Building Fences & Taking Sides

Cayla Pruett

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I’m a big advocate for what I like to call “tension living.” If this life has taught me anything, particularly where faith is involved, it’s that black and white do in fact occupy a significant amount of mutual territory, and there is more than enough grey to go around. Ryan O’Neal from Sleeping At Last puts it beautifully in his song “101010”: “grey is not a compromise – it is the bridge between two sides. I would even argue that it is the color that most represents God’s eyes.” So… Sovereign God? or Free Will?

Yes.

And I’m comfortable sitting in that tension. Some things aren’t for knowing yet and I think God quite enjoys that we can’t pin him down with our cold, hard precision and logic. So you see, I agree. Except when I don’t.

The more I dive into the cause of women and gender [in]equality, both within the church and around the globe, the more personal the issue becomes for me, and the more determined I become to build a fence simply to demonstrate that I will not be found sitting on it.

I am frequently asked why I’m willing to subscribe to titles that carry so much baggage with them. And let’s just be frank here, I am not blind. I can see full well the hesitancy and skepticism that creep into people’s expressions when I identify with the “isms” tied to feminist & egalitarian ideologies. And by in large, I get it: feminist is a loaded term in our day and age. Every wave has come with its martyrs and man-haters. There is so much baggage to unpack and sort through. Dare add the word Christian before the word feminist [Thank you Sarah Bessey] and at the very least you can expect to find yourself navigating through a sea of quizzical expressions and head-scratching, if not a full-fledged fight. But as with the majority of things we fear, a lack of understanding can almost always be found at the base, camped firmly in protest with all its deeply rooted prejudices ready to defend and throw stones. And I don’t claim to be above any of this; it is significant that you hear that.

My journey toward Christian feminism and egalitarian theology has come slowly over the course of the last few years and as the result of an ongoing and conscionable study of Scripture and [gasp!] extra-biblical texts. The more I learn, the more my senses are heightened to the presence of sexism and patriarchy bombarding culture, infiltrating the church, and actively oppressing and abusing women around the world, and as my awareness increases, so too is my passion fueled. But as I find myself having what feels like the same conversations time and again, I find myself compelled to give an account for why I ascribe to these titles, and why I think it’s so important to do so.

One of my first real encounters with the word “egalitarian” came in the winter of 2011 when I had the privilege of spending the weekend with a bunch of really rad and fiercely intelligent people in Seattle; among this group sat Kate Wallace herself. I had known Kate in college, but this was the first time I had the chance to hear her heart and passion for women. I knew vaguely of the issues she spoke of, however my vocabulary for discussing such matters was severely lacking. The conversations from this particular weekend served to whet my appetite, and while I certainly had much to learn, this interaction prompted me to start paying attention to the comments, attitudes, and everyday encounters of gender bias that were continually unfolding all around, including my own. I still remember the staggering feeling when it hit me for the first time, the full weight of gender prejudice that has always hovered elusively over me.

Growing up I would have never identified with the title “feminist,” mostly because I didn’t really know what it meant. In fact, if you had asked me if I considered myself a feminist, I likely would have laughed at you. Everything I’d ever heard or been taught about feminism was arbitrary at best; erroneously misinformed and tainted by prejudice always. As far as I was concerned, feminists were a group, made up exclusively of women, who had personal vendettas against men. It went without saying that they were pro-choice [which inherently assumed they must not value life], and were always on the lookout for ways to get offended about trivial matters that really just boiled down to semantics; clearly I was none of the above. Today, I know better. But sadly, these are still the same sentiments I hear being pandered about as the general consensus on feminism today.

I was at a dinner gathering with friends a couple summers ago when the conversation turned to the differences between men and women. One woman, in particular, was bemoaning the misery of being born female, and I surmise she likely had her good reasons. But to my surprise, every man and woman in the group quickly jumped on the bandwagon, firing off all the reasons why it’s inarguably and supremely better to be a man. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was among passionate, Jesus-loving people and yet, here we were. I still remember the distinct feeling of defensiveness that rose up in my gut that evening, catching even me by surprise.

“I don’t know what the great tragedy is, I quite enjoy being a woman,” I said affirmatively. Immediately one of the men challenged me: “What? Why!? Name one good thing about being a woman!”

I know it was not his intention, but his thoughtless words delivered a discouraging blow to my spirit that day. And he wasn’t alone; everyone in that room [myself excluded] was in full agreement with this good, well-intentioned, justice-oriented man. Though I couldn’t have quite articulated it then, this was a turning point for me. The gender issue wasn’t merely a second/third-tier issue to be brushed off for more important and immediate matters of justice.

