Browsing Tag



fundamentalist men thought they owned me

My interactions with boys until I was about ten are pretty much hysterical. They are some of the funniest stories I tell about growing up, and I cackle and giggle my way through them. There’s the boy who gave me his mother’s wedding ring on the bus. I was so confused about what had just happened– why would he do that? I showed the ring to my mother and she about had a fit. Long story short, we found the boy’s mother and returned the ring– and it was like the Parable of the Lost Coin going down in that house.

Then there was the random boy who walked up to me in kindergarten and pompously declared that we had “broken up.” Bewildered, I responded with “ok, but I don’t remember your name.” I think he was trying to impress another girl in our class.

My first five-year-old crush ended in violence. We were playing with our blocks, me creating a lopsided pyramid of sorts, and him carefully stacking one block on top of each other. At one point he started crying, I think, drawing the attention of the teacher’s aide. He complained that my tower was taller than his, and that was so not fair. The aide pulled me aside and told me to not be such a show-off. I nodded, then went back and slapped him.

There were the three boys who lined up after church one day when I was nine, and told me that I had to pick one of them to like, because all three liked me but they weren’t going to let that damage their friendship. I solved that particular problem by telling them they were all gross, and I didn’t like any of them. (Seriously– one boy saved up all his spit during church and then bolted out of church the second the service was over to get rid of it, boy #2 had shoved a scorpion down my dress, and boy #3 had made fun of me in Sunday school for disagreeing with him).

When I was thirteen, Jacob* appeared. I tried to be his friend, as his family had recently joined the church and his status as a public schooled was not being very well received by all the homeschool kids at our church. He was more awkward then we were, shy, and uncomfortable. He did not make friends easily, but talking to complete strangers had never bothered me. I kept it up for a few years, even though we spent most of our conversations fighting over the most ridiculous things. At one point, we ended up in an argument over whether or not a road that connected both of our neighborhoods ran north and south or east and west. This argument lasted for a good, solid fifteen minutes. We fought like cats and dogs about everything.

Then, when I was about fifteen, Jacob confessed that he still felt very lonely at our church, and he asked me if I liked him. “Sure,” I said. “I like you.”

It didn’t really occur to me that he was asking me if I liked him. I’m rather obtuse, when it comes to these things. He started talking about how he was almost a year –11 months, 12 days, to be exact — older than me, and how that was a good thing. His commentary befuddled me, but it frequently did that, so I didn’t make anything of it.

Six months later, Jacob started treating me like I was his. I was confused by this, as it looked like he was trying to make it seem that we were together, and we were not. He had never asked me out, had never even come close to broaching anything like that. He had never even approached my father, as would have been expected as a first step. But, after a “Fall Fellowship” we had out at one of the member’s hay farm, and he had clearly pissed on my leg in front of the boys who’d come from other churches, I asked him what was going on.

He told me that he had gone to the pastor of our church and asked him for permission to marry me. And the man had given it– as well as a promise that he would groom Jacob to be the pastor of the church someday. Apparently, the pastor thought I’d make an “excellent pastor’s wife someday, if she recognizes her place as a woman.”

What the WHAT?!


Needless to say, that’s still my reaction when I think about this encounter. I get confused, still– and I get angry. Even when I first found out about it I was pissed.  You’re batshit insane if you think I’m going to be ok with that. Obviously, our tenuous friendship ended with me furiously yelling at him to never speak to me again. A difficult demand, considering there were six people in our church who were close to the same age, and he and I were the only ones who weren’t related. But, I enforced it by very haughtily flouncing away, Anne of Green Gables–style, whenever he approached.

The underlying philosophy that made this situation for Jacob and the pastor that church, however, is one that is a basic tenet in Christian patriarchy:

women are not capable of making decisions.

