I took my husband’s name when I got married, and I’m okay with that.

When I got married six years ago, I hadn’t gone through my feminist awakening yet. Sure, I considered myself a feminist…but I didn’t fully realize the extent to which the patriarchy controlled my decisions. I wasn’t fully aware of feminist issues in my day-to-day life. I took my husband’s name happily, from a place of conservatism and lukewarm feminism, rather than from a place of careful consideration as to how taking his name would affect the women around me and the women of future generations.

But here’s the thing. Since getting married, I’ve thought about my last name a lot. I’ve talked to Zach about it a lot, and we even discussed changing our name–perhaps creating a last name that was a combination of his last name and my maiden name, or perhaps having a hyphenated last name. He was totally on board with considering these options. He was willing to go through the red tape it would take to change our name if it felt important to me. Ultimately though, I feel okay with the decision I had made, although I also feel it was not and is not a feminist choice.

Let me explain.

Taking my husband’s name is not feminist. I just don’t think it is. It is an acceptance of patriarchal rule in a very blatant way: my identity is “erased” and is replaced with his identity. It symbolizes my subservience to him.

But keeping my maiden name didn’t seem any better to me. Because where did my maiden name come from? My father. Where did my mother’s maiden name come from? Her father. It’s the same generation upon generation into my history: my matriarchal lines are muddled, rendered nearly untraceable by the patrilineal last name. There is no maiden name that is not traced back through the male line. Some women feel that keeping their last name is a feminist choice, or at least a more feminist choice than changing to their husband’s name. I would take their point, but there are other reasons I didn’t want to keep my maiden name.

For one thing, I like the symbol of the two becoming one. I’m not only a feminist; I’m also a Christian, and I believe in the idea that a Christian marriage joins two people in sacred ways. They are bonded before their families and before God. So for me, whatever our last name was to be, I wanted us to share it.

Then why not a hyphenated name? Well, this choice felt to me like simply kicking the can down the road. What about our daughter? When she got married, would she hyphenate her name again? Would she drop my maiden name? Or keep mine and drop Zach’s? The choice for her would be even more convoluted if she came into the situation with an already hyphenated name, forcing her to make the decisions that I bucked.

I did consider combining our names more seriously. However, it seemed to me this choice carried with it some of the same baggage as the other choices–for instance, it wouldn’t erase the fact that my maiden name is still a product of a male lineage. Also, what choice would our daughter make if she got married? Would she combine her name with her partner’s name? If everyone suddenly decided to meld their names together into a new name each generation, any kind of lineage/family history would be very difficult to trace. I’m not really that into family history, but this does seem problematic to me. If there were a standardized method for combining names which would allow family history to continue to be traced, then perhaps this would be a viable option. But as it is, it just felt a little too wacky to me.

So, what to do?

If I had made a different decision at the time of our marriage, I would not feel compelled to now take Zach’s name. However, after weighing all my options after the fact, I also don’t feel compelled to change my name back, or to hyphenate or combine our names. Each choice has its own issues, and I am left between a rock and a hard place and another rock. I don’t think there is a really good feminist option on this issue. Did I choose the least feminist option of all? Probably. But given the number of reservations I have about all the other choices, I’m not willing at this point to change my name.

As a feminist, I think we sometimes are forced to make choices that are not feminist–or if not forced per se, than at least put in a position where making the feminist choice becomes so burdensome, we just can’t pull the weight any more. Check out this comic by Ronnie Ritchie around wearing makeup. I think it speaks about this problem very well.

If I were a grade school student given the assignment of explaining "What Feminism Means to Me," this is what I would write.

I am talking with a friend when I find myself saying to her, “Yes, I’m a feminist.”

And she responds, “Okay, I’ve always wanted to ask: what does it actually mean to be a feminist?”
…And in that moment, the idea of feminism just feels so big, so all-encompassing, that I hardly know what to say. I flounder around in some examples about how it plays out in my marriage–my husband is a feminist, too–and how it informs my motherhood, but I leave feeling dissatisfied, feeling I didn’t breathe into my explanation the fire that I wanted to.
So I turn here, to the page, to try to figure out how I actually should have answered her question, with the hope that next time I will be better prepared with my feminist elevator speech.
Part of the problem for me is how do you define something that reveals itself so differently in different people, each of whom has their own politics and religion and personal struggles? The best I can do is say what it means from my own little niche in this world. The best I can do is try to answer the rather simplistic question What does feminism mean to you? And I would say:
Feminism means giving all women the freedom to be who they are, without the worry that they aren’t what the patriarchy or other feminists want them to be. It’s my choosing to be supportive rather than judgmental.
Feminism means giving women power over their own bodies, rather than viewing women through the lens of the male gaze–and it’s taking control of my own body and looking how I want to look, regardless of how I’m “supposed” to look.
Feminism means the occasional loving prod at someone who is clueless about the misogynist comment they just made.
Feminism means writing poetry that celebrates women and challenges patriarchy.
Feminism means being unapologetic that I spend much of my time as a stay-at-home mom, and being clear that this is my own choice.
Feminism means reminding my fellow Christians that God is not male, and maybe making them a little uncomfortable by praying to our heavenly Mother and suggesting that “the Breasted One” is a legitimate translation of the name for God El Shaddai–because I believe in a God who is just as much feminine as masculine, and who celebrates the feminine as holy.
Feminism means the support of women who are oppressed or abused or overlooked: women of color, trans women, queer women, and many others.
Feminism means remembering that comparing oneself to others is never a good idea and that being beautiful is not a competition.
Feminism means choosing self-love over self-hate.
Your turn. What does feminism mean to you?
PS – I also like this article: What Is Feminism?

