by LaDonna Witmer
I once jumped from a 40-foot cliff just because a boyfriend said I couldn’t.
We were out on the Rock River in his dad’s motorboat with another couple, and had already climbed and leapt from a 10-foot ledge, heedlessly plunging our limber young bodies into the churning gray water. The other girl swam back to the boat, but our boyfriends began climbing higher. I followed.
“What are you doing?” Joe said. We hadn’t known each other long or well, but he hosted a weekly Saturday night Bible study and had a reputation for being a reformed drug-user and skirt-chaser. Now he had his sights set on being a missionary to Russia, converting all those communists and winning himself the approval of Jesus and maybe even his own fickle father, while he was at it.
Before we went out on the river that day, he handed me an extra-large t-shirt and asked me to pull it on over my one-piece bathing suit, to hide my body from view and relieve him from temptation. We had been dating for a month. He hadn’t yet tried to hold my hand.
“If I hold your hand,” he explained, “I start imagining what it would feel like to touch other parts of your body. I just can’t do it without being tempted to sin.”
I was annoyed but gave up a measure of grudging respect for the discipline of his self-restraint. I pulled the shirt over my head. It fell to mid-thigh, effectively shrouding my more troublesome tools of seduction.
Later, before the cliff jump, as we lolled in the back of the boat, Joe slid his tanned hand beneath the billowing cotton, climbed his calloused fingers up the rungs of my vertebrae. I refused to acknowledge his touch, afraid if I did he would remember his sin, and stop. A small, wicked sense of triumph unfurled inside the secret part of my heart as I wondered what else he was imagining stroking.
“You had better turn around and go back down,” he scolded as I pulled myself up the face of the cliff. “Once you get to the top, you have to jump. It’s too dangerous to climb down. Go back to the boat with Tori.”
“I want to jump from the top too,” I insisted.
“Girls don’t jump from up there,” he said.
I never did well when someone told me that I couldn’t do a thing because I was a girl. I kept climbing.
When I pulled myself up and over to stand on the edge of the rock, the drop looked much higher than it had from the bottom looking up.
I had never been afraid of heights. I used to sit on the roof of our two-story farmhouse, my back against the chimney, to read a book and avoid the dinner dishes. But I found myself having qualms. Sudden, stomach-churning qualms.
I admitted to nothing.
I had thought perhaps the boyfriend would be impressed by my derring do, maybe we’d jump into the sky holding hands.
But he seemed annoyed and said brusquely, “Make sure you run and jump out, instead of down. Otherwise you’ll smash into the part of the rock that sticks out.”
Then he did as he said, flinging himself into the ether with a yowl. I was left standing alone, listening to the splash, to the rabbiting thump of my heart.
My mother’s favorite singer was Joni Eareckson Tada, a Christian woman who painted watery landscapes with a brush clutched between her teeth. In her 20s, she dove into too-shallow water and fractured her spine. She was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
I imagined her withered legs, her useless hands, as I stood atop that cliff. I was going to break myself with this fall. I was going to become a quadriplegic. And for what? My pride? Some sense of burgeoning feminism? To impress a boy who was so frightened of his own misbehaving dick, he wouldn’t even kiss me?
I was waiting too long. The boys below were going to know I was scared. There was no way down but to jump, and waiting would only make it worse. I backed myself up and teetered into a jog. The edge came up fast and I threw myself from it without a sound.
Falling was freedom until I realized I could think. I could count, and I hadn’t yet reached the water. I closed my eyes and pulled my legs toward my chest, slamming into the surface on my left hip.
It hurt so much that as I sank toward the river bottom, I thought I had broken my legs, my spine, my brain. But no, I could move. I kicked myself from the murk and swam to the boat, teeth bared in a grimace.
“That was fun!” I chirped as I hauled myself into the boat, covered my shaking legs with a towel. My boyfriend shook his head and shoved the throttle forward, heading us home to the dock.
The bruises appeared the next day, my entire upper thigh painted with deep eggplant whorls. I showed only my mother, who handed me an ice pack and asked me what I was thinking.
