Winter’s bone-chilling, relentless cold makes it the most treacherous season in the north when you don’t have a warm place to sleep or enough to eat. Poverty may look different in the city and the country, in various countries and continents, but it can be devastating to body, mind, and soul anywhere.
When I lived in New York City, no day went by that I wasn’t aware that people near me were hungry and homeless. When I moved to a more rural community, I found that, while small groups of volunteers ran food pantries and emergency assistance programs, many in my generally well-off town did not know that they had neighbors who were in need. While contributing to organizations that assist people around the globe is essential, clearly we must also consider what we, as human beings and especially as feminists with a focus on religion and spirituality, must do to support those who live within a few miles of us.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 70% of people in poverty around the globe are women. The Shriver Report found that a third of American women live at or “on the brink” of poverty. Clearly poverty is a feminist issue. But, what is the role of feminist religion and spirituality in this most basic struggle to ensure that women in my own community have enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families?
Feminist religion and spirituality is a way of looking at all aspects of the world. What we think, say, and do reflects the perspective that all women are sacred and infinitely valuable, as are all beings. It illuminates how denying women’s religious and spiritual worth has catastrophic effects in many areas of life, including economic, social, and political. In light of this, how can we as a community respond to the real needs of women without adequate incomes through our unique understanding?
Beliefs that women are less spiritually worthy then men and that their God-given place is outside of the world of paid work have been used for millennia to justify our lack of opportunity to meet our own basic needs as well other tragedies, like domestic violence, that are strongly associated with economic inequality. We cannot change the institutional and attitudinal barriers to economic equality for women without addressing the religious beliefs that support them. So, an essential aspect of ensuring that the every day needs of all women are met is the work we all do to achieve our spiritual and religious equality in the eyes of our society as a whole through art, writing, speaking, teaching and more, including posting on this blog.
Another part of our sacred duty to one another is raising awareness of the women in need in our communities so that they may be supported. Too often women without adequate resources, especially in smaller communities, are invisible— they may have housing but are doubling or tripling up with other families, they may have jobs, but are not receiving a living wage, their children may go to school fed, but only because they themselves go hungry. Organizations that can help are many times severely underfunded in part because people in their communities don’t realize other residents are struggling. Can those of us with communication skills turn them to educating our neighbors about the needs right here in our own neighborhoods if lack of awareness is a problem?
Our dedication to every woman’s sacredness assures us that what every woman brings to her community is unique and we are poorer when anyone is forced to leave. The women in need I know work hard at physically and emotionally stressful jobs, frequently while going to school and caring for children, or they struggle mightily for their independence in other ways, sometimes despite severe disabilities. Their spirits enrich our communities. By changing the paradigm rooted in hierarchical visions of society that perceive of women in need as receiving a “gift of charity” rather than communities investing in valuable members, we can begin to transform the negative attitudes about low-income women that are insulting, disempowering, and divisive. Some local groups in my community refer to those they serve as “guests” rather than “clients,” for example. By supporting community colleges, scholarship programs, micro-loan programs, and other efforts to promote women’s economic independence, we do divine work.
Finally, this perspective also requires that we make sure that every woman’s story can be heard so that every woman can be appreciated. I am so often amazed at how frequently the life stories of women who lack a basic income are full of persistence and courage in the face of overwhelming odds, yet untold because they are not valued by our society. Perhaps by creating ways for telling these stories through art projects, welcoming circles, and the media, we can show every woman to be the unique asset to our communities that she is.
Of course, when I speak of women in poverty I am potentially talking about all of us. A major illness, an unexpected job loss or economic downturn, the loss of a life partner by death or divorce, or a natural catastrophe can quickly destroy the ability of almost any woman to meet her basic needs, especially because women usually have fewer savings and other resources than men. I have found that this is especially true for older women, who may be unable to pay their bills despite retiring from professional or academic positions because they never made as much as men or took years off for caregiving. What we do for each other also benefits us, both as individuals and as a community.
Responding to the needs of women without adequate income both in our communities and around the world as feminists with a religious and spiritual perspective is one way of ensuring that every voice is present and heard as it must be, of making the universe whole. Celebrating the sacredness of every woman in ways that are concrete and respectful is an honor and an investment in the kind of world we all want to live in.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a human services administrator, herb gardener, and writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog, http://www.goddessinateapot.com.