An open letter to Kelly Stewart, producer for Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson

Yesterday, as the hits on my CNN article soared, I received an email entitled “National Radio Interview Request” from the producer for the Jesse Lee Peterson show.

1. I mis-read the email. I admit it, this article has reached a level of audience that dwarfs my most-read essays in the past, and I was feeling pretty excited. I read, “National Public Radio Interview request,” inserting the public where it didn’t belong.

2. I said yes, even though my friends were urging me not to, but I had never heard of Peterson. I don’t watch Fox News, and really, who has the time to keep up with all the hatemongers out there. It’s a good business, spreading hate, but who has the time to keep track of all the players. Then I started listening to clips of him talking about gender issues. There’s the sermon where he reveals that women (later amended to liberal women), are destroying society by being whores, and that they never should have been given the vote. Well, ok, that’s offensive. But then I listened to him interviewing lots of smart, activist, women. He lets them have their say, I give him that, but it’s not because I disagree with him or because he’s so offensive that I withdrew from the interview. It’s the way he argues. Peterson’s style is to simply assert first principles and then extrapolate from them. These principles include: Women should be in the home. Men should be in charge of their women. And so forth. In a discussion where these are the unambiguous principles, there is no room for discussion, as I operate from principles of equality and freedom.

3. I’m honestly not ready to go on a show like this. I did a radio interview yesterday with a friendly interviewer, and while it went fine, I knew I wasn’t skilled at that kind of format yet. I’ll get there, hopefully, with more opportunities. But I am fundamentally a writer, not a debater. I give a good lecture and enjoy a lively Q&A, but not in the context where I’m living in a radically different moral universe than my interlocutor. I need time to think, deliberate, draft, and revise. Peterson isn’t the big leagues of hate, that’s more Hannity or Rush, but he’s definitely a pro, and I’m still a radio rookie. I’ll get there, and you know what, Peterson needs foils like me. I’ll let you know.

4. Had I gone on the interview, here’s a question I would have asked him. Why doesn’t he fire you? We spoke on the phone and you are clearly a bright, professional, woman. According to his theory, you should be in the home, with the kids, without the vote, serving your man. Is he just a hypocrite, saying shocking things in order to get more air time? Or does he really believe it? If he believes it, he should fire you. But here’s a better question – why do you work for him?

5. I write this blog, in part, to provide historical context for contemporary phenomena. I have to say, although Peterson blames most contemporary problems in society to the rise of liberal women, there is nothing new in his beliefs. I was recently re-reading Christine de Pizan, a 14th-century single-mom (widow) and writer, who was confronting so much of the same type of language as Peterson uses now. Usually, patriarchy is invisible, pernicious, creeping into our minds and shaping our perceptions in ways that we cannot recognize.  But while Peterson may be a modern-day Matheolus (you can look it up), I have to tell you – no one reads Matheolus today; and we all read Christine and those who were inspired by her.

6. But hey, supporting a man spitting into the wind of history earns you a good living, I guess.

Anti-Semitism on Twitter – Jews = Greedy

One of the themes of my essays and blog posting focuses on language, particularly the pernicious effects of unconscious language. I wrote about “the Angel/Retard Dialectic” last November, for example, but both the NYC new wheelchair symbol and yesterday’s piece about gender norming in pre-school focus on unconscious use of language and symbols and the consequences therein.

This morning Jon Heyman, a sports reporter I follow on Twitter, retweeted the following:

Let’s unpack. The language says that if the San Francisco Giants were not so utterly greedy, so greedy that the only way to describe their greed is to call them Jews, the Oakland A’s could have a nice stadium.

This is the old calumny, the calumny still used today in much of America, as a casual way of talking about people too obsessed with money. Last April, a GOP House Majority leader in Oklahoma talked about being ‘Jewed down.’ He did apologize when called on it, saying hey be didn’t mean anything by it, but guesses some people can find these things offensive now, and anyway, some of his best friends are Jewish (warning – Johnson didn’t actually say that last thing).

