Commentary Religion

Secret Keeper Girl: An Inside Look at Evangelical Cognitive Dissonance

Dianna Anderson

For all its affirmation of little girls’ intelligence and humor, it's hard to get past the mixed messages in Secret Keeper Girl's modesty doctrine: We shouldn’t care about how the world perceives us, unless we're talking about our clothing, in which case that's the only thing that matters.

High-heeled shoes for 10-year-olds. String bikinis for children who’ve not yet hit puberty. Shirts with slogans that promote “sexiness” to young children.

Dannah Gresh and Suzy Weibel, founders of Secret Keeper Girl, point to these as signs of our culture’s modesty and sexualization crisis, and they believe a mother’s relationship with her daughter is of utmost importance in fixing it.

Secret Keeper Girl (SKG), an evangelical Christian ministry aimed at girls ages 8 to 12, publishes and hosts books, devotions, trips, and tours. The group believes in Christian purity and modesty—women need to save their “secrets” (their bodies) for their husbands at marriage. To accomplish this, they promote loving Jesus, being close to one’s mothers, and dressing modestly.

SKG’s recent Crazy Hair Tour came to my town on November 7. It was being hosted at my old church, and was sponsored by the local Christian music station. I decided to go.

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The night kicked off as one would expect, with fun, energetic games and songs, before diving into the kid-oriented lessons and memorized Bible verses. The Virginia-based all-woman group One Girl Nation sang and helped out with the event throughout the night.

The first thing I noticed was the pink. It was everywhere—absolutely everywhere. The stage was covered by a large set featuring the SKG logo in bright shades of pink, and many of the girls in attendance, most of them skewing younger than 10, were wearing the color.

The second thing I noticed was the ableism. The theme of the evening was “choosing to be crazy for God,” based on a verse from 2 Corinthians (translation from The Message):

If I acted crazy, I did it for God; if I acted overly serious, I did it for you. Christ’s love has moved me to such extremes. His love has the first and last word in everything we do.

The idea is a common one in Christianity—separating yourself from people in the rest of the world by not going along with their sinful ways and being willing to be called a “freak” or “crazy.” However, the entire evening was based around the idea that being “crazy” was a choice that religious people made. Such an ethic contributes to the erasure of people who struggle with mental illness and the idea that they are genuinely “crazy.” This use of “crazy” erases people like me, who has found much solace and normality in finally treating an ongoing anxiety and depressive disorder and who took a Xanax shortly before attending the event.

Beauty is a hot topic in evangelicalism, and the Secret Keeper Girl show was no exception. The one bright spot within their discussion of beauty was an affirmation of non-feminine gender presentation. Suzy Weibel told a story of how she was a softball player and an athlete for many years; she loved it and was good at it. But she gave it up in her mid-teens because she was told that it wasn’t attractive to boys. She didn’t play again until she was in her 20s. Weibel has short curly brown hair and wears clothing that, while modest, doesn’t align with traditionally feminine clothes—no skirts, very little makeup, and almost no jewelry. It is helpful and good for little girls in the church to see a model of feminine expression that is not all dresses and pink. However, as the evening ended, there was a “fashion show” that undercut any good that may have come from Weibel’s speech in the first half. In seeking to be “not of this world,” in Christian-speak, the speakers discussed 1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV):

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

There’s a certain irony in this verse being used at an event where young girls were encouraged to show up with elaborate hairstyles.

What’s more, many Biblical scholars have read these verses to be about inordinate displays of class and wealth—fine jewelry and hair being ways to say “I have money!” in Biblical times. As such, “modesty” in that context isn’t so much about not showing skin, but rather preventing division because of classism.

This isn’t how Secret Keeper Girl read it, though. Jordan Smith, one of the evening’s hosts, suggested that these verses mean that we need to be beautiful from the inside out, that chasing after Jesus and working on the “fruits of the Spirit” will make us more beautiful and attractive. The verse, Smith said, was meant to “push us into goodness, not into making a bunch of rules. But, the verse does mention clothing.”

What followed was a rapidfire round of “Truth or Bare” tests for whether or not one’s clothing is showing too much skin. “God wants nothing of how we dress to distract from the good things we are doing for Him,” Smith said.

Instead of wearing short skirts like the “mean girls” at school, the Christian girl puts on leggings or wears pants. In the “raise and praise” test, the young girl’s belly should not show when she raises her hands above her head to praise God; if it does, she needs to go to the boys’ clothing section and get a long tank top to layer. And if you put your hand palm down on your chest under your collarbone, you should only have shirt showing below your pinky finger.

