Softly Eclipsed – Reflections of a Married Officer
By Major Deborah Flagg –
Emily Dickinson, the American poet, and Catherine Booth, the British preacher and theologian, lived their lives at about the same time. An ocean and a culture apart, they both embodied the feminine distinctives of their era, both were touched with genius, both were seekers of God, and both left behind important legacies that continue to move the hearts and minds of those who look for truth.
For all their commonalities, their stories diverge dramatically at certain key points. Dickinson, the “belle of Amherst,” never ventured far from the quaint New England village that was her home. Molded by 19th century Victorian sensibilities, she graced the rooms of a stately mansion on one of Amherst’s main streets and quietly wrote letters to a few intimate friends and volumes of poetry which were only discovered after her death in 1886.
In contrast, Booth exercised her gift of words for all to hear. She courageously trekked into areas unfriendly to women and by her presence helped to change people’s minds about what women could and could not do. Gifted theologian, passionate pioneer and co-founder of what has become one of the world’s largest Christian organizations, Booth was as expansive as Dickinson was reclusive. She was called to move out into the world with the Gospel’s good news as Emily created her own world within the confines of her poetic imagination, seemingly resigned to being hedged by the men in her life and living vicariously through them.
Emily Dickinson’s first volume of poetry was published posthumously in 1890, the same year Catherine Booth died, leaving behind a body of work which prompted author Norman Murdoch to write, “Many agree, no man of her era exceeded her in popularity or spiritual results, including her husband.” Just as people were beginning to wrestle with Dickinson’s beautiful but sometimes cryptic expressions, many had already been impacted by the transformative message of Booth’s Spirit-driven ministry.
Two gifted women, two lives, two unmistakable legacies. One life was lived within the narrow confines of what was acceptable for members of “the fairer sex.” One life was lived gently pushing back the boundaries, in widening circles of influence, in the secure identity which comes through the power of God.
As a married woman officer, these two lives have become emblematic for me because in The Salvation Army, I live out my vocation fluctuating between Emily and Catherine. I have experienced the confines of being a woman in a male-administered organization, but I have also experienced wondrous possibilities for ministry. I have struggled within narrowly defined roles, but I have also been challenged to develop my own unique gifts. I have been given appointments only because they were the complement to my husband’s assignment, but I have also known the great joy and privilege of a vital team ministry. To use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, I have at times felt “softly eclipsed” by an organization which values me, but doesn’t quite know what to do with me.
Judging by the expressions of other married women officers, I am not the only one who feels this polarity. The recent proliferation of articles in The Officer journal, from Captain Donna Ames’ insightful analysis of the challenges of implementing equality to more personal reflections of life experience, indicates that the role of the married women officer continues to be problematic, a source of tender frustration for women and men alike. The role of the married woman officer has become a scaffolding onto which everything from officer family relationships to organizational logistics has been loaded. No wonder it is such a wearisome issue!
Three love affairs
In my own life I have been by turns querulous, angry, resigned and mystified by my situation. I have analyzed, theologized and scrutinized both the positive and negative aspects of being the female member of an officer “unit,” and I have prayed for wisdom and clarity. My reaction has always been tempered by the fact that I’ve had an ongoing love affair with the three principal players in my dilemma: God, who calls and equips me, my husband, with whom I live out my calling, and the Army, which has given me so many rich opportunities for spiritual growth and service. My love for all three has kept me from giving over to anger, but it has not blinded me to the reality of a deep pool of under-utilized human resources that is the Army’s married women, women who are oftentimes softly eclipsed and gently silenced by the semi-permeable structures that encompass all of us.
Married women, however, are not without responsibility in all of this. I have too often taken the path of lesser accountability when it has been offered. I have at times embraced the indulgences given to married officers of my gender. I have waved the flag of family and children when it
was not alto-gether necessary. I have
had choices that my husband has not had in terms of flexible hours and responsibilities.
I, along with many of my sisters, have accepted these charities and have been grateful for them, but they are gifts not without cost. One of those costs is the continuing perception that married women are not functionally suited to serve equally with men, to be held accountable for heavy responsibilities, to “be there” on a regular basis. Having been protected and channeled into a “mommy track,” many of us are just not sure what we are capable of. We live in a system that allows for this and in which we all participate. And the pull between Emily and Catherine continues.
We’ve come a long way
In spite of the seemingly intractable nature of our predicament, upon reflection hopeful signs emerge. We really have come a long way! Three vignettes from my experience point the way to optimism in the ongoing challenge of gender roles within the Army.