This basic assumption drives nearly everything else that gets discussed regarding gender roles and women in patriocentric and fundamentalist circles. There are a host of reasons for why they argue for this, and most of them go all the way back to Victorian oppression. To those who are gung-ho patriocentric, Victorian society was the crowning moment of man. Everything was better back then– the clothes, the food, the education system, and especially marriage. Women were always keepers-at-home, and it was an admirable– nay, necessary–goal for a young woman to be “accomplished” in all the home-making arts. I remember our church hosting “Old Fashioned Days” when we would all dress up like characters from Little House on the Prairie and go around extolling all the virtues from a time gone by. My friends all kept “hope chests,” to prepare for their marriage one day.

However, women were supposed to ignore the fact that, in Victorian society, they were property. They had no voice– in fact, a woman being able to voice her opinion was an even more ridiculous notion than racial equality. A woman in Christian patriarchy is still little more than property. She is inferior to men in every way– in fact, she is so inferior, that supposedly the most biblical form of marriage is one where a woman can’t even be held responsible for her decisions. That is, if she’s allowed by her husband to make any– the husband, after all, is the one who make the ultimate decision. Women are emotional, not rational. You can’t trust her to make the most wise decision, as she’ll be fueled only by her matronly, nurturing instincts. Our emotions are so volatile, too– we’re basically incapable of controlling them. In fact, to be safe, women should surrender every area of their life to first, their father, and then their husband. Isn’t it just so nice not to have to worry about anything, dear? Just keep submitting, dear, and you’ll be fine. God will honor your submission, even if your husband is evil.

And I believed all this, once. To my core I believed it– I could not trust myself to make decisions. I laughed about this gnawing fear, jokingly telling people that I just wanted my father to “pick someone for me,” and that I honestly didn’t mind the concept of an arranged marriage. After all, the one time I had “fallen in love” had been a horrendous mistake that left me “damaged goods” for any other man. I couldn’t escape the fear, though, that I was, by nature, untrustworthy. That I could not trust my mind, or my instincts, or my emotions. My gender rendered me mute.

And then, one day, I met someone.

He asked me if he could write me letters– and we wrote for months and months, and I asked him things, asked him what he felt and thought and believed. And I fell in love– fell in love so quickly it frightened me. I was doing it again– thinking I could make a decision this monumental. Eventually, he kissed me, and told me that he loved me, and that he’d be crazy to ever let me go. I held onto him as tightly as I could, and promised myself that I’d never lose the certainty I felt in that moment.

I called my father to tell him what had happened to me– that I had fallen in love, and I was happy, and I was so utterly sure that my parents would love him, and I couldn’t wait for them to meet him. And then, suddenly, we were arguing, because how could I trust you to make this decision. Look at what happened when you thought you could this before. Look at all the pain you caused yourself when you thought you’d found someone. History has proven that you’re not capable of making this decision, Samantha. You have a track record. 

And, for a moment, all the certainty was gone. I had gone outside my father’s approval. I hadn’t waited for his permission– no one had even bothered to ask him for it. I had made my parents superfluous, like they didn’t even matter, and just gone off, willy-nilly, thinking I could do it all by myself. How rebellious was I being? I should be ashamed of myself.

But in another flash, all that doubt flew away. No–no, I refused to go back there. I knew myself– I had spent the last two years discovering who I was, and I was not about to let all of that go to some ghost from my past telling me that I’m the weaker vessel, the woman who was first deceived. I didn’t need my decisions rubber-stamped. Even if it was a mistake, it was my mistake, and I would own it.

Turns out my parents did love him. My mother helped him plan the proposal, and my father walked me down the aisle. Turns out– I was capable of making up my own mind. And when my husband asked me to marry him– he was asking me, and not “me” plus some patriarchal authority system. And I said yes, all on my own.

