I first learned about my place in this world through a Lionel train set.
Every Christmas while I was growing up, a Lionel train set ran around the base of our family tree. Until recently, I would have told you that every year as we set the train up, I heard my mother explain that it was the train my father bought before I was born.
“It was going to be yours if you were a boy,” my mother said.
But today, as I have thought about it, I realized that she probably only told this to me once.
She really didn’t need to say it again. Every time I saw that train, I said to myself, “This would have been yours if you were a boy.”
Skip ahead to when I was thirteen. In June that year, my mother gave birth to her fifth child, my first (and only) brother. I will never forget my father coming home from the hospital, whistling up a storm. He proceeded to retreat to his basement workshop for several hours.
When he next emerged, he was hauling out a huge plywood sign, 5 foot square. Painted royal blue, it proclaimed in beautiful, large white letters, “It’s a boy!” Dad proceeded to nail it to the tree in front of our house. Needless to say, it garnered a lot of attention. But I was most comforted by the words of my favorite teacher, who happened to have a houseful of daughters of his own. “I wanted to ask your neighbor across the street if I could put up a sign in response on their tree,” he said. “It would say ,’So what?!'”
In this and in so many other little ways, I learned early and often that being a girl made me a less desirable, second class citizen in my family. This is not to say that my father didn’t love me. I knew he did, and he certainly believed that I could do whatever I set my mind on doing. And that belief encouraged, supported and motivated me to do things he never even dreamed of doing, including not only going to college (the first in my family) but going on to graduate school and pursuing a challenging career in academia. But still, I knew that, in my father’s eyes, it would have been better if I had been a boy.
I found myself thinking about these experiences in the wake of the recent social media campaign #MeToo, which followed the revelations of sexual harassment and abuse by Harvey Weinstein. I must confess that I avoided reading the posts on social media, even though I could have added one of my own. I did not feel strong enough to encounter all the painful emotions on this topic. But I still spent the last week reflecting on why we are shocked to discover that sexual harassment and abuse is so widespread, why men are chagrinned to discover that they could have done more to support women and stop the harassment.
Part of me wants to scream, “Why are we still struggling with this? Haven’t we learned anything from the past? Why can’t we change this?” And part of me is fearful that once the current shock wears off, we will go back to ignoring the problem because it is so much easier to pretend that our laws “fix” the problem if women just speak out.
But the specific acts of abuse and harassment will not be stopped until we address the underlying issue, which is that women are thought to be–and, some even say, ought to be–second class citizens. This perspective is writ large and small across our world.
I know that I am not unique in saying that this idea was reinforced repeatedly over the years outside of my family by people who probably didn’t really realize how their words and actions hurt me. Sometimes, with hindsight, I see the humor that evaded me years earlier.
For example, I’ll never forget when the woman who would become my mother-in-law took me aside and suggested that I should not try to be a salutatorian or valedictorian in my high school class. I should, she said, try to come in third or fourth, so that the boys could have those top spots because they would need them more.
Need them for what? She didn’t say and I didn’t ask because I had no intention of following her advice. I came in second in my class, and now I can’t help smiling when I think about how I could have tried to intentionally come in third. But I’ve remembered that conversation for four decades.
Other memories are much more painful, like the time my husband thought it was perfectly reasonable for me to give up my tenure-track position as an assistant professor of English at a university in Texas, so that he could return to his ideal job at 3M in Minnesota. Although he still insists that he didn’t mean that my career and happiness was less important, that was how I interpreted his insistence on returning to Minnesota, and it took a lot of soul searching and prayer for me to prioritize my marriage over my career. It also took me decades to forgive both him and myself for this decision which only reinforced my sense that I was less important in this fundamental partnership.
In my church, I have also learned in so many, many ways that I am a second class citizen. Some of it was obvious from a young age just from sitting in the pews. Only men could serve as priests. In some parishes, only boys could serve as altar servers and only men could have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. I was told that I was made in the image of God, yet God was always described in masculine terms and with masculine pronouns.
But when I went back to school to get a masters of divinity, so that I could teach the faith and serve the Church more fully with my gifts, I kept running into reminders that I was in the same relationship with my church as I was in my family–I should have been born a boy
When in one of my first semester classes, we had the option of choosing one topic of study, the class voted to explore the ordination of women. We were lucky to have a thoughtful, respectful priest teaching this class. He explained that the pope had declared that this topic was no longer to be discussed, but he allowed us to study the case for the “non-ordination of women.” In studying all the documents as well as the opinions of scripture scholars and church historians, we learned that there were no clear scriptural grounds for allowing only men to be ordained, and that there were significant arguments advanced by reputable theologians that the prohibition against the ordination of women was not in fact an infallible teaching. But the pope had spoken. And we were lucky to be able to study the matter in a classroom containing both men and women, including some men on the path to ordination.
I learned that in other graduate schools of theology, seminarians were taught separately, even when there were lay men and women in parallel programs taking the same courses. Near the end of my graduate study, I happened to be part of a small ecumenical group of students completing their Masters of Divinity. There were two Catholics (a seminarian from another graduate school and me), a few Lutherans and an Episcopalian. When we were invited to share our overall theological perspectives on ministry, the Catholic seminarian demurred, saying that no one would truly understand his perspective. “I’m Catholic,” I said. “I imagine I would.” He ignored me and stood by his refusal. After all, he implied by his attitude, a woman, even a Catholic woman, could not understand his unique status.
This attitude was not shared by the Benedictine seminarians I had in my classes at St. John’s University. Yet, over time, I came to realize that my church didn’t really want to use all the gifts God had given me. It didn’t matter how much I learned, how well I did in my classes (or how well I preached in my class on homiletics). The men who had far less theological training in my diocese could become deacons, preach, baptize and preside at marriages, but I would never be more than a “staff” member. I might have focused my elective classes on theology and methods of faith formation and sacramental preparation, but the priest who was my boss years later could decide to cut the parish faith formation programs to the bare bones and expect me to accept the decision without input.
I could, sadly, continue to list the other ways I have been told that I should have been a boy–by my family, my community, my nation and my church. Most women can do the same. The persistent attitude that women are less valuable than men is the reason that women still do not have pay equity. It is the reason women are passed over for promotion in favor of men who have accomplished less but are not about to get pregnant and need maternity leave. It is the reason why even when both partners work, women generally bear more of the burden of childcare and housework. It is the reason why men who are highly competitive and outspoken are thought to be leaders, while women with those same traits are often characterized as brazen and bitchy. It is why across the world today, there are still girls denied basic education and women forced to marry against their will.
I could go on. Sadly, there are too many stories we could tell which highlight the less than equal status of women. But I’d like to close with a bit of hope that someday, we will in fact get beyond the hashtag MeToo, that someday women will not have to speak out and enumerate the ways and times they’ve been harassed or abused. Despite many signs to the contrary, I have to hope that there will come a time when women and girls are in fact treated with respect as equals. I know it will take time and work–not only by women but by men who are willing to speak out against the attitudes and behaviors of other men–although I pray that it won’t take too much more time.
My hope comes from my husband. Over the years, Jim’s come to recognize the ways I’ve been assigned second-class status, even in our own life together. While it hasn’t always been easy, we have worked together to strengthen our relationship and to make it a more equal partnership. And several years ago, I received an unexpected and much loved gift from my husband. It is a train set–very much like the one I would have gotten from my father if I had only been a boy. Now, every Christmas, I set it up under the tree. My cats find it utterly perplexing, but I love it. And I love that Jim thought to give it to me.