Like many households of young children, my home buzzes with Olympic enthusiasm these days. With vast imaginations, my daughters soak up – and recreate in our small living room – every Olympic sport they observe. Gymnastics, swimming, soccer, cycling, and water polo: each event fascinates and inspires them, as high-achieving athletes showcase their refined skill and hard work on the world stage.
And, I get it. I even jogged twice this week.
Yet, media statements on female athletes curtail the warm fuzzies of the Olympic vibe for me. ICYMI: Media credits the success of stellar female Olympians to the men in their lives, as noted in this Huffington Post article. Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu wins gold; media credits her husband / coach as the “man responsible.” American trap shooter Corey Cogdell earns bronze; media posts a picture of her that neither provides her name nor her Olympic sport, but refers to her only as “wife of a Bears’ lineman.” These are not new or isolated situations, nor should they be dismissed as off-the-cuff statements; rather they reveal a deep-seated, nearly invisible and acceptable form of sexism that negates the strength and ability of women in order to hold onto perceptions of power and status in our society.
We’re witnessing very public microaggressions in these Olympic commentaries: words, attitudes and actions that undermine personhood, sometimes unintentionally, if ignorantly, sometimes subtly and sometimes harshly. Microaggressions, in all of its manifestations, of course, are way too ordinary and not limited to athletic competitions, pervading our church communities, too: the omission of the names of female clergy on a Sunday worship aid, even on days they preside, or boasts of physical strength by boys over perceived weakness in girls on a youth trip. The list goes on, and I suspect readers could add their own stories of subtle dismissals of their ministry or direct attacks on their contributions to a shared project.
This language has helped me to interpret my experience of microaggressions as a woman. Last fall, for instance, I co-led one session at a church’s adult forum with my male friend and colleague. After the session the two of us received a very short email from a male participant. The email addressed my male colleague by name, told him what an awesome job he had done, “especially good, since [he] had to work with a woman,” and then named again my male colleague. Explicit micro-invalidation. I remained unnamed and unaddressed, my participation nearly invisible and presumed to be burdensome on my colleague, and my positive contributions ignored.
As I tell this piece of my story, and think about public coverage of female Olympians, I wonder about our stories in the context of women’s stories throughout biblical and church history. I wonder about unnamed women: the woman with the hemorrhage, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well. I wonder about women whose lives history negates or omits: liturgical prayers that name Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and omit or make optional the inclusion of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah; lectionaries that exclude Mary Magdalene’s apostolic witness on Easter Sunday. I wonder about female theologians whose contributions to biblical scholarship, theology, preaching or monastic living we downplay in relation to male counterparts, or do not bother to study in our academic institutions and religious communities: Paula and Eustochium, Macrina the Younger, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard, and on and on.
As it turns out, a person formed in the Christian story, as it has been handed down to us, could write a short email nullifying the contribution of an unnamed, theologically-trained, present-day woman, and do so in accord with the inherited Christian tradition.
To counter microaggressions, church communities could confess the ways in which we invalidate women’s contribution to theology, to liturgy and music, to ministry – both historically and currently, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do. We need to uncover the dangerous memory of women’s agency in the Christian story, and to infiltrate our collective living and liturgies with women’s contributions. Doing so would be a step in more authentic and liberating living in church communities and in the greater society.