The Pen Is Mightier
Sexist responses to women writing about religion.
By Sarah Sentilles
In response to my recent memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, several reviewers came close to calling me stupid. Many suggested I didn’t know what I was talking about. As the title of the book suggests, I used the analogy of a romantic relationship gone wrong to describe my faith and its dissolution. These reviewers seemed to believe I understood my metaphorical romantic relationship with God to be a literal one. They wrote about me as if I actually thought God was my real boyfriend, as if I sat around waiting for God to take me to the prom and just couldn’t understand why my date never showed up. Silly girl.
Even though I have two graduate degrees from Harvard—including a doctorate in theology—many reviewers failed to treat me as a scholar of religion. The reviews were infantilizing and patronizing. For example, the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wrote, “What becomes clear early is that the author’s understanding of God never developed beyond the childish concept of deity as a completely anthropomorphic figure.” Not only did the reviewer miss that the point of Breaking Up with God was to tell the story of letting go of an anthropomorphic version of God, but she or he also assumed I was not aware of any other theological alternatives. I am the author of three books, two of which are about religion; I was almost ordained as an Episcopal priest; and I have studied theology for more than a decade. Breaking Up with God is filled with references to a variety of theological conceptions of God—from feminist to liberationist to queer to womanist to black theologians—among them, Ludwig Feuerbach, James Cone, Alfred Whitehead, Mary Daly, Sally McFague, Gordon Kaufman, Paul Tillich, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. But, as my grandmother used to say, I can’t win for losing—for while one critic argued I didn’t say enough about theological alternatives, another critic, from the Los Angeles Times, maintained there was “too much talk here, too much chatter about competing viewpoints.” He prefers “the monastic approach to faith,” he wrote, “because humility is a crucial ingredient.” And then he asked, “Who really knows anything in their 20s?”
Never mind that I am thirty-eight.
I hesitated to use my experience with reviewers in this essay for fear that it would be read as a rant, an attack, or an attempt at retribution. But revenge is not my motivation. I also hesitated because I know there will be consequences. Authors depend on good reviews for their books’ success, and I imagine critiquing reviewers is not my best career move. Women who do speak out—whether against sexism in the literary world or in the church or in the academy or in politics—are often accused of “whining,” and then, like children, they are punished. But I am convinced the risk is worth it. Reviewers’ words about my book demonstrate how sexism shapes responses to women’s writing, in particular women’s writing about God. The reviews are expressions of a systemic, institutional attempt to dismiss women’s writing. The reviewers are speaking in code. They are charging me with writing like a woman. And they are telling me to shut up.
I am the first to admit my books are not beyond critique. There are countless ways I could make them better. I want to be critiqued, but I want to be critiqued for the strength of my ideas and for the quality of my writing—not for too much “chatter” or for a failure to be humble enough. Hold me accountable for the effects of my theological ideas; don’t tell me not to write them.
Unfortunately, this distrust of women’s words and the assumption that women do not know what they are talking about, no matter what their credentials or expertise or experience, are widespread in the literary establishment (though they are often coded as “reasoned critiques”). Most writers are aware of author Norman Mailer’s infamous dismissal of “women’s ink” as “dykily psychotic,” “crippled,” “creepish,” “frigid,” and “stillborn” in his 1959 Advertisements for Myself, but they may not realize that opinions like these are alive and well, even thriving, today. Author V. S. Naipaul recently claimed in an interview with the Royal Geographic Society that there was not a single female writer he considered his equal—not even Jane Austen, whose work he dismissed as “sentimental.” Naipaul said, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” The narrowness of female authors’ worldviews is the gender giveaway for Naipaul: “[I]nevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Naipaul even attacked his own publisher on these grounds: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh.”1
It might be possible to dismiss Naipaul’s blatant sexism as the ravings of an arrogant misogynist if there were structural equality in the publishing industry, but there isn’t. For the second year in a row, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts released a series of pie charts (the VIDA count) showcasing annual data comparing the rate of publication between women and men in the writing world’s most respected literary outlets—and things don’t look good for women who write.2 VIDA reports that in 2011, The Atlantic published 184 articles and pieces of fiction by men and 64 by women; 18 of their book reviewers were men and 8 were women; and 24 of the authors reviewed were men, compared to 12 women. Harper’s Magazine published 65 articles by men and 13 articles by women; 23 of their book reviewers were men and 10 were women; 53 of the authors reviewed were men, 19 were women. The New York Review of Books published 133 articles by men and 19 by women; 201 of their book reviewers were male and 53 were female; and they reviewed 75 male authors and only 17 female authors. I could go on. The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The London Review of Books—all pay more attention to books and essays and articles and poems and short stories written by men than they do to those written by women.
