

I have to admit, I had never heard of Junia, Phoebe, or Euodia or Syntyche. As I read and researched to prepare for this talk, and I came across these names of these great women of our faith, I even found myself getting angry that I had never been taught these pieces of our history—and I grew up in a faith tradition, Presbyterians, that had no problem with full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life—I just can’t believe we aren’t being taught this great history!

Just as there are many different women named in many different roles in the early church, just as Mary and Martha had very different ways of showing their faith in and love for Jesus, there are many different roles available to women and to everyone in the family of faith today.  I am not arguing that all pastors should be women or that all women should be pastors, but simply that women should be able to serve Jesus and work to advance his kingdom in any manner to which they feel called, just like anyone else in the church.  I am so glad that I can love and serve a Jesus who encountered men and women and treated them all as whole persons, worthy of dignity, love and respect. I am so glad to be able to be his disciple, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna.  I am so glad I can find my own way of serving in the Body of Christ, like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche.  And I am so glad to have found my particular family of faith, Eikon, where they’d let even a geeky, passionate, loudmouthed, feminist like me stand up and teach.  I am so encouraged by this church, so excited about the inclusive spirit this church tries to embody, and so blessed to be a part of it.

*Seriously, this is a bizarre passage. Paul tries to say that men having long hair is “unnatural.” Any men out there, stop cutting your hair and let nature take over and guess what will happen.  He also makes a strange allusion to angels, as if they are somehow tempted by women with uncovered heads.  As best I can tell, this is some sort of reference to accounts in Genesis where angels had sex with human women, producing giants and other heroic offspring.

**Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Elizabeth A. McCabe, ed.


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Jesus and Gender Part 4: Women Disciples

Mary Magdalene, painted by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys.

Today is day 4 of my series on Jesus and Gender. Make sure to catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you missed those posts!  We’ve discussed how Jesus treated women with radical dignity and kindness, we’ve talked about his close female friends, and today we’re going to look at the women who were his disciples.

Although we are most familiar with The Twelve Disciples, all of whom are men, Jesus had more than just 12 disciples, and these disciples included women. (Also, from Woman in the World of Jesus: “The logic from which the male composition of the Twelve would exclude women from high office or role in the church would likewise exclude the writers and most of the readers of this book, for there were no non-Jews among the Twelve. Unless one would argue that “apostolic succession” is for Jews only, it cannot be for men only.” (125))

Jesus had a large group of followers who went with him all over Israel, learning from him and following in his ways.  According to Luke 8:1-3: “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others.  These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

While women at this time were permitted to travel in the company of men, they were required to spend the night only with their relatives—here it is obvious that as they travel from city to city, the women are traveling along with the men, breaking social custom in a very progressive and scandalous way.  Secondly, these women had resources under their own control at a time in which women were generally not permitted to inherit property or control money.  So not only did Jesus have women among his disciples, but they were transgressing social norms and acting as the bankers of the whole operation!

And these women weren’t just hangers on; they were actually ministering with Jesus! According to Frank and Evelyn Stagg in Woman in the World of Jesus: “It is significant that women did have an open and prominent part in the ministry of Jesus. Luke’s word for their ‘ministering’ is widely used in the New Testament, including by Paul in reference to his own ministry. Its noun cognate, diakonos may be rendered ‘minister,’ ‘servant,’ or ‘deacon.’” (123)

One of these women was Mary Magdalene. Nowhere in scripture is she identified as a prostitute or even a great sinner.  Mark says that Jesus drove seven demons out of her—today we might say that he healed her mental illness.  From Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s The Women Around Jesus: “We may imagine that this cure took a similar course to other healings: Jesus touched her, perhaps embraced her, made her get up, like Peter’s feverish mother-in-law or the person possessed by demons.  He spoke to her and she had a tangible feeling of nearness and contact. As he spoke, the spell left her. She again became herself, free to feel and decide, free once again to experience the world around her, free to enjoy herself and to learn to live again. But she did not return to her old ways. She left her rich hometown of Magdala, even though she would always bear its name. For her, being healed of her illness became salvation.” (68)

Another woman mentioned among these disciples is worth considering: Joanna, wife of Chuza, who was an officer in King Herod’s court.  She is described here having been healed by Jesus, after which she began traveling with and supporting Jesus financially, and she is later present at his crucifixion, and, in at least one gospel, at his resurrection. Jesus was seen as a political enemy of the political establishment, a revolutionary threatening to overthrow the government, and here, the wife of a government official is hanging around with and supporting this revolutionary and traitor of the state, helping to support him financially.  It’s possible that Joanna’s husband had died and left her widowed and in control of his estate, but it’s also possible that she had left him, with or without his blessing, to follow Jesus.

