Something We Do: Advocate

Think Advocacy

A recurrent question around LPTS is “What is the Women’s Center?” and “What does the Women’s Center do?” It’s tempting to answer the question with some kind of list: it does things like bring in speakers at lunch, arrange film nights, sponsor the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture, organize a team for the AIDS Walk, put on The Vagina Monologues, that kind of thing. Or, with directions: it’s in White Hall, where the sign is in the window. But the question could be answered a little more formally, by looking at what the Women’s Center says about itself, in its mission statement. This month, partly in honor of experienced students’ return to campus and new students’ arrival, it seems wise to do that. In the briefer mission statement, the Women’s Center says it will:

  1. Discern new ways of being and living into these realities by support and advocacy for women and other disenfranchised groups;
  2. Supplement the academic program of the Seminary and provide a prophetic voice on the Seminary campus;
  3. Celebrate and affirm the gifts and contributions of women in all spheres of life in past and present;
  4. Provide a safe space to discuss and hear one another’s stories and supply resources for information and edification.

September seems like a good time to elaborate some on each of these larger kinds of activities, which together might be summed up as: “Advocate, Educate, Celebrate, Congregate!”

Many people do think of the Women’s Center as an advocacy organization of some kind – where advocacy means something like “The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.” Sometimes people think of advocacy as roughly equivalent to “shouting” – which can make people uncomfortable – or “always going on and on about, you know” – which can be boring.

We think of advocacy as something a little quieter (well, sometimes), and more interesting. Advocacy means creating a base of supporters who are educated about women’s issues, their relationship to fundamental theological, ecclesial and pastoral concerns, and their implications for the living out of Christian faith. These supporters are then in a position to become advocates as well, advocates of a more inclusive and comprehensive vision of the transformed world towards which Christians are called to bend their efforts. Advocacy involves taking the persuasive case for something to people who otherwise might not have heard it, or realized how glad they would be once they did.

A main message of Women’s Center advocacy is that women’s issues and gender issues are relevant, important, and concern everyone.

That’s a simple message, really. It doesn’t seem controversial. And yet – it is not always obvious that women’s issues are relevant. It is still easy to think that when our main concerns are theology or Scripture or designing worship, gender is really beside the point. It is still easy to fall into the trap set by our culture, of ignoring gender except for when it’s in the “right” places, like the family, private life, intimate relationships, or shopping for gender-appropriate clothing. We can then imagine that if we don’t think about or refer to gender, our theological reflection and ideas are gender-free, our construction of the political life of the church has nothing to do with gender, and so on. Advocacy is how we remind our collective self that whether we ignore the influences gender has on us, or whether we pay attention to them, they are there in everything we do – and if we ignore what we do with them, we’ll miss whatever chance we have to do anything new and better with them.

It is not always obvious that women’s issues are important. It is easy to think that what is most important is what appears – in newspaper headlines and TV trailers, on seminar agendas and reading lists, in all the best commentaries and the classic theological sources. Women’s issues don’t always seem to rank up there with the economy and the environment, or global mission and evangelism, or ethics and the Christian life, or whatever we recognize as things that really matter because we know the people they matter to really matter. But. As we learn to see how gender is relevant, we come to realize that in every human issue we know is really important, there is always already a women’s issue present; women are human, and every human issue is a women’s issue. There is no significant justice issue that does not reveal significant gender dynamics – when we bother to look. There is no significant intellectual issue that does not sound profoundly different in gendered conversation – when we bother to listen.

It can, in fact, happen that the ubiquity of gender influences masks their importance. Presuppositions about gender are woven into basic aspects of human life – appearance, gesture, language. Individually small but continuous, ubiquitous practices, that operate at a glacial pace, have a large effect. Efforts directed at changing those influences can seem like a focus on trivialities. Until – for instance, in the matter of “inclusive language – someone is challenged to count up the instances of masculine language used for God in the average worship service, and then multiply that by the number of all the worship services someone attends in a year, or 10, or their lives, and then to consider whether the influence exerted on a person’s understanding of the divine is or is not a sizeable one.

It is not always obvious that women’s issues and gender issues concern everyone. It’s still easy to dismiss the language of “gender issues” as code for things people who are not straight men would care about. It’s easy, because gender still defines many people to such an extent that “gender” itself seems like those people’s exclusive property. Advocacy insists that gender is a property of everyone’s humanity, that each of us has a particular gender through which we interact with everyone else in our lives. Each of us has an experience that gender — our own, and others’ — has had a hand in crafting. So “gender issues” are everyone’s issues. If we want to understand ourselves, and others; if we plan to counsel others; if we anticipate attending or planning or leading worship that will speak to people where they live; if we hope to extend the welcome of Christ to anyone in the body they live in, then we will do well to pay attention to how gender affects the way we do those things, and how people respond to us when we do.

Some people think that the time for advocacy around women’s issues has long since come and gone. According to that story, “all that ‘women’s liberation’ stuff” is so that 70s show; women have votes and jobs and grad school and pastoral calls now, so what is left to advocate for? According to us: just things like an end to violence against women and girls, access to education for women and girls around the world, the flourishing of lively and profound worship that fully incorporates women’s experiences and revelations, and all the other tremendous things that people who recognize that gender is relevant, important, and concerns everyone become able to wish for and work for.