I wouldn’t do it again but I couldn’t regret it.
I couldn’t let that boy tell me who I was.
A Virtuous Woman Who Can Find?
Although I tried my best to live up to the standards of good womanhood, it was clear I didn’t have the makings of a good wife. Submission felt suffocating. I couldn’t seem to do it right.
At Faith Baptist Christian School, girls were groomed to be wife material. Being married was the highest calling, especially if you could land a husband who was a pastor or missionary.
In Home Economics classes, we were taught the fine art of making a pot roast, of sewing a pillowcase. Girls only, of course. While we were encouraged to mimic the pastor’s wife in her feminine pursuits — flower arranging, piano playing, party planning — the guys were off learning something more worthy of their testosterone.
At home, my mother despaired of ever improving my cooking skills. I refused to learn how to do much more than boil water or flip an egg. Standing around a stove was boring, I moaned. I’d rather muck out a horse stall.
“Well, then, you’d better find yourself a husband who’s rich,” she sighed. “Or maybe one who can cook for himself.”
I shrugged away her concerns. I had no intention of binding myself to a man. And I couldn’t stand kids. I chose to earn summer money by mowing my neighbor’s lawn instead of babysitting, like the respectable girls my age. I didn’t share their dreams of someday bearing babies of my own.
In 10th grade I slouched in a stiff-backed seat on the hand-me-down school bus that ferried us to our gym class at the local YMCA and eavesdropped as the senior girls made plans to trap a husband.
Back in the moist school bathroom, us girls had all swapped our modest mid-calf skirts and dresses for our modest active wear — wide, unfashionable culottes that swung below our kneecaps and bunched between our legs when we ran laps around the basketball court.
I hated changing in front of anyone — not only because I didn’t want them to stare appraisingly at my bare ribcage, but because seeing them all divested of their protective layers of clothing was unsettling.
I couldn’t wrest my eyes away from the way Lauren’s pubic hair swarmed aggressively out either side of the crotch of her high-waisted panties. Or the way Helen’s DD breasts strained against the confines of her thick-strapped bra.
I would rather bear the teasing that ensued when I locked myself into a cramped toilet stall, balancing my duffle bag on the stained white seat while I squirmed into my oversize t-shirt, laced up my blue and white running shoes.
“What’s the matter, LaDonna? Too good for us?”
“Got something under there you need to hide?”
I found that not responding was the best tactic — they got bored and moved on to someone else’s oddity.
Once culotte-clad and loaded aboard the bus, the older girls — none of whom had boyfriends — would imagine aloud all the ways in which they might meet their future husbands at the Bible colleges they’d attend the following year.
“We’re gonna get our MRS Degrees, ladies!” crowed a senior named Beverley whose long brown hair perpetually swung free. She had read somewhere that men preferred women’s hair to remain long and loose, so she took great pride in swishing hers around her shoulders at all times.
I fingered my own thick ponytail, pulled high and tight, and wondered why they were all in such a hurry to give themselves away.
I wasn’t yet sure who I was or who I wanted to be, but I harbored an innate suspicion of the implied ownership of marriage.
Two Become One Flesh
Growing up, I watched from the pews in wedding after wedding as the bride and groom each took up a slender candle and dipped the small flames together toward the fat wick of the “unity candle.” And then, once their flames had merged and the larger, single candle was flickering brightly, they’d turn away and blow out the lights of their own.
I mourned the small deaths of those individual tapers. The insinuation that, once married, you became someone new.
Earning that coveted MRS degree required a loss of self-identity. You no longer belonged to your own particular self. You were your husband’s, now.
This understanding wasn’t a casually proffered sentiment, like the chipper “Be Mine” scribed on chalky Valentine hearts. No, when the men said, “She’s my wife,” they really leaned on the “my” part. Few came right out and said you were his property, but it was clear in hundreds of small, more polite ways. After all, you were the one giving up your maiden name to take his instead. It was more than a symbolic gesture.
