When do we teach girls to be passive?

I keep wondering how Christian women get to the place of passivity. There are many women who are fully able and fully present in the life of the church. Unfortunately many  appear quietly content. Too often what is really taking place is that they feel they should sit still, watch, observe…passively.  Christian women get taught this in a thousand ways. For some, it is direct teaching from leaders. For others, it is more subtle. It is not being asked. It is having someone speak over you when you do try to answer. It is the lukewarm response to your thoughts… when a man says the same thing five minutes later and it’s received as inspired.

So here’s why this is bugging me lately. I was a speaker at a youth conference two weeks ago. There were vibrant, amazing teenagers there. A couple of them I know quite well as we all attend the same church. During our scheduled time together, there was a good mix of activity and conversation. Neither boys nor girls dominated, they had balance, they were all engaged.

And then free time came. There were games on tables, ping pong, and an basketball court. And it was all I could do to keep from screaming when I saw a group of bright, godly, articulate young women huddled on a picnic table watching the guys play basketball. The guys were totally ignoring them. They were into the game, laughing, running, playing hard and being active with each other. The girls sat. They watched. They weren’t even turned toward one another. Rather, like sunflowers in the summer, they rotated as a crop to where the action was.

I can’t help but think of a related incident when I visited Ghana with a group of US teens a few summers ago. On a free afternoon, we all headed to a field for a game of football (soccer).  In short order, the guys divided, and the game was underway. The American girls sat and watched the boys play football. The Ghanaian girls also gathered on the sidelines of the game. However, they didn’t focus one bit on the boys’ game. They faced each other and played Ampe, Fire on the Mountain, and a host of other games. I played with them. We had a fantastic time. The Ghanaian girls were raised in an Islamic patriarchal society, where they were openly told women should be passive, seen but not heard. And still, these Ghanaian girls asked why our girls from the US were so… passive.

My own girls are not passive. Perhaps society has not yet taught them that they “should” passive. Put a field and a ball in front of them and they run to play with whomever will join. If there’s a tree, it will be climbed. A person crying, they will go offer comfort. Music playing, they will sing and dance. Heck, if there’s no music, they will sing their own song and dance to their own tune. I do not want for them to lose this. I don’t want their voice to be silenced, lost in the cultural mores that say passivity is what is best, what is normal.

I long for something more for them, for all girls and women. Carol Gilligan shed light on this cultural phenomenon when she published In A Different Voice in 1982 (updated 1993). From Gilligan’s work we learned of the all too common phenomenon of a girl losing her voice somewhere in the transition from childhood to adolescence. By adulthood, she is silent. At least publicly and externally. (Granted there are some questions about Gilligan’s methodology… but that’s a conversation for another time.) Our society as a whole has improved some in the last two decades. While we still have a long way to go, our churches seem to be falling even more behind.

After some discussion in the blogosphere last fall that there just aren’t very many women speakers for Christian conferences, Rachel Held Evans published a list of 101 potential female speakers. Shortly after posting this, she was a main stage speaker at Youth Specialties. After she spoke Mark Matlock said “not bad for a girl”. Perhaps Mark meant nothing insidious by this and was just going for a fun segue. But the framework of such a comment is how unexpected it is, or at least has been traditionally, to see a girl speak well in public. It reinforces the old notion of what women have heard a thousand times directly and indirectly. Women should not be speaking in public. They should not be in leadership. They should be passive. Close by and present, certainly at the table but more ornamental than functional.

Too many women and men have bought into that last sentence and we are worse for it. It sucks the very life and soul from people and it’s wrong. I hate that I am even still writing about this except that it is still happening, all the time.

So dear youth pastors, pastors, speakers, teachers and leaders…speak up. Offer a different message. Loudly. Frequently. Boldly. With a tenacity that drowns out the other thousand messages that subtly say to sit down and shut up.


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About Amy Jacober

Amy Jacober (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is a youth ministry veteran with ministry and teaching experience. She focuses on practical theology, urban ministry, theology & disability, and marginalized communities. She is a volunteer youth worker in her church and community, lead consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and serves on the Young Life Capernaum national board. In her free time she can be found playing with her three young children, husband, and oversized dog.