When Smith asked the crowd, “Is it ever OK for a Secret Keeper Girl to wear a low-cut top?” the crowd said “NO!”

The organizers then trotted out girls ranging in age from 6 to 12 for a “modesty fashion show,” meant to demonstrate that you can look good while being modest.

For all its affirmation of little girls’ intelligence and humor, it’s hard to get past the cognitive dissonance inherent in Secret Keeper Girl’s modesty doctrine: We shouldn’t care about how the world perceives us, unless we’re talking about our clothing, in which case that’s the only thing that matters.

At 6 years old, children don’t need to be worrying about whether or not their shirt shows “cleavage.” And they shouldn’t be taught that wearing a short skirt is a sign of being “ungodly.” This marriage of spirituality and misogynistic social mores is a dangerous cocktail that teaches women to fear their own bodies and fear each other. It teaches these young girls that the clothing they wear is just as important as who they are as a person. In spite of the earlier messages about “accepting who you are,” the resounding lesson of the evening is that how you present yourself physically matters much more than your attitude or beliefs.

Much of the problem with these modesty rules is not only the mixed messages it gives Christian women, but how it sets up white, thin, able-bodied women as the ideal. The physical tests of clothing challenges—raising your arms, bending over, sitting down cross-legged—are dependent upon the girl being able-bodied. Other tests—the palm on chest, for example—are dependent on the person being thin and flat-chested. God help the girls who grow up to have 36DDs.

Such teaching is also based on classism. The sold-out event, which cost $15 per person, contained advice to “just go buy some leggings or pants or a new tank top.” It seems to have not occurred to these leaders that their modesty teachings can only be put in practice by those who can afford to go shopping frequently.

The group also does Christian charity, and one of its charitable acts is taking the Secret Keeper Girl tour into “inner-city New York”—the Bronx and Brooklyn—for free. It’s hard to see a campaign led by suburban white women to teach “inner-city” kids not to wear short skirts as anything but condescending.

The Secret Keeper Girl campaign has some good intentions—the organizers want young girls to realize their worth and to affirm girls as they are. But they fall into a trap that plagues many gendered evangelical charities; trying not to sexualize while emphasizing a modesty perspective ends up promoting superficial rules at the cost of a Godly perspective. And by targeting women, the group itself feeds into the legacy of patriarchal rules and oppression.

Culture & Conversation Media

‘The 1970s’: A Quirky, Scattershot Look Back at Feminism Four Decades Ago

Eleanor J. Bader

The collection captures the giddiness of the decade and the unbridled enthusiasm for creating new ways of being and doing.

Readers looking for a comprehensive history of the feminist social movements that existed four decades ago will not find it in The 1970s, a quirky, scattershot collection of 31 academic essays, poems, memoir fragments, fiction, and artwork published as the fall/winter edition of WSQ, formerly known as Women’s Studies Quarterly. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Like all anthologies, individual readers will likely find some contributions in The 1970s, edited by Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán, more alluring than others. Nonetheless, they will also walk away with a new or renewed respect for the foremothers of modern feminism, including the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress, 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm; the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective; and those who organized festivals and conferences in order to strategize and socialize with other women and political thinkers.

The collection captures the giddiness of the decade and the unbridled enthusiasm for creating new ways of being and doing. As someone who came of age in the 1970s, I was reminded not only of the excesses of the period, but of the deeply felt thrill of creating spaces centered on women. The fact that many newly minted feminists, like me, truly believed that a social revolution was imminent sounds naïve today—and maybe even ridiculous—at the time it seemed not just possible but probable.

The 1970s captures this spirit, but as a non-linear collection does so in fits and starts. Instead, the anthology is divided into five thematic sections: Powerful Sisterhoods; Sex, Representation, and the Uses of the Erotic; New Sounds, New Sights; Form and Content: Popular Platforms; and Classics Revisited: The Equal Rights Amendment. Nearly every entry was written specifically for the collection, a fact that makes the anthology a modern-day look backward, full of both concrete information and the wisdom of hindsight.

In “Sex and the Me Decade: Sex and Dating Advice Literature of the 1970s,” Smith College Lecturer Anna E. Ward zeroes in on the changing ethos about sex, marriage, and gender that emerged thanks to the previous decade’s counterculture. The shifts, she writes, were initially apparent in the marital advice manuals that began circulating in the early 1960s and that directly acknowledged women as sexual beings. The impetus for this change was the public admission that unmarried people fooled around—a revelation credited to Helen Gurley Brown’s taboo-breaking 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. Until then, Ward explains, all sex guides had been written by men and were exclusively addressed to husbands and their physicians.