Genres are gendered, a practice feuled by the perception that women’s writing is essentially different than men’s. . . . “Chick lit” is a term used to dismiss novels by women.
I am beginning to understand why Mary Ann Evans changed her name to George Eliot.
Women’s words are often ignored, it seems, and when they are not ignored, they are regularly dismissed. When Naipaul suggests that he doesn’t trust women writers to say anything that matters, his belief reflects the larger cultural notion that women can’t be trusted with anything, not with words, not even with their own bodies. In “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit argues that this presumption “keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare.” “Credibility is a basic survival tool,” Solnit writes, yet women are consistently told “they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property.” Treating women like they don’t know anything is comparable to harassing women on the street, she argues; both crush women into silence by telling them “that this is not their world.”5
“At the heart of the struggle of feminism,” Solnit says, is getting people to believe what women are saying—which is what the fight “to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes” is fundamentally about. Lives are at stake, and not just women’s lives. It was a woman, Solnit points out—an FBI agent named Coleen Rowley—who issued early warnings about al-Qaeda, and another woman, Elizabeth Warren, was one of the most publicly vocal advocates whose predictions about the impending debt crisis and financial disaster went unheeded.
And yet telling women not to speak up seems to be an increasing trend, especially on the Internet. The insidious sexism that appears in printed reviews is much more blatant online, and it is often violent. Anonymity allows people to post anything they want in comment sections, with no accountability, and often what is posted in response to articles written by women is offensive, threatening, and sexually explicit. Known as “trolling,” these online attacks make the ways I have been described by reviewers—”naïve,” “hysterical,” “wimpy,” “immature,” “depressed,” “off-kilter”—seem tame.
Some bloggers have started to speak out about the abuse they experience. In “A Woman’s Opinion Is the Mini-Skirt of the Internet,” the columnist Laurie Penny writes, “[A]s a woman writer, particularly if you’re political [y]ou come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking.” Penny understands the threats as “campaigns of intimidation designed to drive [women] off the internet.”6 Caroline Farrow, a blogger for Catholic Voices, gets at least five sexually threatening emails a day.7 Many of the offensive comments have to do with the authors’ appearance. Penny writes, “The implication that a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker did not start with the internet: it’s a charge that has been used to shame and dismiss women’s ideas since long before Mary Wollstonecraft was called ‘a hyena in petticoats.’ The net, however, makes it easier for boys in lonely bedrooms to become bullies.”8
I was invited recently to write for CNN’s Belief Blog, and one of the first responders to my piece, “Five Women in Religion to Watch,” was a troll who used the Bible to threaten me and the women about whom I wrote:
A good Christian woman should be silent, submissive, subservient and filled with shame for the curse her gender forced on humanity. As 1 Timothy 2:11–14 reminds us, ‘Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.’ If these women continue to ignore the Lord’s command, he will treat them like he did the daughters of Zion in Isaiah 3:18 and take away all their jewelery [sic], fine clothes, makeup, and mirrors. He’ll make them bald and rotten smelling before killing all of the men they care about.
Another troll posted a comment soon after, attacking our physical appearances. “Anyone else notice how physically unappealing these women are?” he wrote. “Not only is this fact, it is also fact that religious belief is also the ultimate turn-off. These hookers don’t even get a third strike. They’re all out.” Feminist women daring to write about God makes the violence of misogyny visible.
Genres are gendered, a practice fueled by the perception that women’s writing is essentially different than men’s. It seems, for example, to be common practice to call memoirs about religion by women “spiritual memoirs,” and memoirs about religion by men “books about religion,” or “searches for meaning,” or—yes, I’m going to say it—the Bible, labels that suggest gravitas and sweep and import and holiness. Somehow, no matter in what genre a woman understands herself to be writing, her words will often be packaged “for women” because the assumption is that “[b]ooks about women are supposedly for women, but books about men are for everyone.”9 The category “chick lit” is a perfect example of this phenomenon. “Chick lit”—now called “commercial fiction”—is a term used to dismiss novels by women, especially when those novels are popular. Author Jennifer Weiner writes, “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book—in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”10 Even veteran New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s book The Obamas was called “chick nonfiction” by Douglas Brinkley in his February 17, 2012, review in The New York Times Book Review. Still, maybe Kantor should count herself lucky, since most books dubbed “chick” anything are not reviewed by major publications.
