Tag Archives: Feminism

The Making of Biblical Womanhood, by Beth Allison Barr

Most people throughout history have been lulled into thinking that the way things are today is the way they have always been, but when speaking of a woman’s place in the church, historian Beth Allison Barr shows us that this is not the case. Barr’s particular field of study is the middle ages, and she takes the reader on a tour of history since Jesus’s time to see how women were perceived in each era.

Beginning with an alternate reading of Paul’s instructions about women in the church, Barr points out the many passages in Paul’s epistles that show women as apostles, deaconesses, and other leaders in the early church. Continuing into later centuries, we have many records of abbesses and other respected women leaders. One of the most interesting transitions Barr explores is that the women before the Reformation became honored saints by renouncing marriage and women’s traditional roles, whereas after the Reformation, the church honored women who were good wives and mothers, and as such, could not devote themselves to full-time ministry.

The author demonstrates how western cultures influenced the expectations of female roles by the evolution of sermons and biblical translations. She also compares passages in the ESV and the NIV today, and then traces those same passages back to see how they were translated in earlier bible translations, such as the Vulgate and the Geneva bibles.

I read this title almost immediately after Jesus and John Wayne (reviewed  here), and, although both authors are arguing against the oppression of women in today’s Protestant churches, Du Mez is describing the evangelical movement through the past century of American history with a political lens. Barr, on the other hand, examines women’s roles in the entire Christian church since New Testament times through a historical lens. While this may not have the same “ripped from the headlines” quality, it is deeply engrossing and sometimes surprising.

Beth Allison Barr received her Ph.D. right here in the neighborhood at UNC Chapel Hill and is now assistant dean at the graduate school of Baylor University. Woven delicately through her historical research is her personal story of how her husband lost his job as youth pastor at their church because he suggested that they could hire a woman pastor. Previously, he had offered the name of a male friend for the open position of church secretary, and the church leaders’ reaction let him know that they considered the job to be beneath a man’s dignity. If only this were a rare attitude, Dr. Barr wouldn’t have written this book.

Interesting reading from a perspective rarely seen in popular nonfiction. Love the nod to Warhol on the cover.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray

Clover stepped out of the shower one morning and started brushing her teeth. When she looked in the mirror, her toothbrush was suspended in midair. Otherwise, all she could see was the wall behind her. She was invisible. And not metaphorically.

Her husband was a busy pediatrician, and their son lived in his old bedroom after finishing a graduate degree in women’s studies, and neither one of them seemed to notice. She wore her usual bathrobe or outdoor clothes, and they didn’t skip a beat at her lack of a head or hands. Her best friend across the street, of course, noticed immediately and flew into a panic. Okay, so maybe a little metaphorical, after all.

One day, Clover was reading the newspaper’s classified section when she spotted an ad: “Calling Invisible Women.” There were others! They had meetings, and they knew what was causing it. They just didn’t know what to do about it. Good thing Clover hadn’t lost her investigative reporter instincts.

Jeanne Ray is the queen of the rom-com for older women. I read her Step-Ball-Change, Eat Cake, and Julie and Romeo years ago, and this novel came to my attention in connection with Women’s History Month. Her writing is light and humorous, but she jabs that stiletto point home about the real experience of most middle-aged and older women’s lives. Her perspective widens as the novel continues, and she deals with individual women’s private lives, the importance of community and friendship for women, age discrimination, and even Big Pharma. Quite a lot for a novel, and she does it all with panache and a giggle.

So travel along with Clover and her friends as they take on the world! Oh, but to be completely invisible for slipping onto planes and into corporate buildings, you’ll have to be completely naked. You’ll get used to it.

So fun and so fierce.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library downloadable audio of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Women’s History for Little Feminists

In celebration of the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, 2019 and 2020 saw the publication of a treasure trove of children’s titles. March is Women’s History Month, so this is a great time to gather up all of those books, as well as a few more. Here are two great feminist reads for kids, one that is a few years old and madly beloved, and one that is brand new and much-needed.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

One-stop shopping for women’s bios. This first volume of the series contains 100 one-page biographies of women who made a difference in the world, arranged alphabetically by first name. The book came into being through a Kickstarter program, and it has now been translated into 47 languages! The left side of each double-page spread has a quick summary of each woman’s life, while the right side has a full-page, colorful portrait with a quotation from the subject. All of the pictures are done by different artists, which gives the book exuberant variety. Some of the portraits are serious and classic, while others are almost caricatures. I had to laugh when I turned the page to the Brontë sisters. It is certainly a good likeness, but the artist put something a little spooky into their wide eyes that hinted at the eeriness of their writing.

