By Kathy Tuan-MacLean

Women and Power (or How to Avoid Being Catty)

Don’t let male spirituality determine your spirituality.”  

The words leapt off the page as I sat in the crowd at a spiritual formation retreat for InterVarsity women staff. Julie Anderton, a spiritual director, had passed out an outline and was speaking on growing our relationship with Jesus. 

I waited with bated breath to hear what she meant, but then she skipped that point entirely! When she didn’t circle back, I raised my hand and asked her to explain.

“Oh yes! That’s the most important part!” she said, “Don’t let male spirituality determine your own spirituality.”

We all looked at her, flummoxed. Seeing our confusion, she said, “Think about it. What would most men say their biggest sins are?”

“Pride.”
“Lust.”
“Violence.”

“Would you say those are your biggest sins?” We shook our heads. “What would you say women struggle with the most?”

Pause. Then,

“Insecurity.”
“Jealousy.”
“Fear.”

“See?” We slowly nodded. “If you only think about your spiritual formation from a male point of view, you could think you’re doing great because you don’t struggle with the sins being talked about in your churches. But we woman have plenty to bring before Jesus, plenty to be set free from.”

As we prayed together afterwards, a colleague prayed, “God, please forgive me as I live in the space between pride and insecurity.”

Me too, God. Me too.

So what do women’s unique spiritual struggles have to do with how we lead? In the same way our spiritual landscape can look different from that of our brothers, our leadership temptations differ also. Women can have an uneasy relationship with power — something men traditionally have permission to pursue avidly but which women don’t. Yet we still want power, we want things to go our way, we want control, even if we can’t admit it. When we don’t acknowledge our desire for power, and the feelings — insecurity, jealousy, fear — that come with it, too often we resort to...the catty woman thing.

I hate the catty woman thing. You know, that phenomena where you realize either you’re subtly competing with a sister, girlfriend, or colleague or she’s competing with you. The underhanded cutting comment that’s too slight to confront. The gossiping and back-biting. The silent treatment. The queasiness in your gut when a female colleague gets attention or promotion or adulation. Or, when you get attention or promotion or adulation, sensing that your sister, girlfriend, or colleague isn’t that happy for you. Walking on eggshells because you sense something’s wrong but you don’t know what you did wrong. 

I hate that catty woman thing. Even though I’ve been there, done it. 

Here are some suggestions for more constructive ways to deal with our need for power:

  1. Relish that we’re created in God’s image and that makes us powerful. God’s nature includes omnipotence. As image-bearers, we have inherited power and the charge to use and steward it well for the flourishing of our world. In Genesis 1 humankind, both male and female, are commanded to have dominion, rule, and subdue creation. Whether we like it or not, we've received the gift and capacity for power. How shall we use it?
     
  2. Recognize your feelings of insecurity, jealousy, or fear. Give them to God, process with Jesus where they’re coming from, and receive yet again your identity as God’s beloved daughter with whom he’s well pleased.
     
  3. Reflect on your own relationship to power, competition, and conflict. Historically shut out of traditional male ways to exert power, women have turned to sexuality, emotional or social intelligence, and even to service to gain power or control. In other words: manipulation. Ask God to reveal how you’ve expressed your own desires for power or control and if there are ways you’ve sought power subversively and sinfully without even realizing it. 
     
  4. Repent of unhealthy patterns. Ask trusted friends to speak candidly about ways you've acted that haven’t been helpful. Confess your own unique sin patterns to God and those most impacted. Ask God to show you healthy and holy ways to express your need for power, deal with competition, and engage conflict.
     
  5. Resolve to steward the gift of power well. Jesus often calls those with power (men, Pharisees, leaders) to serve, to submit, to seek to be the least of all. Yet he calls those without power (women, children, lepers, outcasts) to join the crowd, to sit at his feet and be taught, to receive his gifts and use them for his kingdom. Ask God where you fall on the power spectrum and whether he’s calling you to step down and empower others or to step up and do some ruling and subduing. Or both. Choose to become an advocate and encourager of your sisters.

As we dwell in the space between insecurity and pride, shall we trust God with our need for power? Together, let’s embrace God’s call to steward the world he’s given us so that creation can flourish. After all, we're sisters — and Catwoman was a villain. 

About the Author

Kathy Tuan-MacLean serves as Associate Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries (GFM), supports the Boston Faculty Fellowship as its campus staff, and just celebrated her 25th year with InterVarsity. Kathy has a PhD in Human Development & Social Policy from Northwestern University. Her dissertation was on “The Interracial Friendships of White & Asian College Students,” a topic that capitalized on her passion for racial reconciliation. She’s married to Scott and has three children — one in college, the other two in high school. Her latest adventure in the blogosphere can be found at kmactuan.wordpress.com.

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