Monday, August 29, 2011

The Girl Talk

The first year I attended a TeenPact class I got my first experience of The Girl Talk, and I would experience it every year after along with special Girl Talks at National Conventions. When I was 16, I became a staffer with TeenPact, so I have myself given many Girl Talks. The Girl Talk begins with the staffers splitting the class up, leaving all the female participants together in one room while the males get up together and leave. After all the boys are gone, the female staffers come to the front of the room and explain what is expected of the female participants during the week of TeenPact. The dress code is covered in minute detail - exactly how long mid-calf-length is, exactly how many fingers from your collarbone before your shirt gets too low, etc. Female TeenPacters are left with the distinct impression that in order to set a good example, a woman has to be modest. No one wants to cause their brothers to stumble, and so after The Girl Talk there are relatively few dress code mishaps.

However, sometimes there are accidents. While staffing in Maine, I was asked by one of the female interns to inform a student that her clothes were inappropriate - I forget what was even wrong with them, I think it was that her skirt was too tight or something like that - anyway, the problem was fairly miniscule and she certainly had no idea that she was in violation of dress code. I took her aside and told her that she would have to change. I remember dreading it - I knew she would be mortified. She looked at me in complete humiliation and started to cry. I felt terrible, but she had violated the dress code. I had only done what I was supposed to do in order to protect the young men around us. I knew she wouldn't violate the dress code again.

While the girls are having The Girl Talk, the boys are getting The Guy Talk. The subject of this talk was hotly debated among the girls, because neither sex was supposed to know what the other's talk was about. When I became a staffer, I found out that while the girls were having their half-hour long talks on the subject of just what exactly constitutes immodesty and how we could best keep our brothers from stumbling, the guys were getting a much, much shorter (fifteen minutes topes - and that was stretching it) talk on: being respectful of women and opening doors for them. Now, I'm not saying it's bad to ask guys to respect women - it's great. But the point was that the burden of modesty was on the women alone. After they'd heard their spiel, the guys would stand outside the room the girls were in and wait for them to be done. They got their talk, then stood there and waited. There was honestly nothing more that could have been said to the guys? They just had to wait for the girls to realize that it rested with us and us alone to protect our brother's minds?

The Girl Talks at National Convention were much different from The Girl Talks at regular TeenPact classes. These talks weren't about modesty or the dress code, at least not in those concrete terms. These talks were much better than that - girls waited eagerly for the session when the TeenPact National Coordinator (who was female - it was ok for her to hold a high position because she was always under the authority of the founder, a male) would speak to us about what it meant to be A Woman. We would listen with baited breath as this strong woman of God explained to us that the woman's place is to be subject to the man - a woman is usurping a man's true role if she takes a job over him. She explained that this does not make women less. Far from it! She painted the picture of a noble, strong man - one who would have never gotten to where he was had it not been for the meek and humble encouragements of his doting wife who never stopped believing in him or submitting to him. She explained that a woman's role is to be a persuader - a winsome creature whose Godly arguments could sway the heart of the king. However, if you try to persuade your husband of something (though none of us were married, including her, it was pretty much assumed that we all someday would be) and he should choose not to listen to you, no matter how important it is, the Godly wife, the True Woman, would submit to his wishes. No matter what, no matter how hard. This, we learned, was how God would know we were truly good wives - we honored His role for us even when it was incredibly difficult. There was no mention of anything like spousal abuse, verbal or physical abuse, monetary indiscretion or any of the very real things that a man could choose to do that a wife would then have to submit to. The picture that was painted for us was one of humbling our own pride and selfish desires to be first. If you didn't always do what your husband said, you were prideful, selfish and not God-honoring and that was that.

