by Kathryn Higinbotham
When I heard the theme for January was “brave,” where else could I, a young, twenty-first century American Christian, turn to for inspiration than a fictional princess from pre-Christian Britain? William Shakespeare seemed inspired by her too. His great tragedy, King Lear, centers around an arrogant king who has decided to divide his kingdom into three parts and give each part to one of his three daughters, Goneril, Reagan, and Cordelia. But in order to win the biggest part of the kingdom possible, each daughter must publicly perform how much she loves the king. It is absurd and humiliating for Lear to force his daughters to compete, and everyone knows it. Nevertheless, Goneril and Reagan perform as they are instructed and gush with love and praise for Lear. But Cordelia, the only daughter who actually loves her father, refuses. Instead, she speaks my single favorite line in all of Shakespeare’s plays: “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.89). In these three words, Cordelia rebels against the king, guarantees her own exile, and renders Lear homeless.
Most people feel that Cordelia should have just sucked it up and performed for her father so he would have had a place to live. After all, she knew that her sisters were pretty much the worst and that refusing to play along with her father’s weird land-splitting game couldn’t turn out well for her, so by all accounts, she should have just taken one for the team, right? Well, maybe. It certainly would have worked out better for everyone (although it wouldn’t make for a particularly interesting play). But the fact that she did refuse to perform is more significant than just a rebellion against her father or a refusal to obey the king: by speaking that one iconic line, Cordelia also contradicts what was expected of a woman and daughter.
In seventeenth-century England, women did as they were told. In fact, it wasn’t just that it was unfeminine for a woman to speak up, it was unacceptable. But in twenty-first-century America, and especially in its churches, women are still expected to stay silent.
When I was a kid, I went through a phase where I really wanted to be a preacher. I loved God and the Bible and I watched what my preacher did and I felt totally confident that I could do that too. But I go to a church where women typically aren’t allowed in ministry positions beyond children’s classes, the youth group, or behind-the-scenes jobs, so me being a preacher was totally out of the question. It was painful to realize that I wouldn’t be accepted in the job that I believed was right for me because of something unchangeable about me – the fact that I’m female.
Every time I heard someone refer to the “elders and their wives” (because, of course, there couldn’t be female elders), and every time communion was served by only men, I would feel angry and alienated. It was sometimes hard for me to even walk into my church building. But really, the worst part of the situation was that nobody but me seemed even vaguely upset by a distinctly not-female everything and dress codes aimed only at girls. Nobody said anything about it and even my parents warned me that the topic was considered so sacred that I shouldn’t discuss it in church. So I sat and fumed with anger during every service instead of actually articulating what I saw that seemed so wrong.
Today, I no longer really want to be a preacher and I’m a whole lot less bitter than I was (actually, I’m still pretty mad about those dress codes, but that’s not really what I want to write about). But women are still hesitant to talk about our role in the church, or at least talk loudly enough to be heard. And that’s a problem. Allowing ourselves to fall into line and not speak up about the problematic attitudes towards women in the church causes the issues to grow, not fade.
And this isn’t just about church. It’s about school, work, family, and every other part of our lives. It is so easy to just let sexism slide instead of addressing it – after all, our coworkers/friends/family members/people we go to church with might be offended, might be upset, and there’s no guarantee that anything would change anyway. So no, speaking out may not go well, but that is no excuse to just sit in silence instead. Cordelia didn’t, and she knew that the consequences would not be in her favor.
So I have a proposition: What if we all acted more like Cordelia? What if we resisted instead of conforming? What if we looked at the possible consequences and spoke out anyway?
Change isn’t always likely, but it is never impossible. Failure is only inevitable when we find excuses to stay silent. Standing up and speaking out, while it may not guarantee success, is a powerful first step down the road to change. Cordelia taught me that.