RELIGIONS SAY Woman-Be Quiet

I always wondered why women put up with it. They bow their heads and pretend, with finger to cheek, that they don’t quite understand. They let a man win a game so he won’t feel diminished. They take inappropriate comments with a smile and think to be “a lady” is to be invisible, to be sweet. In nearly every culture, women need to be quiet to be accepted, as in keep your opinion to yourself and shut up. That’s what mama told them.

            We are set up for this historically. In the ancient story, The Odyssey, Penelope in her experience and wisdom tries to speak; she is told by her young son, Telemachus, to go back upstairs…speaking is for men.” She does what he says. She should have smacked him and sent him to his room for a long time out. 

            Over the years, women writers took male names to tell their stories. Even today it is a rare woman that is heard in a church or temple or government.

            Be quiet is what I was told the day I came into the world. Be quiet is what I have been told throughout my life. Women’s voices need to be heard. It’s time to talk. It’s time to tell you my story.

            As a small girl in the 1950’s, I found a place of comfort in the liturgy, music and community of our parish church.  My family lived in a small three-bedroom house in Compton, California. My two sisters and I slept in a double bed in the girl’s room. The three boys had bunk beds and another single in their room. The sound of my parents praying together at night lulled us to sleep.

            My life felt safe, but I was a contrary child.

            Even then something didn’t seem right. I began to see that there were opportunities for boys that didn’t exist for girls. I asked questions about this unfairness at home and at school and was given annoyed looks or told to “Be Quiet.”

            My parents encouraged the girls to “get an education,’ which usually meant be a teacher or a nurse. In the late ’50s, early ’60s our horizons were limited.  We were told that we would enroll in the local Community College because it was the cheapest. We also worked to pay for our books and education costs. There were no student loans then. 

            Our salaries, like today, were less than a man earned for the same job. We played sports but the opportunity for scholarships did not exist for us as they did for our brothers. The Sport’s Illustrated Magazine only presented women in its’swimsuit issue, that is women as a sport. It had nothing to do with a woman’s athletic skill, nor did it honor her skill, only her body.

            I knew the world was skewed for males, but it wasn’t until the first years of high school that I began to resent the ease with which men moved in the world. I hated the off-color comments and deliberate touching that women were supposed to ignore. I hated the feeling that no matter what my age I was not safe in the world just because I am female.

            In college, I studied other religions and other cultures and came to my conclusion. No woman is safe in any society. No woman can reach her full potential in any religion. Obey, be quiet, stay a virgin until marriage, do what your father, priest, minister, imam, rabbi husband, brother, or boss says and you will be safe, revered. Otherwise, you will be ostracized and shunned. Your names will be bitch, ball buster, liar, uppity, whore, on and on. There are so many epithets for women who will not be quiet.

            My uneasiness became more focused as I had children and saw how most little girls are trained. From babyhood, they are taught to defer to males, to be good, be quiet. Women also had their place, and I learned that, sweetheart, you’d better stay in that spot or it will be very hard on you.

            In my forty’s I read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Her observations on the attitudes toward women and her narration on the full position of the female situation in the world matched mine. 

            I began to ask why. Why do girls and women continue this dance? Why do mothers of daughters and sons keep this tradition of bondage going?  That is what is, control of another person.

            I see it like the Chinese binding feet of women or the female genital mutilation in Africa and the Arab world. The truly frightening fact about those two torturous acts is that the older women in the society perform them on the girls. They want to please the men. Many men won’t accept a woman if she is not controllable if she does not reflect him. A free woman is frightening.

            In my forties, I discovered the teachings of Karl Jung and his wisdom of male, female integration. I had been struggling with keeping my head down, with seeing the injustice of the patriarchal world and staying quiet about it.

            I was like the kid in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Everyone else seemed to think all was good.  What was my problem? This disquieting attitude toward me came from both men and women.

            In my fiftieth year, I discovered the monastery in the desert and told my story out loud. It was necessary for me to listen, to be a witness to my own story. This examination of what I knew to be true gave me the direction I needed. My path to understanding and peace.

            This account of my quotidian life reveals how subtly and slowly a girl gets the message of her society and religion. This story is specific to the time of the ’50s until now, but nearly every woman in any culture can fill in her own narration with its tranquillizing message of “Be-Quiet.” It is shocking how risky it is for a woman to find a different path, to understand and state what she has lost, to speak out.

            Sometimes I felt my religion killed me, spiritually. Then I rallied and tried to ignore the church politics. I remembered Sofia, the feminine aspect of God, the Holy Spirit, is with us. I took responsibility for my own spiritual growth. I learned that my faith is separate from a church. It is not based on a doctrine or a denomination or a priest or a preacher. My relationship with God is not doctrinal, it is functional. I do not need their rules.

            It is because of my awareness of the lack of balance in churches, the injustice toward women and the corruption of the hierarchy that I made my decision. The message of my own parable became clear to me. We need to speak up against wrongs. We need to change the attitudes about what is feminine and what is masculine. We need to begin with religion.

            Religions and societies evolve but true change comes slowly. I cannot alter either institution a great deal. I work within my own sphere. I share with you the story of how the message of being substandard was and is conveyed by churches and society and even families, like a life-long circumcision ceremony. These are institutions that honor their traditions even if they are based on cruelty, ignorance and domination.

            The rites are accomplished with careful practice of traditions, one small wound at a time. It is done with such finesse and unconsciousness that often it isn’t until menopause that some women, numb for so long realize that something is absent. When the void is acknowledged a woman must search to find what element in her psyche has been excised. Her faith in God is still intact, but why does she feel diminished?

            I am content after years of turmoil. Faith is mine. I pray and try to live the message of the Golden Rule. I have a family I love, and a close community of friends I care about and who care about me. The hole in my heart and sorrow in my soul are filling with peace. I live with thanks for the past and hope for the future.