I know this woman, and she is a wonderful, dear person with great integrity. I like her quite a bit. But she herself has been lied to, and in consequence she was spreading those lies to us. For one thing, the culture she'd grown up in seems to have made her terribly, terribly naive - perhaps I'm wrong about this, but the picture that she painted for us was one filled with naivete. It's one thing to set aside your own desires in order to build up your spouse. Christ provides us this very model: laying down your pride and selfishness to serve another person. But to imply that ANY marital problem can be solved by simply following this formula is nothing but ignorant. If someone is abusing your children, you don't submit to that man. You protect your children. If someone is verbally and physically abusing you, you don't submit to that. You get out. I'm sorry, but it does NOT dishonor God to protect yourself and your children from sin and evil. Either I am completely misrepresenting and completely misunderstood her words and intentions, or she had never give much thought to the extremely dire straits a woman can find herself in after marriage, or those dire straits had been passed off as products of the woman's sin - she's not submitting enough, she's not respectful enough, etc. She couldn't have realized the extremely destructive nature of what she was telling us. She wasn't a hypocrite, she was just extremely misled.

Since none of us were married (not yet!) we got helpful tips on how best to affirm and respect the men who were in our lives right now. Men were the natural leaders, and we should always be encouraging of them. We were told to affirm the young men around us - the 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 year-old young men who were also at TeenPact. It became a running joke with my friend Andy and me - he would say something stupid and I would reply "I affirm you!" But seriously - boys at that age? Can sometimes be stupid. Really stupid. They're not very mature yet, and that's just the truth. But no matter - if the young women in their lives would affirm them in their dreams and aspirations, they could only turn out well. The support of a woman was all it took.

It was a ridiculous view of women, with much more in common with the 1950's idea of the "angel of the home" than with anyone I knew. But I reasoned: didn't Jesus tell us to be meek? Weren't we supposed to be humble? This must be the way for a woman to do those things.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

TeenPact: the Beginning

When I was 13 years old my mom found out about a program that taught homeschooled students about government called TeenPact. My mom has always been very politically active - she used to pull my brother and me around in our little red wagon while she would pound campaign posters into lawns around town. My tendency is to be politically apathetic. I've never really cared that much, and my cynicism when it comes to civic action tells me that my single vote won't do much good anyways. But at the age of 13 my political cynicism was not yet highly developed. So my mom signed me up for TeenPact and told some of our homeschool group friends about it as well, and I agreed to go - it seemed like it wouldn't be that bad, and plus my friends Rose and Andy were going to go as well.

TeenPact calls itself a "leadership school." It's a four-day intensive program focused on teaching teenagers from 13-19 about the way their local governments work. It's open to anyone, but since it's in the middle of the school year it's very rare that anyone but homeschoolers go. TeenPact travels from state to state, hosting classes in each state capitol building. The students hold mock legislatures, hear from guest lecturers who are often very high up in their state governments, and even get to meet their legislators. They learn about lobbying, the constitution, how a bill becomes a law, and the importance of civic action. All this sounded like not much fun to my 13-year-old self, but I figured it wouldn't be that bad, Rose and Andy would be there, and we might meet some nice kids. Then I found out about the dress code.

TeenPact's dress code was rigid. Boys: preferably a suit, at least a long-sleeved button up shirt and a tie, NO shorts, NO sneakers. Absolute professionalism. Alright, I thought, they want us to look nice, I understand that. It's important to present ourselves well. But the instructions for the girls were far more elaborate: girls may not wear pants, even professional pant suits. Skirts must be mid-calf length and must not show the knees when the girl is sitting. No sneakers, no sandals. Shirts must have sleeves - cap sleeves do not count as sleeves. The neckline must come no more than two finger-widths below the collar-bone. Shirts must not be form-fitting - you should be able to pinch the sides of your shirt and pull it away from your body without it pulling tight across your chest. Jewelry should not be attention-drawing. Then there were the more general instructions to both sexes: no piercings anywhere but the ears. No strange haircuts. No strange hair colors.

