Last week, my family gathered to watch the Women’s World Cup Final between the United States and Netherlands. As we celebrated the 2-0 victory that unfolded, my 7-year-old said, “I want to be Megan Rapinoe when I grow up.”
Then, while watching the cooking competition The Final Table, my youngest son saw Maori chef Monique Riko representing Indigenous women following their dreams. He yelled, “She’s Indigenous! She’s Indigenous!” when he heard her story.
These are the same boys who have grown up with women in leadership all around them. They watch and support me as a full-time author and public speaker, and they have been part of two churches that have had women as head pastors. They see women in politics leading difficult conversations. Their teachers, who are women, are showing them why education matters.
Growing up, I didn’t have the same experience with women. The women I saw in leadership at church were only leaders as far as they were also willing to submit to the leadership of men in the church. I had memories of tuning in to Nick at Night, watching Lucille Ball keep her apartment clean and the table full so that at the end of the day, Ricky could come home and prop up his feet. Lucy was rebellious and subversive in her own way, but she was still expected to keep up the status quo of what it meant to be an American housewife. I wanted to be like her when I grew up.
By the time I was a young adult, I had taken in so many messages in the church that told me that as a woman, I would always be who I am in submission to the men around me. It wasn’t about a choice; it was an expectation.
In some ways, that conversation continues to change as we work through issues of inequality. In a world in which the U.S. women’s team wins the World Cup, we still fight for equal pay, for recognition. In the church, it’s a constant uphill battle to get people to respect women as much as men, and while the conversation makes a lot of people uncomfortable, we are still having it. I wouldn’t know how to begin these conversations if I hadn’t encountered the leadership of women in the church.
It’s 2019, and some in the Southern Baptist Church are still fighting against women like Beth Moore, as they try to biblically justify why women can’t be pastors. At the other end of the spectrum, progressive churches are being called out for their harassment of women pastors like Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, who recently stepped down from Riverside Church in New York City and described the harassment she endured while there. This is a conversation that we need to have in all church spaces, but before we can do that, we have to be willing to be honest about the effects these toxic ideas and systems have on all of us, but especially on the well-being of women.
The first time I sat under the teaching of a female head pastor at a church, I was in my mid-20s. Julie Pennington-Russell led us in worship, in liturgy, and in communion weekly for six months before she moved to a new city. In that six months of having her as my pastor, my whole world opened up. I got to ask questions like why aren’t there more women leading? What is holding us back? Do I actually have more to say than I think I do? What lies have I been told my entire life?
These important questions continued to rise as I sat under the biblical teaching of a strong, vocal woman. I realized that my own voice matters because I have something to say, words to pour out, just like so many other women I’ve met. Everything changed when I realized that the poor use of the Bible I grew up with should not keep me in a reality that I do not want.
The world still doesn’t value women the way it should. But still, we are here, and our courage is not dependent on whether the government or society or the church says we have a voice. Our courage is our own, and just as Beyonce says, we run the world.
The reality is that women succeeding in the world is not just for the good of women. Women succeeding in the world is for the good of everyone. When our sons celebrate the women’s World Cup victory and watch positive messages of feminine power, they are seeing that another reality is possible for their own future, a future based on respect.
When our sons sit in church and listen to a female pastor or go to a city hall meeting and see a woman leading the conversation, or when they watch television and see that women can win cooking competitions and become some of the best chefs in the world, they understand that the world depends on the courage, strength, and minds of women to be a better place for all of us. When I do my work and take care of my family, it is holy work — work that I have chosen, because other women opened the door for me. My job is to do the same for those who come alongside me and behind me, so that we know we are never alone, and so that we know that our voices matter.
Women are not the only ones who hold the key to toppling toxic patriarchal systems; our sons, who will one day become men, must play a part in it as well. That is why women must lead, and this is why the world must let us.
If we want to be proud to be from a country like America and all the things that we hang our hats on, like diversity, equality, land of the free and home of the brave, it's everybody's responsibility to ensure that everyone in the country is being afforded the same rights. —Megan Rapinoe