What will they do with girls like us?
First appeared in Adventist Today, 22 May 2020
I was seated about halfway down the coach with a boy, all of us on a college outing. His friends, a motley crew from Avondale College’s boys’ dorm, seemed nice enough and I wanted to make a good impression on them. They all sat in the back couple of rows, laughing, pranking around, and watching us. The newest potential college couple was apparently, at the time, quite fascinating.
Then a song started on the radio. You may know this one even if you weren’t around back then. Hall and Oates, 1982.
Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up O-oh here she comes She’s a maneater O-oh here she comes Watch out boy she’ll chew you up O-oh here she comes She’s a maneater
After a short, whispered consultation, the boys up the back began singing along, belting out the chorus with the name of the boy sitting next to me, edited into the lyrics. It’s a triumph in humiliation when flung at full volume at your shrinking back, and there’s no relief in those drawn-out, four and a half minutes. Some of the most excruciating bits went like this:
I wouldn’t if I were you I know what she can do She’s deadly man, she could really rip your world apart Mind over matter Oh, the beauty is there but a beast is in the heart Watch out [name] she’ll chew you up
Then “O-oh here she comes” and “She’s a maneater” continues ad-nauseum, ad-infinitum until the song ends, way later.
And then everyone fell about laughing. Me? My face had gone crimson and I was on the verge of tears. Writing about this experience 30 years later, I still feel the humiliation, the shame.
It seems to me the lesson of this story is not what I was, not my morals or my intentions, or even my public humiliation—children are unkind—but it’s about how easily women slot into a certain place in the male mind. If women are smart, attractive or confident, can they still be treated kindly, professionally and respected for who they are—or are they dangerous and require taming? Are men only comfortable with women when their femininity is dampened down by way of attachment by marriage and children? Can we acknowledge a woman’s sexuality without thinking of her as dangerous?
And this: do men actually want women to become the range of things that they can be, or is that just something they say? Most men would say they want this for their daughters, but does it play out that way, or do stereotypes still dominate the male mind?
These stereotypes held me back for a long time. I felt like a bad person just because I was a woman who got on well with men. But that experience on the bus fueled my determination to reject that kind of treatment. It made me want to stand up, speak out and broaden the way people see me and other women.
I now challenge gender biases. I’m not a cliché. Nor am I a maneater just because I expect to be treated like a human being by men. And I don’t expect that for myself alone, but for every woman.
It Was a Man’s World
After attending a mixture of state and Adventist schools for my early education, I found myself in another Adventist school in another city in year 9, amidst adolescents with raging hormones who traded in sexual innuendo. Girls talked of being fingered at the bus stop, and boys felt up the girls when the teachers weren’t looking. What a culture shock!
My naturally shy nature wasn’t an asset for a preacher’s kid. I learned to make conversation and friends. I also learned a new lesson: if you’re not friendly enough, you’re snobbish, and if you’re too friendly, you’re a flirt. A male teacher at that Adventist school once told me when I was around 15 that I was being a tart. (This is not, for Americans, a pastry, but an unflattering name for something worse than a flirt, but not quite a whore.) He wasn’t an unkind man—I know this now—but I suspect he felt the need to tell me this because he was trying to be protective of the pastor’s daughter. It felt confronting, to say the least. As far as I know, he didn’t think to tell the boys to cool off a nd keep their comments (and their hands) to themselves.
Good girls, then, didn’t “date around.” They weren’t supposed to speak out, act out of self-interest, or make anyone feel uncomfortable. They had to find their ideal partner before they ever really knew themselves or understood how different types of people bring out different things in them, and that this could result in widely different outcomes in lifetime happiness. Compatibility wasn’t important. Purity was. And if you had too many dates, too many boyfriends, you were damaged goods according to Adventist attitudes. Good girls found a mate and got married and, God willing, became mothers. It was something of a redemption story if a woman who was once designated a tart could get married.
However, woe betide her and her progeny if she divorced. Even women who attended church while their husbands no longer did occupied a lower rung on the social ladder than other women, and that’s still true.
