I shine when you shine

September 16th, 2016

Like many girls, growing up I was socialized to view other women as my competition. I constantly compared my grades, my body, my clothes and my accolades with those of my friends and classmates. And I was devastated when they didn’t stack up. I proudly declared that I had more male friends than female friends because everyone knows that female friendships are catty and full of drama. Sometimes I still take pride in being the only woman in the room. When I achieved success, I found myself on the receiving end of jealous rumors and suddenly chilly friendships. What I didn’t realize was that we were playing right into the hands of the patriarchy, creating wedges between talented and powerful women lest we figure out how to work together.

“Shine theory,” a term coined by Ann Friedman in a New York Magazine piece, is the idea that successful women should support one another rather than compete with one another. After all, success is not a finite resource, and surrounding myself with smart, accomplished women is a benefit, not a liability. As Ms. Friedman explains, most of the time when we’re hating on another woman who gets that job or recognition we wanted, or who seems more put-together, we’re actually just expressing our negative feelings about our own careers, bodies, and relationships.

A new example of shine theory at work appeared in a recently published New York Magazine piece focused on female staffers in President Obama’s office. In meetings, female staffers banded together to be heard, repeating key points that other women made and giving her credit. This way, the point received recognition and men in the room weren’t able to take credit for it. Over time, Obama began to notice and call on more female and junior aides. Now there is an even gender split among Obama’s top aides.

A lot has changed since high school. Before I even learned about shine theory and the effect it can have on gender equality in male-dominated spaces, I realized that befriending women who are smart, creative, and driven inspired me. I sought out women who had qualities that I wanted to emulate, and I learned from them. Any jealousy I experienced didn’t disappear overnight, but it was mixed with genuine happiness and pride for my friends’ accomplishments even when I was struggling to discern where God was calling me. Other women taught me about shine theory by supporting and congratulating me when they could have been envious.

Ideally, church and denominational structures would have no need for the kind of strategizing that female staffers have used in Washington DC, but this may be something the church can learn from the world. Too often we give lip service to a God of abundance while internalizing the culture of scarcity and fear. Among clergywomen, it is easy to exaggerate our generational or theological differences, to create a hierarchical ranking of calls or placements as if the church did not need a variety of gifts and talents. Even with the rising number of clergy women and laywomen serving on church committees, there can still be a hesitancy to speak up. Banding together to support and echo one another can get our ideas heard. I am thankful for a number of groups, online and in-person, that have showed me shine theory at work in the church. The Young Clergywomen Project has been a place to vent, bounce ideas off of people, and seek out advice both pastoral and professional. Other denominational groups seek to raise more women to the highest leadership levels in the church by identifying and developing their gifts.

Exercising shine theory requires overcoming our sinful tendency towards division and fear. It necessitates becoming comfortable with ourselves and our journey, confident that God is making a path for us, one that matches where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need (to paraphrase Fredrick Buechner). The church and the world need the gifts and talents of women, and we can go farther and higher together. Shine on.

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