The Bible itself talks about a man leaving father and mother to “cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24 KJV)
In a blog post titled “The Woman’s Role in the Home” on IndependentBaptist.com, Rachel Harkins writes,
What does it mean to be “one flesh?” Several times in the New Testament, this term is mentioned in reference to a husband and wife, and each time, it speaks of two becoming one. When the two become one, there is now only one head…the husband.
… Since the husband is to be the head of the home, the wife’s role in the home is to be in submission to her husband. To be in submission means “to yield, resign or surrender to the power, will or authority of another.”
Let me add right here, this is NOT just an outward act. True submission comes from within the heart. It’s very easy to submit on the outside and all the time be rebelling on the inside. If you are trying to live like that, I guarantee that you are having constant turmoil within. Real peace only comes when we acknowledge the God-given role of our husband as the head and we in submission to them.
Good wives don’t just submit, they do it gladly. They revere their husbands as the heads of the home, the providers, protectors, and patriarchs. True, the husbands were exhorted to love their wives — even as Christ loved the church. But privately, behind the closed doors of Sunday School classrooms and women’s Bible studies, we were admonished that if we didn’t submit, how could we expect him to truly love us?
The way to a man’s heart wasn’t through his stomach, after all. Men — the good Baptist ones — were attracted by a submissive spirit, a downcast gaze, a demure demeanor.
The winter that I was 20 years old, my friends Clint and Tori got married. I clutched a bouquet of lilies and wore a wine-hued velvet bridesmaid’s dress that left my shoulders daringly bare. Joe, the cliff-jumping boyfriend was my date. I memorized the way his eyes clung to my skin that day, since his hands hung uselessly at his sides.
Twenty-five years and three kids later, Tori confided in me as we sat in the tiny house she moved into after their divorce.
“He raped me so many times,” she said. “I didn’t know it was rape for years and years though, because I didn’t know a husband could rape his wife. I thought I was his — like his property. I married him, so now I belonged to him. He could do whatever he wanted with me and I just had to take it,” she shrugged and sipped from her coffee cup, “so I did.”
There’s a Bible verse in 1 Corinthians that comes into play here. Verses 4–5: “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.”
Sure, the verse talks about the wife having “power” over her husband’s body, but in practicality that detail always got glossed over. Because, wink-wink, nudge-nudge everyone knew that women didn’t really desire sex. That was a man’s purview. How could a woman have power over her husband’s body when she wasn’t allowed to dominate? A woman’s place was on the bottom, on her back. Complaint. Willing. But not too eager. That would be unseemly. Edging toward Jezebel.
Older woman warned us of this “defrauding” that 1 Corinthians spoke of. “Some days you might be tired, from tending the household and the children and putting together a lovely meal,” they said. “When it comes time for bed, and your husband wants relations, you might be tempted to say that you can’t. But think of what he’s been doing all day, as the breadwinner. He’s out there, making a living, working so hard for you and for your children. So don’t tell him no. Do not defraud him. Men have physical needs, and it is your duty, as his wife, to meet them.”
Know Your Place
In marriage, as everywhere, men wrote the script. Our lives were shaped as we contorted ourselves around their needs, their desires, their beliefs, their dreams, their ideals and appetites and ambitions.
A woman could be important, she could increase her value, but only as it related to her proximity to men. To her father, her son, her pastor, her husband. Women were as precious and beloved as jewels, but only when they were good wives. Only when they stayed home. When they bore both the babies and the brunt of the child-rearing. When they cooked nice meals and kept the house clean and their bodies available.
In her book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Dorothy Patterson writes: “A salaried job and titled position can inhibit a woman’s natural nesting instinct. …Keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife — even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors.”
Dorothy is the wife of Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and, for a time, head of the 15.9-million-member-strong Southern Baptist Convention as well.
She preaches her unwavering message that a woman’s place is in the home even though she herself holds two doctoral degrees, authors books, delivers lectures, and travels all over the world.
You don’t need to go to college to learn how to change sheets and scrub the floors. But there is a larger pool of men at college, and thus a better chance of earning that MRS degree.
So as we neared our senior year at Faith Baptist Christian School, the girls in my class — all seven of us — were making plans to matriculate.
