“Sisters, hear the Truth. Listen to the echo in your own soul that rises up to this news with joy. Courageously take a stand against the lies, in your own life and the world around you. You are beautiful, you are good, goodness awaits you. Delight will one day again be yours, start walking towards it!” Peggy Senger Parsons, Messages to a Refugee Planet.As one would expect in such a diverse group, the women I spoke with had very different responses about how their gender affected their experience. Most of them felt that their gender had affected their experience in one way or another, that it worked in their benefit or presented special challenges.
Deborah S said that part of her ministry is through touch, a healing touch―she hugs people a lot, and she thinks that would be less acceptable if she were a man. Deborah knows that people have felt calmed because she was touching them. She shared a story about how she was in the cafeteria at Guilford College one day and saw two girls that she knew. The girls were so stressed out, the way college students are. Deborah said, “I just put my hands on their heads, and I didn’t mean it like I was blessing them, but I was.” She didn’t think about it in the moment, but later realized that was pretty amazing, to have the position she has in campus ministry, where people are like, “Oh yeah, she does that.”
A common experience was feeling left out because of being a woman. Patty L said that when she was in seminary, some of the guys had a basketball team, and she decided that she would play. She found that the way she played basketball was very different from the way the men played basketball; they were much more independent and competitive. Where Patty was into passing and sharing and giving everybody a turn, the men were into shining! Patty said that it didn’t work, and she couldn’t change things because some of the men playing were her professors. In the end, she didn’t play for very long, and mostly the differences resulted in her being kept her out of the game.
Patty’s experiences were similar as a recorded minister in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM): she felt odd and not “one of,” because almost everyone else there was male. The men all knew the same people and didn’t let her in. Patty said that when she had other women where were in ministry, it was much easier, because they understood each other and the necessity of support, working together, and lifting each other up. Patty said that her husband thought she would make a great pastor of a church, and would pick churches with lots of members and suggest she work there. Patty would tell him that they wouldn’t accept her as a pastor, but he didn’t believe that, or it didn’t register in his gut like it did with her.
Various women I spoke with talked about how there still are not many women who are pastors of large Friends churches; most of the women pastors are at small churches and there are still some Friends churches that will not consider hiring a female pastor. Darla S said that she is at Rivers Way Community, a small house church, because of gender. Darla also commented that she doesn’t want to be at a regular church and have to battle and invest time in narrow-mindedness.
Deborah S said that when she was in Iowa, she felt like she was always the person pointing out that others were using gendered language, such as “We’re having a meeting for ministers and their wives.” (There were about two female ministers in the yearly meeting at the time.) She said it got old to always be the one having to say, “Can we broaden that? Can we think about that? What about a woman speaker?”
In North Carolina, Deborah said she still has to do that occasionally, but there are more female pastors, as well as more male pastors who really care about affirming women in ministry. However, Deborah said that overall, her experience has been very positive. She thinks gender has worked in her favor: it’s something new, something different, people haven’t wrapped their minds around it, and spiritual doors have opened simply because she is female.
Some of the women talked about how it took them a long time to find their voices, which they think is related to being a woman. Patty L feels that her own lack of self-confidence is part of being a woman in addition to being who she is, that many women have a preference for hiddenness and, to some extent, a preference to blame other people, rather than claim their own strength and power.
Deborah S said it has taken her a long time to grow in confidence in the ministry, and she thinks that has a lot to do with being a woman. Deborah said that as a woman, she has to be careful not to abdicate her voice or always be below the radar. She hopes that when there is a moment where there is something to say that will be hard for people to hear, that she will be ready to say it and not shrink back.
[From the research paper I wrote for the School of the Spirit on the stories of women from different branches of Friends who have been recorded as ministers.]