It’s almost three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. I’m trying to finish up a bit of writing [this blog post] while constantly keeping an eye on the top right-hand corner of my computer screen. Three o’clock is right when my daughter’s school day ends.
Readers of Power Women might very well recognize these words. They are taken almost verbatim from the first essay, “Divvying Up Love: Scholarly Ambition and Motherhood as Spiritual Formation” by Maria Su Wang. But these words are also mine, describing exactly the scenario I experienced. This is why I love this book so very much. Stories of people who get me, get me to the point of writing the very words I’m thinking.
I was honored to endorse this book. It will give voice to conversations women are having and want to have, with themselves and with the academy writ large. I am thankful as well to have the opportunity to reflect on it through this blog, for though I stand-by the praise I sang of it, this space gives me opportunity to wrestle with a question I had about it, specifically a question about its title.
As a New Testament professor and particularly as a woman who was raised in conservative theological circles, I will admit that I have an allergy to “power.” My gut assumption is that humans usually don’t do too well when they are given too much of it. God is God; we are not, and so we should let God have the power and when humans are called into leadership, we should share it among as many people as possible, passing it like a hot potato, holding it only long enough to do what is necessary, but moving it along before it has a chance to infect our souls, to burn us. I believe I have theological justification for this hunch. The Christ hymn in Philippians 2, which believers are explicitly told to imitate (2:5), shows that God the Son did not hoard power, but gave it up for the benefit of others. He is now exalted and we are seated with him (Eph 2:6), but we are called to live according to his Incarnate example, serving, especially when we are called to lead (Mark 9:35). At my own ordination service, the theme of the sermon was, “Welcome to your demotion!” The higher you go in leadership, the more you are called to serve. I do not like to think of myself as powerful.
This book has challenged me to rethink my allergy to power in three respects: vocation, sex, and race.
From the epilogue, the editors Yuen and Collier-Goubil assert: “We are power women… As academic mothers of faith, we are powerful” (212). This is true in both a challenging and encouraging way. If, because of my allergy, I seek to deny power that I actually hold, the chance that potato will burn my hands is way greater. I must own up to the fact that as a professor and pastor, groups of people view me as a powerful person. If I forget or deny that, I might use my position in manipulative ways or, conversely, I might fail to use my influence when I should. On the other hand, as I think their assertion intended, I should be thankful for the power God has allowed me to possess. What grace has permitted me the resources for education and then opened the doors so that I could use that education in a variety of platforms. If I reject this power graciously given, I fall prey to ingratitude in addition to inaction. By virtue of my divinely-granted vocations, I must own that I do have power.
I inhabit those vocations as a woman, and so my power is expressed in and through a female body. I choose not to say that I express that power in a feminine way, because if there is anything I’m more allergic to than power, it is gender stereotyping. My husband and I, who married at the ripe old age of 19, have never fit the mold. I’m more extroverted; he is quieter. At our church, I’m the preacher; he’s the organist. He likes gardening and baking and video games and weightlifting, and I only like one of those things, and it’s weightlifting. All that to say, I have long known that masculine and feminine stereotypes aren’t true because they don’t work for everyone. God’s creation of multifaceted individuals is too beautifully complex for that.
While gender stereotypes are constraining, I also acknowledge that male and female bodies are different, and God has said that is a good thing. So, when women are powerful, they are powerful as women. Nowhere is that experienced more intensely than through pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing.
Each of my three children were born in different states because they were born at different moments of our academic journey (I say “our” because my husband holds a PhD as well). My daughter came two months after I defended my comprehensive exams, my first son 10 days after I defended my dissertation, and my second son during fall break of my fourth year of teaching (and the morning after an evening test-review session!). I was blessed, and I realize this is an immense blessing that not all women experience, to have healthy pregnancies, smooth deliveries, and quick recoveries. Giving birth made me realize just how powerful God designed my female body to be. This, too, is a power I want to own and be thankful for. I also want others to know about this power. I want higher education administrations to provide all support for women and their husbands, whatever their experience of pregnancy might be, and give greater support to those for whom it is challenging.
But my experience allows me to emphasize a different part of that story. I often hear from young women who feel torn between motherhood and careers. They are worried that they will not be able to do both. I love sharing with them that it is TOTALLY possible and not only possible but AWESOME. The female body is strong. It can write, lecture, preach, and grow and then sustain a baby human all at the same time. Now that my children are older, my body transitions from CrossFit to lecture to sitting on the floor playing Legos within the space of several hours. Our female bodies are powerful.
But not all women’s bodies are the same, or at least, it must be acknowledged that not all women’s bodies are viewed the same. The great diversity of authors in this book brought the final challenge to my allergy to power. Several called attention to the intersection between race, class, and power (104, 137 for example), which opened my eyes to the possibility that I felt so comfortable giving up power because I, as a white woman, had it to give.
My colleague Esau McCaulley recently led a retreat at my (largely white) church where he told the history of the black church in America. In the black church, people addressed each other with titles of honor because outside the church they were infantilized. In the black church, people dressed nice, because outside the church they were not allowed to do so. They valued the power they had in the spaces they had it, because they had it nowhere else. It is my sisters of color in this book who teach me most powerfully not to give up something so easily that our forebears won at such cost, not to relinquish something that others still wished they had.
We academic women do have power, by virtue of our bodies, our vocations, and to varying degrees by virtue of the races into which we’ve been categorized. This book has reminded me anew that “We need not just female academics who joined ‘the boys club’ in positions of power” (Epilogue, 206), we need not selfishly hoard (Phil 2:6) what we’ve been given but we “need women who can conscientiously and compassionately serve as true advocates for mothers in academia fighting for equity and meaningful structural change” (Ibid.) We, power women, need to acknowledge it, give thanks for it, and use it to continue to bring in the upside-down kingdom of our Lord, the Lord, who in God’s providence, was, in fact, “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).
Thank you for this reflection, Dr. Peeler. I have this feeling that the more we can conceive of power far less as ‘power over’ and far more as ’empowering / empowerment’, the closer we are to divine power. Love your essay!
Thank you for this thoughtful and honest reflection! I love how you reconsider the word “power” through the three lenses above.
Beautifully rendered! Thank you for this review that is so much more than a review. I teach about power and faith in my senior seminar, and I’ve used Andy Crouch’s book a couple times, and it’s worked well. Until last year, that is. Last year, I had more students (particularly the BIPOC students and women) in the class who were more sensitive to the colonized curriculum than previous classes, and while I always take pains to contextualize Crouch’s work (which I still quite like), they were tired of the white male tone of it all, and had a hard time getting past what they found to be the inextricable privilege bound up in his writing. I think this book (and even your review of it) may be a part of making a change to find new (better?) sources for reflecting on power (in terms of agency, social structure, culture, and the Spirit) and our theology of power. So, thank you for being part of putting this book on my radar. This might be just the thing I need!