by Rev. Donna Schaper
Who tells women and girls who we are? Of course it is we who tell us who we are. Then again, maybe not. The rhetoric holds that no one tells us who we are; the fact is that many have penetrated our hearts and minds.
The existential and heartfelt reality of gender today, yesterday but hopefully not tomorrow is that women give away agency, authority and autonomy.
It comes in quiet ways. What I hear my heart say is, “I want this, can’t have it, don’t have the support, the cash, the time, the will. I have the previous failures of will, insults, sexism, so many reasons that you’d think my heart was filled with others instead of me. Whoops — it is. My heart is filled with others whom I love, whom I don’t love, some of whom I just see on the street looking more put together than me — and most of whom I give permission to tell me who I am. I am not alone.
A young mother recently told me, “I want to meditate. I know I would feel ok if I could find time, but no one supports me in that. I give time to my three-year-old daughter instead. I feel more in role’ that way and less out of role.’ Substitute the word “exercise or “think for “meditate and you will hear an echo from many women.
St. Paul, the very sexist but wise Christian apostle, put the dilemma this way, “The good that I would do, I do not, and the evil that I would not do, I do.
You are not a good woman if you are defining yourself because that will put you in direct conflict with your mother, father, sisters, brothers, children and partner. They will think you are “out of role if you are not prioritizing them. Women are told to love and care and nurture.
The woman who wanted to meditate told me, “Even as a mother with a professional career, I have achieved the work-life balance’ that my mother’s generation fought for, but my role at work is strangely as motherly, nurturing and focused on others as my home life is.I didn’t always manage this way, but was coached. Seek the path of least resistence, and put aside individual preferences and goals. I sneak in my little passions like a dieter hides a Snickers. I was recently offered a big promotion. Then I heard that not everyone I work with was pleased with the idea, and I began to lose confidence and within a few weeks, the offer was rescinded. With all this deferment I practice daily, what I want is lost.
Carol Gilligan tells an intriguing story about her interviews with teenage girls. Twelve‑year‑old girls go to a pizza shop and say, “I’d like the pepperoni and peppers.” At age 13, same shop, same girls: they don’t know what to have and watch what each other eats before ordering. At age 14, Gilligan interviews the same girls. They go into the pizza shop, but there are boys there now, and the girls say, “Oh. I’ll have whatever you’re having.” They have forgotten who they are and they’re handing over permission to other people to tell them who they are.
Composer, vocalist and director Meredith Monk is now 66 years old. She recently performed “Ascension Variations at the Guggenheim Museum, a revival of her 1969 theater piece “Juice. Monk speaks of a garden of girlhood which develops into a silent oppressive niceness. I think many women know exactly what she means. In other works Monk began a thread, described in a documentary by Babeth M. VanLoo, that reminds one ever so much of the Holy Grail.
Recently, I met with a woman who lost her immigration appeal and was set to be deported. She is both a journalist and a lawyer, aged 32, and could not get working papers in this country. Her mother and father had come to visit. She cried out, “But I have always gotten what I wanted. That is great news. I asked her father if he had always gotten what he wanted. “Yes, even more, he said. I asked her mother if she had always gotten what she wanted. “Of course not, she said. That’s when the triangle in my office erupted into gender roles, grailing along.
The ultimate solution is to systemically abolish sexism, to relieve women of freedom from oppression. The intermediate solution is to grail along towards ourselves — “out of role as often as possible.
We need to meditate. We need to exercise. We need to think. We may give ourselves permission to do so. When women stop over functioning, who knows what will happen At least, we’ll get the pizza we enjoy.
August 12, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City and author of Grass Roots Gardening: Rituals to Sustain Activism.