Tag Archives: faithandfeminism

Becoming Wise

wise wedding

Hello, my name is Leah Wise and I have a confession to make:

I’m a feminist who took my husband’s last name.

“How could you?!” my feminist sisters cry. Well, because I wanted to.

Let me acknowledge that I’m right there with you when you say that taking on a husband’s name implies an unequal balance of power between the sexes, that it’s part of an archaic patriarchal system, that it arose within a tradition that passes women as property between father and spouse. I agree; that’s why Daniel didn’t ask my father’s permission to marry me. Independent adults can make their own decisions.

I’ll admit that I really didn’t think about not taking Daniel’s last name until after we were married. It took me 6 months to make all the changes to my legal documents, in part due to laziness and in part due to the fear that everything would be different with a new last name (it wasn’t, but more on that later).

I considered (and consider) myself the academic sort and I didn’t want to confuse my professors with a new last name. But, for the most part, my hesitation wasn’t due to the fact that I felt I had built a name for myself as a supreme scholar using my maiden name; I was afraid more that they’d question me for my age. I was 21 when I got married. That’s young by a lot of people’s standards and I didn’t want their condescending judgment. I hadn’t really considered that the name change itself would produce that response.

Back to the point. I acknowledge that patriarchy is bad for women and that the name change developed within that system. But I changed my name because I wanted to have the same last name as my husband. I don’t want to sound like a cliche, young-and-in-love moron, but I was wooed by the idea of creating a family unit with my husband (not the child-bearing family unit necessarily, just being identifiable as a married pair). I like that people call us The Wises. I discussed the subject with a friend and mentor earlier this week and I liked the way she phrased this point: getting married is choosing your next of kin. You tell the world, by marriage, that you have chosen a life partner who is closer to you than your parents or siblings; you have taken them on as your family. Having a uniform last name symbolically represents this bond.

I changed my name because I had the open space – the freedom – to make that choice for myself. I’m sure I was influenced by custom, but I married a man who believes strongly in fairness, equality, and egalitarianism. We both received departmental awards as undergraduates in the same field and graduated summa cum laude. We’re equals and we know it and we’re proud of it. If he had suggested that I had no say in the name change, I more than likely would have broken it off altogether; that’s straight up male chauvinism.

Additionally (this may come as a surprise to some of you), changing my last name had its perks. For one, I felt like I could become something better than I was as a Wells (I should have mentioned that my new last name is very similar to my old last name). Because changing my last name was my choice, I gained a fresh outlook on my identity (it feels similar to moving to a different town or graduating high school). I also symbolically shed the burdens and ideologies of the family I grew up in. College changed me profoundly from an ideological and religious standpoint and I think the superficial move away from my past helped me admit my new identity to myself and my family. It helped me gain the footing to stand behind my beliefs. The family name I took on doesn’t represent a family that is less broken than my own. It represents the pact I made with my husband to stand beside him for the rest of my life.

There are numerous other arguments that neutralize the name change: when you keep your maiden name, you keep your father’s name, thereby re-affirming patriarchy; future children are easily added to the family without name confusion when you take on a uniform last name; a uniform names provides social legitimacy; etc. I agree with those sentiments, but ultimately it comes down to personal choice.

It strikes me that feminism has always been about choice. To paraphrase my friend again, feminism is about equal pay, respect, civil rights, and self governance – all, at their root, about freedom. While I believe that American women are still beaten down by an unjust patriarchal system, while I know women oftentimes don’t reach high enough or stand up for themselves or gives themselves credit, we cannot lose sight of the original heart of feminism. Don’t shame your sisters in this struggle who think differently or choose differently. The beauty of creating an expansive landscape of choice is that we can journey out in an increasing number of directions and still be within our rights. The last thing we need is to restrain those beaten-down women who came to feminism to find room to grow.

I became a Wise because I wanted to. If I felt strongly that I was encouraging patriarchy by doing so, Daniel and I would have made up a new name or co-hyphenated.

We would have resolved it together because we’re in this together. That’s why they call us Wise.

open arms

church

I stopped going to church for nearly a year for a variety of reasons. I didn’t feel that my academic knowledge was appreciated, I was limited by my gender, I wasn’t at all comfortable with opening up about real struggle, I didn’t fit in. I think Daniel and I feared that we would never really feel at home in any church despite wanting to fellowship with other Christians, despite having chosen our majors because of our faith, despite it being a daily topic of conversation and reflection.

