Eyes down; display humility. Don’t dare question authority.
Be quiet and kind; don’t look him in the eyes. Avert your gaze, stay polite, use manners always.
Submit, obey, follow. Empty yourself until you feel hollow.
Listen, don’t speak, have self control. Suppress your emotions, remember your role.
Serve, give, smile, sacrifice. Set yourself aside no matter the price.
Slouch your shoulders a little bit; just enough to show you’re not a threat.
Step aside, get out of the way, be flexible. Don’t be a burden and make yourself small.
“What do you want to do today?”
Oh, whatever you want.
“Where do you want to eat?”
Anywhere is fine.
“How do you feel about ______?”
I honestly don’t know.
“You should be more assertive.”
I’m not sure how. I’ve never been allowed to take up space or time with any of my own opinions, emotions or needs. I have always existed for the sake of others. It has been almost 15 years since I left and I’m still digging out the parasitic tendrils of toxic religion. That’s proof as good as any that I was a Good Christian Woman.
The Evangelical world has perfected the ultimate mind-fuck: a vicious circle of using their victims’ trauma responses to justify abusive dogma and perpetuate more trauma.
Evangelical culture and teachings point to symptoms of trauma and PTSD to gaslight their victims into thinking those symptoms are actually inherent character traits. Instead of seeing symptoms of a problem, these traits are explained as innately designed – evidence of the abusive treatment being necessary.
As a woman raised in fundamentalism, speaking from that identity is where I have the most expertise. But every marginalized identity will have their own unique experience with this.
As a little girl I was accosted with both obvious and subtle messages about traits that were supposedly inherent to womanhood, which were then used to explain restrictive gender roles and negative attitudes toward women.
For example, I was constantly told that women are anxious, timid and poor decision makers. Because of this they need men to be strong for them and lead them. I looked around me, and unfortunately I did see that most, if not all the women in the community were indeed anxious and unsure of themselves. The messages seemed true because they matched my observations.
I was taught that women weren’t gifted as public speakers or proficient communicators, and that was part of the proof that God created them for a servant role instead of a leadership one. It was made clear to me that women’s perspectives weren’t meant to help influence the community. Rather we were supposed to be in a constant state of listening, learning, submitting, receiving and obeying. I studied the women I grew up around and sure enough, most of them lacked the confidence and charisma that we expected from the person in the pulpit.
Throughout my church years, it was frequently implied that women’s intelligence was lower than men’s. It didn’t seem right, but I noticed a lot of women in our church did seem easily confused or slower to learn new things than their male counterparts.
I learned that women were naturally better with nurturing children and running a home, because it was God’s design for our life’s purpose and highest calling. As women, we shouldn’t want anything different than that. Most of the women I knew seemed either content with their role, or at least defeated and resigned to it. The men seemed fairly incompetent at family and household tasks but better prepared for pretty much anything else. It seemed to add up, much to my dismay.
Over the years, my psyche slowly and bitterly began accepting what the church wanted me to believe about myself. I hated women for not standing up for themselves, and I hated them for not protecting me. It infuriated me when it was women who seemed to prove right the very messages that hurt us. They even passed the damaging teachings along! My bitterness and self-loathing sometimes turned to thoughts of despair, dysphoria and even suicidal ideation.
As a girl, I felt doomed to the passing of time. It seemed like my female body and mind were betraying me as I grew up and became more womanly. I worried I was flawed to my deepest core – a faulty design down to my very biology.
Unfortunately, I would live in this confusion and terror for three decades. It is only now, as an educated, trauma-informed adult who has done years of focused healing work that I can look back and see that these supposed “womanly traits” weren’t actually inherent to womanhood or proof of the church’s teachings after all. Rather, all along the church was actually using women’s trauma responses as justification for the abuse of women.
“Look!” They said. “Women are timid and weak. They need a man to take care of them.”
Well, I know now that if someone tells you who you are for long enough, you’ll believe them. Gender is irrelevant. If you are constantly attacked and criticized, you grow terrified to make a move. If you can never win, you become frozen by fear.
“Women aren’t good communicators. They aren’t designed to be teachers in the community.”
Actually, if the women in your community had access to the same training opportunities as men, they would also learn to be good public speakers. If women didn’t have their voices choked out of them, they would use them just as freely and powerfully as men. This is about access, not ability.
