When Shutting Up Is the Best Thing Men Have to Offer
How do I help create an environment that values women and their contributions as highly as it does men?
I’ve thought about that a great deal since the advent of the #MeToo Movement. This past Sunday I participated as a panelist at an interfaith workshop on the role of women in four religious traditions: Native American, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The panel consisted of eight women and two men, and followed presentations by four women, representing the four faith traditions.
When I first received the invitation to participate, it occurred to me that having a white man speaking about the role of women in the Christian tradition is a tricky thing. On the one hand, men too often have seized the opportunity to define the role of women in religious traditions. Patriarchy in religion, after all, exists not only as a Christian phenomenon; other faiths have committed their own sins against women. But because of the prominence of Christianity in America, Christian patriarchy has almost undoubtedly done more damage to women in this country than the other three faiths combined. Aware of this lousy track record, I was reluctant to take a seat from a woman who could better speak to the oppressive nature of male dominated religious traditions.
On the other hand, I’m also aware that a key part of dismantling the systems that hold women back centers on the necessity of having men say (publicly and loudly) why patriarchy is not only morally wrong, but an impoverished expression of the best impulses of faith. But the practical problem with this truth is how to call out misogyny without virtue-signaling that “This is bad, but I’m one of the good guys.”
Uneasy, I decided to accept.
The four presenters took about two hours. After a break, we reconvened, with the panel sitting on the chancel, waiting to respond to questions from the audience and the moderator. But the questions were directed, for the most part, to the four presenters. So, for the largest part of the Q&A, we ten people on the panel just sat there.
My first thought was, “Why am I even here? If you don’t want to hear what I have to say, why did you invite me?”
My second thought, as it usually is when I’m on a panel, was, “Where should I jump in so that my voice can be heard? I’ve got things to say, things that would shed some light on both the historical and contemporary contexts that make this such an important issue.”
Now, mind you, I’m a thoroughgoing feminist—at least in theory. That is to say, I believe women have been silenced by men in religion for too long, and that we’re all much worse off as human beings for having silenced them; and that the world would receive incalculable benefit from foregrounding women and their voices.
I believe that so strongly, in fact, that I was about to speak over the voices of twelve women to say it.
Fortunately, I caught myself. It struck me that my enthusiasm to help, to make a contribution, risked completely subverting the very thing I was so passionate about.
So, uncharacteristically, I just sat there and shut my mouth, determined to let the women have the freedom not be interrupted yet again by a well-meaning but loud-mouthed know-it-all white guy, convinced he knew better than they why women find themselves oppressed.
I decided that I would only speak if a woman asked whether I had anything to contribute.
And guess what? Over the course of almost four hours, nobody thought that what I might have to contribute was worth taking time away from women to have me say it.
My first impulse, as I walked to my car was to think that I had just wasted an enormous amount of time. But the organizer came to me and thanked me for being there. She said, “Your presence was sufficient.”
As she walked away, I decided that maybe my silence was the best contribution I could make, the best gift I could give.
It’s one of the best speeches I’ve ever given.