The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘inspire change’. That’s exactly what Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, is doing in working with Getty Images to produce the Lean In Collection, a library of images dedicated to empowering women.
Sandberg kicked off the project after becoming frustrated at the limited ways Getty Images portrayed women in business. Searching this vast picture library using the phrase ‘business woman’, for example, produced a selection of sexualised photos of women portraying them as office flirts: in mini skirts, high heels and low-cut tops. And when you entered ‘business meeting’ as a search term, the available images overwhelmingly showed men at the helm, while women were presented as passively observing proceedings.
Since a multitude of advertisers, magazines, websites, and other media outlets draw their images of women from picture libraries like Getty, Sandberg was concerned that girls and women were getting a skewed picture of who women were and what they could do. She recognised, implicitly, that the images we see around us every day go on to construct our ideas of the world and what’s possible within it.
“You can’t be what you can’t see, so if women and girls are not seeing images of powerful women and girls who are leaders, then they may not aspire to become that,” said Jessica Bennett, contributing editor at LeanIn.org.
What if Sandberg were to conduct a similar audit of the available ‘images’ of women in Christianity—looking not to Getty’s picture library but to the wealth of images thrown up by 2,000 years of Church history? In anticipation of where your imagination might go … yikes!
Because while the catalogue in your mind’s eye would probably feature images of nuns, or an angelic looking Mary holding the baby Jesus, there’s equal chance you’d call up pictures of women, indefatigably cheerful, in the face of serving up endless morning teas and potluck lunches.
Mostly, it feels like powerful women don’t get much of a look in at all. No wonder Dan Brown’s potboiler The Da Vinci Code flew off shelves of bookstores a decade ago: it confirmed every sneaking suspicion that the male-dominated Church was intent on suppressing women.
And yet how different this is to the early years of Christianity. We’ve written about that recently in this column, but one thing in particular is worth repeating: ancient critics of Christianity dismissed the faith as a religion of ‘women, children, and slaves’.
Today, such a charge would be the highest compliment. We live in a world that celebrates difference and dedicates itself to honouring the experience of the ‘other’—those marginalised by powerful interests.
By modern standards, early Christianity was the most progressive outfit on offer—which is probably quite a shock to our sensibilities today. You can spot Christianity’s radical nature in the bible verse that New Testament Scholar Ben Witherington III refers to the ‘Magna Carta of Christian freedom’: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The ancient world was highly stratified. You were born into your station in life with little possibility of social mobility. But the idea in this Bible verse is that if you were part of the Christian community, your positioning in society was no longer the final word about you. In an ultimate sense, your social status no longer applied.
As a result, previously skewed dynamics of power between men and women were, though not entirely equalised, far more on a par with each other than they could have expected to have been at such a time. No wonder women of the 1st century flocked to the faith. It provided them with an image of wholeness that was nowhere else available to them.
That vision of flourishing has gone on to inspire change in the lives of women for thousands of years. Of course, there’s much left to be done, and the record of the church when it comes to women leaves a lot to be desired. This is why International Women’s Day should be championed by people everywhere, and not least of all by Christians. After all, its founder thought of empowering women and other minorities first. He was, perhaps, a bit of a feminist?