By Starlette McNeill
“You hit like a girl. “ “You throw like a girl.” Once upon a time, someone decided that being a girl meant lacking strength and ability. Sure, there are implied and direct references to the gullibility and weakness of women throughout Scripture. But, the same could be said of the Bible’s male characters. The obvious preferences of patriarchy and the imbalanced deference to men must also be acknowledged both in Scripture as well as society.
Besides, that is an easy and likely scapegoat. “It’s the Bible’s fault that women are viewed in this light.” Or, “I’m just doing what the Bible says. Cook my dinner, woman, for the Bible tells you so.”
Whether a matter of cultural tradition, gender bias or outright misogyny, the adjective “like” is not complementary. Instead, it implies that the girl is not doing it correctly or effectively, that she is the wrong gender for the job.
On the contrary, if you hit or throw like a boy, well, then you’re doing it right. Behaving like a boy or being a boy becomes the definition of being right and doing rightly. Gender then becomes the deciding factor for good and evil, the right and wrong kind of people.
I understand that this is not a new paradigm and, yes, I am knowledgeable of the suffragist and feminist movements. Coupled with old video footage and books required by undergraduate and graduate courses, I have had a few experiences with both men and women who find my position difficult to pronounce. “So, you’re a … pastor?”
Still, I had not given their perspective a lot of thought, as I was too busy with sermon preparation, pastoral care visits, church business meetings, Sunday school lessons, weddings and funerals. I guess you could say that I live in an Orbit’s sweet mint flavored bubble in this regard, having been affirmed throughout my calling and afforded a ministry position shortly after graduating from seminary. But, with the addition of a second call, now the minister to empower congregations with the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, my position as a denominational leader did raise a few questions at a recent meeting of other state executives, one of which was, “So, you’re going to do both?”
The obvious answer is yes, I am. The only girl, I later realized what was being asked of me. Certainly, I couldn’t do both jobs well. They were too much for me, too heavy for me. Perhaps, I should ask a boy to carry them for me.
Like China’s one child policy, it seems that in many homes and churches, there is a one-gender policy. Girls are not wanted except in cases of domesticity and wifely duties, called to help with the children’s ministry or to assist with administrative tasks. You are either Mary or Martha but you can’t be both — either sit at the feet of Jesus or take care of the home.
So, what shall this young preacher do? I can’t stop preaching but I can’t preach like a boy. I want to ensure that the message comes out right, that I sound like a preacher. What can I say when persons don’t expect to hear her voice coming from behind the pulpit but from the kitchen? How should I say it when so many have only heard male preachers, when the sound of preaching has only come in tenor and bass?
This, then, becomes the voice of God’s messenger and the female preacher is treated like a poor imitation and failed attempt. What is the sound of the female preacher? How does she preach like a girl and normalize the sound of the female homiletician? I could resolve that I will never sound like a preacher because I’ll never sound like a man. It’s not a good look anyway given my petite frame.
However, American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath said, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am. I am. I am.” She’s right and if I tune out the voices of naysayers, then I can hear the sound within me. It is the sound of me, an old and rhythmic sound. It is the melodic sound of the Preacher.
Still, the appearance of the female preacher is a miracle. She is the performance of God, as no human being would have made her so. She is not the hope or pride of her parents or the prayer request of a generation: “God, send us women like you.”
No, this vocation is not among the choices for women. Reminded that her nonconformity to social roles will leave her on the margins and without much conversation at family gatherings, she is discouraged from self-actualization. I suppose that the craft is not considered ladylike or maybe it does go well with a husband, 2.5 children, a dog and the house that only comes with a white picket fence. Regrettably, many of us, including women who have been called to preach, still think it’s a man’s job, that the pulpit is no place for a woman.
Maybe persons think that I should serve tea and cookies after Sunday service. Or, perhaps, we should discuss my hair and make up choices after the message. I mean, what do we do with her once she has spoken on behalf of God? What do we say now?
We say, “Amen.” She could use a few, as she often does not come with an “Amen corner.” To be sure, affirmations don’t make the message anyhow and the female preacher cannot find her voice while attempting to sound like someone else.
I said to myself and I say to other female preachers, “Just preach. Let the Word of God do the talking.”