“Ladies are natural worriers. Trusting in God is their eternal struggle.”
Hmm, if you were kept out of control of almost every aspect of your life, I’ll bet you’d worry too!
“Females aren’t designed for higher education, their place is in the home. They don’t possess the same intellectual potential. Their calling is for child-rearing. Leave the conquering, inventing and creating to the men.”
Well Bob, let’s see how easily you can learn this – trauma actually blocks one’s access to the parts of their brain responsible for higher thinking. When you suffer post-traumatic stress, you remain stuck in the primitive brain for however long your hyper-vigilance is activated. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s useful if, for example, you’re being chased by a bear in the woods. It’s a lot more advantageous to use primal instincts to run, fight or hide, than it is to try to use academics to calculate the bear’s velocity. Folks who did that while in danger died. In moments of danger, higher thinking can actually get in the way. If you felt unsafe all the time, you wouldn’t be able to learn new things easily either. It has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with whether or not trauma is blocking one’s access to their intelligence.
“Women are so manipulative and emotional!”
What if you had zero autonomy over your own life? The best you could do was try to plant an idea in someone else’s head and hope they would think it was their idea and act in your favor. It’s a survival strategy for when one is powerless to take charge of their own well-being. If you were trapped in a role where you had a “head of household” over you in all things, you’d probably also in desperation learn how to become the neck that turns the head. People have to be able to make their own decisions and have a say in their destiny. It’s a basic human need. Manipulation isn’t a thing women do, it’s a thing traumatized people do to try to stay alive.
“Wives struggle with nagging, but a godly wife learns to respect her husband and trust him in all things.”
Alright, so imagine never being allowed to take initiative or directly ask for your needs to be met. Imagine that if you do speak up you aren’t taken seriously, or maybe you are accused of being disobedient and rebellious. You are told to accept the decisions that affect you, for better or worse, and regardless of whether or not you agree with them. The best you can do to take care of yourself is reminding the person who holds the power of what it is you need and hoping they’ll take you into consideration. Anyone in this situation would develop behaviors that others might see as “nagging”.
“We ladies are more easily deceived. That’s why God commands men to interpret and teach the scriptures and for women to follow them.”
Okay Barbara, have you ever noticed how “we ladies” are taught from infancy not to trust ourselves? How it is ingrained in us to believe we are uncontrollably emotional and that our emotions always lie to us? Have you noticed how we are taught to always obey and follow without question, even against our better judgment? How we are taught to shut down every instinct and alarm bell that would normally alert us to falsehoods? This is not a weakness in women. This is men trying to control women and take advantage of our learned obedience. This is men using our trauma responses to manipulate us into thinking we need them to continue controlling us. It’s a clever way to keep us in line. It can happen to any survivor of abuse, not just to women.
“Women are more easily distracted by details while men are able to see the big picture. This is how God created men and women to compliment each other.”
It sounds like you need to educate yourself on narcissism. It’s common for narcissists to try to trap their victims with the “fine print” in order to gaslight them and shake their trust in themselves. It’s how a narcissist stays on top and appears to always be right. Narcissists use details to confuse and trap their victims, like “You said this happened around 2:00, but you’re lying to me. It was 2:12pm!” Or they might say “You said she was wearing blue, but it was periwinkle. I sure have to keep an eye on you!” This leaves the survivor in a mess of confusion. “Am I lying? Am I wrong about what I saw? Am I actually a bad person like they say? Is my perception of reality untrustworthy? Is everything I know wrong?” Churches are well known for mirroring narcissistic abuse. For their victims, life is a giant whack-a-mole game where at any moment the hammer could come down. Living like this for very long would make anyone neurotic, hyper-vigilant and terrified of making the slightest mistake. This can often lead to nervous tangents, repeating oneself, avoiding direct statements and overshadowing their main point with details that would normally be irrelevant.
“A godly woman knows her place and delights in submitting to it. She teaches her daughters to do the same.”
If you beat a person down long enough, and break their spirit, they will eventually feel powerless and take it. They will consciously or unconscionably teach those in their influence to accept it as well, to protect them from the oppressor’s wrath or simply because they know no other way of being.
