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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.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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.

Lynn Japinga

Lynn Japinga is Professor of Religion at Hope College.

15 Comments

  • Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you for this, Lynn.

  • Anne says:

    I think that this doesn’t go far enough. It’s great to teach girls the stories of the named women in the Bible – but it’s also good to teach them about all the unnamed women in the Bible. And it’s also good to tell a man to stop touching you in front of a group of people. The stories in the Bible – whether they are about men or women are for all Christians. We need to teach the stories about women to our boys and young men. Once again – empowering women is being placed on the girls. If we truly believe that women and men are the same in the body of Christ – then let’s start teaching that way. This isn’t about hurting a boy’s feelings. This is about leveling the “way.” Moutains made low, valleys raised up so that there is a pathway through walking side by side.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    AMEN!

  • Mark Ennis says:

    Lynn, what a wonderful bit of writing. It made me think. Thank you.

  • Diana Walker says:

    Thank you, Lynn, for today’s message. Spot on, to say the least. We have so many stories to tell, so many illustrations of your words. Even though it was many years ago, I still cringe when I remember a church committee member snapping his fingers at me as he pointed to his empty cup of coffee. That was my job. To make him happy. To fill his cup.
    And it goes from there.
    Many thanks.

  • shirley andrews says:

    I think that the comments concerning teaching also boys who become men to value women is an essence worth addressing. In society today, women are often the primary caregivers of children. How women allow the husband in her life to treat her is an example for the boys and girls in their care. One obvious stumbling block is that children more often are not being raised by parents, but are given to childcare providers at very early ages. Then it is the caregiver who must agree with the philosophy that women have worth and must not be subordinated because of gender. Secondly, I think one of the strongest women named in the Bible is Jezebel. She was tireless at trying to save the people of her husband’s religion in favor of her truth. Obviously, it is her truth that is decidedly wrong by those who followed, She would have been elevated to the highest positions had the Baal believes been victorious. Point is that strength alone, or conviction no matter how sincere, really isn’t the issue here. The issue also is whether or not humans are created in the image of God, whether or not we see one another with dignity and respect, and how and when we become blinded by someone else’s truth and strength. sigh

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Lynn, for this article encouraging women to be fierce and faithful, embodying self respect and self confidence. There is, no doubt, much truth in your sentiments.

    But I’m a little surprised that you would encourage the reading of particular Biblical female characters. The overall reading and emphasis of the Bible would take its readers in a different direction than what you suggest. From start to finish the Bible seems to encourage male headship and female submission. The Bible authors, the leaders of Old Testament Israel, the disciples (the twelve), and the leaders of the church were nearly always men. Women did play a role of influence at times, but not often. You cite a few. From the time of Adam and Eve, women were often shown to have a power that men often didn’t have, a sexual prowess and influence over men. And often that seductive power was used for ill. Could that still be true today?

    I applaud your concern for the rights of women. But it is culture and not the Bible that has shown leadership in wanting to correct past wrongs. The church, in many sectors, is still dragging its feet on this front of women’s rights and equality. I’d give little praise to the Christian church for its Johnny-come-lately efforts. The church’s slowness is in part due to the male dominated culture that the Bible authors were part of and then propagated to future generations, including ours. Thanks again, Lynn, for this article encouraging women’s rights. I hope, as the church, we can give some praise to our culture for leading us in good directions.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    RLG … Should I know you? I don’t recognize the initials but perhaps am having a brain freeze!!!

    Your observations are all true and I’ve been wrestling with these questions for a long time! I’ve long been intrigued by the way that Christianity is used to support slavery and segregation, and to oppose them. The same with women’s rights. I think about the arc bending toward justice and that the Bible opens up and gets more inclusive. You might check out my books … Feminism and Christianity: An Essential Guide, and Preaching the Women of the Old Testament, if you want to see how I’ve tried to work through the questions that you raise.

    Thanks for the observations!

  • Ruth Boven says:

    Yes! Thank you!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Lynn, for your response. I don’t know if we share a close common identity background or history by which we would know each other. My background is the CRC, with training at both Calvin College and Seminary. I came into the CRC from an evangelical background. I find that denominational schools attempt to mold their students into their denominational mold, and seldom do such students think outside the box to which they have been molded. That would certainly be true of myself in the past. That would, likewise, often be true of those who teach in such schools. It can be quite frustrating to dialogue with Christians so stuck in their box. I’m sure you find a similar frustration when talking about feminist issues.

    Common sense would dictate that all people, female and male, share in an equality, not a hierarchy. But religions, including Christianity, would dictate otherwise. What may seem obvious from nature and reason gets twisted by religions. Judging from some of the reviews of “Feminism and Christianity,” I would guess you feel forced to do some manipulation, as well. In my opinion, there is much in Christianity that causes people to abandon common sense and reason. I guess I no longer fit the mold. Thanks for your contribution, Lynn, helping us to think outside our long standing boxes.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Roger. Not that nature determines what it is normative for us, but if you don’t see dominance and hierarchy in nature, then you are not a very astute observer. Nature is replete with hierarchy, including hierarchy of sexes.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Eric. But animals are not given to logic or reason. That’s what sets humans apart from animals and makes humans unique.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hello again Roger. I was responding to your statement that the fact that “all people, female and male, share in an equality, not a hierarchy…may seem obvious from nature and reason”. For better or worse, such is not obvious from nature, but rather quite the contrary.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Eric for your further clarification. Yes often in nature there is a hierarchy, sometimes with the female at the top and sometimes with the male at the top of the hierarchy. And again, that is why humans use reason, even common sense, rather than religion (headship teachings) to recognize an equality of the sexes and have seen it work well in the human experience. Even many of our Reformed denominations are beginning to see the light.

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