Until I was 18, I went to Catholic school. I was surrounded by religion, but more importantly, priests were a huge presence. They taught religion classes, waved to us in the hallways, and presided over school Masses. They were people we were taught to look up to, role models who were the epitome of kindness and gentleness. They were the ones closest to Jesus, as far as I knew. Besides that, everyone seemed to like them. I still remember Fr. Merkel riding his bicycle down the school hallways talking like Donald Duck. When I was younger, I was very much influenced by my faith and by church members and officials. So, of course, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, first-grade me said, “A priest.”
That dream died hard and fast. I was told that I could not be a priest because I was not a boy. To a 7-year old, this was a harsh reality check. Girls couldn’t even be altar servers. The most I could do at church was sing (which I can’t do) or say the readings at school Mass (which got old). I wanted a more active role in the church, which was such a big part of my life growing up. So when freshman year of high school rolled around and my church announced that they would start training girls to be altar servers, I was pretty excited. I was one of the first female servers at my church, and I thought I did a pretty good job.
That is, until grade-school sexism made an appearance.
Here I was, 13 years old, a high schooler, getting ready to serve Mass when this 10-year old boy altar server comes up to me and tells me I should just go sit down with my family and let him serve alone. He then proceeded to preach that on the Catholic food chain, priests were above deacons, who were above boy altar servers, who were above girl altar servers. My reaction can be summed up as:
I had been hit not once, but twice by this idea that girls couldn’t do everything boys could do. Back in first grade, I guess I could see why girls couldn’t be priests. The Catholic church was founded on the idea that we had a male Messiah, who was followed by twelve guys for a few years, then left his ministry in the care of his right-hand man, Peter. From there we get only male Popes, cardinals, and priests. We come from a long tradition of patriarchal leadership, and Catholicism isn’t the first to place these kinds of restrictions on women.
According to Thekla Ellen Joiner’s book Sin in the City, Protestant evangelicalism during the 1880s through the 1920s tended to gender men and women and place them into separate spheres. Men dominated the public sphere, working to make a living and having leadership roles in the community, while women played happy homemakers and took care of the house and children. These roles don’t come as much of a surprise even in 2013. The idea of a stay-at-home dad may be wishful thinking for some women, but advertisements still insist on following this formula: stupid dad/husband doing something ridiculous until the mom/wife shows up with a smile and a solution:
Oh those kooky dads. This dad is even pushing his media-based gender role on his son.
So the morality of these women during the revivalist period in Chicago was based on their “willingness to sacrifice herself for her husband and children,” which “assured her moral commitment to both her family and her country.” Do it for America, ladies! This “sacrificial femininity” should be nothing new to us. Take the Young Stranger by the Hand also emphasized this idea of wives sacrificing their husbands for a greater good. These are the women who stood by their men, who hung out at the YMCA all day, every day. These women gave up time with their husbands because these men were considered moral authorities in a public sphere, whereas the women were left to decorate or cook in the private sphere. Their moral role was to educate their children to become moral citizens. You know who these women are?
Mary Jane Watson is a sacrificial woman. Yeah, they still exist.
According to Out of the Mouths of Babes, women preachers were accepted by the 1920s. Then came the flappers, who were the embodiment of youth and radicalism. Then came World War I, and women had to become more independent to take care of their families while their husbands were away. But then the men came home and women are still trying to create an even playing field. We can haggle over equal pay and rights for women, and in many ways things have improved. But those pesky gender roles are still firmly in place. From Mary Jane to Lois Lane to Hilary Clinton, America has seen history march on with men still planted in leadership roles while their women watch from the sidelines, begging for a chance to break out of their gender roles.
Here’s hoping the winds of change will blow.