The Crosshairs of Connotation By Ruth Marston

This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Ruth Marston is a third year Master of Divinity student at the Claremont School of Theology.  She is currently seeking Elders Orders in the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church.  A lifelong feminist, Ruth hopes to serve churches by helping construct communities of faith that educate, empower and value diversity as a divine gift. She enjoys Science Fiction, dry humor, and has been known to drive twenty miles for a quality cup of coffee.

A fellow student spontaneously invited me into her apartment in for tea.  It was at the beginning of our Master of Divinity Degree.  We were just discovering the physically and spiritually grueling nature of the three years in front of us, and I think we both sensed that friends would make this journey possible.

I smiled and shoved my hands into my pockets, trying to hide the extreme embarrassment of what just happened.  I may have just infringed upon her hospitality by bringing the word “feminist” into her household.

“Yep, I read a lot of feminist theology,” I said with an easy and open smile.

I embraced the word with the casual ease of a woman raised in the 90s in the Pacific Northwest.  Looking back, this upbringing was decidedly feminist.  In the confidence of a seven-year-old certain of her ability to be whatever she wanted in the future, I informed my parents that I wanted to be President of the United States.  My father’s response was to help me further develop my health-care reform and anti-war platform through conversations about newspaper articles and taking me to as many political rallies as possible.  In high school I saw my mother earn $25,000 a year less than her counterparts for more work because “she didn’t have a college degree.”  As Hoagland says, when discrimination happens, they don’t say it’s because you are a woman, they say it’s because you’re not good enough.  So confident that occupationally, I could be anything I also knew that sexism materially affected our household because of wage discrimination. Therefore, feminism was the simple political solution to systematic oppressions for women.  In college, the discovery of feminist theologies reinforced my understanding of the universality of God’s love and the desire to find metaphors, images, and ideas about God that transcend our patriarchal society.

And so I babbled this history to her, to cover up the sudden, shocked silence between us.

“Honey,” my possible friend, said to me, “Black women didn’t want to go into the workforce in the 1970s.  We had been working for a long time.  We just wanted to be able to be home to raise our kids, instead of raising other people’s kids.”

I knew that critique.  I read the standard womanist descriptions of Alice Walker in college.  I knew that racism has been and is prevalent throughout feminist discourse.  Feminists often assume that the same models of liberation are obviously applicable to women of all races inside the United States, not recognizing that liberation doesn’t mean the same thing.  The word feminism carried none of my positive connotations, and every negative one for her.  And now, I realized that I had casually tracked the shit of racism into my friend’s bright and comfortable living room after she had invited me to a pleasant cup of tea.

So I did one of the smartest, bravest things I have ever done in my life.  “Tell me more, please.”

She searched my face.  A beat of silence descended into the conversation.  Then another.

“If you’d like, if you’d feel comfortable, I mean….” I trailed off.  Suddenly, I realized that I may have asked too much.  Here was this 20 something white girl asking a 50 something African-American woman to tell me about her experiences.   Was this too a mark of privilege, that I could ask and assume she would tell?

The teapot whistled.  She turned and grabbed two mugs out of her cupboard.  “Well, this is how it was,” she began.  And we had one of those conversations, woman to woman, that is infused with the movement of the Spirit.  Through her stories, the academic discussion of feminist critique became personal and important.  We learned from each other that day.  And yes, three years into seminary we absolutely claim each other as friend.

I often thank feminism for liberating my voice and opening up new possibilities for my identity.  I can pray to my Mother God, I can make assumptions that woman’s experiences matter to the academy, and I can advocate for the full and integrated equality of women in our economic, political, private, and spiritual spheres of our societies.  Yet, I also have come to realize that my gratefulness for feminism cannot be thrust upon others as the standard for reaction to oppression of many sorts.  Through our conversation, I realized that I cannot just talk about feminism liberating the woman’s workforce, but also liberating women from the burden of forced economic decisions.  Women should be able to choose to work in a sexist-free environment and women should be able to be the primary caregivers to their families if they so choose.  All women’s work needs to be valued as an important part of our society.

