*A shortened version of this blog was published in the New Hampshire Concord Monitor on Sunday, December 5, 2021. Enjoy this original, expanded, post and feel free to leave a comment. You can learn more about my work at https://www.stephanierutt.com/
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Muriel Rukeyser
I don’t write this blog for myself. I’m old now. I’ve lived my life. No, I write it for my daughters, granddaughters and for the generations of girls yet to be born. And, it’s my hope, as well, that my sons, grandsons and the boys yet to be born will also heed the words written here to, perhaps, gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a young girl, a woman, in our society at this critical point in our history . . .
Five years ago, I was sitting in an over–crowded plane trying hard to escape into my new book, The Handmaid’s Tale. Unlike many, I’d not read it years before on its initial release. Next to me was a young man who, seeing it, started a conversation saying he’d read it in one of his college courses. What I remember most about our brief conversation was what I would only distill in retrospect: there’d been a kind of subtle concern in his voice, some fear carefully shrouded—tucked away from any possibility of being spoken aloud dare it become real. He simply said, “I think every young girl and woman should read it,” and then he quickly put on his headphones and escaped away.
Since the recent ruling on abortion in Texas, I’d all but forgotten about that brief encounter. Now I find it echoing off the inner chambers of my mind like some premonition, once barely acknowledged, now ravishing unabated. I’ve watched with shallow breath the steady enactment of legislation clearly designed to remove a woman’s personal autonomy and to, largely, return her to her “rightful place”— to the deemed patriarchy of the family and society. This is promoted under such seemingly innocuous headings as . . . all being in support of traditional values and, of course, always in the best interest of the family. And now, this week, the Supreme Court will take up Mississippi’s abortion rights case putting Roe v Wade on the line.
Particularly when it comes to the issue of abortion, many in the more conservative Christian communities, proclaiming to be pro–life, now are feeling called to rise up and stem the tide of societal decay. However, I would argue that what’s now being labeled pro–life is just the tip of a not–so–subtle proverbial iceberg concealing a much broader movement, a movement that’s allowed for the steady growth of what I would call holy misogyny, a term first coined by scholar April DeConick and popularized by author Sue Monk Kidd. It’s quite perfect, actually. As who could argue with the will of God?
Let’s take a closer look at how the issue of abortion and the–not–so subliminal desire to return women to a handmaid–like existence are related. It seems clear to me that many who would call themselves pro–life are really not pro–life at all but, simply, anti–abortion. In my view, a true pro–life stance would include care and concern for all parties, not just the unborn. Ideally, where an unwanted pregnancy has occurred, all parties would be included in a discussion of potential outcomes based on their particular situation. And all parties would naturally include the father whose role and responsibility remains conspicuously omitted. Sadly, it’s only the mother who’s being summarily called out, banished, and left isolated and vulnerable to be easily hunted down by self–pointed vigilantes. And, as importantly, if a woman is being required by the State to have a baby, shouldn’t the State then be required to provide support?
And little has felt more misogynistic to me than there being no exceptions for rape or incest. As one who’s sat with hundreds of women for over thirty years as a therapist, minister and spiritual advisor, I’ve heard the stories of many of the one in five of us women who’ve either experienced sexual abuse as a child or will experience an attempted or completed rape as an adult. Clearly the men engaged in the promotion and passage of such legislation as we now see in Texas have never been a young girl, in the middle of the night, lying shaking and terrified of hearing the door open, again, long after the house has gone dark. They’ve never known what it’s like to wake up and have to pretend nothing happened because they know if they said anything the beloved family pet would be killed or their little sister could be next. And those same men have never endured the horror of rape, at least two–thirds of the time perpetrated by someone the victim knows. They’ve never huddled themselves in a fetal position on a shower floor, crying, trying hard to wash away the memory and all the pain now oozing from every cell in their body. And they’ve never had to spend years learning to trust the hands of a good man, desperately hoping that one day they’ll enjoy making love again.
And perhaps most disheartening is how holy misogyny rears its head when, in those rare times, a mother gathers the courage to go and talk to a leader in her more conservative faith community about the abuse she knows is happening in her own home. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to be told in, of course, a very caring way that it’s really her charge to try and be a better wife. If she could just be a better wife, her husband wouldn’t need to seek out such satisfaction from her daughter. And, too often, the mother agrees. This is because she’s long ago put aside those initial feelings and questions about who she is in relation to the men around her.
