Women, Church and God: About a thousandish years of Christian tradition!

During the first two eras of the Christian church, spanning from the death of Christ through the end of the medieval period, women became active participants in the church and then struggled to keep that involvement possible. The first six hundred years of the church is marked by an initial force of women in leadership that is quickly replaced by stringent patriarchal gender roles. These strict gender roles, which continue today in some branches of the church, shaped the dualistic mentality of women and spirituality during the medieval period.

In the decades immediately proceeding the death of Christ, women became heavily involved in church practices, preaching, teaching and leadership. Paul’s letters frequently refer to women workers in the church with the same titles used for men. Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1) and Junia was an apostle (Rom. 16:7). Priscilla is always mentioned before her husband Aquilla (Rom.16:3). Paul commends Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis for laboring hard in the Lord (Rom. 16:6, 12). Acts 16:14 reveals Lydia, a businesswoman and home church leader. During the ministry of Jesus while on earth, he consistently supports and uplifts women, and women are the followers to continue with Jesus through his death, whereas most of the men depart.

Some of the writings by Paul about women are radical and liberating. In Galatians, he pronounces that there is neither “Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28, ESV), which is complete upheaval of the ethnocentricity of Judaism. However, some passages in his letters present a strong antagonism toward women. For example, in Titus 2:3-5, Paul commands older women to be reverent, to work in the home and to teach younger women to love their husbands and children. In Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, Barbara J. MacHaffie argues that these antagonistic passages are not original to Paul’s letters, and that Paul himself shows an ambivalence toward women and is willing to accept them as peers in leadership (MacHaffie, 14).

This is the book that I'm working with.

This is the book that I’m working with.

Despite the initial prominence of women in the church, within the next few centuries, a new generation of patriarchal church leaders known as the church fathers began to vehemently exclude women from leadership and public roles. Because of the limitations placed on women, after the immediate beginning of the church, there is a near stopgap of information about women’s involvement. The Greco-Roman culture surrounding the early church separated men into public positions of honor and women into private spheres of shame. As the Christian movement further codified into a religion, women were once again relegated into the seclusion of private life (MacHaffie, 16).

The early church fathers believed that women were more prone to sin and that their menstrual cycles associated them with the flesh and fleshly desires. They all plea for virgin lives, and though they do not completely condemn marriage, they tend to view all sexual intercourse as tainted by sin. Thus, sex for procreation was the only permissible sex in their eyes (MacHaffie, 24). Widows occupied a special position within the church during the third century. They were appointed to pray for the church and they laid hands on the sick to pray for healing. Widows were legally independent and had life experience, and sometimes wealth, making them dangerous to the established patriarchal church system, so the official designation of widow eventually dissipated (18).

Virginity was highly regarded by the church fathers, and women could choose to lead a virgin life. This spiritual discipline in women was highly persecuted, and some women who would not consent to marry or to have sex with their new husbands would be martyred for their dissent from social norm. Despite this risk, dedicated virgins gained enough levels of autonomy and admiration within the church that eventually they were cloistered into heavily secluded monasteries (MacHaffie, 25).

This veneration of virginity continued through the medieval period, where it became an obsession. Unmarried women sequestered themselves in their parents’ homes or in cloisters, anchoresses locked themselves into isolation chambers and wives negotiated sexless marriages (MacHaffie, 52-56). Along with virginity, many women also chose asceticism. Through self-starvation, women could control or completely stop their periods, lose the feminine contours of their bodies and appear more and more like men. These ascetics were frequently venerated for their ability to separate themselves from the evil, sexual nature of womanhood (57).

The middle ages saw a rise in a dualistic impression of femininity. Women were either considered to be pure and pious or to be evil and heretical, both by nature of being women. Women who chose the virgin life associated themselves with the Virgin Mary, whose mythology had been growing and exploded during the medieval period. Mary, humble and pious and forever a virgin, interceded for sinful people and pled for grace (MacHaffie, 62). A woman that was not pursuing virginity ran the risk of being labeled a witch. Witch hunts across Europe became common during the later medieval period through the mid eighteenth century, the most famous of which being the Salem Witch Trials in the young British colony of Massachusetts in the 1690s. Witches were believed to be in sexual relationships with the devil, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of children and to pronounce curses on their neighbors that would result in failed crops or miscarriages (65). Though historians believe that this conception of witchcraft was probably never practiced, the image of the witch took root in the ideology of womanhood. Though some men were accused of witchcraft, four times as many women suffered the label through to the point of execution (66).

