Attending a larger high school appealed to me. A chance to make new friends. Greater choice in course selection. Tougher academic standards. Teachers who encouraged achievement. More chances to apply for college scholarships. In the mid-1950s for a student to live in one rural Kansas district and attend school in another was not common. But my parents knew that graduating from the smaller school limited my choices. They met with both School Boards to get the transfer approved.

The first year flew by. Bookkeeping and shorthand were added to the academic basics. Band, instrumental and vocal ensembles, and a junior play rounded out the schedule. In the spring I searched for a summer job that utilized my new skills.

Looking to the future, at senior pre-enrollment I signed up for vocational and college prep courses and enrolled in a correspondence science class through a local college. Study became my top priority since high grades were just as important as entrance exam scores when colleges awarded scholarships. I was full of enthusiasm and hope. My future went beyond living and dying in the Pleasant Ridge community located on the highest hill between two towns. (Residents dubbed it “P” Ridge, i.e. Poverty Ridge.)

One November morning a classmate greeted me with a puzzled query: “Where were you?”

“What do you mean?,” I replied.

“We took the college entrance exams Saturday? Didn’t you know about it? Why weren’t you there?”

Broken Dreams. This was my baptism into the real world of being on the bottom. I was not included because I was the wrong gender, from the wrong social class, and with the wrong economic resources. The principal and teachers decided who should take the college entrance exams not from objective standards like grade point averages and measurable potential, but from cultural criteria.

Although this happened almost forty years ago, remembering it still hurts. In that community, in that culture, in that time there was nothing I could do to reverse the damage done to my dreams, my life. A poor female from a rural area, I was powerless. There was no recourse, no going back. But the experience helped me discover several things about discrimination, especially discrimination based on gender.

Rooted In the Fall. In many Western cultures a person can overcome prejudice based on social and financial status, but we have yet to conquer discrimination based on gender. It continues to plague the relationships of men and women in every aspect of life—the family, business, government, and, sadly, religion, the one institution we expect to call us to a higher road, a better way. Why? Why is sexism so entrenched? Because it is rooted in the Fall.

Besides setting in motion the alienation of all human beings from God and the creation, the Fall ruptured the relationship between man and woman. We can hear the pathos as God describes the disastrous, personal consequences of their action to Eve: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16, NIV). The intimacy, the oneness, the innocence is gone. Manipulation, cunning, and deceit become the order of the day. Adam and his male offspring will try to control Eve and her female descendants through the use of force and intimidation. Alienation marks their lives.

A Chameleon. From this beginning, sexism became a chameleon, taking on innumerable colors. It is explicit yet subtle, glaring yet camouflaged. Blatant examples abound: paying women less than men for identical work, refusing to grant financial credit to women, excluding people from leadership positions because they’re the wrong gender, preferring men over women in job promotions and educational opportunities.

One of my husband’s business associates is a successful insurance agent with enough income to be financially independent. Needing a new car, she went to a dealer’s showroom. After looking at several and choosing one, she started to make the financial arrangements. Bluntly, the salesman said, “Bring your husband back with you, and then we’ll talk price.” This so infuriated our friend that she left the showroom and never returned. She told my husband that she went to several dealers before finding one who was willing to sell her a car on time without her husband’s co-signature.

Other forms of sexism are more subtle: jokes about “my wife’s driving” or “my husband’s snoring,” discussions that exclude either women or men in mixed gatherings, stereotypes that assume one gender always fills certain roles, and more. Before my husband, Phil, and I got married, we agreed that we would never joke about each other’s idiosyncrasies or failings in public. Phil has been excluded from discussions about children, and I have been excluded from discussions about theology. When we started the process of home mortgage applications for our recent move to Colorado, time after time we had to clarify that I was the primary wage earner. Many people are astonished to learn that Phil cooks and cleans.

One young lady recently shared with me her experience with sexism. Her car needed fixing, so she took it to a repair shop. Her fiancé went with her, but since it wasn’t his car, he didn’t know the specifics of the problem. Yet when the woman started explaining the problem to the mechanic, he completely ignored her, speaking only to her fiancé.

Dehumanizing, Demeaning, Debilitating. Discrimination in any form says that the victim is less than human. It is death dealing and spirit breaking. I winch and hurt for a couple whenever I hear the husband referred to as “my old man” or the wife referred to as “the little lady”—or worse. The old adage that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is simply not true.

In A Reasonable Faith Tony Campolo says, “We can talk about goodness as anything that enhances the humanity of the individual and evil as anything that diminishes it.” And because our gender is so tied to who we are as persons, sexism hurts and stunts humans more than any other “ism.” It traps the oppressor in a never-ending cycle of fear of losing control over the other person. It limits the victim’s God-ordained potential by denying opportunities for growth and development. It keeps men and women in bondage to their fear and their fallenness.

But the good news is that Jesus Christ came to set us free from our biases and prejudices—racism, classism, sexism, ageism, ethnicism, ad infinitum. We are not bound by the Fall; Christ sets before us a new way, a new path where “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NRSV). In this paradigm everyone is freed from racial and ethnic discrimination. Social status loses its power to enslave. Together women and men work with God in all areas, bringing the power of the kingdom to the earth.

God does not restrict or limit us. He is in the business of empowering his children—female and male, rural and urban, old and young, dark and light and all the shades in between. And we must be about the business of helping others overcome the constraints placed upon them by culture, government, religion. If the Church ever hopes to recover credibility, it must lead the fight against discrimination in all its forms. How can the Church call for an end to classism, ageism, racism, and more when a congregation can elect a person to chair a committee that establishes guidelines for deacon ministry but cannot elect that same person to the office because of her gender?

Epilogue. Before my eighteenth birthday, I graduated as valedictorian of my class. Within fifteen months I received unexpected financial help and entered college. At the age of forty I reentered college and finished a B.A., graduating with honors. Eight years later I earned a graduate degree in Christian Ministry.

It hasn’t been easy. I continue to experience discrimination in big and small ways. I have battled it in the past, fight it in the present, and will encounter it in the future. But I will not be a victim. I persist, knowing that there will come a day when worth is measured by no other criteria than our creation in the image of God.

(Previously employed as a secretary at universities, businesses, and churches, Lynda Graybeal has worked as Richard Foster’s Administrative Associate for over twelve years. Also Administrator of Renovaré, she and Phil have two grown children and live in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.)

(from Perspective, January 1996)

Starting Soon: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? Choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

Learn more >