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As the 1970s took hold, female sexual desire was finally noted and “how-to” texts were published by both mainstream print shops and newly forming feminist presses with the explicit aim of increasing female satisfaction. Feminists took the idea of female sexual agency even further, Ward writes: demanding that sex itself be seen as a political act. After all, they argued, wasn’t sexuality impacted by the gender inequities and the power imbalances that existed within many heterosexual families? If women were considered inferior to men and naturally subservient, how could this not impact one’s sex life?

So what to do?

During the 1970s, Ward explains, the primacy of the vaginal orgasm became fodder for debate, and women began to contest the many fallacies they’d been taught. Consciousness Raising [CR] groups, as they were called, formed, and, among other things, helped women understand their bodies, including the clitoris as a pleasure site. Not surprisingly, as women opened up about their sex lives, the discussion grew to include how they had been miseducated and mistreated by men. Indeed, as anger and frustration bubbled over, so did organizing. According to Ward, “Women and Their Bodies, published in 1970 and later renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves, grew out of CR sessions. In addition to the anatomy and physiology section that discussed women’s reproductive and sexual anatomy, the text devotes an entire section to sexuality. As was common at many feminist CR sessions, the text encourages women to examine their bodies, particularly their genitalia.”

A host of books, by women for women, soon emerged: Free and Female: The Sex Life of the Contemporary Woman, Woman’s Orgasm: A Guide to Sexual Satisfaction, and Sex for Women Who Want to Have Fun and Loving Relationships with Equals among them.

An even bigger shift involved the expansion of intended audience. Ward reports that ‘70s sex manuals recognized the sexualities of LGBTQ and people with disabilities, and touched upon previously ignored topics including the impact of illness, pregnancy, menopause, and aging on sexual behavior. The ways sexual abuse impacted body image and performance were also explored.

That said, Ward writes that almost all of these books were authored by straight, cis, white “experts,” who ignored the centrality of race, sexual preference, and class in the formation of sexual identity and the everyday choices that were—and still are—available to different populations. Still, she concludes that their work played a discernible role in expanding gender and sex norms throughout society, developments that prompted wider acceptance of difference overall.

Meanwhile, Canada-based writer-teacher Lise Weil’s “Beginning With O,” taken from her in-progress memoir, In Search of Pure Lust, addresses what coming out for the first time meant for her. The piece is a funny, tender, and sweet reflection on an all-women’s weekend she attended in 1977. Attentive to the over-the-top enthusiasms of the era—including an “elaborate vagina slide show presented by a tall, energetic woman with a pointer”—it beautifully captures the moment, and then some.

Like Weil, other writers move between the personal and political. In “Programas Sin Vergüenza (Shameless Programs): Mapping Chicanas in Community Radio in the 1970s”, Monica de la Torre, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, writes about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s attempt to diversity its staffing and programming. Part of the third section of the anthology, New Sounds, New Sights, Programas Sin Vergüenza references a 1974 survey that revealed CPB to be a bastion of whiteness.

After the survey’s findings were released, the CPB attempted to bring in new voices from the Asian, Black, and Latino communities. “Chicano sound activism,” De La Torre writes, was one of the bi-products: a way to bring a diverse Chicano population into radio broadcasting. In 1979, California’s Radio KDNA became the country’s “first, full-time Spanish-language, noncommercial radio station,” De La Torre writes. Along with KBBF FM 89.1, a Santa Rosa, California station set up by farmworkers, these community-run stations helped nonprofessionals acquire the skills to create programs explicitly directed toward low-wage workers and their families.

It did not take long for women to become immersed in them, learning production and going on air to address their concerns: relationships, poverty, child-rearing, abortion and contraceptive availability, and the lack of educational and vocational opportunities open to them. “These radio programs were powerful,” De La Torre writes, “and worked to inform women and to break the silence of discussing sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Rather than conducting them in private spheres, Chicanas were bringing these conversations to the public airwaves, giving women the knowledge that they may not have received elsewhere.”

Sadly—frustratingly—these heady advances were not sustained; De La Torre reports that in 2014 “people of color held just over seven percent of radio licenses while women held less than seven percent of all TV and radio station licenses.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the only place where there has been backsliding. As is obvious, feminist radio programming, especially that controlled by women of color, has fallen off since its heyday in the 70s; the Equal Rights Amendment has still not passed; abortion and contraception are still not universally accepted as social benefits; and sexism, sexual violence, and misogyny are still ubiquitous.

