Tag Archives: Feminism

Mennonite, Feminist, & Woman

Hilary Scarsella

Guest post from…Hilary Scarsella is a recent graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary who researches and writes on the intersection of violence against women and worship. She lives in Elkhart, Indiana as a part of the Prairie Wolf Collective and enjoys spending time with family.

This post is one in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman. You can check out earlier entries in the series here.

Being Mennonite has always been an important part of my self-identity. Though I attended church as a kid with my family every Sunday, I hardly ever spent time with other Mennonites during the week. It would have been rare for me even to spend time with other Christians. Consistently, my friends and peers seemed to be Jewish or Hindu or secular – anything but Christian and definitely not Mennonite. In fact, when the topic of conversation turned to religion I remember being grilled again and again. “If you’re Mennonite, how come you have electricity?” “How can you be Christian and believe in evolution?” “Do you think that God spoke the exact words that are printed in the Bible?” And, the question I answered most frequently, “How can you be a pacifist when there are horrible things happening in the world that need to be stopped?” I was aware of my Mennonite identity and thankful for it all the time, because I was made to account for it by my curious (and often critical) peers.

These days, the tables have turned, and it’s rare that I have an extended conversation with someone who isn’t Mennonite (save for my childhood and college friends, of course). I have just finished an MDiv from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and within a one mile radius from my home there is a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit, at least three Mennonite churches, AMBS (the seminary), Mennonite Church USA headquarters, Mennonite Mission Network offices, and more. Instead of my Mennonite identity causing me to seem suspect it’s what allows me to belong. Now, it is my identity as a feminist woman that seems to pose a potential threat to my credibility. I’m not sure if the feeling that this is a threat is one produced from within me or absorbed from my surroundings, but I feel it all the same. It is with gratitude that I can say many of the people around me are warmly supportive of feminist theology and work hard to undo oppression against women, people of color, people of the lower socio-economic class, people of lgbt orientations, and so on. Even so, I sense an odd undercurrent that is at least very different from the interreligious and secular subculture I grew up in.

The Madonna of Humility by Domenico di Bartolo

It is one that has me questioning my ambition. For example, I recently used a vocational assessment tool to help me discern next steps, and part of the feedback I received was, “Motivational levels are highest for Hilary when in the limelight where recognition is earned, deserved, or given.” From a feminist perspective, there is no shame in appreciating and striving toward recognition for a job well done. All people should be appropriately recognized for the work that they do. But, as a Mennonite, accepting this truth about myself – that I am motivated by the potential for recognition – feels a bit like failure; failure to be happy with simplicity, failure to be humble, failure to be selfless, failure to be Mennonite. Somehow, though I don’t think this was ever said to me explicitly, I’ve absorbed the idea that a “good Mennonite woman” is one who blends into the background and delights in helping others into the limelight. Thus, my Mennonite identity and my identity as a feminist woman have at times become tangled, each seeming to paralyze the other.

To untangle the knot, it’s been important for me to recognize and accept several things. As a Mennonite woman I find myself needing to work a bit harder than my secular female peers to feel justified in seeking out and accepting my own gifts, talents, and successes (however “success” is defined). I find myself needing to qualify and explain myself carefully when I self-identify as a feminist in church settings. I find myself needing to pay closer attention to my own mannerisms in order to prevent myself from defaulting to a more quiet and apologetic female role than is true to my nature.

On the other hand, as a Mennonite woman I also find myself supported and formed by an absolutely stellar community of people who help me hold faith and justice and reconciliation as values to center my life on. I appreciate that my Mennonite formation keeps me from getting caught up in the spirit of cut-throat competition that sometimes characterizes various feminist and professional circles. In Mennonite tradition and scholarship I find resources for valuing my “womanness” that have been essential elements of my personal, spiritual, and vocational development.

For me, being a Mennonite and feminist woman means feeling confused and stuck sometimes. It also means that joy and healing and faith are with me as steadfast friends for the journey.


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Women and Leadership: Women in the Church

This post is the first in a series of posts reflecting on women in leadership, the workplace and the church.

I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter (and now expecting another oldest daughter). I come from a legacy of strong women: women who have taken on leadership roles as teachers, pastors, church leaders, etc. This identity has been important to me throughout my childhood and still today. It led me to unabashedly apply for leadership roles and to feel confident that I would be qualified to be chosen to fill those roles sometimes. 

After college, I took a job with a Mennonite Church USA agency. Although my direct supervisor was female, I began to notice that much of the leadership of the church was both male and white. I realized that, when I was traveling, there were still many churches that would not invite me to preach because they did not believe that a woman belonged behind the pulpit. I noticed that in meetings with executives or church leaders, certain types of language and behavior were privileged above others. I noticed that if I was too assertive, people might start to place labels on me. This experience not only opened my eyes to the ways that systems of oppression operated in general, but it led me to a keen interest surrounding issues of women and their access to leadership, especially within Mennonite Church USA.

This issue is not simply one that is personally important to me: I believe that the underrepresentation of women in leadership throughout Mennonite Church USA is a social justice issue that has significance for the church and for all of its members, not just women. In the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, our denominational statement of belief, the article on ministry and leadership states, “The church calls, trains, and appoints gifted men and women to a variety of leadership ministries on its behalf. These may include such offices as pastor, deacon, and elder as well as evangelists, missionaries, teachers, conference ministers and overseers.” While this confession of faith clearly affirms equal inclusion of men and women in leadership roles, the church’s actions tell a different story.

