Being a Pastor with a Female Body
Throughout our interviews, one of the most striking and widespread aspects of women’s experiences as clergy persons was their “visibility,” compared to their male colleagues. Clergywomen’s body, clothing choices, voice, posture, and overall demeanor frequently made the object of extra-ordinary attention and more or less conscious surveillance. Women dealt with their unwanted visibility in different ways. Let’s see Andrea’s[i] reaction, for instance:
I do feel that for women clergy there's a higher expectation and a greater focus on appearance… There's a tendency for people to comment on my looks more than on [those of] my male colleagues. There might be comments about the clothes I'm wearing or how my hair is done… I've had a comment within the congregation that I'm serving that when I tend to wear my hair up, that might be considered a little more masculine looking. You know, like a bun on top of my head, instead of letting my hair be long---of course, that’s the stereotype of feminine-looking. That bun look is more severe, gives me a more severe appearance or look… And I took that to mean severe as negative. (…) Working in the office, making visits, and then, of course, leading worship, I tend to be more dressed “professional.” If it's more of a laid-back event, such as bowling with the youth, I try to do jeans and a t-shirt or whatever. But I have encountered times when I've arrived at church functions in jeans and a t-shirt, and people didn't recognize me right away… which is interesting, considering it's the same face! [laughs] (…) I guess subconsciously… I try to convey a clean appearance, “put together,” but also, um, approachable. And I do try to watch how revealing the clothing might be. If I'm going to be interacting with congregational members, I try to wear something that's more conservative… I mean, I'm not one to wear super low-cut tops anyways, or… really skimpy clothing! It does align with who I am and, but there might be a couple of tops, that I might rethink about because if I'm sitting and visiting, there are times that I sort of lean over and I'm thinking, "Okay, is this top [chuckles] gonna end up coming open a little?" [laughs] And so, that does play in the back of my mind when I'm selecting my clothing…
An uncomfortable visibility
Andrea’s strange visibility is a common feature in our female participants’ experiences. Male priests’ body, demeanor, voice tone, and clothing choices generally go unnoticed. Male invisibility is not a coincidence; instead, it is a privilege that signals men’s status as the “default”—the imaginary standard in this role. On the contrary, women’s visibility and the extraordinary amount of subtle surveillance they experience indicates that when it comes to congregational leadership, female priests are at the same time insiders and outsiders “in the world” but still not exactly “of the world.”[i] This unwanted visibility and outsider/insider status are only multiplied when gender and ministry intersect other forms of “alien” trespassing (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.).
The first and most striking aspect of Andrea’s experience is that her embodiment of the minister's role makes her unusually visible, as signaled by her church members’ comments about her hair. Their remarks are interesting because they focus primarily not on how she wears it but on how she walks the line between “masculine” and “feminine.” A “masculine” look would not be frowned upon in a man, but Andrea’s wearing her hair up—which partly conceals one of the most prominent feminine symbols, long hair—is perceived as “severe” and unpleasant. Her church members’ remarks implicitly police a stereotypical border between masculine and feminine. Wearing a vaguely masculine style is seen as a threatening hybrid. Women occupying a role traditionally embodied by men are often perceived as “space invaders” who need to camouflage their claims to authority by over-feminizing their appearance. Reaffirming traditional gender expectations—at least in outward appearance—helps women gain acceptance in an otherwise “alien” role. How should Andrea react to these comments?
The second part of Andrea’s account explores her attempt to find a “script” that can reconcile her femininity with her clergy role. This is a complex task because the female body has traditionally been perceived as foreign and even unfit to ordained ministry. Women—differently from men—lack model “scripts” that may reconcile two identities historically considered separate—being a woman and being a clergy person. Some women try to solve this conundrum by turning to popular corporate images of female power. This is very much Andrea’s case. She tries to appear “professional” and “put together,” yet “approachable.” One of the challenges for women in male-dominated professions is finding an image of female authority that may not be perceived negatively. Scholars have suggested whole repertoires of stereotypical scripts women use to either accommodate expectations or challenge them (schoolmarm, headmistress, lady, cat-woman, witch, bitch). As repeatedly emphasized by research, the construction of authority roles in masculine terms makes it difficult for female professionals to balance being seen as competent leaders and as sufficiently feminine not to be seen as breaking gender expectations.[ii] Other female priests turned to their clergy uniform—the priestly robe, or a black shirt and collar—to visibly claim and embody their role. Uniforms were simultaneously an expedient to “avoid distractions” by concealing the body and a symbol asserting authority. Yet, in our interviewees’ experiences, robes did not always work as expected. In multiple instances, they worked as a visual representation of women’s outsider status: ill-fitting, male-shaped, too long, and bulky, they could also attract negative comments (“a masquerade,” “a doll playing priest”).
Finally, the last part of Andrea’s interview focuses on a recurrent struggle in women’s attempts at reconciling their gender and their role. Andrea keeps her clothing and movements under close surveillance to avoid them being “revealing.” According to our study, the psychological and practical consequence of women’s unequal visibility is a constant work of self-monitoring, for fear that their body may become an object of unwanted sexual attention. Historically, women have been over-determined by their bodies. Their biological and sexual functions have often been used to define them, assign them to “specific” domains (sexual pleasure, reproduction), and cut them out of public relevance. Andrea’s attempts at avoiding being sexualized are at the same time an effort to escape that cage and a recognition that still, as documented by our research, women’s bodies are used to push them back into stereotypical and often degrading positions.
The way of subversion
Given our limited space, it is impossible to do justice to the many creative strategies clergywomen use every day to embody ministry in ways that reshape and stretch stereotypical expectations. In our research, more than one-third of our female interviewees showed a clear awareness of the dynamics we have just discussed and engaged in small ordinary acts of defiance to reconcile their femininity and their role. They intentionally turned their uncomfortable visibility into a platform that allowed them to deconstruct and rewire ministry in the shape of a woman’s presence. They turned their black robes into original creations, subverted traditions by wearing colorful shoes and accessories, showed up on the pulpit in their pregnant bodies, or incarnated their preaching into women’s very ordinary experiences. Many of them received some form of pushback, but they continued to subvert the “script.” As we continue our webinar conversation, two points seem particularly crucial. First, clergywomen need to be aware of the tensions underlying their attempts at reconciling being a woman and a priest in a male-shaped tradition. What “scripts” or languages are they using? Why do they choose them? Can they embody their role and authority without concealing their identity as women? Second, congregations need to be educated to understand better what makes women unusually “visible” to their eyes. Are there ways for the church to turn women’s uncomfortable “visibility” into an opportunity to learn and grow?
Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD
[i] Interview ID code: CLE036324. [i] Puwar, Nirmal. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. 1st edition. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2004, 58. [ii] Tannen, Deborah. Gender and Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.