The medieval period hosted the time of the Christian mystics, a group that was largely dominated by women. Christian mystics received visions directly from God, met with and spoke to Christ and to the saints, including Mary. They received the Eucharist from the hands of Christ himself, lambasting the authority of the church. The famous Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reconceptualizes God and the Trinity in such a way that Jesus, instead of being associated with sonship, is associated with motherhood. Christ is the mother figure who gives spiritual birth to believers and who watches over the believers on earth (MacHaffie, 71). The mystics sought to experience God authentically and powerfully. Despite the womanhood of many mystics, and perhaps because of it, the church accepted their revelations from God as authoritative. The mystics would often describe themselves in denigrating terms, in order to elevate the importance of their messages from God (73).

julian-of-norwich

Everybody’s favorite mystic!

During these first two major eras of the Christian church, women found ways to subvert patriarchal power and pursue relationships with God. Pursuing virginity and asceticism gave women the opportunity to engage in monasteries and cloisters that would provide education and training in the scriptures. At different moments, women slipped either into leadership positions or the public eye, each time eventually causing further restriction on future generations of women. In order to pursue God and religion, women suffered in denying themselves their sexual natures and by starving themselves to reduce their womanhood. The virgins and the ascetics sacrificed greatly in order to succeed in a patriarchal society.

MacHaffie, Barbara J.  Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Minneapolis, MN

A New Direction for the Spring

Welcome back, my history loving companions!  Last fall, with the help of amazing textbooks and my wonderful professor, Bethany Johnson, I took you on a blast through women in American history.  It was awesome!  I had so much fun, as I hope you did!

This semester, guided by one Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah, I will be continuing to explore women in history with a class called Women in Christian Tradition.  Starting this week, I’ll be taking you back even further through time to explore how women have been involved in one of the largest religions in the world.

Posts are going to include overviews of time periods and highlights on some amazing women, plus I might try to make some connections to the modern day church or society.

Keep checking back for more!  Updates will start coming soon!

Semester’s End, Reflections and Anticipations

Well, my Women’s History compatriots, this semester is at an end.  I read through my entire blog this morning, from start to finish, and I’m wondering where the semester has gone.  It’s probably camping out with Virginia Dare.  In all seriousness, I was struck by how much I’ve learned this semester and how much history I have explored.  This will be my 23rd post of the semester.  That’s a lot of posting for 14 weeks.

Briefly, briefly, briefly, I would like to take a quick trip through five of my favorite posts of the semester (in publication order).  See if you catch a theme!

#1. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812: I loved this book!  Reading Martha’s story and learning about midwifery has continued to crop up in the strangest places ever since I wrote this post.  I met a nurse who’s husband was a history buff, so I recommended the book as something they could read together.  I was in my church one Sunday talking about natural remedies that I learned from this book (onions, what?!).  I was in Short Story class comparing things that Martha did medically to some things that characters did in the stories.  Martha Ballard gave me a lot of knowledge that I have continued to use.  Also, Martha Ballard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and my class discussion about this book all made me start questioning modern childbirth practices.  My mom has a couple of hospital horror stories from her pregnancies that I don’t want to have.  I don’t know if I’ll have kids yet or not, but if I do, I’m seriously considering the midwife route as opposed to the hospital environment.  How you have your children is a huge decision, and without Martha Ballard, I never would have considered the options.

#2. Dear Women, Please Vote This Year: I like this post because it’s funny!  Obviously, it would be impossible for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to have voted in the 2012 election; they have been dead for a century.  But the thought game involved in writing this post — ah, that was fun.  I also hope it was entertaining.  Plus, writing this post gave me a chance to really dig into Obama’s 2012 platform and compare it to my knowledge of suffrage as a movement.  For what specific reasons would the suffragists choose Obama?  Those kinds of questions helped me to probe into Obama’s plans for the next four years.  I’ve been an Obama supporter since 2007, but I was admittedly a little complacent this year in my politics-watching.  By really digging into the platforms to write this post, I reaffirmed my connection to the Democratic party and was able to make an informed voting decision this year.  I voted with the suffragists.