Photo by Katie Tegtmeyer

my own feminist awakening

In order to finish my grad school application, I had to take one more English class, and I chose to take American Women Writers from an online university, as it seemed the most interesting– the literary canon at my undergrad was dominated, nearly exclusively, by WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant– I’d never heard this term until grad school). The only time I remember reading anything by a female author was an excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor for my American Literature class, and Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch by George Elliot for British Novel. Everything else I read was written by men– even in my English Literature class, as we completely passed over any of the female Romantic and Victorian writers– and didn’t cover post-modernism at all, except for T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, as he wrote that post-conversion and was acceptable. I was totally unaware of the sometimes revolutionary achievements of women in literature, and the first time I heard references to women writers was in the context of Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti — and the only thing she could say to describe it was that it was a “disgusting, horrible little piece and you should be glad I didn’t make you read it.”

I didn’t even realize that this was a gaping hole in my education– that eliminating the feminist writers after 1850 was a deliberate, universal choice made by my university’s professors. I had no real idea the lengths they went to in order to nearly deify the men in the canon. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were the best, most important writers in English and American literature– and that’s all anyone need know. We even avoided male authors who wrote somewhat feminist views into their writing, like Oscar Wilde. Lolita was treated as barely more than erotic fiction. We never discussed the systematic oppression of women in Victorian England– not even when we read The Mayor of Casterbridge and the main character sells his wife in the opening chapter. My professor made a brief comment on how selling your wife was a common legal practice, and then she moved on.

Even though I wasn’t aware of this gap, I still somehow felt the lack, and my curiosity compelled me to take a class on women writers.

I hated it.

It was one of the most miserable experiences I’d ever had.

I hated most of the books we were required to read. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath repulsed me– Esther’s character was so… so blind. Why wasn’t she grateful for all those amazing opportunities that just landed in her lap? I grew angry with the characters in The Joy Luck Club, as every single one of those daughters spent the entire book disrespecting their mothers. The events in Sethe’s life of Beloved shocked and horrified me. How could she possibly do that to her child? Don’t even get me started on The Poisonwood Bible (stupid book making Christians look bad).

But no book infuriated me more than The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I had trouble even reading it through until the end, and when I reached the final scene when Edna begins swimming, I threw it down in sheer disgust. Her character and all of the events in the plot disgusted me. Edna Pontellier was the absolute worst character I’d even encountered in literature. I despised her.

I also didn’t really like any of the other characters in the book, but the only character I could stand at all was Léonce, Edna’s husband. He could still be maddeningly difficult, but I could at least sympathize with him.

So you can imagine my dismay when most of the postings on the online discussion board were about how much my classmates disliked Léonce. I had trouble taking that in. They liked Edna? How in the world could anyone like that insufferable woman! So, I wrote this:

It was difficult to read about these characters because I reacted so viscerally.  I was drawn to Léonce Pontellier for mostly negative reasons—I liked him because I did not like anyone else. Edna was a selfish, childish, petulant, ego-centric person before her “awakening” and that transformation only exacerbated serious character deficiencies. Adele forces her opinion on other people. Mademoiselle Reisz encourages self-absorption and illicit sin. Robert is a manipulative cad. Léonce is the only central character that acts with morals, principle, character, and is also the only person to have the true motivation of love.

Although he was a man of his time, and hence a bit controlling with a great many expectations, none of those expectations were out or proportion or overly demanding. He is devoted to his wife—he sends her chocolates when he is away, and the night that she refuses to accompany him to bed, he sits with her. When he does express concern over Edna’s complete disregard of responsibility, he does it reasonably. He doesn’t care if she decides not to receive callers— he just asks that she offer an explanation. He doesn’t mind if she pursues art—but he does mind the complete neglect of the household and the children. He tries to keep her focused on the value of her family and her friends. After he consults the doctor, he does his best to “let her alone,” hoping that Edna will come to her senses and see how much he loves her. Not without his own faults and shortcomings, he does his best in a difficult situation. Even after his wife tells him that weddings are a sham and to “go away, you bother me,” he tries to do what is right by her. Maybe if Edna had been mature enough to recognize that she possessed the heart of an honorable man she might have responded differently.


Holy…. mackerel was I BLIND.

Son of a biscuit.