L’Engle and the Child Still within Me

I’ve been re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water with my mom, and this week, I read this passage from her chapter “A Coal in the Hand”:

Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of writing this, I am sixty-one years old in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-one, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and…and…. If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.

The way this hits me is as a call for grace–grace for ourselves, our selves, past and present.

It’s so easy to glance back and blame/condemn/scold/dismiss my past selves for their foolishness. And it’s amazingly difficult to love who I was in the midst of my biggest mistakes. But I think L’Engle is on to something: I cannot be whole if I cannot love myself with God’s love–even as time gives me the hindsight to have a thousand if-only-I-had…’s.

I must set the tearful, timid, selfish girl that I was at five upon my lap, let her rest her head upon my shoulder.

I must wrap my arms around the lonely, self-deprecating, depressed college student and hold her tight, as she so needed.

I must hold the hands of the laboring mother and look deep in her eyes and say, “It’s okay, it’s not your fault. This failure doesn’t make you a failure, doesn’t void your motherhood and womanhood.”

I must forgive myself for the things that are most difficult to let go of because all these selves are me: I am the result of them; their lessons are mine. Their thoughts and cravings and perspectives are under my care, and they flesh me out into a roundness of cold and hot and happy and sad and gut-wrenching and fist-pumping and still, slow breaths.

If I forget who I was, I truly am diminished. If I hold all of me and accept all of me and forgive all of me, I grow to fill the wholeness God intended for me.

Dear fellow woman,

When you got dressed this morning, when you took a quick look in the mirror before doing your hair or eating breakfast or changing a little one’s diaper, what did you say to your body?

Did you say, “Thank you, dear body, for being strong hands to keep my loved ones safe!”

Did you say, “You are absolutely gorgeous, you sly thing!”

Did you say, “Look at that brave and capable woman!”

Because you should have. It takes a lot of practice to see yourself as beautiful. It takes daily reminders; and you have to be willing to revel in yourself, your fat and creases and stretch marks and wrinkles and messy mop of hair.

It takes vigilance to see all those advertisements with size-zero women–selling everything from lingerie to beer to dentistry–and remember there are myriad ways to be beautiful, in every body of every shape and color.

It takes strength to look at other women and see them as beautiful allies rather than threats or targets for your thousand judgments.

May we learn to stand together as women, to remind each other to be true to ourselves, despite cultural standards of beauty and femininity. May we sing in every harmony our brave song of beauty.

A Feminist in Skirts

Over the last several years, my wardrobe has shifted from about half skirts to mainly skirts to, now, almost exclusively skirts. Sometimes this makes me feel a bit sheepish because I worry what people might think of me. After all, it’s not all that normal for a 21st century American woman to wear only skirts.

What if people think I’m that Christian–the one who feels called to wear only skirts as a religious practice, and who probably also feels called to cover her head at church and submit in all things to her husband? Well, if you follow this blog or know me personally, you know that’s not me (if this is you, let me say, I respect your decision and your convictions, especially as they require you to go against the grain of the culture, which takes strength and self-assurance).

It’s silly, really, that I should worry what acquaintances might think this of me. But at the same time, I do desire my outward appearance to reflect my inner beliefs. That’s part of why I choose not to shave my legs or armpits–it’s my physical rebellion against the rigid, arbitrary, and often hurtful restrictions that our male-centric culture puts on women’s bodies, as if the culture at large has some right to dictate what women do with their own bodies. I hate shaving, and I don’t think I should feel “required” to, so I don’t.

And I wear skirts for some of the same reasons–comfort and personal preference–though wearing skirts doesn’t pack the political punch that not shaving does. I find it ironic that trousers for women were originally part of the feminist movement in America as well as a practicality for working women in some professions, but now, so many of the trousers made for women are so uncomfortable and impractical. I mean, skinny jeans? Seriously, if I try to cross my legs in those, my leg falls asleep from the knee down. And I hate that thing where every time you bend over in low-rise jeans, your butt  half falls out of your pants and your underwear shows and when you stand back up, you have to tug on the back of your jeans to get re-situated. And wedgies. And tight waistbands that restrict movement and cause muffin tops, which I’m not against aesthetically, but it’s just not comfortable for me to have my fat pushed out and over my pants like that. I’m not willing to allow fashion to make me uncomfortable in my clothes, and I’m not one to choose sweatpants or leggings every day (if you are, more power to you!), so I choose skirts, which I find absolutely comfortable.

