Standing in my office, out of his sight line, I think I was as stunned as the person to whom he was speaking. I moved closer, hoping to hear what I thought certainly I’d misheard.
“I speak for Mother Laurie.”
A woman had asked a question of an older man in the church, a simple one at that, one that did not require the addition of my name for a complete answer.
But yes, he repeated himself.
“I speak for Mother Laurie.”
Maybe in that moment I should have stepped out of the shadows and spoken for myself, but I didn’t. But I did find a chair and sit down, shaken by what I’d heard.
Because what I’d heard was not simply a man stepping well over his authority. It was - again - a man silencing me, a woman. Over the next days, weeks, months - and even years later, I’m still unsettled by the memory, the realization that one spoken declaration of entitlement slashed at the dignity of me as a woman, dismissed my leadership as a priest, and reduced me to nothing more than a girl for whom he felt authorized to speak without any authorization other than his own.
I, apparently, did not need a voice. He would speak for me. I wondered, did I need thoughts and opinions, or would he would provide them, as well? Why did he think this was an appropriate assertion to make?
When I’ve shared this account with other women clergy, they almost all draw a sharp breath. They, too, have known how effortlessly our leadership, our experiences, our very voices, are silenced by others in the church, often by men. Sometimes this silencing is probably unintentional. Other times it is well-calculated. Intention, however, rarely matters when we remove the voice of another by our actions or inactions.
Speaking for others is almost always an act that leads to damage. We can speak our truths. We can even speak of our experience with others, but we must be very, very careful when speaking for others. Too often, we speak not for others, but for what we think others would say - which is almost never as rich and complex and true as someone sharing her own story. We speak for them to create responses to what we presume they will say that demand little sacrifice of us and almost no discomfort for us.
Even when we have been clearly empowered to speak for another by the person’s implicit and direct communication, we must to do so judiciously and cautiously. And we must do so with the deep humility that however empathetic and aware we may be, we cannot fully understand the life experienced by another, especially the life wounded by discrimination, oppression, and hate.
When we decide on our own to speak on behalf of others who likely have very different experiences than us, we implicitly communicate we aren’t really interested in an authentic viewpoint; instead we are interested in our editorial comment on their experiences. When I hear the line echo in my soul, “I speak for Mother Laurie,” I hear words that have silenced women for eons.
Women, after all, have had commissions, committees, courts, task forces, and panels made up of entirely or mostly men called together to discuss the role of women in the church, in the business world, in society, in all the places we are. Men have spoken for us for centuries. Our voices have not mattered or carried as much weight because we were, after all, women.
I’ve heard women make an observation in a meeting to no response, only to have a man make the same observation moments later to resounding, “What a great insight!” I’ve heard women who used their voices to speak truth to power told they were shrill or bitchy or bossy. When women are angry at injustice and at the sexism we face daily, we are often told to smile, to play nice, or asked if it’s that time of the month.
For eons our voices were not heard and were diminished. Mary Magdalene’s proclamation of, “He is risen!” was diminished with, “Yes, but she was a prostitute and possessed by demons and not one of the 12 and a…woman.”
Stop speaking for us. Let women speak. Give us space to tell our truths and believe these are our experiences and hear us. What we say about our experiences may be uncomfortable to hear. We sound angry because we are angry. After all, the church and its centuries of male domination have not been kind to women…or anyone who fell outside the narrow lines of power and authority.
Quite ironic for a community who confesses the faith of Christ, who preferred the company of those who fell outside the narrow lines of power and authority, and who talked with and listened to women.
Stop speaking to silence others and start speaking to empower others - all the others (and, in some way, we are all called to give voice to our otherness, to the labels and roles we have been given by society that have silenced our voices). Stop speaking to dismiss others and start speaking to demand the voices of those who have been silenced be heard and heard and heard again until their voices move us all to action.
Start asking others their stories and listen. Start being aware of the messages we send when we presume to speak for others. Start honoring the voices of all the children of God.
Start saying, “No, I don’t speak for her. She speaks for herself.”
Racing from the corners of my memories is the amazing moment of clarity I had some years ago. I was eagerly anticipating attending the pre-summit to Willow Creek's leadership summit that was exclusively for women. I remember sharing my plans to attend with our Sr. Pastor who responded with, "I wish I could go and hear what they have to say." I didn't even think before I responded by saying, "... because it wouldn't be enough for me to report back to you what I learned by attending this?" His response was a telling, "Humph..." I caught him in his ignorance, and rather than admit it and come to terms with it, he walked away. And we never did have a conversation about women in leadership again...