Resist and Persist (Erin Wathen) -- A Review

RESIST AND PERSIST: Faith and the Fight for Equality. By Erin Wathen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. Xii + 171 pages.

                On the Saturday following the inauguration of President Trump thousands of women (and male allies) from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C. (as well as many other cities across the land) to give voice to their concerns over the perceived direction of the new administration when it came to issues these women valued. This has led to a record number of women choosing to run for political office. There is a resurgent women’s movement in the land. Where it will lead no one knows, but there is growing chorus of voices that too often is drowned out by male voices that traditionally have dominated public and private discourse. What is true in the broader public, is true for the church.

As I picked up Erin Wathen’s book Resist and Persist, my first thought was the rallying cry that emerged after the Senate majority leader tried to shut down Senator Elizabeth Warren as she spoke on the Senate floor. That cry was “she persisted,” a phrase that came from Senator McConnell’s rationale for shutting her down. He had warned her, but she persisted to speak. Being the age that I am, I also thought back to Helen Reddy’s anthem from the 1970s, which declared "I am woman, here me roar." It's been more than forty years since that song debuted, and women still struggle to achieve equality with men. I read this book from a particular vantage point. I am a white male, which accords me certain privileges. I haven’t had to fight for equality or persist when warned to stop speaking. While I have long supported women in their pursuit of equality, especially in the church, that doesn’t mean I have benefited from my status as a white male. No one questions my right to be a pastor due to my gender (or my ethnicity for that matter). In picking up this book, which is a manifesto for a Christian feminism, I need to put myself in a receptive position, even when I might find the message uncomfortable. I may have my questions and opinions, but the experiences described here are not mine.

The author of the book, the Rev. Erin Wathen, is a Disciples of Christ pastor (thus a member of my denomination). Although she is a member of a denomination headed by a woman of color, who succeeded a woman as General Minister and President, and serves a mid-sized congregation, she knows that women still struggle to gain access to pulpits in our denomination. She knows that while most of our congregations aren't opposed to women preachers, but when push comes to shove, they prefer men (like me). 

As I took up this book, having received a review copy from the publisher, knowing that the author is a colleague in my denomination, I will admit that I didn't always enjoy what I was reading. Then again, that is by design. This is a strongly worded challenge to the ongoing reign of patriarchy in our society. In the face of continued expressions of patriarchy, Wathen writes to encourage women to persist, even as she calls men to stand up and be counted. She writes: "We are in the age of double standards and impossible expectations; a never-die patriarchy that is sanctioned by every institution: capitalism, government, and even -- maybe especially -- the church itself." (p. x).

As Wathen lays out the challenges that still face women in the 21st century, even after decades of women's movements, it is best if I simply listen and try to understand realities I will never face. As I do this, then perhaps I can be the ally that Wathen hopes I will be. We start by recognizing that "patriarchy dies hard." As she opens the book she tells of growing up in what she thought was a progressive Disciples church that had affirmed women's leadership, but when it came to calling a woman as pastor could not cross that bridge (despite recommendation from the search committee). Here is a reminder that patriarchy remains strongly present in church and society. 

In the course of the book, Wathen tells her own story and the story of other women, inviting us to recognize the challenge of privilege, which she admits comes in more than one form—there is white male privilege, but there is also the privilege that white women have over women of color. With this in mind, she takes us into conversations about inclusive language, "the motherhood myth," equal pay and representation (it's a good reminder in an election year when women are running in record numbers that men still represent 80% or more of our governing leaders. There are double standards that continually crop up, and the problem of silencing women in an age of social media (consider how the current President speaks of women on twitter). There is ongoing challenge of domestic abuse and sexual assault (#me-too movement). Finally, there is the politics of the uterus. Wathen shares that she is personally pro-life, but politically pro-choice, helpfully explaining how this works. She asks that we recognize the complexities of the issues at hand and give women the ability to make what are often difficult choices that effect their lives, trusting them to make good decisions.

I wish a book like this didn't need to be written. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had reached the point where patriarchy was a thing of the past? Such is not yet the case, and so the fight for equality continues. Wathen writes for women who are persisting in their resistance to patriarchy. This book should provide encouragement to women, as Wathen offers guidance as to how to move forward. There is a word here for men as well. We are called upon to stand up and be counted. We are reminded of the privileges accorded to us by a still patriarchal culture. That might not be an enjoyable experience, but it is a necessary one.  

The call for resistance has been issued. We are invited to persist. I say we, because Wathen makes it clear that men need to join the struggle if it is to succeed. Thus, it is an important book for us to read. 

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