Speaking Up in Church: On Gender Roles, Femininity & Masculinity

The first time that I started to question my place in the church was when I realized that girls couldn’t be altar servers.

I grew up in south Louisiana, the “bible belt,” and was raised in the Roman Catholic faith tradition.

“Why can’t I be an altar server?” I asked my mom.

“Why not me?” I asked my teachers.

No one could give me a solid answer. In fact, they seemed perplexed by the question.

Why couldn’t girls be altar servers? I guess I had struck a nerve.

I wanted to be an altar server. I was more than capable. Without a doubt, I could wear the robe, carry the cross down the aisle, and hold the bible at the pulpit. I could do those things, and it would surely make mass go by A LOT faster (Catholic mass is long, if you didn’t know).

But girls weren’t allowed. There wasn’t really a good reason (in my opinion), it just was the way it was. It had always been that way. Best not to question it and just carry on like everyone else.

In high school, I began to understand a woman’s place in the world — according to Christians. Women were called to motherhood. We belonged in certain nurturing professions, like teachers and nurses. Our primary role was to take care of the household.

At church, we resided in the pews. And apparently, we needed men to lead us.

At first I didn’t even think to question it. After all, that hadn’t amounted to much in the past. I passively absorbed these gender roles and and focused my efforts on other things, like sports and school work.

I attended an all-girls Catholic high school, so I became well-versed in purity culture and shame. I learned all about how to save myself for marriage and how to be a good future wife and mother.

Since I was a perfectionist who feared punishment, I followed all the rules and didn’t step out of line. Stepping out of line meant that I was a “bad girl”- and worse, a bad Christian who was probably going to hell.

There was a deeper underlying message to all of this. The message that ALL girls and ALL boys were supposed to behave a certain way. Girls should be feminine: sensitive, nurturing, patient. Boys should be masculine: dominant, strong, competitive.

And of course, femininity was seen as inferior to masculinity. To show your feminine side was weak, which was OK and encouraged for girls — but not guys.

Guys were supposed to be masculine, all the time. Girls were supposed to be feminine, and ONLY feminine.

Men were the leaders — at home, in the workplace, and at church. Women were the followers — the submissive ones — and they did as they were told.

None of this sat well with me, but being the dutiful daughter that I was, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. To avoid making waves, I kept my head down. I stayed inside of my box.

That is, until another powerful woman showed me the way out.

The first time that I saw a woman preach was at a church in San Diego. She introduced herself as the “co-pastor” of the church, and she shared about her own experience growing up in a conservative faith tradition. She expressed that she herself was still healing from harmful theology while simultaneously growing into her role as a pastor.

“Speak, even if your voice shakes.”

This was a novel experience for me. For the first time, I could identify with the person holding the microphone.

As I continued to attend church, I watched with hopeful anticipation as pastor Kate became the person that she was created to be: a brave, bold, and extraordinary leader. With each sermon, she gained more confidence.

Now, she commands the room upon entry and can captivate any audience with her ideas.

One Sunday, on Mother’s Day, Kate preached a sermon about womanhood and motherhood. She dispelled some of the myths that many women have grown up believing. At the end of the sermon, she gave us (the women in the congregation) an opportunity to speak up.

“Fill in the blank,” she said: “I am a woman, and I am ___________.”

Soft music played in the background. I closed my eyes and listened to all of the women around me saying words like “powerful” and “courageous” and “intelligent.” Tears sprung to my eyes.

I wanted to speak up, but I was too afraid then. I really wish I would have. My heart wasn’t ready, but now it is. And this is what I want to say:

I am a woman, and I am LOUD.

No, I will not be quiet.

I will not let you talk over me.

My voice MATTERS.

I have both feminine and masculine energies.

I am sensitive AND a leader,

I am nurturing AND bold.

I am emotional AND logical,

I am tender AND strong.

I am humble AND assertive,

Caring AND competitive,

Peaceful and passionate.

I’m still learning who I am

And unlearning who society and religion told me I should be.

I am a woman, and I am PROUD.

I will speak, even if my voice shakes.

Thank you to all of the women who pave the way. Keep standing in your truth.

Originally published at http://fullwellself.com on June 22, 2020.