Every so often I experience what I call “a perspective shift.” That is a moment when I discover that all my struggles for equality and acceptance in my role as a priest pale in comparison with what some women have endured at the hands of cultural traditions. Women in Mid-Eastern countries, for instance, have suffered physical brutality as well as emotional and psychological damage in a society that still practices inhuman discrimination against women. My “sufferings” take on a whole new perspective.
Then, every so often, I experience a shift in the opposite direction. I find women who have lived in the male-oriented society of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in this country, have stayed “in their place” as “the little woman” – the ideal every young girl aspired to from adolescence until that moment when they achieved what they had learned was the ultimate in womanhood – the wedding ring.
These women lived in a world where two working parents was unheard of, where single-parent families were rare as widowed women tended to find another protective and supporting mate quickly, and where the “woman of the house” was just that – she stayed home and “kept house” for her breadwinner and her children. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and my mother was not one of those women and neither was her mother – they both worked outside the home but my mom worked with my Dad so he didn’t have to hire another employee and she was almost always home when we came from from school.
Here’s what I’m getting at – there are many women who suffered discriminating practices by overbearing husbands and a traditionally male society, but they either didn’t notice or elegantly and proudly rose above it. A month or so ago, I went to Sanford, Maine where I attended a memorial service for just such a remarkable woman. Her name was Bea Fluet and she was my brother-in-law’s mother. She was many things during her long life. She was a Christian – a good Catholic but that was not what everyone remembered about her – in fact, the funeral was not in a church, there was no Catholic priest present – her church affiliation was not even mentioned because what was important was not what church she attended but whom she chose to follow and serve and emulate – she was the most pure example of a Christian I know – she loved everyone just the way Jesus loved her.
She was also a mother – actually, an adoptive mother – a long-time widow – a grandmother – great-grandmother. The family gathered in from all over – Northern Virginia, Delmar NY, Massachusetts – friends of hers, friends of Joe, family – all of us came to pay tribute to this woman who was raised in one of the poorest families in town – who worked her whole life until arthritis took over – who was widowed early and still raised one of the finest men I’ve ever known. During those years, she lived with Joe, helping to raise his children and in later years, she lived with both him and my sister, his new wife, helping to raise their children.
As I sat and listened to all of them – from her 66-year-old son to her 7-year-old great-grandson – all they spoke of was how she loved – how she loved her husband – an unlikely love for an abusive alcoholic – she loved her son with the fierce, unselfish, giving – almost blind love of an adoptive parent – how she loved their friends – how she loved all of them – his children – their children – and when her son got married, she loved his new family – all of us, even his new wife’s sister (that’s me) who couldn’t seem to get her name right. (She was French and the French word for grandmother is Memere – which everyone called her. I came from a place where grandmothers were called Nana, Sweet Pea, and Meemaw, so I heard Memere as Mimi and for the first few years that’s what I called her – until she told me if I didn’t get her name right, she wouldn’t answer me.) When her son went searching for and found his birth family – she loved them too – she even dubbed Joe’s new half-brother “Son #2.” She loved them all and on this day – they all talked about just how much.
In all of their stories, they never spoke of how sweet she was or how she coddled or spoiled them. They told of her “tough love” – how she got them to do what she wanted by telling them that “The Man” said so. She told them as potty-training toddlers, “The Man said I can’t buy diapers anymore.” She told them the same thing whenever they questioned why they had to do what she said – “because The Man said so.”
They told us how she constantly threatened them when they misbehaved – with her good-natured “I’ll give you back to the Indians” and how they knew she wasn’t serious – that she would never do that – but that she was serious about their behavior. They told us about how she extended her love to their friends with chocolate cake at the kitchen table after school and with her burnt cookies and other culinary specialties which spoke so loudly of how much she loved them even if they weren’t the best treats in town because there was always enough for all of them – and always leftovers.
One of her great-grandsons told us through his tears about how she would tell him when he got too smart-alecky that his little brother was the Boss and then “the Boss” told us through his tears that she called him “the Boss” to make him feel better.