I had a little bit of a fit when I found out about these rules. At 13, I was struggling to know how to dress my strange new body in everyday life, let alone with this list of regulations to take into account. How was I going to avoid looking like a total dork in a mid-calf-length skirt? My mom encouraged me - these rules were strict, she said, but they just want everyone to look professional. We'll find you some clothes that you'll look alright in.

Well, we didn't. I remember my first year at TeenPact as an awkward time of trying to fit in with the older kids (Rose was 16 and had miraculously found clothes that looked cute and stylish even while meeting the dress code), wearing the same uncomfortable polyester-blend long black skirt every day (it was the only one we could find that was dress-code-proof) and being unsure of what I actually thought about anything.

So that was my first year at TeenPact. I didn't hate it, but I didn't like it much either. That might have been the end of it, if it hadn't been for Rose.

Rose loved TeenPact. She was old enough to make friends easily, and it didn't hurt her that she has always had a personality that's at home with almost anyone and is one of the most strikingly beautiful people I've ever met. She loved TeenPact so much that she went to the TeenPact National Convention in Georgia that summer, and came home galvanized. Her mom became the state coordinator for our state and her excitement infected me a little. Maybe there was more to TeenPact than I had realized.

Year 2 of TeenPact was totally different. I was a year older and had more practice with what clothes worked for my body. I looked long and hard for pieces that would meet the dress code but still be cute. I did better than the year before, and at TeenPact Round Two I actually made friends. I got more excited about political activism - they taught us that we, individual people, and teenagers no less, could really make a difference in our state governments! This was empowering talk. That summer I went to the National Convention too, and by TeenPact Year 3 I was totally on board.

So what's the matter with this picture? TeenPact sounds great. It teaches kids about civic action, provides a place for homeschoolers to get to know other  young people (the coveted "socializing") and gives opportunities for travel and political involvement. What's wrong with that?

Well, not really anything, or at least, not anything really sinister. The best parts about TeenPact were wonderful, and the worst parts were mostly unintentional or accidental. But the worst parts were important, and starting at 13, they began to shape my view of myself and others. TeenPact officially endorses no candidates, but if it's an impartial organization, well, I'm a wildebeest. We learned which candidates were Godly and which weren't - which were trying to save our Christian nation from the hands of the wicked liberals and which were in cahoots with those very liberals themselves. TeenPact unofficially hosted Student Projects where TeenPacters from all over would fly in and go door-to-door for a certain candidate, holding signs on street corners, addressing and stuffing envelopes and phoning all the registered Republicans to remind them to get out and vote come voting day. It was an entirely conservative organization - at National Conventions we listened to guest speakers and sometimes even the founder himself tell us how we could save our nation from the evils of gay marriage, liberal higher education and taking God out of public life. We were going to take this country back for God from the ground up, one teenager at a time! It was a heavy responsibility, and a glorious one. We stood out from the ranks of wickedness all around us, shining the light for Christ and a Christian America. I took up the cause wholeheartedly.

I loved TeenPact. I had more friends than I had ever had before - true, dear friends who cared about each other passionately. I had a purpose and a calling - TeenPact was at times a truly empowering organization. "Let no one look down on you because you are young," TeenPact had us recite, "but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity." I felt like God really wanted me and needed me to further His kingdom. At the same time, I was becoming more and more firmly convinced that gay people and liberals were definitely trying to destroy everything Godly about America, that America needed specifically Christian laws in order for God's hand to remain upon us, that 9/11 may have been God's punishment for taking His Laws out of our schools and courthouses, and that there was a rising tide of young people in this country who were spurining true manhood and womanhood. It wasn't until much later that I reflected on many of the things TeenPact taught me about myself and specifically myself as a woman. Those things will be the subject of my next post.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What's in a Name?

Daughters of Junia: it isn't a blog title with an obvious meaning. But there is one, and it's a meaning that I chose because of its empowering message. I thought for a long time about what to call this blog, and eventually I landed on those three words: three words that concisely sum up what I believe to be the "Biblical role of women." Let me explain.

