After one of the discussion sections for a course I took in the first year of my Master of Divinity program, a friend remarked to me, “I really appreciated how you stood up for women and feminist ideas today.” I understood the sentiment and was grateful for the connection, but it was entirely strange for me to hear. I felt as if I were being thanked for doing something as basic and natural as breathing.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a profound respect and affinity for the girls and women in my life. My mother has always been a model for me of strength, compassion, and wisdom. From my earliest days in school, girls have been some of my best friends, especially as I have not always felt comfortable projecting the kind of crude “toughness” that can be expected of boys. With interests in music, drama, and intellectual pursuits, I often found myself participating in activities with a majority of girls. And when, thankfully only on rare occasions, some boys in high school would call me particular derogatory names, I sensed even then that it had less to do with pejorative presumptions of sexuality and more to do with attitudes that belittle femininity and associations with women.
There is a term for pervasive, prevailing conceptions of the masculine as powerful and dominant over and against subordinate femininity: hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity perpetuates the idea that there is one way to be masculine and that to be anything else is to be of less value, less than fully human. This is why we have commercials where male coaches scream at male athletes, calling them girls; this can only be meaningful if we think that to be a girl is to be weaker, to be less capable, to be less than ideal.
There is another term for hegemonic masculinity: sin. Sin separates us from God and denies the fullness of our being as created in God’s image.
I celebrate Women’s History Month because I celebrate the women who teach us about what it is to be human. So many women throughout history and in our lives today show us that the basis for calling people spiteful names and treating anyone, female or male, as less than ideal because of certain gendered perceptions is a lie. It is a lie about women, and it is a lie about God.
To be a woman is to be many things: strong, capable, nurturing, resilient, bold, gentle, tough, resourceful, smart… And there is not just one way to be a woman. By extension, the examples of women who have persisted in making their voices heard even through history’s din of male priority and privilege demonstrate for us that there is more than just one way to be fully human.
As we proclaim the equal value of women, we might go a step further than simply celebrating women’s place in history but in reflecting on how the lessons we learn from women transform the histories we are writing each new day, helping all kinds of people feel comfortable in their own skin. When we recognize how the many ways of being a woman expand our view of the many ways of being fully human, we might understand in greater measure how all kinds of bodies—regardless of how they are marked by sex, gender, race, ability, appearance—bear God’s likeness.
Just as denigrating attitudes toward women are deployed to belittle both girls and boys—women and men, the celebration of women lifts up us all.
Tyler Schwaller is a doctoral student of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School and a provisional deacon in the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church. Since 2008 Tyler has served on the board of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.