Feminism has its shadow side in its history and connotations.  Someday, I hope that I will be able to overcome some of the racist baggage in the academy (and feminist discourse) without the incoherent, painful awareness of the ways in which my privilege plays out to my advantage.  Yet to assume that I can overcome this problem on my own without embracing the critiques from all women, than I cannot hope to escape that privilege.

I thank feminism for liberating my heart, emboldening me to ask the hard questions and opening my soul enough to hear the hard answers too.  And I thank feminism for allowing me to claim my seminary-sister as friend.

Categories: Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue

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26 replies

  1. Ruth –
    Wow, wow, wow. You are a feminist trifecta – writer, thinker, and great human being. So I’ll share with you my thoughts after reading your post:
    Thought #1: Wow, she’s amazing, not only how she thinks but how she explains her process
    Thought #2: Dang! Why have I not gotten to know Ruth better in my 45 free minutes each week? (Something I do regret, and hope to remedy).
    Thought #3: Awww…what a great story of connection.
    Thought #4: Wait! Isn’t this what we’re SUPPOSED to do for each other? Create feminist friendly spaces where we can show up, as we truly are, and be loved?
    I guess I’m still pondering that last thought. I wonder if the feminists create the space for this healing or if it is, as you call it, our Mother G-d that creates the space. I recognize that’s not the question you’re asking. I am. Why is it that these moments of connection, of Divine reconciliation, occur, and especially between women? Is it part of biological and chemical composition, divine intervention, our own intention, or all of the above? Just pondering.
    Thanks for a beautiful post, Ruth.


    • Lara,

      #1) Oh my goodness we need to explain our process to one another! A biologist friend of mine once lamented about how the science journals only publish the proven hypothesis and not the hypothesis that failed. She thinks that if they actually took some time to point out what didn’t work, it would propel us to innovative ideas faster instead of many people making the same mistakes. This struck me as something that doesn’t just need to be suggested for the sciences, but perhaps had value across the all academic endeavors.

      I think it’s important to me to explain that I did not emerge out of my father’s head as a fully formed feminist. I am a feminist-in-process. Or as my Wesleyan heritage would say “I’m going on to perfection.” I hope that by showing my work on this story-problem helps people to see that we don’t have to be absolutely perfect feminists all at once, but instead see it as something we evolve, breathe, and change into.

      #2) I have been feeling the same thing this semester. I’m think I’m starting to have CST separation anxiety. And of course I am working on commissioning paperwork which means lots of close, personal time with the library.

      #4) Feminist spaces haven’t always been friendly spaces. That we address power dynamics sometimes means that by and large they cannot be. That feminism sometimes reduces power dynamics to one simple binary (male/female) is one of the greatest struggles it needs to overcome. Unfortunately it’s just not so simple as all that, so how do we incorporate all of these other complexities without losing the opportunity to critique and dismantle patriarchy. So that makes these moments of possibility all the more important. Yes, this is what they are supposed to do. And this story is one of my touchstones of hope that constructing these places is always a fruitful endeavor.

      I would say that yes, Mother God does create those spaces and yes we do also create those spaces. My immediate theological response to how those occur is pretty much the Methodist Party line, so I’ll babble your ear off in the near future about the awesomeness of prevenient grace if you give me a chance. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a dance between the divine and humanity, to find these moments of grace and possibility.

      I am not sure if they do especially happen between women, because I am a woman I see when women connect, and don’t especially know about connection in men-only spaces. Part of me speculates that if this is indeed correct, it is because women are socialized to relate to others and through that we learn the skills that allow us to be more vulnerable inter-personally. This might be one of those questions I should ask men and see if it ever occurs to man-to-man as well. Probably, and also probably not in the same way.


  2. Thanks so much for sharing this vignette–I especially appreciated hearing how you told me (privately) that you had sought the consent of the anonymous person referred to in your post to blog about this exchange. In light of my own current preoccupations, what strikes me most about your piece is how quickly the atmosphere can change with one well-intentioned but still misguided comment or assumption.

