By Rev. Kimberley Debus
Fans of the TV show The West Wing are familiar with character President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. President Bartlet is smart as a whip, deeply religious, and a gregarious people pleaser. That can be good at times, but at other times it is a problem. As the press secretary notes on the morning of a televised debate, what happens next “depends who shows up. If it’s Uncle Fluffy, we’ve got problems. If the President shows up, I think it’ll be a sight to see.”
Now a lot of the time when I preach, I offer messages of healing and spiritual growth, community and covenant, kindness and generosity. And sometimes I wonder if I am too much Uncle Fluffy. But events over the past year have helped me tap into something I forgot existed in me: righteous anger. Today, you’re not getting Uncle Fluffy.
Now here’s the truth. Rev. Michael (Tino) can’t deliver this sermon. First of all, he’s your pastor. Second, he’s a man. And while he can witness and listen, he doesn’t know first-hand the righteous anger of women.
So men, listen up. What I am about to tell you affects you too. And if you are offended by anything I have to say, listen harder. Lean into the discomfort. Because women and others along the gender spectrum who do not identify as men are angry.
And we’ve been angry for a long time.
We’ve probably been angry since the first men came out of the cave, saw the first woman lighting a fire, and decided to explain to her what fire was.
We’ve been angry since Adam pointed to Eve and told God “she made me eat the apple.”
We’ve been angry since new testament scribes erased the women who were leaders of the early church.
We’ve been angry since Henry the Eighth decided women who couldn’t give him a male heir were expendable.
We’ve been angry since John Adams ignored his wife Abigail’s pleas to “remember the women.”
We’ve been angry a long time. And it doesn’t seem to stop. Every week there is something more to make us angry. This week is the US House passing a bill to limit abortions, because that’s clearly more of a danger than guns. Last week it was the mayor of San Juan; the week before that it was Hillary’s book, before that… well, it just goes on and on.
We are worn down. We are worn out.
And seriously – don’t tell a woman ‘you look tired.’ No kidding.
One reason we’re so worn out is that holding centuries of anger in check requires a great deal of emotional energy. As writer Laurie Penny writes in an August Teen Vogue article, most women ‘are pretty good at hiding it, having been taught to do so since childhood.’ She notes that women – especially young women – ask her how she gets away with “expressing anger with apparent ease, and they worry about men’s reactions if they do the same.”
They worry … about men’s reactions to their anger.
That’s because the system we live in – this system of white supremacy, which is also a system of patriarchy – says that nice girls don’t get angry, don’t speak out, don’t speak up. And when they do, it’s blamed on a natural hormonal experience. And as Penny points out, jokes about women’s menstruation “are never just jokes. They’re a control strategy.”
It’s not surprising, actually. Because angry women appear to be out of control. Sure, women can express sadness and fear more openly than men – and that’s a fault of this system of supremacy and patriarchy too. Yes, men, this damages you too. In speaking about his memoir How Not to Be a Boy, actor and comedian Robert Webb says, we do damage with the messages we send young boys about emotional repression: “we tell them to man up, get up, don’t cry, be tough, don’t acknowledge your own emotions; and if you keep being told to not express these emotions, it eventually starts sounding like ‘don’t have these feelings – don’t feel these feelings.’” Women get similar, but opposite messages. Men can be angry and triumphant. Women can be happy and sad. But when we actually feel and express a full range of feelings? Our emotions break the system.
Yet women’s anger has proven to be a powerful force for social change. Anger over the working conditions in factories that led to the Triangle Shirt Factory fire led to worker’s rights and unions. Anger over being excluded from basic rights as American citizens led to suffrage. Anger over the treatment of women in politics and entertainment led to women’s lib. Anger over the exclusion of women of color throughout those movements led to womanist theology. Anger over unequal pay led to the Lily Ledbetter Act. Anger over the naked misogyny hurled at a presidential candidate led to the organizing power of Pantsuit Nation. Her opponent’s election led to the Women’s March.
And still there is more to be angry about.
In early August, James Damore, an engineer at Google, released a memo that posited that Google’s efforts for diversity in the workforce were ineffective because women are biologically unsuited for tech and leadership. In a follow-up article just two weeks ago, Nvidia engineer James Altizer told the New York Times that “he had realized a few years ago” during Gamergate, a coordinated harassment attack against women in tech, “that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men” and that his work now was to create a culture for total male separatism – a culture that swims in the stagnant waters of toxic masculinity.
The week before that, at a White House dinner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was forced to interject over a loud conversation between men, finally shouting “do women get to talk around here?”
The week before that, Hillary Clinton, on a tour for her new book What Happened, was told by men and more than a few women to ‘shut up and go away.”
And a few weeks before that, US Representative Maxine Waters was interrupted by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin during a hearing. Secretary Mnuchin interrupted and tried to avoid the question by distracting with praise; Rep Waters responded with “I don’t want to take my time up with how great I am. Reclaiming my time.” As he continued interrupting and avoiding her questions, she kept repeating “reclaiming my time. Reclaiming my time. Reclaiming my time.”
Again, I could go on and on, and on and on.
And these are just a handful of recent, public examples. In private, women and non-binary folk experience big and small expressions of sexism every day. Being a woman in this culture is like running a gauntlet. We are objectified. Our worth is measured only in relation to our partners and children. We are told we’re responsible for the reactions of men – hence our young women asking how Laurie Penny can freely express her anger.