Heyman is Jewish. Did he read the tweet? Did he think no one would care?

I re-tweeted to both “Ernie” and Heyman. Neither has responded. Ernie, who had a following of a few hundred and a long history of tweeting, has deleted his account (in a panic, I expect). And life goes on.

But as an historian, let me be clear: This language associating Jews with greed is very old, has survived across the centuries, and is NOT harmless.

Quick thought – Write their own stories

At the end of my essay, I cite my daughter’s decision that her award was for “Best Bowler.” That’s the message here – it’s not about raising “strong” girls, but about raising our children, boys and girls both, with the freedom and tools to write their own stories. 

And if that’s the goal, how do we get there?

Gender Norms – New Essay on CNN

I have a new essay up on CNN on gender norms and pre-school. Here’s the summary. But please read it anyway and share it, if so inclined. I feel this one, unlike the more theological pieces, has a chance at a broader readership and maybe even changing a few minds – or at least providing language to people already on the same page.


When the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died in March, The New York Times celebrated her
as the maker of a “mean beef stroganoff” and “the world’s best mother.”
When my 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, a wildly creative and interesting
girl, finished a year of preschool last week, her teachers gave her an
award for being the best dressed.


Sometimes, I find the prospect of raising a girl to be terrifying. The
forces of patriarchy conspire to render girls weak, subordinate and
sexually objectified. When we respond to infants by gendering our
speech, strong for boys and lilting for girls, we immediately start to shape their interactions with the world.


Our culture constantly projects the message that only appearances
matter, and this message is aimed squarely at our children. We can fight
this only by working against the grain, resisting gendered language and
emphasizing the internal over the external.

Here’s a list of some of the inspirations and sources for the essay.

Thanks for reading.


I’m increasingly sure that doubt, being not 100% certain that your beliefs (political, religious, economic, culinary) are correct, is an important part of what makes a pluralistic society run. More to come on this.


Not long before the election of Pope Francis, Abi Sutherland, a blogger at Making Light, wrote about monarchy and myth. Sutherland worked through some thoughts based on recent movies and books, to discuss “monarch as catalyst,” and that the myth of the “true king” focused on transforming us to our better selves. Towards the end, Sutherland wrote:

“But my first monarchy is the one
that concerns me right now. The organization is in deep, structural
trouble. The holder’s sudden choice to vacate the throne is worrying,
and I am torn between curiosity and dread to hear (what we will ever
hear of) why he really stepped down. And although I’m sure the Conclave
is intending to vote for the Pope who will make us all our best selves,
I don’t think they’re the right electorate to identify him. I think
they, and the entire hierarchy, have forgotten (or never knew) what it
is to be a Catholic in the world. I don’t think they will elect a Pope
who will make us our best selves (or them their best selves), and when
he does not, I think they will continue to blame everyone but

I wish it were not so. I’d love a Pope who renewed the church, and
turned us from an engine of politics and condemnation to one of love and
healing. That’s what I hope for. But I know better than to expect it.
Because the True Monarch is a fairy tale, no more real than its
cousin-myth of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Conclave will choose
someone in scarlet robes who won’t, even if he wants to, be able to turn
the rumbling Juggernaut of the hierarchy from its course….But the fact that fairy tales don’t come true doesn’t rob them of their
value. The problems they describe are real, even if the solutions that
follow aren’t. There are no True Monarchs, but the hunger to be our
best selves endures. In the end—as in the beginning and the middle—we
turn ourselves into those best selves, every day, piece by piece and act by act.”

