Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)
Countering institutional sexism
By M. Garlinda Burton
Sexism is defined as: discrimination, marginalization, defining, stereotyping, pigeonholing, dismissing and negating a person or an entire group of persons on the basis of gender.
Institutional sexism takes sexism to the next level. It is the systemic expression of sexism by institutions, whole cultures and tradition, and the society at large. Institutional sexism specifically favors and assigns the male gender as superior to, dominant over, and innately the determiner of the lives of females.
This male-centric system is defined as “patriarchy,” taken from the Latin word that means “father-right.” In other words, from their first breath, children are defined by their fathers’ status and life. Throughout their lives, the destinies of women and children are determined by and dependent upon men.
This is true in nearly early corner of our world: Most social and cultural systems operating around the world are patriarchal. It’s not just one nation, socio-political system, race-ethnicity, religion or culture.
“Patriarchy has been dominant in the world for thousands of years,” according to South African writer Liz MacKenzie. “Men have control of political organizations. As a group, men rule over the public spaces of rural and urban areas, such as rivers and fields, streets and shops. This happens amongst different groups of people across the world.”
Institutional sexism is mostly an invisible system of road maps, free passes, assumptions, guideposts, affirmation, norms and structures that favors men over women and boys over girls in church and society. Institutional sexism is not merely something that one man or a group of men “does” to one woman or a group of women and girls. Rather, institutional sexism is an intrinsically valued and deeply embedded aspect of our worldwide culture and our church. Through it, women and girls — and boys and men — are taught and encouraged to believe, interact, plan, vote, act, view themselves and others, and live.
Institutional sexism is societal ascription and approval, plus the institutional and cultural power to marginalize women and girls through:
- Attitudes, norms and assumptions, including those concerning sexuality and sexual relationships.
- Discrimination, stereotyping and structural/systemic bias,including those adopted into political, legal, and religious laws and practices.
- Indoctrination of people of both genders to believe, act and forward the belief that men and boys are innately superior and ordained by God to function as the superior, dominant gender, therefore rendering women and girls as inferior and submissive.
Although patriarchal systems benefit males endowing them with privilege, women and girls can also participate in the system and deliberately or unwittingly participate in their own oppression. Many expressions of sexism are so ingrained in us that we are inured to its far-reaching, damaging impact on our lives and the lives of our sisters, mothers and daughters.
Generations of institutional sexism
“In this system [of patriarchy], men have taken, and have been given, rights over women as a group,” Liz Mackenzie further writes in On Our Feet. Taking Steps to Challenge Women’s Oppression. “Men have assumed rights over women’s labor, women’s bodies, women’s childbearing and women’s identity. And women across the world have taken part in keeping up their own oppression.”
Here’s how generations of institutional sexism have negatively affected women and girls:
- While women and girls around the world perform 67% of the world’s working hours, women as a group earn only 10% of the world’s income, reports the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality & Empowerment of Women (UNEGE).
- 66% of the world’s illiterate are women; in some communities it is still illegal for women to go to school or learn to read.
- Women own less than 1% of the world’s property, even though they produce 50% of the world’s food, according to the U.N. World Food Programme (UMWFP).
- Women with children in the United States are twice as likely to live below the poverty line as men with children or single men (UNEGE).
- 60% of those who will be at risk for going hungry today are women (UMEGE).
- U.S. women in 2010 earned on 78 cents for every $1 earned by a man.
The church has contributed to the sin of sexism.
Sexism — not the women and men who battle it, but sexism itself — is a sin that continues to divide the family of God across the globe, to disrupt and undermine intimate and family structures and relationships, and to divide communities and cultures.
Through sexist systems, women and girls are marginalized and put at risk for everything from disproportionate sexual violence as a tool of war to being most likely to live in poverty. Many false teachings and misguided practices of the Christian church have served to foster institutional sexism. These undermine and compromise the credibility, moral authority, worldwide mission, education, worship, prayer life and justice-making witness of the Church of Jesus Christ.
The face of sexism has morphed and changed throughout Christian history, but most expressions of institutional sexism predate Jesus’ ministry on earth. Even as God-in-Jesus challenged the church and culture to confront its own sexism and gender bias, our sin and human frailties have caused us to rebel continuously against God.
In particular, we have missed “God’s new thing” in respecting and engaging the voice and presence of women. We have rejected the biblical notion that women are to be loved, valued and empowered equally in the Christian church.
Undermine the gospel
This article is the first of three that will address long-held expressions of institutional sexism in the Christian church that continue to undermine the integrity and witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ:
- Marginalization, under-representation and outright rejection of women clergy and of laywomen in decision-making roles, especially in theological education, biblical preaching and worship, and finance and administration. These often characterize institutional racism, classism and homophobia, as well.
- Preferential use, promotion and defense of gender-exclusive language and preferential use of male-centric biblical stories and imagery, which distorts the whole nature of God and reinforces that men are God’s intended “head” of all things church.
- Failure to recognize, challenge and promote coordinated, transparent and consistent strategies, prevention education and accountabilities to address sexual abuse, misconduct and violence, both to govern our ministerial leaders and to advocate for dignity, self-determination and justice for women and girls.
In a groundbreaking move earlier this year, the General Commission on United Methodist Men passed a resolution supporting the calling and ministry of ordained women in the life of the church. The international men’s organization also called for men to repent of their individual and collective participation in institutional sexism that has blocked women clergy and undermined God’s call to the whole church.
Given the continuing dearth of proportional representation of women in church leadership around the world, the call to repentance is one that should be issued across the whole of United Methodism. Church members should be invited into a churchwide, guided critique and study of former biblically based teachings that continue to undergird sexist policies, practices and beliefs.
Questions for reflection and discussion
- From whom did you first hear or learn about gender roles (include any language you remember hearing, such as “Girls/boys don’t …” or “You’re such a _______ little boy/girl.”) What did it teach you about who you were supposed to be?
- What scripture, preached or taught lesson do you first remember hearing about girls? Which biblical women/men do you remember learning about as a child? What did their stories teach you about the “appropriate” roles of women and men in church and home?
- When did you first meet a woman or man in a “nontraditional” role (pastor, doctor, judge, coal miner, mechanic, etc.)? Describe how it coincided with your understanding of gender roles.
- How has your congregation received or prepared to receive women pastors?
I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering-
immune to pain
My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet
felt the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
by Sylvia Plath