The love of this wonderful woman was the love that even the hardships she bore as a woman in those days couldn’t destroy. Memere was – in her own words, “an old broad” – “a Frenchman” (and always said, up til the very end – “you can’t kill a Frenchman”). She was a “tell-it-like-is” with no holds barred person – and if you had asked her, I’m sure she would have said that she wasn’t much of a success. But her granddaughter, Jenny said that if we had been burying the Pope, there couldn’t have been a more powerful tribute paid. Because she loved and loved and loved – everybody and anybody – with no favorites – everybody got what they deserved – love! She was always there – always caring – always giving – always loving and, as far as I could tell, she cared about the opinions of only two men – God’s Son and her son.
For all her sufferings at the hands of an abusive man and in a world of “stay in your place” thinking, I think if I had asked her how she felt about being treated so poorly, she would have looked at me as if I had three heads and said something like, “I don’t pay any attention to all that – the Boss will take care of them!” What a strong woman!
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Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a memoir about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. Lady Father is now available at Amazon.com. Sign up at the bottom of this page and you will receive her newsletter and important emails.
Anyone who has been part of an evaluative procedure knows the abject terror that is brought on by the simple word – “Interview.” Whether it’s for a job, admission to an educational program, or even for your child’s school newspaper, even the prospect of an “interview” brings on sweaty palms, a shaky voice, weak knees, and a queasy stomach because it is an experience that puts you “out there” in front of other people in the most vulnerable position – on the “hot seat.”
This is where you sit while another person, or a group of people, grill you about your past, your present, your future, what you know, what you think, what you want, who you are, who you want to be, and even who you have been and don’t want to be anymore. The feeling of terror is directly proportionate to the number of people doing the grilling, as well as the power those people have over your life.
“The Process” towards ordination is mainly a series of one interview after another and, as I sit here more than 20 years after the final one, I can’t tell you which was the worst one or the most terrifying. I can tell you that one of the most dreaded steps in the ordination process is the final interview by a rather unwieldy but daunting group made up of the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee, both of which are charged with examining every Candidate for ordination and making a recommendation to the Bishop regarding a rather nebulous quality known as “readiness for ordination.” I arrived in Norfolk for my “ordination interview” sometime in April of 1984, about a month before graduation, and I was terrified beyond belief.
All interviewees in this process are encouraged to bring their spouses both for moral support and so that their opinions and insights can be considered as well. As a single person, I was alone. There was no one sitting before this august body to face the inquisition but me. I had been a single person for 10 years at that time but I had never felt more alone than I did at that moment. But – I sucked it up as always and looked confidently and expectantly at the Chairman….He greeted me warmly and then opened the floor for questions from any of the Commission members and my nemesis from the last few years immediately spoke up. My heart plummeted as I knew that nothing good was coming out of her mouth. She looked at me with, I swear, a glint in her eyes, and said, “Well, we understand that you aren’t a very good housekeeper.”
What followed wasn’t pretty! I was assailed with ridiculous questions and comments about how prospective employers and church vestries would respond to me with my “messy” tendencies and my weight problem. Anyone listening in would have been convinced that I was being interviewed as a prospective entrant in the Miss America pageant. By the time it was over, I was convinced that these people did not see me as a prospective priest and that the last four years had all been in vain.
“The Process” I refer to is the method whereby a person is evaluated, judged, and admitted as a participant, then is molded into what “The Process” expects. It is difficult but worth the hard work; it is painful, but not “unto death”; and it is destructive and productive at the same time – weeding out the inappropriate behaviors and tendencies and encouraging the development of more acceptable qualities. Actually, it’s a lot like squeezing the proverbial square peg into the round hole but, I have to admit, it works.
In many situations, this refining process takes on a life of its own, especially when there are extraneous “issues” involved. The Ordination Process in the Diocese of Southern Virginia in the 1980’s was a “well-oiled machine,” which was managed by very capable clergy and laypeople who had the best interests of the church at heart but many of whom also had “issues” with the admittance of women to the previously all-male priesthood. It was this combination that rendered “The Interview” for my possible ordination as a Deacon almost useless as a tool for measuring my actual readiness for that step. It became instead an evaluation of the image I created as a future priest of the church and whether that image was acceptable. For many of those involved in “the Process” at that time, that image was not what they were looking for nor was it what they believed the church should be encouraging and accepting.