When we got to Charlottesville, we went to a few churches and sat in on a few small groups and just didn’t feel it. I grew up in various evangelical churches, so I know the whole rhetoric about not leeching off the church, about how “feeling” it isn’t enough. But, honestly, after struggling so much to fit into a church in college, I think that mentality covers up a real problem. People in the church, very often, are exclusive in their friendships, judgmental, and afraid to engage issues they deem too controversial. Even for two, born-and-raised Christians, the church began to feel foreign.

But we put in the effort to stick it out somewhere. We started going to an Episcopal Church, a denomination neither one of us grew up in. Known for its progressive/liberal (you choose the connotation) policies, we didn’t really consider it until we sort of fell into it. We found a group of young people who are willing to deal with controversy, doubt, and all the complexities of Christian thought head-on. We found thoughtful, compassionate, loving people who welcomed us in. We found community.

I realized last weekend, as a large group of us sat around the table at a local restaurant sipping drinks and talking about theologians, Russian television, feeling accepted, and avoiding cynicism, that I feel unencumbered – accepted – at last. Really, I laugh without inhibition, I listen, I reply, I learn something new, I think about things in a different light. I feel weightless and unimposing. I become a part of the moment instead of an acutely self-aware bystander. I realize that I’m finally fitting in. I’m at home. I don’t have to fight anymore.

The church needs to stop crossing its collective arms and start opening them to embrace all who enter in. I really believe that there is a place for doubt and skepticism in the church, that it’s a part of everyone’s spiritual journey. Without transition and struggle and stagnancy, there is no incentive to push forward and keep developing as a follower of Christ. I’ve found a group of people who know that, who walk with me in that, who lead me forward to hope and faith again.

I encourage you to seek out a community of followers who love without inhibition.

faith and feminism, part 1

I attended college in North Florida, the southernmost point of the true south. As a Religious Studies major, I learned about my Christian faith and its heritage within a much wider scope than my evangelical upbringing had provided. I studied history, literature, ancient languages, and ethics. At some (I suppose, inevitable) point, I found that I possessed more academic knowledge than many pastors who had lead my congregations growing up, and that I was respected for my thoughts and given a voice within academia.

I attended a conservative Protestant denomination affiliated with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. They followed the Bible literally, which included not using instruments in the main service and not allowing women to take part, by speaking or leading, in the main service, or assembly. I ignored the obvious tension between my undergraduate expertise and the church’s interpretation of the Biblical text for nearly a year. But when women (and men) within the church began to discuss giving greater leadership privileges to women openly, I could no longer ignore their stance. When the elders ruled that it was best not to forsake tradition and stir up controversy just to let women pass the offering plate, the tectonic plates within my chest began to crunch together, grinding and sparking, forcing words and cries and change out of me. Something had cracked and I couldn’t stay silent.

That being said, I didn’t begin prophesying in the assembly or tearing my garments. I really liked the friends I’d made and the a Capella singing and the fun weekly hangouts. I tried to move past the pain, and the anger, by venting to those within the group who would willingly, and lovingly, provide a listening ear. One night, we invited several people over to our apartment to learn some new hymns. After the worship portion of the evening was done, we began to casually chat. Someone mentioned that “where two or three are gathered” there Christ is also. I remarked that our group, in effect, was an assembly. Yet women were speaking! A few female long-time attendees began to argue that women could speak, lead, and participate within this context, but not within the context of the larger, whole church assembly. I couldn’t face the contradiction, the injustice, the lack of critical thought. I blew up. I shouted that I couldn’t stand the denomination, began to weep, then ran to my room like a small child. Within the week, I had been formally chastised for my behavior on the grounds that it could discourage newcomers’ in their faith.

I couldn’t help thinking that my faith had been manipulated and shattered by the undercurrent of sexism labeled as Biblical adherence, and that no one cared. I mentally disconnected myself from the congregation after that talk. Although I worked to forgive those who believed they had spoken the truth in love, those who had meant me no harm, I could never go back with an open and full heart. Near the end of my attendance there, the worship leader sang the wrong part, and I recalled that there were formally trained female vocalists in the congregation who could have lead with both heart and knowledge. But they weren’t allowed. Implicitly – and there’s no satisfactory way to get around this – women were secondary to men. I got up and ran out of the building, down to a creek on the church property. I cried, and felt at peace, away from the church. I felt God. Away from the church.

I didn’t attend church again for almost a year. And my faith grew.

This is the first part of a series on faith and feminism.