This prejudiced paradigm, which operates off the assumption that men are inherently better than women, runs deep, and it is most certainly a justice issue.

Shortly thereafter the Junia Project launched and my already growing interest was now being fed on the regular. Soon, I would have my own personal library of books and research on the issues of women in the church and the active persecution of women around the world. As far as I was concerned, there was no going back. Once you know something, you know it. You can’t un-know it. And yet, I’m fully aware that this is only the beginning of the long, exhilarating, and equally sobering journey ahead. As one might imagine, attempting to swim upstream is not likely to garner a large following, and the journey is often a lonely one. Where I’ve sought encouragement and solidarity, I’ve often found a tireless effort to discredit and discourage from those who seem to be on the lookout to catch me in my words, as if to prove to me that I can’t actually be a real egalitarian. I can’t really believe that women could be called to all levels of leadership and ministry.

I say, “I’m an egalitarian” and people seem to hear: you’re angry; you don’t respect men; you think men and women are intrinsically the same; you don’t take the Scriptures seriously; you’re a contentious woman; you’re a fanatic.

I say, “I’m a feminist” and people seem to hear: you’re angry; you hate men; you think women are the superior sex; you’re argumentative and aggressive; you’re a fanatic.

I’m reminded of this pervasive misunderstanding every time one of my guy friends offers to carry something heavy and then immediately hesitates in my presence feeling the need to qualify his offer with, “I’m not insinuating anything, I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of carrying it, I’m just trying to be nice…” Or the impulse people seem to feel to call me out on any sentiment that might potentially prove a chink in my “feminist armor.” An expression of gratitude as a friend opens the door or carries something heavy in my company and I’m quickly met with “and you call yourself a feminist!” This is incredibly disheartening because it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of feminist ideology and egalitarian theology at their very core, and it’s for these very same misunderstandings that I cling even tighter to the labels in an effort to help redeem them.

And I’m not an egalitarian because I think men make poor pastors or leaders or speakers or what-have-you. I’m an egalitarian because women are all these things too, and yet the current male leadership largely continues to overlook more than 50% of the talent pool on the mere basis of gender. I am an egalitarian because Scriptures paint a very different picture of women than I see in most congregations today and the disparity is devastating to the Kingdom of God. Where we ought to be partnering in the mission for the redemption and renewal of all things, we instead silence the voices and squelch the talents of more than half the church.

I am not a feminist to assert an inverted superiority complex or flex my feminist muscles in some twisted “I am woman, hear me roar” agenda. I am a feminist because 1 in 4 women on a college campus will be sexually assaulted. I’m a feminist because women aged 15 to 45 are more likely to be maimed or killed due to male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. I am a feminist because men and boys are targets of gender bias also, and it is of equal concern to me that the next generation of boys is brought up to understand that emotion is not a synonym for weakness, nor violence a synonym for strength.

And so, with the blue prints all drawn up and laid out before me, I’m firmly choosing my side as I begin the vast undertaking of raising this proverbial fence.

And while the process can feel incredibly lonely at times, I’m encouraged as I look out toward the horizon to see the tiny silhouettes of those who, like myself, are undertaking their own construction projects, and I’m reminded that our efforts are not in vain. Eventually our fences will meet, and we’ll stand together in solidarity on the same side of the fence, rejoicing at how far we’ve come, continually inviting everyone we know to come join us on the side of equality and justice.

Because real change happens when we draw a firm line and then ask others to join us; consider this your invitation, there’s no time for fence-sitting.

Cayla Pruett

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29 Comments

  • This is wonderful, Cayla.
    I share so much of your journey and I’m so happy to share in the passion that is so obvious in you.
    Some of these conversations break my heart, but you’re right, once you begin to see you can’t un-see. It’s always before you.
    Thank you for continuing to speak, and for your beautifully nuanced approach.

    • Ah Cara, thank you friend for your solidarity through so much of my journey… through so much of OUR journey. Keep going. Blessings sweet friend!

  • Cayla, you gave perfect words to my own journey in the last few years. I echo the feeling of loneliness as I am married to a (wonderful) man still not convinced of the merits of egalitarianism, a member of a complementarian church, and working overseas in the counter-trafficking movement in a patriarchal society mostly with people from very hierarchical backgrounds. I am wearing my feminist button now too for the exact same reasons. Sometimes the conversations about why exhaust me, but I guess I figure at some point people challenged my ideologies and now it is my turn to issue the same challenge. Thanks for the beautiful post!

