on the UN Commission on the Status of Women
If God is male, male is God. It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God. — Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, 1973.
As I prepared for my first attendance at the United Nation Commission on the Status of Women meetings in March 2010, I knew I would ask questions that have haunted, motivated and challenged me for over 30 years, questions that remain at the core of my call to ordination. What happens to the well being of women and girls when God is addressed almost exclusively as male: Father, He, Him? How do the Church’s hierarchical images of God and the resulting theology contribute to women’s oppression? How can women be accepted as fully human when God is addressed as a man? What might change in the life of the Church if the voices of women across the breadth of the church were sought out and listened to? They were the same questions I had taken with me to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, but now my voice was stronger voice and I was determined to speak more publicly than I had.
I was inspired to attend the 54th meeting of UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW):
Beijing+15 after having several clarifying experiences. The first was the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania women’s Re-Imagining Ourselves fall 2009 conference. My hope for substantial liturgical and theological changes was re-ignited by the joyous and expansive music, theology and images of God used in worship services.
The second was reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide written by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn. The stories they tell echo stories that have informed and motivated feminist theologians for decades: stories of unbearable violence against women and girls counterpointed by stories of women’s resilience and ability to create change. As I read their bestselling book, my hope soared that people of the world might finally take women’s stories seriously.
Finally, I was inspired by a conversation with Phoebe Griswold after she returned from the November Anglican Consultation on Human Trafficking in Hong Kong where the Church sharpened its focus on people mercilessly destroyed by the inhumanity of others. Married to the retired Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Phoebe has had opportunities to know women in countries around the world. She and I compared and shared our stories of and passion for theology from women’s perspectives. My belief that an awakened Church can be a beacon of hope was strengthened. At the end of our invigorating conversation, she encouraged me to contact Marge Christie, who has been active with the Episcopal presence at the UN-CSW for more than a decade. Talking to Marge, I immediately decided to join the Anglican Women’s Empowerment delegation in March.
During the week I attended meetings, I repeatedly asked my questions during the discussion periods at the CSW-NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) side events and in personal conversations. I wanted to spark thought and conversation. Just as women were asking the UN for equal representation by women and men, I wanted to find companions who share my determination to change our theology and our images of God so that the welfare of women and girls is considered central to our choices and beliefs. The statistics and data, the stories and reports of the worldwide resurgence of violence against women intensifies the necessity for faithful theological dialogue about what happens, both consciously and unconsciously, to women as well as to children and men when we address God as male and almighty.
The statistics and data offered chilling factual grounding to my passion for change. Hillary Clinton in her closing address exclaimed with amazement that “…the cover of the most recent issue of The Economist….said Gendercide. Because it was pointing out…that there are approximately 100 million fewer girls than there should be, if one looked at all the population data…. A word that I had never heard before, but which so tragically describes what has gone on, what we have let go on, in our world.”
The third UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG #3) is to promote gender equality and empower women. There has been no progress. Women’s political and economic power has remained static since the 1995 Beijing Conference; violence against women has risen. Systematic rape as an act of war continues to increase. More women die worldwide of violence than any other cause. Seventy percent of women experience violence, primarily from intimate partners. The British journal, The Lancet reported that “one million children are forced into prostitution every year and the total number of prostituted children could be as high as 10 million.” The vast majority of those violated are girls. One in five US college women experience sexual abuse. The Girl Scouts reported one in three girls are sexually abused before they are 18. In the US, 350,000 girls and women are sex-trafficked; 100,000 are US citizens.
The fifth UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG #5) focuses on improving maternal and reproductive health; some progress has been achieved with a worldwide reduction from 500,000 to 350,000 deaths each year of women and girls as young as 11 who die of preventable pregnancy complications. There has been little change in the morbidity rate resulting from complications of pregnancy. The Women Deliver conference in Washington, DC in June 2010 will address how meeting this goal is pivotal to the achievement of the other MDG’s by the target year of 2015.
Of the 193 UN nations, the US is one of seven that have not ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Only the US and Somalia have not ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The stories and reports personalized the statistics and data and generated a connection with the women who spoke. I was particularly struck by Tina Frundt’s story. Over 25 years ago when she was fourteen, she ran away from her Washington, DC, home with a man in his 20’s who promised her romance as well as escape from family demands. Instead, once they arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, he forced her into prostitution. A national advocate for raising awareness of US sex trafficking, Tina radiates hope and resilience.
In spring 2010 she opened Courtney’s House in Washington, DC, for sex trafficked children.
I learned that a woman held as a household slave in Wayne, PA, the town west of Philadelphia where I lived for 20 years. A Canadian indigenous woman spoke of forcibly being taken from her family to be put into Christian residential boarding school. An Aboriginal woman wept as she spoke of the present day decimation of her culture by alcohol and drugs introduced by outsiders.
Serene Jones, President of Union Seminary, NYC, provoked my thought when she prophesied that women religious leaders will be the most significant political global actors over the next 100 years. She went on to challenge us to recognize that our bodies are the sights of politics and religion where primary power relations are formed, enacted and re-enacted. By shunning the body, religion distorts not only healthy desire and pleasure; it also ignores the perils of living in a woman’s body. She called us to consciously explore our beliefs and experiences deeply enough to touch the Sacred Feminine so that we might touch others with compassion. She encouraged us to articulate and then live out our religious commitments every day as political acts which can change the way the world understands the sanctity of women’s lives.
Religions can be disempowering, demeaning and oppressive, as well as liberating. Any theology has to take women’s rights and issues into consideration. We are invited to expand what we mean by religion, women, leadership, and politics. One pathway is Contextual Bible Study led by women: stories read through women’s eyes widen perspectives. I think of the impact of my Biblical Stories of Women course, focusing on the women’s characteristics. Both approaches empower people to live out their faith in justice seeking ways.
As women of faith we are called to respect every human being, each born free and equal in dignity and rights. The Breath of the Divine enlivens and embodies every person. We are called to challenge and dismantle the physical, spiritual, and cultural community barriers to dignity by caring deeply for one another. Whether proclaimed by secular women or women of faith, social justice is a faith statement which joins us together.
This knowledge of women’s and girls’ continuing servitude as well as potential empowerment carries with it risk as well as obligation. Galvanized by the cost to women and children–and consequently to men–of doing business as usual in church and society, we are called to enlarge our capacity to imagine a renewed world and to risk making this a reality. With education and economic empowerment of women, children’s lives will change and eventually more women and men will respond to the hope and energy imbedded in working toward a more loving way of being in that world.
In diversified worship each morning of the conference, living the Gospel daily by expanding our understanding of religion, women, leadership, and politics energized the Anglican and Ecumenical women. I sensed this energy in every gathering as women spoke from differing perspectives and cultures. We shared our compassion for the suffering of women and girls and our passion for justice. Each story of violence and abuse, each story of change, resilience and hope encouraged me to continue to ask: What happens to women and girls when God is addressed as male? To this I now add: We know the statistics and stories about the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual cost of violence against women—the cost paid by humanity and all creation. As faithful people we are called to constantly evaluate and challenge the words, stories and images used in worship, preaching and teaching about the nature of God so that we proclaim a God who opens the Way for equality and justice for women and girls.
Griswold, P. (Nov. 10, 2009). Reflections on UN Consultation on Human Trafficking.
Kristof, N. and WuDunn, S. (2009). Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Knopf.
Kwok, P-L. (2005). Postcolonial Imagination & Feminist Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,.
Schussler-Fiorenza, E. (2001). Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.