I once was raised a Feminist, but now I’ve found Feminism

This post was originally featured on The Jesus Event, and is part of a series entitled “I once was raised… but now I’ve found…” where some of the author’s favorite writers, bloggers, scholars, and theologians explain the transitions they have encountered along their own faith journey.

Below is an interview with The Jesus Event’s Tyler Tully and the Femonite’s Hannah Heinzekehr

Tyler- There are a lot of misconceptions out there about being a Mennonite and being raised as a Mennonite. You seemed to have been raised by parents who made room for good theological frameworks. How would you explain what it is like being raised as a Mennonite?

Hannah- Well, for me, being raised as a Mennonite didn’t mean looking “outwardly different” at all. For me, what it meant to grow up Mennonite was that there was always an emphasis on Jesus’ story and what that meant for how we lived. And some of the ways that this got expressed were through baptism later in life — baptism occurred when you were old enough to make a conscious choice that you have to make on your own to follow Jesus. It also included an emphasis on peace and nonviolence as part of the way that we were meant to live in the world. For my family, being Mennonite also meant being pacifist and resisting violence in all its many forms. This doesn’t mean that we are passive — I think we also strongly believed that we were meant to protest against injustice in the world — but we weren’t going to use violence to do this work. And the third thing that I often think of is that being Mennonite, for my family, meant being part of a church community that was active in each other’s lives and not just on Sundays.
I think there was a strong emphasis on communal decision making and being willing to give and receive counsel to one another.

But, just like in any denomination, this is not necessarily true across the board. There is a lot of variation among Mennonites. Mennonites grew out of the 16th century Anabaptist movement, which rejected infant baptism and emphasized nonresistance. There are also multiple Anabaptist denominations that splintered off of this movement, including many different groups of Mennonites and the Amish. So we do share some “family lineage” with the Amish, but contrary to popular belief, Mennonites and Amish are not the same. The denomination that I’m a part of - Mennonite Church USA — wouldn’t include any “visual cues” like a head covering or plain dress — that would signify to folks that we are Mennonite.

Tyler- Your mom raised you with feminist leanings, but what changed for you? How did it become real for you and in your experiences?

My mom definitely had feminist leanings, in the sense that she believed in full equality for women and men. She was a female pastor, and so some of my first encounters with sexism were when I began to understand that not everyone supported her in this role, partly on the basis of what they perceived biblical teachings about ministering and who could minister. And she taught me to pray and to sing in ways that emphasized gender neutral language and would sometimes also use female language for God.
But despite all this, I think that I really considered feminism irrelevant for myself. It’s not that I didn’t believe in women’s equality, but I think that I thought that, for my generation, feminism was going to be irrelevant, because we were past things like racism and sexism. And I think I really carried these thoughts with me through most of college. It wasn’t until I began work for a churchwide agency that the need for feminism began to become real to me. Maybe in typical “Millenial fashion” I couldn’t really understand the need for this movement until I felt impacted personally.
It started subtly: I would notice, in meetings, that an idea I suggested would be ignored, and then later, the exact same idea could be restated by a man and it would be heard and engaged. I noticed that, when we were having a meal together or a meeting with snacks, I was often expected to help clean up or prepare food, while my male colleagues were not often asked to participate in this way. I noticed that, even though we had the exact same title and role, many of my male colleagues were introduced differently by our agency executives. Each of these things was little, but when they started to pile up, I began to notice that there were systemic ways that women were cut out of important processes. I began to notice how many fewer women were in leadership roles.
And I got angry, and it renewed my interest in figuring out what feminism was all about. These explorations also led me to get some anti-racism education, which helped me to understand the ways that many forms of oppression collude to form systems that are really detrimental and harmful to all of us. And from that point on, I really have seen it as part of my ministry to be involved in anti-oppression work. I’ve found feminist theology, liberation theology and process theology to be really helpful companions on this journey.
Tyler- I’ve actually encountered a lot of Mennonite feminists… what gives? Why are there so many of you out there, and can men be feminist too? :)
Two big questions! I’m not sure why there are so many Mennonite feminists. I think that’s a relatively recent trend in Mennonite Church USA, and I don’t want to speak for everyone, but, if I had to guess, I would say that the emphasis on justice work within Mennonite Church USA is really conducive to creating feminists. Although sometimes I still definitely feel like we’re really outnumbered when you look at the ethos of the whole church. Maybe you just are really good at finding cool friends! There’s still lots of work to be done!
I think that men can definitely be feminists, too, but I think this is sometimes a tricky line to walk. I love it when I find friends or men who are equally committed to advocating for gender justice and equality. But sometimes I think that men can try to “take on” women’s pain as their own, or they sometimes speak over women or overpower women even when they are trying to help, and this just reinforces some of the same problematic cycles that we’re working to resist. I think if a man is really interested in being a feminist he should prioritize listening to the women around him to find out how they feel, what they’re concerned about, etc., and come alongside them to work for gender justice. Don’t just presume you know what women need or you’re advocating on their behalf without taking the time to really get to know those around you. It’s also always a good move to empower women to lead and speak, too.
Tyler- There seems to be a swing towards a more open mindset in the ordination of women in the MCUSA. My pastor is a woman, but as you have recently pointed out at your blog, there is still a lot of room to grow. Do you think ordination is the answer, or do you think there are some times that local congregations just have to be the change they want to see?
Openness to ordination is still one big step, certainly, and the Mennonite church has made huge strides over the last 40-50 years. And it can never hurt to have more women in leadership roles. When this happens, I think that it broadens the possibilities that women and girls can envision for themselves in the future. But I think it’s even more than that. We have some theological education to do that expands our ideas of who God is and our Biblical understanding of who can lead, etc. We also have a long way to go with our language, and education about our bodies, sexuality, modesty culture, etc. There’s still a lot of secrecy and silence around sexual abuse in the church, which disproportionately affects women and children. It’s really a multi-layered system that will have to be addressed through a lot of channels.
Tyler- Bringing the circle around, you had a wonderful mentor in your mother and father, and now that feminist theology has been made “real” in your own actualized praxis, what do you think you will be bringing to the table for your own children–and what can others like me learn from your experiences in raising our children?

Wow, I think about this all the time. And I’m still a really new parent, so I’m really looking for lots of advice and ideas, too. I think, at a really fundamental level, I want my daughter to know that she is well-loved, by God, by her parents, by her church community, friends, etc,, and also that she is worthy of respect. I think the biggest role I can play is to model these things for my daughter myself. If I’m self-deprecating about my body and appearance, that reinforces to her a certain relationship to her body and to the culture that emphasizes beauty as a woman’s primary allure. I need to put myself in good situations and in good relationships to model those things for her. And I also always want to make sure that we are part of a church community that affirms the gifts of people of all genders. I want Ellie to be able to dream big dreams for herself and her participation in the church.

Hannah is a blogger, mother, Mennonite and theologian. She lives and works in Claremont, California with her husband Justin, also a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Process Studies, and their new daughter Ellie. You can check out all of their musings over at www.femonite.com.

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