I was always good at math. Algebra, trigonometry, and logic were my favorites. I worked on equations just for fun enjoying the way the numbers revealed themselves in such tidy order. I loved to think about the endless possibilities of intersections. It made me feel more connected to infinity to gaze at a line segment and think, "But it doesn't end there. That's just where the ink ends. The line goes on forever without end." The reality of a line as something more than anything that could be represented...the idea that the signifier is never as profound as the signified, tickled me as a child. I realize now that this pleasure was the same I feel when I play with language, but I developed my love of language and set aside my love of mathematics because I was a girl and "Girls are not good at math".
In the 9th grade, I aced my Regents math class. I either got a 100 in the class and a 99 on the state test or the other way around. I was assigned the seat in the front of the room and enjoyed my math teacher's enthusiasm and energy. The next year, by chance, I was assigned to a seat in the back of the room. I didn't know it yet, but my eyesight was getting weaker, a condition that would follow me into adulthood as I continued to engage in "close work" of study and writing. As a fifteen year old, I didn't figure out that my eyes were bad until I complained to my friend about the writing on the board and learned that she could see it just fine. My folks took me to get glasses, but the damage was done. I had fallen behind in my comprehension and enthusiasm for the material, had decided that I was a failure in math, received only a B+ (a shameful grade for me), and refused to take any more math in high school.
I'm amazed now that no one argued with my perspective. My parents knew that I preferred English and history just as they did. They probably also thought that pushing me in a subject I said I despised was unwise given the fact that I was already making myself sick and hysterical with stress. My father actually directed me to try to get only "C"s in my classes for fear that I would have some kind of break-down if I kept up my perfectionist ambitions. The guidance counselor advised me to take more math as it would be required in every subject, but did not suggest that I do so because I had any skill in the subject. I joked that if I were to become a wet nurse, I'd only need to count to two. I ignored the fact that my grandmother was always quick in mathematics. I ignored the fun I'd had with my father as he taught me algebra. I ignored everything my parents taught me about feminism, and my value as a person. I didn't want to ever risk getting another grade that might jeopardize my GPA.
Why didn't my educators encourage me by telling me that I had a gift in math? Why didn't they explain that mistakes and rough spots are part of a learning process that transcends the petty grading system? Although I had always had one of the highest mathematics grades in my class throughout school, I did not receive praise for my efforts. Boys who had lower scores than I did were "gifted." I was merely proficient. I was told that boys truly understand math even though in their boyish enthusiasm, they sometimes make more technical errors. Girls, being obedient and good at following rules, can master the technical manipulation of math facts, but are unable to truly comprehend numbers at the fundamental level. And I bought that bullshit. I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. I convinced myself that "math is hard for me." When I took the required math classes in college, I aced the courses. One of my math professors even told me that it was OK if I left the class early since he knew I already understood the concepts and was often bored with the lessons. Even then, it still did not occur to me to consider myself "good at math."! I gave up on math because I was a girl and girls don't like math. We've haven't the heads for it.
But that wasn't the most sexist thing I ever did to myself.
I discovered the most sexist thing I ever did to myself just this month. Without realizing it, I've been recording the execution of this self-imposed injustice in this blog over the past three years. I'm so entangled in it that I think I will have difficulty extricating myself from it. I will have trouble even articulating it, but I think I have to confront it. I have denied my own experiences as a spiritual person because I convinced myself that my spirituality was a mark of my inferiority as a woman.
My life has been strongly directed by my embodied sense of that Presence. I've had visions and dreams, callings, and inspirations. These feelings have run the range of intellectual inspirations to visions that have pushed me onto my knees. The exchange may be as gentle as the feeling of expansive love to the almost nauseating, trembling, sweating rush of feeling I get before I find myself speaking in meeting for worship. In dreams, visions, and divination, I find that I am able to follow a silver thread through my life that continues to wind its way back to my sense of the Source and of a mission I feel I must fulfill. Like it or not, I have a calling. I've heard it, over and over and over again my entire life.
It is embarrassing to say such things in a society such as ours. I don't wish to seem insane. And I don't wish to seem as though I'm somehow unique and specially blessed. On the contrary, I feel, very strongly, that there are a great many people who, each in their own way, feel the same as I do. My evidence is that when I write or speak of these things, I watch people closely and very often I see that it is as though a veil falls from their faces. They turn to me with some relief an tell me about their own experiences. All my life people have told me their stories-- wonderful stories, poignant and holy, about spirits, dreams, prayers, sensations, and communion with the Divine. I am not alone in this. I suspect that there are far more of us with stories to tell than will ever be heard.
