Rev. Katey Zeh is a nationally-recognized advocate for gender justice. Her writing about faith and gender has appeared in Huffington Post, Sojourners, and Religion Dispatches, and her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Nation, and Colorlines. The Center for American Progress named her one of their top justice-seeking faith leaders to watch. An ordained Baptist minister, she co-hosts Kindreds, a podcast about faith, friendship, and feminism. She lives in North Carolina with her husband Matt and their daughter Samantha. Find her at www.kateyzeh.com or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook at @KateyZeh.
Rev. Zeh kindly agreed to an interview about her new book, Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution, with Equity for Women in the Church’s Co-Chair, Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton.
Some feminists believe that the Bible is misogynistic and cannot be a helpful resource for dismantling patriarchy. Why do you draw from biblical stories in your advocacy of gender justice and equality in Women Rise Up?
What constantly amazes me about the Bible is that even though the text is deeply patriarchal and misogynistic, there are numerous women within its pages who find ways to survive against all odds and to resist oppression in creative, subversive ways. For example, in Exodus Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women, defy the order of the pharaoh to murder all the newborn baby boys, and they do so at great personal risk. Stories like these inspire me and give me hope for today’s struggle for gender justice.
How has your call to ministry led to your writing and your advocacy for women and girls?
My call to ministry emerged over a period of years as I began to learn about feminist theology and explore how to apply it in practical ways to my own life. Guided by the deep belief that women and girls are created in the image of God, I seek to make the world a more just, compassionate place for all, but in particular for those who are most vulnerable, including women and girls living at the margins of society. My writing is a natural outflowing of that calling: to lift up the sacred worth of women, both within the sacred texts and beyond it.
You are one of my Baptist sisters in ministry. What led you to ordination in the Baptist denomination and why have you remained Baptist?
I’m fairly new to the Baptist faith. I was part of the United Methodist Church for nearly 25 years, but I made the painful decision to leave after witnessing the denomination turn its back on reproductive dignity and denying the rights of my LGBTQ+ siblings. I felt denominationally displaced until walking into Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. What I found there was a celebration and an embracing of all of God’s beloved children and a fierce, firm, historic commitment to upholding the dignity, rights, and well-being of all.
Pullen was the first faith community in which I felt like I could fully and unabashedly articulate my commitment to advocating for women and girls, particularly their access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care, and it would not be liability. In fact, my advocacy work was the very basis upon which I sought and received ordination from my church. Being affirmed in that way has been such a gift to me because this work is not easy. Having a community of support around me keeps me going.
In Women Rise Up you emphasize the intersection of sexism with racism, classism, and other injustices. Which stories in the book do you think best represent this intersectionality?
The story of Sarai and Hagar illustrates the many ways in which women are culpable of great violence against one another. Hagar is a foreigner and a slave. Sarai is an abuse survivor who perpetuates the cycle of abuse by forcing Hagar into becoming her surrogate. My reading is heavily shaped by Delores Williams’s classic womanist text Sisters in the Wilderness, who explores the text through the lens of the African-American woman’s experience.
Another text I explored was the Book of Ruth. Too often we romanticize this story as one about sisterhood and faithfulness of female friendship, but there are troubling aspects of the story, namely how Naomi pushes her daughter-in-law Ruth, a foreigner, into a sexual encounter with Boaz, the wealthy landowner who holds the keys to their survival.
I do not mean to villainize any of these women, but I do want to explore their full humanity and offer them both my critique and my compassion.
Women Rise Up combines your gifts as a compelling storyteller, a creative Bible teacher, and a social justice activist. Which biblical stories resonate most with your personal story?
I probably most resonate with Martha of Bethany. I’m naturally a doer and inclined to overwork. And I also have no problem letting folks know that I think a particular situation is unjust! She brings her complaints to Jesus on multiple occasions, which in my view demonstrates the strength of their friendship.
How did your seminary course on “Gender, Sex, and Power in the Books of Ruth and Esther” inform your reading of the story of Ruth and Naomi? Do you relate to them when they have to simultaneously resist and comply with the patriarchal norms of their time?
The Book of Ruth was one I have long cherished, but this class helped me see how differently Ruth is treated by the author. Repeatedly we are reminded that Ruth was a foreigner and thus excluded from full participation in the society. Again, I see Ruth and Naomi as fully human and in a dire situation--as widows they have no access to resources except through the (perhaps) benevolence of a man. In order to earn his favor, however, Ruth must make herself sexually available to him at great risk to her personal safety, not to mention her emotional well-being.
How do the messages women often get in church make them feel they have to find a way to be like Martha and Mary at the same time? Have you felt this way?
In my experience in church, women are expected to do the mundane work of daily life--cooking, cleaning, caring for the sick and the young--while also dedicating ample time to their spiritual lives. No matter which piece they are tending to, they are told they ought to be doing the other--all while smiling and not complaining. I always wished that Jesus would have offered to give Martha a hand with whatever she was doing.
How do you connect the story of Mary Magdalene to the widespread sexualization of women and girls today?
Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection, and yet nearly every reference to her in popular culture is rooted in mythology of her being a prostitute, which was a falsehood created by a Pope over a thousand years ago.
One of the fastest ways to shut a woman up or make a girl feel small is to attack her body. An observation or even an accusation about a woman’s sexuality shifts the attention away from the fullness of her power. We see this in the problematic legacy of Mary Magdalene, which my book strives to correct.
You mention being open to the movement of the Spirit “who uncovers new revelations from the pages of these ancient texts.” What is one new revelation you had as you were writing this book?
Even the shortest of texts can have most profound insights if we would only spend the time allowing it to emerge.
In your book you point out that current-day women around the world still experience many of the injustices that biblical women suffered. How do you see your generation moving forward on the work of gender justice?
I see my generation taking a much more intersectional approach to gender justice. We see the connections between systems of oppression, and we refuse to address them in piecemeal ways. The work is more complex and more difficult--and the “wins” are fewer--but we see that this is the only way that we can find true liberation.
What’s one question about your new book you’d like to answer that I didn’t ask?
“Tell me about your grandmother Honey.” Honey was a humble, loving woman. She was small in stature and an amazing golfer. And she always made me feel like the most important person in the room. When I went to visit her, she always had a candy bar for me. She gently introduced me to God and to the Bible, and for that I will forever be grateful. Honey, I hope I make you proud!