In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “Men, You Need to Listen to Women,” the author addresses progressive men who read the Times but still don’t listen to women.
“Yes, you are trying,” she writes, “but I’m struck by how spectacularly so many of you continue to fail at listening, this most basic of human skills.”
“Listening to women without creating space for women to have equal power does not bring about real inclusion or transformation of the church.”
Men who read the Times are hardly alone. Decades of research have demonstrated how little men listen to women. As I thought about this phenomenon in the Baptist context, I realized there are some specific ways Baptist men don’t listen to Baptist women.
Let’s start with the most obvious: the pulpit. Baptist men – Southern Baptist men in particular – have fought for decades to keep women out of the pulpit and to silence them more broadly in Baptist churches. Last year, to offer but one example, many pastors and denominational leaders turned on widely-known Bible teacher and speaker Beth Moore simply because a tweet suggested she was preaching.
Even in the moderate to progressive Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which since its inception nearly 30 years ago has overtly expressed support for women in ministry, less than 7 percent of affiliated churches are led by a woman as senior pastor. (Among Alliance of Baptist churches that number is close to 40 percent and in line with other mainline denominations.)
Of course, very few of these women are women of color, trans or queer.
Then we have the clergy sex abuse scandal among Baptists. Courageous and determined women like Dee Miller and Christa Brown have been telling Southern Baptists for decades that their convention has a clergy sex abuse problem. Yet, despite an explosive Houston Chronicle investigative series that exposed the enabling of perpetrators, the convention has yet to deal with the problem in any meaningful way, regardless of rhetoric about the tragedy and sinfulness of abuse.
Of course, what most Baptist women deal with is your garden variety everyday sexism – all those ways that implicit bias, overt misogyny and structural sexism try to silence women. The problem is so bad that we now have a language to describe many of the ways this silencing happens.
Manterrupting. We know men interrupt women, a lot. From classrooms to boardrooms to deacons meetings (for churches that allow women to serve as deacons), men interrupt. Men don’t let women finish their thoughts, even when women clearly have more expertise on a topic.
I recently saw a cartoon depicting a man and woman at dinner. The man says, “Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.”
Mansplaining. This is closely related to manterrupting. Mansplaining occurs when a man undertakes to explain something to a woman, assuming that, of course, he knows more. Author Rebecca Solnit says it’s a result of “overconfidence and cluelessness.”
Personally, I have had men with no theological education whatsoever try to explain to me everything from what the Bible says about you-name-the-topic to their own pet theological hypotheses about any of a number of subjects, including women. Often these mansplanations come in the next breath after learning that I teach courses in feminist theologies.
Bropropriating. When I lead workshops for professionals in higher education, I often ask women to raise their hands if, in a meeting, they have ever said something that was ignored by the group, but, then, a few minutes later, when a man said the exact same thing, the group congratulated him for his brilliant idea. I don’t think there has been one woman who did not raise her hand in response.
Bropropriating occurs when a man takes a woman’s idea and presents it as if it’s his own. This is also known as “hepeating.”
I see this happening on a broader scale in another way in churches. Popular male pastors at last come to convictions about supporting women in ministry or LGBTQ people. These men are then celebrated as brave visionaries, when the women in ministry and LGBTQ people who have been saying these things for years still toil away in relative obscurity.
Manstanding. This happens when men stand too close or even over women. I’ve had male students try this tactic when they want to intimidate me.
They come to my faculty office. I’m sitting at my desk, and they come and stand next to my chair as they make a demand (usually to change a grade). I tell them to take a seat.
It also happens at social events when everyone is standing, but a man – especially a taller man – stands too close when he’s having a conversation with a woman. Men take up more space generally than women (we have a word for this, too – “manspreading”), and that differential functions as another way to silence women through physical intimidation. (Often this happens on a subconscious level, simply because of the ways men are allowed to take up space without thinking about it.)
Remember the creepy (and offensive) visual of Donald Trump looming over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential debate?
Not only do men talk and loom over women, they (and sometimes other women as well), weaponize the way women speak in order to silence them. For example, following Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s fiery Nevada debate performance, conservative and liberal pundits alike called her haranguing, angry, mean and bitchy – all deeply gendered words that are typically hurled at women when they assert themselves.
“What most Baptist women deal with is your garden variety everyday sexism.”
Men are frequently dismissive of women’s ideas because women’s language is often less direct. Typically, women use communication to build relationships whereas men use communication to convey information. Because, conventionally, women’s language intends to invite people in, men may see it as unsure and weak.
Furthermore, many people, including churchgoing folk, even critique women’s actual voices. I’ve many times heard people (men and women) say, “I support women in ministry, but I don’t want a woman pastor because I just prefer to hear preaching in a male voice.”
