I’m currently in the middle of the book Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. It chronicles Kidd’s journey of “waking up” to the host of ways patriarchal culture has shaped her identity, her relationships, her work, and her faith. It’s a thought-provoking read to be sure and has urged me to consider my ever-unfolding process of waking up to the forces that have sought to suppress my own sense of empowerment. As I consider my own journey, I’m realizing that it’s not only patriarchy, but a duo of patriarchy and white supremacy that have created a deadly combination for all of us as we seek to be whole and vibrant human beings. Depending on who we are and where we come from, we experience the effects of these intersecting systems differently, but all around, they are forces that seek to silence and separate and reduce us to a one-dimensional existence. I can only speak from my perspective as a white woman, but here are a few of the ways I’ve uncovered white patriarchy trying to shape my mind and body.
It’s taught me to be suspicious of my body, even to the point of self-hatred. It’s encouraged me to refrain from food, not for the purpose of seeking out nutrients that are more life-giving, but to restrict, to punish, to literally erase my physical existence. It has taught me that I cannot trust what my body wants, that there is nothing more disgusting than a woman who indulges. It stimulates a toxic diet culture that clothes itself in the semantic disguises of “Discipline.” “Self-control.” “Being good.” It has turned the Body Mass Index into a measure of morality. It has created a world in which women are literally praised for being “Tiny”. For being “Cute.” For being childlike.
It’s taught me to mistrust my own inner wisdom, to ignore that feeling in my gut that something isn’t right and to instead attempt to reason it away. It masks intuition with belittling words: “Overreacting.” “Emotional.” “Too sensitive.” “Hysterical.”
It harbors itself in my posture, in the way I physically move about the world. It’s in my instinct to make myself as small as possible, to keep my belongings neat and tidy and close. It’s in the way I avert my gaze, in the little ways I try to avoid drawing attention to myself. It’s in the way I am terrified of being “Bossy,” “Overbearing,” “Too Much,” or a “Know-It-All.”
It’s taught me to fear sex and intimacy, to equate sexual “Purity” with “Goodness” and “Holiness.” It’s fostered a culture of Shame and Fear and Silence and Submission. It’s in the way I experience Freedom and Pleasure bowing to Restraint and Denial. It’s behind the societal disgust with the miracle that is the female body, the taboo around women’s blood, and the discomfort about the astonishing potential of the creation of new life inside the womb—all the while paradoxically wrapping up women’s identities almost solely with that of motherhood.
It’s a script that was given to me by Disney princesses whose bodies are so disproportional their waists likely wouldn’t even be able to house their internal organs and whose lives are void of meaning and purpose until the prince comes to save the day. Its tone is set by the music that becomes a never-ending soundtrack objectifying women’s bodies, robbing women of their names, of their strength, of their agency. It’s a culture of petty competition in which women are turned against each other, competing for men, for employment, for limited power outside of traditional “women’s spaces.”
It’s a whole web of meaning-making embraced too often by my own beloved Christian tradition: of masculine names and conceptions of power and European male experiences. It’s in church hierarchy and the voices celebrated in academic theology and the deciders of church orthodoxy. It’s in the teachings that women’s submission and obedience and personal sacrifice are to be revered above all else.
It’s destructive. It’s repulsive. It’s evil.
But, despite all of this, I’m clinging to hope: for me, for my sisters, for the Church, for society. Because it turns out Scripture is also bursting with a life-giving, mother-hen God, with Sophia-Christ-Wisdom, with a diversifying, multi-faceted, mysterious, space-creating Spirit. It’s filled with wombs creating life against all odds, with Mary’s Magnificat and Hannah’s song and Miriam’s and Deborah’s and Lydia’s leadership. It’s overflowing with the intelligence of Esther, the love of Ruth and Naomi, the reverence of Mary Magdalene, the audacious faith of countless women whose names we aren’t given but whose stories live on in our collective memory.
And this God who holds all of the feminine experience and the stories of these powerful and passionate women will not be silenced, constrained, shamed, or dieted into non-existence.
And neither will I.