If you’re familiar with patriocentric and complementarian rhetoric, you should easily be able to see how it came spewing out of me, here.

I’ve since read the book again. I’ve read all of these books again, recently.

Esther was a woman born into a society with mountainous expectations and a complete disregard for her suffering.

The Chinese daughters in The Joy Luck Club were caught between two worlds, two cultures, and struggling to make sense of their reality– to love and honor their mothers, and yet still be their own person.

Sethe knew her daughter faced a lifetime of horror, abuse, deprivation, and shame– and in an act of loving desperation tried to save her.

The Price daughters grew up in a household of tyranny and oppression, but still managed to escape and find fulfillment.

And Edna . . . oh, Edna . . .

Edna was me.

Edna Pontellier is every daughter affected by the patriocentric movement. She is every woman who has been told, her entire life, that she can have only one possible purpose, and that purpose is in being the perfect wife and mother. She is every little girl who grows up comfortable and familiar with the lies of people like the Vision Forum who tell us that Victorian society was the brightest moment of human development. She is every woman who has been trapped, controlled, oppressed, and abused by a system that exalts men and tells husbands to “expect their due.”

She was me when I refused to leave my abusive fiancé, when I accepted the curses and the shame he heaped on me. She was me every time I was put down from the pulpit, every time I was told my existence, my body, did not belong to me, that I was the property of some faceless, future man.

Fundamentalism and Christian patriarchy’s worst nightmare is that a woman could realize that she is independent, that she is valuable, that she is a person with wants and wishes and dreams all of her own.

Since my first reading of The Awakening, I’ve had my own. I’ve been lost in life and beauty, overcome and transformed by ethereal powers, drawn, pulled, and caressed by an ocean of new ideas, new thoughts. I can proclaim, with all my heart, that I am woman, hear me roar.

Photo by Tracy

flight: on leaving the fundamentalist nest

I eventually chose Liberty University for grad school– mostly because of Kevin Roose’s book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. I picked it up in Barnes and Noble while I was still at my fundamentalist college, mostly for kicks and giggles. The subtitle about “America’s Holiest University” amused me, mostly because it exposed how little anyone really knows of places like Bob Jones, or Pensacola Christian, or Hyles-Anderson– all of which make Liberty University look tame. BJU and PCC like to think of themselves as big stuff– and they are, in fundamentalist homeschooling circles, but… well, PCC’s student population hovers right around 4,000 students. That’s miniscule compared to Liberty’s 12,000, and that’s nothing compared to Michigan’s 45,000.

But, the book made it seem that Liberty was a place I could potentially fit in– and grow. It is still a conservative evangelical university, and the administration is famous for various stunts including disbanding the Democratic student organization. It is also still very much Jerry Falwell’s school, a man who came onto my radar for the first time when he claimed on national television that hurricane Katrina was punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. Needless to say, I knew what I was getting myself into.

However, I was also terrified of secular colleges. I had been told, my entire life, that if you went to a secular college, you were going to be mocked, persecuted. You’d fail classes because your liberal professors would single you out for your Christian beliefs. You’d either have to compromise your faith to survive, especially in graduate school, or you would be stifled and silenced. One of my English professors told my senior-level literature class nightmare stories about the trauma she endured while in graduate school– all those horrific, ugly, nasty, perverted books like The Awakening by Kate Chopin or anything written by Virginia Woolf. Basically, if a woman wrote it post-1850, it was suspect as a work of literature. She told us all about how literary theory classes were nothing more than liberal indoctrination, and how being a Christian made it impossible for her to have an equal part in any class discussions, because she was always dismissed by her fellow students.

Plus, Oregon and Brigham Young wouldn’t accept my non-accredited degree. Liberty had a long history of accepting students from my college, and I didn’t want to have to start over.

But, I had to get over some hurdles first.

I took the GRE after studying for it for three weeks. That is not enough time to study for the GRE, by the way. Not if you know next to nothing about math, which I did not. Also, the reading comprehension bits are not usually narrative. They’re non-fiction, and can get incredibly technical. Blech.