#3. “Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum: Wow.  What a trip.  I think about what all of the panelists at the State of Women 2012 panel said frequently.  It mulls around in the back of my brain, Gloria Steinem pursuing emotional freedom for men and women, Michelle Bernard shouting about transvaginal probes, Connie Schultz laughing at Rush Limbaugh, Ashley Judd and the god of her understanding.  I said at the bottom of my event review that this trip to the Connecticut Forum felt like an inauguration.  Without any question, it was.  After the CT Forum, I began questioning and challenging everything in conversations with my friends and with others.  The day I met my boyfriend’s father, we delved into a massive conversation about women’s liberation and high heels.  He raised a valid question:  Why do women in positions of authority wear high heels if they are painful and detrimental to your feet?  In this conversation, I mentally tried to emulate Gloria Steinem and Ashley Judd at the Connecticut Forum.  I wanted to possess a shred of Steinem’s wisdom and Judd’s ambassadorial tone.  Finally, I thought, ah finally, I am a feminist.

#4. Sarah Hale, I Love You: I cannot possibly begin to describe how much I love Sarah Hale.  She’s wonderful.  She’s hilarious.  And I can’t use the word female at all without thinking of Sarah.  I specifically reword things to take female and male out of my conversations.  Isn’t that crazy?  I got so involved in the story of her campaign with Vassar that I saw all of the logic of her arguments and started to agree with her.  Sarah Hale has made me phenomenally more conscious of the language that I use, both in formal writing and in everyday speech.  That consciousness is important to develop, because if we continue to use inaccurate language to describe our problems, then we will never arrive at accurate solutions.  Also, even by fighting to equalize terminology, Sarah Hale was laying the groundwork for feminist literary criticism. Without Sarah Hale, there is no Luce Irigaray.  And since I love Irigaray, I love Hale.

#5. Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull: Quiverfull was a fascinating read.  It was wonderful and horrifying and brilliant all at the same time.  It felt like the capstone to my first semester pounding into women’s studies.  Mostly, Quiverfull made me feel indignant that such obvious harm is being done to women right now.  And in the Church.  Having grown up in the evangelical Protestant world, I would like to believe that the safest place for people to be people is within the arms of the Christian church.  But all too often, someone who runs to the church’s embrace soon finds themselves suffocating from its death squeeze grip of hierarchical terror.  Say it with me now, what?  In no way does that make sense to me, and yet for so many people, it is the reality.  The churches presented in this book do harmful things to humanity, and it makes me angry.  Reading Quiverfull was at times like a call to action.  I live, function and operate within this world that so desperately needs feminism, and now I know, it is my duty and obligation to future generations to fight to make my world a safer place for humanity.  That’s my quiverfull.

Farewell to you all, all of my lovely followers!  Thank you for joining me in this four-month endeavor to learn some things about women in the U.S. throughout history.  If you are interested in something different, come back next semester for my second women’s history experiment:  Women in Christian History with Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah.  Until then, this has been Women in American History with Professor Bethany Johnson, as retold by Maggie Felisberto.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!

Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull

Remember all those times I swore I had left the nineteenth century behind?  Well, if you look at a calendar, we’re sitting in the 21st century in Quiverfull, but most of the time it feels like the nineteenth (or maybe even the seventeenth).

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce is a gripping and horrendous outsider approach to the complementarian evangelical Protestant church — a world in which I sometimes occupy space.  Joyce approaches Christian patriarchy with an investigative eye, but she warns in the introduction that she’s interested in extremists and fundamentalists.  This book is by no means representative of the whole; rather, it is an exploration of a small subset within Christianity.  That being said, to my own personal chagrin, I was disturbed by how much seemingly neutral Christian culture that I grew up with made it into the book.  At one point, Joyce even mentions a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.

quiverfull-inside-christian-patriarchy-movement-kathryn-joyce-hardcover-cover-art

Quiverfull, by Kathryn Joyce

Joyce herself is not a Christian, but she is fluent enough in “Christianese” to both communicate with her contacts and to convey their stories to people outside of evangelical Protestantism.  At times, she is too quick to boil everything down to five-point Calvinism, perhaps because John Piper and Wayne Grudem of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (and editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism) are themselves five-point Calvinists.  There are Calvinists who are egalitarian (like myself, hovering between three and four points of agreement usually) and there are Arminians who are complementarian.  Other than discussing the five basic tenants of Calvinism and the doctrines regarding men and women, Joyce avoids theology and never blames Christianity itself (or Jesus, for that matter) for the injustices of the complementarian church.

