Dismantling Gender Bias

Illustration by Jon Krause

Illustration by Jon Krause

AS WE APPROACH A PRESIDENTIAL election in which each candidate’s gender is sure to be discussed, it’s worth evaluating the automatic assumptions we—yes, all of us—make when it comes to women, men, and the meaning we attribute to gender. These assumptions include everything from outright sexism to subtler forms of gender bias, such as the knee-jerk association of men with “competence” and “gravitas,” women with “incompetence” and “emotion.”

“The battle for women to be treated like human beings with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of involvement in cultural and political arenas continues, and it is sometimes a pretty grim battle,” writes Rebecca Solnit in the title chapter of Men Explain Things to Me, a 2014 collection of essays that helped coin the term “mansplain.” “This is a struggle that takes place in war-torn nations, but also in the bedroom, the dining room, the classroom, the workplace, and the streets.”

I would add, of course, that this battle also takes place in the church, our spiritual homes. After all, for women this is a struggle that’s older than feminism, perhaps as old as our faith traditions themselves. So how, exactly, can we end the battle?

The answer, it seems, lies in understanding the difference between explicit and implicit bias, the former resulting from deliberate stereotypes, the latter a growing topic in social science that doesn’t absolve us of guilt but helps us understand how biases of all kinds have been so difficult to identify, name, and change.

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More Intersectionality, Please

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Early in the course, probably in the first class, Professor Caldwell dropped a simple yet profound piece of knowledge on us that has stayed in my head ever since: "Racism is gender-specific.”

On a personal level, this statement affirmed what I already knew through life experience but hadn't given much thought: my experience of race and racism in a female body comes with a unique set of reactions and interactions that differs from that of the black men and boys in my life. In a similar way, I had to admit that there were certain expressions and negotiations of black life emanating from male embodiedness that I would never experience.

The hard part came in being able to acknowledge both to be true, intellectually and practically, without feeling like I had to suppress one part of my self in order to embrace another part of my self. On paper, it seems like the right thing to do to honor and respect differences within a group that has much in common. Yet what I have found in over twenty years of working in the social sector and in faith communities is that it is a rare thing when we are able to live this out in the real world.

Say Her Name: Ain't We Women?!

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In 1851, attendees of a feminist convention gathered in a packed hall in Akron, Ohio. It was a time when — even in the midst of a fight for women’s rights — mostly men spoke. They talked of dainty women — delicate and deserving of special protection.

Sojourner Truth sat in their midst. Miss Truth sat quiet, listening to men fill space with empty arguments about why women should or should not have the vote. Finally, she rose to speak and a visceral wall of hostility rose from the masses to greet her. The voice of this "n___ger woman" could muddy the message, they hissed. It could conflate the movement for women’s equality with the abolitionist movement — and that would be the death of suffrage, they feared.

But, as Dr. King liked to quote, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

The New Feminism: Redefining a Woman’s Place

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It is after the resurrection that Jesus’ mission to the Gentile community begins in earnest, but here in this passage Jesus is challenged on this assumption of being sent to the Jews first and foremost. And after he is challenged, he answers in a positive manner. He affirms the Syrophoenician woman and heals her daughter. Her faith got her what she wanted.

But it would not have happened had she not interrupted him in his attempt to find a quiet moment. It would not have occurred without her persistence. She probably knew “her place” since she was a first century woman in a culture where women had little to no voice or power. But she did not stay there. She acknowledged “her place,” but she asked for mercy and had the faith that her request could/would be granted.

And her faith paid off. Her daughter was healed.

So what about these women who took to the stage for #BlackLivesMatter?

Weekly Wrap 7.31.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Death of a Young Black Journalist

“The most basic instinct of a local reporter is to take the importance of her neighbors as a given. In a community like Anacostia—where more than ninety per cent of residents are African-American, one in two kids lives below the poverty line, and incarceration and unemployment rates are among the nation’s highest—this is another way of saying that black lives matter.”

2. Dear NBC, BBC, CNN, and Others: Mugshots Are for Criminals, Not for Their Victims

“Using a mugshot that has no relevance to the circumstances in which Sam DuBose was killed—up against a fully-uniformed photo of his accused killer—suggests that DuBose did something criminal to instigate the cop in his shooting. As yesterday’s grand jury decision confirms, this is blatantly not true. It warps the real story: a cop who allegedly killed an innocent man for no good reason.”