The first concerns the simple issue of naming. About 20 years ago when I was (Mrs.) Lieutenant serving in Sheridan, Wyo., I received my officer’s identification card bearing the name “Mrs. Lieutenant Murray Flagg.” Where was my name on my identification card? I quickly typed a letter of gentle protest to the field secretary stating that it seemed only reasonable that a woman officer’s name appear on her personal identification card. Some time later, a kind letter of response arrived, along with a freshly minted card which read “Mrs. Lieutenant Murray (Deborah) Flagg I was happy. Small steps!
A second defining moment happened a few years later when we were newly appointed to a DHQ position. In the spring when the trees were beginning to blossom and it came time for the Divisional Program Review, it became disturbingly apparent to me that the women staff officers were to be involved in the review for only about one hour during the two-day process. The rest of the time we were to fix coffee breaks for the men and be about our own business. I was assigned a coffee break involving fancy tea sandwiches.
Never having fixed fancy tea sandwiches, I went to the library to research the latest in this culinary challenge, and when the time came, the colors were coordinated, the sandwiches were perfect and the coffee was hot. As we served the men and cleared away the remnants, I remember thinking that we women should also be in that board room. We should also be discussing the people and programs of the division–learning, contributing and being accountable for our ministry. Was I the only one that sensed something amiss? This experience ignited a small fire in my heart that burns to this day.
The third vignette is a series of events at various times in my officership–the congresses, commissionings and other public meetings in which women were all but silent. Where were the women’s voices, especially the married women?Where were the sounds that I might emulate, God’s message on female lips? Perhaps they too were waiting for the Spirit of God to break the sound barrier.
These three moments define for me where we were. Both amusing and disturbing, they point to where we currently are and how far we’ve traveled in these last several years. I am now Major Deborah Flagg on my identification card, my correspondence, my byline and in public programs. The women staff officers now participate in the entire divisional review process, mandated to be there as the men are, encouraged to contribute to this important exercise. Women’s voices are heard more often in our collective worship and celebrations. Married women are even being given their own appointments, completely separate from their husband’s, based on their gifts and abilities. Thanks to General and Mrs. Rader and other leaders who have been willing to confront these complex issues of parity, we have made progress. We still have a way to go.
A few years ago Time magazine ran a feature article on the role of women as the new reformation in the church. We in the Army are also experiencing this reformation. We are currently involved in a “crisis of dismantling,” in which our traditional, comfortable structures are being critically reviewed and are beginning to crumble around the edges. This dismantling is frightening for all of us, because it is the harbinger of a new world for which we may not be ready. If, however, we can begin to embrace the process, relinquish the familiar and soften the boundaries of our rigid structures, we may receive from God’s hand a new way of being in which everyone–men, women, married, single, officer, soldier–may begin to participate equally in the great challenge of our organizational life, our communal journey toward God. As Celia Hahn reminds us, “Out of control moments are moments when a life-giving possibility might break through: new insight, a new direction, new power to move out of a stuck place.”
A transforming gift
Mary Barnett Gilson, U.S. economist and educator, has proclaimed that “Until the sky is the limit for women as it is for men, men as well as women will suffer, because all society is affected when half of it is denied equal opportunity for
full development.” We may or may not agree on the truth of this statement, but we can all agree on this: when God-given gifts go unused, the whole body is impoverished. Gifts that are used bring opportunities for grace. In the story
Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen, we see a beautiful portrayal of how one person’s offering of a great gift can transform a pinched and squabbling community into a place of love and forgiveness where everyone shares at the table and all feast of the goodness. This sounds wonderful! It sounds like the kingdom of God.
In my continuing struggle between Emily and Catherine the Spirit of God continues to break through, helping me to find my place, helping me to find myself, helping me to move outward toward ever more challenging avenues of ministry. And in the meantime, there are glimpses of hope, incredible surprises and moments of insight when I see the hand of God at consistent, loving work in our midst.
This is the work of a lifetime, and change happens slowly, so slowly that we might give up hope. But change does happen! We can’t begin to imagine what God has in store for us. As Emily Dickinson wrote from her cozy upstairs room, “I’ll tell you how the sun rose–A ribbon at a time.”
May God grant us patience, and wisdom and love.
(Major Deborah Flagg, an officer, wife and mother, has written extensively for New Frontier and The War Cry. She currently serves as the Sierra Del Mar Divisional Women’s Ministries Secretary, and is working toward a Master of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary.)