Life Has No Reverse

           Last evening, at the graduation celebration for Rachel and her room-mates, I heard the intentions for their futures shared by five young women. None had evidently pursued a college degree looking for a spouse. Each of them had next steps in mind toward advanced degrees and careers. None of the occupations envisioned would be considered traditionally for women: marketing, economics, computer technology, ocean biology… These women are the product of generations of liberation. It is something to behold. 



           So here we are at Mother’s Day 2012. Officially the second Sunday in May. On this day Mothers receive gifts and cards some are even taken out to dinner. I can remember when it was customary to wear a brightly colored carnations if our mother was still alive or a white one if our mother was deceased. Julia Ward Howe attempted to found a “Mother’s Day” to be celebrated on June 2nd. It was not a celebration of motherhood per se, but a call for mothers to support peace. Her 1870 Appeal to Womanhood Through the World said, in part: ‘Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience….” From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!.’          

            Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis is the offical founder of Mother’s Day. She was a pillar of the community of Grafton, West Virginia. Her life revolved around Andrews Methodist Church, which she had helped to build. She organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” devoted to improving health and sanitation. These same women’s clubs helped both Union and Confederate troops combate an outbreak of typhoid fever, and they conducted a “Mothers’ Friendship Day” to help in reconciling families divided by the Civil War.

            On this day the largest number of telephone calls are placed, it is the second most popular excuse for dining out, and we will spend over $16 billion dollars making it the fifth highest consumer spending season. In recent years various organizations have discontinued Mother’s Day observances on the grounds that it is an uncomfortable occasion for children living without a mother. Whether mothers or not, how women see themselves, their roles in society and the shape of families have changed.

            Prior to the 1830s most women’s associations were allied with churches.  With Quakers being one of a few exceptions, churches prohibited women from holding positions of authority or even voting in congregational meetings. Charitable work represented the only way for women to assume leadership in faith-based activity.    In the fall of 1911, the Reverend Charles M. Fillmore, in speaking to the Indianapolis Ministers’ Association declared that the biggest problem confronting Indianapolis religious institutions was the presence of “too much woman and not enough man in the church today.” Deploring what he described as the “effeminacy” of the modern church, Fillmore attacked the omnipresence of the “ladies aid society” and the substitution of “pink teas for red blood” in the conduct of the church’s work.  Arguing that the “army the of the Lord” had exchanged the “sword” for the “needle,” Fillmore concluded his remarks by warning the assembled men that the “pulpit is the last place in the world for a mollycoddle.” Even as women began to join the social reform organizations that emerged in the following decades, churches clearly continued to be their primary focus. It wasn’t until the 1960s that women began to abandon traditional women’s associations as their denominations gradually removed the barriers that prevented them from assuming leadership roles.  In some cases, traditional women’s circles or missionary societies simply faded away.

            When the twentieth century began women were regarded as the guardians of morality and were expected to act as such. They were expected to hold on to their innocence until the right man came along so that they could start a family and inculcate the morality they were charged with preserving into the next generation. With the coming of World War I women found themselves working outside the home mostly taking jobs in factory work or as domestic servants. As the war came to its end they were able to move on to sales and clerical jobs, so called, “lace-collar” jobs. World War II saw over 16 million men leaving their jobs to enlist which opened employment opportunities for millions of women. Thousands of women actually joined the military replacing men in non combat positions. And in a post war America, less and less did married women choose to exit the work place. The discriminatory institution of marriage bars, which forced women out of the work force after marriage, were eliminated. From 1950- mid-to-late 1970s women’s expectations of future employment changed. Women could see themselves going to college and working through their marriages. Many however still had brief and intermittent work force participation, without necessarily having expectations for a ‘career’. Then, most women were secondary earners, and worked in “pink collar jobs” as secretaries, teachers, nurses, and librarians. Although more women attended college, it was often expected that they attended to find a spouse—the so-called “M.R.S. degree”. Nevertheless, labor force participation by women grew significantly.

            Beginning in the 1970s women began to flood colleges and grad schools. This increase in expectations of long-term gainful employment is reflected in the change of academic majors adopted by women from the 1970s on. The percentage of women majoring in education, once a popular major for women, declined. Women ventured into other fields that were once predominated by men. They experienced an expansion of their horizons and an alteration of what it meant to define their own identity. Some scholars attribute this change to the lowering of the age of majority and the removal of laws which restricted their access to birth control. This consequence of the Vietnam War gave younger women control over their bodies. It became socially acceptable to postpone pregnancy allowing married women the opportunity to consider things like education and work. Another change that occurred was the mechanization of what had traditionally been women’s work around the house.

            Robert Reich has said that over the last thirty years wage stagnation, fueled by a globalization of the world labor market and increased industrial automation, challenged families’ ability to maintain a middle class standard of living. Doing so required two full time employed adults. Over those same years the concept of family in our society became diverse and varied. Since the church served a very special place in the social lives of women whose primary job was home-making, mothers used to request that their families attend worship with them on Mother’s Day. Things have changed. Today 75% of single moms are required to work outside the home, half of all U.S. workers are women and half of all U.S. women are in the labor force.

