I am saddened to hear of the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was an inspiration by every account and her passing finds me once again in a reflective mood providing me a moment to revisit some observations about the modesty culture of my youth and how this culture specifically policed the bodies of women. These thoughts coincide with death of a feminist icon and fierce advocate for the rights of women.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg became just the second female U.S. Supreme Court justice when she took the oath of office on August 10, 1993. She faced workplace discrimination in the 1960s despite graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School in 1959. Ginsburg has long been a forceful advocate of women’s rights and gender equality, and she has earned the deep and abiding respect of her colleagues on the Court along with the American Public.
Ginsburg once observed, “So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.” And while I can never fully appreciate what it means to be a woman in this world, with every passing year I empathize with what women face in a society that still privileges patriarchy.
Interestingly enough, these concepts were first introduced to me, not by the larger culture, but by my church culture in the small Pentecostal church I attended as a child. In this church, women in particular were always reduced to a secondary status enforced through a combination of social and spiritual expectations imposed by a religious patriarchal hierarchy and their adjutants. I now understand that the underlying philosophical foundations of my primal Pentecostalism were an unbeknownst response to a larger cultural patriarchy taken to its pietistic ends. Reflecting on this I’m reminded of a haunting passage in Toni Morrison’s beautiful tome The Bluest Eye. “I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs -all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl had treasured.”
Just like Morrison’s depiction of a desire to understand the obsession with subjective beauty, the church of my heritage specifically and society generally conspires to objectify women as both targets and temptations leading to a destructive end. At the intersection of my religious and academy training, the larger world was opening up to reveal that double standards existed not only in the church but also in the world. And that women were always on the short end of these inequalities.
As John Stuart Mill observed in his 1869 essayThe Subjection of Women; “All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission and yielding to the control of others. All the moralities tell them that it is their nature to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections.” Mill’s writings prophetically channeled feminism years before it would become mainstream, and helped me better understand a personal gallivant into the volatile milieu of the #metoo movement via social media.
In November of 2017 the internets were abuzz with revelations of sexual misconduct by comedian Louis C.K. and the stunning revelation that the NBC news “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer had been fired after NBC “received detailed allegations about the anchorman’s sexual misconduct.” It was this cultural moment that prompted me to write the following on my Facebook page; “Don’t condemn women for lack of modesty. Condemn men for mistreating women as objects of consumption.” I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of responses this post would generate. I had grown weary of seeing so many excuse, dismiss, or otherwise ignore the multiplicity of women making serious accusations against men, or worse yet, taking the extra step of condemning the women for their own victimization. But in response to my post they showed up again in mass and with renewed vigor.
At last count, the comments, gifs, and memes in response to my original post were just a few shy of 700, not counting those who posted then deleted their remarks, or the ones I deleted because the content was simply too abusive, obscene or inappropriate. It was clear that many men and women could not find the moral clarity to simply condemn the behavior of men, but rather felt compelled to justify, or altogether excuse the behavior of men by pointing to the perceived “seductive” actions of women in dress, conduct, or attitude. It was telling that many of these comments were posted by those claiming to be Christians, with many who specifically embraced Pentecostalism. But the words of many of the responses revealed a disconnect with how I understand Scripture and how I understand the early Pentecostal movement.
My reading of the early days of the Azusa Street Revival suggest that at the very least there was an attempt to treat women differently than did the culture around them. For instance, Joy Qualls quoting Theologian Cheryl Bridges Johns summarizes the radical nature of early Pentecostals, “In an era of the war to end all wars, Pentecostals were pacifist. In an era when women were excluded from public voice, Pentecostals were ordaining women as ministers. In an era of the KKK, Pentecostal blacks and whites were worshiping together. This subversive and revolutionary movement…had a dual prophetic role: denouncing the dominant patterns of the status quo and announcing the patterns of God’s order.” Yet judging by the responses to my suggestion that the boorish behavior of men should be distinguished from clothing choices of women, illustrated that indeed the modern iteration of Pentecostal Christianity could not be separated all that much from the prevailing philosophy that protected and enabled the predatory actions of men.
Mill understood that the culture of patriarchy cajoled women into a form that facilitated marginalized subjugation to the point that every action taken by a woman was assumed to be anchored in a motivation (noble or nefarious) to succumb to the desires or perceived needs of another outside herself, most always in the form of men, or the cultural norms enforced by patriarchy
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s experiences were, at first glance, far removed from the Pentecostalism of my youth, yet tonight as reflect on her life and accomplishments, I’m reminded of the passage from Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” But like so many of my female peers who grew up beside me in my church and others like it, and then went on to become productive citizens serving in every capacity of society for the betterment of humanity, RBG serves as an example proving that formative experiences that may have initially hindered us, often serve as a spring board to overcoming the very adversity that intended to hold us back.
I don’t know what the days ahead will look like for our Nation, but I do know that RBG left an example that even those who disagree with her philosophical leanings can admire. She overcame. She put a dent in the patriarchy and left a legacy that will both challenge and inspire for generations.