Late last week, a meme started popping up everywhere on my social media feeds: “You can call me Reverend Nasty Woman.” It was shared by just about every female pastor I know.
The graphic was one of many rapid reactions to Donald Trump’s muttered “nasty woman,” in reference to Hillary Clinton during the Oct. 19 debate. All over the internet, women were quick to reclaim the “nasty woman” title as a statement of power, and women clergy were no exception. The meme was an acknowledgement of two truths: that female pastors are an amazing gift to the church; and that being one is often still a struggle.
I admit that the word “nasty” makes me wince, but I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment shared by my fellow female clergy. Today marks 60 years since Rev. Margaret Towner became the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Two weeks ago was the 137th anniversary of the ordination of Rev. Anna Howard Shaw in the United Methodist Church, a decision that was later reversed and not revisited until the 1970s. While women still struggle for voice and power in other denominations, many mainline Protestant traditions have now benefited from women’s ordained leadership for decades.
Growing up with a female associate pastor at my large southern PCUSA church, it never occurred to me that people might object to women in church leadership. I was floored when some family members balked at my own plans to attend seminary and pursue ordained ministry as a woman. Despite those few objections, I became an ordained minister and went to work under the first female head of staff of the second largest PCUSA church in the country. And this past summer, my denomination elected Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston and Rev. Denise Anderson as its co-moderators — the first time the PCUSA has ever been led by an all-female moderator team.
Yet sexism is far from vanquished in the American church at large. Even in denominations like mine, with a long history of women’s ordination, sometimes the reality of being a female pastor can get quite, well, nasty.
“The optics are changing — that’s the good news,” moderator Denise Anderson told me in an interview last week.
But she went on:
“Jan and I are co-mods, which is the first time — not just in 60 years of women clergy, but also 85 years of women as ordained elders — that the church has had two women leaders.”
In fact, women make up only 38 percent of active ordained ministers in the PCUSA, even while the denomination is majority female. Women are also more likely to hold part-time and temporary ministry positions or to be called to serve struggling churches. The gender pay gap among clergy is wider than the national average, due in part to these discrepancies in the type of work women receive.
A recently-released study on gender and leadership in the PCUSA projects that gender parity in terms of number of ordained clergy will not be achieved until 2027 — 71 years after women’s ordination was approved.
“It’s even worse for women of color, of course,” Anderson said, describing the reality of many immigrant church communities, where women struggle for recognition all around — not just in terms of ordained leadership.
In addition to structural barriers to leadership, women pastors face anecdotal, but daily, realities of sexism, in the form of snide comments and inappropriate evaluations of everything from their bodies, to the pitch of their voices, to their hair. The aforementioned study revealed that 8 out of 10 female ministers in the PCUSA reported having experienced discrimination, harrassment, and/or prejudicial comments on the basis of their gender. When I published a story last spring about the inappropriate comments clergy often receive, I was flooded with empathetic responses and shared stories — the vast majority from female colleagues.
So what’s the reason for the persistent struggle against sexism? Rev. Anderson points to implicit bias, and I agree. When popular culture continues to portray the kindly minister as an older white man, and continues to equate pastoral comfort with a deep rumbling voice, it’s no wonder women face an ongoing battle to be recognized and respected in ministry positions.
Still, the struggle isn’t stopping us from heeding God’s call to serve the church. Women are graduating from seminaries at higher rates than men, something which, Rev. Anderson says, “the church is going to have to reckon with.”
All over this country (and the world!), women in my denomination and others are vocally upholding the legacies of Rev. Margaret Towner and Rev. Anna Howard Shaw this month. Indeed, the legacy of women leading the church goes back much further. Women have been preaching the gospel for centuries, through their own testimony — even when their traditions won’t recognize them as ordained leaders.
That same tradition of personal testimony is a gift that women pastors bring to the church today — challenging people of faith to encounter the gospel in their own lived experiences. Last week, when Rev. Shannon Kershner of Chicago called upon her 5,500-member congregation to take a stand against misogyny and rape culture, she cited her own experience as both a woman and a mother. The response was overwhelming and impassioned support.
Still, it’s rarely easy being a woman and a minister. We lean on one another, finding community in person and online in dedicated groups such as The Young Clergy Women Project and Rev Gal Blog Pals. And, occasionally, we rely on the cathartic release of a snarky internet meme, shared among fellow “Reverend Nasty Women.”
We keep at it, decade after decade, because God continues to call us to bring our stories, our gifts, and our whole selves to serve the church. And if progress is slow, it is nevertheless making a difference.
“My daughter said, ‘Now I have a minister I feel I can talk to,’” said Andy McGaan, church member and Clerk of Session at Kershner’s Chicago church.
When I asked Rev. Anderson if her roles as minister and moderator were having a positive influence on her young daughter, she said the real impact is seeing many women in leadership.
“General Assembly was really transformative for her, I think,” she said, referencing the PCUSA’s biannual national meeting at which Anderson was elected moderator.
“Seeing multiple women leading and the reaction people had to it all. She’s definitely sticking her chest out a bit more.”