(WOMENSENEWS)–The first snow storm of the season has come and gone in the Adirondack Mountains and yet the shock of an event during our annual summer vacation there last summer continues to be top of mind.
It occurred during the several weeks my family spent at a Christian family camp; the same one where I spent my childhood summers and where my 12-year-old daughter has a gang of girlfriends, all daughters of my own childhood friends.
One beautiful night, under a glowing moon hovering over the lake, the grown-ups were chatting and roasting s’mores, and the kids were running loose around the yard next door playing hide-and-seek. One of them decided to hide in a little cabin by the lake that the owner had happened to leave open.
In previous years they had peered inside and seen Barbie dolls with strange chains around their ankles. The owner is not part of our community. He is middle-aged and divorced and seems like a nice guy who takes good care of his shack and loves boating and fishing. Every year he has a guys’ weekend, so we’ve sort of chuckled and laughed off the Barbie doll tied to the back of his speedboat. You know, "Ha, ha, ha, silly male antics. Boys will be boys."
This year, what the kids happened upon in that shack was more than any of us could have bargained for.
All the disgusting images (both animal and human, including the life-sized sex dolls I refer to above) clearly conveyed the same message: Females are inferior filth meant to be dominated like animals. I am not sure which distresses my soul more–the burns on the dolls’ faces or the vulgar, debasing words on the wall (whore, slut, bitch, f***ing this and that, and other vile instructions).
The image of those sickening plastic dolls lingers in my mind as a symbol of what misogyny and its alter-ego, patriarchy, do to female personhood: elevating the male as a preeminent master and obliterating the female’s human will, diminishing her to a role that exists to meet his needs.
I am a woman of deep faith and a feminist. I have been in the evangelical Christian world my whole life. In many pockets of my religion, I have seen great progress toward shifting away from hierarchical gender norms based on a one-sided model of "submission" toward a more mutual view of gender relations.
But a different and opposing trend is also rampant in many Christian circles, and not just in homeschooling families. Never before have I heard and witnessed such enthusiastic calls for men to "step up" and be quasi-sovereigns in the family, in the church and in society and even to raise boys to be patriarchs.
At every turn I encounter exalted metaphors calling for consolidation of power into the hands of fathers and husbands in their families and men in the church and parachurch organizations.
In this gaining ideology we see the growing use of the word "patriarch" and an emphasis on training girls to be girls (which means being submissive and pure and honoring her father as the family priest) and boys to be boys to "step up" throughout their childhood and progress into the role of becoming a patriarch. What the heck is going on? How can this be?
Study after study shows that highly patriarchal religious environments, where girls are conditioned little by little to subordinate their own wills to their father or pastor (who represents God), lead to such a loss of human agency, so that they have a hard time even knowing that abuse is wrong, never mind standing up to it.
A Beautiful Crossing Point
My daughter and her friends are 10- to 13-year-olds at a beautiful crossing point. They eat ice cream and Swedish Fish, take turns tubing and burying each other in sand. They still move around in a playful, childlike way but in them the face of womanhood is also emerging.
Last summer, watching this pack of girls frolic on the beach, roam around the camp, or make plans to do this or that, I marveled at their collective girl spirit. They know how to relate and navigate interpersonal dynamics in a way that puts adults to shame.
I found myself wanting to bottle their playful and empowered female energy and somehow preserve and protect it from the dark, debasing forces in our world that seem so bent on female degradation.
These thoughts might seem somewhat natural for me since I work for a foundation that does gender-lens grant-making in various places of the world to alleviate the conditions that make girls everywhere so vulnerable to sexual exploitation, human trafficking, overwork and in myriad ways to being treated as second class humans meant for servitude.
But that moment last summer brought me to a moment where all those issues arrived at my own doorstep. Even on a sheltered lakeside vacation, misogyny knows no bounds and hovers next door.
To be sure, the discovery in that shack is more shamelessly exploitative than religious calls for men to step up and resume their rightful place as "king." But both interweave dangerously in men’s minds with the same hierarchical demand of submitting to patriarchs.
How can I protect my daughter, her friends and the daughters of mothers across the globe from these diminishing demands that lurk in our churches, our faith-based organizations, in the filth online and in the sick twisted "recreational" cabins next door? I don’t have any magic answers, but I do know that the scrappy mother bear in me will try until my dying breath.