Down with the patriarchy: On the path to real inclusivity

March 23rd, 2015

I was recently asked to give the prayer for the commencement festivities at the local university in the small town where I serve. In his request, the president noted that he had made an effort to get clergy from outside of the white, male, Southern Baptist/Church of Christ pastor box that is the majority of the town, namely an American Indian and a rabbi. He also noted that, in his memory, I will be the first woman with this honor. At first, my tendency towards pride took over. “Well, aren’t I special?” I thought to myself. But my second thought turned towards the ridiculousness of this. “It’s 2015. Why am I the first woman to do anything?”

It is 2015. Women are doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, rocket scientists, soldiers, professors, basketball players and politicians. There might be two women running for the highest political office in our country. Women sit on the Supreme Court and are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The presiding bishop of my denomination is a woman, and I am not even the first woman clergyperson to serve my congregation. So why are there still barriers for women to break and uncharted territories for us to enter? And why, as clergy in a Mainline denomination, am I seen as an “outside-the-box” pick to say a prayer in public?

Some of this goes to the demographics of the area where I serve, but surely I should not be charting new territory simply by exercising my God-given vocation and role in the community as a female at this point in our history. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is often asked how many women are enough on the Supreme Court. Her answer in an interview last year? “Nine … For most of the country’s history there were nine, and they were all men. Nobody thought that was strange.”

Her response exposes our patriarchal system that, in spite of equality gains for women and minorities, still sees male (usually white) power as normative. To include others as a nod towards inclusivity but treat them as tokens still upholds this normative power structure. It does so by regarding us as curiosities and novelties, while allowing the existing powers-that-be to pat themselves on the back for being so progressive and open-minded.

Presently, I am in the middle of reading Andrew Maraniss’ biography of Perry Wallace, the first African-American athlete to play in the Southeastern Conference, “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.” Just because Perry Wallace successfully played basketball for four years at Vanderbilt University did not automatically mean that the conference or the university was successfully integrated, much to the chagrin of several Vanderbilt administrators and white society in Nashville. As the book tells, Mr. Wallace found the experience extremely lonely and difficult. Tokenism is not equality.

While I may be the first woman to pray at this particular commencement, I certainly hope that I am not the last. I pray that, maybe, in that crowd of people is at least one other young woman who will see someone who looks like her in a role of spiritual leadership and think, “That’s what God is calling me to.” And I pray that when she is asked to pray in public for a mixed group of people, no one will think twice about her gender or consider her “outside the box.”

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