The short biographies are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to point out general facts and the reasons that the reader should care about this person. Hopefully, children will be especially interested in a few of these heroines and will seek out full biographies and other information about them.

Inspirational reading for little rebels. Princesses need not apply.

An Equal Shot, by Helaine Becker

Title IX went into effect when I was in high school. Yes, I am that old. Although it was passed in 1972, it was not explained in detail and implemented until 1975, and even after that, some organizations were slow to get on board. When we were buying a house in a small town in Georgia in the 1990s, I called the mortgage banker to get an update. He told me that he was communicating with David about it, and if I had any questions, I could ask my husband. These days, he could be fired for that, and I would throw a party on his front lawn.

But I digress.

This nonfiction picture book tells about the need for the law and how it has changed our country since its passage. The text is very simple, and it is accompanied by illustrations in pleasing colors by Dow Phumiruk. The artist portrays diverse groups of girls in the beginning as disappointed and dismayed that they cannot play on sports teams, but even in the protest march, there is no hint of violent anger. The history of our country’s discrimination against women is explained clearly and persuasively. I found it particularly telling when the girls are searching giant editions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and realizing that women’s rights are not found in these great documents.

It seems that the battle for freedom never ends. We abolish slavery and end up with Jim Crow. We pass the 19th amendment, but women can still be fired from their jobs for getting married or becoming pregnant. Liberty takes constant vigilance. Becker frequently points out that Title IX has only 37 words; that’s all it took. The text of the law is written out on one of the last pages.

We often think of Title IX as the law that allowed girls to have sports teams, and it is, but its application is so much broader than that, even for men, who are now able to work in what were traditionally considered women’s jobs, such as nursing or flight attendants. The backmatter has a more detailed account of the bill’s passage, including important individuals who worked to make equality a reality for girls and women. The author also points out areas where there is still “More Work to Do,” such as pay discrimination, and she includes a list of resources for further information.

Essential reading for girls and boys.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahIfemelu sits in a shop in Trenton, having her hair braided before she returns to her native Nigeria. She half-listens to the African hair dressers around her as she thinks back over her life—her childhood in Nigeria and her thirteen-year sojourn in the United States—wondering whether she is making the right decision.

The dream of so many of her friends and relatives was to get a visa to live in America and to make it big, sharing the wealth with all of the family they left back home. Reality was jarringly different. No one wanted to hire an African woman. There were financial struggles and struggles of the soul. After a time, she started a blog, explaining black American culture to non-American blacks. Later, she said that she had never felt black until she came to the U.S. “I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.” (p. 499)

The story of Ifemelu’s awakening is a journey of awareness for the reader, as well. Her hopeful and frustrating romances: the experiment, the one who seemed so perfect, the one who got away. Ifemelu desires happiness with another, but the only man who understands her is the Nigerian she grew up with, whom she repeatedly and thoroughly rejected years ago.

Just as a traveler never returns to exactly the same place, so also does a reader never remain the same person after a novel this immersive and wise. We read in order to see the world through the eyes of someone unlike ourselves, and in this absorbing story, we journey with a woman who seeks her fortune in another nation, where there are people who look like her, but do not think like her, and others who look very different. This is a fascinating gaze at our own country through an intimate observer.

Do not miss this bestselling novel by an important author. Adichie’s brilliant and moving Ted Talk on feminism will also allow you to hear her beautiful voice. That accent will follow you all the way through Americanah. In this tumultuous time in our nation, let’s hear from all the reasoned voices, and let’s listen.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Call to Action, by Jimmy Carter

ImageI never thought I’d read a book by Jimmy Carter, since I still have vivid memories of those gas lines and hard times while I was in college. We had to get gas for our cars according to the last digit on our license plates, which makes me think that there were no vanity plates in those days. Besides that, David and I married while he was still president, and I bought my first car at a 16% interest rate. It was not the best of times; it was the worst of times. Then again, this man is ninety years old this year, and he’s still traveling around the world on mission trips and swinging a hammer for Habitat for Humanity. He’s sharp as a tack, and he and Rosalynn have racked up 145 countries on their passports. Pretty impressive. So, I think he’s earned the right to be heard.

