Note: The following is chapter 2 of Erin Wathen’s book Resist and Persist: Faith and the Fight for Equality. Erin is the Senior Pastor at St. Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) near Kansas City. She blogs on Patheos at Irreverin and you can follow her Irreverin Facebook Page. Erin will join Adam Ericksen live on the RavenCast to discuss her book. You can join them live with your comments and question on June 28 at 6:00 pm Central on the Raven Foundation Facebook Page.
Chapter 2: Other Women Are Not the Problem
They were the greatest of frenemies. Peggy and Joan. While Don Draper drank and womanized, destroyed his family, and dazzled the world of advertising from his corner office, the women of Mad Men created a world of their own. Their story line spoke for itself. Their plot lines expressed the lives of countless professional women; while proximity and circumstance invited them to be friends and allies, a deeper cultural influence often made them adversaries.
The backdrop of the advertising world made Mad Men the perfect show to explore the complex tensions between women, as women’s roles and options changed dramatically throughout that period of history. The story of what it meant to be a woman played out in visible ways throughout the course of the show: in commercials, on billboards, and in women’s magazine ads. That was an era in which the buying power of women became widely recognized across all industries, from big tobacco and big auto to household items and political candidates. Advertisers also realized the many ways in which a woman, whether or not she was directly making the purchase, might influence the decision of her husband or father.
As ads became increasingly geared toward women, those ads also began to define women—or rather, the parameters and expectations of what it meant to be a woman. In a single show, Mad Men was able to explore those messages through both the ads themselves and the women working behind the scenes to craft the messages. These women—first given responsibilities around only the “women’s stuff,” like lipstick and pantyhose and tampons— eventually found voice in all sorts of products and broader cultural conversations. At the same time, they lived into two very different narratives of femininity.
On the one hand, you have a Joan: strong, unflappable, and willing to use her sexuality to get ahead in the workplace. On the other hand you have a Peggy: young and hungry, though not yet comfortable in her own skin, “dressing like a child” (as Joan frequently reminds her), and—in spite of a rough start when it comes to the men in the office—determined that she will be recognized for her talent and brains and not reduced to her physical assets. Throughout the course of the show, the two women are constantly at odds with each other. Fundamentally, their conflict is about what it means to be a woman—not just in the professional world, but in the world at large.
Joan and Peggy (who, I frequently have to remind myself, are fictional characters) embody two interpretations of what it means to be a woman—each empowered, in her own way; each still coming up short, somehow, in the “man’s world” she is forced to inhabit; and each sometimes resentful of the other for dealing with misogyny in a different way. Though they can be friends at times, each woman struggles to recognize the other as an equally legitimate expression of strong womanhood.
You don’t have to be a faithful fan of the show to see how these two women represent two early waves of feminism. First Wave Feminism, spanning a period of history roughly covering 1848 to 1920, marks the long struggle during which US women earned the right to vote. Second Wave Feminism kicks into high gear during the late 1960s, and carries through to the late 1980s. During this time, abortion is legalized, sexual freedoms are expanded with the evolution of the pill, and women earn (closer to) equal rights in the workplace. Women of this era literally invent the word “sexism,” encourage each other to get an education and pursue careers, and identify violence against women as a visible crime.[i]
The world of Mad Men then drops us into the years running up to that momentous Second Wave, and by the end of the show the feminist thunder is on full force. Joan, being just a few years older than Peggy, is a daughter of the First Wave. She takes a head-down, get-along-to-get-ahead approach to her professional climb. While we in 2017 find it deeply problematic (to say the least) that she has to sleep with the Jaguar executive to be made partner, it is a brilliant story line to highlight the ways in which a woman’s sexuality manifests as both strength and weakness, while also exposing a deeply broken system in which the women of that era are so often cornered. Meanwhile Peggy—a glimpse ahead to the next wave of feminism—ends the show with roads wide open ahead of her. She comes into her own and reaches her professional goals on her own terms.
Neither of these characters is perfect, but each, in her own way, tells an important story about the changing lives of women in the 1960s.
