She Shall Be Called Woman
When I see the Apostle Paul’s comment that some people make certain days special, while others honor all days alike, I think of the first Congregationalists who were mostly in the second camp, honoring every day as sacred and ignoring most of the holidays that had come to crowd the Christian calendar. Except for Christmas and Easter I generally follow their lead, but this morning finds me happy to surrender to what every restaurant and florist and greeting card company says whould be on my mind. It’s not a complete surrender because instead of honoring only mothers this morning I want to honor women in general. It has been 14 years since I last spoke at any length in the pulpit about women, and since then certain convictions have been strengthened — by what I’ve seen and read in the meantime, and perhaps most of all by one particular woman with whom, for such a long time, I have known far more happiness than I deserve. So I’m ready to try again.
I made this decision a couple of months ago while reading a chapter in a book called Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier. Far from towns, in a harsh and unforgiving wilderness, those women faced lonely lives with amazing strength and courage. Husbands often left for days or weeks at a time on trading or hunting expeditions, and even when they were at home they worked land that might be too far out of range to respond to a call for help. Women faced special dangers during pregnancy and childbirth, and they came to mind recently when I saw one of those high-tech birth suites at Wesley. . In these days of proper diet and vitamin pills and monitoring by a physician and delivery in a place with technology for handling all sorts of emergencies, mothers have every possible advantage, but it’s hard for me to imagine the courage and resourcefulness of pioneer women 150 yers ago on the Kansas prairie.
The book I mentioned tells of one woman whose time came sooner than expected, an hour or so after her husband had left on an all-day wagon trip to get wood for the coming winter. Alone with two babies, one four and the other 18 months, and with no neighbor or doctor to summon, she set out bread-and-butter sandwiches and a pitcher of milk for the children, drew a bucket of fresh water from a 60-foot well, laid out scissors and clean towels beside the bed, and hoped the family dog understood when she told him to keep the babies inside and away from rattlesnakes in what passed for a yard. The baby arrived at noon, the mother fainted several times while trying to clean and wrap it, and when the father returned that night he found everyone safe and well. But there were not always happy endings. Many pioneer wives, despite their courage, died young and were celebrated in no books. They deserved medals.
It’s a masterpiece of understatment to say that life, through the centuries, has not been kind to most women. Move backward in time from recent pictures of the Taliban beating women with clubs for accidentally showing an ankle, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing chairs at women attempting to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, to an early church Father calling Eve the devil’s gateway, the one who destoryed God’s image (meaning man, of course), and the one whose sin caused the Son of God himself to have to die. Hear this complain from a 5th century Pope: “We have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state thast women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars.” Read about a 6th century church council in France, where 63 bishops once debated the question “Are Women Human?” and women won humanity by one vote! And listen to the great English poet John Milton who, when he personifies sin in Paradise Lost , makes Sin a woman, the daughter of Satan himself, and says of Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden that the same kind of thing will happen to any man who trusts women too much. No wonder women seldom had a chance to be more than useful household slaves through hundreds and hundreds of years.
Most change for the better has come only recently. I grew up in a church so dominated by men that it would have been unthinkable to invite a woman to a meeting where church business would be discussed. I remember a Wednesday night when a woman in a Bible class was not allowed to get out of her seat and go to the blackboard to illustrate a point, even though she was a university professor and an expert on the topic under discussion. The elders, always male, ruled that she could speak only while seated, otherwise she could be seen as usurping authority from those God had put in charge.
In that same church two men of questionable talent took turns as songleaders, but what I remember best about them is that one day they were both so hoarse at the same time that neither one could warble a note. A woman named Nina Province had a magnificent voice, but they dared not invite her to usurp male authority by standing up to lead the congregation as they did, so (as literalists and legalists often do) they found a way around the dilemma: one of them stood up, as if to direct, while Nina sat in her seat in the third row and led the song.
I was still a teenager when that strange scene played itself out one Sunday night, but those chauvinistic moments still happen. Not long ago a church in northwest Arkansas closed its daycare center because the church board believes God wants women to stay at home. Their decision left 27 children without daycare, and state officials had to license another facility to take the place of the one at First Baptist Church of Berryville. One more sad, silly little story in the history of male chauvinism and the amazing patience of women willing to accept such things as the will of God.
The Bible has to bear blame for much of this nonsense, beginning with one of the creation stories in which woman is clearly derivative. Derivative, as in “taken from” — that is, according to the legend, taken from man’s side — a story male Bible scholars would later expand by saying Eve came from Adam’s left side, because in so many languages the word “left’ is synonymous with weak or worthless. The examples of chauvinistic bias in both religious and secular history are far too numerous to cover in a single sermon, even in the three I devoted to that topic several years ago, but the good news is that even in the worst of times some remarkable woman would stand the system on its head. Here is one such moment:
A little over 300 years ago, on a June morning in the Italian city of Padua, the first woman in the world to get a doctoral degree stood in a pulpit to be examined in the philosophy and rhetoric of Aristotle. Precociously brilliant, she began studying Aristotle at 7, and was capable in Latin, Greek, French, English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldaic by the time she enrolled in the University of Padua. She had wanted to take her doctorate in theology but the head of that department, a bishop, said indignantly: “Never. Woman is meant for motherhood, not for learning.” Writing later about her request, he said: “I talked with a French cardinal about it and he broke out in laughter.” Reluctantly, since the prestige of the University was at stake, he finally allowed her to take the exam in philosophy. Her replies, in Latin, were so brilliant that the judges declared the doctorate in philosophy was hardly a sufficient honor “for so towering an intellect.” So she got the doctoral ring on her finger, the ermine cape of a teacher laid on her shoulders, and the laurel crown of a poet placed on her dark, curly head. The entire assembly rose and sang a Te Deum of praise to God.
