A woman holding a baby.

Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

The first-woman straitjacket

November 2, 2023

Imagine a multi-generational family gathering hosted in honor of a new baby who has come into the world. Everyone wants to hold the baby, and the baby is passed around from person to person until the crying begins. As soon as it’s clear the baby will refuse to be consoled, relatives call on the baby’s mother. She puts down her drink, slides away the plate of food she hasn’t had time to eat, and takes the baby in her arms.

That mother exemplifies what it means to be appointed the first woman to lead a struggling institution. “You’re letting me do the job now because it’s gotten really hard, and you know that you can count on me to do it, because the nature of my formation gives me no choice.”

This parable arose in my mind as I learned more this week about the work of this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Claudia Goldin. She conducted exhaustive research on differences between women and men in the labor market. Underlying all her observations regarding present-day pay gaps is the theme of choices made by women or, more specifically, on women’s behalf through societal expectations.

For instance, one of the most important contributing factors to wage gaps today relates to the career events of a woman’s life around the birth of her first child. In that season of a woman’s life, she’s likely to seek flexibility that makes her less valuable as an employee. She cannot be given essential, time-sensitive, high-stakes responsibilities because she will always have a higher priority. She need not say a word about her needs for flexibility, as the work community around her will assume that need on her behalf.

If a working mother were to choose a work deadline over picking up a sick child from daycare, her employer and colleagues would think her a horrible person. “What if another parent, or live-in nanny were, around,” you ask, “and she would never need that flexibility?” That would be a rational question, but the assumptions, and the judgment that follows, are so deeply ingrained that they didn’t just precede the woman’s pregnancy, they preceded her hiring. Merely being of childbearing age is enough to raise questions about a woman’s commitment to her job.

In other words, women leaders are on the one hand deemed risky (what if she can’t come to work because of family responsibilities?) and utterly dependable (I trust she won’t let those most important to her down) in a way that straitjackets them. Note how I use a term, “straitjackets,” associated with psychosis. I do so intentionally because competing assumptions projected onto women are maddening. A mantra I have trotted out over the years: “You drive me crazy, and then you call me crazy; who’s the crazy one now?”

A baby serves as a metaphor for today’s church: fragile yet beautiful, crying yet worthy of every effort toward consolation, messy yet adorable.

I am the first woman to serve as head of school at Andover Newton Seminary in its 215 years, and I feel honored and grateful for the opportunity every day. My appointment was many things, but it was not risky. I had already served the school for 14 years when I took on this new role. Given the composition of the leadership team around me, the appointment of a white man would have been riskier than mine was. Whether constituents liked me or didn’t like me, I don’t think anyone heard news of my appointment and called it “bold.”

Around the same time, I was granted the opportunity to lead Andover Newton, I noted a pattern around me of women internal candidates being tapped to become first-women senior leaders: Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts’ Sharon Cohen Anisfeld; Hancock Church in Lexington, Massachusetts’ Barbara Callaghan; and First Church in Fairfield, Connecticut’s Vanessa Rose, to name a few. Each had been second chair to men, and each were appointed due to their gifts, yet also during a time when their institutions needed both stabilization and rebuilding.

Were we selected because we were deemed trustworthy? Could we have been imagined trustworthy if not already well-known? Is the trust imparted to us conditional upon us not rocking the boat too hard? Will we be encouraged and empowered to take risks, accepting that sometimes risk leads to failure? Would we have been handed the baby if it hadn’t been screaming?

These questions do not plague me, for I’m fairly sure of my answers to them (yes, no, yes, no, and “we’ll never know”). I accept the ironies in which the questions are soaked. What I find harder to accept, and therefore more annoying, is widespread clueless naïveté regarding gendered power differentials (i.e., sexism) in the US professional world, especially when sexism’s impact is minimized, and women are told it’s all in their heads.

In October, my denomination inaugurated its first woman general minister and president, the Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson. She has served the UCC in the national setting since 2009 and has been in the second chair since 2019. She is the third woman to be nominated to the role, after the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk in 1989 and the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund in 1999, but she will be the first to ascend to the post in a denomination that has been ordaining women since the 1850s.

I celebrate Rev. Dr. Thompson’s appointment because she is an awesome human being. As for the first-woman part, I am not sure how to feel. Our denomination has some big problems, as the whole framework of denominations groans under the weight of societal distrust for institutions. Some might say Dr. Thompson is being placed on a glass cliff, and that might be true. I live on one of those, however, and I have to say the view is fantastic. Cultural criticism is necessary for our society’s improvement, and at the same time, saying yes to the call to serve God’s people is its own form of success.

A baby serves as a metaphor for today’s church: fragile yet beautiful, crying yet worthy of every effort toward consolation, messy yet adorable. A baby also serves as a metaphor for how God chose to enter the world in Jesus, the Christ. The work of tending is what’s needed, and despite crazy-making complexity and power dynamics, it is worthy.

Rev. Dr. Sarah B. Drummond is founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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