The need for women to see the feminine in the divine

by Mariam Williams

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About 10 years ago, I had a job that required a rather odd task. I had to measure fifth-graders' waists. It involved marking their skin with ink pens and body tape that wouldn't hurt upon removal, then making sure the measuring tape hit the marks as I wrapped it around their bodies and had my field partner record the size of their waistlines in centimeters. At least one parent was always in the room throughout the process, and usually, this portion of the job passed with very little awkwardness or embarrassment.

One time, though, the parent reacted to this moment in a way I didn't expect: with glee.

"Oh!" the mom gasped when her daughter raised her shirt slightly for my approaching pen. "You're starting to get the swoop of your hips!" Her face expressed nostalgia for more time with the baby who was growing up before her, but in her smile, the light, nearly inaudible clapping of her hands and the hug she gave her daughter afterward, there was also great anticipation for and pride in the woman this girl would grow to be.

"That little girl is going to love being a woman," I thought to myself as I left their house. The two-hour interview I conducted with the child after the waist measurement revealed she was smart, self-assured and mature, but I doubt I would have come to that conclusion about her in womanhood without witnessing the mother's delight. Rarely are changes in a developing girl's body met with joy; it's usually panic, shame, disgust, or something else girls will internalize as negative.

I've started to wonder what impact the absence of feminine images of divinity in Christianity might have on societal and individual responses to changes in girls' bodies. This isn't as random as most of my thoughts; a session at the 2015 Festival of Faiths inspired me. A panel of African-American Christian leaders and one layperson, all under the age of 40, discussed race, mass incarceration and gender in response to a poet's live readings on the same topics. The poet, Hannah L. Drake, borrowed from Sojourner Truth's 1851 address to the Ohio Women's Rights Convention, more commonly known as her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, in which Truth, in genius form, points out that Christ came "from God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him." In the discussion that followed the reading, the Rev. Neichelle R. Guidry Jones spoke of the internalized patriarchy women experience at most churches and addressed the need for women to see the feminine in the divine.

Though I agree it's especially important for women, I think the absence of feminine images of God makes it easier to default to women as unclean or sinful and more challenging for all Christians to see women as godly -- despite how much we praise women on Mother's Day, adore Mary, the mother of Jesus, and set the Proverbs 31 woman on a pedestal.

The unconscious logic flows like this: If God is the ultimate standard of holiness and purity, and women can't even physically resemble, much less be, God, then their sexual purity (sexist standard that it is) doesn't matter. Women can't be God, so they can't really be godly, either. And the wider a girl's hips expand and the larger her breasts grow, the further her physical form departs from the manly image of God, and the more of a threat those natural characteristics become to her godliness.

My theory could be wrong, but even if it isn't, I think it's unfair to have a disproportionate number of congregants not represented in the Trinity, to never be referred to in Scripture or in prayer, to never be conceived of as possessing omnipotence, almightiness, or awe-inspiring creativity, to be impossibly unworthy of the very sacrificial love and unwavering devotion women give to their families, their relationships and their churches.

At the beginning of this year, I resolved to imagine a feminine image of God. I'm not always successful, and I don't feel any differently about myself since making this effort. I think it's hard to compete with the prevalence of "he/him" in the literature on God and with all the male imagery that's been fed to me for more than 30 years. But I'm going to continue to try to pray to her and ask her to guide me, because if I can celebrate the swoop of a young daughter's hips one day and she can see herself as godly more easily than I've been able to, it will be worth the effort.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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A version of this story appeared in the July 3-16, 2015 print issue under the headline: I've resolved to find the feminine in the divine.

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