    I know a lot of liberal white folks who are just paralyzed with white guilt that they just don’t know how to behave around people of color. They are educated enough that they should not assume “sameness” (i.e., they know that people of color have, for reasons of cultural survival, learned how to comport themselves around members of the dominant culture), but they are also scared to death that they will unintentionally exoticize or romanticize differences. So they just really know what to say or do.

    So I’m glad that you were thoughtful enough to ask “tell me more” and that I’m glad that your friend was patient and open enough to share.

    Again, a beautiful story!


    • Hi Profesor Kao,

      I know the problem for white guilt paralysis so very well. In fact I had some worries about using this vignette; I did not want portray myself as some superhero who has figured out how to do this perfectly every single time I’m in this kind of situation. I have distinct memories in high school where I flat out stuttered when trying to say the words “Black” or “Asian” because I did not know how to talk about difference without any of this hurtful baggage. To be honest this post is still completely outside of my comfort zone, because talking about race and ethnicity is something that I’m learning how to do.

      I often think of white privilege is like having a giant, uncontrollable mallet that attacks loved ones around me when I least expect it. And suddenly they’re smarting from the blow and I’m spending all this time torn between trying to give them first aid and get the mallet back under control at the same time. You’re right, it’s that one sentence that can totally derail a conversation.

      In some ways letting the other person see this first was a comfort not just an important piece of integrity. I also hoped that she would be able to tell me if I had let the mallet out again before I made this public. (Of course, being someone who thinks why have a Plan B when you can have all the way up to Plan H too, asking permission also made me nervous and so I have at least two other posts written just in case she thought that there was no hope in salvaging this story.) I think the hardest part for me with white privilege is that I am still desperately trying to learn how to discern how to actually say something (anything) and realize there is more beauty in that then fearing the mistakes. I appreciate the sisters on the journey who have the gentleness and bravery to let me know that my privilege is showing and opening doors to experiences that I never would have imagined.


      • Ruth: as I said in my letter of recommendation for you – you already are a fine pastor and you will make a wonderful addition to the UMC (and, I would add, the church universal) once properly ordained!


  3. “Tell me more” about says it all. It’s a great phrase.


  4. Yes, Sistah Girl Seminary Friend, prayFULLly a life long friend, I admire your courage to write the story the way it was and is. Yes, the history of racism that is intertwined in the feminist dialogue that in the beginning did not truly resonate with African American women whose mothers, and grandmothers, and great-grand mothers had worked for nothing to give their children something. I too, have changed since that dialogue, thank you for telling my story of feminist dissonance with the moving images of my favorite “having tea.” You brought it to life. I am still not completely at peace with feminist dialogue, but I can relate to the need for the affirmation of women, their stake of needing a new word to describe themselves that does not include MANhood, woMEN or perSON. I believe you carry with you in your soul the understanding of privilege and its implications and will endeavour to empower all people.


    • Deacon Vera Alice,

      (I am still delighted I get to call you that, so please bear with me as I keep referring to your newly ordained status every chance I get). Thank you again for that cup of tea.

      I appreciate your “not being completely at peace” with feminism. I think that the largest problem with complacency in feminism is its groupthink. We feminists need women like you, who may not consider themselves to be feminist or wish to operate inside the feminist paradigm, who still wish to overcome the systematic oppressions of women. You keep us honest and on the right track to actually improving all women’s lives.

      Also, yes, I agree with you, language is an incredibly important and powerful system for oppression and also the point where we can liberate ourselves. We’ll find something other than perSON to talk about individuals some day I think.


  5. MANhood, woMEN, perSON….Vera Alice I can completely and utterly relate.


  6. Ruth,
    Thank you for your blog. It is so amazing to see just how open communication can change people’s lives and how sitting down and sharing your stories and experiences can create a whole new world of feminism, dialogue, and community for the both of you. You’re a beautiful writer.


