Note: An earlier version of this sermon was delivered in Mt Kisco, NY, on October 8, 2018. Shortly after that service, accusations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein and others spawned the #metoo movement, and the sermon had to be rewritten to address the new awareness. Listen to this new version, as delivered in Nantucket on March 4, 2018, or read below.
The TV show The West Wing is much on my mind these days – partly because it is such a well-crafted show, but also because it serves as a reminder of our highest aspirations of what good governance can look like.
If you know anything about the show, you know that it centers around the administration of President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. President Bartlet is smart as a whip, deeply religious, and a gregarious people pleaser. That can be good at times, but at other times it can be a problem. As the press secretary notes on the morning of a televised debate, what happens next – for good or ill – “depends who shows up. If it’s Uncle Fluffy,” she says, “we’ve got problems. If the President shows up, I think it’ll be a sight to see.”
A lot of the time when I preach, I offer messages of healing and spiritual growth, community and covenant, kindness and generosity. And sometimes I wonder if I am too much Uncle Fluffy. But events over the past year have helped me tap into something I forgot existed in me: righteous anger. Now I’m going to talk about some hard things today, and some of you may struggle at times, but I hope you will hang in there with me. Because while there will be some healing moments – right now, you’re not getting Uncle Fluffy.
Now here’s the truth. There are a lot of ministers who can’t deliver this sermon – namely men, who can witness and listen, but who don’t know first-hand the exhaustion, the fear, the trauma, and the righteous anger of women.
So men… Know that what I am about to say affects you too. And if you are offended by anything I have to say, listen harder. Lean into the discomfort. Because I need you to hear that women are angry.
And we’ve been angry for a long time.
We’ve probably been angry since the first men came out of the cave, saw the first woman lighting a fire, and decided to explain to her what fire was.
We’ve been angry since early church fathers turned disciple Mary Magdalene into a prostitute.
We’ve been angry since Henry the Eighth decided that women who couldn’t give him a male heir were expendable.
We’ve been angry a long time. And it doesn’t seem to stop. Every week there is something more to make us angry. Even as we join our nation’s children and youth in saying “never again” to gun violence, something that gives us hope, we also hear that other youth who joined a Planned Parenthood protest were screamed at by an Idaho lawmaker. And last week it was the White House controversy over domestic abuser Rob Porter. And before that it was actor Mark Wahlberg asking for – and getting $15 million for the same reshoot Michelle Williams was paid a pittance for. Before that it was women rising up to say #metoo and naming their abusers, often but not always men in power, with more refutations than resignations. Before that it was the controversy over Hilary Clinton’s book… before that … before that… well, it just goes on and on.
Earlier this week, Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates published her book Misogynation, which weaves together hundreds of individual incidents that show they are part of a “bigger picture” of sexism. Or as she puts it: “To try, week after week, to say: ‘Look! There, and there, and there again! See the pattern? See the similarities?’” Her site is teeming with stories from women – and more than a few girls – experiencing sexism and sexual abuse on the streets, at work, in public, at home.
We are worn down. We are worn out.
One reason we’re so worn out is that holding centuries of anger in check requires a great deal of emotional energy. As writer Laurie Penny says, most women ‘are pretty good at hiding it, having been taught to do so since childhood.’ She notes that young women ask her how she gets away with “expressing anger with apparent ease, and they worry about men’s reactions if they do the same.”
They worry … about MEN’s reactions to their anger.
That’s because the system we live in – this system of white supremacy, which is also a system of misogyny – says that nice girls don’t get angry, don’t speak out, don’t speak up. And when we do, it’s blamed on a natural hormonal experience. And as Penny points out, jokes about women’s menstruation “are never just jokes. They’re a control strategy.”
It’s not surprising, actually. Because angry women appear to be out of control. Sure, women can express sadness and fear more openly than men – and that’s a fault of this system of supremacy and patriarchy too. Yes, men, this damages you too. In speaking about his memoir How Not to Be a Boy, actor and comedian Robert Webb says we do damage with the messages we send young boys about emotional repression: He says “we tell them to man up, get up, don’t cry, be tough, don’t acknowledge your own emotions; and if you keep being told to not express these emotions, it eventually starts sounding like ‘don’t have these feelings – don’t feel these feelings.’”
