Write Like Everything is at Stake: A Response to ‘The Pen is Mightier’ by Sarah Sentilles

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be truthful, gentle, and fearless.”

It’s no secret i have a great intellectual love affair with the writings of the Mahatma. Plastered on the cover of my notebooks are curlicued, hand-scripted quotes from his prolific works, laboriously detailed with ink and marker when preparing my school supplies for the semester. My study and subsequent commitment to a life led in nonviolent practice began with a sophomore English class study of Mahatma Gandhi’s life.

I don’t pretend the man was flawless, but i treasure his words. I treasure these words most when i am writing. Often i stare at the flickering cursor on a half-filled screen, repeating a mantra to myself: be truthful. be gentle. be fearless. Be unbridled by the possibility of failure. Be unafraid of honesty. Be loving. Be kind. Be fearless.

But sometimes, i’m not truthful enough with myself. I fret over participles, furrow my brow over clumsy phrasing – worrying my work will never be satisfactory enough. My stomach churns and i turn instead to making cups of tea or re-organizing the bookshelf. Tangible tasks that enable me to see an end. Clean, unperturbed by the messy process of discernment and requiring little courage. Sometimes the task of writing even a small term paper seems daunting, because i fear my own inadequacy will rob my ideas of their merit.

And yet, writing is an addiction. Writing for me is more than an academic requirement; it is a passion manifested in leather-bound journals tucked in all years of my life, photos infused with words scattered to the four winds of the internet. The torturous stomach clenching and tea-making is a ritual i thrust myself through in unending cycles of crumpled paper and tossed-out ideas, for no simpler reason than writing is what my life depends on. The way to make sense of a half-filled cup emptied by my Earl Grey consumption. The way to cope with the millions of burning words from the authors on my bookshelves. It’s a religion, it’s a way of coping with and being religious. It’s my sacrifice and my offering.

Though i do not know the path my life from hence will take, i am certain writing is central to the journey.

But the fact remains: women writers face an inordinate amount of sexism, bigotry, and misogyny in the publishing world. And women who write within religious spheres face a double-scrutiny of secular and sacred sexism. I recently stumbled across a brilliant piece by Sarah Sentilles on the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin entitled “The Pen is Mightier: Sexist Responses to Women Writing About Religion” (thanks to a tweet by my friend Erin Lane). I highly encourage you all to read the entire piece. In it, Dr. Sentilles articulates her frustration with sexist reviews of her most recent work, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story. She uses this personal example to engage in a critical conversation with the scope of sexism women writers have faced and continue to cope with:

“Unfortunately, this distrust of women’s words and the assumption that women do not know what they are talking about, no matter what their credentials or expertise or experience, are widespread in the literary establishment (though they are often coded as ‘reasoned critiques’). “

This distrust of the validity of women’s words isn’t news to me; i’ve been working to live into my feminist consciousness actively since that same sophomore English class in high school. I work for both the on-campus Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Center as well as for Women’s Voices Worldwide, a nonprofit that empowers women to use their voices most effectively within all spheres of communication, with particular attention to the double-standards women in public speaking face. My focus within my religion major is on gender and sexuality. My copy of Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father is a highlighter and post-it note war zone.

But more than all of these put together, i have to defend my arguments and theological ideas daily by virtue of my gender. I claim saying “mankind” excludes me based on my sex, and somehow i’m whining or “overthinking it.”If i speak with too much authority, i’m pushy or aggressive. If i’m meek or apologetic in my tone, my opinion is overlooked.

Despite my sometimes crippling self-doubt or imposter syndrome, i refuse to be too afraid to not say anything at all. I will not apologize for speaking my mind. This doesn’t make me perfect, or always right, or better than anyone else. It means i refuse to buy into the idea that i should sit tight and hope for the world to change all on its own. But, as one of my favorite feminist authors Audre Lorde, once wrote in her essay “Uses of the Erotic,” women so empowered are dangerous. The threats against us magnify when we refuse to comply with sexist standards.

Writing and speaking out when we are told we aren’t good enough to is the exact reason we should keep talking. Dr. Sentilles articulates that:

“Those who have written from the margins—feminist and womanist and liberation theologians, black critical theorists, postcolonial theorists—have always recognized the need to write as if their lives depend on it, because their lives often do. Words are world-creating and world-destroying; they can be used to liberate and to enslave.”

To write can be a way to dismantle the master’s house with tools the master never wanted us to have. As quoted by Dr. Sentilles, Mary Daly wrote “[t]he liberation of language is rooted in the liberation of ourselves.” We begin our deconstruction of internalized misogyny in utilizing our voices.

But what about the days when i never get past the tea-making? When the writing sits, untampered and untouched and unpublished, because i feel like it’s senseless or pointless or wrong? I don’t claim everything i write to be publish-able or even good. We all have to slug through the suck sometimes to make a breakthrough.

