Rashida Tlaib, a newly elected Democratic representative from Michigan, dropped the F-bomb while hanging out with her constituents in a bar. So what? It is no worse than what the Occupant said when he suggested that men “grab them by the p***y.” To get into a linguistic pissing contest is a waste of time and a distraction from what is really going on.
First, it is a distraction from the issues that need the government’s immediate attention. They are too numerous to list but include the unnecessary government shut down, that idiotic wall, and the disastrous foreign policy the Occupant likes to Tweet about at 2:00 in the morning.
Second, it shows that women are judged more harshly than men. This should not come as a surprise. Men are forgiven more quickly for bad language and bad behavior than women. It takes longer for a woman to regain her position and authority after an unexpected candid moment or a misstep. When Tlaib dropped the F-bomb, suddenly the world went all puritanical about language and leadership and her suitability for office. Please, give me a break.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a newly elected Representative from New York, has been widely criticized for wearing an expensive suit and shoes. Fortunately for men, it is not as easy to tell when they are wearing custom made suits that cost as much as a used car. However, the larger point is that no one is questioning what men wear and no one is looking at their shoes and asking how much they cost. How women look and dress is an issue for public scrutiny when in the public eye.
This is familiar to me as a woman pastor. In the early years of ministry, when I was still in seminary, I served a small church as pastor. Like most graduate students I had little money. Also, I was not yet ordained. I did not own a pastoral robe. One Sunday after service I was approached by a deacon and told to get a robe “because my legs were distracting men in the congregation.” Forty plus years later and I have yet to see how this is my problem.
Yet, as women, such judgments are always our problem. It is a blatant symbol of the misogyny and sexism that still dominates our cultural landscape. The criticism comes from both women and men. In a recent PBS News Hour broadcast several women bemoaned the “likability” factor of some of the women newly elected to congress. They also questioned Elizabeth Warren’s “likability” as she announced her intention to run for president in 2020.
The “likability” factor is pure sexism. It says that the very qualities men possess that make them good leaders are undesirable when manifested in a woman. Being strong, decisive and vocal is all well and good if you are a man. Women who are strong, decisive and vocal are often called “bitchy.” Women who are collaborative, open, flexible, caring and sensitive are often viewed as weak.
If I had a nickel for every time someone called me a bitch, I would be rich. Truth be told, I would be even richer if I had a nickel for every time someone thought I was a bitch but didn’t have the nerve to say it to my face. It is a criticism leveled when women are decisive, assertive and definitive, or when women assert their authority. The same qualities in a man are celebrated.
Lest we think this cultural judgement of women emerged in a vacuum, we do well to remember the role of religion and misuse of Scripture. Verses like, “Women be subject to your husbands,” and “Women must keep silent in the church” have been widely quoted as the way women should be treated.
Those who claim to read scripture “literally” do well to remember that Miriam was a leader beside Moses and Deborah was a judge. In the New Testament there are women, named and unnamed who had leadership roles. Jesus included women in his inner circle, which elevated the role of women in his time. Phoebe, Prisca, Aquila, Mary, Junia and Olympus are all mentioned in Romans 16. Philip’s four daughters are prophets named in Acts 2. Eudia and Syntiche of Phillipi are named in Ephesians 4:11. Lydia is named in Acts 16:14-15 and Nympha is named in Colossians 4:15. They all had leadership roles in the early church.
There are countless examples of women’s leadership throughout Scripture. The Gospels and the New Testament usher in a radical view of women rooted in equality and mutuality. Those who claim connection to the Christian tradition do well to read Scripture and read it as a whole book made of smaller books. The overarching message of Scripture is that God has an eternal love for all people and all creation. In God and through God we are called to loving, respectful, equal and mutual relationships.
The cultural bias against women will not go away quietly. It is too ingrained in our social fabric to be easily routed out. However, the quiet rising tide of women and men who refuse to bear the stereotypes, biases and judgments that perpetuate inequality will, with time, reach critical mass and create a new way of being people of faith and culture in the world.