“unveiling . . . continuing oppression . . .”

Workers in a New York Sweatshop, Shoshana, Oil on canvas, 1944

Third in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center’s mission statement commits us to work “for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations.

The term “unveiling” suggests that this continuing oppression is hidden rather than obvious. Some readers may see a contradiction in the notion of unveiling for that reason. Oppression seems like something that would be obvious, rather than something hidden and in need of unveiling. It might be helpful to recall the definition of the verb “to oppress:”

  1. to burden or keep in subjugation by harsh and unjust use of force or authority; tyrannize;
  2. to lie heavy upon physically or mentally; weigh down; depress; dispirit.

As that definition makes more clear, a range of phenomena constitute oppression. The symbol of the dictator on the balcony, addressing the tank commanders about to crush the rebellious populace, captures one of its forms — not the most common. Oppression can be much less public, like the dictatorial control exercised by a violent and abusive husband. Oppression can be so subtle it blends into the background of ordinary daily life. It can include the persistent weight and dispiriting effect of never seeing a face like one’s own in a position of respect and admiration, or of references to one’s group apart from messages of its negativity, evil, incompetence, triviality, stupidity, or inconsequentiality. It can be as quiet as always being ignored. That private, subtle, silent oppression also demands exposure.

Unveiling is necessary, in part, because our culture is always too eager to announce the job of ending oppression accomplished. When it comes to women’s lives, many — especially including white middle class women — have been willing in recent decades to accept the assertion that the last century’s feminism achieved its goals and is now passé. The continuing challenges faced by working class women, women of color, and women in the two-thirds world become invisible in that outlook, as do the enduring structures of patriarchy. Similarly, our culture is always ready to ignore the multi-faceted character of gender-based oppression. The Women’s Center understands the mission of “unveiling continuing opression” to extend to all those who suffer injustice for reasons of gender. So we feel the need to call attention to, for example, the effects of bullying that targets LGBT inviduals, or that treats queer lives as “disposable,” just as much as we call attention to the oppressive patterns of violence against women and girls.

The “unveiling” of continuing oppression that is the Women’s Center’s mission is of two main kinds. One is the unveiling of oppression that has its effects so far away, on women with whom we have so few direct ties that it might never come to our attention. The distance does not mean we have no connections with the situation, but it does mean those connections are difficult to see — perhaps as difficult as seeing the mineral content of a cell phone. The conflict for control of sources of that mineral content has been fueling the vicious violence against women and girls in Democratic Republic of Congo, much in the news in the past three years. Unveiling of this kind means bringing the news of these women and their experience, and of their hidden connections to this community, to awareness. This is the unveiling that happens when, for instance, we write postcards to the Secretary of State to encourage her to enforce existing U.S. commitments to protecting the bodily integrity of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or when we observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance with its focus on the past year’s incidents of anti-transperson violence.

A second kind of unveiling involves pointing out the oppressive impact of phenomena that may seem benign because they are familiar and accepted. An example here might be the relentless, exclusively masculine identification of God in Christian tradition, and its persistence into the 21st century. This prevalent usage reinforces the persistent, implicit claim that feminine forms are inadequate to represent or associate with the divine, the sense that they are not fully as imago Dei as masculine forms. This claim and feeling comes in spite of our sophisticated theological understandings that no gendered forms, male or female, would be fully adequate to represent the God whose own self-designated name, at least in one finite human language, is “I will be whoever I will be.” Our continued predilection for one set of inadequate forms over another, and our ongoing refusals to expand our linguistic possibilities does indeed have the heavy, down-weighing, depressing and dispiriting impact of oppression.

The commitment to unveiling may call for engagement with one or more of three main audiences: the audience of perpetrators, that of bystanders, and that of the oppressed themselves.

Unveiling for Perpetrators

We are infrequently called upon to play the role of Nathan before King David, or the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose task was to challenge a peron in authority, and in so doing open their eyes to the impact their actions had on others. Such unveiling sometimes means taking to the public square, detailing the harm of a public practice, or demanding corrective action. Calling for divestiture from businesses whose practices systematically disadvantage the poor and vulnerable would be an example.

More often, however, those who perpetuate oppression experience their own behavior as acceptable, excusable, and justifiable, especially to the extent that it is frankly unconscious, habitual and routine. The oppression that is built into the structures of normal, decent society is, tragically, still oppressive. It is the unintentional participation in oppression of well-intentioned people who don’t think of themselves as “oppressors.”

Unveiling — naming — thoughtless or habitual practices as oppressive in this way is thankless work. It regularly produces protests along the lines of “Well, I didn’t notice that” {which is why I’m bringing it up] or “I’m not sexist or racist” [which is why I’m pointing out that your behavior is, so you can stop] or “But it’s really hard to do anything else” [which is why we need to start finding and making alternatives now, so that it becomes easier sooner]. Everyone gets tired of it, the way a 12-year-old gets tired of being reminded to turn off the bathroom light or pick up her socks, and her mother gets tired of doing the reminding. It is also some of the most important work the Women’s Center does, because it is the work with the most potential for long-term, far-reaching impact.

Unveiling for Bystanders

Unveiling continuing oppression for bystanders is issuing a call to stand on the side of the oppressed, rather than to remain innocent and irresponsible. It is to call oppression to attention, for the purpose of motivating possible involvement with the hope of producing change. It is also to make possible an exit from complicity. So, in the case of domestic violence, unveiling here might involve pointing out to pastors and potential pastors that some preaching practices can leave domestic violence untouched by and in the life of the church, while others can lift it up for attention and intervention. Where domestic violence is never named as a problem, never voiced as a concern in prayer, and where theological concepts like sin, injustice, or liberation are never brought to bear on it, it is as if the church, like any other unhelpful bystander, is turning away and remaining uninvolved. Where, on the other hand, an end to domestic violence is asked for in prayer, where it is named as a wrong in proclamation and where it is made the explicit topic of theological reflection, hope is extended to victims and the climate is no longer one in which such violence flourishes unchecked.

Unveiling for the Oppressed

There are times when the oppressed themselves would not dream of identifying their experience as one of “oppression.” Other people are oppressed, such a woman might say. I’m just depressed [or, feeling like a failure because I cannot work a full-time job, keep the house spotlessly clean at all times, wisely and nurturingly motivate polite behavior and good grades from my children while never losing control, keep my family off of fast food, work out and stay in my size 2 jeans, and always look forward to date night with my guy; or, feeling wrong because I don’t even get to have those problems because I don’t have a job, or I don’t have a house, or I don’t have children, or I don’t have a guy]. Other people are abused, some women say; I’m just incompetent and my boyfriend never lets me forget it. Other people have internalized the idea that they’re not worth as much; I keep my ideas to myself in class because the other students always seem to speak first, and better than I would anyway.

The mission of the Women’s Center includes the work of reminding ourselves and our friends that the continuing oppression of women seldom names itself as such. Instead, it names itself “reality” or “your personal situation,” names that obscure the operation of systemic power. One method in the operation of that systemic power is its taking up residence in women’s own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Women adopt these in response to the conditions and messages of the world around them, and then may energetically turn them on themselves, saving the rest of the system a good deal of trouble.

A Biblical Call to See and End Oppression

The commitment to unveiling oppression, which is part and parcel of ending it, derives its energy from our conviction that the God who frees us for life denounces oppression wherever it arises, and calls on us not to practice it, to bring it to an end where we see it, and to come to the aid and comfort of our neighbors who are enduring it. It is the Women’s Center’s ongoing mission to echo that prophetic call.

Is not this the fast that I choose,
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Isaiah 58:6

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