    • Thank you John,

      I appreciate the shout out for communication. I think stories are the most powerful form of communication and when we make sure that we spend our time telling liberation stories, oh well, nothing short of this whole world is going to be transformed.


    • I commented on Hannah’s post about the necessity of stepping outside of comfort zones in an effort to understand a new and/or different perspective. Ruth, you did just that! You asked a difficult and sincere question of a friend in the hopes of better understanding her perspective. Communication, as John says, opens people up and creates new spaces for connection and dialogue. In other words, the most productive benefit of communication is education, and hopefully vice-versa. Hopefully, the more educated I become, the more I’ll appreciate the awareness I gain through dialogue with different people housing perspectives. I worked on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign for a year, and learned far more from the people whose opinions I disagreed with than from those who shared my opinions. 9 times out of 10 I walked away from conversations holding on to my own opinion, but with a new understanding of why the other person felt differently. The 10th time, my opinion was altered or completely changed. Ruth, as you say, your feminism is a work in progress; I think most perspectives are. John Stewart has said he is sometimes frustrated by his audience because he knows he’s preaching to the choir rather than reaching people who seek to experience new perspectives or to challenge their own existing ones. So, I commend you for your bravery, Ruth, because it can be scary not only to seek out new perspectives but also to understand that one’s own perspective might not be as comprehensive as one would like to think! As my 86 year-old grandmother says when she makes a mistake or can’t figure out her new voicemail, “I’m still a work in progress, sweetie.”


  7. Ruth –

    Thanks for a beautiful post. You are a good storyteller, and this vignette perfectly fits the themes of our readings for this week. I love the framing of your question, “Tell me more, please.” This phrase invites further comment, but also leaves it open for the person that you are talking with to respectfully refuse this request if so desired. It is also interesting to read your post, having just written my reflections for tomorrow, where I also reflect on my development as a young feminist within my family and broader community. It is so interesting to see the ways that we can become comfortable with names or labels as we live into them, and to also remember that these lived realities of terms and names might be very different for others. Thanks for sharing! – Hannah


    • Hi Hannah,

      Thanks for letting me mumble a few phrases at you a couple days ago about this post and your affirmation about it being a good idea. It was a huge help! I am excited for your story as well.

      I love reading about how we work into, around, and change the labels that we have been given or identify. The more I sit in this course, the more I realize that feminism is not a static or concrete term, but certainly one that is dynamic and changing.

      Good luck!


  8. I’d say it’s pretty common for most women not to identify as feminists. Most women are willing to settle for “rights.”


  9. Ruth!
    What a wonderfully courageous exposure of some of the tensions surrounding feminism. Beautifully told, I found myself both rooting for you to really get it and for your tea partner to really share so that you could really understand. Only people standing in your social location can authentically speak to the issue of white privilege and speak you must so that barriers and walls can be exposed – exposure depletes the ability to harm.
    Bravo, Roomie, bravo!


  10. Ruth – I love the way you so intimately and self-reflexively write. What I love about this is how feminism is problematized, and then reinscribed/redefined through an emotional/affective, rather than solely political lens. What it does for me is remind me how feminism is both a movement and a concept, both social and individual. Really great insights, thank you!


  11. Ruth- Thanks for a wonderful story. I love that you ask, “Tell me more, please.” I agree, this really was a brave thing to do. I grew up in an intensely private family. This pared with my own shyness always made me feel as if it were entirely inappropriate to ask people, especially strangers, personal questions. Even now, I have to remind myself that if I hope to get to know people I must inquire about them and their lives. I applaud you for being bold. Regardless of whether you and your friend would have labeled your conversation “feminist,” it really exemplifies the importance of “shared voices” (as Hannah describes in today’s post). It’s lovely to see how feminism has influenced not only your theology but also how you live by enabling you to ask questions and engaging with women, even those older and of a different race. Great post!


