Monday, April 14, 2008

How Can a Woman Lead with Power and Wisdom?

At the National Pastor's Convention a few months back I was honored to sit on a panel of female speakers and writers to discuss women and the church. The idea of femininity and power came up, along with the Iron Lady motif, a term used to describe strong-willed female heads of state (see "The Myth of the Iron Lady"). This title conjures up a female trying to protect herself, putting on armor, not open-minded, open-hearted, definitely not vulnerable.

My next book project, Walking in Her Shoes, delves into the human (yes guys do this, too) tendency to distance ourselves from anyone who threatens us. This could include anyone with more power than we have. I've come across (thanks to Katherine Routenberg) a fascinating discovery of a word to describe females in power. I think it covers the ambivalence better than "Iron Lady." The word is virago\vuh-RAY-go\, noun;

1. A woman of extraordinary stature, strength, and courage.
2. A woman regarded as loud, scolding, ill-tempered, quarrelsome, or overbearing.

How's that for a narrow line to walk? Virago comes from the Latin meaning "a man-like woman, a female warrior, a heroine" from vir, "a man." Here it is used in literature.
This virago, this madwoman, finally got to me, and I was subjected to the most rude, the most shocking violence I can remember.
-- José Limón, An Unfinished Memoir
To arms! to arms! the fierce virago cries.
Virago . . . serpent under femininity.
I want to be a woman of extraordinary stature and courage, a woman of spirit. In fact, in reading through books like Wild at Heart, or Expeditionary Man, I find myself wanting the adventure, the wildness, too. But the virago in me is cautious, because she is rarely simply admired and thanked for her extraordinary spirit. Be a heroine and you risk becoming scolding, quarrelsome, ill-tempered, everything awful about women in Proverbs.
  1. Proverbs 21:9
    It is better to live in a corner of a roof / Than in a house shared with a contentious woman.
  2. Proverbs 21:19
    It is better to live in a desert land / Than with a contentious and vexing woman.
  3. Proverbs 25:24
    It is better to live in a corner of the roof/ Than in a house shared with a contentious woman.
And I want people to want to be with me. I don't want those I love to prefer roof or desert or corners rather than me. In the words of Colorado's Congresswoman, one-time Democrat Presidential Candidate, Patricia Schroeder, "Women have more power than they recognize, and they're very hesitant to use it, for they fear they won't be loved."

That's what holds me back.

I'm wondering, can a woman lead powerfully, beautifully, masterfully, wisely? Can a woman be a virago without being manly, ill-tempered and cold?

The problem surfaces when we assume that femininity must mean softer. How can you be "soft" and a leader? Perhaps our definition of a leader must change, or our definition of femininity. I have to admit that I assume a leader will be impartial, sort of rational, somewhat cool and calculating. I'm envisioning Solomon with the two women fighting over the one live baby, cool as a cucumber while asking for a sword to slice the infant in half, I Kings 3:16-28. Could a woman, would a woman do that? I actually think she could. But what would we call her afterwards? wise? or cold, unfeeling, an Iron Lady? For a good leader must be both wise and shrewd, careful and bold. A good leader must be able to put themselves into their subject's shoes, enough so to judge justly. And women are often very good at that, feeling what other's feel, seeing what other's see. Well, why doesn't this leadership trait get recognized as a strength rather than a weakness?

I don't know enough female leaders to point to one and use her as an example(Can anyone recommend excellent biographies of women in power?). So for fear of overstepping my bounds I'm going to stick with Jesus. Was Jesus a good leader? I'm reading through Mark right now, taking notes on Jesus and have found him to be more shrewd than I have hence remembered. He's bold, even sounds sort of bossy at times and he's very empathetic, quick to listen, even to pause and be re-directed in his plans (think of the women who bled for years and interrupted Jesus' resurrection miracle for Jarius' daughter). Of all leaders I've seen, I'd like to be like this one. Under Jesus' banner, women can lead.

Women can lead with power and wisdom, if they are acting like Jesus. So here's the follow-up question. Have you ever seen a woman lead like Jesus? What was that like?


Chris said...

Jonalyn -- So, I take it that you are suggesting that there are qualities of a good leader that are neither masculine nor feminine (e.g., wisdom)? But would you say that some virtues are more natural for men or for women? Do you think men face a similar problem -- if a man exhibits too many feminine qualities, is it perceived negatively?

Amy said...

Yes, Jonalyn, I know of a woman who is a great leader and also feminine. She's my friend, Shannon, a fabulous person who lives in the San Juan Islands. She serves on committees in her church (they're Presbyterian and let women hold leadership positions)and is a great cook. I mean, I've never seen anyone who can love and care for her family (and friends) so tenderly, all the while remaining a great leader. I think part of it comes with age, wisdom, and finding her identity in God alone. She's still vulnerable and emotional, but she has a peace about her, too.