If one were to simply visit a Mennonite congregation, the disparities between men and women might not be immediately apparent. However, a closer look at statistics and quantitative research shows that while women have come a long way within the church, they still have a long way to go. In a 1987 survey of members of the Mennonite church, only 49 percent of members supported the ordination of women. In the most recent survey of Mennonite churches, conducted in 2007, that number had risen to 67 percent, a number well-below three quarters of all church members. In addition, although there is greater openness to the ordination of women, 58 percent of members indicated a strong preference for a man as lead pastor, while 40 percent indicated no preference and only two percent of members indicated a preference for a female pastor.

A 2009 survey of male and female Mennonite pastors reveals that 353 women were serving in pastoral ministry, as compared to 1,409 men. There is also some evidence that would suggest that it is very difficult for women who are not married to find a pastoral position. Currently, over 80 percent of all women serving as pastors are married. In addition, men consistently experience longer pastoral tenures at each location, and are more likely to be able to find another pastoral placement after completing their first term.

A look at the Mennonite Church USA directory also reveals interesting demographic data. Out of 21 area conferences (groups of congregations) and 30 conference ministers serving within the United States, there are only two females, and no women of color. In addition, Mennonite Church USA has five church-wide agencies, and all of the executive directors for these agencies are male. Mennonite Church USA also has five undergraduate universities that represent the church. Ten years ago, two of these institutions were led by female presidents, but today, all of the college presidents are male and white, suggesting that there may be some backwards movement away from equality for women and men in leadership roles. Mennonite Church USA does have two church seminaries, and the president for one of these schools is a woman.

Findings about women on church boards or leadership teams reveal some progress, but still leave more to be desired. Since the formation of Mennonite Church USA as a denomination in 2002, the number of women and men on the denomination’s board has remained equal. However, in an article published in The Mennonite, Joanna Shenk writes, “At the same time, it is important to note that underrepresented racial/ethnic women are often required to fill two roles on committees and boards: as racial/ethnic people and as women.” In addition, Mennonite Church USA has never had a female executive director or agency CEO.

Taken together, these stats can be pretty daunting. So why, one might ask, have we not made more progress with women in leadership roles, especially top

United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño, one of my she-roes and a prominent female leader on immigration issues

leadership positions, within the church and other spheres as well?

My posts over the next few days will explore these questions and other aspects of women in leadership. It will look at women in spheres beyond the church, the challenge of balancing feminine and masculine expectations and more. What questions or insights do you have to offer as we begin this exploration together? If you are not Mennonite, how has your church dealtwith women in leadership? Have women made their way into upper level management and leadership positions?

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Beauty and the Media Beast

The love/hate relationship between women and the media is well-known. Ever since I was young, I can remember being warned about the troubling media images that I would see, depicting women as too skinny, fashionable in a certain way, over-sexualized, and this list of adjectives could go on. In middle school and high school I was educated about eating disorders and other ways that insecurity about appearance and the ways that the media fueled these fires by presenting young women with an unattainable standard of beauty. I understood on a theoretical level that I should be highly suspicious of mainstream media and its portrait of what and who an attractive female is.

But in many ways, this message was always undermined anyway by the lure of fashion magazines, movies and gossip websites like People.com which make celebrity voyeurism easily accessible and entertaining. Still today, whenever I am sitting in the airport, waiting to board a flight, I hear the siren call of magazines, whose pages are filled with glossy images and advertisements, one after another, with portraits of ridiculously good-looking people staring out at you, who can make you feel bad about your hips, hair and skin no matter how strong your inner feminist voice is.

And then there’s the subculture of cattiness that all this breeds. Perhaps when we realize that we can’t look or live like celebrities, one method of coping is to nit-pick, judge and objectify them through this cult of celebrity. And, anecdotally, it seems that we women are often each other’s harshest critics (although male voices certainly hold lots of power when it comes to defining what a beautiful woman looks and acts like, both within the media and outside it).

I was reminded of this yesterday when a friend forwarded me Ashley Judd’s recent diatribe against the media. Several weeks ago, speculations about Judd possibly undergoing botched plastic surgery went viral after she appeared in several photos and in interviews promoting her new television show with a slightly puffy face. As Judd notes, mainstream media and social media outlets circulated all sorts of rumors and critiques of her appearance, ranging from extensive plastic surgery to weight gain (causing Judd to jump from size 2/4 to a possible 6/8) or that Judd was simply looking haggard and old. Judd noted that women had been key instigators of these conversations, and that mainstream media outlets never bothered to fact check stories or check in with her for comments regarding the situation (which apparently was caused by steroids Judd was taking to bolster a struggling immune system).

Judd writes, “If this conversation about me is going to be had, I will do my part to insist that it is a feminist one, because it has been misogynistic from the start. Who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery? Our culture, that’s who. The insanity has to stop, because as focused on me as it appears to have been, it is about all girls and women. In fact, it’s about boys and men, too, who are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood. It affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings.

And in another recent viral media frenzy, women and men alike have come out of the woodwork to give their opinions on a recent article written by Samantha Brick for the Daily Mail which detailed the “downsides of looking this pretty.” Brick has drawn scorn and disbelief from men and women alike, who have critiqued her on the basis of appearance (suggesting that she’s not that pretty, ugly or even delusional) and on the basis of her seeming arrogance. I have to confess, when Brick’s story first broke, these were my first two reactions as well. But I had to double check myself: Yes, I don’t think Brick wrote an article that I would write, but why hate someone for feeling confident? And why is my first reaction to use stereotypical measures of beauty to assess the validity of this woman’s argument? If Elle McPherson or Beyoncé Knowles had written this article, would I have been equally as critical? Hard to say.

But I suspect that Judd is on to something with her suggestion that we are all entangled in this “conversation” about women’s bodies and beauty, whether we want to be or not. But, the question is, how is it that we set about reframing such a conversation?

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