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By Lynn Japinga
A strong, confident, brilliant professional woman is at a party, standing with a small group of people. Next to her is an older man whom she knows, but dislikes. While talking to someone else in the group, the man is patting her back. Should she slap his hand away? Tell him to stop? Move purposefully away? Glare at him? Put up with it so as not to make a scene and be labeled impolite, difficult, and angry?
Women have been well-socialized to be nice, polite, inoffensive. They are taught in media and various social encounters not to challenge men, not to disagree, not to argue. If they break these rules, they are often accused of being a Witch with a capital B.
One of the responses to the stories of sexual harassment and aggression has been: “Why don’t the women just say no and leave?” Many women, and the occasional man (even David Brooks) have noted that it is not that simple. Because of the ways women have been socialized, they often do not know how to use their voices to say no. Or they fear the consequences.
In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized a large gathering of women in Seneca Falls, New York. She prepared a list of grievances. Women could not vote, own property, keep their wages, serve on a jury, enroll in most colleges and universities, or hold leadership roles in the church or the state. She concluded: “He [man] has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
One hundred and seventy years later, women can vote, own property, be educated, and sometimes hold leadership roles. Self-confidence and self-respect have been harder to achieve. “Man” has done his part to silence women, but women have also silenced each other, and various forms of media have played a role as well. A recent book on women and technology, Geek Girl Rising, notes that many middle-school girls get good grades in math and science, but believe that careers coding, programming, and engineering are not for them.
At Hope College, we joke about “Ring By Spring” and “Senior Panic.” If a woman is not getting married immediately after graduation, there might be something wrong with her. Ridiculous? Yes. But still powerful.
The church has done its fair share of encouraging women to be quiet, submissive, and obedient. It is time for that to change. How can the church build confidence and self-respect among women and girls?
Take a look at your church’s program for girls. Does it emphasize kindness, cooking, and child care? What about thinking and building and friendly competition? For middle and high school girls, how does the church help them to use their voices and their agency?
Some youth groups have spent a lot of time talking about purity and chastity. What about teaching instead that girls don’t need a boyfriend to be successful? That it’s okay to walk out of an uncomfortable situation. It’s okay to hurt a boy’s feelings. It’s okay to say “No,” firmly, directly, repeatedly. It’s okay not to have sex on the first, fifth, twentieth or fiftieth date, even if he buys you dinner. They do not need male approval.
These are countercultural ideas that challenge much of what girls are reading and seeing in the media. I am not talking about those awful abstinence classes where a girl who kisses a boy is compared to a piece of chewed gum. I am talking about helping girls to be strong and confident. They can choose when and how to express affection without feeling like they need to please a boy. The Bible has often been used to teach women to be self-sacrificing and humble servants.
Consider instead reading the stories of Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab, the midwives (Exodus 1), Miriam, the daughters of Zelophehad, Ruth, Esther, Vashti, and many others. Let’s give our girls some fierce and faithful women who embody self-respect and self-confidence.
Lynn Japinga teaches religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where she is privileged to teach a lot of fierce and faithful women and men.