Sexism in the church: Young women talk about faith and gender

Jul. 31, 2013 @ 12:14 PM

About a dozen young Christian women met weekly in July to have “Courageous Conversations” about taboo topics at the intersection of faith and gender. The discussions were a program of the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, a feminism and spirituality group on Watts Street.

Elizabeth McManus, 20, an intern at the RCWMS this summer, is a student at Mount Holyoke College and the conversations are her internship project. She wanted to create a space for Christian women to gather and talk about sexism in the church in both silent and spoken ways, she said. McManus wanted to create a collective space for empowerment. She said that in her personal experience in feminist circles, there’s almost a polarization between being both feminist and Christian.
McManus is also one of 40 contributors to a forthcoming book, “Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith” (White Cloud Press). Some of the others in the group are also contributors, including Erin Lane, 29, who is the book’s co-editor. At the group’s final meeting on Monday this week, they talked about their experiences.
Sara Beth Pannell, 24, grew up in a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church that affirmed women in leadership. In college, she found her love of the United Methodist Church, and is seeking ordination in that denomination. She is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and currently a student at Duke Divinity School.
“Women in their 50s laid the ground work, and saw a lot more resistance and pushback than I think some of us have,” Pannell said. Even so, women she knows who are recent graduates and seeking careers as clergy are under scrutiny as women. At her own internship at a church, she thinks about what she wears every Sunday. Last week during the “Courageous Conversations,” they discussed shame of bodies.
“It’s interesting how women’s bodies are seen as temptation for other people to stumble,” McManus said.
Pannell said women talk all the time about what to wear to be taken seriously, but she hasn’t had that conversation with a man.
Lane said her husband, who is a youth pastor, has been scrutinized over clothing choices but it’s more intense for women.
“How can I be a modern woman, empowered in my body and also a Christian? Why do they have to be at odds?” McManus said.
Emma Akpan, 28, an ordained African Methodist Episcopal minister, said the meetings have been refreshing because the conversations she wants to have, she can’t have at the church she attends. During a Mother’s Day service two years ago, as she said the morning prayer, she prayed to “Mother God,” as opposed to the usual “Father God.”
“Everybody was talking about it,” Akpan said, though they didn’t say anything directly to her. Instead, it was in conversations after the church service among each other.
One topic covered in the conversations and the book, Lane said, is shaming a victim by saying that naming things as sexist is an overreaction.
“Just saying something is sexist is taboo, because power does not like to be confronted,” Lane said.
Pilar Timpane, 28, said she liked the “Courageous Conversations” because it’s different than the academic feminism groups or church group discussions she has participated in.
“That conversation can happen between Christian women is really vital,” Timpane said, and the conversations held at the RSWMS could trickle down into their churches. “It seems right to begin with conversations.”
Lane said the conversations are a training ground. She knows women who don’t speak up, and it takes practice.
“I think you need groups like this to practice saying what you notice,” she said. Lane has found that a congregation’s mentality goes in the direction of the status quo, and it’s hard to move as a group toward something new.
“At 29, I’m still willing to fight within the system.” Her faith background is Catholic and evangelical, and her husband is United Methodist. Lane has stayed in her faith journey without having to stick to one denomination, she said.
“I know it’s a trend – millennials not affiliating with a religion,” Lane said. Maintaining her faith in a Trinitarian God can happen in a lot of settings, she said.
Lane said a principle of the upcoming book and its contributors is that everyone speaks for herself, not in generalizations.
Pannell said the July conversations have been a time of personal reflection and hopeful for her as she pursues ministry.
McManus said she is developing the project into a curriculum and hopes it can be a model for other conversations. “Talking Taboo” will be published in October.


WHAT: “A Community-wide Courageous Conversation”
WHEN: 2-4 p.m. Aug. 10
WHERE: Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South
1202 Watts St., Durham
DETAILS: Women will share writings from the “Courageous Conversations” project. Event is free, but RSVP to