            The needs of women have changed—dramatically—and the church struggles with the needed adjustments. I found a comment by a woman who, while attending a Catholic mass, heard the Priest complain that he couldn’t find any women willing to clean the church building. She remarked that had he said he couldn’t find any men or women to clean the church she might have raised her hand.

            When I asked my trusty computer “How do women see the church?” it returned all kinds of web sites and they all addressed questions of what roles are appropriate for women within the church. Not my question at all. I did learn however that among Catholics, Mormons and Southern Baptists there is a general agreement that there is still no real role for women in church leadership.

            One woman in ministry wrote: “We want to know we are not alone in this messed up world.  We want someone to tell us we’re not crazy and even if we are, tell us it’s okay.  We are desperate for someone to love and accept us in our fragile, harried, not so cute, sometimes angry, misunderstood state of mind.   And yes, even Christian women have their days when they need another woman to just listen and say, “I understand, I’ve been there, and I’ll help however I can.”

            A woman writing as a Catholic had several powerful things to say. “Firstly, women in the Church want to be seen. They want to be acknowledged that they are there. In word and action, but definitely in word.” She went on to write: “For the past 15 years the largest number of women leaving the Church are young professional women. Why? Because the language does not include them.”

            She said that seminarians were again being taught to practice ‘Custody of the Eyes’, a practice of not looking a woman in the eyes for fear of being captivated by lust. She said, consistent with best practices for counseling: “I really have to ask … how can a Priest recognize Christ in the people he serves if he can’t look in their eyes? As a nurse, and having worked in very busy emergency rooms for many years as well as general wards, if a patient was really sick and probably going to die, if you didn’t want to connect with them, deal with the pain of their suffering, then while you looked after them you were told to never look them in the eye. Once you did that you actually saw the human suffering and it might affect you emotionally. It was by doing just that that I often encountered Christ in the most amazing ways. If a priest can’t look a woman in the face then he’s not much good to her.” She shared that women want a real spirituality that speaks to them. “We too need to be fed.” She wrote: “It was believed until as recently as the 60’s that women didn’t need other women’s friendship because all they needed was a man. Women need other women to bare their souls to. It isn’t possible to do that with a celibate male, especially one who won’t look you in the eye.”

            Women want peace and harmony in their worlds. Those with children and grandchildren want better lives for their daughters and grand-daughters. She concluded her remarks saying that in western democracies mothers can tell their daughters and grand-daughters they can be anything they choose – except be ordained in the faith into which they were born.

            Then there was this man who, after reading about a survey of women on the topic of what they wanted in a wristwatch, reported on his survey of four women of different ages asking what women wanted in a church. A grandmother said that she likes, “a warm, inviting atmosphere.  Bible based music, no secular music, something that draws you to God, not dry and dead.  I like a pastor who does expository preaching, makes you bring your Bible, and is not afraid of issues.” A middle aged mom said: she likes, “a church that is fun.  Exciting worship music, a place you can clap.  Needs good bible teaching.  Good hospitality.” A Methodist woman pastor said that she likes, “a Godly pastor with character.”  He noted: “She just wants a Godly man in the pulpit.” A single professional woman said that she likes, “a worship service with substance, that draws you and is uplifting.  Not old hymns and organ music.  I want affinity group relationships of about 5-10 women.  The message needs to connect and tell me what is happening in the Bible in a modern context.” None of the four stated that children’s programming was an issue when selecting a church.  To that the author expressed surprise because he expected the concern for children would have been a women’s number one response.

            Last evening, at the graduation celebration for Rachel and her room-mates, I heard the intentions for their futures shared by five young women. None had evidently pursued a college degree looking for a spouse. Each of them had next steps in mind toward advanced degrees and careers. None of the occupations envisioned would be considered traditionally for women: marketing, economics, computer technology, ocean biology… These women are the product of generations of liberation. It is something to behold.    

            Britain Yearly Meeting’s struggled over including Rose Ketterer’s images to describe how she experienced the Love of God flowing in, between and among Friends in their Faith and Practice because they were uncommon and unnerving to many. The discussion generated this inclusion:

            “In the seventeenth century the first generation of Friends shocked many of their Christian neighbours. In trying to express their experiences of God – within them, as spirit, inward light, seed, inward teacher – they used words and phrases which sounded strange and audacious to their contemporaries. They spoke of their experiences of being drawn into community with one another using metaphors and analogies which were both new and old at the same time. ‘The kingdom of God did gather us all in a net…’ wrote Francis Howgill, trying to express the sense of relief and excitement which was theirs when they discovered one another and became aware of how deeply they had been drawn together as they struggled to articulate their experience of the Spirit. In much the same way many women today are discovering a need to express their spirituality in ways which seem as strange to some Friends as the expressions of early Quaker spirituality did to those who first heard them.”

            Is our faith adequate, our trust in a loving God spacious enough to encourage women in our day to discover, explore and share in words and expressions that may seem to us outrageous and heretical what for them is an emerging spirituality of being?

Happy Mother’s Day.



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