Thursday, November 29, 2012

where are the women?

It's so very, very tempting to write a top ten list to answer this.

10. Busy getting shit done, fools.
9. Working hard for the money while you tweet about your awesomeness.
8. Outside propping up the oversized ego that doesn't fit inside the house.
7. In the girls bathroom having a real conversation. (This one's for Lisa, Jen & Erin!)
6. ...yeah, well, you get the picture. Snarky snark snark, etc.

My friend, colleague, ethicist, listener and excellent thinker-with Jimmy McCarty has a beautiful blog post in answer to this question, where are the women?, which has plagued many folks in a variety of public and virtual spaces. The last time I saw this question pop up on an internet forum, it was on the IEET blog, a transhumanist think-space and very male-dominated. And intriguingly, the conversation as I remember tracked pretty closely with the responses on Tony Jones's post at Theoblogy--intriguing, because these two communities are in some ways complete ideological opposites, and yet they are plagued with an identical problem. As virtual extensions of male-dominated spaces (science/technology/academy, church/seminary) women are rarely seen or heard in the comment threads and in the virtual community. Where are we? And why aren't we there along with our bros, when we could be? What's up with that?

Jimmy's blog post advises three simple therapeutic interventions: 1) shut up; 2) listen; 3) collaborate. To which I can only say, amen, amen and amen.

Of course, that's hella difficult to do, especially when 1) you have a lot to say yourself (don't we all!); 2) you're bound to hear some angry shit from people who've been shouting on the margins for years while being ignored and still have to get an official invite to join the "real" conversation--and that's hard to listen to without wanting to defend yourself; 3) collaboration means inviting real transformation and change, in the discourse and in yourself. But: that's the medicine. You want women and other excluded folks in your community? Don't try to convince us why we're wrong about not liking your policy or your tone or whatever. Figure out what it is about your space or your platform that actively excludes us: shut up, listen, and collaborate. In a word, stop mansplaining.

[update: Tony has followed up with this gracious response to yesterday's post and comments.]

Anyhow: Jimmy's got that all wrapped up, I think, so I've been thinking about another way to get at this, and one that has some interesting ramifications for me as a blogger/writer/academic/churchy-type person. I've been thinking about audience: not just in terms of stats and demographics of actual audiences, but in terms of intended audiences. I still tend to write this little personal blog with the sense that my audience (like me) is primarily Church of Christ, either currently or historically, and that affects both how I write (simple things like abbreviations and taken-for-granted CofC shibboleths, the epitome of which is, of course, 728b) and what I write about--simply because it affects what I find interesting or bothersome enough to work out here on the blog. To be sure, I also blog about other things--feminist theology more broadly, or theology and science, or poop in the bathtub, you know, the usual mix--but my CofC identity is pretty much front and center. (Take the Harding University presidential search post below as an example--itself a response to something that happened in the CofC blogosphere. It's parochial.) So...that's not bad or anything. In a lot of ways, it's just me being who I am: a feminist theologian somewhat uncomfortably situated within the Church of Christ, for better or worse.

But what if I imagined my audience as bigger, broader, and more diverse than people who share my ecclesial peculiarity? What if I imagined that some of my former NBTS colleagues or students might read this thing? What if I kept in mind that people with histories of sexual or relational or spiritual abuse might read this blog? What if I kept in mind that friends from China might read something here?

It would change some things. And realizing this, I think that's one potential strategy forward in constructively addressing the question of where all the women are. Who are you writing for? Who are you, as you construct your post, imagining will be reading it? Who's there, and who isn't?

Importantly, this strategy doesn't ask us to be anyone other than who we are or demand that we transpose ourselves from our actual location in the world into someone else's imagined location. It means that, as a feminist theologian uncomfortably at home in the Churches of Christ, I try to speak intelligibly to more than just my own "kind." Not speak for others, but speak for myself to others. It's a small shift, but an important one. Maybe, even, a prerequisite (0), before Jimmy's (1) shut up, (2) listen, (3) collaborate.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

JTB on Harding's Presidential Transition

So, Rich Little has been hosting a series of guest bloggers sharing their thoughts on our alma mater's Presidential transition. So I thought I'd share the perspective of an out of work alumna on my own blog. (These thoughts will be a lot less polished than the high-profile public statements on Rich's blog.)

Like the bloggers that shared their thoughts so far, I have fond memories of Harding. Those memories revolve around a roommate who is the longest-standing female friend of my life and her husband and the girls I played soccer with and the year I roomed with my little sister and HUF and the classmates I learned with and the professors I learned from.

I also have some terrible memories. Harding is the place where I entered into a mode of such deep self-deception that I willingly continued what I now understand was an emotionally abusive relationship, and subsequently a depression that didn't lift until years after leaving there.

