The International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women revived me.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m broke. I don’t have the time or energy.”
“That’s not the right answer,” she said firmly. Michelle is a little bossy.
“Why?” I asked.
She began spilling out reasons: “And Margot Adler will be there, and Rebecca Parker, and Rosemary Bray McNatt!”
She knows Rev. Rose’s sermon at the 2004 General Assembly in Long Beach jet-propelled me onto my path to ministry. Michelle’s not only bossy—she cheats.
She continued, gently, “You need to be with your tribe.” She was referring to both our tight circle of friends and the greater tribe of Unitarian Universalist women.
I half-heartedly said yes.
The fact is, whereas Unitarian Universalism has saved and sustained me through some tough times recently, I hadn’t been feeling part of the feminist sisterhood. Raised as (and by) a feminist, I always heard, “Feminism is about being able to make your own choices.” I was an ardent little militant, choosing Susan B. Anthony for book reports, debating the role of Mary Poppins as an anti-feminism propaganda film, and refusing to see Mr. Rochester, that repressive misogynist, as any sort of a romantic hero. I didn’t question my feminism; it was simply a part of me.
Then, in 2005, I began hearing that because I had decided to “opt out” of my career and instead stay home with my children, I had made the wrong choice. I wasn’t a feminist; I let down the team. In 2008, the voices were louder because I supported Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries. After reading yet another op-ed accusing those like me of not understanding, of betraying my gender, I dropped the paper and said out loud, “Fine, then! If that’s what being a feminist is, then OK, I’m not one!”
(A month later, when my son saw me wearing my “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt, he was very confused. Ah, children, who actually expect our actions to be consistent with our words.)
So, walking into the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women in Houston the weekend of February 26, this disillusionment colored my attitude, which probably wasn’t the best.
Watching the opening ceremonies, I hissed, “Why is it assumed that when UU women get away from the menfolk, we all turn into hippie pagans?”
Michelle pointedly looked at the goddess necklace around my neck and my waist-length hennaed hair and raised an eyebrow.
Much of the hair around me was silver. Second-wave feminists? I was uncomfortable. To me, it felt like there was a great big pink elephant in the middle of the room.
And then . . .
And then they introduced Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta and self-proclaimed third-wave feminists. And Margot Adler, a second-waver herself, brought the big pink elephant right to the middle of the floor, leaping into questions about second-wave and third-wave feminism. Nothing was off-limits, including a hilarious exchange about bikini waxing.
There was laughter and honesty, a lot of warmth. I began to thaw a bit.
The Convocation was stuffed full of inspirational women. Many were up on the stage in the main hall. I listened as Frances Moore Lappé (Diet for a Small Planet) talked about our biggest problem—not terrorism, not world hunger, but feeling helpless to make a difference. We can make a difference and we know what to do, she reminded us. I sang along with Carolyn McDade to “Spirit of Life,” and listened to her story of its conception, of the rainy day when her soul was “as dry as old cardboard in an attic.” Tongue-tied, I stammered out to the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt the story of the effect she’d had on my life, and received a warm hug and words of encouragement.
Many more inspirational women were off the stage. I found them in workshops, both leaders and participants. I found them in small groups, selling their wares, and at meals, like a new Jewish American friend who has lived in Israel and now works in Palestine. The transformation of what she believed was happening in that part of the world has been profound. She told me that her college-aged daughter wants to go back to Israel for a visit. “Only if you go to Palestine, too,” she tells her.
I found them in my small Global Sisters group and saw a give and take of ideas, honest discussion with little conflict. Each woman there brought her life experiences, her wisdom to the table. I witnessed consensus being found as we discussed—literally—the problems of the world. And prioritized just which was most important to our sisters worldwide. And brainstormed how to provide a workable solution.
I listened to a fascinating debate between the two candidates for the UUA presidency and then, afterwards, listened in on many discussions amongst audience members about the candidates.
And slowly, I started to get it.
I am a part of the sisterhood; I am a feminist and no one has the right to “undefine” me as such. The sisterhood means that I have a wealth of knowledge and experience to tap into—and each of my sisters does, too. Our role is to provide information for each other. My personal role is to take that information, those life experiences, that wisdom, and process, analyze, pray, and find my own answers.
Ultimately, what I came to know, what I came to remember, is that being a feminist, being a Unitarian Universalist woman, is about being true, in words and action, to my conscience. The way I live my life and cast my vote is not about following someone else’s guide, but following my own. It is not about banding together, excluding those outside the sisterhood and adhering to one group vision. The sisterhood demands that I follow my inner light and answer its call with integrity.
Feminism affirms that I have the capacity to discern what is right. Unitarian Universalism requires that once I know what that is, that I use my prophetic voice and my able arms to build the bridge, enact the change.
Thanks, Michelle. You were right.
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The Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford is minister of Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Austin, Texas.
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The first time, I emerged merely breathless, wet, and cold.