Event Review: When Women Speak #WhenSheSpeaks
Updated: May 16
I am reflecting on the September 27th online event "When Women Speak: A conversation with Anthea Butler, Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr, moderated by Melissa Borja. I appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from Christian women who have researched and written extensively on topics that affect women's roles in marriages, churches, and society. Their non-fiction research applies to my fiction novel, Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold. My novel shows Jesus empowering women as leaders and calling disciples and apostles of various races.
Beth Allison Barr authored The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the subjugation of Women became the Gospel Truth. She is an associate professor of history at Baylor University and through her research in medieval history, found ties between women's roles in the church and worldly patriarchy.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez wrote Jesus and John Wayne: How white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation. She is a history professor at Calvin University with a focus on the intersection of gender, religion and politics in recent American history.
Anthea Butler wrote White Evangelical Racism: The politics of Morality in America. She is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and her research includes religion, evangelicalism, history, race, politics, gender, sexuality, media and popular culture. Her tag line is "Givin' it to ya straight... no chaser." Not one to speak with carefully hidden meanings, Butler will speak plainly, even if you don't like what she says.
As a Canadian, I had not given much thought to the term evangelicals, which these authors discuss as having a rising impact in America. The National Association of Evangelicals provides the following beliefs to be categorized as evangelical: the belief that the Bible is the highest authority, that it is important to encourage others to be born again, and that Jesus is the only way to be forgiven and receive salvation. Many evangelicals focus on telling personal stories of conversion. Mainline Protestants believe the Bible contains God's truth and requires interpretation, that faith is shown by working for justice and humanitarian aid, and that it is important to share beliefs and encourage others on their spiritual journey. Christians can be found along in the full range from fundamentalist to evangelical to mainline to pluralist, and can sometimes be found in the same denominations as each other.
The conversation started with each author speaking of their motivations for their latest book. Anthea Butler wrote from a place of loneliness, needing to label what she was seeing and feeling in racism in evangelical churches.
Beth Barr was writing to an audience of evangelicals, using their language and her personal testimony to demonstrate the problems of their definition of Biblical womanhood. Barr said that the evidence provides the argument; her experience shows why it matters.
Kristin DuMez was writing to an audience of non-evangelicals, moving the conversation away from her personal story and toward historical context. DuMez wanted to speak the truth without deferring to power.
These three authors speak against a viewpoint called Complementarianism. This view teaches that God ordains that women's roles be different from men's, equal but complementary. Complementarians teach that a woman's role is in the home, submitting to her husband as the head of the home, to be silent at churches, without power or say in society. Evangelicals have produced many books, study guides, devotionals, and movies, which promote the complementarian view. The authors discussed how evangelicals have perpetrated patriarchy by promoting Complementarianism.
Barr's book shows that the complementarian view is not Biblical and it reflects culture rather than Christ. She demonstrates that Complementarianism is the same as patriarchy; it is a man-made doctrine that hurts women. It is this same patriarchy that limits the roles of blacks and the roles of women. Sexism cannot be uprooted without racism being addressed; patriarchy is parallel to racism. We saw this in the early years when most suffragists lobbying for the vote were also speaking against slavery.
DuMez showed that American evangelicalism has racist and patriarchal roots, back as far as the days when the Bible was used to support slavery. She noted that throughout history men have encouraged and supported other men with money and power; hired men, complimented them, and gave them positive book reviews and media exposure.
Butler told a story demonstrating a lack of women supporting women. In her youth, a woman in a senior administrative church role, working long hours for low pay, told Butler "don't go to Fuller and become a feminist". It was white men who recognized her intellect and encouraged her. Butler did go on to achieve an MA (Theology) from Fuller Theological Seminary, followed by an MA (Religion) and Ph.D. (Religion) from Vanderbilt University.
In researching early women preachers, I notice that many could not have become preachers without the support of men who encouraged them, endorsed their calling and lobbied for their ordination.
Barr said that social media had a democratizing effect; social media meant activists and writers no longer had to go through male gatekeepers for exposure.
Anthea Butler said if you wanted to know if your church was racist, look at how they reacted to George Floyd's case. If they cared about George Floyd for five minutes and then did not want to focus on racism. She said that Christians need to not only recognize the racism of individuals, but also the racism of our churches, our communities and our structures.
Barr suggested if a church did not want to focus on racism, start by meeting them where they are; focus on areas of interest to them and then bring in different voices and diverse stories. Examples could include introducing them to diverse populations, listening to the problems local people of colour have faced, or hearing from a woman called to ministry.
Butler talked about how evangelicals had been complicit in many issues including racism and sexism. She said music by R. Kelly continued to be played at events, forgiving him for being a sexual abuser while ignoring the voices of the abused women. R. Kelly was convicted of sex trafficking this year, four years after the #MuteRKelly movement started.
DuMez discussed how feminists in the past focussed on theology and Biblical interpretation. Today's feminists aim to provide awareness to issues by using history. Her readers who are people of colour have told her they were already aware of the issues revealed in her book; her white readers are telling her that their eyes have been opened to see the patriarchy or racism. Once readers have that awareness, they can look again at what the Bible says. History can help unwind bad theology.
I believe the issues discussed in this conversation can be applied to how Canada has been racist against indigenous populations. Indigenous populations are saying they were not surprised that unmarked graves of hundreds of children were found at indigenous residential schools; whites are saying that their eyes have been opened to how past leaders have ignored the mistreatment of indigenous populations. As early as 1907, the chief medical officer for Indian Affairs reported to then Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier that children enrolled at residential schools had a mortality rate as high as 25%. In the 1940s and 1950s, malnourished children in residential schoosl were used as controls in nutritional experiements.
While I started off researching women's rights, I discovered that respect for women is tied to respect for people of colour and other minorities. Jesus demonstrated respect for all peoples, regardless of gender or race, yet Christians through history have had trouble following this example.
The When Women Speak conversation ended on a hopeful note, that voices are being heard, and ideas on patriarchy and racism are being faced and discussed.