[In today’s guest post, Tara Galles provides a brief memoir of a lifetime learning and unlearning gender roles both inside and outside the church.]
Blonde Jokes at the Burger Joint
It’s silly to play the dumb blonde when you’re not. Of course blonde jokes prescribe a place and role for women, dumb by hair color alone. I’m brunette. Larry, my old General Manager at Burger Chef use to tell me I was really blonde and dyed my hair brown. It was his way of dumbing me down as a female, he never accused any of the male employees of really being blonde. Like blondes, young females had a prescribed place and role to be dumb in that environment.
That was in the late 80’s. Larry’s prime was really in the early 1970s when his kinky-curly hair formed a beautiful white-guy fro. This is the rural Midwest we are discussing so subtract a couple decades of social progress, Larry’s mentality (in uniform with the owner Butch) was really that of the 1950s. So was our dress code and the “girls” prescribed role and place in the business.
We teenage girls who overused aqua-net and listened to Duran Duran worked up front wearing white uniform dresses and ruffled aprons while we smiled at the customers and made soft-drinks and correct change. The teenage boys in back wore white pants and shirt with a brown apron and paper hat (think Steak-n-Shake hat but brown and orange) while running frozen burgers through the flame broiler and sinking baskets of fries into grease in back.
We girls were the servers, the guys were the providers.
Of course all of the managers were men and the few African-American employees were the janitors, no joke. That’s just the way it was in rural Illinois, in the late 1980s at Burger Chef; people were assigned a “place” with a prescribed role.
Routon Illinois, c. 1966 (Burger Chef archives)
It’s easiest to categorize people by race and gender. Burger Chef opened in 1954 and from the pictures on the wall, our uniforms had not changed in 30+ years. Nor had the gender (or racial) qualifications for management.
I had always wondered why Dawn, a faithful employee of 2 decades was not a manager, while the 30-something-year-old Ron who was snorting cocaine in the employee restroom and making passes at us 16-year-old girls (whom he tried to lure with alcohol and marijuana) seemed to be more worthy of managerial pay and position.
The Church Where Women Dumb-Down and Men are in Charge
Once upon a time, a few years after my 2-year Burger Chef tenure, I was a little older, but still young and impressionable looking for stability and answers. I’m a woman, a womb-man, and had lots of questions about my place and role in the world. The church seemed like a sound place for answers, or so I thought.
My church family didn’t fabricate a cover for my intelligence by labeling me as a blonde who died my hair brown, like my old Burger Chef Managers did. Instead, through persnickety theology and polite discourse, the church encouraged me to dumb-down and believe there was specially designated “God-given” category for me as a woman, “Biblical Womanhood.”
Once again, I found myself in a prescribed place and role. It was a cookie cutter womanhood where I was not free to shape my own presentation to the world. Biblical Womanhood valued the virtue of me being liked or likable over my virtue of truthfulness and authenticity. My demeanor, tone of voice and clothing selections were policed, usually by other women who were married to the male leaders. A life-long sexual covenant of submission and sacrifice, Christian Marriage, to a male leader was required for these women to hold their leadership positions in church. To say she slept her way to the top in this sexual-hierarchal-ministry may be an understatement.
Whenever I questioned the premise of Biblical Womanhood, my humility became under scrutiny and I was accused of being angry as if being angry is something to be ashamed of. When I read the Bible, it was okay for King David to be angry and murder and pray for the death of his enemies (and rape scores of women, keep a harem, leave virgin house maids as some sort of mercy offering for his son who was chasing him and then imprison them after they were raped, and publicly celebrate in his underwear as the ladies blushed), but it was not okay for me use these Psalms or stories to question the church leaders’ interpretation of the Bible (and there was no way I would be stripping down to my underwear to celebrate anything!). The Warrior and King David, “the man after God’s own heart” is the pinnacle of another separate more influential category called (yes you guessed it) Biblical Manhood.
Biblical Manhood teaches men that being truthful is more valuable than being likable, the opposite of Biblical Womanhood. This teaching has code words like honor, integrity, authenticity, courage. The code words for Biblical Womanhood were sacrifice, submission, obedience, and love, to have a quiet and gentle spirit. The prescribed Biblical Womanhood taught me that my most important virtue was to be submissive, hence liked. Like was more important than authentic or honest. It wasn’t as if I had to lie about anything, I just had to remain silent when I disagreed. (Can someone say deception?)
According to the teaching, all people must fit into a place and role “prescribed by God”. Again, the easiest way to divide people is race and gender which is why we see women and slaves (usually foreign) under rule of man. To make my life easier, I dumbed-down at church and kept my mouth shut, just like I did at Burger Chef.