I've asked her what it's like for her to serve on leadership teams where she is the only female. She said that she never flirts and she remains focused on the task--in other words, she believes God gave her a place at the table and she is going to take it boldly. I know that when I've served on youth ministry committees as the only woman (and unmarried person and the youngest person), it was terribly intimidating to me. Plus, it's hard when a group of grown men refuse to listen to you.

I remember being laughed off when I suggested a big youth event should also include a female emcee. I interrupted and loudly asked, "Have any of you ever been a teenage girl?" Silence. No one had. "I was a teenage girl and I know how important it was for me to see a woman on a stage." I said some more great stuff and in the end it didn't change a thing. Yet it did change me. I spoke when I should have been quiet...or that's what such an event would lead me to believe.

I hate it, Jonalyn! Sometimes I'm told that I intimidate guys because I have my convictions and passions, and love to talk to people about them. I generally know what I want and allow God to do what He will with me. But I do struggle with it and I am vulnerable. I'm really not a brownie baker or a nursery worker (although I do like kids). It is really a hard balance, especially since the next great adventure in my life should be "settling down". Does that mean I need to settle? Is the only thing I can do for God now marry some guy? (I secretly wonder if people think having a man will simmer me down.)

It's all very complicated and frustrating, so I'm glad you are addressing it. Someone has to lead the way for women to find a voice because we're not all cookie cutter images of each other and we don't all enjoy making cookies either (although we probably all enjoy eating cookies together).

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Nice to hear from you! Yeah there are man non-gender specific virtues. I'd say almost all of them. The question of some virtues being more natural to men and women is a good one. It seems that our individual life experiences (read socio-economic class, ethnicity and education) mold much of our virtues. I cannot think of any gender specific virtues. For even something stereotypical male like courage is also demonstrated by women in every arena (from childbirth to leaving an abusive husband). Do you find some virtues gender specific?

I believe that when a man exhibits FALLEN feminine characteristics he is lambasted as unfit for the job. These would include:
1- softness in the face of evil
2- indecisiveness
3- incompetence
4- irrationality/emotional lack of control

However, I would be quick to assert that none of these are essentially feminine traits. Women, as made in God's image, as redeemed by Jesus, need not demonstrate any of these.

The annoying thing to me is that stereotypical male traits, both the fallen traits and the redeemed traits are deemed appropriate for a leaders. Take a few fallen ones for example
1- emotion-less(we usually call this stoic, rational or wise)
2- ruthless
3- competitive to the exclusion of others
4- self-made man
These are believed to aid in leadership, though I would disagree.

Also, when a man takes a position of leadership, it's considered another notch in his belt of manhood. He's assumed to be even more manly for being in power.

But should a woman assume leadership or power, this is a knock against her femininity. Something she must maneuver carefully, trying to appear competent without losing her femininity.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

I'm excited to read of a good example of a woman leader in your life. Now I want to meet her!

Your experience leading as an unmarried female among males who did not value your ideas is unfortunately common. I'm thankful for your boldness, for though it did not change the situation in question it did show you how your perspective is as grossly overlooked as it's intensely needed. I loved your question, "Have any of you ever been a high school girl?" Nicely put, which is precisely why we need men and women serving in leadership.

The next great adventure in your life should not be settling in any situation, for this would neither be from our unsafe but very good Father of lights, nor would it be much to write home about. Whether your next adventure be leading as married or unmarried, you will need companions. Find those who challenge you, Amy! If it be a man for marriage find someone who forces you to grow the strengths that are already in you. A man that leaves you breathless trying to spar and argue, a man who will not be content when you hold any of your intellectual strength back. These men do exist, really they do!

Marriage should never be a holding tank for those impossible women (or men for that matter) to keep them from wreaking havoc on our nice little, perfect world. I'm starting to hear echoes of Lord Farquad's complaint in Shrek "you fairy-tale trash ruining my perfect world." Don't give in to the Lord Farquads...they're afraid or worse, compensating for something.

You see, we need feisty, vulnerable women like you. And if you choose it, marriage will be a sharpening of your skills, your passions, your convictions. If you should you choose this type of adventure, marriage will in many men and women's eyes lend you more credibility. This is the terribly ungodly way of things (even in the church), but it will not, or needs not make you "tamer." It didn't for Esther, it didn't for Deborah, it didn't for Priscilla. Hold onto these female examples of godliness and power, the Queen, the Judge, the Preacher and walk boldly into the idea of marriage, or singleness. Both are powerful vocations in this kingdom.

Above all else, do not settle!

For those reading, let us include women like Amy in our evening get togethers, in our dream-casting, in our small groups and not marginalize them with "other singles." As if being unmarried made you a different class.

