Carol Howard Merritt: Women get to talk now, too

Due to the open world of the web and social networking, it’s getting harder to exclude women's voices from church conferences, even when organizers may wish to.

Most of us have gone to a professional conference. They’re a chance to gather with people from across the region to worship together and learn from one another. We listen to inspiring preaching that feeds our soul and emboldens our own art. With a good conference, we leave that gathering place all pumped up and full of vitality, ready to return to our churches.

Right now, the Internet is changing the nature of these conferences. We have seen its immediate results. Particularly, the rise of online communities, which encourage new voices and stimulates creative thought. These tribes have become less reliant on denominations or institutions to host events, and have begun to organize their own.

In addition, the popularity of Facebook and Twitter makes it so that getting the word out about a conference can be inexpensive, and the engagement of social networking can generate energy and excitement. People can plan to connect with friends and colleagues instead of accidentally running into them in the hotel ballroom, or they can meet with people they have only known from blog posts and Twitter updates.

Then, there is the dialogue that occurs with social media. Conservative Evangelical Conference Leaders, especially those who are not open to women in leadership, may be quick to adapt new media for its ability to spread the word, but they are also meeting resistance. When we move online, it is not like getting a discrete evaluation with five numbers that tell us how we’re doing after the closing of the conference. We can no longer control reactions. We hear the feedback immediately, and it's often wrapped in raw emotion.

All of this has become important for a new generation of women. At one time, many women would have gotten a glossy conference advertisement in the mail. We would have looked at the glimmering smiles that beamed from a row of white men. Then, confronted with such a ridiculous line-up, we would have rolled our eyes, thrown the ad away, and figured that the organizers had gotten the wrong address. We would not taken the energy to pick up the phone and call our friend who also wears a skirt and a collar, because it really didn’t affect us much.

But now, we’re not able to ignore things so easily. When all of our social networks are filled with people talking about the conference, when we can so easily talk back, it is not as simple as throwing that glossy flyer away.

Plus, on the Internet, independent conservatives mingle freely with mainliners. We’re no longer in separate corners of Christendom, pretending that no one else is in the room. And, although these Internet discussions have been likened to speaking into an unfurnished marble hallway, where only our own ideas are echoed back to us, they are much more diverse than that.

We know about each other’s continuing education events and conferences. Mainliners look with longing at the youthful faces, informed practitioners, and the fantastic technology that the conservative evangelicals have at their conferences. And, a new generation of women, who grew up in independent evangelical churches along with a healthy dose of girl-power, look at gender equity at our conferences and realize that something has gone awry in their own camp.

Now just as we are learning from one another, we are also sharing the outrage. Women are no longer nonchalantly throwing the brochure away. They are speaking out, questioning why their voices are not being heard, and why there are not more minorities represented. They question their male colleagues about why they are speaking at these events. Even though we are quickly told that it is a different tradition, a more conservative tradition, that there have never been women speakers at this or that event, the cries are not dying out. They are becoming louder and clearer, and more organized.

Women who grew up in Mainline traditions, who have easily picked and enjoyed the fruit of our older sisters’ planting and struggling are beginning to open themselves up to the pain of other women who are crying out, “Enough!” And the frustrated voices are finding a cacophony of men who are rising up in solidarity. There have been calls for boycotts on the part speakers and on the part of attendees. Event organizers have been people blocking Twitter feeds (perhaps on accident and perhaps not), and questions about the nature of these conferences have been stifled. And yet, they persist. I daresay, the new rise of red-hot feminism is happening in the post-evangelical movement.

How will the leaders of these male-dominated conferences respond? And how will we, the men and women who have enjoyed diverse leadership for decades, react? Will we dismiss the struggle with a “been there, done that” shrug? Will we smirk and ask, “What do you expect?” Or will we be open to helping and empowering a new generation of voices who are questioning and wrestling?