It seems appropriate in the midst of all the nostalgia and fond reminiscing, meant as a sort of bona fides for "despite the fact that I'm going to be slightly critical but first let me prove to you how much I love Harding," to point out that "the Harding experience" is not wholly positive for everyone. And hell, I was a rule-following straight white CofC girl from Tennessee--it's not like I didn't fit the Harding mold. I imagine "the Harding experience" might have been significantly more nightmarish if I were gay, or a Baptist who loved her instrumental music.

Others have expressed eloquently their concerns about transparency and academic rigor and faithfulness and the inadequacy of maintaining the status quo as a strategy for leadership in an institution. These are excellent concerns, but they aren't my primary concerns. It surprised me to begin drafting this post and realize that what I most wanted to say didn't, after all, revolve around the academic implications of the presidential transition. It's important to me, as a professional academic myself; don't get me wrong. I think this decision reflects a larger trend of decline of terminal degrees in the faculty, particularly Bible department faculty. This makes me sad, because I personally received an education from Harding that prepared me well for subsequent degree programs. I would like to trust that this was still a priority, but this decision doesn't bode well.

But even that's not why I won't send my daughters there. I won't send my daughters there because I don't want them to experience a culture where the second-class status of women is so unquestioned that it not only shapes chapel, Bible classes, church, devotionals and specifically God-related stuff, but pretty much the whole "Harding experience."

Is that too large a claim? I don't think so. I was an RA in Cathcart, Searcy Hall and New Marrieds; every night for three years I made curfew rounds, every week I did a housekeeping check. I policed dress code violations. And as everyone at Harding knows, these things only apply to girls. Even then, I knew this was something to grumble about as more than just an annoyance. An institution that literally keeps its girls locked up in a tower, and then, because we're safe under lock and key, lets the boys be boys? Sure, that's not sexist or anything.

Then there's that whole "MRS" degree thing. My dad still shakes his head in disbelief when he tells how, in the new Harding parent thing he went to, President Burks guaranteed everyone that their child would find their future spouse at Harding. (He always ends that anecdote with threatening to get his money back, though I'll note that as a technicality, I did meet Brent at Harding even if he never bothered to ask me out while there.) I took a class where married students got an extra "skip" and where we were told we'd get extra credit for going on a first date during the semester (that turned out to be false advertising--I tried it.) Only married students can live off-campus. Oh, and there's that better-not-to-burn-with-lust thing plus the front lawn--talk about entrapment... Even leaving aside the questionable ethics of promoting a culture that rushes people into marriage (a huge issue to just politely bracket!), the marriage factory culture creates an assumption that at least some female students are not there as students but as sex objects--I mean, future brides.

And then there's the serious stuff. The way that female students get penalized differently than male students for having sex. The way that women aren't always offered the same academic scholarship opportunities that men are. The way that everyone knew it was laughable to even pretend that a female candidate for the position of President had a chance in hell of actually getting it.

The way that, in a relationship that I was sure was going to get me my own Mrs. degree, I took emotional abuse as my due penalty for disclosing past sins of my previous dating life. Because, after all, I owed this guy total honesty and had grievously betrayed him before I even met him and so it was all my fault. The way that for years after I struggled to regain any confidence that anyone could ever love me, such a damaged wreck.

The great irony for me is that Harding is where I simultaneously learned my second-place place and began my process of unlearning it. Harding is the place where I took the infamous class called "Christian Home"--and even then knew enough to pitch the textbook across the dorm room more than once before giving up reading it. Harding is the place where I met my spouse, an ardent feminist and liberated man indeed. Harding is the place I learned biblical Greek--but "for fun," because what would be the point of taking it seriously? Harding is the place where I learned to craft my voice; Harding is the place that taught me I'd have to go to China to use it. Harding is the place where I preached my first sermon. And Harding is the place where I was told not to go to seminary because I'd be "getting dressed up with no place to go."

The critiques of this presidential decision that worry about the inadequacy of preservation of the status quo as an institutional leadership strategy aren't wrong. But many fall short of addressing the real question, which is, what is wrong with the status quo? Why shouldn't it, after all, be maintained?

There's much more to say in answer to that. But this is my answer. This is one thing that is wrong with the status quo. And the one thing on which everyone seems to agree, supporters and critics alike, is that this is what the presidential decision here was all about.

So, I hope that's wrong. I hope that some of these deeply embedded practices in Harding's campus life, policies, and institutional structure are named, recognized as a problem, and constructively addressed. Because you shouldn't have to unlearn as much you learned at college. Because your faith shouldn't be an instrument of oppression, externally or internally. Because God made us with brains and guts and voices as well as wombs and vaginas, and we're supposed to use all of it as we see fit to the greater glory of God. Because Harding ought to be helping its women do exactly that, not locking them in a tower.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

the GOP's "demographic dilemma"

I lost count how many times I heard this and variations of this phrase on the news this morning. And it reminds me forcefully of something I learned from a wise colleague not long ago.

