If you’ve ever spent any time on an elementary school playground, you may have heard this universal truth: Girls rule, and boys drool. Okay, so it’s not a universal truth. But it is something that confident third-grade girls sometimes say to third-grade boys. I may have even said it a time or two myself.
The battle of the sexes—who is smarter? Who is better?—has probably been playing out in some form ever since our first bad decision in the Garden of Eden. Who’s fault was it, anyway? Yes, Eve listened to the snake, but then Adam was no pillar of virtue when he blamed the whole thing on her. God wasn’t pleased with either one of them—not simply because they’d made a bad choice, but because they’d tried to hide it, which betrayed their lack of trust in their loving Creator.
Some of us here this morning may remember the battle of the sexes that played out on the tennis court between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs back in 1973. (I think it’s interesting that as I was writing this I had to go back and look up his name—I certainly remembered her, but he hadn’t made the cut in my mental history book.) I remember that showdown vividly—I was 12 years old, and we’d just gotten our first color television set. I remember feeling outraged by Bobby Riggs’ ego and his arrogant comments. And of course, being a girl myself, I wanted Billie Jean to win. The afternoon of the big event, I—along with 90 million other viewers–positioned myself on the floor, just a couple of feet in front of the television, so I wouldn’t miss a single serve or return. I can still hear the squeak of their shoes, as I rooted for the victory of my sex.
In the years since then, the battle of the sexes has become more than something played up in the media for entertainment value. With the rise of feminism, we began to view the capabilities and freedoms of women in a new way. Gender roles—man as breadwinner and woman as homemaker—became more of a personal choice than a societal expectation. Soon we were talking about—and expecting—equality at home, at school, at work, and in life.
Friends have been ahead of the curve on this for hundreds of years, welcoming from our earliest times women as ministers and souls through which spirit could, would, and did speak. Women were an important part of the Valiant Sixty—the first group of Friends that traveled in George Fox’s time to take the message of truth to other children of the light. And Margaret Fox—who was inspired by Fox and later married him after the death of her husband, Judge Fell—is today considered the mother of Quakerism.
The idea of equality arose directly from our belief that there is truly “that of God in everyone” and that spirit is able to minister through any and all, no matter what age, gender, ethnicity, life circumstance, or role. As Friends influence began to appear in important social concerns—like education, prison reform, and care for the mentally ill—Quaker women were welcomed and respected and taken seriously as change agents, prophets of truth, and bringers of light.
My message today was inspired by the fact that August 1st was Maria Mitchell’s birthday. She was the very first acknowledged female astronomer, born in 1818 on the island of Nantucket. The Wikipedia entry for Maria says she was, “born into a community unusual for its time in regard to equality for women. Her parents, like other Quakers, valued education and insisted on giving her the same quality of education that boys received. One of the tenets of the Quaker religion was intellectual equality between the sexes.”
Maria got her interest in the stars from her father, a schoolteacher and one-time principal, who was also an avid amateur astronomer. He saw the stars as physical evidence of God in the natural world. When Maria was 12, she and her father forecasted the precise moment of an annular eclipse, which is the moment when the Sun and Moon are exactly in line with the earth. That must have been a pretty remarkable thing for a 12-year-old in 1830.
Five years later in 1835, when she was 17 years old, Maria would go on to open her own school and defy the social norm of desegregation by allowing children of all races to attend. Later she would take a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Athenaeum, where she would stay for two decades. It was on October 1, 1847 at 10:30pm that she discovered a new comet—which would come to be known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”—and that took her to Denmark to be awarded a medal by King Christian VIII. The medal was inscribed with a Latin quote from Virgil. Translated, it read, “Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars.”
So Maria had achieved her own star status, but she was just getting started. By the time she neared the end of her life, she not only was the first American to identify a new comet, but she was the first woman appointed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the first woman to earn an advanced degree, the first female faculty member at Vassar College, and the first female astronomy professor in American history. She also worked with anti-slavery activists and her friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to lift the cause of equality for all. Late in life, in a profile NASA recorded about her, she said, “We should not look at the stars as bright spots only [but] try to take in the vastness of the universe,” because “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.”