These women disciples were with Jesus to the end, present at the crucifixion, in some cases acting with more bravery and loyalty than The Twelve, who fled and feared for their own lives.  From Mark 15:40-41: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.  In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs.  Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.”  –In Mark’s account, the oldest of the four gospels, the disciples are not present at the crucifixion—they run away after Jesus’ arrest and are not said to have returned. Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the disciples have run away and only the women are present at Jesus’ death. From Luke 23:49: “But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”  John 19:25-27: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time, this disciple took her into his home.” Even as he suffers pain and death, Jesus is surrounded by the women who followed him, and he is exhibiting concern for their welfare.

And these women weren’t just there at Jesus’ death, but played a very special role in the events of the Resurrection. In Matthew, after his resurrection, Jesus chooses to appear first to two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary (possibly Mary of Bethany)”  Jesus trusts them to go and tell the men that he is risen, even though at this time, women were considered so unreliable that they couldn’t even testify in court.  Still Jesus trusts them with this important news. In Mark’s account and in Luke’s account (which also names Joanna), the disciples do not even believe Mary Magdalene/the women.  In John, Jesus only appears to Mary Magdalene, and she calls him “Rabboni” which suggests her status as one of his students. According to The Women Around Jesus: “Mary Magdalene may be regarded as the first apostle. She was the first to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ.” She was considered an apostle, someone commissioned by Jesus with a special mission or message, up to the Middle Ages.

So, not only was Jesus radically inclusive of women in even his most passing encounters, not only did he have close personal friendships with women, but he had women among his disciples and even accorded them the honor of being the first people in the Bible to preach what we know as the gospel, the good news of his resurrection.   Tomorrow we’ll look at the women who were apostles, deacons, and prophets–leaders in the early church.

 

Sources:

The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel

Woman in the World of Jesus by Frank and Evelyn Stagg.


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Jesus and Gender Part 3: Jesus’ friends

Probably my favorite thing that I learned about Martha is that, according to her saint's legend, she killed a dragon. Yep. She's not just a Martha Stewart type, she's also a badass dragon killer.

Welcome to Part 3 of my series on Jesus and Gender! If you missed the introduction, check out Part I, and if you’d like to read about how radical even Jesus’ most passing interactions with women were for his day, check out Part 2. Part 3 will be devoted to the deep friendships Jesus had with women.

Two of Jesus’ best friends were two women, Mary and Martha. I will mostly refer to this Mary as Mary of Bethany so we don’t get her confused with his mother or Mary Magdalene. We first encounter Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42: Jesus is in the home of Mary of Bethany and Martha. Martha is mad because her sister isn’t being a good woman and working to entertain the guests, but instead is at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and she asks Jesus to make her sister help her. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

A great rabbi’s students were always at his feet, learning to become rabbis themselves (In Acts 22:3, Paul describes himself as having been ‘brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,’ his way of saying who his rabbinical teacher was). According to Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Jewish women were not permitted to touch the Scriptures; and they were not taught the Torah itself, although they were instructed in accordance with it for the proper regulation of their lives. A rabbi did not instruct a woman in the Torah…but Jesus related to [Mary] in a teacher-disciple relationship He admitted her into “the study” and commended her for the choice.” (118) Jesus sees Mary as his student, although she is a woman, and when her sister tries to get her to go back to the “woman’s work” in the kitchen, Jesus defends Mary’s place as his student, at his feet.  I love the way Evelyn and Frank Stagg sum this up in Woman in the World of Jesus:

The story vindicates Mary’s rights to be her own person. It vindicates her right to be Mary and not Martha. It vindicated a woman’s right to opt for the study and not be compelled to be in the kitchen. It would go beyond the story’s intention to deny Martha the right to opt for the hostess or homemaker role, even though Jesus accorded a higher value to Mary’s choice of ‘the word’ than Martha’s choice of the meal. Jesus did not make the two exclusive. (118)

I think this is important– so often when you hear this story (and if you are a woman and you’ve ever been in a women’s Bible study, you have surely heard this story presented this way), it’s all about how you don’t need to be a Martha, you need to be a Mary. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying to Martha.  I think he was affirming Mary’s choice and telling her sister, you know, your sister isn’t like you, and that’s OK.  Soon we will see that even though she was often in the kitchen, Martha was still listening to Jesus teachings (ha, maybe like me she liked to listen to podcasts while she cooked?) and had great faith in him, just a different way of showing it.

