The Importance of Being a Girl

How would you react if someone told you, “It’s your job as the woman to take care of the menial tasks at home so that [your husband] can focus on accomplishing the important things that he needs to do.” This is a quote from a conversation that I had not long ago.  It is one of many like it.  If you are a woman, it’s very likely that in subtle and not so subtle ways, you’ve been told that you are unimportant because you were born the wrong gender.

What I really want to discuss is my journey as a girl who never wanted to be a girl.  Don’t get me wrong, I love dressing up every now and again and feeling beautiful, but if God was giving out preferences, I would’ve chosen to be a boy.  Why?  No periods. Haha, no…seriously, let me take you the long way around through some of the more memorable highlights.

The first time that I realized that being a girl was not all it was cracked up to be was when I was 4.  My brothers and I were painting our “tree house” in our back yard.  My older and younger brother had their shirts off, so of course, being a hot day, I took mine off too.  Don’t worry, I was dragged in the house by my mother who was completely dismayed by my lack of modesty.  Modest what?  I was 4.  “Girls always have to wear shirts, Anna,” she said as she wrestled my shirt back over my head.  “But Jonathan and Andrew don’t have to,” I whined.  “It’s hot and we’re workin’.”  (Yes, I had a little southern accent back then.)

“You’ll understand when you’re older, but you always have to wear a shirt and they’re boys—they don’t have to.”

“That’s not fair.”  Oh how right I was as a little girl.

That was the first time I realized that there were rules which applied to me and not to boys.

My next foray into inequality came when my family first joined ATIA (Advanced Training Institute of America).  My first encounter with ATI was in Knoxville, TN.  Each year, there was a big conference where all of the families from the east coast and midwest would gather for “Biblical training.”  I don’t know exactly how old I was when we first joined, but I was forced to attend the children’s sessions.

To blend in, my parents bought us all regulation clothing.  Much to my brothers chagrin, they were forced to wear white, button-down dress shirts and navy pants.  For me and my sister, it was an ankle-length navy skirt (or as close as one find in such “worldy” stores such as Wal-mart), and an ill-fitting white blouse, to camouflage any feminine body part—such as knees, necks, shoulders, and chests—which might cause a brother to stumble.

“If anyone asks,” Mom drilled us before we arrived in Knoxville, “you dress like this all the time.  And Anna,” she said, “don’t mention that you wear blue jeans.  If they ask, tell them you don’t.”  I was given permission to lie!  I could handle this.  This undercover life excited my imagination.  I saw it as great practice for my later career as a spy.

However, the excitement vanished as soon as it had come.  Dressing in a long skirt meant that I could not do any of my favorite things without great difficulty. I learned quickly to distinguish fakers like me from the hardcore Gothard-ites.  The real ones wore red scarves tied 50’s soc-hop style around their necks.  It was also easy to tell by how gracefully one was able to sit on a concrete floor. The ones that were used to sitting on the ground in skirts, were able to sit down in less than a heart beat with the utmost grace and modesty: like a weightless fairy upon an enchanted lily pad.  I worked my way through several awkward positions, looking like I was wrestling a piranha that was caught in there before I had myself situated.  I couldn’t sit any of the ways I normally sat.

In the children’s program, we sang dumb songs (and as a kid who never stopped singing, for me to draw the line at these song says something about their poor quality), watched Mr. Andrew–our K group leader–do finger exercises and ventriloquy while we waited each morning for the bus, and heard stories about how animals, like the Indian elephant, could teach us character qualities such as perseverance, and hard work.

Each year following, there grew more and more dissenters in our family.  The second year, two of my brothers had a contest to see who could get more “wisdom walks.”  “Wisdom walks” were ATI’s happy sounding phrase for punishment.  Only bad kids got those. It was some form of punishment that usually involved running laps around the large warehouse and a good old fashioned talking to.  And this was exactly what my brothers preferred, over sitting in this awful place.  They likely received spankings as well, but I really don’t remember.

