Jump directly to the Content Jump directly to the Content

Don't Be That Woman

Culture wants to caricaturize women leaders. But God sees us in a different light.

Recently a man told me I should stop interfering.

I didn’t take it well.

Soon after that interaction, I came across a collection of anti-suffragette postcards featured on The Huffington Post. One postcard shows a room full of buck-toothed, bug-eyed women with the text: “At the suffragette meetings you can hear some plain things—and see them too!” The message: If you agree with women’s right to vote, you’re an unattractive woman.

Another postcard features the face of an anguished child, tears streaming down his face with the words: “Mummy’s a Suffragette.” Here the message is: If you’re a woman who wants the right to vote, you’re a bad mother.

A third postcard shows a shapely woman in a red dress and heels, kissing a man who seems thrown off by her passion. Underneath is written: “Suffragette vote-getting the easiest way.” In other words, if you’re a woman who is having any success as a suffragette, it’s because you’re a minx.

These troubling postcards are artifacts of a less enlightened time. I know such messages wouldn’t be tolerated today. And yet, these tactics remain in less obvious ways. Their subtlety today actually makes them more dangerous, and they continue to have real effects on women and men.

Which brings me back to my difficult interaction. When I took time to reflect on why the words “Stop interfering” caused such a strong reaction in me, I realized that I heard: “Stop being the kind of woman who is meddlesome and manipulative.” Regardless of what he was trying to communicate, I felt like I’d been caricatured.

Unfair Caricatures of Women

Our culture has created caricatures of women. And we, as women, subconsciously work very hard to create identities defined by our avoidance of them. Sometimes the caricatures are purposefully used against us to keep us in check. Sometimes the popular caricatures of women shape others’ interactions with us without them even being aware. Either way, it’s time to name them and free ourselves from the shame they often evoke.

Here are some caricatures that trigger shame in me:

1. The emotionally unstable woman

2. The illogical woman

3. The manipulative, interfering woman

3. The childish woman

4. The mannish woman

5. The promiscuous woman

6. The vacuous woman

7. The indecisive, dithering woman

8. The nagging woman

9. The ambitious woman

10. The non-maternal woman

11. The unattractive woman

12. The bad mother

Through many cultural voices, we’ve had these (and other) caricatures presented to us. The power of a caricature is that it’s totalizing: it takes one small choice or action and makes it someone’s entire identity. If a woman has a childish moment, she is forevermore “the childish woman.” It becomes who she is—how can she ever recover from it? From now on, she’s easily dismissed.

We learn what not to be over time. If, as a young girl, I hear a male teacher yell, “Who let that mouthy woman have the microphone?” I make a mental note: Don’t be the mouthy woman. If I hear an uncle say, “Make up your mind whether you’re turning! (Women drivers!)” I make a mental note: Don’t be the dithering woman. If a man in my adult life says, “Don’t lecture me, woman!” I make a mental note: Don’t be the nagging woman.

So we live our lives trying to manage others’ perceptions of us and our perceptions of ourselves, anxiously working to create an identity defined by the space left between these caricatures. It’s not a space of freedom. So, how might freedom look?

Common Ground

It has helped me to realize that men have their own triggers, although they may be harder to see. While there are certainly ways a man feels shame, I’ve yet to discover the man’s version of my list of gender-related shaming caricatures. There might be shame for being lazy or drunk, for instance, but it’s not usually understood as gender-specific. In other words, laziness and drunkenness don’t immediately assume the person is male. This makes them different from many of the caricatures that woman face.

But there is one caricature that does seem to bring a lot of shame to the men I’ve talked to: “Not a man.” The documentary, The Mask You Live In, exposes the cultural messages men hear, bombarding viewers with the taunts that bombard our boys: Stop with the tears, be cool, don’t let your woman run your life, get laid, be a man. Sadly, even the church sometimes perpetuates these lies to men. There are even honorable messages that can trigger the “Not a man” shame in men. When we stress that a real man provides for his family, what happens when he can’t provide?

A recent Religion News article entitled, “How the Christian Masculinity Movement is Ruining Men,” discusses how proponents of the Christian masculinity movement have fed into this problem. The author writes:

Church men’s ministries are awash with military-inspired, chest-thumping curricula that liken life to war and equate strength with valor. What do these depictions of manhood communicate to men who gravitate more towards the arts or classical literature instead of adventure and the great outdoors? What message do they send to those who connect more with God-as-the-great-Lover than God-as-the-ultimate-He-Man?

Finding Healing

So how do we move forward? Do we have to heal all these triggers in ourselves and rework our cultural imagination of gender before we can find freedom as women and men? It’s distressing if we believe we have to change the entire culture before we can find peace in our identity. Here are some ways I’m finding healing which I believe will also help break cultural and relational cycles:

  1. List your triggers. Think back on experiences you’ve had that have brought conflict with men. What were they trying to say? What were you hearing? What caricatures were triggered and why? Name the messages you’re inclined to hear that don’t line up with how God sees you.
  2. When these triggers occur, take time to reflect so that you can explain to the person involved: “When you speak or act in this way, I hear this message.” It may be horrifying for men to hear what they’ve inadvertently communicated and may help us find new ways of communicating. In the meantime, it’s good to name this thing that has had power over us and learn to hold it at arm’s length.
  3. Have conversations with the men in your life to share the caricatures you live by and ask them theirs. It may bring healing for you both.
  4. Take steps to press against the reactionary ways you've been avoiding caricatures. For example, I avoided wearing any jewelry the first years of my preaching ministry to avoid any concern that I might be perceived as “The Showy Woman.” So I chose to wear a pair of earrings to test that fear and learned that it didn’t make me into a caricature.

One of the most surprising and awkward ways I’m finding healing is by dancing. About a year ago, I felt prompted by God to dance—not exactly a common skill on a pastor’s job description. So, I decided to take a dance class. The first time I danced, it was purely out of obedience, and obedient dancing is not terribly graceful. As the music ended, I realized that my eyes had been squeezed shut the entire time, to avoid catching sight of my uncoordinated self in the mirror.

The more I’ve danced through the discomfort, however, the more I’ve become aware of how many caricatures nag at me: Did that clumsy move mean I’m The Unattractive Woman? Did that hip jiggle mean that I’m The Promiscuous Woman? Does my heart’s openness to the music mean I’m The Emotionally Unstable Woman? Does my joy in the dance make me The Childish Woman?

Last week as I danced, I remembered how my children danced when they were small. They weren’t concerned whether they were coordinated or attractive enough. Rather, they were full of deep joy in their freedom and exuberance. I want to believe that’s how my Father sees me. So when I went to my first dance class, I made a total fool of myself—and loved every minute.

I’m choosing to believe that God sees me as his beloved daughter, not as the caricatures we assign to women. Is it really possible that he doesn’t assess how attractive or cool or put together I am? Could it really be that there’s a place I can exist free from the way the world sees me, the shame I heap on myself? What if my Father watches me dance and simply takes joy in my joy? As I begin to see myself through his eyes, I learn I have nothing to fear from the cruel caricatures the world has for me, and I find courage to show this new self to the world.

Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.

September22, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Recent Posts

When Your Calling Is Challenged
As hardships come, you have 1 of 3 options.
What Is Calling?
Defining this “super-spiritual” word
Cultivate Your Calling in Each Stage of Life
Angie Ward discusses cultivating leadership amid ever-changing responsibilities.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
How to know whether to leave or stay in your ministry context.

Follow us


free newsletters: