Stand up, Speak up

It is possible I was wrong. A woman does not “woman up.”

There is more required of womanhood than just being.

After I wrote this in response to Josh’s blog post here, I went to bed that night and thought of some women. I thought of my mother, who, after her divorce, put herself to bed and waited for someone to come take care of her. I thought of the woman who was raped by Brock Turner, left lying on the ground by a dumpster (I don’t even remember her name, but I surely remember his). I thought of a church homily preached by a bishop, extolling the virtue of the Virgin Mary who was silent and docile. I thought of Hillary Clinton and every other woman who was better qualified for a position that went to a man. I thought of those women our current president felt he could grab with impunity. And my blood started to boil.

Sure, be welcoming. Be beautiful. Know your worth. But that’s not enough. We are women, we cannot help but be women.

This morning I thought of my sister-in-law, who unfailingly stands up for the needs of the elderly and the disabled. I thought of a woman in Seattle who, when grabbed by the p****, took the guy’s picture with her cell phone and called him out loudly. I thought of St. Catherine of Sienna, who called out her bishops and the pope for their corrupt and unChristian behavior. I thought of the millions of women marching all over the world early this January.

The easiest thing for a woman to do is to fade into the background, to be silent in the face of wrong, to make no waves, to avoid hurting feelings, to stay out of conflict, to avoid shame. But this is a cop out as surely as it is a cop out for a man to avoid facing his realities and attending to his duty.

A woman does not “man up” because a woman is not a man. You see, a youth is told to “be a man” when his actions make him, in the eyes of the speaker, indistinguishable from the women and the boys, for whom allowance for weakness is made. It’s something of a pejorative, actually. A woman does not “woman up,” either. When one has historically been placed second in the human hierarchy, one has nothing to prove and the exhortation rings hollow.

The corresponding exhortation is: Woman, speak up. 

Don’t let anyone speak for you.

Don’t titter nervously on the sidelines when people say or do wrong, don’t try to smooth things over. Ask hard questions, assume what authority you have based upon your level of responsibility and tell people what is required of them. Assert your independence, make your ideas plain, bear witness to your own experience. Speak up for those who have no voice. Name your emotions, name the actions of others, use language as a force for good.

A stronger exhortation could be: Woman, stand up. Take your place among the others, stand up for what you believe, stand up to those who would devalue your contribution, stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Get up out of your chair, get up out of bed. Take a stand, be visible. Do not be afraid.

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The Proverbs 31 woman rises before anyone in her household.

When Jesus brings a girl back from the dead, his first words to her are “get up.”

After Jesus returns from the dead, He first appears to his women disciples. When Mary Magdalene clings to him, He says, in effect, “Woman, get up. Don’t cling to me. Go and tell the men.”

By all four gospel accounts, the male disciples didn’t believe the women. I’m sure Jesus knew this would happen, but still he chose women to bear the news. If women are to take their place in the Church (as members of the diaconate, at least), if the feminine aspect of the divine is ever going to be valued as equal to the masculine, then women are going to have to stand up and remind the hierarchy that Jesus gave his commission to men and women both. I take that as a mission.

Woman, get up. Go and speak the truth.

 

Be a Woman

Recently a teacher named Joshua Gibbs, writing for the Circe Institute blog, revived the classic exhortation “Be A Man” to his young students. Noting it applied primarily to the males in the room, he advised the young women to “eavesdrop.”

Today’s more egalitarian society looks upon such an exhortation as moderately sexist. Gibbs understands this when he suggests that we are more likely to be told, “Be a Christian,” which he correctly notes is far too open to interpretation. In secular society we expect our young people to “be the adult in the room.” This at least acknowledges that the crossing into adulthood of both men and women involves, at a minimum, developing courage, mastering emotion, and consideration of others, among other things.

The trouble is that there is no corresponding exhortation specifically for women. There is no classic sense that stepping from girlhood to womanhood involves developing the mature feminine character traits that both men and women would do well to emulate.

The reason for this is written in our history. In Western culture women were expected to keep their childlike attributes. They were allowed to be overcome by storms of emotion, they were allowed to leave difficult or risky tasks to men, and ignorance was mistaken for innocence. Women moved from dependency upon their father’s household to dependency upon their husbands. Single women, if they were lucky, were able to live with relatives. Only the poor were expected to live off of their own labor.

Further, becoming a woman did not occur by virtue of some great act of character, but rather via physical development. One became a woman at the point of maximum attractiveness to men, at which point one could expect to marry and secure one’s future. A less attractive woman may develop a charming personality, or perhaps enough household skill or money from her family that marriage was more or less a financial transaction.  Either way she was an object, not an agent. An entire industry is built upon the commodification of womanhood, and it endures.

I was educated by early feminists. I have believed that the differences between men and women are purely physical, that in this day and age women and men should be able to do whatever they choose. A woman should be able to serve in the military without losing her femininity, a man should not be thought of as unmanly because he sews beautiful clothing. Which is why I struggle to understand why there are men and women now asserting they are, in fact, the opposite sex “inside.” If gender is merely a social construct, this should not be happening. Perhaps there is something special about womanhood and manhood after all?

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Women and men face some unique challenges as they transition from childhood, but the resulting maturity is available to each of the sexes. Women can be brave, men can be beautiful. The uniqueness of womanhood doesn’t necessarily extend to something so trivial as occupational choice, and there is no real evidence to suggest that either sex is more capable of leadership. So can we say: “Buck up, be a woman” ? or is that somehow inadequate?

When I face a difficult situation, I often tell myself to “strap on the brass bra.” Every superwoman has a brass bra to protect those womanly organs so that she can be transformed back into that mild-mannered, nurturing paragon of femininity she hides behind. But that’s a tad vulgar for classical use, as is “put on the big girl panties.”

Perhaps we don’t need the exhortation to become women so much as the reminder that we are women. We need to seize our feminine inheritance and make it our own. There is agency in the recognition of our own worth and the worth of others. There is the agency of choice.

Wisdom, remember, is a woman.

You are a woman, I tell my daughter. A woman knows her worth. Do not sell your love cheaply, for trinkets or mere attention. The only proper coin for love is love. Do not give of yourself to depletion in order to please others, for, in the words of Charlotte Mason, “you are not your own to give without reserve.”

You are a woman when you know you are beautiful whether or not your outward appearance has a certain symmetry or fits conventional notions of perfection.  Do not become obsessed with beauty, either your own or that of others, and do not expect to always be surrounded by beauty. You are a woman. Make your world beautiful.

You are a woman when you are mistress of your emotions, and while living a rich emotional life you are not mastered by transient feeling. To name your emotion is to give you power over your feelings. You are a woman. Only when you can bear your own emotions can you be entrusted to hold the emotions of others as their confidant and friend.

You are a woman. The women in my life I admired most were welcoming. They invited people into their midst, they were inclusive. They constructed relationships as carpenters build houses. They made everyone feel valued and important, whether or not they were intimate friends. To a woman, power is not a zero-sum game. Esteem grows when it is shared. A man will want to know if the woman in his life will build him up, both to his face and behind his back, when speaking of him. A real woman will not choose the small power of gossip and slander, but the greater power of support and honor.

You are a woman. Your womb may, if you choose to keep it open, hold new life. Whether or not you chose this one particular life within you, you may not throw it away lightly, selfishly.  You are a woman, and the truth is your life is never entirely your own. This, too, is an act of courage – to give one’s own life to new life, whether 9 months or 19 years of it. Do not succumb to self pity or despair because you are called upon to nurture the life of another. Welcome life into the world.

You are a woman is both a reminder and a rallying cry. Be that woman.