Women are necessary in maintaining the patriarchy. Men know that. Abusers need a victim. On their own, men aren’t powerful enough to convince an entire community of women to bow at their feet. They need our help. They need women to self-police out of fear. They need women to enforce male dominance on their daughters and on each other. So they sow the seeds of self-doubt deep into a woman’s mind until she so thoroughly believes she’s worthless she plays into their plan.
The church keeps this vicious cycle of abuse going by persistently pointing to trauma symptoms in broken and terrified people and using it to continue to terrorize us and keep us imprisoned. They use this strategy on anyone with a marginalized identity – people of color, people with disabilities, queer folks, people with mental health struggles – they use our scars as evidence that we are flawed and deserve pain. Well, not for much longer. Our anger is waking us up.
As we exit Women’s History Month, I wanted to first share an article (linked below) that impacted me greatly when I found it in 2018. At that time I was very hard on myself, pushing myself to be “as good as the guys”, always trying to prove I belonged in male-dominated spaces.
While I’ve never done anything quite as intense as these ladies’ Antarctic expedition, I resonate with every word from their story. Being a woman in the outdoors is truly a different experience. There is greater weight to your limitations culturally and socially: they can get attributed to your entire gender, reinforcing ideas of being “weaker”. Things are changing now, but as an adolescent climbing the bigger mountains I would count the women we passed, because there were so few of them. I could often count them on just one hand.
Even still today, when seeing other women on the trail is common, on long-distance backpack trips I usually only see other women for the first four, maybe five days. Anything beyond that and it’s stepping into a man’s world. Male backpackers sometimes comment on how it’s surprising to see me so far from a trailhead. Even today when I backpack solo, people sometimes stop me in disbelief, asking how I’m so brave.
On one such solo trip, an older man took it upon himself to interrogate me in the parking lot about how much water I was bringing (plenty) and then warned me that I would probably have a difficult time further up the trail in the snow. However, when I got there it was only a small flat patch about 50 feet long, and easy walking. I had been singled out and my competencies grossly underestimated, because of assumptions that were made just by looking at me.
A stranger hit on me during a life-or-death situation ice climbing a treacherously steep glacier at 10,000 feet altitude. I’ve been taught I should feel flattered by this – because apparently the male gaze determines my worth.
Sledding down a steep snowy slope with my male best friend, I was having the time of my life – at first. We were chatting and hooting and hollering from a distance with a couple of men who were there adventuring as well. When we walked up closer however, one of the men’s demeanor suddenly changed. After exclaiming “Oh! You’re a girl!” his tone changed to mimic how you might talk to a child and he called me “sweetheart”. Apparently my bulky snow gear and hat had hidden my womanly figure and long hair, allowing normal human interaction between us until my gender was discovered. When my best friend spoke up saying “She’s not your sweetheart”, the man became irate, cursed at us, and marched away over the crest of the hill, friend in tow. The wilderness should be a place where all is natural and in balance as it was intended to be. But for women this is often not the case.
I’ve heard men I’m close with make hurtful jabs at other women on the trail: “She sure is gutsy to do this alone!” “She’s probably meeting her husband”. “Maybe someday you’ll take up needlepoint instead.” These are actual comments I’ve heard over the years from men who know me well. At a young age it became clear to me the summit could only be reached by breaking through an ice ceiling.
The way I was received as a woman climber and backpacker taught me to view myself as an anomaly. Women were generally weak and helpless but I was somehow an exception. I was still, of course, a class below the men but allowed to be there nonetheless. It became increasingly difficult to love my womanhood while believing the traits I loved most about myself were manly, and rare happenstance for a woman.
There is more equal representation in the backcountry now than ever before, thanks to ground-breaking women who have mountaineered before us. But the fact that I’ve witnessed the shift even just in my own lifetime speaks to how a woman’s experience in the outdoors community is unique from that of a man’s. Eliminating the discrimination we face still has a long ways to go. I’m thrilled by the history-making women in this article and by all women everywhere who are unapologetically blazing trails in whatever form that takes for them. Every day we ascend new heights!