She long ago suppressed that first time, perhaps sitting in a church, when she may have found herself wondering: God is a man. Jesus was a man. My minister, or priest, is a man. All the disciples were men. The gospels were written by men. Dad, or my husband, is head of the house and he’s a man. Everyone that’s important is a man. Where is there someone good and important who looks like me? What’s wrong with me?
Blessedly, there have been a few signs that this current trend in holy misogyny is just starting to be challenged from right where it needs to be—from Christian men. Perhaps the most prominent challenge came from former President Jimmy Carter when he very publicly decided to sever his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention. According to the October 21, 2000 article in the New York Times, Carter Sadly Turns Back on National Baptist Body, the severing came just four months after the Convention had declared its opposition to women as pastors and who, two years earlier, had called for wives to be submissive to their husbands. Today, Carter, however, continued to be active in his Baptist church in Plains, GA, where his church does allow women to serve as deacons and, as he confirmed, “would not have any problem with a woman as pastor.”
However, the President of the Convention, Rev. James G. Merritt, was not deterred stating, “The vast majority of Southern Baptists are extremely happy with the direction the Convention is taking. We felt the need to turn our denominations back to a more conservative theology, and for whatever reason, the president did not agree with that.” Turn our denomination back, indeed. I found myself wondering about the women: the mothers, wives, daughters, sisters. Were they also extremely happy with the turning back? Were their voices as thoughtfully and equally consulted on the matter as the men’s? More importantly, what have these women done with those initial wonderings? Where, in their bodies and minds, do they remain, yet, silent? Where do they lie . . . in quiet waiting?
And I try to imagine, what would happen if just one of them told the truth about her life?
Of course, many other more conservative Protestant denominations are also gladly operating in full agreement with the Southern Baptist Convention. And Pope Francis has struck a similar tone. While recent changes in canon law now allow women to perform particular functions and grants them access, for the first time, to the altar, the Pope continues to declare that the priesthood is reserved only for men—indeed, any discussion of the matter is off the table. Why? What are the conservative Protestant and Catholic leaders afraid of? I would offer that it’s about the perceived loss of power—the power, clearly justified under the heading of holy misogyny, to ensure that the men continue to enjoy having the only voice in the room—that is, the only voice that truly matters.
One important way this imbalance of power continues to be perpetuated in these more conservative Christian congregations and parishes is through the practice that men may preach to, or teach, both men and women, but women are only invited to teach women. Simply, women don’t teach men. Sad. The men don’t know what they’re missing! I remember many years ago, a man in one of my Bhagavad Gita study groups asked my husband, who was also a participant, how it felt to be in a group with his wife as the leader. I’ll never forget what my husband said, also remembered by those in our community who were there. “If she wanted to learn about support engineering, she’d be in my group. I wanted to learn about the Gita so I’m here. Besides, I see how it’s helped her and I want some of that.” I saw my dear husband, a man fully secure in himself, know how to make his wife smile with enduring gratitude.
Being a predominately Christian nation, I’ve chosen to highlight holy misogyny as it’s thriving in certain Christian communities and influencing our current events. However, I’d be remised if I didn’t also point out that holy misogyny is alive and well across most faith traditions. It’s also fair to say that there’re many caring men, striving to be good husbands and fathers, who happen to adhere to the more conservative, traditional interpretation of the Bible. However, when that caring and goodness takes the form of minimizing the input and participation of the women around them, it’s simply not okay.
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
What might happen if more women allowed those initial wonderings, those felt long ago, to rise up? How might we join together to approach today’s challenges? What might we bring to the table to round out such important discussions as the ones happening today around the issue of abortion? How might a demand for the equal consideration of all parties change the dynamic? How might it change our daughters and granddaughters? How might it change the men who will love them?
Yes, let’s not be afraid to ask, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Perhaps then, indeed, the world would split open . . . and just maybe we could begin to build a society where all voices are heard and celebrated equally.
June, a character in The Handmaid Tales declares, “They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” Women . . . dare to remember your initial wonderings—wherever and however you may have first felt them. Dare to join a sisterhood, a brotherhood, of those who would stand and fight for a nation, a world, where all of God’s children are equally valued, heard and celebrated.
Do it for all the young girls alive today and for those yet to be born. Do it for all the young boys alive today and for those yet to be born.
Do it for all humankind.