Friday, August 13, 2010

Formation of Gender Identity in the Church

by Rev. Rebecca Turner

Growing up in a small Missouri town Southern Baptist church in the 1960s, I recall very little being said about sex, sexuality, and gender. We didn't have sex education of any kind in my church. But I do remember that every pastor was a man. Every deacon was a man. Every greeter, usher, and offering collector was a man. Every person who read the scripture in church, who directed the choir, who was in any way participating in worship leadership was a man.

As a little girl I knew without being told that men made all of the decisions for the church -- all I had to do was look around. Men were the ones granted the religious authority to interpret the scriptures and make moral decisions. Women could cook, clean, play the piano, sing, and teach children in Sunday School. But once children reached the 5th grade, classes were divided by gender -- men taught the boys and men; women taught girls and women. Women made up at least two-thirds of the people sitting in the pews. They were the ones being "preached at" but they clearly were not the ones in charge.

And then there was Mother's Day-the biggest church day of all. Oh, you thought it would be Easter or Christmas? No, nothing could rival Mother's Day. The church was overflowing. It was the one day of the year that women were successful in dragging all of their children to church and lining them all up in a pew. Why? Because the pastor was handing out flowers -- awards to the mothers who had achieved something remarkable. Oldest mother -- usually around 100. Youngest mother -- usually around 14. Mother with the most children -- usually around 14. Yes, these were the women we were to emulate. The only way for a woman to get positive recognition in church was to give birth -- early and often.

When I was a freshman in college, my pastor asked me what I intended to do with my life. I said I wanted to go to seminary and become a missionary. (Missionary was the only acceptable career choice for a Southern Baptist girl who wanted to be in the ministry.) My pastor looked at me solemnly and said "You know, if you learned to play the piano, you could make a good pastor's wife." I knew enough to be insulted. I walked out, never to set foot in that church again until my mother's funeral.

My experience is not unique to Missouri or small towns or Baptists or yesteryear. Sadly, it is a common experience in many religious groups, and the implicit lesson is loud and clear: Men are qualified to deal with important religious and moral issues; women are not. Men have wisdom to impart; women are to be the helpers of the men. Even if no words are ever spoken that demean women (and that's highly unlikely), the lesson will still be imbedded in every child's brain. For little girls the damage is serious: they are not given experience in making important decisions and may even come to believe that they are incapable of critical decision-making. How often have we heard the stereotype of the indecisive woman? No doubt it was formed from the experiences that limited their freedom to make choices.

When a girl's options are restricted, when her chances to see strong women as role models are few, when she isn't allowed to make important decisions, when her reluctance to be a wife and mother are chastised, when she has no opportunity to debate with the boys, when her ideas about God are ignored, how will she grow into her own knowledge and confidence? Some girls have the ego to overcome these influences. Some encounter great role models in later years. Some get years of therapy.

Many others don't.

First published at August 13, 2010