It’s 2003 and I’m in the eighth grade. One of the administrators at the small Christian school I attend is substituting for our absent Earth Science teacher. Modeling the qualities of soft-spoken and strict so often found together in good Baptist women, she purses her lips, surveying the room of seven awkward teenagers, and asks,
“Would someone like to open us in prayer?”
(Translation: somebody volunteer to pray out loud now.)
All eyes strategically redirect downward. Don’t make eye contact. Making sidelong glances at my classmates, I wonder if any of the three boys or three other girls will volunteer. I know I’m not going to. I’m going to stand my terrified ground until I or some other unhappy victim gets chosen.
“I’ll pray.” Sarah*, the class high achiever and all around Really Nice Person, pipes up.
Relief washes over me.
Sarah prays beautifully. Listening, I wonder how somebody can be so articulate spontaneously. When I have to speak in front of people, my mind wipes to a complete blank (something I will never outgrow). But Sarah is as well-spoken as any practiced adult leader. And at this moment, I adore her for volunteering to pray when it was the last thing any of the rest of us wanted to have to do.
“Thank you, Sarah,” the administrator says after we all say Amen. Her eyes dart around the room again before she continues. “But I think I speak for all of us when I say that it’s more comforting and reassuring for everyone when a man prays.”
I feel sick.
Sarah’s face is impassive and she nods quietly at the administrator, as if in agreement. Unable to help myself, I glance at the boys, each one beet red, shuffling their feet, looking down.
I feel angry.
It’s in this moment that I first encounter the too-prevalent notion in Christian circles that a woman’s spiritual worth is less than a man’s. That the best of women is not as good as anything from a man.
For the first (and not the last) time, someone has told me,
“Because you are a woman, your voice doesn’t matter.”
I don’t know what that moment meant for Sarah. We weren’t good enough friends for me to feel comfortable asking. But fifteen years on, that morning in Earth Science is still a liminal moment for me. I see its echoes and reiterations all the time, especially after serving in occupational ministry. It still makes me angry.
I understand that the administrator was probably trying to admonish the boys for not volunteering to be leaders. But she did it by demeaning our female classmate; she did it at the expense of the God-given worth of each girl in the room.
She also did it at the expense of my respect for her, although now when I look back I feel sorry for her more than angry at her. I know now the only way she could have arrived at the belief that women are worth less spiritually than men, is by being taught it. Not just by men, but by other women as well.
If I call myself a feminist Christian, it’s not an adherence to a political ideology. It’s because it’s been presented to me, for years, that the extra specification is necessary. That “women are worth as much spiritually as men” is not an inherent and active belief in all Christian circles.
As loudly as that moment rings in my memory, louder still are the empowering voices of the women who taught me I could do anything and be anything. My mother, grandmother, sister, aunts, friends, and spiritual leaders. The women who told me and showed me that my voice, my brain, my heart, are worth just as much as anyone’s.
*Not her real name