The book is divided up into three sections, WivesMothers and Daughters.  Joyce works through the flagship Bible verses defending complementarian hierarchy while simultaneously telling the stories of women within the confines of the patriarchy movement.  The wives either meet with each other for weekend retreats where their male pastor has to supervise their activities or they contribute food to potluck lunches or they keep quietly to themselves at home.  In some of the extreme churches that Joyce visits, women are discouraged from having any relationships with other women.  Female friendship leads to gossip, nagging, discontent — the women must be available for their husbands at all times, and the husbands alone are to provide for their wives’ emotional needs.  This kind of power monopoly, instead of leading to the healthy lives that the CBMW proposes, damages subjugated women psychologically.  Isolation, defined as controlling what you do, who you see and talk to, where you go, limiting your outside involvement; using jealousy to justify actions, and sabotaging new and old relationships, is considered a type of abuse.  In these patriarchal churches, men are admonished to treat their wives exactly like that.

With power comes the abuse of power, and Joyce gives several examples of places where psychological abuse becomes physical.  The church tells women that their duty as Christians is to be sexually chaste until marriage, but then suddenly sexually available whenever their husband desires sex (whether or not she wants it).  Wives in some of these patriarchal communities become the victims of spousal abuse, marital rape and murder plots.  Going to the church instead of to law enforcement, they are asked about whether or not they have been nagging their husbands, or if they were being as submissive as they could be.  In one of Grudem’s essays in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (because I own a copy of this book), he provides a list of things that submission shouldn’t be, and these abuses are considered wrong in theory.  But in practice, the submission preached by the extremist complementarians is dangerous.

This book is not really a response to anything.  The CBE's affiliated work came after.

This book is not really a response to anything. The Christians for Biblical Equality‘s affiliated work came after.

The mothers and daughters in this patriarchal world fare no better than wives, and most women are expected to fulfill all three roles at the same time.  Daughters must remain faithful to their fathers until they marry, usually at an early age after a courting period instead of dating.  New wives must be sexually available to their husbands, and birth control is considered evil.  Thus, wives become mothers quickly and over and over again.  This constant pregnancy has become a part of the complementarian system.  Good Christian families must have many children, a full quiver of them, as prolonged spiritual warfare.  Because naturally, if you are a part of the elect chosen ones of God, then your offspring, and their offspring, and their offspring, will all be valiant Christian soldiers as well (because salvation by faith is not, you know, an individual choice or anything, right?  I guess not, if you’re a hyper-Calvinist).

So why did I bring up the nineteenth century at the beginning of this post?  Because extreme complementarianism, as it is being practiced in the United States, is like a photoshopped version of the nineteenth century.  Men and women are in separate spheres.  Men lead public lives, women lead private ones.  Nuclear family is the key building block of society.  Young men and women seek parental approval to court one another (and of course are not having sex until marriage).  In some of the communities, strong and intimate female friendships exist and are reinforced by women’s retreats and same-sex Bible studies.  They believe that men should be paid a “family wage” to support their whole family, while women should be paid much less, because her income does not contribute to the family.  A real woman should not work at all.  Some of the male leaders of the extreme complementarian churches Joyce researches in Quiverfull actively pursue recreation of the past, including the Jamestown settlement, as a part of God’s mandate to take dominion over the earth.  These same men wish that the technological advances of the forties and the fifties, like laundry machines and dishwashers, had never been invented.  The fanciful obsession with nineteenth century life, in this airbrushed form, becomes an oppressive way of life defended as biblical (despite some glaring misinterpretations and a rejection of large portions of Old Testament scripture.  Deborah, anyone?).

Quiverfull is a fantastic book.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the theological debate over manhood and womanhood, and to anyone — especially Christians — who is interested in the way our society works.

Voting Image: Did we judge our candidates on their date-ability?

Last month, President Barack Obama was reelected to a second term in the White House.  Why?  Because more women vote than men, and a majority of women voted for Obama.  Why did women lean Democratic in this past election?  I don’t have all of those answers, as each vote is an individual act of preference, but in general, the Republican party this past election cycle has portrayed itself as particularly antagonistic toward women.  However, according to some evolutionary psychology nonsense, Mitt Romney should have won the women’s vote.

In a Yahoo! News article from Election Day, Liz Goodwin identifies three myths about women voters.  The third myth, “women vote like they date,” references the idea that women are going to vote for a president that would make a more attractive mate, thus Romney should be the logical choice.  He is the epitome of the white male provider, with five sons and wealth and a beautiful wife.  He has privilege, he has power, and he comes from the dominant racial group.  Women should be attracted to Romney and his image, therefore they should vote for him.