There were only 4 colleges that were approved by the powers that be in our tiny world:
Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Whitewater, Wisconsin
Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in Owatonna, Minnesota
Northland Baptist Bible College in Dunbar, Wisconsin
and Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina
Only two of these four are still in existence today: Maranatha and Bob Jones.
In this statement on their website, Maranatha Baptist Bible College proudly proclaims itself to be full of fundamentalists: Maranatha’s origin lies squarely within the fundamental Baptist movement. As such, we have self-consciously identified ourselves as a separatist institution serving primarily independent and separatist Baptist churches. We reject the evangelical mindset towards culture and the tendencies to develop strategies for ecumenical evangelism and to cooperate with non-evangelical theologies. We see our mission as a militant defense of the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. We regard separation from disobedient brethren a sometimes necessary step in order to maintain fidelity to Scripture.
Meanwhile, Bob Jones has found itself in the headlines over the years for their racial segregation and rules against interracial dating. In 2020, they are still taking a strong stand for their version of biblical marriage, stating on their website: Marriage is a covenantal life-long relationship between a woman and a man who were physically created and assigned these genders by God (Gen. 1:27; Ps. 139:13–16; Matt. 19:4; Mark 10:6). We believe God intended heterosexual marriage for the propagation of the human race and the loving expression of healthy relational and sexual intimacy, and to picture the covenant relationship He has with all believers (Eph. 5:22–33).
These institutions of spiritual learning churned out a plethora of pastors, missionaries, and Christian school teachers. Indeed, these three male-dominated vocations were those most prized. Women who aspired to wed these sorts of fellows took courses in “Biblical Femininity” and “Homemaking.”
If you did not manage to find yourself a husband during your four years of higher education, you could still enter rooms with dignity if you became a Christian school teacher. Single female teachers were doted on at Christian schools, since they increased the pool of marriageable women for the bachelors in neighboring Baptist congregations.
During my 13 years of education at Faith Baptist Christian School, all of the unmarried female teachers found themselves husbands down the hall and around the corner, within the pews of Faith Baptist Christian Church. My mother repeatedly invited my sister’s third grade teacher, a Minnesotan with long, lank blonde hair and a braying laugh, out to our farm to “ride horses with the girls.” My desperately single cousin, who lived with us, somehow managed to hang around the pasture every single time. When he and the teacher finally married, my mother wore a self-satisfied grin to their wedding.
When I graduated from their high school at age 17, I was sure of only three things:
1. I definitely wanted a Bachelor’s Degree, but
2. I did not want to become a school teacher, Christian or otherwise, and
3. I was not attending ANY of the Baptist-approved colleges
I was in search of myself, of more information, of a wider world. I didn’t think I needed to get married to figure any of that out. This assumption made me an outlier.
Even my own mother, who stood out in our sphere as one of the more independent women, said she was always “waiting for God to send me the right man.”
As if she wasn’t complete without becoming a Mrs.
As if the nursing degree she earned in Chicago in the early 60s was just something to do to kill time while she waited. And so, apparently, was the train trip she took to relocate herself all the way across the country in Los Angeles. In the pediatric ward at Thousand Oaks, she nursed ailing children — including, she loved to remind us with a raised brow and a glint in her eye — one of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s babes.
“They were movie stars, you know. Big stars,” she said. “Of course, I pretended I didn’t know who they were. But everyone knew who Paul Newman was. He had those blue eyes. You couldn’t miss him.”
After a couple of years in the hospital, she enlisted in the Air Force Nursing Corps, which took her back across the country to Langley Air Force Base in Newport News, Virginia. It was there she met my father. And married him. And gave birth to me. And quit her job.
Though they’ve been married for half a century and are obviously devoted to one other — each of them reaching instinctively for the other’s hand whenever they go for a walk — I have had the growing suspicion as all of us age that my mother is lonely, and unhappy.
Sometime in those early years, after ceding her independence over, she became someone different. She gradually relinquished her nursing career, becoming instead a mother to two daughters, a gardener, a carpool driver, a homemaker, a wife.