Amy, just wanted you to know that in my next book I have a chapter devoted to the very problem you bring up. How married women try to "fix" their unmarried friends and how we distance ourselves from females who choose singleness.

I admire you for your kaleidoscope of femininity, the one that is not quite as drawn to nursery duty or KP (I hear ya!), but loves bashing around ideas and clinging to truth wherever it may lead. You remind me of Ruth (Have you checked out The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules?)

I'm off to eat some brownies, in honor of your cookie comment ;)

Paul F. said...

I don't know of any good specific biographies about this woman, but I'd think the one to whom the title "Iron Lady" is most often applied would be a good place to start. I think it'd be interesting if Margaret Thatcher really did exemplify the negative aspects of leadership that are attributed to iron ladies, or if she was just a good leader that happened to be a woman (and thus got mischaracterized).

I did a brief search to see if any biographies jumped out, but didn't see anything. I did find this Perhaps that will be helpful.

Angela C said...

Read "Tough Choices" by Carly Fiorina who was the CEO of Hewlitt Packard. She would be considered an "Iron Lady." Yet, I admire her.

I agree with Amy about needing women on the platform for teenagers. Recently I spoke on a Sunday morning in our church and the mother of a teenage daughter said that it was the first time she saw her daughter sit on the edge of her seat to listen. She's been entering in ever since in worship also. It was like she was given permission to come to the table. We have no idea how powerful these images are to the women and teens in our church.

I also suggest the book "Let Your Life Speak" by Parker T. Palmer for Amy. Don't settle for anything. Don't put your life on hold until you get married. Discover who you are now and be the best you possible. Find your "voice" and live and speak it under the power and direction of the Holy Spirit.

I think the "iron lady" is an invention of intimidated men or women to keep the women in their place. Women can be strong, assertive leaders when they are confident and resting in their unique personhood without intimidating those who are secure in themselves. A fly could intimidate those who are insecure in their identity. Being true to yourself will come across as authentic and feminine. We can be strong without being harsh or abrasive. We cannot change people's opinions so sometimes we must die to those negative voices and push ahead.

I just networked with Judge Allen who won a grass roots seat to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. She is strong in the Lord and in the power of His might but I certainly wouldn't classify her an "Iron Lady." We need models of women who have courage to be who God has made them to be -- strong and courageous.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Paul- nice website. I've gotten some of the skinny on Thatcher and plan to do some reading and digging at the library today. She'd be interesting to learn more about!

Angela- nice to get some recommendations and hear about Judge Allen. I checked out Tough Choices and from reviews I don't think this is the type of biography I had in mind. I want a more in-depth, psychologically rich and cleanly edited biography of a woman who claims to follow Jesus and has risen to power. Any other ideas? Always good to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Vivala SLAM said...

Hey There,

I do not know you but i have been researching the Virago debate as well. Mostly the debate within myself. I ask the same questions. Why must a strong woman be a vulgar one? Can we lead without being hated. A really great movie that I suggest for you to see is Elizabeth, actually, both of them. The entire movie really delves into these questions. Personally, weak woman make me angry and I feel we should always puch ourselves in all aspects of live. I am a Mother, a Wife and a Roller Derby girl. I have had to struggle and fight for all I've ever gottenin life and it was well worth it. I wish you the best of luck girl.


Anonymous said...

Personal History: Katherine Graham

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Vivala Slam,
Thanks for letting me know your background and value in promoting strong women. I've enjoyed the Elizabeth movies as well, though my favorite is the one with Cate Blanchett. Do you like the one with Mirren better?

Thanks for this great link to "Kay." I'm glad to know about here. Have you read "Personal History"?

Tara said...

Jonalyn, I just found you thru a link from Emerging Women. Wow! I am just sitting her nodding my head to Amys comments. I am SO there. I am a single woman. I was voted into leadership because of my strength and enthusiasm. Then I was told to 'tone it down'. I was further lambasted by this comment given to me from my assoc pastor in front of the other leaders.."you could be a liability becuse of your singleness and your looks". I am not ugly. I am 44 and take care of myself. Divorced. Grandma. I was then told that I lacked 'tact and diplomacy'. How so very biting these comments were. It stunned me. It hurt. I caused me to stumble right out of that ministry. The sad part is that I really let it eat away at some of my confidence. Who and what the Creator created!! It really irks me that this kind of stuff happens. It certainly almost destroyed my desire to serve. I am now taking my gifts into secular recovery and worldly places where women are more appreciated and respected. Perhaps there I will not feel so stifled? Great site! I will be here often. And your book is on my must read list. I FEEL VALIDATED!! Hugs!

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

You are why I write. Thank you for telling me you felt validated.

It is hard to walk the fine line between sharing injustice and being humble and vulnerable enough to be wrong about our content or tone. I'm in that journey, too.

Your experience in this church sounds so harmful.

