On Growing up Conservative and Female in the South

When I think about my life and the things that are most important I automatically want to begin with my family, especially my sisters and brothers. I am the oldest of four (now five) children and I feel that my place as the eldest child has had a great impact on my personality, causing me to be mature and well organized from a young age. Additionally, I attribute much of my maternal characteristics to the fact that I helped my mother with my siblings as a child. My mom’s reliance upon me for help made me feel older than I was, and important.  I liked feeling needed and I liked knowing that she could depend on me. This responsibility for my siblings made me feel good about myself, and I think that much of my personality and self-worth is wrapped up in my status as the oldest child. However, this responsibility to care for my siblings was beyond my years and had negative effects on me as an adult, namely anger, anxiety and guilt. From an early age I rejected the Victorian model of marriage and gender dynamics that was presented to me. I did not like that my dad seemed to expect my mom to take care of everything in the “domestic sphere”, which then required me to help her. Throughout my childhood, and even as an adult, I have watched my mom suffer and lose herself in the task of being the perfect Christian wife and mother. What I saw was an overwhelmed person trapped within a system that demanded she abandon all individuality in deference to the needs of her husband and children.  As much as I want a family of my own someday, I do not want to follow in the footsteps of my parents.

In church, within my family, and in my small southern town, this was the example I was given of how a women should act and what a good Christian woman should want for her life. To me, it looked like being a woman meant sacrificing your life for others. My awareness of the societal and cultural pressures that my mother was under, as well as the lack of opportunities she had had while growing up, gave me a great deal of empathy for her. However, it also made me increasingly skeptical of the institutions of marriage and organized religion. I knew that I wanted to attain something different for my life and I worked towards that alternative lifestyle through my academic pursuits and resistance to convention. My first semester of college held a lot of ideological changes for me, and I was happy to be in an environment that encouraged me to explore my doubts, rather than suppress them.  My academic interests in religious studies are inextricably linked to my conservative Christian upbringing, and in many ways a corrective to it. 

In college I was able to begin unpacking the religious and cultural legacy of the Bible through exposure to the historical milieu of the text and its authors. It was immensely helpful for me to learn about the historical, cultural, and geographical context of the Bible. It was stunning to discover that the text was penned by men, coming from privileged socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, and how this particular vantage point shaped the narrative content of the text.  This knowledge unlocked the text for me, making it open to interpretation and modern application. I was particularly struck by the position of women in the ancient Near East, and their lack of agency within this patriarchal society. For example, women, during the time that the Hebrew Bible was being written and compiled, were considered the property of their fathers, and then, at marriage, became the property of their husbands. They had little power or agency outside of the home. This ancient reality is infuriating to me, because I can still see the vestiges of this ancient patriarchal system in our modern lives; where we have legislation that continues to try to control women’s bodies, and professional environments that pay women less for equal work. We live in a time where women have more agency than ever before, yet we still cling to convention and utilize the biblical text as a means by which to legitimate patriarchy and the subjugation of women.  

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to attain an education, which afforded me the time and space I needed to ask difficult questions and to push back against the cultural norms that I disagreed with and within which I felt trapped. I was and still am deeply affected by my religious upbringing. But, over the years I have been able to channel those negative experiences into a source of strength and resilience. My experiences as a child and young adult make me want to continue to ask questions, examine the biblical text from an interdisciplinary and critical lens, and to function as an agent of change in my environment.  I believe that we can glean timeless lessons from the Bible, but that in order to do so; we must first understand the historical milieu from which it arose.  If we ever hope to apply the text to our modern lives in a progressive, inclusive and dynamic way, we must first understand its historical and cultural context.  

-Elizabeth Siegelman