Fast forward a few decades and we still live into this painful truth: that women are often pitted against each other in real-life, real-time kinds of ways, both professionally and otherwise. It may be that, like Joan and Peggy, we are living between waves of feminism, and that what empowered womanhood means to, say, a Gen Xer is not what it means to a Millennial—just as a Boomer feminist might disagree entirely with her granddaughter (or great granddaughter) from Generation Z. Expressions of womanhood are constantly evolving, as are the ways we coexist in that frame.
More Than a Few Years between Us
Despite generational tensions between women of different eras, we cannot reduce the systemic ways in which women are programmed to compete with each other. The memo conveyed by patriarchal culture, through everything from reproductive health policy to dress codes, is the suggestion that women can’t be trusted, a damaging message internalized by many women as the belief that women cannot trust other women, that other women are the enemy with whom we must compete: for jobs, for men, for the vague approval of the patriarchy.
Need I point out that we ask women to compete in actual beauty contests? While acknowledging that I have friends for whom the pageant world has offered tremendous opportunity, those women also have talents and skills and academic prowess that have offered them far greater advancement. We use words like “opportunity” to justify a scenario in which women actually walk around on stage in a bikini and receive a grade—often from male judges. Gross. Pageant culture is not the issue, but, like so many expressions of patriarchy, it is certainly a symptom of the larger disease: the world of male-dominant values that makes an entertainment sport of women competing for the highest score.
Many argue that the contests are not sexist because the women are scored on other elements besides beauty, or that it’s all fine because women are willing participants. But the bottom line is that there is no similar system built into our shared culture by which men jockey for the approval of female judges, based almost solely on their adherence to some narrow parameters of beauty and sexuality. Donald Trump, as owner of the Miss Universe pageant, forged much of his brand on the foundation of this world. It speaks volumes about US culture’s overarching view of women that this man got himself elected president.
The message is clear and simple: there is limited room at the table for women, so women have to compete for the few spots available. It’s the classic scarcity mentality, repackaged for the gender wars. What we see in the dynamics between Peggy and Joan, on their worst days, is an expression of that tension. They each see something inherently threatening in the other’s chosen definition of femininity. There is suspicion, competition, resentment, and ultimately some mistrust of the other.
That stuff runs deep. Even a woman who has deep, healthy friendships with other women may react viscerally to a woman who challenges her understanding and embodiment of womanhood. For instance, this is where we get “the mommy wars”—the ongoing tension between the women who choose to be full-time wives and mothers and the women with full-time vocational lives, who may or may not have kids at home. Decisions about breastfeeding, schools, screen time, organic food, and more add to the “mompetition” and self-doubt as we compare ourselves to other women.
Where on earth did we get the message that any of these choices makes us inherently more worthy of love and belonging, that either of these life paths will bring fullness of life, while the other is fundamentally flawed or lacking?
The worlds of capitalism and patriarchy have colluded to put us in these boxes and to make us feel as if we have to compete with each other—especially in the man’s world, which doesn’t really want us around to begin with. Powerful men perpetuate mistrust among women, because it is to their distinct advantage that strong women be at odds with each other.
Vice President Pence has revealed that his wife, Karen, serves as his “gut check and shield” and that he makes it a point to never be alone with a woman other than his wife.[ii] This practice echoes that of Billy Graham and other evangelical pastors who have employed such a policy as a sign of their commitment to sexual purity, avoidance of temptation, and fear of scandal that might damage their careers. Graham has long sent aides into hotel rooms before he enters, on the chance a woman and photographer are setting him up for a compromising photo.[iii] We do not know the thoughts or motives of Mike and Karen Pence, but the rationale behind these policies overlooks the reality that it is men who often pose a physical threat to women; and that many men should not be left alone in these scenarios. Not because women might come on to them, but because the men themselves are not responsible enough with their own boundaries and the appropriate protocols of social norms and personal space.
Women are ever mindful of all the places where we should not go alone—like a secluded alley, or an office with a closed door, or pretty much anywhere after dark. Do men recognize the imbalance here? Not likely. Because in their world, the world of privileged white maleness, it’s the women who can’t be trusted. The message of such a worldview is that we should applaud a man who doesn’t put himself in a situation to be tempted by a woman. That we women should probably keep our own men on a short leash, because all these other women out there are going to lure them into deep and mortal sin. That women can’t trust other women. Divide and conquer. This narrative has enabled the patriarchy for centuries, compelling women themselves—even subconsciously—to embrace the narrative that women are dirty whores and home-wrecking trollops. So of course, if you are a man, you should never be in a room with a woman other than your spouse, because sex is the only obvious outcome. Or at least, impure thoughts.