“I notice I celebrate my womanhood a little more each year than the year before. I’m becoming more comfortable in my femininity. I’m cherishing the ways I’m “traditionally feminine” but also the ways I just don’t fit in. I’m growing to love my body and accept it. I’m learning sacredness. I’m apologizing less, disagreeing more, and rarely ending my statements in question marks these days. I’m bolder, more opinionated; discovering I was never as nonchalant and indecisive as I was led to believe – rather I was oppressed, suppressed, and cornered into submission. Infrequently now do I spend the energy defending my choices and beliefs. I don’t really give a shit about who I’m “supposed to be” anymore. I am who I am and other people’s reactions have nothing to do with me. It was damn hard getting here, but now that I am, the possibilities seem endless. I feel powerful. I’m grateful for the brave womxn who have gone before me, laboring to carve out the path that I more easily climb up now. I’m proud of women everywhere and I’m proud of myself.”
I wrote the above paragraph about a year into exploring empowered womanhood after escaping patriarchal evangelicalism. It’s exciting to see the subtle differences in how I talk about my femininity in 2020 versus in 2019 (posted a few days ago – see “Caricatured and Erased”). The tone is direct and fierce. I have less questions and uncertainties. I focus less on the sorrow of oppression and more on the beauty of design. I’m unapologetic about my journey.
However, in 2020 I still had a long way to go. Much further than I would have expected at the time of writing.
I had no idea that six months later when my partner expressed an interest in having children it would trigger in me overwhelming panic, and anger toward the church mothers who raised me to believe women were valued only for our ability to serve men and give them children. I didn’t realize how trapped I still felt by institutions that preached self-neglect to women under the guise of “selflessness”. I hadn’t fully grasped how scared I still felt of my own biology – constantly waiting for the day my female body or female mind would turn on me, transforming my into an anxious, subservient puppet – a hollow vessel, a fragile vase.
I had no way of knowing I would struggle in 2021 with the most intense trauma-induced gender dysphoria I had ever experienced, leading to an official medical diagnosis, or that the dysphoria would make mensuration so triggering that the sight of blood each month would tempt me to end my life.
I couldn’t have planned for the confusion that would come knowing I didn’t want to be a man, but hated being a woman – so much so, I would feel urges to escape myself even if that might bring me dangerously close to self-harm. I didn’t know how many more days there were ahead of me where I would feel dirty, broken, weak, corrupt, defective… Everything the church wanted me to feel.
In 2020 I had overcome so much and I’m proud of that version of me. But I wasn’t aware how much self-loathing still lurked deep inside me and how much farther I felt from God’s favor than men were. That is, not until my progressive church at the time explored God’s gender and pronouns. During a visualization exercise, I broke down into tears seeing God as a woman. She looked like me. I was truly made in her image. Woman are powerful and mighty and sacred. Sophia – the biblical name for the Holy Spirit – was here and she was majestic. It was still hard to connect to God as Mother because of all the trauma I had with human mothers. But it was a start.
After being diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2021 I embarked on an EMDR therapy journey in early 2022 specifically focused on gender trauma and the mother wound.
I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Even my name feels new. I could never connect with the meaning of Sarah as “mother of many nations”. But now I feel empowered as a life bringer whether physically, spiritually or emotionally. I am a portal between the spiritual and physical realms – both spiritually, and physically.
I still have fears and insecurities around my gender and sometimes I’m unsure of what I want for my life and my future. But things are different – I feel good. Not good in spite of my womanhood, but good because of it.
I am the sacred feminine. I am the image of God. I posses the gift of divine motherhood in all its forms.
When I wrote the first paragraph in 2020 I truly felt every word. But now in 2022 there is new depth to the concept of celebrating my femininity that makes my insights then feel shallow in comparison. At that time I couldn’t imagine healing beyond what I had already achieved. I certainly never thought I could get here. In fact, I didn’t know it was even possible to feel this way.
Will I look back again sometime in the future and see how far I still had to go today, in 2022? Absolutely. But I’m celebrating and honoring each element of the goddess within as I uncover her and lift her up. I am her and she is me – the sacred feminine.
I can’t count the times I was told as a child I had an amazing mother. The comments always bothered me, but it wasn’t because I had a terrible mother. My mom really loves her children and gives herself to us. It wouldn’t be until I was in therapy at 30 years old that I would realize it was because these comments always pointed to her being a good mom because of what she did and never who she was.