The subtitle of the book is Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, and although most of the topics relate back to the oppression of women, they may not always do so all at the same time. However, the former president has been a witness to a lot of violence and suffering around the world, and he brings many of those cases to us in this short book. Mr. Carter opines that women are the most oppressed people group across all the nations of the earth, even though they make up a majority of the global population. Without regard to his own culture or beliefs, he sets out to delineate the many ways that women are subjugated or even persecuted in different places. Right now, in our country, we are seeing news stories about the lower pay scale for women, right up to the fact that the women White House staffers are paid only 88% as much as male staffers. In my own profession, even though all librarians have Master’s degrees and about 83% of all librarians are women, they account for only 65% of public library directors and make about 4% less than men overall, according to the American Library Association.

Yet this small frustration in the west pales in comparison to the genital mutilation and honor killings that we see in other parts of the world. For some reason, older women are often the ones encouraging cutting girls’ genitals in many parts of Africa, because of the belief that they are “purifying” them. The statistics are shocking: 98% percent of the women in Somalia and 96% of the women of Guinea have been mutilated, with similar numbers all over the continent. (p. 156) Furthermore, often the same countries encourage the idea that girls should be killed when they do anything to shame their families, particularly if the girl does not wish to marry the man her family has chosen. In Egypt, it is reported that 16% of all the homicides in 2000 were “family killings to ‘wipe out shame.’” (p. 153)

ImageJust this week in the U.S., Brandeis University refused to award a planned honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a well-known advocate for women’s rights in Islamic countries. Ms. Ali experienced genital mutilation as a child in Somalia, but escaped to the Netherlands as an adult and has worked against persecution and honor killings ever since. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has convinced Brandeis to withhold the degree because they feel that she is spreading hatred against Muslims. Lest we believe that honor killings are solely a Muslim practice, however, Mr. Carter states that “[s]uch killings have also been committed in Hindu and Sikh communities in India, and by Christians within highly patriarchal cultures.” (p. 153)

Mr. Carter does not spare the Christian churches of which he is an adherent, either. He draws a distinction between the Biblical teachings of Jesus and Paul in regards to women. He considers Jesus to be the most feminist person in the Bible, treating women on a par with men in a manner that was highly unusual in that time. However, he feels that Paul is speaking to the surrounding culture, and that his instructions to one group conflict with his words to another church. The former president believes that Christian churches have wrongly emphasized Paul’s teachings, even interpreting them inappropriately. Whether one agrees with him or not, it is remarkable that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter left their lifelong affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention over this issue, although they are still active in their local church.

ImagePresident Carter covers many other pertinent topics in this short book, including rape, female genocide, child marriage, human trafficking, and other shameful reminders that women’s oppression is both worldwide and ongoing.  It is hard to imagine that one person could have such a depth of knowledge on all of these subjects, but Mr. and Mrs. Carter travel for the Carter Center and have leadership roles on many global councils devoted to the cause of peace and justice. One reviewer opined that Carter detoured off into “folksy” stories too much, but I did not find that to be the case. He did ramble on occasion, it is true, but here is an example of one of his stories. In countries such as Ghana, ponds fill up during the rainy season, but then shrink the rest of the year. Whatever the water level, they are still the source of the village’s water, and Guinea worm larvae live in the water. When the people drink the water, the larvae hatch in their digestive tracts and grow into two-to-three-foot worms before leaving the body through their skin anywhere, but particularly through the legs and feet. When the women wade into the ponds to draw water, the worms on their legs lay eggs into the pond. It takes 30 days for the worms to painfully make their way completely out of the body, and if you try to pull them out and part of them breaks off, they will rot and you will have to have an amputation. There is no cure, but the Carter Center is working to dig wells for each village, so that there is no need to go into the infested pond. They are seeing tremendous success. Here in the U.S., I would be in an insane asylum long before the 30 days were up. I have already wondered if was legal to request a drug-induced coma for mental health reasons. If that is the reviewer’s idea of a folksy story, he is one hardened dude. In our family now, this has become the touchstone of suffering: Lost your job? Car won’t start? Best friend won’t speak to you anymore? Look on the bright side! You could have Guinea worms!

This is a thoughtful and revealing look at many forms of oppression against women, although for a deeper treatment of any particular topic, one would have to look elsewhere. There is an index in the back, but no notes, which I found disappointing. However, I would recommend this title to anyone interested in the subject, or to anyone wanting to take a look at the longest presidential retirement on record. You’ll be impressed.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, my church, or anyone else.

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