I’ve never been a big fan of the word “Lady.” In my mind (having been raised in the American south), I picture ladies sipping tea on the front porch, quiet, genteel, not a hair out of place. When I was growing up, all I heard about ladies was that they didn’t do whatever it was that I was doing. A lady doesn’t run indoors. A lady doesn’t slouch. A lady doesn’t talk with her mouth full. A lady doesn’t interrupt. A lady doesn’t jump on the bed. Being a lady sounded like no fun at all!
At about age 4, I was already a huge fan of Wonder Woman. Every afternoon, reruns of the Linda Carter series came on TV and I would watch, proudly sporting my Wonder Woman Underoos and holding the Lasso of Truth my mother had made me. One day, a babysitter I’ll call Alice was keeping my little brother and me while my parents were out. I was playing in my room and realized it was time. Running down the hall, I yelled, “Alice, it’s time for Wonder Woman!” She didn’t acknowledge me, just kept watching TV. “Alice, hurry, change the channel,” I told her. “Wonder Woman is on!” Without looking away from the soap opera on the screen, she shushed me. “Alice is watching her stories right now, honey. Your brother’s taking a nap. Why don’t you take one, too? Or go play quietly in your room a while.” I stood staring at her in disbelief, clutching my Lasso of Truth more tightly as I absorbed the cold, hard truth that she was not going to let me watch Wonder Woman. The injustice of it all was too much for 4-year-old me, and so I did the only thing in my power: I whipped Alice with my Lasso of Truth, over and over again. “Stop! Stop!” Alice yelled. “Wonder Woman wouldn’t do that! She’s a nice lady!” Loudly, I disagreed, “She’s not a lady! She’s a woman, and that’s why they call her Wonder Woman!”
While I don’t advocate small children whipping their babysitters (even though, in retrospect, she was a pretty terrible babysitter), I love this story because it reminds me that even early on, I possessed a fierceness that ultimately could not be tamed. For a while, it was hard to see. Society taught me well how to be a lady, and I tried to comply. I did my best to be polite, to not stir up any trouble, to be what was expected of me. And when I felt a call to ministry while I was in college, I thought the ladylike thing to do was ignore what I felt in favor of what I had been taught, which was that women could not be ministers. It’s a good thing God is persistent. After years of wrestling with the conflict between what I was coming to believe and what I had been taught was true, I could no longer deny my calling or my giftedness.
In divinity school and especially in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I was encouraged to “claim my pastoral authority.” This was not easy for me, and there were still those who denied my calling solely because of my gender. But by the time I was officially ordained in 2008, I no longer felt the need to hang back and wait for someone to give me permission to be a woman in ministry. It was enough (more than enough) that God had already called me into ministry.
Taking on the mantle of minister was in some ways easier than accepting the title of lady. But I think I finally have. It isn’t all about being quiet and well-mannered. I have known ladies who sometimes put others at ease with their calm demeanor when it was needed, and sometimes put others in their place with righteous anger when it was needed, all of which they did with grace and femininity and humility and strength. I have learned through them that “female minister” is not an oxymoron (though I think most of us would prefer to be called simply “minister”) and neither is “Christian feminist.”
Not long ago, I had to get in touch with my inner Wonder Woman at the hospital. The family member of a dying patient had been crying in the waiting area, and two ministers from a local church approached her. They had no connection to this woman; they were there to visit a patient from their church. But they took it upon themselves to tell her, loudly and persistently, that she had to have faith and stop crying, that God would heal her loved one if only she showed enough trust. One of the men also asked her over and over again whether she and her loved one were “saved,” and told her what she needed to do to get that way. By the time I arrived in the waiting room, the crying woman was scooted as far into the corner as she could get, and one preacher was only inches away from her face. His invasion of her personal space and his manipulative theology at such a vulnerable time in this woman’s life angered me to my core. For a brief moment, I found myself wishing someone would do something, then quickly realized I was that someone. I approached the woman, offered my support and asked her if she would like to go to a more private room. When the ministers attempted to follow us, I told them that she needed some space, that I would be there to offer her pastoral care if she wanted it, and finally that what they were doing was inappropriate. Another staff member in the waiting area had watched this whole thing unfold. He is a tall and very imposing man, but he did not intervene. “I didn’t want to mess with the God Squad myself,” he said. “You handled them well.” I smiled, glad to have found my voice when it was needed to speak up in defense of my patients and their families.
As women, our voices are not always welcome, especially in the church. Laura Turner says it well in her recent post for Christianity Today on feminism, The Christian F-word: “Many churches, Catholic and Protestant, relegate women to the realms of women’s ministry or childcare, creating a segregated world of pinks and florals in which being nice is a whole lot more valued than putting your gifts to use as part of the body of Christ.” I am grateful for churches like mine where this is not the case, as well as for the written testimonies of fierce women like Kate Braestrup, Rachel Held Evans, Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor, Lauren Winner, and others. And I am grateful for all the Jesus Ladies I have known in real life, the teachers and ministers and fellow seminarians and everyday women who taught me and are teaching me what it means to live out this calling. They are my great cloud of witnesses, and I hope to be a woman (and a lady) who will make them proud.