People would praise her for making us meals and washing our clothes and setting herself aside. No one said anything about her being passionate or talented, or powerful, brave, wise or confident in herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t have good qualities, its just that as a woman in the evangelical church – no one sees them.
Growing up, I received a loud message that whether or not a woman is “good” – especially if she has children – is based entirely on what she does and not who she is. No one seems to care about the latter: who a woman sees herself to be doesn’t matter because the most important and all-consuming part of her is being a wife and mother. Rarely did anyone see or know who was beneath the label. I think often the mother herself wasn’t sure, after years of this erasure.
I grew up watching my mother live in a box and it made me afraid to grow up. My mom was always contained in a box metaphorically and physically, because while the world was my dad’s oyster, the house was her domain.
I was free to tag along with my dad as long as I was a child, but my freedom came with a ticking time bomb that little boys didn’t have.
My mom’s life consisted almost entirely of household work – she didn’t have much time to do anything fun. Granted, I’m not sure how much of it was necessary and how much was her refusing help or creating work to do to feel useful – because that is where her identity lies. As an evangelical mom, that’s the only place your identity lies. It wasn’t my dad’s fault, he tried to help and encouraged her to get out and do what she loved, but I don’t think she knew what that was. How could she? Her entire life had been filled with caring for others.
I never saw my mom have a hobby or passion. She didn’t really have any friends or any aspirations that she talked about openly or pursued. She isn’t a bad person, but the church made sure she was hardly a person at all – beneath the role she played there’s no substance. I don’t know who she is. She’s just a wife and mother. I can’t find anyone underneath the title or the duties.
I was afraid to get to close to my mother because the limits she lived under felt contagious. She made comments occasionally about me needing to learn to be a good wife and mother someday, and I was scared about which parts of me I would have to give up to do that.
When I participated in less traditionally feminine activities like adventuring outdoors, she was a worry wart, putting limitations on my freedom, wanting me to hold myself back to be supposedly safer. Even when there was no real risk. I wondered if safety was a facade. No one seemed to worry about the boys being able to handle themselves.
If I ever voiced frustration, I was always told me that’s just how moms are, they worry, they take care of their kids, they are selfless (void of self) – and that’s it. They can’t help it.
I didn’t want to become a mom. Why would I? What was presented to me was the antithesis of everything that makes me, me. I don’t blame this all on my own mother. She is the victim of overbearing sexism – being raised in a large Catholic family to be a second mother to her seven brothers. She was never given the same freedoms they were, and often blamed for their misbehavior. She was raised by a woman who experienced an even higher level of abuse and restriction; a woman who didn’t know how else to exist in the world, raised a woman who wouldn’t either. Somehow the cycle broke with me – leaving me feeling lonely, confused, and like an anomaly.
Most of my life I have felt very uncomfortable with my heritage. I have no role model of a powerful healthy woman. I can’t proudly say “I am my mother’s daughter”. I can’t look back at a lineage of women who created me and want to be anything like them. Admittedly, I am ashamed of my ancestry. Sometimes even my very DNA feels contaminated. I’m blazing a new trail completely on my own. I don’t know how to do this, and I cannot be proud of where I came from.
I feel like an orphan.
But… maybe that’s not the full story. I come from a long line of injured women who submitted to survive. I wonder who they could have been if dealt a different hand.
Maybe I can heal my ancestors. Maybe they would be so happy and hopeful to know that generations down the line their own flesh and blood would be independent and powerful like me. Maybe it’s redemptive.
It’s a common story arc for the hero to rise up from an unlikely place or family or bloodline. That’s partly what makes them special. Maybe I’m the hero of my mother’s story and our motherly line. I’m still writing chapters, and my daughters will write chapters, and their daughters’ daughters. We will be the authors of our own stories – starting with me.
I know I’m lucky to be born into a time where there are more opportunities for women. I know I’m better equipped with resources available to me – ones my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother never had. I carry the weight of generations of oppression and abuse, but I have education at my fingertips and communities to turn to, to learn what to do with it and how to heal it.
Maybe when I save myself, I save those who came before me and whose trauma is wired into my DNA. Maybe as I heal my body, that trauma loses its grip on our family line.
I am healing my ancestors – starting with me.