Women are written into certain genres and out of others. When I interviewed author Dani Shapiro, she described an article in The New York Times about the “domestic novel” in which almost no female authors were mentioned. “It came out right around the time as my novel Family History, which could be called a domestic novel in the sense that it is very much about a family and is centered on the interior workings of this family.” She read the article wondering if her novel would be mentioned, but she soon realized that 95 percent of the writers mentioned were men. She stopped wondering about her novel and started wondering whether any book by any woman would be mentioned. Shapiro had a similar experience reading a recent post by Tim Parks on the The New York Review of Books blog in which Parks explores how “the writer’s job” is currently understood and illustrates how this conception has changed over time. Parks mentions many writers—Sophocles, Virgil, Pope, Petrarch, Chaucer, Byron, Shelley, T. S. Eliot, Rushdie, Pamuk, Coetzee. “It was on second read that it occurred to me that there were no women. Not one,” Shapiro said. “This was written by someone who simply doesn’t have female writers as any kind of reference.”
What does it mean that a supposedly historical account of the writer’s job can ignore all female writers? Most contemporary statistics suggest that women are writing more books than men are writing, and women are reading more books than men are reading, and women are buying more books than men are buying, and yet our work, our very existence, is regularly made to disappear. What effect does this erasure have? On women? On writers? On readers? Theater critic and novelist Alison Croggon writes, “If millions of reinforcing signals say a woman’s work is less significant, something will eventually begin to stick.”11
Roxann MtJoy notes that Weiner also points to the discrepancy in the way memoirs by men and memoirs by women are treated by The New York Times Book Review: “If you are a man confessing to a shady past, then you are ‘brave,’ ‘smart,’ and/or ‘heartfelt.’ If you are a woman doing the same thing, you have probably ‘lost it entirely.'”12 Reviews of women’s memoirs often make the writer herself the object of critique rather than the content of her ideas. Many reviews of Breaking Up with God, for example, do not engage the theological ideas in the text; instead, they criticize me—that I start too many sentences with the word “I” (a feminist practice I learned at Harvard Divinity School, and the book is, after all, a memoir); or that I reveal “unwanted tidbits” about my personal life; or that my voice in the book is “grating.” One blogger dedicated an entire post about my second book, A Church of Her Own, to analyzing my author photo. My neckline was too plunging, she wrote, my necklace too trendy. When Shapiro’s memoir Devotion was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, the reviewer paid more attention to her appearance, her romantic history, and her mental health than to the substance of her ideas or experience. “In the first paragraph [the reviewer] talked about what I look like and what my house looks like,” Shapiro said.
How many resources are wasted in the attempt to rise above the sense that women don’t have the right to speak? And what role do religious traditions play in this silencing?
Rapp hears in their question a longing to heal her son, but she also hears blame and an assumption that she must not be doing everything she can, that she hasn’t considered all her options, that there must be something she’s missing—in other words, that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, not even about her own son. She’s written several times about the fact that she had the prenatal genetic test for Tay-Sachs—twice—and that both times the test failed to detect the disease. But when Rapp published an essay titled “Rick Santorum, Meet My Son” in Slate in February 2012, arguing that if she had known before Ronan was born that he had Tay-Sachs, she would have saved him from suffering by having an abortion, readers attacked her. “When the Slate piece came out, people wrote to me things like, ‘Oh, you stupid bitch, why didn’t you get the test? Don’t you know there’s prenatal testing?'” Rapp said. “They were basically saying to me, ‘You stupid woman! You had sex and you didn’t think about it. You were totally thoughtless, and you deserve what happened to Ronan.'”
I asked Rapp if she thought there would have been the same response if the article had been written by a man. “I think if I were a man writing that thing, people would have been clapping their hands and saying things like, what a brave man,” she said. Rapp said the fact that she is doing anything other than “gnashing [her] teeth and weeping and flinging [her]self on the funeral pyre”—meaning the fact that she is writing—is read as a failure of motherhood. Some even question Rapp’s choice to write about Ronan and accuse her of using his illness for her own gain. “Someone sent me this horrible email that said, how long are you going to use your son for your writing,” Rapp said, as if there should be a limit to the number of words or the amount of time she can spend writing about Ronan. Rapp is convinced this question about content is a sexist question. “What is Philip Roth writing about? The same stuff he’s always been writing about,” Rapp said. “No one says, wow, there are a lot of old guys who sleep with young women in your novels. No one says that to Philip Roth.”
