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Published Date: March 5, 2002

Published Date: March 5, 2002

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Daughters of Confidence

Christy Fleming’s friends at Wheaton College have noticed she is different. From Minnesota, 20- year-old Christy loves theater, traveling and singing — nothing unusual there — but then she mentions soccer.

“I enjoy that it’s a physical sport,” Christy says, adding that it’s in the same insurance risk category as football. “You have to give it all you’ve got; you can’t hold back.”

Christy’s approach to soccer captures the essence of her distinctiveness: she’s confident. And she attributes this quality to her parents, who raised her with a commitment to biblical equality.

“I’ve had friends tell me that I have a confidence that many women my age don’t have, a confidence in being a woman,” she says. “I have an attitude of the sky’s the limit, and anything I enjoy doing or would like to do, I can try and strive for, whereas I know some women my age don’t dream for very big things.”

Sarah McMinn, a 19-year-old studio art major at Calvin College in Michigan, agrees. From Wheaton, Ill., she plans on being a photographer and a rock climber and owning her own business. She says she’s learned from her upbringing that she can reach her goals and she doesn’t have to let people take advantage of her in life.

But Sarah’s noticed she’s different from most women her age in another way too. “Most of my friends think it necessary to get married, and soon,” she says. “They really want children. I don’t (at least now) see myself getting married because I have a strong sense of individuality and self-assurance that I can do whatever I want.”

Joanna Balda, 18, has noticed this tension too. A senior at Claremont High School in Southern California, she says she struggles with Christian young women who believe God’s plan for them puts them in a tiny box in terms of their role in the church and the home.

“I have been taught to value the beauty of family, and see the wonder of children as an extraordinary part of a woman’s life,” Joanna says. “Beyond that, however, I don’t see God’s plans for me solely defined in the universe that is motherhood. I don’t believe that a woman’s marital status redefines her relationship with God.”

Families with a Difference

Christy, Joanna and Sarah may notice how they and their families differ from the norm now, but they each indicated that they didn’t notice these differences growing up.

“I assumed families functioned the way ours did, and my parents didn’t really express any differences,” says Sarah. She figured out her family was unique as she learned that her grandfather didn’t agree with the way she and her two sisters were being raised.

This hindsight has also given her appreciation for how supportive her father was when her mother went back to school to get her doctorate, especially since her mother’s parents didn’t support that decision.

Christy also assumed her family was typical, but looking back she can identify moments when she noticed differences. In other families, the dad prayed before every meal or granted permission to the children’s requests — tasks Christy’s parents shared. She remembers a specific situation when a friend’s father joked at the dinner table about his daughters cooking and cleaning.

“I remember thinking how inconsiderate and harmful that attitude must be to my friend,” she says. “It caught me off guard because I wasn’t used to that at home.” Instead of facing expectations from her parents, Christy was encouraged to explore anything that was an interest. In fact, she and her mom even took a gun safety class together.

“Both of my parents have been very affirming of anything that I enjoyed and wanted to pursue,” Christy says. “I have never felt limited or restricted by them.”

In addition to encouraging their gifts, the three women also emphasize the importance of their parents modeling a partnership rather than hierarchy in their relationship. Christy has seen her parents divide household responsibilities according to strengths rather than roles, with her mother handling the finances and her father doing the cooking.

Joanna says she and her brothers saw that her family was “a little unusual,” but she attributed it to her mom’s strong presence, which contrasted with many other mothers they knew. They joked that their mom “wore the pants,” because she did most of the family management.

In reality though, Joanna knew that her parent’s marriage was a cooperative venture. They made decisions together. Her father encouraged her mother in her ministry and in her job as an attorney. Her mom, in turn, gave her dad freedom to pursue careers utilizing his gift of creative expression, knowing those pursuits may not always pay the bills.

The example her mother has been able to provide of both strength and vulnerability also has made a difference in the person Joanna is becoming.

“[My mother] isn’t brass or hard in any way, and it is precisely her compassionate nature that has made her ministry so effective,” she says. “Yet she has always been very comfortable with communicating her ideas to any audience. She has helped me develop a voice and a sense of courage.”

Uncomfortable with Confidence

While all three women are grateful for their confidence and strength as individuals, they’ve noticed not everyone is comfortable with these qualities.

“People, especially guys, are intimidated by me,” says Sarah. “I’ve been told I’m overwhelming and intense, and I imagine this is because I have strong beliefs and goals. Boys don’t take that very well.”

Sarah says she’s had to overcome the idea of being rejected, and work on not letting these reactions bother her.

Christy, a social person, also has noticed that men are sometimes intimidated by her or are caught off guard by her attitude that comes from seeing herself as their equal. When asked if this bothers her, she smiles and replies, “No. I think it’s about time. They’ve got to get over that.”