The next episode featuring Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha is John 11:1-43: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The text says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Also, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus had close, deep relationships with women, and when they hurt, he hurt.

One of the most significant aspects of this text is Jesus’ interaction with Martha.  Despite her being rebuked by Jesus for her criticism of her sister in the Luke story about these sisters, Martha demonstrates in this story that even though she was busy in the kitchen in that instance, she has not been ignoring Jesus’ teaching: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him but Mary stayed at home.” This time it’s Mary who sticks to the world of the domestic and Martha who goes out to meet Jesus.

From The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:

In the packed house of mourning, Martha hears of his coming, takes the initiative, and leaves the house to meet Jesus by herself.  She rushes up to Jesus with a remark containing all the grief, all the anger, and all the disappointment of the last few days…For Martha, this remark is a springboard, the introduction to a passionate conversation about faith.  Martha is not ‘a woman’ who ‘keeps silence’ in the community.  She does not leave theology to the theologians.  She carries on a vigorous debate.  She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus’ feet, she does not give in.  She struggles with God as Job did.  She charges Jesus with failure.  She does not give up, just as Jacob did not give up at the Jabbok when he was wrestling with God. (24)

Then, Martha makes an impressive confession of her faith in Jesus. Again from The Women Around Jesus:

Martha responds with a confession of Christ which stands out as a special climax in the New Testament: ‘You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.’ At most this can be compared with Peter’s confession of Christ in Matthew 16:16.  Thus John placed the confession of Christ on the lips of a woman, a woman who was known for her openness, her strength, and her practical nature.  This is a confession of Christ which takes similar form only once more in the other Gospels, where it is uttered by Peter.  For the early church, to confess Christ in this way was the mark of an apostle.  The church was built up on Peter’s confession, and to this day, the Popes understand themselves as Peter’s successors. (24)

I think this shows that Martha has learned from her encounter with Jesus, in which he said Mary was the one who chose rightly.  Martha has learned and has now become the sister with the greater faith.

However, in the next chapter, Martha’s sister Mary will demonstrate her faith not with a great confession, but with an act of great love. In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany, anoints Jesus’ feet while he dines at Lazarus’ house. Judas objects, but Jesus defends Mary. It should be noted that nowhere in this account does it say that Mary was a prostitute. Also: this is Mary of Bethany, NOT Mary of Magdala, aka Mary Magdalene.  I’m on a mission to disabuse the world of the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, which is not stated anywhere in the Bible, but that’s a story for tomorrow’s post!

I’m just going to post a ginormously long quote here because it just sums the whole scene up so well: From The Women Around Jesus: “There is a supper. Martha is serving, and now, Mary is the protagonist.  Again, she is not helping, but what she does comes from the very depths of her personality.  She takes a flask of very expensive perfume and pours it over the feet of Jesus, who is reclining beside her on the cushions round the table.  She may not be good at words, but what she does without speaking and yet with great self-confidence has a spontaneous effect: the whole house becomes filled with the fragrance.  The sweetness of her action is evident everywhere.  This time she did not have Martha to urge her on. This time she is completely herself, and in doing so transcends herself.  All the elemental ways in which she was accustomed to express her spontaneous love for Jesus, her respect, her affection, her tenderness – the tears, the concern to be near him and to have his support, the spontaneous silence – are now released with the fragrant oil she has poured on the tired and dusty feet of her friend.  And even that is not enough: with her hair she wipes away the dust and oil from his feet and dries them.  That was the task of the lowliest slave: the master at the table used to wipe his dirty hands on the slave’s hair.  Mary performs this servile task in a way incomprehensible to many women today.  She does what no man would have done – it would have been inconceivable even to Martha…But what she does, she does of her own accord and in the light of her personality.  It is her idea, her way of showing love. It is her ‘revolution’. Perhaps Martha stood there transfixed and dumbfounded at such independence…Mary came out of the shadows to become totally herself: the clumsy, loving, independent, tender, restrained, and yet spontaneous woman.” (55-56)

Mary’s actions are as much a statement of faith as her sister Martha’s earlier words—she is anointing Jesus to prepare him for his burial, and in this is affirming her belief that he is the Messiah, and that he has been sent to die.  To me, these two sisters, with their different ways of loving Jesus and showing their faith demonstrate that Jesus wants us to be who we are and serve and love him in ways that are natural to us, in ways that we are gifted.

Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the topic of Jesus’ women disciples!

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