How is this for a riveting opener? I recently went to an exhibit at the Carter Center displaying former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s jewelry. Not just any jewelry, but pins. And, it really does get more interesting.
Apparently, Albright, who under the Clinton administration served as the first female Secretary of State in U.S. history, had a penchant for wearing pins to send important messages to her counterparts, other heads of state and foreign dignitaries around the world. The exhibit, “Read My Pins,” features over 200 of these brooches. They range from more typically “feminine” themes, like shiny, red hearts, flowers and butterflies, to the more typically “masculine,” such as flags and American eagles, to the downright menacing and sinister: Albright wore a snake when she met with Iraq’s foreign minister and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
One of my faves was the pin with the three monkeys seen here, known in Japan as Kikazaru, Iwazaru and Mizaru; their message, when taken together, is, “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.” On the surface the three-piece set is comical in a way that only monkeys can be; but the first time Albright wore it, the brooch issued a serious warning to her audience (again Russian President Vladimir Putin)- this time that excessive use of force by the Russian military in its suppression of Chechen rebels was nothing short of evil. Way to go, Madeleine!
As I strolled by the display windows, it occurred to me that Albright’s collection signifies a “feminist subversion” if there ever was one: taking something typically used to decorate women and changing its meaning; conscripting something that has usually served to beautify women or even claim possession of them, (in the case of the wedding ring as it once was understood, for instance), and then subverting its use by changing and reclaiming its purpose; turning jewelry into a powerful means of using one’s voice. This is jewelry not just as sheer decoration or “as a woman’s best friend.” It is jewelry, rather, as a strategic communication device. Tools in a shrewd diplomat’s arsenal.
I am often struck by how, despite the many strides forward and gains made on behalf of women in this country, there remains much work to be done in moving forward. The fact remains that women still remain subject to countless double standards. Take the whole area of economic equality, for example. This year’s White House Report on Women, notably the first federal report since 1963 and racial segregation, observes that today’s women earn 80 cents to every dollar earned by men in comparable positions.
Or, take the area of sexual and reproductive health: why, when for years we’ve seen drugs for erectile dysfunction covered by health insurance plans, is it really such a source of controversy to allow birth control pills to be covered also? (As a personal aside: I have never understood why the same people most vocal and strident in their pro-life positions are often the same people denying women access to affordable birth control. If you didn’t want abortion to be so common a tragedy, wouldn’t you do your best to make it the very last alternative? Even if it meant giving women access to birth control pills for the same co-pay as Viagra?)
Then there are the double standards to which we hold our female public figures. How is it that a woman as bright, articulate and accomplished as First Lady Michelle Obama seems most judged and admired based on her personal wardrobe and the look of her toned arms? Or, that a woman like Michelle Bachmann, who, despite impressive credentials and formidable contributions as a mother and public servant, must endure photos like the one taken by Newsweek, underneath the caption, “The Queen of Rage”?
And we haven’t even begun to talk about women in the church yet. Women in leadership. Women called to serve God using their gifts for ministry. If you think the world has “double standards,” try the church. In a day and age when in every other sector of Western society, the equality of women’s contributions next to those of men has earned at least a ceremonial nod, a great proportion of churches continue to refuse women the rite of ordination. All on the basis of a particular interpretation of Scripture and years of “this is how we have always done it.”
Even in churches that ordain women, like my denomination, the PC(USA), it is rare to see women in positions of senior leadership. They are usually at most associate pastors or chaplains, and, they, too, face the challenge of having to be judged on the basis of criteria other than how they perform their jobs.
In my own life I have experienced these subtle double standards in simultaneously humorous and infuriating ways. There was the time when a church member approached me after a sermon I had given. There was no mention of the message I had hoped to bring that morning. No engagement. No provocation. Not even the typical niceties of “thank you for your sermon.” “I just love how you dress so modestly when you’re in the pulpit,” she had exclaimed.
On another occasion, my boss had asked me to be up front leading worship, this time without the long, black robe. Why? (I was not after all to have any speaking role in the leading of worship that day.) Because “you look nice” and “you’re wearing something pretty,” my boss had said.
Then there was the time when an older man, presumably reared in a generation very different from mine, found me at the pulpit after the service. In his generation it perhaps would not have been considered inappropriate to tell a woman just doing her job that she looked “so beautiful up there [he] wanted to eat me up.” And so he had.
In a world where women still wear burkhas and are stoned for adultery, these interactions are admittedly small relative to real oppression elsewhere. But, they do leave me asking what it would look like for women in the church to take a page out of Albright’s book. To employ the use of “feminist subversion” in a way that sends important messages to God’s people. Messages that build up the whole church just as they bring freedom and empowerment in the Spirit to women.
And there is precedent in Scripture for just this sort of thing. Remember Tamar? She went to such great lengths to bear a son and honor the legacy of her husband that she dressed up like a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law, Judah (Genesis 38). A bit extreme, don’t you think? But where there’s a will there’s a way, I guess. And when it was time for Judah to pay up for her services, Tamar asked for a “pledge” of payment in the form of his seal, cord and staff.
Several months later, when Judah heard through the grapevine that his daughter-in-law had prostituted herself and was now pregnant, he demanded that she be brought out and burned to death. To which Tamar had her own reply. It was the seal, cord and staff that Judah had given her. “See if you recognize whose these are,” she had said. Not many words. Just a courageous and convicting message. Not with a brooch, maybe, but with another form of physical decoration.
Or think of Rahab the prostitute (Joshua 6). Her route to deliverance for herself and her family when Israel invaded Jericho was a simple red ribbon hung from her window. A life-saving symbol. A message of hope and second chances in the midst of death and destruction.
Then there is the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume. Her story appears in slightly varying versions in Matthew, Mark and Luke (Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 7). She never actually speaks, but her fragrance poured out on Jesus’ head and feet, mixed with her tears, tell of her love for Jesus and her mourning over her own sinfulness. Hers is a message of reverent worship for the Lord who will soon give His life for her. The first fruits of redemption.
One of my personal favorites is the otherwise generic, nameless woman who appears in Jesus’ parable of the kingdom of heaven making bread (Matthew 13:33). “She takes a measure of flour and mixes in the yeast until it permeates every part of the dough.” But as she fulfills this otherwise mundane duty typically assigned to women in her time, she is actually engaged in a powerful subversion of the world as we know it. She is helping to usher in God’s kingdom. All under the guise of “a woman’s work.”
What would it look like for female leaders in the church to use similarly effective “feminist subversions”? If not a pin, would it be a stole that we ministers might wear? Would it be the use of liturgical dance in worship? Or, a visual recollection at the Lord’s Table that the bread about to be broken for us was baked by the women’s guild? I don’t have the answer. But I am grateful to Madeleine Albright for provoking the question.
A friend recently invited me to meet with her pastor to talk candidly over coffee about the issue of women’s leadership. Her pastor oversees a dynamic, thriving congregation which does not ordain women and belongs to a denomination that does not ordain women. I confess I had to decline the invitation, at least for the time being. Because if truth be told the overture had stirred up some unexpected emotions on my part. Hurt. Sadness. Even shame. That we were even having to have these kinds of conversations in the 21st century, and that I in some way was still having to justify at least implicitly my call to ordained ministry. All because I was born with a vagina.
I’m not sure what Jesus would do. But I now suspect I know what Madeleine Albright would have done. She would have gone to the meeting and had the conversation wearing her silver pin. The one with the interlocking figures all unidentifiable by gender. All united only by their humanity. When I saw it that day at the exhibit, it made me think of the apostle Paul’s words to the Galatians: that in Christ Jesus “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galations 3:28). Maybe this is a good a place to start.