The Roots of my Quandary

One might ask, “How can you be a liberal and a prude at the same time?” The two values appear to be in conflict. Indeed, they can be as I have often experienced. There lies the food for fodder and the discourse at the heart of this column.

I have the unbound urge to question. Everything. Even God. Why me? Why? How? What for? Says who? And, above all, “What if…” Strangely, I do like rules and order, but they have to be reasonable, fair, equitable, and make sense in my universe. That really isn’t very different from most people. Most of us have some battles with society’s rules and expectations. Could be gun control. Could be prayer in schools. Could be birth control. Could be City Hall. Could be any number of issues.

My parents were first generation American-born of German and Russian immigrants who arrived in the Midwest in the early 1900s because that was as far as the railroad went. As a product of their religion and “old country” traditions, I was programmed to behave and, on some levels, think a certain way. I know they were subjected to ridicule, called Communists and Nazis. Never mind that their parents left their homelands to escape those regimes along with the fear and oppression that went with them. Most of my mom’s and dad’s siblings lived within 30 miles of each other. So, until I went to grade school, my values were not challenged. Until then, I had nothing to compare.

One of my first challenges came about as a result of the school lunch program. We always had fish on Fridays. Fish wasn’t the problem. I love fish. When I found out we had fish on Friday because Catholics didn’t eat meat on Friday, I was puzzled. We both believed in God. I didn’t really know what made one church different from another. I thought God was the same for everyone. So why would it be okay for some to eat meat on Friday and others not? It didn’t make sense. Ergo the questions began.

I was raised as a Protestant in one of the more liberal churches in the community, though I didn’t have any concept of that until many years later. I do remember my grandmother asking me who my best friend was in grade school. Grandma attended the most conservative church in the community, again something I didn’t comprehend until many years later.

When I told her my friend was Rita, she replied with a question. “Isn’t that family Catholic?”

I said, “Yes.”

She asked, “Can’t you make other friends?”

Even as a child I was incensed at my grandmother’s comments. She was a very religious and loving woman. I was appalled. I remember thinking, “Grandma you don’t even know Rita. She is my friend and I don’t care if she is Catholic because she is a nice girl. We have fun together and we talk a lot.”

What happened to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? I actually thought these were pretty good rules to live by along with the Ten Commandments. If God told us to live this way, then why were people making exceptions?

These early experiences were fuel for many more questions and sparked a critical ear for contradictions. Religion was a perplexing institution.

You could only imagine my disbelief when I heard about purgatory. I was aghast. It was a bewildering concept I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. Essentially an extra-terrestrial “limbo” while God took his own sweet time to make up his mind about whether you were going to heaven or hell. This guy created the heavens and earth in seven days and he had to put you in limbo so he could make up his mind? Some have described purgatory to me as a second chance. Probation, if you will. Something was amiss. What was the truth? I wondered. I continue to wonder.

Other conflicting institutions included the concept of “sin.” I learned in my little community of six churches that there was an addendum to the Ten Commandments. In some churches it was a sin to dance, to go to the movies or to wear makeup. I was perplexed. Did the second stone get misplaced?

One statement I heard over and over again in the church was, “God is love.” Grammatically speaking, a predicate nominative, if you will. God is love, therefore, love is God.” Simply love. I carry that notion with me today. A notion, for me, too often riddled with conditions by religious institutions.

My second major quandary came about as I became aware of the differing roles males and females were expected to play on the stage of life. I use the word “play” intentionally. It is most appropriate to the theatre–a role, a prescribed script because we all operate on a prescribed script of some sort, written or unwritten. It varies from culture to culture, community to community. For instance, in some cultures it is a sign of disrespect not to look someone in the eye when you are talking to them, in other cultures it is a sign of disrespect if you do. Trying to navigate social rules that you may or may not be aware of is like walking in a mine field. To shake hands or not to shake hands. To open the door for a woman or not to open the door for a woman. To speak out or not to speak out. To serve or to be served.

First, let me say I consider myself a feminist. Secondly, men were never my enemy. However, cultural and societal expectations (or, limitations, as I saw them) for my fulfillment as a human being continue to be vexing. The word “feminist” evokes many different things for different people. It is not a dirty word to me. It simply means both women and men should be able to participate fully in society regardless of gender. This simple notion is a threat to some, sadly.

I became a feminist long before I knew there was a name for it and at a very young age—roughly age ten. I never burned my bra or hated men during my evolution into a liberal prude. I’m much too modest a.k.a. prudish to go braless. I find the phrase “man hater” offensive. It is a language of blame and minimizes the power that comes with being a protected class in what we know as the traditional female role.

