Dear Pope Francis, Cardinals and Bishops:
Your just concluded three-day meeting on the theme of “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference” painfully revealed once again just how wide the gap between clerical perception and women’s reality, not surprising since you have limited contact with actual women and your knowledge of women’s history is severely outdated. As a result you are unable to understand women’s diversity and leadership in the present or the past.
The recent meeting was attended by seven women and upwards of 50 men, so the potential for new ground being broken was remote at best. Closed processes cannot open hearts. So, while I absolutely believe you should study the full spectrum of feminist theological writings and women’s history, I chose the following resources from the realms of literature, visual arts, music, and public life in hopes of evoking a personal response rather than just an intellectual one, that you might see in full color what you currently view only in black and white.
I invite every one of you to set aside time each day during the upcoming seasons of Lent and Easter, to engage with these works prayerfully as you would any sacred text. Perhaps you could have an online forum or Facebook group in which to share new insights!
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a novel of biblical women published in 1997. The story is told through the voice of Dinah, who is mentioned only briefly in the Hebrew scripture story of Jacob and his family, and imagines a full picture of ancient female life, the joys and sorrows. The book was made into a Lifetime mini-series also.
Elizabeth Nourse, a 19th century native of my own Cincinnati, moved to Paris for most of her adult life to pursue her vocation as a painter. Her 1892 Self-Portrait reveals her determined character, and this 1983 article fills in the details not only of her artistic career but her outreach to others, especially during World War I.
Fannie Lou Hamer helped African-Americans register to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s. Though she was fired from her job, threatened, arrested, and also beaten for her efforts, she persevered in dedicating her life to civil rights advocacy. Her gifts as an orator are now being rediscovered. This video shows her speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1964.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a novel published in 1899 that portrays a timeless internal conflict for women, between tending to oneself and fulfilling duties to others. The themes remain completely contemporary. Though not a long work, it invites profound reflection, especially with the ambiguous ending.
Septima Clark made a major though often unrecognized contribution to the civil rights movement as an innovative teacher. She created curriculum and taught adults the literacy skills they needed in order to vote, at great personal risk. These were called “Citizenship Schools.” Her first-person narrative in Ready from Within provides a fuller perspective on this part of history.
“The Language of the Brag,” a poem by Sharon Olds from her 1984 collection Satan Says, presents childbirth in an earthy, powerful manner. Proud of the accomplishment, she does not romanticize it in any way. As a contemporary response to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poem speaks in a strong female voice about women’s bodily strength.
The Succession of Mary Magdalene, a set of paintings by Janet McKenzie, puts women in the picture of early Christianity as partners in ministry which has clear implications for today. McKenzie is known for painting biblical figures as people of color, inviting more inclusive images of the divine.
Jann Aldredge-Clanton is a contemporary musician and minister whose songs, many of them offering new inclusive lyrics to familiar tunes, provide inspiring options for worship. Midwife Divine Now Calls Us and Praise Ruah, Spirit Who Gives Birth are just two examples.
I put this list together based on my own experiences. If you asked women all over the world for their suggestions and stories, you would collect a highly varied array of material upon which to reflect.