Paul mentions Junia in the 16th chapter of Romans, a chapter full of personal greetings to the members of the Roman church. Verse seven says,

"Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was" (Romans 16:7, NRSV).

Paul, who is the most vocal proponent of "silent women" according to the conservative/fundamentalist/patriarchal movement, is here recognizing a woman, Junia, as an apostle in the church. This greeting is, in fact, only one of many times that Paul greets women whom he names as influential in the church and church leadership: a few verses earlier in Romans 16:1 he says, "I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well" (NRSV). Paul greets many other women besides these two in his letters. So why name the blog after Junia? Why not Phoebe or Lydia or Mary Magdalene? There were many women who were prominent in the New Testament churches.

I chose Junia because Junia and the women of patriarchy have something in common. In the 11th century a man named Aegidius of Rome decided that this greeting of Paul's to Andronicus and Junia, both of whom Paul called apostles, could not possibly have been a greeting to a man and a woman. Paul must have meant two men, since women could never be apostles! Therefore, relying completely on his own prejudices, Aegidius "corrected" what he saw as a corrupt text, adding an "s" to Junia's name, changing it to the masculine-sounding "Junias." Kristina Lacelle-Peterson, a New Testament scholar, comments, "He did this not because the ancient Greek texts of the New Testament demanded it (what biblical scholars call textual evidence), but because of his assumption that women could not be apostles. Essentially he changed the text of scripture because of his own theological commitments" (Liberating Tradition: Women's Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective, page 63). It was not until the Reformation that Junia was once again recognized to be a woman. Biblical scholar Bernadette Brooten has since shown that the name "Junias" cannot be found in any ancient text, indicating that it was not actually a male name at that time, though the name Junia, a female name, appears frequently elsewhere (Liberating Tradition, page 64).

I chose Junia to be this blog's namesake because I feel that, much like what happened to her, women in the patriarchal movement are overlooked. Their own names are changed and covered over by the names of their fathers, brothers, and husbands who have the supposed biblical mandate to lead. They have never heard a sermon about Junia, the female apostle, or Phoebe, the female bishop. They have never been told that to be a woman is not to be somehow less; instead they have internalized the opposite. And, unlike Junia, they have never had the wrongs done to them righted. They have never recovered their true names.

Junia is a symbol of hope for women in a patriarchal movement devoid of affirmation and acceptance. Junia's name has been restored to her and her rightful place as an apostle right alongside Andronicus and Paul has been accepted once again - nearly all English translations now read "Junia" rather than "Junias." We are her daughters, the heirs to her legacy - the Bible empowers each woman not only to lead, but to lead outstandingly. It is possible for women to be apostles, it is possible for women to be leaders, it is possible for wrongs to be righted. Isn't that the message of the gospel, the good news? Jesus said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." The example of Junia offers disempowered women hope and an example of the Lord's favor for women since the beginning of the church.

My hope is that the captives will be released, the blind will indeed recover their sight, the oppressed will go free and that the daughters of Junia will at last recover their names.

The Reason for Daughters of Junia

I grew up in a rural community in the midwest portion of the United States, the oldest daughter of a dentist and a former English teacher. Both of my parents are extremely intelligent, hard-working and honest individuals who decided to homeschool their children when I was ready for kindergarten. My mom was well-suited to homeschooling, having been an English teacher before marrying my dad, as well as being very organized and hard-working. My siblings and I are all very well-educated as a result of her efforts and dedication to teaching us well.

My parents never told me that there were certain things that I could not do because I was a girl. On the contrary, my list of childhood career aspirations was long and changed frequently, including teacher, doctor, writer, astronaut, first female President, and an exceptionally long stretch in early childhood when I wanted to be "a builder of houses and fences." However, as I grew up in the homeschool community, my perceptions of what it meant to be female subtly shifted, apart even from the realization of my parents. Up until I hit puberty being a girl had never posed a problem: I fell nicely in line with the patriarchal ideal of female childhood. Though always a strong-willed child with very definite ideas and opinions, I was respectful and obedient to my parents and to other adults. I loved to wear dresses and play Little House on the Prairie with my friends. I idealized pioneer times and secretly wished I had been born about 150 years earlier. I loved to cross-stitch, knit and make up patterns for dresses for my stuffed animals. I was a patriarchal poster child.