    • Thanks you maygrrl. It can be so exhausting, that’s for sure. Thank you for your perserverance. Don’t lose heart, the Lord is faithful, no good work is in vain. You have my prayers friend. Keep challenging the status quo. Keep pressing onward.
      Grace & Peace

  • I am a 58 year old white male living just outside Seattle. I have been trying to find resources in the direction of women in ministry. I am thankful for the articles & discussion provided on the Junia Project. The term “Feminist” comes with a great deal of baggage with someone of my age, re-branding or “correctly” branding may be to difficult a job when holding a conversation with someone with my demographics. I know godly men that will immediately close down when that term is used, referencing back to the NOW magazine they read in the 70’s (advocating exactly what you stated above) & the weak, east coast, intellectual stereotyping, of Alan Alda & Phil Donahue. If words have meanings (and they do) the conversation will be dead on arrival. I have five daughters all of who have been taught by their mother & I that there self worth is in Christ, not in a man. They have gifting’s & callings which we want to see fulfilled for them. Barriers that are traditional or man made will not stand in their way. The Junia Project gives me sound, biblical ammo for the fight as I hope to persuade those in authority over me that their paradigm is wrong & hurtful.

    • Hi Greg, thank you for your insight and wisdom. Indeed, there is a lot of work to do. But with the help of people like you, we will eventually get there. And sometimes, we don’t get to live to see the fruits of our labor, but that doesn’t make it a vain effort. Thank you for your advocacy. And five daughters… lucky man! I have three younger sisters, and it’s pretty much the best thing ever 🙂

  • If you like the idea of “communion”, you may want to check John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It is about man and woman made in God’s image, and about the divine plan for men and women to relate as a “communion of persons.” Written from a sacramental (Catholic/Orthodox) perspective that may seem a bit dense, but reading carefully you may find some jewels hidden in the gray area between the masculine and feminine polarities.

    • Hi Luis! Thank you for the recommendation, I’m adding it to my Goodreads App right now! 🙂 Consider me intrigued 🙂 Thanks for reading and sharing!

  • Thank you for your courage and willing to stay the course. Anything worth having is worth working for and you are doing a marvelous job.

  • “But as with the majority of things we fear, a lack of understanding can almost always be found at the base, camped firmly in protest with all its deeply rooted prejudices ready to defend and throw stones.”

    Yes, this is so true! Maybe if we stopped living in fear and actually engaged with the ‘other’ – you know asking questions and listening to the answers – we might enjoy life more.

    PS I’m also with you on the black coffee, gf bread and red wine 🙂

    • Yes, absolutely. Generally, in my experience, it’s best to approach conversations and things we don’t understand with a question rather than a statement.
      And I don’t know where you’re from, but if you like black coffee, hopefully you’ve experienced the sheer delight of a true Portland roast!

  • This is an outstanding post, Cayla, speaking directly to my own heart. I agree and feel the same for all the same reasons. God has gifted and called people according to His purposes. It’s not for nothing that any of us are gifted to lead or to speak or to organise… we’re supposed to do what we’re built to do. Biological plumbing is not the dictate but the design and call of God.

    Well said!Thanks..

    • Indeed Bev, indeed. Being able & encouraged to live into our giftings is so important. Only by using our God-given gifts will we be most effective in partnering with our creator for kingdom work. Why else would he have put the tools in our hands?! Thank you for your kind words.

  • I’m an egalitarian. I’m a feminist. And I’ve enjoyed six plus decades of the unfair entitlements of a Western, white man. You won’t find me sitting on any fences. Thanks for the encouraging words.

  • You wrote: “it’s for these very same misunderstandings that I cling even tighter to the labels in an effort to help redeem them.”

    Oh, this is me. That’s why I do it. Thank you for articulating that.

  • Terri, yes and amen. It’s striking how simple it can be for (some) men to look at it objectively when it’s so deeply personal to us. But the issue doesn’t just affect women, it affects the entire body. That’s what I want people to see. Gender inequality hurts everyone, as you know full well.

    Thank YOU for reading and for building your own fences & bridges too. Keep going!

  • Well said, Cayla. The role of women in the church is no different from the role of men, and some in each sex will do quite well in those roles and some won’t. But to say that some are inherently better suited for such roles because of their sex is just a load of hooey.

    • Tim, thanks for your consistent advocacy for women and for saying things like “just a load of hooey”! 🙂

  • This pressed right to the heart of my own life experience. How many discussions have we had about “roles” where the men have clearly just been playing with the topic for fun, toying with it, joking about it, while the women who live it every day have been near tears, and the gulf of empathy and understanding could hardly be greater?

    Thank you for speaking openly about these experiences and for not giving up, for building bridges. I am trying to do that too. It often feels like spitting into the wind (only more painful), but once in awhile you get a glimpse of someone actually thinking it over, actually putting themselves just a little bit in someone else’s shoes, and you keep goign.

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