Not Fitting into Church or Cultural Boxes
My first few years in church, when I was in graduate school, my team of classmates and I at University, dissected a cadaver with three breasts in cadaver lab. There was another cadaver assigned to another team which had unidentifiable genitalia. These are the people who donate their bodies to science, probably in hopes that science will make progress towards freeing them from living a lie to fit into society’s prescribed places and roles for women and men. It’s a bit tragic that we privileged graduate students cut them up and remove their flaccid hearts which didn’t beat anymore. Despite their gender discrepancies, I believe their heart used to beat the same as mine. We all bleed the same color.
It is my fundamental belief as a Christian that Jesus freed all people from society’s (and church’s) prescribed places and roles. In a day when women were not allowed to witness in court, Jesus considered women (not men) worthy and capable to witness the most important truth of all history, the resurrection (John 20, Luke 24). Jesus didn’t hand these women the dogma of Biblical Womanhood telling them to be respectful to the future apostle (of which the women were also). Jesus didn’t tell these women to be gentle and quiet. No! Of course the men didn’t believe the women, and, the women spoke anyway. Good job ladies! To our demise as Christian women (and men) a couple of millennia later, we really don’t hear the question, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” It’s like a rhetorical query that gets filed away into our subconscious. A fleeting thought. The prescribed place and role of women is a cultural law that has persisted as the 1950s burger joint swag persisted into 1980s at my teenage part-time job. It’s a dead culture.
Leaving the Dead, Seeing the Living
Fifteen years after grad school I decided to stop looking for the living among the dead. My husband and I left our church and found one that did not prescribe a place and role for women that was submissive to men (in the name of God of course!). Our consciences are clear because we do not have to train our daughter to dumb-down and ignore teachings that demean her womanhood or stunt her God-given potential. The egalitarian theology honors the Bible as inspired while honoring all people. Egalitarian theology does not prescribe a place or role for persons based on their gender or race but acknowledges that the persons and environments the Bible described who subscribed that all people were not created equal.
In the land of the living, there is no dress code and women don’t have to be married to the leader to have a voice in ministry. There are of course issues but they are not blatantly teaching women that being likable is their most important virtue. We all bleed the same color (even the blondes). Now when I go to church, I see the living around me and I am alive. When I ask questions, my humility doesn’t get evaluated. Still, even though I’ve been told women have the same opportunity as men in this church environment I don’t see women aspiring to serve in church leadership, which means it’s partially dead, or partially alive, or just partial, however you choose to see it. This needs to change.
Tearing Down the Signs
In 1968 my Burger Chef GM Larry was a young man working a part-time job at Burger Chef and assigned to take down the signs that said “White Only” and “Colored.” When he told me his story from over 20+ years ago, he made it sound as if it were an inconvenience. We all have to take down the symbolic “Biblical Womanhood” and “Biblical Manhood” signs in our personal theology. Change starts in our own hearts.
Change is also inconvenient. Women, we have to speak up and value truth more than being liked. It has taken me many years for me to speak up, I’m still hesitant because I know the ramifications, especially when challenging someone’s deeply traditional perceptions on God. The more I speak up the more resistance I get. It has been hard and hurtful but I have come to the conclusion that when I speak, I am seen as a person, a woman in power. We have all been conditioned through cultural laws to think of power as male. A woman with power is an aberration.
And so the tradition keepers try to keep women in the prescribed place and roles, policing us with the superficial questions: Is she humble? Is she grateful? Is she graceful and beautiful? Does she smile? Does she have kids? Is her domestic side home the most important thing in her life? These are not the questions asked of men but of women to ensure she remains in her prescribed place, with her prescribed role that quietly and gently serves in submission to men. God has always been the same from the beginning and doesn’t have to submit to evil’s presence in the world. It is man who has changed, and now so should women.
Tara Galles MS, OTR believes biography becomes biology so founded YOGATHEA® Christian Yoga + Meditation to help women “Breathe the Peace Which Transcends All Understanding, Mind + Body + Spirit.” Tara is working to move women (and men) into their full potential through increased flexibility, strength and the renewing their minds through meditation. Tara is the producer of “Perfect Peace” Christian Yoga Home Exercise Video and is currently considering using her Egyptian maiden name, Asaad, as a pen name for her upcoming book PINK SUNGLASSES: A Greater Vision For Biblical Womanhood (which was to be out by the end of 2017 but the editor required yet another revision). You can follow her on Facebook but, for the record, Tara does not know how to use Twitter or Instagram and will not unless her publisher makes her!