It was around age 12 or 13 when I began to realize: I'm a girl. Of course I had always known I was female and I had always liked fairly stereotypically female things, but this had never been an obstacle or imposed any limits on my ambitions. Up until age 12 my thoughts on being a girl, if I had even had any, would have been something like "I'm a girl and I can do anything I want." Once puberty began and I started "developing", things started to change. "Modesty" was a new thing I learned about, and only girls had to worry about it. Boys began to be much more interesting than they had been, and thus I learned about "guarding my heart" and about Godly Courtship. I started to get more involved in social activities within the homeschooling movement, and there I learned about Equal Value, Separate Callings and the inability of a woman to hold a leadership position without severely offending God. In short, I was surrounded by people who, if they were not quite actively proselytizing the conservative Christian/patriarchal movement, were living it loudly all around me. They were my peers, my mentors, and my examples in everyday life.

However, it was not only the true role of women that I learned from my homeschooling peers. I also became an extremely conservative Christian in terms of social issues. Gays? Abomination. Evolution? There are Answers in Genesis! The environment? Only hippies care, and hippies are unmanly. Female Pastors? Get thee behind me, Satan! God said it, I believe it, that settles it. But even as I became convinced deep in my soul that being female made me less worthy of God's attention and that the liberals were out to destroy America, God's country, I began to feel an unrest in my soul. Why do I believe these things? I wondered. Why am I even a Christian? Try as I might, I couldn't come up with a meaningful answer that wasn't "because I was raised this way." Throughout highshool I became deeply concerned with the reasons behind the things I believed, using all the resources offered me to determine what I really thought about things. Not surprisingly, since all the resources I could get hold of were conservative Christian resources, I reasoned my way right back to where I had started, and I was still unhappy. It seemed like a pretty rough deal that the gay people would have to go through their entire lives miserably unhappy and in bondage to their sin, since homosexuality was such a difficult sin to get rid of. But I knew that God could only accept them if they stopped being gay (or at east acting gay) first - that was what the Bible said, definitively. Similarly, I wondered why women were the weaker vessels - did the smaller proportions of our bodies relative to men's really affect our intellects and abilities as well? I had out-reasoned many of my male peers in the debate tournaments my mom took me to - were those just coincidences? How did all these teachings actually make any sense?

I have now been avidly reading and following a variety of homeschooling/patriarchy/conservative Christianity blogs for more than a year, intrigued and unsettled and frequently angered by the experiences of those who have dealt with the conservative movement in America. Though I've faithfully read these blogs, I have never commented or joined in any discussions, preferring to watch and listen. It's not that I don't have opinions - I do. I have always been mistrustful of my ability to express my own point of view within the space constraints of a comments section. For this reason I've created this blog - Daughters of Junia - to give a voice to my own experiences and concerns and to tell the story of my divorce from the socially conservative, patriarchal homeschooling movement that I grew up immersed in.  I hope that it will be an experience of healing for me and a way of coming to terms with the things I've been taught and the things I believe now. I hope too that my experiences can be a comfort to others who have similar stories but who were not given the resources I was given to help them come out of the destructive and debilitating mindset of Biblical Patriarchy.

It was going to a small Christian liberal arts college that opened my mind to the whole world of Christian thought - not just the small, narrow, very recent strain of Christianity that I met in my conservative upbringing. My faith now is much broader, wider and deeper than it was in my conservative years. I believe now that true religion is what the conservative movement gives a lot of lip service to but makes very little true effort to actually put into action - to serve those who are outcasts, to care for the least of these, and to become the greatest by being the slave of all.