  12. Ruth for President!

    I have you in two classes, and it’s always a pleasure to hear your voice. I can tell you have an upbringing rich and full in discovery both of the world and of the self. I do see a proud and humble feminist in you as well as a humanist, and all around seeker for the greater good for justice. I appreciate you accrediting feminism for much of your depth and understanding (of things). I also think your friend admired your truth and candidness from that first cup of tea!


  13. Ruth,

    While many of the comment-responses have upheld your phrase “tell me more” (and rightly so!), I particularly loved your final sentence: “…[a]nd I thank feminism for allowing me to claim my seminary-sister as friend.” First, I admire your ability to balance your firm commitment to feminism with a certain flexibility. That sounds wrong; it is not that you balance two different activities (commitment and flexibility/openness), so much as you seamlessly incarnate both as your “feminism,” a beautiful reality I deeply admire. Second, as you wrote in your response to Dr. Kao above, you did not want your narrative to imply that you were the “superhero” of the experience. Understandable! After all, as far as I see it, this is a reflective tale of friendship, and true friendship never has ‘one’ true hero. Your story highlights the fact that friendship is built upon the full contexts and differences of both people – not ‘just’ in spite of them, but in fact exactly because of our particularities. That is why, I think, every healthy friendship is wonderfully unique (just like every individual). My first thought as I finished your essay was “feminism values relationship.” Your feminism inspired you in the friendship without dominating it.

    Of course, as you suggest, differences often come with histories of oppression and inequality (that the more power-privileged party is often blind to), a reality every friendship must ultimately address. As a feminist male with many female friends, I have often struggled with this myself. You and your friend did this together – by inviting her to tell you more (and avoiding guilt being the dominant theme of the narrative), you were no longer “the” subject of the story, but rather part of a companionship. Ultimately, in the context of this story, she and her words were the subject (with you as a partner) of this story of friendship. And so, you two continue to weave this intricate tapestry together.

    Thank you for this beautiful post, Ruth. I have learned (and continue to learn) so much from you about feminism and friendship (among so many other things). I am deeply honored to be your friend.


  14. Ruth,

    Thanks for sharing your story. It is nice to see that others – even those who are much more involved with feminist theory – too find themselves in situations of uncertainty when it comes to questions of overstepping one’s bounds. I am often faced with such uncertainties, not knowing if I ought to ask “the other” to tell me more about their experiences. I mean, I study ethics and I want to go beyond theorizing. But before I engage with people who have strikingly different lives than I do, I run through all of the possible (justifiable) reactions they might have to me asking to “hear their stories.” So I tend to just be quiet and “respectful” and rarely engage in meaningful conversations about our differences. However, after reading your post, perhaps I need to rethink my approach. I am sure that there will be times when I overstep my bounds; but we should also note the damage we are doing when we decide not to talk about our differences.



  15. Ruth, what a beautiful post! This resonates with me so much. I too grew up associating career with liberation, freedom, and growth, despite the fact that my patriarchal tradition encouraged women to be stay at home moms. I associated this prescription (stay at home momhood) with an attempt to control women, prevent them from gaining power in society, etc. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to understand that my positive feelings toward career and work are products of my privileged upbringing — I’ve had the means to go to college, choose my field, work where and when I want. Like your friend pointed out, other women haven’t had these luxuries, and I imagine work often represented drudgery, exhaustion, and survival to them.

    As I work to construct feminist Mormon paradigms, I hope to have those wonderful, enlivening conversations with women from different backgrounds than I. And when I occasionally run into spaces of dissonance and awkwardness, when my privilege becomes painfully apparent, I hope that I too will have the courage and presence of mind to say, “Tell me more, please.”


  16. I read this again today, January 19, 2013, on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s BIRTHday, now having completed our seminary journey and doing “Ministry,” in real time. Your writing is as alive and vibrant as when I first read your post. Thank you for asking the tough questions and searching for the difficult and challenging answers. I know you are making a difference in many lives with your conversation and your heart-touch. I am so glad you came to have tea that day, may we always have “tea” and discourse as the years come and go. Sistah Girl friend Ruth!



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