In continuing Women’s History Month we now have an intimate reflection on how sexism influences even the most “enlightened” of upbringings. Starting from her childhood until the present day, Allison Bengfort speaks directly and revealingly of the ways that sexism was tangled into all aspects of her life – and the ways in which she works to remove them, one-at-a-time. Read, enjoy, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Maybe you consider yourself a feminist.
Maybe you don’t.
Maybe you think you can be not-sexist, and not-a-feminist.
Maybe you think there is no need for feminism any more.
I was born in 1987. No one ever told me that I could not be a doctor, a lawyer, a pastor, or anything else that I would ever want to be. I grew up going to coed schools, where girls were always the top students in the class. My father did all the cooking and cleaning, and my mother was never a stay-at-home mom. All these signs point to progress – congratulations, feminists! It seems that your work is done.
Unfortunately, this is not the full story. Sexism was woven into my reality, whether I knew it or not. The media consistently bombarded me with sexualized representations of women, and the lives of my friends and family were predicated on patriarchal assumptions. Many of these assumptions were passed on by the people closest to me in seemingly innocent, playful ways.
My father is a lovely person with a fantastic sense of humor. He is also a Roman Catholic who thinks that women should be allowed to be priests. When I was little, he often tucked me in at night. He made up epic stories about my stuffed animals getting lost and finding their way home again. He had several phrases that he repeated each night, such as “I love you,” and “God bless you.” One of the things he often did was lean over my bed and whisper in my ear. “Boys are bad!” he would say. He’d smile, I’d roll my eyes, and we would continue our goodnight ritual. My mom’s version of the story includes my dad doing this even when I was a baby. Apparently, he would check on me in my crib and whisper, “Boys are bad!”
It was supposed to be a cute story. Sweet, even. It showed that my dad loved me and was protective of me. However, comments like this are also how I learned what it meant to be a girl. Through this catchphrase and other conversations with my dad, I learned that all boys wanted from me was sex. I was told that boys had trouble thinking about anything else, and that they would always be trying to “get me in bed.”
Boys would make advances, and I was the territory they advanced upon. Thus, I needed to protect myself. I was to act as a security guard, protecting my virginity, which was an asset reserved for my future husband. Strangely, I was never told that I myself might want to have sex, and that I would have to counteract my own sexual impulses as well. While I knew all about the male sex drive, male arousal, and male orgasm, I did not know there were female versions of these things.
So, what did it mean to be a girl? It meant being an object. Being something that is looked at, chased, and obtained. I have a distinct memory from middle school, in which I was picking out an outfit for church. I had a crush on a few boys at our church, and I wanted them to like me. I remember having an idea that I wanted to dress “for the boys.” For the boys. As in, for their enjoyment. I wanted to give them something nice to look at.
After all, this was my role – to be looked at and lusted after.
If you had asked me if I was a feminist in middle school, I would have said no. After all, it’s impossible to know what you do not know. I didn’t realize that I was ignorant of my own sexuality, and I didn’t know that my pattern of objectifying myself was harmful. I had no idea that viewing myself as being “for” men was at all unhealthy. In fact, I thought it was natural.
If you had asked me if I was okay with using male language for God, I would have said yes. After all, English has no gender-neutral personal pronoun. We need a pronoun for God, so why not use “He”? I wasn’t offended.
In college, I was surrounded by feminists for the first time. I began to realize, through both personal experience and academic study, that my ideas about gender and sexuality did not hold up. The objectification of human beings is not, in fact, natural. Sex is not something that men do to women, and there is no reason that women’s bodies need to meet anyone’s standard. Instead, the sexualization and objectification of women is a way that our society maintains male dominance. It is about the use and abuse of power.
Similarly, referring to God as “He,” is not neutral. The term “God” represents whatever a group of people regards as most holy, most precious, and most worthy of imitation. Referring to God as “He” lifts up maleness as the default, the ideal, and the source of power. For as long as we are uncomfortable referring to God as “She,” we can be certain that we are not yet free of our patriarchal programming.
Unfortunately, the concept of women existing for the sake of men is not just a secular idea. For many Christians, it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Eve was created second, for the sake of Adam. As explained in First Corinthians, “Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (11:9).
The bad news is that Christianity is complicit in the patriarchal programming that we continue to pass on to our children. The good news is that we as church leaders are in the perfect position to make a difference on this issue. Sexism is still alive and well, but we are not powerless! The way you do theology matters. Experiment with using female language and metaphors for God. Adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion. Whenever you notice differing expectations, treatments, or norms for men and women, get suspicious. Ask yourself how patriarchy may be playing a role. Tackle Biblical passages that reflect patriarchal norms, and don’t hold back – the Bible does not need defending.
I am a feminist.
I believe that God is present in me, just as She is present in men.
Boys are not “bad,” sex-crazed animals that cannot control themselves, and girls are not objects in need of protection. Do not assume that sexism is over, and do not leave it to others to speak up. You can make a difference.