For young Adventists and Adventist singles, marriage was always the major subplot. Church socials were, and perhaps still are, designed to keep Adventists away from non-Adventists, as well as to get everyone out on the floor and see what works. In my growing-up years, there were camps for teens and youth where dinners and games encouraged young people to pair up. At Avondale College, this was even more pronounced. (Twenty years on, when my sons went to junior camp, the 10-, 11- and 12-year-old boys were expected to ask a girl partner out for “date night,” a sit down meal. Pardon me?)
“Finally goin’ off, are ya?” a red-faced, middle-aged church elder asked me after he learned I was at long last tying the knot—at 25. I had finally achieved what I was, in his mind, put on this earth for, what I’d been sent to Adventist education to accomplish.
Marriage conceived in this way, under these pressures, can result in breathtaking misery. Instead of wedded bliss, it can be well and truly wedded mismatch.
What About the Men?
A man’s long-term worth, though, still isn’t determined by his popularity with the girls. It generally doesn’t have an impact on his future in the church. If he has had multiple girlfriends, he might even be admired. It may make him more popular and employable. He’s “relatable.” And if he misbehaved with the girls, he has a good story to tell about his “wayward ways” and his likely path, but for the grace of God. Not so, for women.
What do Adventists do with a girl like me? I was and still am ambitious and outspoken. I liked people and wanted to know how they reasoned and why they thought and acted in certain ways. I questioned a lot, listened a lot, spoke out a fair bit. Often the silences in response to my comments and questions were deafening and there have been several significant occasions when I was told by males that I shouldn’t speak up so much. Today, an uncomfortable topic raised at any level, on any Adventist platform, is often met with a blockade of silence—the primary device used to control someone who is too conspicuous or makes Adventists feel uncomfortable. It’s possible the women I speak for now wish I would be silent, also.
One way you can assess the conscious and subconscious biases of an organisation is by analyzing who occupies positions of power. While some organisations claim to have inclusion and justice as core values, their actions speak differently.
During the 80s and 90s, Avondale College, Australia’s only Adventist tertiary institution, saw 11 females graduate from the four-year ministry course. Just two of these females were hired by conferences in ministry long-term. By 2000, the total number of female pastors in the South Pacific Division was three. This meant that the college was willing to put out a hand to accept the $40-$50,000 in course fees from women ministerial students despite knowing there was next to no chance of employment for them in the field they were trained for.
Determined to do something to right this injustice, a group of seminary professors and their friends set up the Women in Ministry Trust, which offered conferences half the cost of two-year internships for female graduates. Finally, women would be able to do the work they were trained for, the role they felt called by God to fulfil, and the commission they were wholeheartedly committed to instead of being shunted off into sideline roles that fitted the traditional female stereotype more closely.
The Women in Ministry Trust committee members met with resistance, even from those who claimed to have sympathy. “Presidents, church employers would say ‘We don’t think the people are ready yet, we don’t want to risk the budget on an appointment that may not last, we don’t want the women to have a bad experience,’” Dr. Lyell Heise recounted when he addressed the 2019 “Gender Inclusiveness in Adventist Ministry and Seminary” conference.
Slowly, the undeniable benefits that women brought to ministry became clear to conference leaders, whose willingness to take a risk and spend their own money to employ female graduates grew. Between 2000 and 2019, not only did 63 females graduate from ministry, but 44 were employed after graduation.
Despite this, in 2020 male ministers still far outnumber female ministers, still far outnumber females in positions of authority across all Adventist institutions, and General Conference policy is even more antagonistic (if possible) toward female leadership in ministry.
Compare this to my husband’s industry, the largest manufacturing sector in the Australian economy. The CEO of the national industry association he works for is female. Their executive leadership team is 50% female. The chairman of the industry board is female and the board of directors, comprising numerous multinational CEOs, is more than 50% female.
Corporate and individual Adventism has a long way to go before Adventist females are recognised for bringing equal value to positions of authority in the church organisation and before females are seen as capable of occupying a broader range of roles than the traditional ones ascribed to them.
How long will it be before females can be more than just maidens, matrons and caregivers, before they can have dignity and respect conferred on them instead of clichés and stereotypes when they speak up or stand out? Exactly what are they willing to do with girls like us?
Dr. L. Heise, “Gender Inclusiveness in Adventist Ministry and Seminary” presentation, 2019 ↑
Ibid. 2019 ↑