by Winona Winkler Wendth, 3 November 2017       

“You have power over my body but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul.”

During the early spring in 1638, Anne Hutchinson stood before a tribunal led by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop. Hutchinson was answering to a crime : “ . . . a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex, and notwithstanding that was cried down you have continued the same.” The Governor continued, “Therefore we have thought good to send for you to understand how things are, that if you be in an erroneous way we may reduce you that so you may become a profitable member here among us.”

Winthrop, the man who transformed “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill” into a religious mandate, and who laid a foundation for what has become a national policy of exceptionalism, was protecting the smooth-running operations of his community, which was founded and developed according to God’s plan. The settlement had survived horrible weather and disease because of their successful attempts to meet what they believed were God’s expectations. Theological disagreements had been developing over the previous year, and in a theocracy, this means disunity. Disruption to the system could take them all down. And here was a disruption.

Hutchinson was a student of the Bible and a master of argument; she one-upped Winthrop over and over again, and she did that with better success than her male colleagues, most of whom had already left town at the direction of town leadership. She was the remaining testifier to what she believed and found support in Biblical passage after Biblical passage.

But Winthrop pulled out the final complaint, one that she could not argue against: She was a woman, and, as Winthrop mentioned in the later part of the trial, although she was acting on conscience, her position was in opposition to the church fathers’, in which case, he said, she was breaking the fifth commandment—the town father were her ecclesiastical parents and she did not honor them. She should have her conscience kept for her, he added. She had to be “reduced” in order to be a profitable member of society. None of the other challenging members of the community had been threatened this way. They had challenged the church fathers as fully formed adults, albeit adults with different and potentially dangerous points of view. In the end, of course, all of them were ostracized and sent out into the cold. Hutchinson was both the movement’s strongest and weakest link.

Did John Winthrop touch Anne Hutcinson in what we today call an “inappropriate” way? No. Was she an object of the abuse of power? Of course.

Today we can consider what John Winthrop did to Anne Hutchinson a form of sexual abuse. Was the woman physically accosted? No. Was she touched in what we today call an “inappropriate” way? No. Was she an object of the abuse of power? Of course. Was this abuse derived from her being a woman? Yes.

The transcript does not provide us with condescending tones of voice, with body language, with the expressions on the faces of Winthrop and his colleagues; but it’s fair for us to imagine them. Any woman who has been called in by her supervisor knows what this is like; she recognizes the nature of these situations, whose foundations lie deep beneath what is said and overtly acted on. What we do know is that she stood in front of a panel of men who looked at her, appraised her, and found her wanting, even dangerous.

This situation speaks to several components of sexual abuse:

The first is derived from the nature of sexuality, itself, especially repressed sexuality in a social system that makes recognizing, let alone talking about or negotiating maturing and adult drives, impossible. Indicators of sexual need or drive are re-interpreted into demonized or romanticized notions of women. Why women and not men? Because men are more likely than not the people who have claimed the responsibility to maintain social order. Not surprisingly, this order conserves power to those who maintain it.

The second comes from the truth of power—who holds it, and who benefit from it. Anyone who was a child once knows how important it is to keep our parents present, validating, and contented. Life is easier that way. Challenging this rarely comes to any good. Of course, for children, power and control modeling come from parents, and some children never learn how to balance control and responsibility or the benefits of rule-giving and rule following. In many ways, those families produce repeated generations of grown-up children who cannot do that, cannot navigate the fluid streams of power and dependence toward creative, productive, thoughtful or imaginative lives or policies.

The third comes from the notion that men and women have determined roles in society and that these roles give permissions or liberties to those in power and prevents others from claiming them. Until recently, we recognized one of these permissions as the permission to “look.” Students of cinema and photography referred to this as “The Male Gaze,” which we extended to “The Imperial Gaze,” or the permission those in power had to watch those without it. We see some of this in missionary photographs in which national peoples were photographed as though they were interesting or entertaining objects. We have been treating women like this for centuries.

We have extended this “looking” process to anyone who stares and evidences a yearning or desire for ownership of whatever object is being looked at. Does staring at someone cause trouble? No. But stop to think of how you would feel knowing someone were carrying around a photograph of you without your knowledge . . . . Some men cannot give full visual attention to a woman without an exertion of power, and for some who have been nurtured in a sexually repressive environment, a sexually-energized experience. Some find it difficult to remove this sexual element from concentrated visual attention. One wonders if this is a small part of a reluctance to see a woman in the pulpit, short-circuiting that “who is looking at whom?” confusion of power positioning.

Today, the horrific but not surprising examples of powerful men in the media, government, and academia are an example of sexuality, power, role-playing, and a sense of ownership run amok. But these behaviors are not the only way women suffer, and if it were not for those brave women who have come forward, we would not be having the type of discussion we are having in public today.