3. We Need to Talk About Feminism and Vocal Fry

“The clash here is not between anti-feminists and feminists. At its heart, the conflict over vocal fry is a clashing of feminist ideologies. … Wolf suggests that young women’s voices aren’t authoritative enough, and implies that they’re somehow squandering all the hard feminist work that came before them. But what’s really happening is a generational shift, both in feminism and in the workplace.”

VIDEO: Muslim ‘Female Heroes’ Bicycle Across Iowa to Inspire Women Around the World

Screenshot via RNS / Youtube

Screenshot via RNS / Youtube

To celebrate their 50th birthdays, Mara Gubuan and her Urbandale, Iowa, high school classmates invited six elite Muslim female athletes to RAGBRAI, the annual bicycle ride that took place July 19-25 across the Hawkeye State.

The idea was to “create a counter-narrative” to dispel the misconception that Muslim women don’t compete in sports. The riders of Team Shirzanan, from mostly Muslim countries, showed it could be done, even while wearing headscarves during July’s summer heat.

Becky Hammon Becomes First Female Head Coach to Win NBA Summer League

Basket Streaming / Flickr

Photo via Basket Streaming / Flickr

Last year Becky Hammon made history with the San Antonio Spurs when she became the first female full-time assistant coach in the NBA.

This summer, she became the first female head coach in the NBA summer league.

And yesterday she led the Spurs to the NBA summer championship.

We aren’t basketball experts here at Sojourners, but that sounds pretty damn good. A helluva rise.

Free to Be He


MANHOOD SEEMS to be in crisis today, for a host of reasons ranging from silly (a feminized church because of too many altar girls?) to serious (a porn and video game epidemic, alienating boys and men). Carolyn Custis James’ Malestrom gives needed context by pointing this crisis of masculinity back to humanity’s very fall into sin and the patriarchy that sin generated. She calls this patriarchy the “malestrom”—a societal whirlpool that sucks men into a broken way of life and destroys them.

The malestrom is unfortunately familiar to us, although James explores its contours in compelling detail. Sin manifests itself in men through a patriarchal hierarchy that leads us to resort to violence to establish status. The dominant model of what it means to be a man is to father children, provide for them economically, and protect them from the outside world. In light of this, how can we be surprised that we have hurting men and boys in our church who don’t fit in that model?

James tells biblical stories of men who pushed back against the patriarchal order to better reflect the image of God—men and women together in a “blessed alliance” to bring God’s kingdom. These stories culminate in the example of Jesus as the ultimate man who lived fully into a healthy masculine identity. 

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New & Noteworthy

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Collage Created via Pic Money

For Cartel Land, filmmaker Matthew Heineman embedded himself with two vigilante groups battling Mexico’s drug cartels on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The vigilantes believe that they are stepping in for their countries’ failed institutions, but must try not to “become the criminals [they’re] fighting against.” The Documentary Group

She Who Believes
The new Women in Religions series from New York University Press offers accessible primers on ways women have shaped and been influenced by various religious traditions. The first three volumes published include Women in New Religions, by Laura Vance, and Women in Christian Traditions, by Rebecca Moore. NYU Press

No Easy Way
In Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines, Sandhya Rani Jha, a pastor, activist, and anti-racism trainer explores our complicated racial landscape through several people’s stories, illuminating the difficult but vital path to the hope of the Beloved Community. Chalice Press

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Real Life, With Superpowers

Ms. Marvel

I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME someone told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I was in preschool, preparing for an epic game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a group of boys. I was playing April O’Neil, the Turtles’ journalist ally. As we started our game of pretend, my teacher came over to ask what we were doing.

“Playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” I responded.

“Oh, you shouldn’t be playing that.”

“But I’m April,” I explained. “I’m a girl.”

“No, girls don’t play games like that,” she told me, and directed me toward the finger paints.

Whatever my teacher’s intentions, the damage was done. From that day on, superheroes and all things related were a “boy thing.” That meant the X-Men, Batman, Superman, and, yes, Donatello and his human-reptile hybrid team were all off-limits. I eventually grew to love comics as a teenager and an adult, but I was aware that they rarely featured anyone other than white men (or, occasionally, heavily objectified women) as the heroes.

Thank goodness for Kamala Khan.

Kamala is the teenage protagonist of Marvel Comics’ rebooted Ms. Marvel series. She’s a clever, funny 16-year-old living in Jersey City, N.J., who, in addition to having superpowers, writes superhero fan fiction, plays video games, and struggles with parent-enforced curfews. She also happens to be the second-generation daughter of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim.

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