Reviews and responses like these reveal a misunderstanding of what memoirs are, especially memoirs written by women. These readers approach memoirs as if they are diaries, as if the only reason the author is writing is to expose personal, private, intimate information about herself. “People assume that memoirs, especially by women, are like stripping,” Rapp said. “People say to me, ‘Your stuff is really brave,’ and I say, actually it’s really smart. It’s not just me shaking my tits in your face. It is an intellectual exercise.” I am convinced that the misperception of women’s memoirs as an act of “exposure” (or “overexposure”) has led to a misreading of women’s stories and to a failure to recognize memoir-writing as a powerful, intellectual, creative form of agency—a way to tell our own stories instead of accepting the story society might like to tell for and about us.
Those who have written from the margins—feminist and womanist and liberation theologians, black critical theorists, postcolonial theorists—have always recognized the need to write as if their lives depend on it, because their lives often do. Words are world-creating and world-destroying; they can be used to liberate and to enslave. In Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly writes: “women have had the power of naming stolen from us. We have not been free to use our own power to name ourselves, the world, or God. . . . To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God. . . . The liberation of language is rooted in the liberation of ourselves.”13 Writing can be a way to reclaim the right to name.
Part of the challenge of writing is the struggle to believe you have something worth saying. More than half the battle is making your way to the page, cutting through self-doubt and shame and questions about whether or not your project matters. I imagine this is a universal struggle, part of what it means to be an artist. But how might this struggle be exacerbated by a culture that devalues women’s words? How much creative energy has been lost in the effort required to overcome sexist and racist and classist and heterosexist views of women’s writing? How many resources are wasted in the attempt to rise above the sense that women don’t have the right to speak? And what role do religious traditions play in this silencing?
“I had no idea how much permission would be this tremendous stumbling block for me, and it had everything to do with being a woman,” Shapiro said about writing Devotion: A Memoir. She was raised as an Orthodox Jew, and though she recognizes that many Orthodox women find the tradition empowering, for Shapiro the hiddenness of women, the fact that women can’t read from the Torah or perform the mitzvoth, that they are perceived as unclean when they menstruate, that the intellectual role has been traditionally male, led her to question her own authority to write about God. “Who am I? Who do I think I am?” Shapiro said. “I am not a religious scholar. I’m female. What right do I have [to write], and who will care?” Describing her writing process, Shapiro said, “There is a greater distance that I have to travel to the place where I am free. . . . It is harder to get there. It is harder to stay there. And I do think that is quite universal for women, whatever they do, whatever we do.”
Feminists from Virginia Woolf to Hélène Cixous to bell hooks have long claimed writing as a feminist act in a patriarchal world. “When I sit down to write, I recognize the writer as the one in power,” Katie Ford (MDiv ’01) said when I interviewed her. Ford is a poet, and she finds the genre permission giving. “The poem traditionally has been the place people go to say absolutely anything, and it is often subversive or outside of the doctrinal or political or social norm,” Ford said. She spent much of her adolescence and early twenties traveling in religious circles, and it was about those experiences that she wanted to write. “I didn’t feel like I could do that in the sermon, or in the classroom as a professor of theology,” she said. “The poem was the place I could do that. . . . It is an antidote to the sermon.” The poets who came before her are part of what gives Ford her sense of authority. “My poetic models are men and women who have been writing against Stalin, for example, or those who, like Emily Dickinson, address the entire world,” Ford said. “If you widen your scope, if you are addressing human suffering or God or the world—whatever visible or invisible realities there are—then you are trying to address beyond the current culture, so the restraints of the current culture have nothing to do with you.”
Ford describes the writing space as a place in which her mind can be free from cultural restraints. But what happens when your words are published? What happens when they are released into a sexist world, into a patriarchal culture in which reviewers and anonymous trolls have the power to frame how your writing is received? Writing this essay has been a powerfully liberating experience for me, but it is also terrifying. I was supported as a feminist when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, but I was also disciplined for being a feminist, and I worry that I will be disciplined for writing this essay. I expect to be called whiny and strident and annoying and grating and hysterical and uninformed. I expect to be told I don’t know what I’m talking about.
But I’m also hopeful that this essay will encourage people to engage in a conversation about what to do next, about how to respond concretely to sexism in the literary world—and to the sexism in our syllabi and on our reading lists for general exams, in the language of our liturgies and in the leadership structures of our communities and churches and synagogues and mosques. Because, really, when it comes right down to it, there isn’t much to argue with here. I am simply sharing data, stating facts. Facts that aren’t new. Facts that have been stated and restated for decades, for centuries.
