A few Sundays ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in church with a 93-year-old Mennonite sister: a white former schoolteacher and the first woman to preach in her local congregation. Like so many other women, she had been leading from the shadows for decades when, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, her pastor asked her to speak on the role of women in the church. By this time, the feminist movement was well on its way.
After preaching in her own church, other churches asked her to come and share her message. She became a type of itinerant preacher despite never finishing seminary. She’d taken most of the classes she needed to graduate—not for a job but to feed her curiosity about the word of God and its good news for women. She’d felt there was little point in graduating since no one would hire a woman in ministry at the time.
Later that same Sunday, a grandfather from the local community stopped by my home with his 12-year-old granddaughter. He was deeply concerned about her and sought support and counsel from my husband and me. He couldn’t understand why his granddaughter had become angry, aggressive, and manipulative—sneaking out of the house late at night, not turning in her homework, and disrespecting her teachers. Nothing the family was doing in response seemed to improve her behavior.
I observed this young African American girl by his side. Looking scared and bewildered, she sat quietly and answered our questions with one- or two-word answers typical of a 12-year-old. I couldn’t reconcile what he said about her with the sweet, soft-spoken girl before me. We made a plan for her to visit with me; my husband would check in on her at school; and we’d both regularly update the grandfather. We tried to assure her she was not alone; she had allies if she chose to use us.
Since those Sunday encounters, I can’t get these two very different women—my elderly white sister and young black sister—out of my mind. Their lives are day and night, and the chances that the young black girl will live into her 90s are slim to none if something doesn’t change soon. And, if she manages to live anywhere close to that long, what stories will she tell about her life? She and her siblings are being raised by a single mother in an affordable housing complex where many share her difficult circumstances. She has never known healthy outlets, like church or youth programs. She has no idea what futures are possible for her.
Where has the women’s movement taken us? Throughout the decades, brave women such as my 93-year-old sister have courageously broken glass ceilings, opening the way for others to rise to places of empowerment. At the same time, scores of women—such as my young black sister—haven’t even glimpsed the sky. In one day, I can both celebrate and be heartbroken. Why have the gains of the women’s movement not been felt by more women? Far too many spend their precious lives in survival mode, picking their way through shards of shattered glass.
by Cyneatha Millsaps