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Rolling with the Role

by Rev. Donna Schaper

Who tells women and girls who we are? Of course it is we who tell us who we are.  Then again, maybe not.  The rhetoric holds that no one tells us who we are; the fact is that many have penetrated our hearts and minds. 
The existential and heartfelt reality of gender today, yesterday – but hopefully not tomorrow – is that women give away agency, authority and autonomy. 
It comes in quiet ways.  What I hear my heart say is, "I want this, can't have it, don't have the support, the cash, the time, the will.” I have the previous failures of will, insults, sexism, so many reasons that you'd think my heart was filled with others instead of me.  Whoops -- it is.  My heart is filled with others whom I love, whom I don't love, some of whom I just see on the street looking more put together than me -- and most of whom I give permission to tell me who I am.  I am not alone.
A young mother recently told me, "I want to meditate. I know I would feel ok if I could find time, but no one supports me in that. I give time to my three-year-old daughter instead.  I feel more ‘in role' that way and less ‘out of role.'”  Substitute the word "exercise” or "think” for "meditate” and you will hear an echo from many women. 
St. Paul, the very sexist but wise Christian apostle, put the dilemma this way, "The good that I would do, I do not, and the evil that I would not do, I do.” 
You are not a good woman if you are defining yourself because that will put you in direct conflict with your mother, father, sisters, brothers, children and partner.  They will think you are "out of role” if you are not prioritizing them.  Women are told to love and care and nurture. 
The woman who wanted to meditate told me, "Even as a mother with a professional career, I have achieved the ‘work-life balance' that my mother's generation fought for, but my role at work is strangely as motherly, nurturing and focused on others as my home life is….I didn't always manage this way, but was coached.  Seek the path of least resistence, and put aside individual preferences and goals. I sneak in my little passions like a dieter hides a Snickers…. I was recently offered a big promotion…. Then I heard that not everyone I work with was pleased with the idea, and I began to lose confidence …and within a few weeks, the offer was rescinded…. With all this deferment I practice daily, what I want is lost.”
Carol Gilligan tells an intriguing story about her interviews with teenage girls.  Twelve‑year‑old girls go to a pizza shop and say, "I'd like the pepperoni and peppers."  At age 13, same shop, same girls: they don't know what to have and watch what each other eats before ordering. At age 14, Gilligan interviews the same girls. They go into the pizza shop, but there are boys there now, and the girls say, "Oh. I'll have whatever you're having."  They have forgotten who they are and they're handing over permission to other people to tell them who they are.
Composer, vocalist and director Meredith Monk is now 66 years old.  She recently performed "Ascension Variations” at the Guggenheim Museum, a revival of her 1969 theater piece "Juice.” Monk speaks of a garden of girlhood which develops into a silent oppressive niceness.  I think many women know exactly what she means.  In other works Monk began a thread, described in a documentary by Babeth M. VanLoo, that reminds one ever so much of the Holy Grail. 
Recently, I met with a woman who lost her immigration appeal and was set to be deported.  She is both a journalist and a lawyer, aged 32, and could not get working papers in this country.  Her mother and father had come to visit.  She cried out, "But I have always gotten what I wanted.”  That is great news.  I asked her father if he had always gotten what he wanted. "Yes, even more,” he said.  I asked her mother if she had always gotten what she wanted. "Of course not,” she said. That's when the triangle in my office erupted into gender roles, grailing along.
The ultimate solution is to systemically abolish sexism, to relieve women of freedom from oppression. The intermediate solution is to grail along towards ourselves -- "out of role” as often as possible.
We need to meditate. We need to exercise. We need to think. We may give ourselves permission to do so.  When women stop over functioning, who knows what will happen? At least, we'll get the pizza we enjoy.
August 12, 2009

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The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City and author of Grass Roots Gardening: Rituals to Sustain Activism.

Also see ”Busting Bogus Biology and Beliefs” by Mahin Hassibi in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See ”Art World Insiders Struggle to Address Disparity” by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Brad posted: 2012-11-05 00:41:38

This isn't just about Romney and Ryan ... nor Republicans. Where's the Democratic Party on our votes being stolen? No where.

Arlene Montemarano posted: 2012-11-05 00:42:00

It is laughable to think of elections being stolen by one vote at a time, necessitating a cumbersome voter id requirement instituted at the last minute. Because when we are embroiled in a silly discussion about occasional individuals tricking the system by voting twice, we miss the elephant in the room...massive numbers of votes being stolen by the thousands by one or two people who pull electronic strings of these machines. The man behind the voting curtain in this case is not the Wizard of Oz, but ANY wizard who knows how to use the mechanism of electronic voting to take it all away from us. Have they done it? We know that they can. Have they? What do you think?

Sheila Parks posted: 2012-11-06 15:11:33

Hi Brad, I am glad you read the article. It was aimed at the war on women and the war on our ballots. The Dems are doing neither, as far as I know. THE DEMS ARE COMPLICIT WITH THEIR SILENCE, YES. I say that in almost every article I write. I had 800 words here and did not include that. I felt it was more important to talk about the inextricable relationship between the war on women and the war on our ballots that the Republicans are waging IN A FEMINIST MAGAZINE.

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