I was caught in a “process” that I quite frankly believed in as a tool for the formation of God’s ministers but which had become more of a tool for proving that women are not appropriate and acceptable candidates for this “process” and which threatened to “process” the first woman right out of the program. Very shortly, you can read all about how close this came to being a reality and how I survived “the Process.”
My memoir, “Lady Father,” is now available on Amazon.com.” Fill out the form below now and you will receive our newsletter and important emails.
“Lady Father” is a title that was given to me by a dear friend – see my first post – and I’ll never forget the night he so graciously endowed me with that moniker. He was not what anyone would call a liberal and certainly wasn’t a supporter of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church until somehow I managed to move him from one side of that issue to another.
I thank God for that man and his openness to the Holy Spirit and the courage it took for him to announce in public his transformation. I thanked him that night and let him know how special my new “nickname” was to me. He didn’t bat an eye but told me sternly (Fr. Bill said most everything “sternly”) that I was to have LadyFr put on my license plate as soon as possible. I said that maybe I would and he looked me right in the eye and said, “You have to put that on your license plate – I made it up and I want everybody to see it.” So, I agreed.
Later that same evening, I was surprised by a woman I knew well (she had very recently been ordained a priest), who approached me with a sympathetic look on her face, hugged me, and said, “Didn’t you just die when he called you ‘Lady Father’? Isn’t that just an awful name – what a sexist!” Since none of that had even occurred to me, I looked at her like she had several heads and responded as gently as possible, “Well, actually, I love it! It’s an incredible compliment coming from Fr. Bill and I’m going to put it on my license plate.”
She was appalled and turned away, shaking her head at how naive I was. But I wasn’t being naive. I believe that titles are very important as they serve a number of essential purposes:
- Identity – A title can let the world know who you are.
- Occupation – A title also can indicate what you do.
- Honor – A title can confer honor or respect on you.
- Authority – A title can give you authority over others.
The title “Lady Father” identified me as a female, who is a priest to those familiar with the Episcopal Church’s designation of ordained priests as “Father.” It also clearly indicated that my occupation was “clergy.” In my estimation, this title was Fr. Bill’s way of saying that he honored my ordination and respected my position as a member of the Episcopal clergy. It gave me the same authority that he had as a priest of the church, making me his equal.
That being said, I have to tell you all that I do not ask people to call me “Mother” as many female clergy do. I don’t particularly think the use of “Father” is completely helpful and appropriate for a priest since many people have serious issues with their own fathers, making the use of that title somewhat problematic for them. Also, it can conjure up the whole family image with the outdated “Father is the head of the household” idea. Interestingly, however, I do revere the title “Father” as a word that means one set aside by God’s holy ordination to be a priest of the church.
In that vein, I have often said that I would rather be called “Father” than “Mother” because introducing a female title centers the entire issue of women’s ordination on gender. I don’t consider myself a “woman priest” anymore than Fr. Bill considered himself a “man priest” or “male priest. I am just a priest – period. Back to the license plate – later that year, I was at Vail’s Gate, NY on retreat when I met a woman who was the clergy chaplain for that week. I made an appointment to speak with her after lunch one day and as we got acquainted, I relayed to her the story of “Lady Father,” mostly to see what she thought of it since I was still puzzling over that woman’s response to it as “sexist.”
She whooped! She thought it was absolutely wonderful and, in fact she loved it so much that she wanted to run out to the car and see my license plate. Like Fr. Bill, she was aghast when I told her I hadn’t done it yet because it was just now time to renew it and I didn’t have the extra money it cost. Well, she whipped out her Discretionary Fund checkbook and wrote me a check for $50 to cover the extra fee and she said, using almost the exact same words as Fr. Bill, “That name has to be out there for the whole state of New York to see!”
So, anybody out there struggling with the “title” issue – when you read my book you’ll love my encounter with then Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning and what he said about clergy titles for women AND men!’ Let me hear from you!! Have you got your own great story to tell? Or have you been burned by the “title” thing? Would you want to be called “Lady Father”?
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Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. It is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. Fill the form out below to enter contact information securely.