And you know what else? This is true for some men’s fashions, too, and though I think fashion-conscious men probably have more comfortable choices than women, I think that men should be able to wear skirts, too, if they want. I mean, I love the way skirts feel, and I bet if it were socially acceptable, some men would also choose skirts over trousers. So that’s part of my stance, too: skirts for all!

Seeking Silence

Mid-fall, and the bike ride to the library today was perfect. The oaks still hold onto about half their leaves, and with the sun shining warmth through their branches, leaves glow deep red and bright orange. My favorite maple has lost every dazzling flame to the wind, leaves scattered on lawn and in gutter. The birches and ginkgoes are a perfect luminous yellow.

How I love trees, their seasons: now, they grow tired, prepare for hibernation, for diapause between the hot green of late summer and the soft petals of spring. Each year, I ride this arc with them, rejoice in their first pale breath in spring, dance in their growing glory in summer, marvel at the patience their long sleep teaches me. And this fall, I feel especially close to their sloughing off of summer activity in favor of rest and silence. I am weary, too, and I have had a season of much growth. I long for the soft pillow and cozy blanket of a long winter—deep, white snow; scarves and crocheted hats; zippers and slippers; drafts under doors and through windows while the humidifier runs all night to replace lost moisture.

I crave digestion time, when I can sit back and begin to understand everything I’ve felt and learned over the last six months. I want to come into balance with God, with humanity. I want the Spirit to whisper deep within me, remind me that YHWH is, that Jesus loves me dearly—the simple things that so easily slip into phantom in the plod of life.

I long for forgiveness, for myself, but more than that, I long to be so full of forgiveness that I pass it out in great sheaves to everyone around me. I want to learn how to balance strength and bravery with graciousness. I don’t ever want to give up on me, on what I believe, but I don’t want to be me at the cost of love.

So I ask for space, and I slough off the bright hot skin of summer in favor of simplicity—the snowy sheet of the season of my diapause. Come, winter. Come, Spirit, to my meditation in the silent spaces.

A Woman, her Bible, and the Church of the Male God

“Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

Recently, I took a little time away from the Bible. It seemed every time I read it, I found not love but judgment, not freedom but bondage to a God who favors men. I would read the Bible and hear the voices of men only, the history of a patriarchy that excluded me as an equal partner in life and spiritual wisdom. But now I have begun to read the Bible again, and what has brought me back is a new translation—new to me at any rate. I have been reading The Inclusive Bible, a translation by Priests for Equality, a program of the Quixote Center. This translation speaks directly into the feminine wounds I harbor—feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, a sense that I am less valued and less wise and less worthy simply because I am female. The Bible I had been reading (translations like NIV, RSV, and The Message) added salt to my wounds by ignoring the feminine in God, glorifying the male by speaking of God always as He, and using words like man and mankind to supposedly refer to all people (which, if it doesn’t exclude women—though I think it does—at the very least makes women feel swallowed up in words that turn first and always to the masculine). There are few Christians who would claim God is male, but, as Sue Monk Kidd put it, “How many times had I heard someone say ‘God is not male, He is spirit’?”

I read this in the preface to The Inclusive Bible:
“‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,’ says the old proverb. We now know that this is a lie. Words can wound, alienate, and degrade people. Language can also affirm and express love. Care for language is a show of concern for people and a revelation of the attitudes of the speaker…. Church language is predominantly masculine. Male terms, images, and stereotypes, so-called sexist language, dominate church expression. Such usage is no longer adequate. It is time to build gender equality into the very fabric of the church life. The effort to build new gender-balanced ways of speaking helps to educate us toward greater equality for women and men.”

In these translators, I found a group of Christ-followers who had seen my hurt, the hurt of women as a group, and they had responded with many years of hard work and dedication to the God we believe in—a God of love for all people, a God who created all humans, male and female, to be like God. The translators created a Bible that spoke to me, a woman, rather than excluding me from its every page through a constant barrage of male-centric vernacular.

One of the most beautiful moments for me when I started reading The Inclusive Bible was when I came upon this passage from Genesis 17: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared and said, ‘I am the Breasted One. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.'” I thought, The Breasted One?? What a crazy way to translate one of the names of God! But I love it! I totally get it, and in this context, it is a perfect picture of what God is to us—One who nourishes, One who brings new life! For those of you who are as startled as I was by this translation, there was an interesting footnote about how this is one possible meaning of El Shaddai, based on the Hebrew word shad or “breast.” But I’m not going to try to convince you if this turns you off. For me, it was a wonderful, perfect, life-giving translation. It announced, “God is not only Father; God is Mother, too!” And as a mother myself who went through the hills and valleys of breastfeeding, I was moved greatly by a God who would claim the image of a breastfeeding mother as a picture of the divine.

Some days, I wake up and say to myself, How did I get here? How did I arrive in this day with convictions so vastly different than those I held a few years ago? I turn to Jesus walking beside me and say, How is it you seem so different to me today than you did yesterday, and yet I still know you to be Truth, Love, Grace? And then I think about Christian Wiman’s words—”even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change”—and I am comforted that God is big enough to hold my past and my future, that the Truth is strong enough to be present in how I used to see God and how God comes to me now in fresh language, out of patriarchy and into feminism.