“Who wears the pants in the family?” is an idiom of a bygone era that reinforced the center of authority on men in family and society as the ones who “wore the pants.” This term was disparagingly applied to women who for various reasons would become the authority in the home or organization. It is clearly rooted in sexist attitudes that continue to dominate our society. As I reflect on some of the most influential people in my life, most of them were women. For example, my paternal grandmother, and although she never wore pants, she did have tremendous authority over me and our family.
At the center of my earliest memories is the image of my grandmother kneeling at her living room couch in prayer. Kneeling with her, I was too young to understand or even comprehend the linguistic gyrations that would take her on journeys between our hillbilly dialects and heavenly utterances. I only knew that the moment was holy and that my widowed grandmother was spiritually powerful. Coming of age as a Pentecostal in rural Arkansas served to inform the plot of my own personal journeys.
Unfortunately, my formative spiritual education was tethered to specific assumptions governing my moral behavior and body aesthetics that weren’t applied equitably to my female peers. One unintended consequence of this disparity was an acceptance that women, by definition, were an impediment to spiritual maturity and a flourishing Christian life. This religious zeitgeist was enforced by specific proclivities of church doctrines and local idiosyncrasies. But these dogmas have little actual defense in biblical Christianity, as reveled in even the most elementary of Christian traditions such as those remembered in the week leading to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Holy Week affords those of us who are Christians the opportunity to reflect on the final week of the life of Jesus. This last week of Christ’s life mark many moments of sustaining influence in the Christian tradition, and many of them involved women. It is interesting to me that Christianity continues to have a less than stellar track record when it comes to advancing women, but yet even a cursory glance at the life of Christ reveals that He found every opportunity to advance their status and position in society.
For instance, before beginning Holy Week with the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus found rest in the home of Mary and Martha with a resurrected Lazarus sitting at the table. It was here that the gospel of John records that Mary once again found her way to the feet of Jesus, breaking a container of expensive perfume and washing His feet with her tears in worship. There is some debate over the details of this story, as the other gospel accounts are a bit more ambiguous as to who this woman was and where this took place. It is possible that this happened on multiple occasions and was an act of worship demonstrated by multiple women. But the point I want to emphasize is that it was a woman who did what men would not do in this setting; she worshiped Christ extravagantly and with great personal risk and expense. Likewise, women stayed with Jesus throughout His passion week, all the way to the cross where He died. Whereas the male disciples, for the most part, fled in fear, the women persevered in their faith and were the first to witness the resurrected Christ.
Mary the mother of Jesus, according to tradition endured seven sorrows including those she experienced the last week in the life of Jesus; her flight to Egypt to escape the infanticide, Simeon’s prophecy that her heart would be pierced, those panicked days in Jerusalem when she thought she had lost Jesus in the crowd, walking with Jesus to Calvary, watching her son’s execution, holding his body in her arms, and placing him into the cold tomb. Yet Mary persevered when most of the men ran away in fear. She also challenged Jesus on occasion and gave Him instruction even though she knew Him to be The Son of God, and she continued to lead her family after Joseph died. In my memory my grandmother and other women in my life were a lot like Mary, although their religion, as it was sometimes practiced sought to truncate their influence.
My Pentecostal tradition has a somewhat conflicted history when it comes to the treatment of women. Early in our history, women assumed equal positions of leadership and preaching, only to have that liberty later rescinded in many streams of Pentecostalism. In my particular brand of Pentecostalism, women were instructed on how to dress and wear their hair as to gain increasing spiritual power and influence within the church. The dress codes, described as holiness standards, were specifically aimed at women to enforce a uniformity based upon interpretations of obscure biblical passages in the Old Testament that forbid women wearing clothing that “pertained to a man.” Never mind that these passages most assuredly did not have in mind trousers and skirts, or that other prohibitions against mixed fibers in those clothing items or enjoying shrimp cocktails is pretty much ignored. My point in bringing this up is to illustrate that as important as women were to the last days of Jesus, they continue to be marginalized in large swaths of Christianity. Whereas Jesus welcomed women in his life and ministry during a time that severely limited their personal liberty and autonomy, the modern Church, at a time of relative progress for women, continues to police their bodies and regulate their influence.