Sometimes the most difficult reactions, they say, come from those within the Christian community. A Bible study leader told Joanna’s mom a couple of years ago that Joanna was participating too much and needed to let others be involved. “He didn’t notice that many boys in the group took on a much more active role than [I did],” she says.

Joanna also remembers a conversation with a pastor about another of her passions, the poor. Knowing the issue would be addressed in a couple of weeks, she politely shared an idea about how he could reach the predominantly wealthy white audience.

“In the most patronizing way possible he said that basically I had no clue what I was talking about,” she says. “I realized, yet again, what little voice many women have, even in evangelical churches.”

Sarah can identify with this situation, as she attended a church that conveyed the belief that men were superior. “I get very emotional over the subject and find myself in tears over it because I can’t believe people would actually think this!” she says. “Sometimes I absolutely hate being female.”

Sometimes Sarah feels as though she’s trapped, not being able to find her way out of a downward spiral. And it’s hopeless to talk to people who think that men are superior, she says, because these people won’t listen to an egalitarian’s perspective.

Christy describes the difficulty in communicating biblical equality to a skeptical audience as a “frustrating place for me to be.” When she tries to explain one biblical passage, her opponent jumps to another one.

“I feel like I’m almost put in an impossible position,” she says, “of not being able to straighten out their misconceptions in a five minute conversation, which is all they want.” She’s had to learn to discern whether they are really interested in the topic or just looking for a fight.

Offering to sit down at another time and look at biblical passages has been helpful, Christy says. People have also responded when they get to know her and discover she doesn’t fit their stereotype of a liberal feminist who isn’t interested in Scripture.

“I have many friends now that I would say are on the path from the traditional view toward the egalitarian view,” she says. “I’ve found that the most effective thing has just been to drop little seeds and not try to get into an argument with them.”

Choosing Between Church and Home

The difficulty in facing opposing views in the church environment sometimes hits deeper than feelings of frustration and rejection. The women describe their struggle in wanting to follow God’s teaching, but receiving conflicting messages about how to do this.

Over the last year, Joanna faced this battle in the large, nondenominational evangelical church her family has recently started to attend. There she’s received the message that women only offer “a pretty face, a pretty voice or a pretty good plate of brownies.”

Upon a friend’s recommendation, Joanna read a popular Christian book about relationships. The book taught that women should have a subservient role in marriage. Then, Joanna’s pastor preached a persuasive message about traditional marital roles.

“I went through a really difficult time when I questioned a lot of the values that I was taught,” Joanna says. The matter became more complicated when she brought the issue up with her male and female friends, with startling results. People she had assumed felt the same as her sided with the book’s author.

In the end, the flawed logic pointed Joanna back to the understanding taught by her parents. The struggle has left its scars, however. She said the ease with which Christians accepted the inconsistent teachings made it “a struggle to keep the faith.”

Beliefs Affect Body Image

While being raised to understand equality comes with struggles, it offers surprising benefits as well. Unlike most women her age, Christy has struggled very little with body image issues, something she attributes to her upbringing.

“There are parts of my body that I am more self conscious about, but I’ve never struggled with, ‘I’m too fat,’ or ‘I’m too ugly,’” she says.

Christy believes many women struggle with their body because they aren’t encouraged to pursue what they love and instead are confined to certain roles. Within this framework, a woman’s body is often the only tool she has to gain influence or control.

The emphasis on women’s modesty in Christian circles sometimes brings shame to women for their bodies, Christy says. Because the focus is on the woman’s need to cover her body enough and ensure that men don’t struggle, it leads women to believe (consciously or subconsciously) that their bodies are bad.

“I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always known that my body is good,” Christy says. “Because I’ve been valued for every part of me, I haven’t had many struggles with that issue.”

Emerging Strong from the Journey

For Sarah, learning to be truly confident in who she is has been a difficult journey, but one she’s glad to have traveled. The process was slow, because at home she learned to stand up for herself, but at school she was torn down for her confidence.

“I had a friend who harassed me for it, and others who just gave me grief,” she says. “I struggled with who I should follow … myself or the majority of my peers.”

In high school, this conflict led Sarah to experience doubt and depression. Today though, she says she is a strong person because of it.

This was evidenced recently when her work supervisor noticed she was having a bad day and asked about it. When Sarah explained what was going on, her supervisor said, “You are a strong woman and you will get through this.”

Moments like these remind Sarah that she is thankful for her struggle, because she has gained skills and character traits that even casual acquaintances have noticed.

“I am now assertive, strong willed and opinionated (maybe a bit too much),” Sarah concludes, “but I have learned that I can love myself because God made me.”