I’ve thought a lot about those lines since I read them. Although the occupant of the Throne of St. Peter is no longer a secular monarch, and hasn’t been since the 19th century, the Papacy continues to operate like a monarchy. And monarchies encourage myths. If the “true king” takes the throne, as Sutherland comments, one can dream that the changes of which we dream will simply come to past. The king will wave his hand, the villains will be imprisoned, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

In America, we’ve seen how hard it is to effect change. Whatever you happen to think of Obama’s agenda, he has not been able to enact it. The limiting factors of  checks and balances (built into our system) and the new phenomena of constant filibuster and gerrymandered districts have restricted his ability to bring about wholesale change (assuming he in fact wanted to do so).  This is the blessing and curse of the American democratic system. But oh, a king, if only they knew what was wrong, they could solve all our problems. Of course, this was never true for even the most powerful kings.
Medieval kings found themselves limited by all sorts of factors,
including those internal to their courts. But still, at least they don’t have to get through the US Congress …

I’m not a monarchist (I once gave a talk on Theodoric the Ostrogoth for a group of monarchists, but that’s a different story). I’m ready for Popes to be chosen by the acclamation of the laity. But if this monarch happens to re-direct the course of the Church, I’ll be pleased. And that’s my final point (the privilege of the blog post, rather than the formal essay, is to wander a little). Much of the criticism of the church focuses on its “medieval nature,” the way that autocratic hierarchies limit the influence of the believers over the workings of their church. I share these criticisms. I think that hierarchy encourages the elites to believe that they are the only voices worth hearing, that it enables the culture that concealed the abuses of the clergy, and has kept the church from embracing the changes so demanded from the laity.

And yet, here we have a monarch, Pope Francis. The very structures that make the church
seem so antiquated and remote are now in the hands of a man who seems determined to change things. He can act, though like all kings, he must be careful of his court, or his impact will be brief, at best.

And remember that the Cardinals chose him. In a landslide. They knew what they were doing.

Francis’ Wager? – Or – Ignore the atheist thing, focus on encounter

I have a new essay up on The Atlantic.

Money quote:

Perhaps the focus on atheism, as breathtaking has
this issue
has proven to be for the  media and the blogosphere,
misses the more powerful concept
at the core of Francis’ homily: the culture of encounter. In the
documents from the Second Vatican Council, as well as much older texts,
one finds numerous
explicit statements about our shared humanity, universal rights, and
the necessity to find common ground. This idea of encounter lays out a
pathway for us
to locate and recognize those commonalities.

 What do you think?


Today Pope Francis said the following:

All people are called to do good
and not evil, the pope said. Some would object, “‘but, Father, he isn’t
Catholic so he can’t do good.’ Yes, he can. He must.”

The idea that others cannot really be good and do good in the world
creates “a wall that leads to war and to something that historically
some people have thought: that we can kill in the name of God. And that,
simply, is blasphemy. To say that one can kill in God’s name is

“The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not
just Catholics. Everyone,” he said. Some may ask, “‘Father, even the
atheists?’ Them, too. Everyone.”

 (Also he cited St. Rita, patron of impossible things. This makes me happy too).

So this is a big deal. If the Catholic hierarchy explicitly endorses that salvation for all is possible, it’s a big step towards pluralism. If the powers of Catholicism focus their energy on pluralism, rather than excluding people, we’ll see a better world.

Also apparently if I am a good secular Jew, then Jesus will redeem me even if I lose Pascal’s wager. Which is good, as long ago I decided to make Perry’s Wager. I’ll tell you about that on another post.

Inspirations for the next essay on gender and pre-school

  1. Yvonne Brill’s obituary.
  2. Deborah Kogan’s life in publishing. Or, why the publishers made her call her first book, “Shutterbabe.”
  3. Seanan McGuire’s response to being accused of too much self-promotion in regards to the Hugo Awards. She promoted herself once. But she’s a woman, so …
  4. What Disney Princesses really teach girls.
  5. Bratz.
  6. Underwear.
  7. Elizabeth Smart.
  8. The great cover posing of Jim Hines.

And then of course the famed Joss Whedon quote:

Q: So, why do you write these
strong female characters?
A: Because you’re still asking me that question.
I’m feeling surly.

Edit: 9. Thanks to my friend Dawn, this piece on Carolyn Heilbrun.
Edit: 10. Thanks to Jay, “What’s wrong with Cinderella.” A thoughtful piece from 2006.
Edit 11. Thanks to Kurt, we have the Vatican (2009) calling the washing machine the liberator of women.