In “Men Explain Things to Me,” Solnit argues that women who are writers fight wars on “two fronts.” The first front has to do with content, a battle every writer wages. It is the work of craft, the struggle to form ideas and opinions, to amass information and make arguments, and to structure beautiful sentences. But the second front is about voice. This is the fight “simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”
As a feminist writing about religion I am engaged in a battle on yet another front. I have to fight to assert my right to speak not only in the literary world, but also in a religious one. When the Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that he preferred the “monastic approach” and urged me to assume a posture of humility, his words echoed the fourteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (verses 34–36): “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. . . . For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you?” I battle religious language and structures and liturgies and holy books that don’t include me, because not only are critics telling me to shut up—they make God tell me that, too.
What can be done?
First, buy books written by women. Novels, memoirs, theology, political nonfiction, scientific explorations, poetry, history, mysteries. Put yourself on a diet of books by women and see what happens. Read them with your book groups. Review them online. Disagree with their ideas. Critique their arguments. Revel in the power of their words.
Second, engage in your own VIDA count. When you buy a magazine or receive a publication to which you subscribe—Harper’s or The New Yorker or The Sun or The New York Review of Books or GQ or Ebony or The Paris Review—count how many articles they publish are written by men and how many by women, and then write a letter to the editor telling her or him that you’d like to see more gender balance in the table of contents. And keep doing it. Every time.
Third, when you read book reviews, pay attention to the language a reviewer uses when writing about books by women. Is the review sexist? Is the tone patronizing or belittling? Does the reviewer critique the argument, or attack the author herself? Does the reviewer write about the author’s appearance or personal life or house? And if you discern a difference between how a reviewer treats books by men and books by women, write a letter to the editor and to the reviewer telling them you noticed the sexism. Educate them.
And finally, I have three suggestions for writers who are women: First, stop caring what other people think about what you write. Shut the negative voices out, the voices that try to silence you and shame you and tell you that what you have to say is “feminine tosh.” (If this is hard for you, remember that the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews called Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love “unsuccessful.” Ha!) Emily Rapp is my role model for this practice. She writes from a fearless place—and her words are electric. They set fire to the page. “I definitely feel like my task now is to be a truth teller, and I just don’t really care what people think about me anymore,” Rapp said. “That element of being a woman has kind of disappeared. The only way I am going to survive this is by being an authentic person, so I better get out of my own way and say what I have to say, and if people don’t like it, I don’t care. This is a gift Ronan has given me, and it is the biggest revelation of my adult life.” Second, join with other authors to work for structural, feminist, liberating change—in the literary world, in religious communities, in academia, in the world. And third, keep writing. In the words of Hélène Cixous: “Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself.”14 Write like your life depends on it. Write like everything is at stake.
- Amy Fallon, “VS Naipaul Finds No Woman Writer His Literary Match—Not Even Jane Austen,” The Guardian, June 1, 2011. (Can you determine the sex of an author using Naipaul’s criteria? Visit www.guardian.co.uk/books/quiz/2011/jun/02/naipaul-test-author-s-sex-quiz.)
- For the 2011 VIDA count, visit www.vidaweb.org/the-count.
- Hannah Pool, “Disagree with Me—But Not Because I’m a Black Woman,” The Guardian, November 8, 2011.
- Lyn Gardner, “Female Playwrights Still Face Sexism—It’s Time We Admitted It,” Theatre Blog, The Guardian, February 22, 2012.
- Rebecca Solnit, “Men Explain Things to Me,” TomDispatch.com; originally posted April 13, 2008.
- Laurie Penny, “A Woman’s Opinion Is the Mini-Skirt of the Internet,” The Independent, November 4, 2011.
- Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers, “Women Bloggers Call for a Stop to ‘Hateful’ Trolling by Misogynist Men,” The Guardian, November 5, 2011.
- Roxann MtJoy, “Sexism, Snobbery, and the New York Times Book Review,” Change.org, August 28, 2008.
- Ruth Franklin, “Franzen Fallout: The New York Times Shameful Treatment of Women Writers,” The New Republic, September 7, 2010.
- Alison Croggon, “Is It a Man’s World, Literally?” The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation News), April 20, 2011; www.abc.net.au.
- MtJoy, “Sexism, Snobbery, and the New York Times Book Review.”
- Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Beacon Press, 1985), 8.
- Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 877.
Sarah Sentilles, MDiv ’01, ThD ’08, is the author of three books, including her recent memoir Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. She lives in Portland, Oregon.