[Books & Culture, May-June, 2000]
A journey of a dozen blocks begins with a single step-in my case, stepping into the front seat of a cab on the Harvard campus while Gloria Steinem stepped into the back. My eyes were still red from crying. How I got there is another story.
In October, 1999 Harvard Divinity School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government co-sponsored a conference titled “Core Connections: Women, Religion, and Public Policy.” Admirably, the conference’s organizers tried to include in the mix women that don’t usually get invited to such shindigs, such as evangelical Christians. To recruit these attendees, Ambassador Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the JFK School, enlisted the help of her sister, June Hunt, evangelical author and host of the Hope for the Heart radio broadcast. A third sister, Helen Hunt, (not the actress, but director of the Sisters Fund), provided funding for the conference.
During the conference, the two dozen evangelical women who attended would meet in the hallways and over coffee to chat. Yes, we seemed to constitute only about ten percent of the participants. Yes, the plenary and panel speakers were heavily weighted toward a perspective different from our own. Yes, reflexive disdain for evangelicals kept popping up during question-and-answer periods, so much so that none of us felt comfortable getting into the question lines.
Nevertheless, we could tell the organizers and other participants were trying. There was a genuine desire to broaden their awareness of the range of political and religious viewpoints women bear. Most slights were not intentional, but more in the nature of oversights — simple unfamiliarity with others’ beliefs. All in all, it was good to be there.
Friday night I participated in a small group discussion led by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, about her findings regarding the despondency high-achieving women have over their childlessness. The setting gave me an opportunity to hold forth on some of my cranky ex-feminist ideas. I explained that I thought feminism went astray in the mid- to late 70s, when it abandoned its early hippie “mother earth” style. Though naive, that strain of feminism at least affirmed women’s domestic and child-rearing lives. Later “power feminism” adopted the contrary view, that housewives were stupid and that value came only from corporate success. Ironically, this was exactly what “male chauvinists” thought; feminism adopted a contemptuous male attitude toward women’s work and rejected that which our foremothers had found honorable and fulfilling. (Of course, the male model — that career comes before all else — has never been all that healthy for men, either.)
Helen Hunt happened to be present in this small group, and told me afterward that she was very intrigued by my comments (though, frankly, I don’t know if they were all that original). As we parted that evening she said, “Feminists need to hear from you on this.”
The next night the closing plenary speaker was Gloria Steinem, and I arrived late, as usual. The place, a small amphitheater, was jammed. One solitary seat was open, right in the middle of the front row. I settled in there next to my friend, Lilian Calles Barger of the Damaris Project, and we prepared to hear a legend speak.
The speech was a bit nonlinear and seemed to be coming nearly off the top of Gloria’s head; as she turned pages we could see they were handwritten in pen, as if recently dashed off. As she spoke of the confluence of religion and politics, it became apparent that Gloria is of the school that religion is a resource to be reinterpreted and reinvented. Indeed, this seemed to be the governing presumption of the conference. The presumption is that we should explore the spiritual realm and discover what best pleases and supports us, and discard the rest. Spirituality is a powerful resource that women have too long neglected, they would say. Much of it is stale and patriarchal, though, so we must sift through it to select those elements that seem true and right to us.
Some of us who were attending the conference — not just the evangelical Christians, but possibly also the Buddhist nun in her habit, and the Muslim women in their veils — see things differently. We believe that we are inheritors of a faith tradition that is coherent, rich, and profound. We have no desire to tamper with it. Instead, we want to listen attentively to it and learn.
These ancient faiths, because of their continuity over centuries, have achieved a multicultural validation that is worth respect. Communities widely separated by geography as well as time have lived their lives exploring these beliefs, and found in them cause for awe. This cumulative wisdom is something that no single one of us, trapped as we are in our own cultures and wearing our own blinders, is smart enough to second-guess. We might explain our disagreement with the “buffet” school of spirituality, then, by saying that we respect the witness of generations of women and men before us, and come to our faiths as followers and disciples, not as critics or shoppers.
But Gloria was on an entirely different track, one which seemed the broadly-accepted starting point of her audience. She is still very striking: tall, slim, and dressed that evening in form-fitting red. Everything about her is long, even the palms of her large hands; her very long fingers were accentuated by a coiled-snake ring. She stood behind the podium at ease, enjoying herself, offering an analysis of religious themes and trends in an amused tone. The audience adored her.
There I was, sitting front-row-center, my knees about six feet from the podium. I noticed after a while that I was gradually feeling more and more besieged. I felt slyly insulted; things I held dear were being sneered at. I slumped down and leaned toward Lilian. My mind wasn’t quick enough to come up with responses and explanations for everything Gloria was saying. Her comments were being received enthusiastically. I felt very lonely.
About this time we hit the low point of the evening. Gloria began describing an interpretation of church architecture that she had read, which drew parallels between the various structural elements and female reproductive anatomy. You can imagine what the church door and narthex and center aisle represented. This, I thought, was just silly. Then she completed the analogy by saying that the altar was the womb, “the site where childbirth takes place.”
I felt slapped, and then quickly felt very, very sad. Lilian must have had the same reaction, because she threw her arm around my shoulder and held on like she was drowning.