I had to go off-campus, again, to submit my application and print out the graduate assistant application so I could mail that in. My family does not have an over-abundance of wealth, and there was no way I was going to exist under a mountain of student loans when Liberty was willing to pay for my education. I had all of that submitted by November, about a month before my graduation. I’d applied for Liberty’s spring semester, although I knew that was a long shot.

I did get accepted, but for the following Fall.

I started celebrating, and that was when I started encountering opposition.

My Sunday school teacher from my youth was incredulous that I would even consider going to such a “party school.” She told me that Liberty had co-ed dorms and no restrictions- that the entire school existed to accept the students who couldn’t hack it at “real” Christian colleges. She told me that if I went there, I’d be in constant danger of spiritual and physical corruption.

When I was discussing post-graduation plans with my co-workers and announced that I’d be going to Liberty in September, she reached over, took my hand, and told me that she would “be praying for me,” that I would “see the light,” and “come to my senses”– that I would realize that my “true place” was in the “center of God’s protection,” and that I’d stop “rebelling against what I knew to be true,” and that I needed to stay at my undergrad institution– if I wanted to pursue a graduate degree at all, which she didn’t “feel was wise for a woman to do.”

Both of those were fairly easy to laugh off as ridiculous– because they were. Utterly and completely. Even back then I knew that they were crazy.

A more difficult conversation was with my parents. I told my mother I’d applied and been accepted to Liberty, and her response was that I’d “have to discuss it with my father.”

Those words were ominous, and filled me with dread. What if my father said I couldn’t go? What would I do? I was realizing every day how fervently I wanted–needed— this step forward.

When I did, eventually, talk to my father, the conversation did not go well. He told me that he did not think going all the way to Virginia for grad school was a good idea, that a daughter shouldn’t be so far away from home. That, if I went, I’d be “outside the umbrella of his protection,” and had I considered going to grad school online, or a Christian school closer to home?

It was difficult to explain that online master’s degrees in English were not really worth the time or money, and that the schools near home were too conservative for me– if they offered grad programs at all, which few did– and none in English. “Well, why did it have to be English?” he asked, and then I had to explain about my dream of becoming an editor. My father’s concern, at that point, shot through the roof. Become an editor? Move to New York? That was insane– impossible. I could not do that, was incapable of ever doing that. I had no idea of what the real world is like, he told me, and trying to make it on my own, outside of the protective shield of my parents, would destroy me. I should give up on that immediately and find a more realistic option. I could go to work at the same company my father worked at, be a communications or marketing assistant if I really wanted to get into editing. That way, I could stay at home and skip all of my ridiculous notions of making it as an editor, on my own.

When Liberty told me that even though I had been accepted into their graduate school, there was no room in the GA program, it felt like a crushing defeat. It felt like God had slammed the door in my face just to prove my father right. I couldn’t do it. I should just go home.

So I did.

I went home.

I got a soul-sucking job as a teller, and every day I came home with another example of how I couldn’t make it in the real world. I wasn’t cut out for it. Wasn’t designed for it.

That lasted for eight months– until I got an email from the director of the GA program asking if I was still interested in the program.

Was I still interested? Was he kidding me?!

Nervous, borderline nauseated, I called my father at work and asked him what I should do.

One of the things I have always appreciated about my father is that he is never hasty. He has the patience of an oak, and can wait out nearly any storm. He also takes questions like this one seriously, and he’s never rushed just so he could give me an answer. Usually, when I ask him for advice, his response is that he would pray about it– and he would tell me what he thought a few days, maybe a few weeks later.

So his response shocked me.

“You should go.”

His answer was immediate, without hesitation. Firm. Sure.

“Really? I’d have to be there in two weeks.”

“Yes. Go into work tomorrow and tell them you quit.”

So I did.

Two weeks later I was in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Photo by Diana Robinson