This view of women is dripping with male privilege. Do you think that a woman could make it in the professional world if she decided one day, “You know, I think I’m just not going to ever put myself in a situation where I’m in a room alone with a man.” Talk to my best friend who’s made a career in the sciences. Ask her how far she’d go in that field if she tried to sequester herself like that. Ask any of my female clergy colleagues the same. Or any woman in a top executive position. Or in academia… the list goes on. The bottom line is, there might be inherent risk in some of these situations; but the risk is primarily the woman’s. And often, she has to take that risk if she’s going to “make it” in a man’s world.
No, only a man could adopt such an absurd practice and still find himself the vice president of the free world… because he knows there are no women as gatekeepers between him and where he wants to be.
And where does he want to be? How about: in a room where he is the tie-breaking vote on a major decision about women’s healthcare. Where he can reject the voices of all the women in the room–even those from his own party–and still move to take away funding and provisions for women’s health. Because women can’t be trusted. Not to draft policy, and not to make decisions about their own bodies.
It may seem subtle, but it’s not an accident.
This lack of regard for women as whole people—with worth beyond their sexual desirability and availability—is indefensible.
Here’s what I wish Mike Pence knew: it’s his loss if he avoids significant professional contact or friendships with women. He is missing out on meaningful connections. He’s missing out on a wider worldview that would sure come in handy in his line of work. He’s missing out on the wit and wisdom of his female colleagues, and all the ways that he might be made better by their support, all the ways they might push the edges of his thinking and challenge him to, God forbid, evolve.
As a woman, I’m grateful for the men in my life who know better. Male clergy colleagues who have ridden with me in cars on the way to long meetings, and held space for my struggles in ministry. Guy friends who sit with me in restaurants, coffee shops, and bars all over this country, –scandalously unchaperoned– who have never once tried to make out with me, but consistently make me better, stronger, and more confident in my work and worth.
There might be places where women should not go alone–but the fight for equality is not one of them. My gratitude for the men who walk with us is enormous.
Mike Pence’s policy is veiled in the guise of chivalry and respect, but it is a big part of the problem. It is a kind of misogyny, more subtle than that of his counterpart in the White House, but just as toxic to women’s health and well-being. Perhaps even more so, because it makes a woman’s virginity and chastity—or her fidelity to one man—the ultimate measure of her worth. With these religious overtones, men can get away with treating women as less than equal, and it comes off as respect and good manners. Thanks but no thanks.
When men in high positions of power achieve ninja-levels of misogyny on a daily basis—seemingly without consequence to their public profile—we need a new language of empowerment. This reign of nuanced sexism continues to keep women out of positions of power and puts us in competition with one another for a perceived scarcity of influence. In this environment, trusting women and cultivating friendships with other women is an act of resistance.
Against Our Own Interests
I’d heard the phrase internalized misogyny before, but I’d never really seen such a stunning literal witness to its effects. In October 2016, just a few weeks before election day, NBC released an old audio tape of Donald Trump and former television personality Billy Bush, in which they displayed some really grotesque views of women. This was the sound bite that everyone thought was going to end his campaign; Trump said he could “grab ’em by the p***y” and “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
In the days that followed, Trump (or rather, his handlers) issued a half-hearted apology that was really just a defense. “Locker room talk,” Trump muttered, with an eye roll.
Defending the indefensible has really been his MO all along, so it was not a surprising response. But it was surprising that women were among his most vocal defenders.
One news segment in the days following the release of that tape featured a group of women gathered around on couches, in what appeared to be a comfortable living room, and they proceeded to brush off the remarks as “locker room talk.” They adopted the “all men talk like that around other men” argument that had been making the rounds on conservative networks, and then continued to talk about why they were still going to vote for him.