My feminist epiphany came in the kitchen at my maternal grandmother’s house after church during a routine Sunday dinner—midday meal in the rural Midwest. Many of mom’s nine siblings and their families gathered at the small one-story, 800-square-foot white, farmhouse with red trim. Grandma’s kitchen had two tables. There was a nice kitchen table with matching wooden hoop back chairs. The other a painted handcrafted plank-top table complete with knotholes and handcrafted benches. Both tables were adorned with oilcloth tablecloths in kitchen motifs that had been purchased at the local mercantile.

The women brought the food, cooked the food and set the tables. They served the men then the children, in that order. After that portion of the ritual was complete, the women cleared the tables, washed dishes, then proceeded to reheat what was no longer recognizable as chicken. Mashed potatoes were no longer creamy but held potential for sculpture. The women set the table for themselves, the plank-top table, not the fancy one, and served themselves. Meanwhile the men retired to the “sitting room” to talk politics and business.

When the woman were finished with their meal, they cleared the table, washed dishes, put away the leftovers and gathered around the table to talk about babies and cooking and gossip. They teased each other and laughed a lot. It was fun to watch.

After witnessing this ritual throughout my young childhood, I began to wonder simply, “Why?” I knew most of these women got up at 4:30 a.m. to milk cows, feed chickens and tend to whatever other farms chores needed to be done. Geez! These women worked their butts off. I wondered when it would be the men’s turn to cook, clean and tend to the children. I longed for a whole drumstick and a slice of my favorite pie, not what was left over.

I liked to stand in the archway between the kitchen and the sitting room to listen to the men’s conversations, because they were, well, just more interesting and exciting to me. I do remember being chastised for doing so by one of my aunts, though I don’t actually recall which one. She said, “Sarah wants to be with the men. The women aren’t good enough for her.” That hurt deeply and frankly offended me. The anger I felt that day was fuel for my personal evolution. I was a little girl interested in the world and I had heard all of the recipes and baby stories a ten-year-old girl could take.

My father saw me in the doorway and motioned for me to come and sit with him. I gladly did. He was a feminist in his own way on many levels. My mother was too, but out of her discontent. She would fantasize about being a police decoy–a dream she would never fulfill. She had done as it was decreed—get married, have children. From my father’s side I listened. I delighted in the dialogue and verbal arguments I heard from that vantage point. I noticed an older boy cousin would occasionally venture in and sit with his dad, but I don’t recall any of the other girls dared or desired to do so.

At ten or so, I concluded the only reason for these pre-established boundaries was between my legs. Eeeuuu! I thought. That’s personal. I have a brain and I want to use it. My brain is hungry, I thought. I want to learn about the world. That day changed me forever. I began to question many things with regard to the role I was expected to play as a female in my culture, in my community and for my country.

Other challenges to my developing feminism came during the Vietnam Era along with discussions of the draft. I personally did not want to go to war. I supported the soldiers, but not the war. I was also a developing pacifist, my pacifism being rooted in my religious upbringing. However, I reasoned that if I wanted to participate fully in society without regard to gender, the same also had to be true for men. The old phrase “You can’t have it both ways” summed it up. It challenged me to live up to the responsibilities of being a fully participating person in society. I opposed the draft but advocated for women’s rights to join the traditionally male branches of the military.

Furthermore, being of childbearing age at that time, I also reasoned that I could not value my son’s life more than my daughter’s life. I knew other countries required women to serve in the military including combat. To make my son serve against his will, to be used as a pawn in a war which may or may not be about the safety and security of the country, was against my evolving value system on many levels. I recalled hearing the phrase “save the women and children first.” Again, my son’s life is as valuable to me as are my daughters’ lives. At what age is my son’s life less valuable to society? Because he is male does that make him inherently more expendable, more disposable than any female? I wondered. When is he considered a man or “man enough”? 14? 15? 16? Age 18 by some standards, it seemed, but for me, not at any age.

Furthermore, war for me is an act of last resort for one’s defense. “Thou shalt not kill,” has always been an important religious-based value for me. The Crusades, for me, were an un-godlike acts of terror and a complete contradiction of the heart of Christian values. Too, often, holy books are used by humankind as a platform for self-righteousness and hateful acts against humanity. Mankind’s interpretation of these books is fallible, self-serving and contradictory. It’s a mess. Often tragic. For out of good intentions it fuels hate and condemnation.

So, there you have it–the roots of my evolution into a liberal prude. I value the moral “compass” I have been given via my Judeo Christian upbringing; however, I also value the freedoms we espouse in this bastion of freedom we call America. I long for religious tolerance in a peaceful nation that lives up to its values of freedom for all of its people. Separation of church and state is paramount in the fulfillment of those values.

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