A few months ago, my class read Ain’t I A Woman, a speech that Sojourner Truth gave at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron Ohio. She spoke during an incredibly pivotal season in American history: the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the dying years of American chattel slavery, the birth of first wave feminism, and the height of Victorian ideology.
We all know the picture that the Victorian stereotype paints: a beautiful, virtuous woman, the pinnacle of decorum and purity. And Sojourner used the picture to her advantage:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Her point is crystal clear: these Victorian standards of womanhood only applied to certain women in 1851.
One hundred and fifty years later, many of those same Victorian stereotypes occupy precious space in some quarters of evangelicalism, in spite of their history of barring certain kinds of women from participating in their full expression.
Purity Rings & Purity Talks
My parents gave me my purity ring when I was twelve.
Now, this was 2002. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was five years old. Purity balls were in full swing, and my parents were black Christians in their mid-thirties who had just started homeschooling the year before.
I grew up in a household where sex was far from taboo. Both of my parents made sure I knew that it was safe to ask them anything, and had enough kitchen makeout sessions to assure us that their sex life was healthy (so gross in the best way).
Blessedly, I didn’t have a conversation about giving away pieces of my heart or plucking petals from my rose. In fact, the ring was given with very little pomp and circumstance.
Black Girl & Purity Culture
However, as I grew older, my slice of Christian subculture began to add to that teaching.
A different picture took shape: sexuality was a dangerous tool that a woman should only wield in marriage. A good Christian girl saved her virginity, not out of obedience to God, but as a special gift for her husband on her wedding night. In gratitude for this gift, she would be promised a perfect sex life, and a husband who never strayed as long as she was putting out.
Her dignity was earned through her chastity, and lost through her lack thereof.
I wish I were exaggerating, but some of you have read the material that made its way into my life. And my parents, just happy that I was interested in learning more about how to live a life that was pleasing to God (and never ones to ban books), didn’t give too much thought to books with beautiful maidens on their covers.
Almost without exception, the authors of these diatribes — like the pure maidens on their book covers — were white.
Majorities and Minorities
And why shouldn’t they be white?
My dad had been pastoring in majority-white churches my entire life. Between my suburban upbringing, my homeschool education, and my Reformed context, I was used to being the only black person in the room. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as black people aren’t being barred from the room. And of course, they weren’t, because I was there.
But I wasn’t really in there. I always felt a bit other, particularly when people would make comments about how hard it would be for me to find a white husband who “wouldn’t mind” marrying a black woman, or what an exceptional prospect I was “for a black woman.” One of the first guys I ever liked told me he’d “always wanted to know what it would be like to kiss a black girl,” (among other things) as though the experience were one to be crossed off a bucket list.
For me, dignity must be won, not only through my chastity but also in spite of the fact that I was black.
These comments were more than a string of unrelated awkward conversations. But I learned to stuff them down because, as a young black woman, I was insecure about “bringing race” into conversations.
Race was off-limits, but purity conversations and conventions were routinely encouraged.
Ironically, I’m starting to learn that the purity culture we had inherited was highly racialized. The seeds of the movement were fraught with social Darwinism masquerading as theology and assumed that sexual purity could best be exhibited by the “Anglo-Saxon race.” As it began during the Victorian era before sprouting up in my 21st-century evangelical teenhood, that shouldn’t come as a shock.
Meanwhile, in the South especially, not only were black women not seen as inherently pure and virtuous; they were also routinely abused by a system that protected their abusers.
The sexual misconduct of white men towards black women from slavery and beyond is a well-documented phenomenon. A white woman’s virtue was worth lynching a black boy in the south, even if he so much looked at her the wrong way. A black woman could be gang-raped by six white men and watch her accusers walk free. In the South, there used to be a saying that no white man wanted to die without having sex with a black woman at least once.
Fannie Lou Hamer said that “A black woman’s body was never hers alone.”
It is in the midst of these realities that our assumptions about who is pure and worthy of dignity have been shaped. Times have changed, but we are still a product of our historical context. As believers, it should not come as a shock to us that we need to take our thoughts and assumptions captive in this area, as we do with all others.
The Baby And The Bathwater
The origins and the dark side of the purity movement and the shaping of our assumptions about the ideal woman do not negate the biblical commands about purity. Those commands apply to all of us without exception, regardless of our ethnic background or American experience. I am not talking about the Word here, but a full package femininity stereotype that has more to do with our cultural assumptions than with the Bible.
When we substitute cultural stereotypes for biblical mandates, we run the risk of alienating people from both.
So often, I see my brothers and sisters in Christ refusing to acknowledge the questionable roots of certain ideologies that have made their way into the church. To speak about them is to be “divisive,” and to express concern over them, especially when they involve ethnicity, is to be “emotional,” or “bitter.” Labels are great way of dodging an uncomfortable conversation , but in throwing them out so rashly every time race/ethnicity comes up, I fear we just dig ourselves deeper into the same old pattern of elevating our cultural comfort zone over the Gospel.
Ain’t I A Woman
I’m still making sense of my upbringing in light of the color of my skin, the history of our nation, and the strength of my Christian convictions. There were things said to me that should have never been said — things done to me that should have never been done — that would not have been said and done if I hadn’t been the only black girl in the room. I’m still coming to grips with that.
But I do know that femininity is not defined by my adherence to a white Victorian stereotype, in spite of what our past cultural experiences have led us to believe. And that, regardless of my ethnicity, my value as a woman is not caught up in my virginity status, but in my creation as an image-bearer (Genesis 1:27). Further, premarital virgin or not, my righteousness comes from Christ alone.
The disclaimer is that much of this is my story, shared in the hope that it would help us to investigate and reexamine the birth of some of our priorities. It’s not an indictment on all white people or even the ones who said stupid things to me growing up (Lord knows I’ve said my fair share). They weren’t trying to hurt me, and I didn’t have the categories I needed to even articulate why they were hurting me. Nor is it an exhaustive list of everything that’s wrong with purity culture, or how purity culture impacts all different kinds of women. It’s one woman’s attempt to be honest about her experiences, in hope that we can save the next generation from the same.
I always try to put a recommended reading list at the bottom of my blog posts. However, since this is a reflection piece laden with little nuggets that I’m learning/processing (and since I’m not a historian or a hard-hitting journalist), it seems more pressing this time! If there’s anything that I’ve said about history that you’d love to learn more about, these two books and some of the other books on my January reading list are great places to start.