Sexy/Sexed Bodies in the Pulpit: Women’s Bodily Negotiations

Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church. She earned an M.A. in Religion from Duke University and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Melissa is committed to the local church building power for local, systemic change as members of diverse coalitions. She is a board member of Friends of L’Arche North Carolina, a community for people with and without intellectual disabilities who share daily life. She is also on the steering committee for the Women in Leadership Project. Melissa and her spouse parent their three children in Durham, North Carolina. She is the author of a forthcoming book by Herald Press. This post is based on a presentation Melissa gave at the 2016 Women Doing Theology conference.

In September 2016 the magazine Racked published an essay on the history of women’s fashion trends, power, and pockets.[1] Chelsea Summers traces the lineage of pockets to the 17th century. At the time, both men and women’s clothes included pockets in which to carry a variety of items discreetly, aiding freedom and subterfuge.

Fashion changed with the French Revolution when women’s dresses began to pull closer to the body. Pockets were absent because they inhibited the line of the female form. Bags became necessary, “putting women’s necessities on display.”

So continued a trend in fashion history — men’s clothes adapted for the power of utility while women’s clothing adapted for visual effect. “The less women could carry, the less freedom they had,” writes Summers. “Take away pockets happily hidden under garments, and you limit women’s ability to navigate public spaces, to carry seditious (or merely amorous) writing, or to travel unaccompanied.”

Even as women’s fashion began to incorporate pockets again, the fashion industry decried this innovation as “masculine.” In the 1890s The New York Times quoted one sarcastic tailor as saying, “Not all (women) want to carry a revolver.”[2] Women’s pocketless clothing was a sign of a version of feminine submission that refused to conceal the secretive, “perhaps even the deadly.”

For Mennonite women, clothing choice is a particularly charged arena. I was in my 20s when the last woman in my church stopped wearing the head covering, a sign of nonconformity and of one’s identity as a Christian Mennonite. But head coverings are also an emblem of female submission. In the history of our church, even as men were released from the restriction of the plain coat in public places, women continued to face pressure to wear distinctive clothing. Historian Beth Graybill explains, “women bear the burden of cultural separation on their bodies to a much greater extent than do men.”[3] These clothes reinforced to women that our bodies, without any intention of our own, are a source of sin. Our bodies act in spite of and against us.

Just as women who took off the head covering began to unmask and unlearn ritualized forms of submission, I suspect we are at another juncture as Mennonite women.

The massive fallout from the #MeToo movement within one year of the election to the presidency of an accused sexual abuser, a man who jokes about assaulting women, is a reminder to all women that we are living in an age of unmasked misogyny.

And in this moment the voice of Audre Lorde echoes back to us reminding us that, “Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.”[4] Perhaps we are beginning to discover as Mennonite women that the time of respectability, the time of getting a foot in the door of patriarchal power — this time is over.

The Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa helps to understand the future as a form of disrobing from power. Anzaldúa begins an entry in her published journals, dated May 1, 1980, addressed to “mujeres de color, companions in writing”— “I sit here naked in the sun, typewriter against my knee, trying to visualize you. Black woman huddled over the desk in the fifth floor of some New York tenement. Sitting on a porch in South Texas, a Chicana fanning away mosquitos and the hot air…”[5]

She goes on to write about the landscape for women writers of color. She talks about how it’s unlikely for women of color to find friends in “high literary places,” how women of color will be accepted only when they “scrape the dark” off their faces.

Anzaldúa writes naked, words unmasked, truth without any concern to be hidden, without the need to be clothed in the rules of domestication. She writes naked, taking off the one thing she can, stripping herself of the temptation to be “taken seriously” by white patriarchal institutions. She writes her words in solidarity with the women who stand at those edges to which Lorde points us.

Stripping off takes other forms, forms of deep vulnerability embedded in protest. During the Liberian women’s peace movement, Leymah Gbowee stripped naked as an act of protest. Later, reflecting on this act she says, “If I’m being accused of obstructing justice, and all I’m trying to do is deliver a semblance of justice to my people, I felt like there is no hope. It was an unbelievable depth of humiliation. So I said I’ll make it easy for you. I’ll strip naked. I was protesting the pain of every woman. When you are being raped, your clothes are torn off you. When you are protesting in pain, you are giving away the last shred of your integrity — and that is what I was doing in protest. Take what is left of womanhood for every Liberian woman. If this will bring peace, then take it!”[6]

Constructs of femininity, our assumptions about how our culture has gendered our sex, have moralized virtues like modesty, submission, maternity and meekness.

Beth Graybill observes that in plainclothes communities “If a women were to exercise too much leadership or initiative,” this is seen as a form of immodesty. A woman’s style of leadership is directly linked to the way her body performs in public space.[7] What do we need to strip away?

I suspect that we will be working out the ways we are stripping ourselves down from cultures of white patriarchy, naming the power structures that have moored us to concerns we do not have time to pursue. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no more time. Our collective life is at stake.

Many of us are working out of old blueprints of expectation and response.[8] Many of us continue to believe we can alter the structures, that if we are willing to endure one grope, one assault, one leering eye, that if we stand by while we are talked over and passed over, if we turn an eye from an abusive leader, if we play by the rules we can effect change.

Women of the Mennonite church — I do not wish for you to be clothed in tyranny, to scrape by in conferences, churches and denominational bodies that ask you to deny your bodies, your sexuality, your skin, your voice, your accent, your desire. Do not do it for me, for my wellbeing or my future. If you will be for me, come to this power stripped from all the respectability demanded of you.  

For all of us, speak loudly or softly; let them adjust their hearing. Be abrasive or shy. Let go your attention to vocal fry and articulation, to skirt length and the sway of your hips in the pulpit. Denounce the stare and “tsk.” Let your lips be bare or red. If they will not hear you or see you, kick the dust from your feet. If they will not have you as you are, know we are waiting here for you. If they will not have you, let them go their own way. Let them make a world without you, without us. We will make our own world.

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[1] Chelsea Summers. “The Politics of Pockets,” Racked (racked.com), Sept 19, 2016.

[2] Chelsea Summers.

[3] Beth Graybill, “To Remind Us of Who We Are” in Mennonite and Amish Women in History (2002).

[4] Audre Lorde.

[5] Gloria Anzaldua. “An Open Letter for Women Writers of Colour” in The Gloria Anzaldua Reader.

 

[6] Leymah Gbowee. Interview with Gwynne Guibord at LA Public Library ALOUD (published at thewomenseye.com on Oct 14, 2011).

[7] Beth Graybill.

[8] Audre Lorde.