As I read these stories of Maria’s life, I was amazed by the gifts she had and the things she accomplished. The light shined through her life to bring new ideas, new opportunities, new justice to the world, perhaps all because she was born into a Quaker family that encouraged her to use to her utmost the abilities of her mind and heart and soul. How many other Maria Mitchells were born that year who were never seen as intellectual equals, who were instead constrained by the social customs of the day, and expected to keep their eyes and their minds off the stars?
In our Old Testament reading today, we heard two different stories of creation, offered side by side through different lenses. The version we hear first, in Genesis 1:27—speaks of equality: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” But then we flip over to the second chapter of Genesis and we hear a grittier version, in which God created Adam from the dust. God then notices that man is alone, so he creates animals and birds, but, the scripture says, “for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.”
So God puts Adam to sleep and creates Eve from one of Adam’s very own ribs. Richard Foster says in my commentary that the term translated here as partner literally means “one corresponding to.” He adds, “There is not the slightest hint of subordination in the term, and it is wrong and a tragedy that is has often been used in that way.”
But the problem in the second version of creation as I see it is that God’s intention here was to do something for Adam. Adam was lonely and God was trying to fix that. So Eve was created to be a partner for Adam. This doesn’t give Eve the same solid reason for existing that Adam had. Earlier in Chapter 2, in verse 7, we learned that God formed man from the dust of the ground, “and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.” God shared his very own breath with Adam. We don’t hear this about Eve. It’s just because of Adam’s rib she is formed and has life, and then God brings her, it says, to Adam.
You can see the problem here. In the first story, we’re equals, created in the image and likeness of God. In the second story, we’re cause and effect, problem and solution, first- and second-order of creation. The idea of subordination lives in this story no matter how you look at it. For centuries, the Christian church held up a model of the godly family with the male in the superior role.
It’s always curious to me when I find places in scripture where stories are repeated, or told in different ways in different spots. Theologians have their theories about why this is so. In the Genesis story, they believe the second account was actually written first—probably in the first century—and the account in Genesis 1:27 was added much later by a different author.
But this thought occurred to me as I studied these passages. Maybe it’s also possible that the different accounts of creation are actually telling different stories. The first account in Genesis is describing the way we, as spiritual beings, had our start in God as our source. In spirit, we are made in God’s image and likeness. We Friends find that a pretty easy statement to accept. Perhaps the second, messier story is about the physical creation–how our spirits came to dwell in these heavy, clay-based bodies—how spirit took on the life of matter, becoming a participant, for better and for worse, in the cycles of the natural world.
This offers us a kind of bridge between spiritual and material world views: In truth, in spirit, we are equals. This is what Maria’s family knew and lived. But as we see around us, in our everyday material world, the battle of the sexes rages on. Eve still trying to convince Adam that she—and rightfully so—is also animated by the breath of God. She has her own existence with her own value; she wasn’t created simply to fulfil his need for companionship.
In our New Testament story today—one of my favorites—we hear of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well. At the outset of this story, we learn that the Pharisees are asking all sorts of questions about the number of people Jesus has been baptizing. They are trying to gauge his success. They want to know his poll percentages. Jesus, weary of that, leaves and goes to sit by the well of Jacob. He’s tired and dusty and he asks the Samaritan woman to draw him some water from the well.
His request breaks open a social norm—Jewish men don’t speak to Samaritan women—and Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common, so his receiving water from her is another taboo. But this reaching beyond convention opens up an intimate, honest dialog in which Jesus tells her many truths about her life. Ultimately, he says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
At that moment, Jesus takes us all the way back to Genesis 1:27, when God, who is spirit, created us, male and female, in his own image and likeness. The hour is coming and is now here when we do our best, day by day, to live out the spiritual principles that shine God’s light into the world: equality, mercy, compassion, justice, truth, life, forgiveness, and love.
Thanks to the wise and tender spirit of George Fox and other early Friends, today we know well the life of the spirit. We live our faith from the inside out, bridging that gap between the spiritual and the material world, starting with the glimmer of inner Light that is shared by all of God’s children. This makes us equals—in the home, in the classroom, in the boardroom, and on the tennis court. And if we forget that and get caught up once again in the battle of the sexes, we need only to take a breath, quiet our minds, and turn toward spirit, trusting God to do the rest.
Thank you, Friends.