In 2018, Beth Moore published an open letter to her “brothers” about how she felt being “the elephant in the room with a skirt on.” I quote it at length because it summarizes what many Baptist women experience:
“As a woman leader in the conservative Evangelical world, I learned early to show constant pronounced deference – not just proper respect which I was glad to show – to male leaders and, when placed in situations to serve alongside them, to do so apologetically. I issued disclaimers ad nauseam.
“I wore flats instead of heels when I knew I’d be serving alongside a man of shorter stature so I wouldn’t be taller than he. I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders who were serving at the same event and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged. I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of, the latter of which I was expected to understand was all in good fun.
“I am a laugher. I can take jokes and make jokes. I know good fun when I’m having it and I also know when I’m being dismissed and ridiculed.
“I was the elephant in the room with a skirt on. I’ve been talked down to by male seminary students and held my tongue when I wanted to say, ‘Brother, I was getting up before dawn to pray and to pore over the Scriptures when you were still in your pull ups.’”
It’s not only denominational confessions and resolutions that silence Baptist women. It’s also the behaviors toward women that demean, dismiss, sideline and marginalize women in everyday interactions in churches, workplaces, social events and homes.
So, what’s a Baptist – or any Christian – man to do?
Stop talking. Monitor yourself. Don’t always be the first to speak in every situation. Learn to make space for others, especially women, to speak up. Then, when they do, be sure to listen rather than simply wait for your chance to say what you want to say.
Quit interrupting. This one may seem self-evident, but men may need to develop an awareness of this habit. Interrupting women is so normalized that many men may not realize they do it.
Credit rather than appropriate. When you hear a woman say something that’s then ignored, return to it with, “As Janet just said….”
Engage women’s ideas, not their appearance. Commenting on women’s appearance underscores the belief that women’s greatest value is their appearance. It reinforces the notion that how women look, rather than what they think, is most important. If you wouldn’t call Brother David “stunning” or tell Pastor Joe, “Don’t you look lovely this morning,” then don’t say those things to Sister Ruth or Reverend Julie.
Listen to Baptist women. Baptists have a wealth of outstanding women thinkers whose works are readily available, including opinion contributors to baptistnews.com. To name just a small sample: Molly Marshall, Eileen Campbell-Reid, Karen Seat, Lisa Thompson, Betsy Flowers, Karen Massey, Mona West, Nora Lozano, Pam Durso, Isabel Docampo, Mandy McMichael, Amy Chilton, Laine Scales and Linda McKinnish Bridges. Go back and read Phyllis Trible while you’re at it. Her 1984 work on “texts of terror” still has a lot to say.
Listen to sermons by Julie Pennington-Russell, Amy Mears, April Baker, Elizabeth Mangham Lott, Mary Alice Birdwhistell and Erica Whitaker (again, just to name a few). Read Courtney Pace’s book about the womanist faith and vision of Prathia Hall.
But also listen to the women in the pews. Of course they won’t always say the same things. There’s not one Baptist woman point of view. Baptist women are diverse; they sit at the intersections of gender with race, sexuality, social class, nation, ability and age. Baptist men need to value the knowledge and experience they bring to conversations. After all, Baptists are the ones who most fully developed the ideas of soul competency and the priesthood of the believer. Surely, those things apply to Baptist women as well as Baptist men.
A few years ago, I conducted interviews across the country for a book on Baptist women. When I asked participants across the theological spectrum if they thought it was OK to disagree with the pastor, they gave me the same answer: “Yes, of course.”
“Why?” I asked. Without fail, they answered, “God speaks to me, too” (which became the book’s title).
Cede power. Listening to women without creating space for women to have equal power does not bring about real inclusion or transformation of the church. Men are so used to having power that their power is invisible to them; it seems inherent, natural and inevitable. So, men need to develop a gender lens for seeing how they hold and wield power and how gendered power is operating in every situation.
“Many people, including churchgoing folk, even critique women’s actual voices.”
Most importantly, they need to imagine with women how to transform power. Feminists talk about traditional forms of power as “power-over,” the ability to coerce. As a more life-affirming alternative, however, they offer “power-to” and “power-with,” the kinds of power that come in relationship and agency and do not require the subordination of others.
Ditto all of this for your online behavior. The digital world is fraught for women who are smeared, trolled and threatened on a regular basis. Think before you tweet.
Respect physical boundaries. What may seem a well-intended bear hug to you may feel like an unwelcome intrusion to someone else. Keep a light touch, a brief tap on the shoulder, a handshake or a gentle pat on the back. Don’t assume touching is OK just because a woman is silent about it.
In this cultural, political and religious moment of sex abuse scandals, rollbacks of women’s political gains, ongoing attacks on women from the Christian Right and the misogyny of election season, it’s time for Christian men – progressive Baptists included – to do more than talk about their commitments to women and to women in ministry. It’s time for them to listen.
Christy Edwards | Don’t strip our voices from the Baptist pulpit