Bluffton grad shares journey to feminism with students
Hannah Heinzekehr ‘07 is a proud feminist. The Bluffton University graduate and executive director of “The Mennonite” even writes a blog called “The Femonite.” However, Heinzekehr didn’t always embrace feminism. During the March 15 Forum at Bluffton University, Heinzekehr explained how she became a feminist, experienced sexism and learned of other systemic oppressions.
When Heinzekehr was a teenager, she felt as though feminism was an outdated concept.
“Feminism was not something that mattered to me at all,” said Heinzekehr. “It was something that mattered to women before me.”
However, her view changed drastically after graduating from Bluffton and entering the workforce at the age of 22. Heinzekehr worked in church relations for a Mennonite organization. Part of her job was to travel to local congregations across the country. During these visits, she would routinely preach or teach Sunday school. However, early in her career, one congregation requested a different speaker.
“When they learned that it was a busy Sunday and all of the other male speakers were spoken for already, they asked whether I would be willing to provide a story for the children during the Sunday service or whether I would be willing to set up an information table in the foyer,” said Heinzekehr.
For many conservative congregations, having a woman preach was out of the question. This was a blatant sign of sexism. However, Heinzekehr said she began to notice other more subtle signs of sexism in the workplace. For example, if she was assertive “people started to label me as a troublemaker.” And she noticed that, unlike her male counterparts, her appearance was often critiqued. “I started to overthink what I would wear. Is this too low cut? Is this skirt too tight? Can I wear pants to preach?”
As these incidents began to accumulate, Heinzekehr says she began to feel angry at the level of systemic oppression she encountered in the workplace.
“This was a disorienting experience to say the least. Not only was I encountering sexism, which I thought was long gone, but I was encountering it in the Church.”
Around the same time, she participated in a weekend Damascus Road antiracism training where she was introduced to the idea of systemic racism. During the training she had an “aha moment.”
“I realized, just as my male colleagues could operate with a privilege that shielded them from many of the experiences of sexism that I was encountering across the church, my whiteness shielded me from truly understanding the ways that systems throughout the United States and our Church place people of color at a disadvantage,” said Heinzekehr.
Heinzekehr pointed out that oppressions can intersect in complex and confusing ways which can breakdown work that is being done to lift people up.
“It’s easy to get caught up in a victim mentality downward spiral, or to pit one ism against another,” said Heinzekehr. “The choice should not be between addressing one ism or the other. How do we begin to understand that we can’t choose to simply discuss race or sex or class or gender, but that we must begin to work at all of these things together?”
Heinzekehr found guidance in the work and words of feminist bell hooks. “We need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. But (feminism) will make it possible for us to be fully self-actualized females and males able to create beloved community, to live together, realizing our dreams of freedom and justice, living the truth that we are all created equal.”
Heinzekehr was a communication major at Bluffton University and led her classmates as student senate president. She says her time at Bluffton gave her the confidence and tools to work against the sexism she experienced.
“I felt very affirmed in my own role as a leader, and I saw a lot of my female peers affirmed to take on their own leadership roles,” said Heinzekehr. “There was a core of confidence that I had that Bluffton helped to build— a confidence that women are called to lead in every way that men are.”
I realized, just as my male colleagues could operate with a privilege that shielded them from many of the experiences of sexism that I was encountering across the church, my whiteness shielded me from truly understanding the ways that systems throughout the United States and our church place people of color at a disadvantage.”