Liz Cooledge Jenkins felt uneasy discussing much of her experience as a young woman in church. She wrote Nice Churchy Patriarchy to highlight the issues she faced.
I spent most of my young adulthood not confronting the myriad forms of patriarchy I experienced all around me, all the time. Even in the Church - especially in the Church - my tightest community, my home away from home, the space where I got to live out my deepest values and passions in life, as well as my place of full-time employment for a time.
Looking back, I feel that the faces of misogyny were blurry to me. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t see them; I knew, for example, that I felt uncomfortable when men made unwanted comments as I walked by them while going about my daily business. And I knew that I disagreed with my church’s policy of prohibiting women from serving on the elder board. I saw the vague outlines of the shapes patriarchy takes, but had no tools with which to make out their forms more clearly. To discern how they operate, to understand what lay behind them, to interpret them on a deeper level than “this feels wrong to me,” or “I feel limited,” or “I think I’m being treated differently because I’m a woman, and I don’t like that.”
As I externally processed my own unease with so much of my experience as a young woman in church, I found that I was far from the only one.
I have recently written about my experiences in a book called Nice Churchy Patriarchy. The journey of writing about these things has been a journey toward clarity. Seminary helped me along the way, opening my eyes to a whole two-thousand-year history of women’s struggle to build faith communities where they could use their gifts freely to serve and lead—and, sometimes, their success in creating these spaces. Talking with friends has helped, too; as I externally processed my own unease with so much of my experience as a young woman in church, I found that I was far from the only one.
After I graduated from seminary, I embarked on an intentional mission to seek out and read female theologians, biblical scholars, and other faith writers.
(There is a list of female writers whose work I’ve loved and learned from in an appendix in the back of Nice Churchy Patriarchy.) These brilliant women helped me understand and put words to what I experienced as a young woman in complementarian communities.
Women struggling for equality today are part of a great cloud of witnesses through the centuries.
As I’ve processed my own experiences, via reading, reflection, and conversation, these are a few things I’ve learned:
● People who are invested in patriarchal power structures often want women who find these structures insulting, demeaning or otherwise frustrating, to think we’re the only ones who feel that way. This is far from the truth. When we choose to speak honestly of our experiences, we often find that others have been thinking similar things but weren’t sure how to speak—or if it was safe to speak.
● The tension between theologies and practices that limit women and those that encourage people of all genders to lead and serve freely is far from a new phenomenon. It did not arise in recent decades with second-, third-, or fourth-wave feminism, but is as old as the Christian tradition itself. Women struggling for equality today are part of a great cloud of witnesses through the centuries.
● Vast and amazing multitudes of women are thinking and writing brilliantly on theology and faith. The sometimes-perceived tension between the “best” thinkers and a more inclusive line-up of thinkers (whether on a course syllabus in seminary, or on our bookshelves at home, etc.) is a false dichotomy. As I’ve spent the last few years seeking to read primarily from female thinkers and especially female thinkers of colour, I have learned so much. We must not pretend that these thinkers don’t exist, or imply that they are somehow inferior.
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One of the benefits of writing a book like Nice Churchy Patriarchy is that I continue to learn how not-alone I am, in being so terribly frustrated with the patriarchal systems baked deeply into even the nicest of church communities. As women reach out and tell me how deeply they resonate with my reflections, I’m humbled and honoured; even as I wish things were not this way.
I hope that my work might clarify the sometimes-murky, sometimes-subtle faces of misogyny for others, just as so many amazing women have done for me—that we might learn to dismantle patriarchy’s power together.