Women – yes, all women – are told by media, advertising, and politics that we must do everything we can to conform to society’s expectation – an expectation grounded in a system that tells us men’s approval is what determines our safety. All women live with an underlying fear that if we say no to the wrong man, we will be in trouble. And that’s not just strangers, but those we know; the number one cause of women’s deaths is domestic violence by a partner.
This stuff’s hard. And if you think that we enlightened Unitarian Universalists are immune, you should know that the three women candidates for UUA president were all criticized for their clothing, the tone of their voice, their makeup, their mannerisms. They all fielded questions about their fitness for office. The two who have children fielded questions about balancing motherhood and the presidency. And yes, while no men sought a nomination for the position – choosing to step back this time – in the previous four cycles, a man won over a woman. That we finally have a woman president is not only 24 years overdue, it’s a product of having an entirely female field. (I should note that they were all white women – again, no women of color sought a nomination either, which is also a problem, given how much we are struggling with a culture of white supremacy.)
But here’s more that we face as Unitarian Universalists: while women ministers are now the majority, they comprise only about 35 percent of the senior pastors of large congregations. And you can count the number of trans and gender-non-conforming ministers in settled ministries on one hand. In fact, it was only this past June that for the first time, a featured speaker at General Assembly was a trans woman.
And our history is ugly too. Maria Cook (her story was told earlier in the service) is only one example. At the end of the 19th century, Julia Ward Howe organized a group of Unitarian women known as the Iowa Sisterhood to serve churches throughout the Great Plains, because it was the only place women could serve. And while they were deemed successful out west, they were seen as an embarrassment back in Boston, and by the early 20th century, they were forced to retire or work as community organizers. Even now, women ministers struggle to get full time positions, no less senior positions. And we’re being paid less – as a Cornell University study found, when women enter certain professional fields, like ministry, “in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before.”
And when we’re in pulpits? We get comments on our hair, the length of our skirts, the plunge of our necklines, our accents, our vocal tone, our subject matter. Our pastoral care is read by some as being flirty and others as being mothering. We are seen as caregivers, not chiefs of staff. We encounter comments like “May I speak with the real minister?” When we offer our expertise, men sometimes come back with “if you want me to teach you that thing you’re an expert in, let me know.” And God forbid we get pregnant. Yes. In 2017.
Did I mention we’re angry? I told you this wasn’t gonna be Uncle Fluffy. Nope. It’s Auntie Maxine.
And what’s important to remember about Auntie Maxine Waters is that she isn’t just about telling you what’s wrong, but also about finding ways to make it better. She tells us to reclaim our time because this is our time.
So men: I know you don’t want to perpetuate the sexism that permeates this system. We certainly don’t want you to. The beloved community has no space for you to.
So what can we do?
First, we can recognize that this isn’t just about women. It is about how thick the walls are between groups of people – in a system that isolates marginalized peoples from one another, pitting them against one another so that power becomes siloed. It’s about remembering that we have many identities – we are all intersectional – and when we start dividing people up and treating them differently because of their race, or their class, or their sexual orientation, or their gender – we are relegating ourselves to divided lives.
Second, when women and transfolk and gender-non-conforming people speak, listen to them. We know that when doing the work of racial justice, we ask white people to believe people of color when they tell their stories. We must afford women the same courtesy – whether it’s about harassment, or micro-aggressions, or rape, or even medical concerns.
Third, validate our anger. Get angry yourself. This isn’t how things should be when we know that every person has inherent worth and dignity, when we know that no one should be outside the circle of love.
Fourth, and this is especially for men, listen more and talk less. Studies have shown that when women speak even just half of the time in a meeting, they are perceived by men as dominating, and men often will interrupt what they perceive as an imbalance. A website called AreMenTalkingTooMuch.com offers a timer, where you can discreetly time when the person talking is ‘a dude’ or ‘not a dude.’ And while you’re practicing not talking, also remember to not co-opt a woman’s idea as your own.
Fifth, when you hear misogyny, say something. Silence is complicity. Men, use the privilege of your voice being heard to be an ally.
Sixth, lean into stories of hope, because the moral arc of the universe DOES bend toward justice. Find hope in stories like that of the Yellow Roses, six 13-year-old girls whose group name honors the women’s right movement of the 1920’s. As Gloria Steinem told Teen Vogue, these girls “are organizing, creating petitions, and meeting with lawmakers to demand the passage and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. They describe themselves as “too young to vote, but too angry to accept that women’s rights are left up to ‘interpretation’.”
Seventh, shift your worship, your reading lists, your music choices, even your television and media consumption to include voices that are not your own. You may notice that all of the music and all of the readings today are by women. That’s by design, but it is more often the case that only men’s voices that are featured, and that’s both bad and easy to fix.
Eighth, as you live into our principles, follow Abigail Adams’ advice, and “remember the women.” Remember them when approaching climate justice, immigration justice, LGBTQ justice, racial justice, even reproductive justice – because they are all women’s issues. Because they are all human issues.
And finally, remember this: We’re never going to get it all right all the time. Men, hang in there and be patient with yourself as you learn to eliminate sexist micro aggressions in a system that encourages you to do otherwise. Women… just do you, no matter what society says. Live boldly. Make your own rules. Be angry. Persist. Resist. As Auntie Maxine modeled, reclaim your time.
Rev. Kimberley Debus works as a community minister in the Capital Region, inspiring congregations to more artful and art-filled worship, congregational life, and public witness. In addition to her community ministry, she is an adjunct consultant with the Central East Region. She has previously served the First Universalist Church of Southold on Long Island and One Island Family UU Congregation in Key West.