The next year,  two of my brothers and I graduated into the teen program.  At first I was excited, but I soon came to realize that it was far worse than the children’s sessions.  We still sang songs, but we were graduated to actual hymns now.  I learned the hard way that there were some hymns that I, as a female, was not allowed to sing.  For instance, it was offensive for a woman to sing any hymn that featured the word “men” in the title.  Obviously, these hymns were written for men only.  Duh. So when, in a mixed assembly, we were told to stand and sing “Rise Up, O Men of God,” I did so, and while singing out with gusto, a girl tugged on my skirt and said, “Sit down, this is not for us.” I was embarrassed to notice that out of the 300 boys and girls there, I was the only girl standing.  It didn’t seem right.  With each passing day of that week, I became more and more aware that the brothers I had been equal to my whole life were no longer my equals.  I was a lesser individual who had to surround myself with rules and personal sacrifice to make their world easier.  While the boys were learning survival skills and repelling from water towers, I was stuck learning how to make ugly multi-colored braid belts that no one in their right minds would ever wear, and being forced to memorize Proverbs 31 with the Gothard interpretation.  His interpretation went something like this.  The part where she buys land and her husband trusts her to run everything is always skipped over.  The focal point is always the making clothes, the women’s work, and the sacrifice that the woman must make.  And really, as a 12 year old girl, this was my interpretation of what I heard. “The Proverbs 31 woman is basically a glorified slave who does everything (without complaining) so that her husband has a great reputation at the gate and can hang out all day doing whatever he wants with his buddies.”  That was the first time in my life, where I felt an anger that I couldn’t understand or put into words until many years later.

The more my family delved into Gothard theology, in the nifty little “wisdom booklets,” the more a seed of anger grew.  I couldn’t explain it and I constantly repented for it, but the more we became entrenched, and the more rules I was told to live by (as a girl), the more obstinate I became.  I’ll never forget reading in the wisdom booklet the interpretation of Tamar’s rape.  According to Gothard, the rape was her fault: she was leading Amnon on.  Another time, the whole last 10 pages of the booklet were pictures and detailed descriptions about how long a woman’s hair and skirt should be, and how applying too much makeup led men to stumble.  And college, was out of the question for a woman because that would mean that she would be out from under the authority and protection of a man.  Thankfully, my parents, although many times idealizing other “perfect” ATI families, never made me wear skirts (except on Sunday), and thought that the whole no college bit was overkill.

When I dressed up on Sunday’s, I only wore dresses that were extremely modest.  I was never embarrassed by my body like many women are, but I believed that somehow my body was inherently evil.  I was just about the cover child for modesty.  When my mom allowed me to wear a skirt that had a slit up to my knees one Sunday, I kept trying to sit so that no one could tell how immodest I was.  Long baggy shirts, long shorts (if I wore shorts), and once I was in high school, I wore mostly men’s clothing.  I was afraid that I might lead a man into sin accidentally.

At home, I was held to a different standard than my brothers.  I was expected to do the women’s work and my brothers were not.  Whenever I did something (usually fun and) immature, my Dad would say, “I’m disappointed in you, Anna.  You acted like the boys today.”  Being the kid who wanted to please my parents more than anything in the world, this was always a blow.  I would vow to myself that I would try harder.

As a kid and a teenager, I wanted to join the military and thinking that my Dad might be proud, I told him.  “No you won’t.  The military is no place for a girl.  I won’t allow it.”  As it turns out, because of a health issue, I wouldn’t have been eligible anyway, but it was the difference between the encouragement of my brothers doing it and me not being allowed that made it memorable.

At one point in college, I found myself being the only girl playing a football-type game with all guys.  That wasn’t too uncommon in high school, but when one of the guys took me aside and told me that it was inappropriate for me to be the only girl playing such a rough game with about 20 guys, he asked me to leave and, being completely embarrassed, I did.  I look back now and wish I’d ignored him and kept on playing, but I didn’t.

When I married Ethan, I started to believe that for the first time in my life, I was beautiful and that I didn’t need to go out of my way to cover up my body.  He liked when I wore skirts that were above my knees and tops that weren’t burgeoning on high Victorian collars.

