When Freedom Writer publisher Skipp Porteous asked me to write a story about Promise Keepers (PK), I packed my bags and headed to RFK stadium in Washington, DC. I was excited about the assignment because it gave me an opportunity few women are granted — to observe a PK event firsthand. The assignment brought with it a few challenges I hadn't anticipated.
I hadn't counted on being an instant curiosity for an entire weekend because of my gender. Just my appearance was enough to raise eyebrows. Laced with a few chuckles, comments like: "Aaah! It's a woman!," "Aren't you the wrong gender?" or "Women don't belong here," followed me wherever I went.
This made it easy to nab interviews, and often I joked with the men and chatted with them about PK. However, I found my patience wearing a bit thin after I was asked for the umpteenth time in one day, "So how does it feel to be outnumbered 52,000 to one?" and "What are you doing here?"
Being a member of the press was the only way to legitimize my presence as a woman in the stadium. Even if I wasn't taking photos, I took to wearing my large yellow PK press pass and my camera around my neck wherever I went. I even slipped on my press pass before I went down to breakfast in the hotel dining room, which was crowded with PK attendees.
Often PKers would read the name on my press pass, take note of my dark hair, and assume that I was Jewish. A few asked me questions about spiritual matters trying to pry into my personal life, and I would try to steer the conversation back to PK. I could see those "I hope I can convert this member of the heathen liberal media" lights blinking in their eyes. These incidents were rather humorous to me, since I had served as a Christian missionary overseas for a couple of summers.
There were also issues of a practical nature. After arriving at the only bathroom in the stadium for women, I was chagrined to find no toilet paper. Fortunately, a PK volunteer went into one of the men's rooms and hijacked a roll of toilet paper for me and the other women in the press corps.
I found myself treasuring my moments in the press box, where I could relax and avoid the scrutiny of the men in the bleachers. But even that hallowed professional domain was not entirely sacred.
During an interview in the press box, I was sexually harassed by an official PK volunteer. This man had just wandered into the press box and struck up a conversation with me, so with his permission I turned on my tape recorder.
Using comments loaded with sexual innuendo, the fiftyish PK volunteer railed against intellectuals, working mothers, and the separation of church and state. While he was talking, he leaned close to me, deliberately rubbing his leg firmly against my calf. Being the polite gal that my southern mother taught me to be, I just glowered and moved my legs.
My interviewee rambled on, saying how PK was restoring order to American families and how women belonged in the home. Then he started stroking my hand. This time I glared and pulled my hands away. Things seemed to be escalating, with even a couple of curse words spicing up his semi-flirtatious commentary. With a wink, he again rubbed my leg suggestively with his own. At this point, I ended the interview.
On my way down to the main floor of the stadium, I retreated to the lonely silence of the women's bathroom for a moment. I was thankful that I'd worn jeans that day and not the dress I'd packed in my suitcase. If I'd been wearing pantyhose at that moment, I would have flung them into the trash to get the feeling of that lecherous interviewee away from my skin.
When I described my experience to a female PK staff member later in the day, she dismissed it as a run-in with "a weirdo." She told me these "men are actually more respectful of women than you would have in the secular workplace." When I asked her how she felt about PK attendees who said that women didn't belong inside the stadium, she said, "It used to be really intimidating, but I don't notice it now."
I noticed that she also didn't go out in the bleachers very often and that she wore plenty of official PK gear. Like all of PK's staff, she had a big PK pass around her neck — perhaps it was her own way of legitimizing her presence in an environment that could be "intimidating" for women.
Most of the men I met while attending the PK event at RFK stadium treated me with courtesy, but my weirdo experience does highlight some troubling concerns. A scribbled entry in my trip journal for the day candidly observed that these men needed some gender sensitivity training, not just spiritualized paternalistic pandering to their own wives.
PK does inspire many men to take a greater interest in the lives of their families, but PK is not teaching men about how to deal fairly with women. If men go to PK with sexist assumptions about the inferiority of women, they certainly won't find anything there to change their minds.
When I mentioned PK's paternalism to my mother as we talked about my trip to DC for Freedom Writer, my polite southern mother gave a little sigh. In her gracious southern accent she said, "That's the worst kind of sexism. Because it's the kind that says it's for your own good, and it's the kind that never changes."
PK is providing men an excuse rooted in spirituality to be paternalistic. By telling men to love their wives and asserting that men should be in control of the household, PK has introduced a softer form of male dominance, tinging it with paternalistic affection. PK may be creating kinder, gentler Neanderthals, but they are still Neanderthals.