Women get similar, but opposite messages. Men can be angry and triumphant. Women can be happy and sad. But when we actually feel and express a full range of feelings? Our emotions break the system. And, according to philosopher Kate Manne, the reason this often gets manifested in violent words and actions is that misogyny is about correcting women who refuse to uphold the patriarchal social order. Like a shock collar used to keep dogs behind an invisible fence, misogyny, she argues, aims to keep women—those who are well trained as well as those who are unruly—in line.
Yet the unruliness of women’s anger has proven to be a powerful force for social change. Anger over the working conditions that led to the Triangle Shirt Factory fire led to worker’s rights and unions. Anger over being excluded from basic rights as American citizens led to suffrage. Anger over the treatment of women in politics and entertainment led to women’s lib. Anger over the exclusion of women of color throughout those movements led to womanist theology. Anger over unequal pay led to the Lily Ledbetter Act. Anger over the naked misogyny hurled at a presidential candidate led to the organizing power of Pantsuit Nation. Her opponent’s election led to the Women’s March.
And still there is more to be angry about, because we’re not done.
In writing this sermon, I found myself wading through my own hard experiences of sexual harassment , then drowning in the stories of others, trying to select which ones to talk about. This could have been a much sadder sermon. But instead, I found I could be a little brave by leaning into the stories of women who refused to stay in line and spoke truth to those who would keep them quiet: like Elizabeth Warren, who would not be silenced, angering Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who said, “she was warned. An explanation was given. And still she persisted.” Like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was forced to interject over a loud conversation between her male colleagues, “do women get to talk around here?” And perhaps most resonant for me, Congresswoman Maxine Waters being interrupted by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin during a hearing. If you recall the story, Secretary Mnunchin interrupted and tried to avoid the question by distracting with praise; Representative Waters responded with “I don’t want to take my time up with how great I am. Reclaiming my time.” At every interruption, she repeated “reclaiming my time. Reclaiming my time. Reclaiming my time.”
Again, I could go on and on, and on and on.
These public examples of unruly women join the rising tide of the hashtags #YesAllWomen, #MeToo and #TimesUp, and help women and non-binary folk be a little braver about speaking out about their own experiences of big and small expressions of everyday sexism.
You see, for those who don’t know, being a woman in this culture is like running a gauntlet. We are objectified. Catcalled. Touched inappropriately. Our worth is measured only in relation to our partners and children – and god forbid we be queer, single, and childless. We are told we’re responsible for the reactions of men. Women – yes, all women – are told by media, advertising, and politics that we must do everything we can to conform to society’s expectation – an expectation grounded in a system that tells us men’s approval is what determines our safety. All women live with an underlying fear that if we say no to the wrong man, we will be in trouble. And that’s not just strangers, but those we know; the number one cause of women’s deaths is domestic violence by a partner.
This stuff’s hard. Breathe.
And if you think that we enlightened Unitarian Universalists are immune, you should know that the three women candidates for UUA president were all criticized for their clothing, the tone of their voice, their makeup, their mannerisms. They all fielded questions about their fitness for office despite all being senior ministers of large congregations, just like their male predecessors. The two with young children fielded questions about balancing motherhood and the presidency. That we finally have a woman president is not only decades overdue, it’s a product of having an entirely female field.
But here’s more that we face as Unitarian Universalists: while women ministers are now the majority, they comprise only about 30 percent of the senior pastors of large congregations. And you can count the number of trans and gender-non-conforming ministers in settled ministries on one hand. And it was only last June that for the first time, a featured speaker at General Assembly was a trans woman.
Our history is ugly too. Maria Cook is only one example. At the end of the 19th century, Julia Ward Howe organized a group of Unitarian women known as the Iowa Sisterhood to serve churches throughout the Great Plains, because it was the only place women could serve. And while they were deemed successful out west, they were seen as an embarrassment back in Boston, and by the early 20th century, they were forced to retire or work as community organizers. Even now, women ministers struggle to get full time positions, no less senior positions.