My next step in the process came when we were trying to find a church to attend.  There was one church (Crossway), and for some reason, each Sunday that we attended, I would get the same angry feeling that I did in ATI.  So instead of praying it away or dismissing it, I began to take note.  First, I saw that on the Sunday’s where I attended church and Ethan was not with me, they did not hand me a bulletin because they only ever handed the bulletins to the men.  Then, I noticed that men would avoid looking at me or talking to me.  In fact, there was one conversation that stuck out in my mind.  A man came up to Ethan to ask if he would lead a small group discussion.  I stood directly beside Ethan and the man asked Ethan, “Would your wife be interested in assisting you?”  Ethan laughed, not giving it any thought. “She’s right here, ask her.”

He turned to me and asked and I said I’d think about it.  I was already a little burned by the fact that not only are women not allowed to lead any sort of Bible study where there might be men or boys over the age of 12 (is that the age of manhood?), but the guy had to have permission from my husband to talk to me.  There were other comments about the place of a woman from the pulpit, usually along the lines of if you’re married, you should be having and raising children.  I had no children, and thus, I was likely viewed as a threat by the men of the church.

The most obvious example of the gender segregation was the Men’s prayer breakfast and the church workday afterwards.  Ethan went to the men’s prayer breakfast where the women made, served, and cleaned up after the men’s breakfast.  Afterwards, Ethan brought me back with him to work.  Out of the 500 people in the congregation, how many women do you think were there for the work day?  One.  Me.  So the whole time, I got comments like, “You work like a man,” and “Wow, you look like you’ve done this before,” and my favorite, “you know your outdoor work, but can you cook?”  At that point, and with my hands covered in wood chips and mud, I refrained from slapping the man.  Before that point, all of the things that I had noticed had gone unnoticed by Ethan.  It wasn’t happening to him, so he was oblivious to it.  I told him about these things that I was noticing, and slowly, he was starting to see things for what they really were for himself.  It was not long after the church workday that we left that church.

Is this what Christian fellowship is supposed to look like?  Is it supposed to be driven by fear of our sin natures?  I should hope not.

Not long ago, a Christian speaker asked, “How do I teach men how to be men?”  I would ask instead, what does it mean to be a man?  Most father seminars run along the lines of teaching men to “lead their families,”  using words like “leadership, decisive, strong, protection, etc…”  Is that really what a man should be?  What about the men who are nothing like that?  Perhaps they have no desire to “lead” their women.  Great.  What if the man and woman fall naturally into those prescribed roles?  Great.

What would happen if that concept was to change?  What if men were held to the same standards as women?   What would the world look like if men were taught to be kind, generous, thoughtful, loving, and serving?  What if women were taught to love themselves for who they are, tomboy or girly girl?  Would it be so wrong to embrace every part of each human?  And would we then be able to view gender roles as safety nets for our sinful natures?

Comments

  1. I’ve no articulate comment other than, “yes!” and “I’m sorry you went through that.” Thanks for writing this.

  2. Jill Heine says:

    I would never have guessed that you came from this point of view. I appreciate your comments and say that I have thought many of these things myself.

  3. Anna, I love your heart and mind. So much connection with what you say. I remember being out in the woods hauling logs with my brother and father, hard heavy work. But I had to wear either pants under a skirt or snow pants and tuck my skirt in somehow. Then, go inside and be modest and a ” girl” take care of my younger sibs and cook while the men rested or did what the wanted while asking ” what’s for dinner”. Sigh, maybe that is why I hate being asked ” what’s for dinner ” by my FAM.
    Love you anna

  4. Doctor (Who): Now you see!! That. Is. A woman!!

    Seriously where can I find another like you, since you are married?
    Independent, thinking for herself, Christian, physically strong and willing “work like a man” but never forgetting or ashamed of being a woman, and may I pseudo repeat: THINKING.
    One phrase that made me mad was when you would ask an opinion the girl would say let last night me ask my boyfriend about it, or if my boyfriend gives me permission. Have your own mind and don’t be dependant on others for your opinions. Clearly you do! God Bless and as a man let me apologize for those of my gender who have no idea what a woman is about or “for”

  5. “you know your outdoor work, but can you cook?” HAHAHAHAHA!!!! oh man, ridonkadonk! I can’t believe people think like this!

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