I was speechless. I was also livid. I wasn’t angry just at Trump and the culture that produced him. I was angry at these women. They were traitors! How could they vote against their own interests this way? How could they let themselves get suckered into this narrative?
A little voice in my head answered my own question: internalized misogyny.
Internalized misogyny, or internalized sexism, is the pattern by which women come to accept and believe the broader cultural messages about the lesser worth of women. In this reality, women don’t just believe in their own limitations; they actively participate in the systemic oppression of women and girls, for example, by excusing “locker room talk” and voting for men who will limit the voice of women in legislation. Or they go to churches where men preach that women can’t preach. Or they defend a coworker who harasses another woman in the office, nodding along sadly, “Yes, he’s right. She really shouldn’t dress that way.” You get the picture.
The truth is, women often embody the narrative of patriarchy. We do it in a lot of tragic ways: we vote against our own interests; we defer or demur when men around us say subtly sexist things; we judge each other unfairly; we place our own baggage and expectations on another’s experience of womanhood. Overall, we continue to show up for and participate in the systems and structures that harm us.
For instance, more than half of the white women who voted in the presidential election cast their ballot for Trump, according to exit-poll data collected by the New York Times. Meanwhile, 94 percent of black women who voted, and 68 percent of Latina or Hispanic female voters chose Hillary Clinton, but 53 percent of all white female voters picked Mr. Trump.[iv] This shows, again, that many women—especially white women—were willing to put aside his appalling treatment of and speech about women, thereby playing a role in upholding the patriarchal culture that he represents.
But for my part, I’m over getting angry at women who will blindly support a blatantly misogynistic politician, church leader, or even employer. I’m learning to see them differently. I know now that even my own animosity toward those women is a product of patriarchy—a system designed to turn disenfranchised groups on each other, rather than on the system that keeps them marginalized. When women blame other women for the way things are, we divert energy and focus from the real culprits and enablers of the system: those who most benefit from the disenfranchisement of half the population, and have everything to lose when women truly mobilize and unify their voices for good.
Other women are not the problem—not women who voted for Trump, not women who support churches that don’t allow women pastors, not even women who blame other women for the evils of assault and abuse. Those women are not the problem, but their behaviors and choices are symptoms of the problem. Once we acknowledge that, maybe we can change how we engage each other—and, by so doing, change how we approach the destructive patterns of patriarchy.
If women could all get together on this, there would be no stopping us.
How Women’s Power Gets Cut in Half
Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.
Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, ‘Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—”Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. (1 Kings 3:16–28)
When I think about how women turn their grievances on each other—instead of the true root of the problem—I think of those two women in 1 Kings who are arguing over a baby, each claiming that the child in question belongs to her. The story is likely a folktale designed to reinforce the wisdom and authority of the king, which is not surprising. What is surprising is how clearly such an old story can provide a clear metaphor for the ways the patriarchy can turn women against each other.
Clearly, one of these women is lying. I suppose there is the possibility that the woman whose baby died is suffering a delusion, following her traumatic loss, and that she truly believes the child is hers, but I doubt King Solomon—or the authors of this passage, for that matter—would have been aware of that psychological possibility. In any case, this story reinforces that troubling notion that women can’t be trusted, and it places the women in hostile opposition to each other.
Oh also, the women are prostitutes. So we can add a healthy dose of slut-shaming into the mix here.
How does Solomon solve the matter? Well, not having a drug store genetic testing at his fingertips (really, a quick trip to Walgreen’s would have solved everything), he does what any good leader would do—he offers to cut the baby in half and split the difference!
It is a terrible story. Truly, how we managed to canonize this and attribute it to the wisdom of a great ruler is beyond me. It is not exactly the stuff of Sunday school felt board story—although I do recall seeing an animated version of this story as a child. Equally horrifying.
In any case, this appalling story does serve a function, if we let it teach us about the ways in which women’s voice and worth becomes diminished when placed in opposition to other women. The man—with all the voice, power, and authority in this scenario—is literally holding a sword to the throat of a child, while the women are focused on tearing each other down. Say all you want that Solomon would not actually have killed the child—who knows, babies were pretty disposable back then (as were women). It’s an image that sticks with me. Very often our laws, our culture, our economy, and even our religious organizations are destroying the lives of women and children. But rather than addressing the unjust system, we turn on other women, who are, perhaps, only a product of the same unjust system.
