In the year 2000, I spoke at a Lutheran church in West Michigan. After the first service where I had delivered the sermon, there was an adult study group. I made my introductory remarks and then a middle aged white man in the second row stood up and said, “The church has been going downhill ever since we started ordaining women.” I was rather shocked to hear him then. And I’m disgusted that 17 years later, that same attitude is still alive and well.
The sad reality is that sexism is well and even thriving throughout our world today. Women are globally and often systematically the target for mistreatment and abuse. Now I know men are also victims and that also needs to be addressed, but today our focus is on women and girls. Because we deserve at least that.
The problem when addressing sexism is deciding where to start and how much to include. So let’s start with a quote:
"Rape isn’t a freak thing that happens to an unlucky few. It’s something that follows women around every day, a sense of perpetual physical vulnerability that’s not always conscious, but is ever present, like a shadow, governing what time we feel we can safely walk home at night by ourselves, or even the simple decision to get a drink with a guy we don’t know very well. You don’t have to be a survivor to appreciate what a singularly traumatic event rape is, or how much it sucks that a part of growing up female (and yes, gay or trans, too) means developing survival instincts to avoid being prey."
To understand how we got to this place, we need to go way back in time – to the Iron Age. Sociologist Lisa Wade sees the subjugation of women as a remnant of that time in history and the concept of chattel, a word related to cattle. Human chattel, like cows, belonged to their owner and were required to stay where they belonged. If livestock or women stepped out of line, it was the man’s social responsibility to restore order.
All of which gives us another lens through which to view the ongoing battle for reproductive rights.
One of the things that most unites us in our common humanity is that we all begin life the same way as a consequence of a sexual encounter. But the burden of pregnancy and giving birth is undeniably one that falls to the female half of the population.
Women are the ones who bear the pain of childbirth, the consequence of complications, the physical after effects of a body stretched and torn. And yet, women so often have no choice about whether they will endure these pains.
In all societies, poverty, discrimination, ignorance and social unrest are common predictors of violence against women. Yet the most enduring enemies of a woman’s dignity and security are cultural forces aimed at preserving male dominance and female subjugation—often defended in the name of tradition.
In many developing countries, violent practices against women are often part of the culture and wife beating is considered part of the natural order. At its most extreme, gender violence includes honor killings.
In industrialized societies like the US, where institutions formally frown on gender violence, it still permeates our cultural fabric. Rap music insults women and calls us ‘whores’; men's magazines, internet pornography and even mainstream advertising celebrate gang rape; and societal pressures, perhaps most dominant in women’s magazines, induce young women to starve themselves or use technology to create ‘ideal’ bodies, often destroying their health in the process.
This is the implicit oppression of women that permeates our own culture. Recent studies are more than disturbing. They tell us that 50% of 3 to 6 year old girls are already concerned about their weight. That half of all fourth graders are dieting and that 81% of 10 year old girls have a fear of being fat.
By the time girls turn 17, 4 out of 5 of them are unhappy with their body. In high school, 90% of girls are dieting even though only 10% are actually overweight.
And adult women? One study shows that women have 13 negative thoughts about their body each day and 97% of women admit to having at least one “I hate my body” moment every day.
First of all, there is not a women reading this who is not beautiful.
So I want you to stand up and now I want you to say it. “I am beautiful.” Now say it like you mean it. “I am beautiful!” Now please, promise me that the next time you feel that “I hate my body” moment coming on, you will replace it with “I am beautiful” moment. This is about you – and it isn’t about you. Remember, we are teaching our girls. How they hear us talk about our bodies will directly affect what they think of their own bodies.
And then there is the overt violence practiced against women right here in the USA, including sex trafficking and sexual assault on the streets, in the military, on college campuses and in our own homes.
Do you see the progression and why everything we do has a consequence? This diagram comes from NOW NYC and The Service Fund. And it helps clearly illustrate why Donald Trump’s recent comments are not comic relief.
Jokes become part of our language. Language shows up in images. Images justify pay inequality. Pay inequality leads to verbal abuse. And verbal abuse escalates to rape. Sexist language is not only offensive, it is dangerous.
In so many ways, society drives home the message that a woman's life and dignity—her human rights—are worth less than a man's. From the day of their birth, girls are devalued and degraded.
And too often too many of us have been broken by those messages. Here in Grand Haven we can speak up and speak loudly.
So our challenge is to overcome the internalized messages of our culture, messages that would try to tell us that we are incompetent or that we should be ashamed of our gender, ashamed of our self.
My own history includes lots of those messages. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, I recognize that the I only moved from victim to victorious when I decided to claim my own worth and my own value.
Don Miguel Ruiz, in The Mastery of Love, says that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever.
One of the most important things we can do for ourselves and for our fellow women here in Grand Haven and all around the world is to stop beating ourselves up, to own our beauty, to raise our voice, to claim our power to change the world.
The divine in me recognizes and bows to the divine in you.