"Demographics" is code.

And the GOP's "demographic dilemma" is a polite way to avoid pointing out that their chosen political strategy was racist. And the question all the pundits are so politely talking about--how will the Republican party answer their "demographic dilemma?" is being analyzed in terms of ideology versus pragmatism and educated guesses about which attitude will prevail.

But no one seems to be saying this. A representative democracy must actually represent: represent the people who live and work and go to school and vote and care. People with uteruses. People with accents. People with health problems. People with kids. People with money and without.

This shouldn't be about pragmatism. It should be about democracy.

Two nights ago I read "Horton Hears a Who" as Clare's bedtime story. All the invisible Whos on the dust speck are shouting out, "we are here, we are here, we are here!" I want to know what the Kangaroo party is going to do now.

Monday, November 05, 2012

"her body doesn't belong to you!"

My current parenting conundrum is the recurring difficulty in getting my 6-year-old daughter to quit hauling around her 1-year-old sister around like a sack of potatoes. And jumping on her head. And moving around her sister's arms and legs like she's a great big animate doll. And yelling at her to quit picking her nose (an irony, since I still can't keep her 6-year-old fingers from digging for gold). Over and over and over I say, calmly, exasperatedly, quietly, loudly, in small words, in big words, in just-in-time-edited words, "her body is not your plaything, it does not belong to you, she is not your toy, treat her body with respect, she is a person just like you, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah." Yeah. The thing is, she understands all that. It just doesn't make a difference in what she does. Yet.

So this weekend I'm saying this thing over and over, as a frustrated mommy, and it hits me. I'm also saying this same thing over and over, as a frustrated feminist theologian, on that glorious series of tubes that connects us all (except for when horrible hybrid hurricane nor'easters disrupt things), the Internet. My weekend has a weird symmetrical monotony.

So, once upon a time, a much-anticipated book by a well-known author was dropped by a major Christian bookstore chain, apparently for containing a reference to the vagina. And there was protest. And there was a promotional contest for free copies of the book, which invited limerick submissions specifically referencing vaginas. Then there were a couple of people with time on their hands and brains in their heads, and vaginas, who felt a little odd about that--appreciative of the spirit of the whole thing but a little unsure about the strategy. And there was discussion. And ongoing discussion.

What I want to do here is blog through what I think is the best critical observation offered yet, which is that there's a bit of hypocrisy involved in Chris, Julie and me objecting to the limerick contest hosted by Tony as participating rather than subverting the dominant cultural assumption that women's bodies (and in this case it is one specific woman's body) are "public property," in the sense that it's okay for them to be objects of commentary and public consumption. I stand by that critique. I think the contest can't subvert that assumption, and I think that that is the underlying assumption that makes the original "Vaginagate" kerfuffle at Lifeway truly problematic. It's not just simple censorship, in other words. There's something else going on. The interesting critique of our effort at pointing this out is that--this is my gloss on it--that of course we're doing the same thing. We're talking about vaginas as public objects--and again, in this case, the whole discussion is at least loosely tied to one specific woman's body. And look! I'm blogging about it! I'm doing it again! Argh!

Is it hypocritical? I'd contest that characterization. I'd say rather that this conundrum neatly demonstrates the larger point Julie and I were getting at, which is the difficulty of negotiating these contextual assumptions and power dynamics in efforts to stand with others as allies and craft meaningful gestures of solidarity. We don't stand above that any more than the original contest does.

Leaving it here might be depressing--as if the ultimate conclusion is just that everything is bound to be flawed at some level, and oh well. Zenme ban, what can you do. That's not untrue--I think that taking ethical stands and risking action is always going to involve that kind of flaw. Purity is not an actual thing in this world. I'm not really looking for a pure gesture of solidarity.

But that doesn't mean that, when we get ready to jump in and get our hands dirty, that there aren't better and worse ways to go about it and we just shouldn't feel like it's necessary to take the time to ask that question. As my favorite philosopher says, "we must cast our lot with some ways of living and not other ways"--even if all ways of living mean that our hands will undoubtedly be unclean. So, the hard question is, how could it have been done better? Is it possible for the contest to have been framed in a way that did take into account the problem of women's bodies as publicly consumable objects, and avoided compounding that issue?

That's an open question. Winning answers might receive a book about cyborgs. :)

And this quick post is the best this theologian-at-large mama can do, because it's time to pick up the big girl from school.