Unfortunately, those were rare moments, and equal opportunity for most women was still far in the future. When people ask me why I am a Congregationalist, one of the reasons I love to give them is that we ordained the first woman to ministry 150 years ago. Her name was Antoinette Brown, educated in theology at Oberlin and installed as pastor of a small Congregational church in South Butler, New York. But hostility remains. As late as 1994, just before the Church of England ordained its first 33 women priests, an Anglican priest used an epithet too ugly for the pulpit and said such women should be burned at the stake like medieval witches. It seems an odd form of put-down to many who know how often the strengths and skills of women have made both secular and religious life better.
Someone here spoke just the other day of reading the superb new biography of our second President, John Adams, who helped shape our system of democracy. There is also much in that book about his equally extraordinary wife, Abigail, daughter of a Congregational minister, who sent this avant garde message to her husband: “In the new code of laws….I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them….Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.” Other wives, as they have done from time immemorial, quietly made it possible for their husbands to succeed. When Nathaniel Hawthorne lost his job in the customs house, he went home broken-hearted to tell his wife Sophia he was a failure. To his amazement, she smiled happily and said, “Now you can write your book!” When he asked bitterly what they would live on while he wrote it, she opened a drawer and took out a hoard of cash. Hawthorne was astounded. “Where on earth did you get that?” “Well,” she told him calmly, “I have always know you were a man of genius. I knew that some day you would write an immortal masterpiece. So every weke, out of the housekeeping money, I have saved something. Here is enough to last us for one whole year.” Which is why so many of you, at some time in your life, read one of the best of early American novels, The Scarlet Letter.
Other women, aware of public prejudice against their daring to compete with men in literature, simply wrote their own novels — but shameful to be said, felt they had to do it under a male pseudonym: the brilliant Mary Ann Evans, for example, writing under the pen name of George Eliot. Think Silas Marner, Adam Bede , and The Mill on the Floss. And when those three bright Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne first ventured into print with a book of their poetry, they thought it wise to hide their sex under the masculine names of three brothers named Bell. How sad to read of that cultural subterfuge from women whose genius would later give us Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
During long centuries with almost no professional competition from women, most men went blithely through life with little thought of how much women were damaged by a chauvinistic world. Who knows when they began to justify it through jokes built around themes of male dominance, but once they discovered how much fun it was, the floodgates were open. Why are women so much trouble, they asked one another, and then created a thousand jokes to explain it. One of them told his buddies at the local pub how Adam was feeling so lonely one day in the Garden of Eden that God wondered what was wrong. Adam said he didn’t have anyone to talk to. So God promised a companion whose name would be woman.
God said, “This person will cook for you and wash your clothes and always agree with every decision you make. She will bear you children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you, and she will always be the first to admit she was wrong when the two of you have a disagreement.” Adam could not imagine anything better than that, but one thing troubled him. “How much,” he asked God, “will a woman like that cost?” When God said, “An arm and a leg,” Adam’s face fell and he asked, “What could I get for just a rib?” And the rest, agreed the boys in the bar, is history.
But there was always some woman to remind her sisters of what they were worth even when they had to live in the shadows of male dominance. If we are doormats, one of them said, we make it possible for men to go in, without muddy feet, to God. Women learned how to to survive by jokes of their own, around the village well once upon a time, out to lunch at Applebee’s last week, over the Internet yesterday. Question: Do you know the difference between men and government bonds? Answer: The bonds mature. Question: How many caring men in the world does it take to do the dishes? Answer: Both of them. And then there was the quick-witted woman with the boy’s name who loved to sing in the choir and was married to such a fiscally cautious guy she had to fight for everything she got. One day she told him she was going window shopping. He warned her: “Look, but don’t buy!” A few hours later she came home with a new dress. “What is this?” her frugal husband fumed. “I thought I told you to look but not buy.” “Well,” she said, “I saw this lovely dress and thought I’d try it on, and when I did the Devil whispeered, “It sure looks good on you.” “Well, right then,” her husband grumbled, “you should have told him, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’” “I did,” she said, “but when he got behind me he said, “It sure looks good from the back, too.”
This is the same woman who was with her husband one day in Wichita when he decided to weigh himself on one of those scales that print out a little card with your fortune on it. While he looked at pounds, she read the card to him. “It says that you are a leader with a magnetic personality and a strong character. That you are generous, intelligent, witty, and attractive to the opposite sex..” While a smile spread across his face, she looked down at the numbers on the scale, and said: “It has your weight wrong, too!”
If you wonder how that particular man took those comebacks I have it on the best of authority that he loved them, and that almost — though not quite — they saved him from being a pompous fool. I know this because just the other day, when he was looking at a poem by Carl Sandburg, he read two lines that summed up the ultimate imperative of his life. If all else is lost, the poet said, leave me “A voice to speak to me in the day’s end, A hand to touch me in the dark room.”
So, I have expanded Mother’s Day to include all women, but I have not forgotten those who are mothers nor their sons and daughters who pay them honor this morning. Which means I still have one piece of unfinished business. Your worship program says that the flowers on the communion table have been given for the pleasure of every person in this room, and in special honor of someone whose name is to be announced later. It turns out by the most striking coincidence that I have been asked to read the card that came with those flowers. Signed by a daughter named Karen Wakefield and two sons named Robin and Devon Meyers, it says they have been sent “in honor of our wonderful mother, for whose patient love and laughter we give thanks every day of our lives.” Oh, there’s a scribbled postscript I may be able to read: It says, “Tell a certain skinflint to take you out to dinner.”
Have a happy day!