May 11, 2010

An endless waterfall

I listened to songs from Cris Williamson’s album The Changer and the Changed (1975) recently. I hadn’t heard that wonderful and historically important “women’s music” since the mid-80s. Williamson reminds us that change happens when we open ourselves to the sacred in life, making ourselves vulnerable in order to pursue justice, to speak truth, to dare to learn so that we can grow in wisdom and teach others. Consider her lyrics in “Waterfall”: “When you open up your life to the living /All things come spilling in on you /And you're flowing like a river /the Changer and the Changed /You've got to spill some over /Over all. /Filling up and spilling over /it’s an endless waterfall.” Can you feel the cool spray on your face? Can you see the surge of dark-green water moving swiftly around every obstacle? Can you hear the waterfall thundering onto the rocks below? At the risk of sounding like a 1980s idealist who has not yet lived the complications and disputes of third-wave feminism, I want to affirm Williamson’s powerful image of an endless waterfall of women’s truth poured out and continuously renewed on behalf of all living creatures.

In the tiny rivulet of my own family, I am grateful for women of three generations who are doing remarkable things with their energy and creativity. B., an 83-year-old Roman Catholic widow and the mother of ten grown children, is tireless in her activity on behalf of her struggling community, which is situated in one of the poorest counties in the United States. B. lives in a small Southern town where, according to the 2000 census, 49.3% of the population lives below the poverty line. B. works for healing and reconciliation on personal and structural levels in her community, bringing chicken soup to the ill and housebound despite having endured quadruple-bypass surgery herself not too long ago, volunteering for her church, and attending municipal meetings about the bitter race issues that continue to fracture her town. She would adamantly decline any identification as feminist; the socially and theologically conservative milieu in which she has lived her entire life names “feminism” as something socially repugnant and antagonistic to Bible-Belt construals of godliness. Nevertheless, B. is one of the most powerful women I know. She has touched the lives of many through her compassionate service and her fierce, unabashedly opinionated leadership.

L., a 46-year-old Episcopalian and married mother of an eleven-year-old daughter, has a love of intellectual seeking that spurred her to earn not only a B.A. from Oberlin College but Master’s degrees in conducting and flute performance, both from Penn State, and a Master’s in early childhood education from Indiana University. L. is passionate about intervening in the lives of young children who are growing up in situations of social and educational deprivation. She has analyzed the damage inflicted on young children by the heteronormative assumptions that are pervasive in the preschool classroom. Committed to promoting nonviolence in all dimensions of our educational system, L. wants to make visible the political and cultural expectations that operate at the level of the “hidden curriculum” in every classroom. She is deeply concerned about the moral power of teachers to mold or even subjugate children by constraining a child’s creativity and growing sense of self in order to have the child conform to group expectations. She wants to challenge the rigid metrics of accountability that dominate our current educational culture, and she hopes to work to remediate the fear of difference, fear of change, and silent complicity in the oppression of minorities that can mar early childhood education. L. is considering pursuing a doctorate in curriculum studies or the philosophy of education in order to advocate for practices of justice on behalf of young children in preschool and elementary classrooms.

D., 16 years old and recently returned to the Episcopal church after sojourns in atheism and Wicca, is an ardent feminist and committed writer who is already unusually knowledgeable about women’s, transgender, and queer advocacy and is committed to working for racial equality as well. D. has been a courageous witness for women’s autonomy, progressive education around issues of sexuality, and reproductive choice. It has not always been easy for her as a sophomore in a Roman Catholic girls’ high school. Fully 25% of the student body is non-Catholic, but D. is sometimes the only person in her classroom who dares to advocate for a position other than that endorsed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. While she loves her school, D. has often experienced frustration. She hears her peers regularly denigrate Barack Obama, she has endured “purity”-based education about sexuality founded on misleading or incorrect data about the inadequacies of birth control, and she has listened as a teacher counseled her class that “while college is important too,” girls should be spending a lot of time praying about their future husbands. Recently D. was told that her project on “Yes Means Yes,” which sets a higher bar for consensual sex than does the familiar “No Means No” slogan, could not be accepted for a class assignment because it did not accord with Roman Catholic teaching. D. remained undaunted in her advocacy, initiating a sustained conversation with the teacher about her project. Her teacher has become enthusiastic about D.’s project and is allowing it for the assignment. D. cannot wait to turn eighteen so she can volunteer for Planned Parenthood, and she is already eager for women’s-studies classes in college.

You may have figures in your life who have drawn you into the thunderous and irresistible waterfall of women’s empowerment, women’s wisdom, and women’s advocacy for transformation. B., L., and D. are such figures for me—unsung heroines, they are quietly changing the world. When I consider their lives and their witness, I can hear the roar of Cris Williamson’s waterfall thundering in my ears.

Carolyn J. Sharp

Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures

Yale Divinity School