Those discussions are not limited to physical violence or bizarre sexual habit.

We are having a discussion about the permission we have given men to tell us who we are and what we have to do and what we get to do, to make us the objects of interest or use because we are women. We are talking about the nature of sexuality, even though no “sexual” events may have taken place. We are told we are best served if we cooperate. We are told, overtly or not, that doing our part—whether in the home, the workplace, the government, the casting couch, or the church—ensures our own security or success or the smooth-running operations that, in the long run, make life good for us.

Like Hutchinson, many of us have heard Biblical principles called into play to denigrate our opinions, to cajole our behavior. Many of us have been advised, then prayed with in the privacy of a boss’s office so that God will help us see a best course of action.

Some of us would rather be patted on the rear so we can face an abusive situation directly, rather than watch it worm around in subterranean tunnels invisible to the public.

Some of us would rather be patted on the rear so we can face an abusive situation directly, rather than watch it worm around in subterranean tunnels invisible to the public. We are reluctant to complain about situations and language that seem so insignificant that they are not worth collecting into a complete picture—the insistence with which some bosses call their women employees “girls,” for example, saying that this makes women feel young; we work with those men who hold women above and apart by describing us in the most romantic and delicate ways, believing that they are being respectful.

This weekend, Washington Post writer Ruth Marcus complained about General John Kelly’s remarks about our national attitudes. “When I was a kid growing up,” he said, “a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore . . . That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone, as well,”—associating the two. But Marcus, annoyed by Kelly’s sexism as by his politics, points out that “Women are not sacred. If the upside of chivalry is the cape spread upon the muddy ground, the downside is the presumption, perhaps subconscious, that women are weak. . . . To be put on a pedestal also risks being kept in a box. In the good old days that Kelly mourns, women were not so much elevated by gender as constrained by it.”

What does all this have to do with the woman whom church fathers sent out into the cold three hundred and seventy-nine years ago, excommunicated from her village, accused, mostly of being a smart woman who didn’t know her place, who broke the fifth commandment by not honoring her town’s church fathers? Winthrop exercised power over her body, as well as her soul, whether he touched it, or not: No earthly being has that permission. And Hutchinson called him on it. He had a place for her, and she wasn’t in it. She was potentially damaging to the theocracy he believed he was responsible for holding together, for running smoothly, for being a city on a hill, a light unto the world, and she was casting a shadow. She paid for her intelligence and insight dearly.

“To be put on a pedestal also risks being kept in a box.”

Tens of thousands of women are openly sharing their experiences at the hands of those who see them as tools, as objects, and means to ends. The #metoo movement seems astounding, except that it isn’t. Sometimes, reported treatment is physically violent, sometimes, not. But it is always because some people have notions of what other people are good for, notions of where those people belong in the general scheme of things. Worse, further—physical, emotional, social, or political—violence often follows the refusal of the less powerful to be who they are expected or hoped to be.

To what degree the Seventh-day Adventist church protects those women who, like Anne Hutchinson, refuse to stop talking, who refuse to toe the line, is difficult to know; but I am aware of no public denominational discussions about the abuse of religious power in the church or workplace, or religious power at home. Or about how to handle people who attempt to control women by Bible verse. Or by prayer. Is religious coercion preferable to an unwelcome arm around a shoulder? Or a pinch on the bottom? The causes are the same.

Anne Hutchinson did not suppress her femaleness: She had survived fifteen pregnancies and was a caretaker and midwife to the community. She did everything a woman could and should do from that perspective. But she refused to consider her capacity as a woman her prison. When she moved into the public sphere and allowed men to attend her Bible studies, she compromised her well-being and safety.

“Assure yourselves thus much,” said Hutchinson during her trial, “you do as much as in you lies to put the Lord Jesus Christ from you, and if you go on in this course you begin, you will bring a curse upon you and your posterity, and the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” On March 22, she was excommunicated and condemned to leave Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Hutchinson and her fellow believers helped found the Providence Plantation, a safe distance from the Colony, which calmed things down—for a while. Fifty years later, however, the Colony was rife with conflict and began aggressive witch trials, an extreme form of systematic sexual abuse. Almost all of the accused and executed were women who were tried on religious grounds. A disproportionate number of those had controlled a growing portion of colony resources. They had been disrupting the local economy—women were not supposed to have that kind of power.

But sometimes, you just have to claim what’s rightfully yours.


Winona Winkler Wendth is an alumna of Atlantic Union College, and a writer and editor who lives in Massachusetts. She teaches humanities classes at Quinsigamond Community College and is a founder and director of the Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative. She and her spouse Norman Wendth have lived and worked at five Adventist college campuses, survived raising two daughters, and are responsible for two dependent cats.  

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