Equally appalling, despite some progress towards egalitarian parenting, raising kids remains a largely female responsibility—and society often pushes individual mothers to concentrate on their own families rather than on the isolating structures that make their situations more difficult. Kara Van Cleaf’s “Of Woman Born to Mommy Blogged: The Journey from the Personal as Political to the Personal as Commodity,” parses contemporary motherhood by critiquing 47 “Mommy Blogs” written between 2010 and 2013. Although there are obviously exceptions, unlike Adrienne Rich’s 1976 book, Of Woman Born, Van Cleaf writes that today’s “mommy bloggers,” everyday women writing about the challenges of motherhood, “rarely connect their feelings or experiences to gendered structures of power.” Typically, she writes, “The challenges of motherhood are overwhelmingly couched as personal problems that can be overcome by readjusting one’s mind rather than, as the feminists of the 1970s asserted, by readjusting society.”

It’s a sobering insight, and it’s impossible to read the essay and not wonder how and why this happened. Indeed, the full story of how the exuberance of the 1970s was undermined by Reaganism and the New Right remains to be written. Nonetheless, as feminists and progressives of the ‘70s used to say, la lucha continua, the fight continues. So let’s go. There’s absolutely no time to waste in organizing to build a better and fairer world.

Commentary Media

For Gloria Steinem, Adventure Lies ‘Just Beyond an Open Door’

Eleanor J. Bader

My Life on the Road is part autobiography, part political treatise, and part impressionist account of the amazing people and places Gloria Steinem has encountered during the four-plus decades she’s been an itinerant feminist agitator.

When I was 14, activists Gloria Steinem and Florynce Kennedy came to a synagogue in my hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to give a talk about the then-burgeoning women’s movement. It was the late 1960s, and feminism had begun to ignite wide-scale interest in the struggle they championed. The room was packed to bursting and I recall the thrill of hearing Kennedy pepper her presentation with the word “fuck.” What’s more, I remember the pair’s passion and wit, and left the auditorium feeling excited about the possibility of winning gender equality.

I became a quick convert to what was then known as women’s liberation. Secondarily, I hoped that my life would be as exciting and glamorous as I imagined Steinem and Kennedy’s to be.

Needless to say, I was not unique in this resolution. Indeed, Steinem and Kennedy’s energy was contagious and their presentations undoubtedly influenced audiences around the country—adults as well as teenagers—to envision a more egalitarian world. But Steinem’s latest memoir, My Life on the Road, out today from Random House, does not strongly detail the effects of her activism. Instead, the book is part autobiography, part political treatise, and part impressionist account of the amazing people and places she’s encountered during the four-plus decades she’s been an itinerant feminist agitator. It’s a fascinating gallop through her early years, touching upon her political awakening and campaign involvements as well as the creation of Ms. magazine and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Along the way, she introduces a cast of memorable characters, from cab drivers to congresspeople.

The result is an intensely moving, humble reflection on a remarkable life.

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“When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say, ‘Because I travel,’” she writes in the book’s introduction. In speeches on college campuses and in coffee shops, religious institutions, and community centers, Steinem writes that she not only talks, but listens. “What we’re told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question,” she writes. “In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides.”

Investigating these nuances has motivated Steinem to spend more than half of her adult life traveling, lecturing, and seeking input from Americans throughout the 50 states. Yet there is more to the story. In addition to wanting to spread feminist ideas and ideals, Steinem confesses that there is a far more personal reason for her wanderlust: a psychological longing for movement that mirrors the desires of her larger-than-life father. Leo Steinem “wanted no home at all,” she says, and was content to live out of his car, or in cheap motel rooms, doing a little of this and a little of that to keep himself, his wife, and his two daughters minimally fed and clothed. Steinem’s love for her adventurous dad is obvious, and her early childhood years are, for the most part, presented as pleasant. At the same time, Steinem admits that there were times when she longed for a more stable upbringing, with a school she could walk to and friends and family who lived nearby.

When Steinem was 10, she got her wish. Her parents separated, and she began to live with her mother full-time, first in Massachusetts and then in Ohio. Unfortunately, being settled was not as she’d imagined. Her mother suffered from severe depression and when Steinem was a teenager her mother’s illness prompted her to move to Washington, D.C., to live with her older sister. College, and then a two-year fellowship in India, followed.

