I was eighteen and living in my first apartment, a tiny one bedroom across from the library in the high desert of eastern Oregon. I’d shoved two mismatched couches into my living room, one stiff white pleather, the other a fluffy grandma floral, and never thought much about decorating beyond that. I had money, but for some reason I never signed up for wifi and lived on a diet of off-brand sandwich cookies and ramen. It had no air conditioning, so all summer I’d wake up sweating, put my pillow in the freezer, take a cold shower, then fall asleep for another couple hours until I’d wake up again, rinse, repeat.
I was in heaven. I was helping a friend open a bakery, teaching ESL, filing papers for a real estate company, waitressing at a thai restaurant, teaching creative writing at the arts center, and developing and running classes at a children’s museum. Adulthood seemed pretty damn great.
One night there was a knock at my door, and I opened it to find my friend’s dad.
“Hello, Rebekah.” Nobody called me by my full name. “I felt the Lord move me to tell you something.”
I’d met him only once or twice before, his daughter and I were mostly friends of friends. His mouth was a straight line under a flat gaze, the only real shape in his face was the v of his eyebrows always knotted in consternation. He looked like he was born a few generations too late, he wanted to be in the sun baling hay with his sons and coming home to daughters knitting his socks and his wife taking fresh bread out of the oven. In fact, I think he did.
He didn’t ask to come inside, so I didn’t invite him to.
“I only say this because I’m imagining my own daughter in your place. It’s the Lord’s will for you to stay under your father’s covering until you marry. A woman shouldn’t live alone like this.”
I’m pretty sure I smiled too much and said thank you. After he left, I immediately called my best friend to laugh about it — and to reassure myself that what had happened wasn’t normal. But even after I hung up, there was this uncomfortable tightness in my stomach. I knew he had taken something from the Bible too far, but there was still this unsettled question in my heart: what did it mean to be a Godly woman?
When I was seventeen, a year or so before my first apartment, I left home to attend New Saint Andrews, a small christian great books college in the middle of Idaho. We had to dress up as a sign of respect, so I was always uncomfortable in the few formal things I owned, mostly badly fitting slacks and blouses that did my curves no favors. Most students had grown up in church together and attended Logos, their K-12 program, so I felt especially out of place.
I was infatuated with one of my professors. He was so deeply read, and he rooted his theology to such alive physical things — food, nature, sex. He saw metaphor as inherent to creation, that the ideas of wisdom and strength were physically folded into the bark and roots of a tree. There was a particularly en-metaphored tree he walked by every morning on the way to work, and he prayed that God would make him like it. That was the way I thought, and I’d never seen it presented in a respectable grown up, least of all a man of spiritual authority.
It was a small school, so sometimes our classes would take place at our professors’ houses. On this particular day we were discussing St. Augustine’s City of God in his study, six or seven of us sat around his table and drank the tea and hot chocolate his wife had prepared. In the two terms I spent there, I never met his wife. Instead I knew her through the pictures framed on the walls, most of her luminously pregnant. She was strikingly beautiful, almost elfin with pale skin and dark features, and she had alive eyes that looked nothing like a docile wife.
The topic of marriage came up, as it often did. I was used to hanging onto his every word, so my heart was open, unprotected, when he said almost as an aside:
“Some women might know she won’t receive as many proposals, so she should keep that in mind when she considers who’s asking.”
It was like he’d thrown a rock at me that I’d caught with my stomach. I saw myself in my cheap black slacks that’s zipper wouldn’t stay closed, and felt my shyness at sharing my voice in class, and knew I was one of those girls.
He had no similar comment for men. They had the power, the magical gift of the proposal that we’d all compete for. What he was saying was: a woman has to get married to be a full woman, so she’d better be content with what she gets.
As an awkward homeschooler with zero dating experience and a secret growing sense of my attraction to women, this felt like a death sentence.
I didn’t know then, but the Augustine I also loved would have agreed with him:
“Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image ... But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.“
Both of these experiences lay outside the Christianity I grew up with. But what’s interesting to me is my response to both situations. I took it, I smiled, I questioned myself.
I’d been taught that the woman I was supposed to be was already decided by theology, the rules I was to live by would be preached to me by pastors and fathers. If the bible truly asked me to cover my hair and be silent in church, I would be expected to do it. I would expect myself to do it. But through arguments about “context,” I was spared.
The line wasn’t “I am a strong, self-sufficient woman, and I deserve equal respect.” It was a man saying, “Well, what I think the bible really meant is…” I was never able to know, completely within myself, that I could wear lipstick and rent my own apartment and never marry a man. I was vulnerable to those kinds of messages because I’d been trained to be.
It’s taken me a long time to unlearn that. I’m still unlearning it. But as I smile less and fight more, I’m slowly defining my womanhood for myself.
Image: Holly Lay