I know it feels like the secular world will validate us, perhaps more. Sometimes this is true, but often we are validated for fallen forms of femininity or for aping men's fallen forms of being masculine (read competitive, ruthless, provocative).

In your journey note the ways women who take care of themselves (read attractive) those strong, godly women gifted in leadership have found the Spirit showing them ways to lead . . . it might not be the ways we expected, but it will often be with undercover agents of our Lord Jesus. Perhaps unconventional ways like home bible studies with a mixed audience of men and women or perhaps in non-profit work or perhaps as a shining light of redeemed femininity in the world.

Have you come across Carolyn Custis James' recent book "The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God enough to Break the Rules" I think you'd love that, too.

Regardless, I know you will love Chapter 4 in Ruby Slippers called "Leaving Eden" Here's a snippet: "In the 1970s women broadened their shoulders, slapped on slacks, and got down and dirty in the marketplace. Some women denied there was a male or female nature and ended up trying to act like fallen males. They were following the words of one of the first feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wanted women to become “more masculine and respectable.” Women parroted men’s vices, proving just how competitive, ruthless, and promiscuous they could be."

Let me know your thoughts when you get into this chapter.

I appreciate you visiting, hope to hear from you again, soon.

Deborah said...

I don't want to say much on what is an old post, but one section of one of the books I'm working on hits on the divide between stay at home moms and other moms and singles. So I hear ya!

I wouldn't even be able to know where to start in a mini-answer to this discussion thread.

Personally, I have had leaders pre-emptively ask me to tone it down even in small group settings for the sake of preserving their image. When I say pre-emptively, I mean that I was walking around the eggshells already, but their fears of what I might bring forth instigated these requests. I found it all bizarre, since I've purposely been very quiet. But my Bible knowledge is greater than most here.

One time I was asked to lead but was effectively kept from leading b/c the pastor in charge of the group continually made nervous comments showing how insecure he was having me around... so overtly that I think everyone was having an awkward time responding. I kept trying to affirm his strengths and prayed and prayed but finally felt I had to bow out for the sake of the larger dynamics.

My lead pastor and his wife are thankfully healthy people this way, and I remember feeling like I could finally breathe one week at a different small group when the usual small group leader of that group was away, and my pastor was visiting. He is cool with who I am and moderately okay with female leadership (in large part because he has an overly capable wife whom he really loves and whose very existence has challenged some of his ideas even though she herself would not seek to lead a whole lot with those skills). I still had some of my zippers zipped so to speak but had so much fun talking, drawing people out into a little bit of deeper discussion, and feeling free to actually answer some of the confusions people were having with the Bible passage at hand that I only later thought, "Oh, no, maybe I showed too many of my plumes for some to handle" (which I had... repercussions ensued, although they were with a woman--fearing my "threat"--not the men this time). Sigh. I didn't regret it though. It was so nice to breathe for a spell.

I personally know two women in my church who were silenced (kept from contributing in prayer ministry, etc.) under concerns that they were a "jezebel" (bottom line; she has a strong personality) or improperly covered (unique marital situation). One was silenced for a year before being reinstated, the other for many years. I actually find this church to be just about the healthiest around here.

I think in the redneck culture I am living in, a lot of times patience (but not resignation) may be the key virtue a woman leader may need to cultivate. Humility, but not false humility.

Esther said...

"Recently I spoke on a Sunday morning in our church and the mother of a teenage daughter said that it was the first time she saw her daughter sit on the edge of her seat to listen. She's been entering in ever since in worship also. It was like she was given permission to come to the table. We have no idea how powerful these images are to the women and teens in our church."

Yes! Sarah Palin is an example of a wonderful leader who surely seems to have not lost her femininity.

What the quote above describes happened to the young girl, seems to be what has happened to many women in America since Sarah Palin came into the political picture. It is as if women now realize, more than ever, that they can also "come to the table". There are women out there who, like them, value God, children, husbands and life...women who exhibit vulnerability and tenderness but are also bold, courageous, wise, etc....

I thank God for Sarah Palin more than I can say!

Esther said...

"Recently I spoke on a Sunday morning in our church and the mother of a teenage daughter said that it was the first time she saw her daughter sit on the edge of her seat to listen. She's been entering in ever since in worship also. It was like she was given permission to come to the table. We have no idea how powerful these images are to the women and teens in our church."

Yes! Sarah Palin is an example of a wonderful leader who surely seems to have not lost her femininity.

What the quote above describes happened to the young girl, seems to be what has happened to many women in America since Sarah Palin came into the political picture. It is as if women now realize, more than ever, that they can also "come to the table". There are women out there who, like them, value God, children, husbands and life...women who exhibit vulnerability and tenderness but are also bold, courageous, wise, etc....

I thank God for Sarah Palin more than I can say!