Mittens and his brood

Mittens and his brood

 

In light of my previous post about The Beauty Myth, this attitude shows the impact of Beauty Myth culture on men in the United States.  The myth goes that women vote like they date, and they date based on image.  The image that Romney presented — successful both financially and reproductively — should have been enough to sway women voters away from Obama.

Of course, women don’t actually vote based on how they would date, and how they would date doesn’t necessarily infer that they would choose Mitt Romney.  The women’s vote went to Obama.  But could image still be at play in this vote?  Here’s a photo of both of them:

mittensandbarack

Is one man more attractive than the other?  Can we make such a judgment?  Barack Obama is taller than Mitt Romney, but conversely, Mitt Romney has more hair.  Did Barack Obama’s image as a father of daughters supercede that of Romney as a father of sons?  Either way, I think this is open to interpretation.  Did Mitt Romney lose the 2012 election because of his image?  Did Barack Obama win because of his?  Are their images more appealing to one sex than to another?  These questions always makes me think about Fahrenheit 451, in which the characters discuss the candidates entirely based on their looks and appearance.  That book ends in war.

So what do you think about the images presented by these two men and the election?

 

The Lasting Grip of the Beauty Myth

beautymyth

In 1991, author Naomi Wolf challenged an entire generation of women to throw off the oppressive bindings of what she called The Beauty Myth and likened to a torturing Iron Maiden.  The modern concept of beauty was constricting, like a religion, violent.  A new, third wave of feminism was necessary to break through the last major stronghold of patriarchy — psychological subjugation.  Wolf treats beauty as a new religion, comparing anti-wrinkle cream to holy oil and day spas to ancient purification rituals.  Sufferers of anorexia and bulimia are not mentally unwell; they are political prisoners within their own skin.  Medicine has turned against healthy women, surgically altering them beyond the point of recognition.  The world of institutional glamor in which Wolf lives resembles a military state in which women can be fired for being either too sexy or too frumpy.  It is a world that needs a dramatic revolution.  It is a world that needs feminism.

Not this Iron Maiden (whether or not you think they're torture to listen to)

Not this Iron Maiden (whether or not you think they’re torture to listen to)

Twenty-one years later (the span of nearly my entire life), where are we?  Do women still need feminism?  Have we overcome the Beauty Myth?

My short answer is: Of course!  Don’t be silly.  Do you remember my trip to the Connecticut Forum?  The four panelists (Michelle Bernard, Ashley Judd, Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem) did a pretty good job analyzing the current state of women both in the United States and abroad, and they all concluded that feminism is still an essential.

I was thinking about The Beauty Myth when I noticed through Jezebel.com that Ashley Judd may or may not be running for office in the future.  Through some hyperlink clicking, I arrived at an essay written by Judd last April in which she talks about beauty.  Based on her story, I think it is safe to say that the religion of beauty has not gone away.

Last March, Ashley Judd was sick.  So very sick.  Logically, her doctor put her on a medication that, as a reaction, caused her face to puff up a little bit.  And instead of asking Ashley Judd what was going on with her face, the internet mongrels went through a barrage of insults under the assumption that she had had plastic surgery.

The Iron Maiden jabs its blades into my generation differently than it did to Wolf’s.  The presence of airbrushing in the media has long been exposed (though it still happens regularly, at least people know on some level that those models don’t look like that).  I can think of enough subcultures in the US, especially within youth culture, that propose alternate visions of what looks “beautiful.”  But by no means does that change or challenge the Beauty Myth.  If anything, the problem has become more insidious.  People still get hired or fired based on their looks.  Women are still being raped and blamed for it.  Women (and increasingly men) are still struggling with anorexia, and plastic surgery is still going strong.  And on top of all that, we have the internet.

THIS is what they're talking about!

THIS is what they’re talking about!  Iron Maiden!

The internet is the big difference between 1991 and now.  Not only are people hyper-connected to social networking, but the internet offers a level of anonymity and mystery — and the hecklers love it.  Ashley Judd was attacked because of her looks on the internet.  And her accusers didn’t let their comments hide in the shadows of constant disapproval; they ripped her to shreds.  And they could do so because of the remove of the internet.  When you’re staring at a computer screen, it’s even harder to recognize the very real human within the photo.

Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth at the cusp of third wave feminism.  Now that the third wave has come and broke on the beach, and I’m talking with my professors about feminism with the addendum, “Well, if you really want to talk in waves…”, where are we?  And what do we make of this internet culture?  Beauty is still a religious cult forcing itself onto women and men in our society, regardless of age or ethnicity.  The ideal standards may have shifted over time, but the standard still exists (as if Plato himself were the secretary women).

But this doesn’t have to be the end of the story.  In 1991, Naomi Wolf challenged her audience to assume a new wave of feminism.  That challenge, that rallying cry, is still ringing.  And as more and more people break out of their own Iron Maidens, we could see great change.  Even on the internet.  I want to end this post with a comic from XKCD.com drawn by Randall Munroe, bemoaning the treatment of women on the web.  So enjoy!

You can get to Munroe's website here!

You can get to Munroe’s website here!

Crying During 4 Little Girls is Actually Mandatory

Spike Lee’s first documentary, 4 Little Girls, tells the tragic and highly personal story of the April 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that stole the lives of four African American children.  Told through the eyes of the parents, siblings and friends of the victims, 4 Little Girls delves into the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement and its implications for the daily lives of African Americans living under the oppression of structural racism.

This movie will cut straight to your heart, and you will cry.  Through the memories of friends and families, each of the four girls who passed away in the bombing comes back to life as bright, vibrant young women with vast amounts of potential for brilliant lives.   Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), Addie Mae Collins (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) each had distinct voices and characters, but all four of them were robbed of the chance to develop them further.  Denise, in particular, is the most developed of the four girls as a character in the film, due to Christopher McNair’s extensive involvement in production.

Spike Lee and his team spend a majority of the film exploring the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates had a particularly difficult time convincing the Birmingham adult African American population that they needed to take a public stance against oppression, so the movement quickly became youth-led.  First, college students became involved, then the high schoolers, then the middle schoolers, until elementary school children were marching against racism.  And getting arrested, too.  A classmate of Denise who participated in the documentary recounted spending the day in jail when he was eleven years old.  Throughout 1962 and 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had become the Civil Rights Movement headquarters.

Within this framework of timid adults and bold children, the documentary begins to prepare for the day of the bombing.  Addie Mae’s sister describes the morning of the bombing as she and her sister headed to church and played catch, messing up their hair and dresses.  Other family scenes — getting to church late, mothers scolding daughters for unkempt hair, parting ways for Sunday school — permeated all four of the girls’ mornings.  The bomb went off in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where all four were late coming out of Sunday school before the regular service.  The documentary includes photos from the church as well as photos of the girls in the morgue.  One of the girls (I’m pretty sure it was Denise, but don’t hold me to that) had a piece of stone from the building lodged in her skull.  The photographs are pretty intense, and squeamish viewers might want to look away from the screen when they come up.

A non-graphic post-bombing photo, found via The Washington Post

These four deaths became the catalyst that moved the entire nation toward supporting the Civil Rights Movement.  Institutional racism and the harm that it caused to adults could be rationalized or moralized out of importance, but the nation collectively balked at the unashamed murder of innocent children.

Despite the collective horror of the nation, the Ku Klux Clan members who planted the bomb went untried for decades.  The first culprit to be tried, Robert Chambliss, was arrested, tried and convicted for the 1963 crime in 1977.  Three other men were also responsible, but by the time 4 Little Girls was released in 1997, no further arrests had been made.  Shortly after the release of this documentary, the FBI revealed its ongoing investigation into the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.  They pinned guilt on Chambliss and three others, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry.  In 2000, Blanton and Cherry were both convicted; Cash had already died.

Robert Chambliss

One of the most impressive things about this documentary was its inclusion of an interview with George Wallace, then governor of Alabama.  Wallace, who had during his career as governor barred students from integrating public schools and universities, was determined to convince his audience that he was not racist.  Indeed, Wallace’s interview seemed more like a deathbed confession of sins and struggles to do right by the citizens of Alabama, and in the special features of the DVD, you can watch his entire interview.

I’m going to close this out by saying that 4 Little Girls is the most powerful documentary that I have watched.  I would highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, but be forewarned: you will cry during this movie, and if you don’t, I’m not sure that you are really human (Update: I accept the humanity of those with reluctant tear ducts).

Here’s a video clip of Spike Lee and Christopher McNair talking about 4 Little Girls before it opened in theaters in 1997: