Apathy is an atypical state of being for me, so when my attitude towards Women’s History Month this year was markedly blasé, I felt puzzled. I’ve been carrying the banner of gender justice for decades now and even have a book coming out in a few short months to prove it. But this year feels different.
A month-long showcase of women’s accomplishments signals that they are worthy of our collective attention, but only temporarily. A passing glance, a slight nod, a hastily checked to-do-then back to the “real” story. It feels like tokenism.
Then there’s the question of how we determine which women to valorize. How do we best allocate our precious 31 days? More importantly, who gets to decide which women are most deserving of celebration? Like many white feminists, I have been complicit in preserving the legacy of suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony without condemning, or even acknowledging, their blatant racism. “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” Anthony said.
Our praise of Anthony and others like her perpetuates a harmful historical narrative steeped in white supremacy. When our re-telling of women’s lives is redacted, sanitized, and romanticized in this way, we avert our attention from a painful truth: the oppressed can become the oppressor.
Admittedly, the desire to paint women's stories in the best possible light is a longing I share. Nowhere do I hunger for this more desperately than within the pages of our holy scriptures.
For so much of my life the sacred texts preached from the pulpit largely omitted, ignored, and silenced women. Any roles women did play were described as ancillary at best, antagonistic at worst.
When I began my theological education, I encountered an even more disturbing reality: the presence of “texts of terror” as Hebrew scholar Phyllis Trible calls them. These heinous sexual crimes and acts of violence committed against women were captured right there, plain as day, in the holy book I treasured.
Was this all there was for women — victimhood? I prayed to God it wasn’t.
Then, about a decade ago, I began my desperate search for examples of biblical women who managed to defy the forces of oppression that threatened their lives and dignity. I pored over the pages of the Bible, looking for models of ancient resistance that could speak to today’s struggle for gender justice. I discovered women like Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus, the midwives who resisted the pharaoh’s orders to murder Hebrew infant boys; and Hannah in 1 Samuel, who claimed her rightful place in the temple when the male priest ordered her to leave. I found my spiritual companions in women like Ruth, Mary Magdalene, Hagar, and the unnamed widow with oil from 2 Kings.
Their stories heartened me and troubled me. The longer I sat with these texts, the more complex and nuanced they became: Sarai (Sarah) was trapped in an abusive marriage and became an abuser herself. Rachel was a victim of coercion, and she was a manipulator, too. Each story I encountered simultaneously held pain and joy, loss and hope, sin and grace. Each text equally commanded my critique and my compassion.
So, this Women’s History Month, I challenge us as a church to honor the full humanity of the women who have shaped our faith. Those whose lives are captured in our texts and those whose life stories were excluded. Those whose names are known to us and those whose names are known only to God. May we create ample space for these wounded yet resilient women to speak across the millennia, calling us to continue the sacred struggle for justice that started long before us and will remain long after us. Let us honor the complex history of women— yes, in March — and indeed, all year long.