Saturday, January 10, 2009

4.0 Here We Are Our Own: Experience of a Women's Group

Relationships brought the concepts from my books to life in the voices of new friends. Although the insights of texts were meaningful for me, making meaning with other women in my community possessed a stronger relevance and emotional connection. We became each other’s companions in the challenges and the joyful discoveries. We supported each other as individuals.

I first imagined a women’s group for my college campus while completing a summer program sponsored by the Christian College Consortium called the Women’s Studies May Term at the Oregon Extension. In some ways the May Term itself functioned as a women’s group. It was a small group of ten students, only one of whom was male. We gathered daily to discuss the experiences and challenges distinctly women’s using writings from the fields of psychology, sociology, theology, and even fiction. Sharing personal experience was another vital part of our inquiry process. In our discussions we recognized common challenges for confidence, strength, voice, and Christian faith.

I expected that gathering women for discussion, encouragement and new ideas was needed on my campus. The dynamics of the school were such that despite the prevalence of women, men were still primary – men held most of the leadership positions, decision-making authority, and male students dominated classroom time. Women needed a space in which to recognize their shared experiences and the public value of those experiences.

I returned to campus that Fall with a plan. I had a few names offered to me by the faculty at the May Term. It was a slow beginning. We kept the group kind of quiet, each inviting friend who had a friend who wanted something like this in her life. After a month of meetings we could see who would stay with the group. We gathered once a week. Usually there were six or so of us sitting around my dorm room, eating brown bag suppers.

The topic of conversation was frequently women and God. Men’s descriptions of God and God’s regard for women, as well as our own relationships with men in authority, had all influenced our sense of who God is and what God wants for women. Using personal experiences as our starting point, the conversations delved into some of the tensions inherent to the evangelical Christian faith such as: personal versus pastoral authority, authority of scripture versus personal experience, the precedence of dogma as the one correct story over personal stories, an anthropomorphic God in heaven versus an ineffable embodied within and around us, and gender roles designating masculine public authority versus feminine “servant leaders.” Friendships sparked in moments of connection over shared experiences, observations, or feelings. One advantage of a college campus was that these connections could resume, spontaneously, in the cafeteria or in the hallway between classes, and we were nearby to support each other.

We came to know each other on the basis of our shared womanhood in this very particular Christian context. This included lots of issues. We wanted strong women leaders and mentors. We were interested in the femininity of divinity. In the course of our conversations, anger was transformed into energy once it was valued in the area of our shared experience. We were angry at the people and attitudes that had hushed us, at ourselves for being pacified, and at the church for deceiving us. Our conversations also recognized the influence of societal concerns, such as body image and gendered language that affected women’s lives even in our religious community.

We weren’t trying to fit into the script of the evangelical community we lived in. Instead, our group fostered individuation. It was a space for composing new stories about one’s self and spirituality. Autonomy for one’s own soul became a familiar refrain and with it the encouragement to explore new forms of spirituality – whether it was studying the women of the Bible, digging into Christian history for the women mystics, or investigating forms of liberation theology.

Out of our messy crew of sweaters, brown bag suppers, and books, we built a sanctuary for each other. It didn’t rest there. We worked together to carry our point of view into our campus community, and supported each other in the changes that carried these new stories forward in our individual lives and identities. As successful as these approaches were, we may have also undermined the deeper intention of our work.

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