But I convinced myself that it was all delusion. You see, at the end of a doctoral program spent studying the heterodox, embodied, and mystical relationships women have had with the Divine over many centuries, I went to one...just one!...conference about the history of secular humanism. I was invited to deliver a talk about nineteenth-century Spiritualism and its relationship to women's rights and the American freethought tradition. I had a great time. These folks are my allies since both they and I have great concern about the damaging effects of religious fundamentalism on the development and maintenance of human rights. My contribution was well-received, and it was a thrill to finally feel like I was playing ball with the big boys.
It was indeed a boys' club. Of the speakers, I was the only woman. In fact, I was one of the only women at the entire event. I saw very few other women in the audience. This struck me as curious. I began to wonder if there was a relationship between secular humanism (at least the variety honored at that conference) and gender that deserved exploration. Following our presentations, I got to hang out with some pretty notable people at a dinner. It was thrilling to participate in their conversations and to soak in all the brilliance and wit they cast about so easily. But so much of their brilliance and wit was directed toward castigating spiritual people. They did not discriminate. Fundamentalists, spiritualists, New Agers, Pagans, Buddhists, liberal Christians were all deluded and misguided. I had reminded them of their shared history with Spiritualist feminists, and they were willing to concede the fact, but I knew they considered people like the dissident Quaker Spiritualists, the Theosophists, Goddess women, and radical women's rights activists I discussed a footnote in a more important history of Rationalism.
As I sat there, and for months thereafter, I dissected and deconstructed their celebration of Rationalism and their confidence in the non-existence of the spiritual. I analyzed their attitudes within the context of my own research and experience and found error, inelegance, and even blatant sexism in their approach. But I let it begin to hollow me out. I let it begin to change me. My confidence began to slip.
They had not experienced anything mystical or spiritual as I had so they said that my experience and those of people like me was delusional. It was "wishful thinking." It was socially conditioned. It was emotional. It was a product of misinterpreted physical sensations. There it was. Women (and foreigners, and people of color, and children, and poor people) are deluded by our inability to fully partake in the pure, enlightened intellectual rationalism characteristic of well-educated, white men. We are too physical. Too emotional. Too raw. Too religious. Of course, some of us, adept at following the rules, are able to become proficient. But are we ever truly as gifted? Was I not, I thought, just a fraud in their presence? When would they realize that I was a country parson's daughter and laugh me right out of the building?
They accepted me in their midst as an intellectual woman only so far as I was willing to submit my intellect to their rules of engagement. But I never belonged there and they treated me as I have grown used to being treated by so many of my male colleagues. They praised me, flirted with me, and talked right over me. And afraid of being considered "shrill" and "angry", I let them. I didn't want to throw myself out of Eden so soon after gaining admittance. "Boys are gifted. Girls are good at following the rules."
My intellect, armed with ten years of graduate education in the study of the history of gynocentric and feminist spirituality sounded an alarm and encouraged me to continue researching, continue fighting. But a part of me believed them...and I could feel parts of me dying. Bit by bit, I felt my measure of my connection to That Which is Holy slipping away. Before long, I found myself rejecting any position that struck me as "emotional", or "irrational", or "religious". Whether the holder of the belief was a man or a woman, I found myself dispatching their arguments with a kind of distorted, internalized sexist demand for "proof."
I raged about it here on this blog and in other forums. I used my arsenal of research and education to protect at least the facade of my feminist spirituality. But I spent so much energy defending the facade of my structure that I failed to protect my own heart from the deadliest attack. In the end, no one else was to blame for these years I've spent edging toward spiritual despair. I attacked my own faith again and again mercilessly and even cruelly. I belittled and discounted my own experiences, and angrily deconstructed all my hopes. Why? Because some clever men made me feel inferior. And I let them.
It was my own self-loathing and contempt for myself as a woman that led me to believe it was reasonable to hold my own knowledge and lived experience in contempt. It was my own internalized sexism that told me that my experience was less valid than their lack of it.
It has made me sad to realize that I'm the one who has inflicted this wound. All the depression and anxiety, all my sense of spiritual loss and futility, all my feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness in these past two or three years were my own doing. But it also makes me feel a bit relieved to finally see that the source of this pain was my own dishonesty about what I feel, what I think, and what I believe. It took just a nudge to push me away from who I am and to whom I belong. It now seems ludicrous that I should have made this terrible mistake. For the past twenty years of my academic life, I've studied how sexism affects women's intellectual, social, religious and spiritual lives How could I let the very backbone of my feminism and of my spirituality be broken? How could I be the one who delivered the most devastating blows? "Never apologize for what you know!" said my beloved feminist theory professor. I'm sorry that I did not heed her advice.
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