And while I’ve always been clear on what my Dad’s dreams have been — to own a farm, to raise sheep and goats and live on a green hill with a red barn by a burbling creek — I don’t know, have never known, what my mother dreamt of. What she imagined her particular life would be, left to its own devices.
And now she herself can’t remember those dreams.
Do You Even Know Who You Are?
One recent morning I wake up to an Instagram post by my cousin’s daughter, freshly 18, her small freckled face split in the widest of grins as she flashes a diamond bestowed by her 22-year-old beau. The pomp and circumstance from her high school graduation has barely faded, and she’s been dating this guy for all of six months.
In that time, her social snapshots have undergone a sudden transformation. Photos of her dog and her sister have been swiftly replaced by his toothy smile enshrined as he sits atop his tractor, leans from his pickup truck, kneels in the leaves to brandish the freshly-shot carcass of a deer.
Her captions are drenched in the kind of teenage ardor that makes 40 year old women roll their eyes and flap red flags:
He’s my everything. My heart is so full.
So happy I get to do life with you by my side.
So many of my smiles begin and end with you.
She had saved her babysitting money to buy herself a horse, which she stables in my parents red bar, but not before reassuring her friends that she got her boyfriend’s permission for the purchase.
“Not sure how I got him to agree, but he did tell me I need a hobby for when he’s hunting all the time,” she posted.
I barely know the girl. I was gone to California before she was born, but I feel a deep-seated disappointment and rising anger. Not at her, but at the world that has shaped her. The one that has told her that she can’t move forward without a man.
The one that says, why bother with a Bachelor’s of anything when you can lock down that MRS degree without ever leaving town?
She’s never had another boyfriend. Never gone to college. Or gotten a passport, flown in an airplane, waded into the ocean. And now she’ll be consigned to a life of barn and babies.
Maybe that’s what she thinks she wants, but she doesn’t even know how much she doesn’t know herself yet. How much she could grow and learn and change in the next decade. How many doors she has just slammed shut, without ever taking a peek through a keyhole.
I can hardly blame her, though. This is what she was bred for. Submission. Subservience. Wifehood.
I was 27, with a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and a career in copywriting when I gave up my maiden name and became a Mrs.
My adult brain had barely finished developing, the higher level cognitive abilities of my prefrontal cortex only freshly wired up. But at the time, I thought I was an old maid. All my friends were married. Most had also acquired multiple children and a mortgage.
When Bruce proposed, after a year of dating and a three-month breakup, I said yes not only because I was deliriously in love, but out of a deep-seated sense of relief. Here, at long last, was a man who thought I would make a good wife. And would you believe it — he also loved to cook.
I took his name without shirking. In the year 2000, in northern Illinois, that’s just what you did. I didn’t realize I could hyphenate or keep the surname I was born with. Or maybe I didn’t think I was radical enough to clench my fist around my name and say, “No. This is mine. I am keeping it.”
When my new social security card arrived in the mail, scribed my new last name, it was accompanied by cards of congratulations addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Willems.”
LaDonna Witmer was erased, subsumed into this new married identity.
And though I tried to act as if Mrs. was all the name I needed, I still published poetry under my maiden name, keeping in in my back pocket like a talisman.
A 2015 New York Times report found that one in five women married in recent years kept their maiden names — particularly higher-income urban women. The older you are when you get married, the more likely you are to keep your own name. A 2010 study in the scholarly journal Names: A Journal of Onomastics revealed that women who married when they were 35–39 years old were 6.4 times more likely to keep their names than women who married between the ages of 20–24.
After 19 years of marriage, I raised the issue to my husband on a road trip through eastern California. Keeping my eyes fixed on the golden hills rolling like daydreams past the window, I said quietly, “I want to change my name back to Witmer.”
I felt my pulse accelerate, not because I thought he’d mind but because I didn’t want to hurt him by telling him I no longer wanted to bear his name.
But he simply said, “I think that’s great. You should do it.”
A few months later, I filed the paperwork and reclaimed the name of my birth.