I’m not convinced, though, that my personal self-doubt is a symptom exclusively of a universal writing process. This very essay is not up for any kind of major publication par to Dr. Sentilles’ works, and yet her articulation about the faceless, sexist trolling of the internet and anger at unjust critiques resonated deeply with me. The writing process may be a freeing space,

“[b]ut what happens when your words are published? What happens when they are released into a sexist world, into a patriarchal culture in which reviewers and anonymous trolls have the power to frame how your writing is received? Writing this essay has been a powerfully liberating experience for me, but it is also terrifying. I was supported as a feminist when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, but I was also disciplined for being a feminist, and I worry that I will be disciplined for writing this essay. I expect to be called whiny and strident and annoying and grating and hysterical and uninformed. I expect to be told I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

I so identify with everything she says here, from the trolls of the internet (i’ve been told i’m “too hot to be this smart” and i’ve been likened to a Nazi more times than i can count for saying patriarchy exists – because, apparently, calling out sexism as wrong is equivalent to mass genocide) to the simultaneous terror and liberation of writing. It’s almost meta, writing this, because as i do i wonder if the comments section will be filled with chastisement for talking about religion or gender.

In another portion of the article, Dr. Sentilles discusses how death threats have become normalized for women content creators on the internet. This past summer, one of my favorite vloggers, Laci Green, went offline for a few weeks because the police were investigating anonymous death threats that were sent to her accompanied by pictures of her apartment building. Laci, fortunately, is now back with a swing and fearlessly continuing to make her sex positive videos on YouTube. But the fact remains: she should never have been threatened like this in the first place.

Seeing what happened to Laci fills me with dread and hope. Dread that it happened. Hope that she persisted in putting content online despite the threats.

And ultimately, i have to chose to live in that space of hope. If i see only the bullying and violence women face, i miss the whole point of Dr. Sarah Sentilles’ article and Laci’s refusal to give up her online career. Right after Dr. Sentilles articulates her fear that she will be told she doesn’t know what she is talking about, she enumerates:

But I’m also hopeful that this essay will encourage people to engage in a conversation about what to do next, about how to respond concretely to sexism in the literary world—and to the sexism in our syllabi and on our reading lists for general exams, in the language of our liturgies and in the leadership structures of our communities and churches and synagogues and mosques. Because, really, when it comes right down to it, there isn’t much to argue with here. I am simply sharing data, stating facts. Facts that aren’t new. Facts that have been stated and restated for decades, for centuries.

I especially love the facet of conversation in responding to the sexism women writers (and content creators) face. In fact, it was this very prompting for a conversation that made me sit down and write this. I’m be-lieving i have something, as a young feminist and aspiring theologian, to contribute to this conversation. I’m choosing to not buy into imposter syndrome today.

Dr. Sentilles’ whole essay engages in the history of women writers, from Mary Ann Evans (a.k.a George Eliot) to today. Women have been coping with these double-standards in speaking and writing for as long as people have had voices, and the time has come for this conversation to radically grapple with the subtleties of such prejudice. For women who write about religion in particular, this has to occur in places wherein our faiths hinge: sacred spaces. Sacred places of worship, sacred places of conversation.

For, the fact remains: the work of feminism is not done. And, frankly, i don’t think there will be a time in my life when i look around and say “this is it, we’ve reached equilibrium.” But that is all the more reason to continue to try. To continue to write letters to the editors of magazines where reviewers use sexist language or the authorial staff is predominantly cisgendered men. To continue to engage in uncomfortable dialogue. And this means incorporating male-identified allies. It means educating ourselves and others in this transformative process. It means being in sisterhood with one another, in engaging critically with women writers and supporting one another as creative be-ings in a complicated world.

I think, for me, it means taking to heart the words scrawled on my Intro to Islam binder: “Be truthful, gentle, and fearless.”

Be truthful: expose the sexism, especially where it hurts. Be gentle: love yourself, even on the days when the critics are going for the jugular or the words just won’t come. Be fearless: write like everything is at stake, fierce in conviction.

best thing: work & the internship.

current jam: ‘shake it out’ florence + the machine

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4 thoughts on “Write Like Everything is at Stake: A Response to ‘The Pen is Mightier’ by Sarah Sentilles

  1. Sarah Sentilles says:

    This is beautiful!! Thank you for writing it — and for all the important work, wrestling, and writing you are doing. Keep fighting! Keep writing! (I also love that there is something called the “Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Center” at your school. Um, awesome.) You might consider writing a shorter version of this to send as a letter to the editor to the Harvard Divinity Bulletin in response to my essay: bulletin@hds.harvard.edu

    I think they would be interested in what you have to say.

    Many thanks,
    Sarah

    P.S. I also love “Shake It Out”!

    • lizzie mcmizzie says:

      Thank you Dr. Sentilles! Your kind words are the best gift in response to writing this (and mutual love for Florence + the Machine)! I’ll definitely trim this down and re-format it as a letter to the editor! You are such an inspiration 🙂

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