Dog collars and cat calls

I’ve been wearing my collar a LOT lately.  More than I ever thought I would.  Before starting my new call, I just wasn’t a huge fan.  Granted, this was partially because I owned precisely three clerics, and that’s not gonna get you through the work week in a state of acceptable freshness.  We are a caring profession, after all.

Victoria's speechBut I started here, and aided considerably by a gift to a clergy apparel shop from the congregation I served in New Haven, I came armed with enough clerics to get me from one load of wash to the next.

And I found that if I was wearing my clerics, I needed to spend a lot less time clarifying who I was to people in my community.  Visitors who came to the church looking for the pastor didn’t need to ask me where he was.  I could meet unfamiliar colleagues in local coffee shops without needing to wear a rose in my lapel.   I could walk around my neighborhood and smile at people and engage them in conversation without coming across as a slightly unhinged but very friendly out-of-towner  (we save that for once they get to know me).  The clergy collar covered the introduction.

I get to exude friendliness wherever I go without having to worry about people guessing at my motivation.  I work out of a cafe once a week mostly for the purpose of being a welcoming religious presence in my local community’s public areas.  I love the opportunity to meet people in my collar, and as a bonus, I know where the best local sweet potato pie is.

Today I was walking the dog.  I usually walk the dog when I get home from the office, while I’m still wearing my collar.  I smile at the people in my neighborhood like I smile at people in the cafe and in the community.

Today I smiled cheerfully, and briefly, as my walk brought me past a line of cars backed up at a stop sign.  I saw the people in one car smile back.

I passed them, and heard a male voice yell from behind me, “HOW YOU DOIN’?”

I wasn’t wearing my collar.  I hadn’t realized it until that moment.

It was like having a bucket of cold water thrown on me.  I had gotten so used to having my religious vocation be the first thing people noticed about me.  I had gotten so used to being seen as a pastor first and a woman second.  I had gotten into the habit of expecting to be met with respect, even if sometimes the respect was mixed with curiosity.

In fact, I hadn’t been objectified by a man shouting at me from a car since I started wearing my collar most of the time.

I felt the blood rush to my face as waves of emotion hit: embarrassment, anger, confusion, guilt.

“That respect I got used to–is that how men feel all the time?”

“I can’t believed I smiled at that car.  Now those guys think I wanted this.”

“How could anyone mistake cat-calling for a compliment? I feel so small.”

I pretended I couldn’t hear the man’s shouts, and kept walking without looking back.

But I did.  I heard them loud and clear.

Yesterday, I followed a link to a NYTimes article about women dropping out of STEM fields because of unwanted sexual attention from their male bosses.  And I admit it: I made the terrible mistake of looking at the comments section.  “Just the NYTimes-recommended ones,” I promised myself.

I couldn’t believe what I read.  The opinion being voiced, not by just one or two of the 19 comments I read, but by most of them, was that workplaces were the place where many men in STEM fields met their spouse, and therefore, this criticism of male supervisors hitting on their students, interns, and new employees, was just plain objectionable.  “Where else are scientists supposed to meet each other?” asked one commentor.

Totally skipping over the work-life balance issues inherent in that question, let me point out that this worldview presumes that women’s sexual availability in the workplace is more important than their professional contributions.  No one was asking, “How are we going to cure cancer when some of the brightest, most capable members of our field are leaving because of unwanted sexual attention?”

I’m privileged (in every sense) to be a member of the clergy, where my vocation usually trumps my gender.  But I also belong to a gender that still has a long way to go to be afforded equal space in the world.  And I get regular reminders of that reality.

But in spite of those reminders, I get to be who I am, as hard as I can, in Jesus’ name, knowing that my six-year-old nephew will grow up believing that it’s totally normal for women to be pastors.  I pray that that reality, that once-unthinkable juxtaposition of gender and profession, chips away at the legacy of entitlement left behind, the one that will try and teach him that it’s OK to cat-call women, that treating them as desirable objects is really a compliment, that women’s sexual appeal trumps their human dignity, and their sexual availability is more important than their professional ability.

My nephew is growing up in a world where it’s increasingly normal for women to be doctors, professors, computer analysts, presidents, CEOs, superheroes, helicopter pilots,tornado chasers, and Power Rangers (because you have to meet the 6-year-olds where they are, after all).  It’s a world that’s far from perfect–but by being true to where we are called, maybe we’re making it a little better every day.


3 Replies to “Dog collars and cat calls”

  1. Victoria, I’m so sorry this happened to you. As a male, I find this type of activity bewildering and disturbing, to put it kindly. It’s also a good reminder to me that just because I don’t do certain activities doesn’t mean they don’t happen, and happen an awful lot.

  2. Matt summed it up pretty well. How telling of our culture and sexism that the one day you didn’t wear the collar, you were treated as an object of sexual desire. It’s soul-crushing to hear your story–I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live it.

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