This dichotomy isn’t lost on history as women continue to struggle in many places around the globe for equal status and protection under the law, and here in the United States, religion and tradition continue to enforce mores of a repressive age.
In an address given to a Women’s Society in 1938, Dorothy L. Sayers pointed out,
“Let us take this terrible business—so distressing to the minds of bishops—of the women who go about in trousers. We are asked: “Why do you want to go about in trousers? They are extremely unbecoming to most of you. You do it only to copy the men.” To this we may very properly reply: “It is true that they are unbecoming. Even on men they are remarkably unattractive. But, as you men have discovered for yourselves, they are comfortable, they do not get in the way of one’s activities like skirts and they protect the wearer from draughts about the ankles. As a human being, I like comfort and dislike draughts. If the trousers do not attract you, so much the worse; for the moment I do not want to attract you. I want to enjoy myself as a human being, and why not? As for copying you, certainly you thought of trousers first and to that extent we must copy you. But we are not such abandoned copy-cats as to attach these useful garments to our bodies with braces. There we draw the line. These machines of leather and elastic are unnecessary and unsuited to the female form. They are, moreover, hideous beyond description. And as for indecency—of which you sometimes accuse the trousers—we at least can take our coats off without becoming the half-undressed, bedroom spectacle that a man presents in his shirt and braces.” So that when we hear that women have once more laid hands over upon something which was previously a man’s sole privilege, I think we have to ask ourselves: is this trousers or is it braces? Is it something useful, convenient and suitable to a human being as such? Or is it merely something unnecessary to us, ugly, and adopted merely for the sake of collaring the other fellow’s property?”
In the same address Sayers went on to state a profound point about the women in relation to the life and ministry of Jesus; “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature. But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead.”
With Sayers’ thoughts as context, I like to imagine that if the women who followed Jesus around lived today they would all wear trousers. I imagine that Mary the mother of Jesus would have been out front challenging the powers that continue to inflict harm on marginalized peoples. Mary of Bethany would have broken every glass ceiling that exist and proudly paraded herself amidst the glass shards as a testimony to the liberation and equality of all who follow Jesus. Mary Magdalene would have been a leading advocate for the rights of women. Susanna, Joanna, and Martha would have continued doing what they did in the First Century, they would persist in offending your sensibilities and challenging your traditional limitations of women. The female friends and followers of Jesus would be preaching sermons whether you gave them permission to do so or not, as their allegiance to Christ and His gospel is greater than your church’s rules regulating access to a pulpit.
They would not define their existence based upon culture’s expectations, but rather upon their identity in Christ. They would all wear pants. They would be among the first to tell you “Jesus is risen.” Both the message and the messenger are important. Listen to what both are saying.
The Church is often more consumed with limiting the autonomy of women to the point that it cannot even refrain from rendering judgements over the simplest clothing choices of women, while at the same time denying them what is perhaps the most important choice any of us can ever make, which is sitting and learning at the feet of Jesus. I don’t know if my grandmother ever heard of Dorothy Sayers, but in many ways, she embodied the spirit that Sayers spoke and wrote about. Left without a husband in her youth, she managed to raise five children without ever remarrying, she lived during a time that didn’t give women a lot of respect, and boldly proclaimed sermons to all who would listen, even though the church she attended denied her a pulpit. I don’t know all that she was truly capable of because of the limitations imposed upon her by society, but I do know that she made choices. She made choices that most likely resulted in disdain of those in her social circles, thankfully she was spared the onslaught of the unrelenting internet age that is the bane of our times. I have no doubt that, had she faced the criticism that so many courageous women like her are forced to endure from keyboard trolls, she, like them, would raise her voice and proclaim “Thus saith the Lord!”, and that Jesus would commend her choice that brought her and others, like me, to his feet, and ultimately to his throne.
Here’s to more Christian women wearing pants.