Why did this image wound me, when so much of the rest could be dismissed with, “Oh well, she just doesn’t understand”? Never mind that the analogy was inaccurate; as an old natural-childbirth teacher, I’m pretty sure the birth itself would transpire on the church steps. The problem with the analogy was not its confused view of female anatomy, but its obliviousness to the original, deeper meaning of the altar. Ignorant, cavalier, it didn’t care to listen to what the altar meant to the people who built it, or those worshiped there for millennia.
It wasn’t the altar that was being insulted, I felt, but Jesus himself. The altar for me is the place where I remember Jesus’s sacrifice for us, his torture and death, his overwhelming love and willingness to give everything for our sakes. What I heard instead was that Jesus doesn’t matter, his love is forgettable, his suffering is invisible. All the nails and blood and thorns were obliterated in favor of a cheap giggle. It seemed to me one more example of the feminist narcissism that makes everything about women, and cannot see suffering and sacrifice if it is done by men. Jesus’ broken body on the cross? Shrug. Let’s be naughty, and talk about wombs instead!
I tried to choke them back, but tears started trickling down my cheeks. I felt so sad. The person I loved most had been insulted and trivialized, and I could do nothing. For the rest of Gloria’s speech I sat there, thinking about this and leaking slow tears. I hoped she couldn’t see me, though I was right in front of her and only a few feet away.
When Gloria finished her speech, Swanee Hunt stepped to the podium to say she’d been watching body language during the talk, and while some in the audience appeared energized, sitting up straighter and looking more alert, others had been “wilting.” She reminded the audience that everyone should be respectful of others’ beliefs, and to remember that we might be talking of things that others hold sacred. Think how you would feel, she said, if a speaker at the podium said lesbians were going to hell.
The kindness of these words had an effect the previous mockery had not, and I started to cry in earnest. Something had been released, and now I couldn’t stop. Snuffling and sobbing, right in the middle of the front row, parked under the podium, with no way to escape. Through 45 minutes of question-and-answer I sat there gulping back sobs, feeling like a conspicuous idiot.
As the crowd dispersed I wandered around till I found my roommate, Caroline Langston. We went in the ladies’ room where we talked it all out, and I finished boo-hooing and washed my face. By the time we came out everyone else had gone, and we stepped outside into the cool early evening air.
Just as we were going across the lawn we came upon a small knot of people discussing whether to walk or take a cab across campus to the banquet that was next on the schedule. There stood Swanee and Helen Hunt, Divinity School dean Anne Braude — and Gloria Steinem.
Helen immediately called me over and had me shake hands with Gloria. Swanee commented quietly, “Frederica is one of the ones who was wilting.” (I could have hugged her for that.) Gloria looked at me frankly and said, “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” I replied, “I know that is not what you intended to do.”
Helen then suggested that I come along in the taxi with her, Gloria, and Anne for the short ride to the banquet; Swanee and Caroline would walk. So we crammed into the cab, me in the front, Gloria in the middle of the back with Anne and Helen on either side. The cab was dark and seemed cavernous, with a plexiglass shield that effectively segregated me and the driver from the others way in the back. I looked at the photos of the driver’s children, illuminated by the dashboard lights. As we pulled away from the curb, Helen’s voice came from the back seat: “Frederica, tell Gloria your critique of feminism. Gloria, this is so interesting!”
Picture it. My critique of feminism, in five minutes, for the elucidation of Gloria Steinem. From the front seat of a cab, no less. I turned around to peer through the little round opening in the shield. Gloria’s face hung in the dark like a disk, large, pale, and impassive as the moon.
My sympathies at that moment lay all with her. She was probably thinking, “Here’s some kook I never heard of, who was crying all through my speech, and now shes going to deliver a thumbnail criticism of my entire life’s work.”
I figured the best thing I could do in the circumstances was tell a story. I recounted a scene from my own feminist college days: I had been attending a consciousness-raising session at the home of lesbian friends and had gone upstairs to use the bathroom. There I discovered that the bathtub was full of cow manure. Why? “We’re trying to raise psilocybin mushrooms.”
This, I said, was a very different kind of feminism from the one we’re familiar with now; this was not a kind of feminism that was going to climb the corporate ladder. For all its foolishness and flaws, mother-earth feminists resisted the idea that power-seeking and masculine-style careerism was life’s highest goal. I could remember the day a friend told me enthusiastically that a woman had been made a vice president at AT&T, and I responded, “Why is that good news? We’re not fighting for a bigger piece of the pie. We’re after a different kind of pie altogether.”
But “power feminism” won the struggle, I said, and Gloria interrupted me to say she’d never heard the term “power feminism” before Naomi Wolf coined it. I said that feminism had made a mistake as well in adopting another unhealthy male value, promiscuity, as liberating. Gloria interrupted me again, to say that others would charge feminism with being anti-sex, rather than promiscuous, because it opposes pornography. I couldn’t see any way to get past this Ping-Pong game to real discussion, not in a cab in five minutes. It was a relief when we pulled up to the dining hall and I could politely sidle away.
Months later I got a second-hand message that Gloria was very sorry to have hurt me. I don’t doubt that it’s true, and know that I must hurt people, myself, sometimes, by trampling without realizing it on things they hold dear. Probably she still doesn’t know just why I was hurt, or just chalks it up to Christians being generally parochial and touchy. I hope someday we have an opportunity to talk further. But not through a plexiglass porthole.
[Books & Culture, May-June, 2000]