Again, cultivating deep friendships with other women—and empathy for women who may never be our BFFs—is an act of resistance against “divide and conquer” misogyny. The church can support the building of these bonds in some direct and indirect ways.
First, providing a space for women’s ministry is important. I love church ladies. I mean, who doesn’t love church ladies? They get shit done, and always have. Church women’s groups can form some deep bonds within the life of the church. But I wonder if these internal structures can also perpetuate a sense of otherness that Christian women sometimes feel toward women outside of their particular brand of faith.
Too often, churches get into the business of “pink ghetto” ministries—a tongue-in-cheek term for ministries that gather and connect women, while keeping them outside more meaningful and transformative work of the church. These ministries, highly gendered and geared to uphold a certain ideal of “biblical womanhood” (an expectation that modern women should mirror the expected behaviors and norms of women in scripture) often serve double duty. Not only do they keep women sequestered away from more visible, vocal forms of ministry; they also perpetuate the forms of internalized misogyny that make women complicit in their own subversion. Some Christian publishers have even added pink sparkly Bibles to the mix—because even Jesus loves a pretty princess party, I guess? These “pink” ministries—with or without the literal pink packaging—are just one more expression of patriarchy at work in the church, a creative way of keeping women in certain boxes.
The good news is that long before the evolution of comforting but inwardly focused “interest” groups, Christian women have known how to organize for good. Women’s missionary societies helped form the fabric of life as we know it; these groups have been caring for the poor while also elevating women’s voices for centuries now. We know how to do this. Now’s the time to take that combined spirit of camaraderie and compassion, and use it for the good of women everywhere.
In addition to connecting women with each other and organizing for outwardly focused mission work, the contemporary church needs to also find creative ways of equipping and empowering women for leadership within congregational life. For instance, I wonder how many women were, like me, raised in a church that told them they could be ministers but will still not call a woman to the role of pastor/preacher when the chips are down. The mixed messages we send our girls and women are overwhelming sometimes. Of course there is ongoing tension among women; when even the church has convinced us there is only so much room for us to speak and lead, it creates a sense of having to jockey for position.
But what if the church could learn to rise above its cultural influences, and instead be transformers of the wider culture? To elevate a woman’s voice in the pulpit is to empower women’s voices in the wider community, and the church is uniquely positioned—more than any other institution or organization—to embrace that potential in our lifetime. What if we could create more room for women to lead, rather than enabling a sense of scarcity around that potential?
In theory, this sounds simple. In practice, it might take on different expressions in different contexts. For a church that does not have women pastors on staff, inviting women as guest speakers and preachers would go a long way. For any church, giving girls an opportunity to speak on youth Sunday (or any Sunday!) helps create that sense of identity and belonging that will give them a voice for leadership. Maybe we need to take our youth on field trips to hear women faith leaders from other traditions, and to celebrate the ways women are empowered to lead within the Jewish or Muslim traditions or within other circles in our local community.
The possibilities for transformation are endless. When women are fully embraced and included in the life of the gospel—and reconciled to each other in the process—then the patriarchy doesn’t stand a chance.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- When have you seen or experienced competition between women benefiting the men already in power? How can women work together to counter the culture of competition and judgment that we’ve been influenced by?
- Can you think of some examples of internalized misogyny that you’ve witnessed or experienced in your own life? How can we break the influence of such self-defeating tendencies?
- What is the problematic nature of “biblical womanhood”? How can church women’s groups empower rather than limit women?
[i] Nadia Abushanab Higgins, Feminism: Reinventing the F-Word (Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2016), 16–24.
[ii] Ashley Parker, “Karen Pence Is the Vice President’s ‘Prayer Warrior,’ Gut Check, and Shield,” Washington Post, March 28, 2017.
[iii] Tim Funk, “Mike Pence Follows ‘Billy Graham Rule’ — Created to Avoid ‘Naked Lady with a Photographer’,” Charlotte Observer. April 4, 2017.
[iv] Katie Rogers, “White Women Helped Elect Donald Trump,” New York Times, November 9, 2016.