I can finally say I love being a woman.
I never thought much about being female at first. Growing up in suburbia with very few neighborhood girls to play with, I hung out with my brother and his buddies, playing baseball in the cul-de-sac and tag football on the eleventh tee. We explored the abandoned, tumbleweed-filled hills around us, built elaborate sets with our plastic train, and fought over chores.
Things changed when I turned fourteen and started reading the Bible. Up to then, I had never cracked open that book. All the thees and thous and indecipherable wording kept my little red Bible safely ensconced on my shelf. Then The Way came out, a version of the Living Bible with pictures and articles designed to appeal to teenagers. I was hooked.
I still have that old Bible with all the highlighting and underlining of every passage that details instructions to women, little notes written in the margins in my scrawly, immature script. I’ll admit I never finished the whole thing but I read a lot, especially from the New Testament. And, at least with the parts I read, I was all in.
All in on asking God for wisdom, on faith without works being dead, on seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness. But especially all in on doing the things required of women, like submitting to my future husband and being silent in church.
I had finally gotten the message that I was a girl.
Called Under the Umbrella of Protection
A couple of years after I started reading the Bible, I went to a seminar where I learned that submission was not only the most important principle of a girl’s life, it would also keep her safe. This was called the “umbrella of protection.” As long as she stayed under the umbrella by doing whatever she was told, she wouldn’t get hurt. First, she’d cozy up under her umbrella and later under her husband’s.
My mom and I had had a big argument a few months earlier. I don’t remember exactly what it was about but I do recall that there was a lot of yelling and that she hit me, knocking my headgear out of its slot so that it pierced my inner cheek. I stomped off and she followed me in the car, ordering me to get in when she caught up with me.
But that was before the seminar, before I repented of my rebellious ways and determined to be a good Christian girl, obeying my parents in everything. My first test came when it was time for prom. Although I was sewing my dress, I needed shoes. On our first trip to Tyler Mall I quickly found a pair of dressy sandals that I absolutely loved but, lo and behold, for exactly the same price my mother found a style that she preferred. She was pretty adamant about her choice and I could tell it would turn into a major fight if I insisted on the shoes I wanted, so I stepped under the umbrella and went along with Mom.
Not long after that Mom and I went to a class on Christian womanhood for women in our church. There we learned that our job as women was to help men, who were given the command by God to rule and subdue the earth. That is a really big calling, we learned, and is the reason why men feel so burdened. It’s also why men need women to take care of things like cooking, cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping, though it’s fine to let a man take out the trash.
At the womanhood class we heard the story of a family who visited the beach one day. Another group was playing their music really loud and the wife kept urging her husband to go ask them to turn it down. He didn’t want to, but he finally gave in because his wife kept nagging him. But when he asked them to turn down their music one of them pulled out a gun and shot him dead. Moral of the story: a woman should not try to influence a man, since that would be usurping his authority and might even lead to his death.
It all sounds incredible to me now, but at the time I accepted these teachings as gospel truth. I wanted nothing more than to please Jesus, and if pleasing Jesus meant letting other people make my decisions for me, then so be it.
Where was that umbrella when I needed it?
As you can probably imagine, all my rules about Christian womanhood didn’t serve me well when I got married. Sure, they kept my husband and me from fighting. There’s nothing to fight about when it is predetermined that one person will get their way. Not that this was my husband’s fault; it wasn’t. I was the one with the weird ideas, not him.
Yet my strange beliefs did influence my husband over time. He got used to getting away with stuff no one should get away with. Who wouldn’t? Not that his sinful tendencies were any worse than mine. The problem was that there was no one holding him accountable, at least here on planet earth, since the one person who knew what was going on wasn’t speaking up. That left no one to tell him the way he was treating me really hurt and no one to convince him it was true.
So all my commitment to female submission didn’t keep me safe after all. Yes, I was still alive, but my heart was broken. Neither did it keep me holy as I increasingly got used to my silent anger, convinced I was doing the right thing by stuffing my feelings, needs, opinions, and dreams.
Where was that umbrella when I needed it?
Finally, I was done: I hated being a woman. I didn’t want to reflect the bride of Christ; I wanted to reflect Christ. I didn’t want to image the church; I wanted to image Jesus. I didn’t want to be the one who followed everyone else’s ideas; I wanted to have some ideas of my own.
I was just plain mad.
Fortunately, I was angry enough to head off to seminary to find some answers. What I found surprised me.
I learned that being created in God’s image denotes a ruling authority that the ancient world otherwise reserved for kings and pharaohs and high priests. Outside the Bible’s story, only the elite few were ever referred to as the image of deity. In all of these other takes on deity the rest of humanity—the peons and women and barbarians—were created to serve the one who was another god’s image on earth. The created purpose of everyone else was to provide rich food, luxurious accommodations, and elegant attire for the chosen few. Certainly, never in a million years, did the average Jane or Joe possess ruling authority.
And yet that is precisely what Scripture teaches: every single human being – rich, poor, black, brown, white, educated, uneducated, male, female – possesses the God-given mandate to rule and subdue. Every person has the right, responsibility, and authority to make real decisions, which means we also have the responsibility to respect the decisions of others. Amazingly, unique in the ancient world, in the Bible women are specifically included in the allocation of this God-authorized ruling mandate. Not only do women retain authority over their own beings, they share in the duty to subdue this planet for the glory of God. Protective care of one another was never about relinquishing agency.
All the erroneous teaching I received about womanhood caused me to hate being a woman and almost ruined my marriage. Yet by God’s goodness I discovered I had been wrong all along. I spent years recovering my understanding of God’s delight in me, of seeing in the Bible not how God requires women to shrink back but encourages them to step forward, of discovering how my marriage flourishes when we work for each other not just me for my husband.
After all is said and done, it’s good to be a woman. God has shown me so.
Cover image by Max Hofstetter.