And when we’re in pulpits? We get comments on our hair, the length of our skirts, the plunge of our necklines, our accents, our vocal tone, our subject matter. Our pastoral care is read by some as flirty and others as mothering. We are seen as caregivers, not chiefs of staff. We encounter comments like “May I speak with the real minister?” When we offer our expertise, men sometimes come back with “if you want me to teach you that thing you’re an expert in, let me know.” And God forbid we get pregnant. Yes. In 2018. And if you think #metoo is only about Hollywood, know that sexual misconduct happens in the church too, with young – or not so young – female ministers experiencing harassment and abuse from male colleagues.
Did I mention we’re angry? I told you this wasn’t gonna be Uncle Fluffy. Nope. It’s Auntie Maxine.
And what’s important to remember about Auntie Maxine Waters is that she isn’t just about telling you what’s wrong, but is also about finding ways to make it better. She tells us to reclaim our time because this is our time.
So men: I know you don’t want to perpetuate the sexism that permeates this system. We certainly don’t want you to. The beloved community our faith upholds has no space for you to. The husband of one of my colleagues, Christopher Cefalu, offers this advice):
To respond to this argumentatively, whether to be as clueless as to deny the truth of the claims or even subtler, gentler forms of redirection and avoidance is to MISS THE MOMENT WE ARE IN. In this moment the women of America are making a tremendous effort to HELP us if we would only stop talking and LISTEN TO THEM.
Here’s where the help is: If some aspect of #metoo triggers something in you, or makes you feel irritated or angry or defensive or annoyed, try this: DON’T do what you always do, what our culture has trained you to do and rewarded you for. Don’t immediately raise your voice and try to dominate the conversation. Don’t. Say. Anything, in fact.
What’s happening, in case you’ve forgotten, is that virtually every woman you know collectively screaming at us to wake up and see what’s happening and JOIN them in trying to make harassment of women not ‘the norm.’
In order for that to change, in order to get us to hear them, they had to make a LOT of noise. We’re hearing the noise right now, Don’t get rattled. This is GOOD. The future is going to be way better. We’ll have more connection and understanding and trust. We won’t be carrying around as much guilt and shame and anger. Everyone will be happier. But we gotta earn that happy ending. We have to do our part to make it happen.
So can we – all of us, no matter our gender identity – make a difference?
I think we can. We must first recognize that this isn’t just about women. It is about how thick the walls are between groups of people– in a system that isolates marginalized peoples from one another, pitting them against one another so that power becomes siloed. It’s about remembering that we have many identities – we are all intersectional – and when we start dividing people up and treating them differently because of their race, or their class, or their sexual orientation, or their gender – we are relegating ourselves to divided lives.
We must listen. We know that when doing the work of racial justice, we ask white people to believe people of color when they tell their stories. We must afford women the same courtesy – whether it’s about physical pain, anxiety, micro-aggressions, or harassment, or sexual assault.
We must validate women’s anger. Get angry yourself. This isn’t how things should be when we know that every person has inherent worth and dignity, when we know that no one should be outside the circle of love. And when you hear something, say something. Silence is complicity. Men, use the privilege of your voice being heard to be an ally.
We must lean into stories of hope, because the moral arc of the universe DOES bend for justice. Find hope in Stoneman Douglass High School students like Emma Gonzalez who are taking the lead in fighting for gun control…stories like that of a new crop of the Yellow Roses, a group teenaged girls working to demand passage and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
We must expand our worship, reading lists, music choices, even television and media consumption to include voices that are not your own. You may notice that all of the music and all of the readings today are by women. That’s by design, but it is more often the case that only men’s voices that are featured, and that’s both bad and easy to fix.
As you live into our principles of inherent worth, Justice, and interdependence, follow Abigail Adams’ advice, and “remember the women.” Remember us when approaching climate justice, immigration justice, LGBTQ justice, racial justice, and of course reproductive justice – because they are all women’s issues. Because they are all human issues.
And … know that we’re never going to get it all right all the time. Men, hang in there and be patient with yourself as you learn to eliminate sexist microaggressions in a system that encourages you to do otherwise. Women… be breathe. just do you, no matter what society says. Live boldly. Make your own rules. Be angry. Persist. Resist. Be open and vulnerable. Know that you are whole and holy. As Auntie Maxine modeled, reclaim your time.
#MeToo Ritual Prayer by Karen G. Johnson (found on the UUA Worship Web) directly followed the sermon.