Steinem recounts time spent in the ashram of Vinoba Bhave, the leader of an Indian land reform movement, as particularly instructive. Bhave and a team of supporters, including Steinem, walked from village to village, requesting that landowners give a small percentage of their property to the landless. Their methods involved community discussions using a technique that was new to Steinem: the talking circle. “It was the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time. I had no idea that such talking circles had been a common form of governance in most of human history, from the Kwei and San in southern Africa, the ancestors of us all, to the First Nations on my own continent, where layers of such circles turned into the Iroquois Confederacy, the oldest continuous democracy in the world.”

The experience further taught her some organizing basics: “If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. If you hope people will change how they live, you have to know how they live. If you want people to see you, you have to sit down with them eye-to-eye.”

By the time Steinem returned to the United States in the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was in full flower and she credits the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with pushing her to get involved in domestic politics—and feminism. She writes that during the march she found herself standing next to a woman named Mrs. Greene, whose first name she does not include, a Black woman who had worked in a segregated D.C. office during the Truman administration. This indignity was not the only thing that rankled Greene and she grumbled that only one woman, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, was on the dais, and none had been asked to speak to the assembled crowds.

“I hadn’t even noticed the absence of women speakers,” Steinem says, nor had she “thought about the racist reason for controlling women’s bodies.” Still, she writes, “I felt a gear click into place in my mind … Thanks to Mrs. Greene—and many others brave enough to stand up for themselves and other women—I began to understand that females were an out-group.”

Eventually, under the tutelage of Dorothy Pitman Hughes—a now 77-year-old pioneer of nonsexist, multiracial child care, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, and the woman credited with organizing the first shelter for battered women in New York City—Steinem harnessed her fear of public speaking and, with Hughes, began her career as a spokesperson for the emerging feminist movement. “Since we had been successful one on one, Dorothy suggested we speak to audiences as a team. Then we could each talk about our different but parallel experiences, and she could take over if I froze or flagged,” she writes.

Utilizing the talking circle she’d seen in India, she and Hughes helped audiences of women and men of all races and social classes “discover they were neither crazy nor alone in their experiences of unfairness or efforts to be both their unique selves and to find a community,” noting that their attendees “told their own stories.” That said, not everyone was overjoyed with the duo’s message—or that of her later pairing with Florynce Kennedy, who died in 2000—and Steinem reports that on one hand, she was berated by the press as too attractive to be a feminist, and simultaneously called a lesbian, a presumed insult. “I learned to just say, ‘thank you,’” to the insinuation, she writes. “It disclosed nothing, confused the accuser, conveyed solidarity with women who were lesbians, and made the audience laugh.”

Meanwhile, Steinem continued to be in demand as a speaker. Rather than driving in a car alone, she reports that she almost always used public means and includes numerous anecdotes about her encounters with cab drivers and passengers on trains, buses, and planes; all add to the book’s charm.

Similarly, her account of her decades-long friendship with Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, is tender and filled with affection and humor. Her account of Mankiller’s 2010 death, surrounded by Steinem and other loved ones, is also a model for dying with dignity.

All told, most of Steinem’s stories accentuate the positive, and showcase people’s goodness rather than their avarice or malice. Nonetheless, one negative tale zeroes in on author/activist Betty Friedan’s unsuccessful bid to take the helm of the National Women’s Political Caucus at its founding convention in 1971. The way Steinem tells it, Friedan’s arrogance and the lack of supporting sisterhood is appalling. This, however, is an exception in an otherwise upbeat account of Steinem’s work as a feminist community organizer and writer.

There is, however, one glaring omission: Her three-year marriage, which lasted from 2000 until her spouse died in 2003, is never mentioned, leaving me to wonder how she juggled so much travel with maintaining the relationship, or if this was an issue. I also wanted to know if she ever got tired of being on the move.

Although neither topic is tackled, Steinem does write that after she turned 50—years before her marriage at age 66—she began to crave a place of respite and finally took steps to create a comfortable nest to return to when she was not on the road. This, she stresses, did not diminish her enjoyment of travel. It did have an impact though: “I lost the melancholy feeling of Everybody has a home but me. I could leave—because I could return. I could return—because I knew adventure lay just beyond an open door. Instead of either/or I discovered a whole world of and.”

Steinem is now 81 and seems unlikely to retire from writing or speaking anytime soon. My 14-year-old self was right to see her as a role model and My Life on the Road reminded me how pithy and insightful she continues to be. Indeed, she not only provokes optimism about egalitarian possibilities, she inspires new generations to want more and better. She deserves our respect and gratitude.