Gov. Mike Huckabee flew to New York City Wednesday after announcing his GOP presidential bid in his hometown of Hope, Arkansas. He answered questions from a pool of voters on The Kelly File, and mine was:
"You recently said you 'speak Jesus'. As a Christian minister myself, I wonder which female character in the Bible best helps you to understand the struggles of women and why equal pay is so critical to the social and economic stability of families?"
Huckabee, without hesitation, answered “Ruth”, citing her loyalty to her deceased husband’s family, her willingness to leave her “old God” behind and accept the family’s “new God”, and her decision to follow her mother-in-law.
Unfortunately, calling these things heroic have nothing to do with why Ruth can help people understand the struggles of women, and why in 2015 we need to be making concrete steps to create transparency around equal pay for women doing equal work to men.
Huckabee missed an opportunity to speak about the social, political, economic and religious structures reflected in the Bible which systematically devalued and oppressed women in the male-ruled world, with a tendency to leave them destitute. In this way, female biblical characters are a study in women’s struggles throughout history and today. But Huckabee fails to understand the real, complex, underlying narrative of Ruth.
Let’s start with who Ruth really was: a poverty-stricken, widowed foreigner. Three strikes in those times. She was vulnerable and unprotected, barely hanging on to the bottom rung of society, with no opportunities in sight because her husband, his father, and his brothers had all died. She and Naomi, her mother in law, were in a serious pickle because they had no husbands and no sons, which made them outcasts, and chaste charity was hard to come by. (There’s a reason prostitution is the world’s oldest profession for women.)
Since there was a famine in Moab, Ruth decided to go with Naomi to Judah, where they heard there was food. Very long, complicated story short: When they arrive, they find Boaz, a wealthy relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Ruth goes to glean among the sheaves of his field from what was left after the reapers, which was the ‘government’s’ standard provision for allowing widows and foreigners to eat. Boaz notices Ruth and makes sure the young male workers don’t sexually assault her.
Later, out of desperation (again: no husband, no son, no status), Ruth and Naomi hatch a plan to exploit the local custom. Ruth gussies herself up and goes to the threshing floor (associated with extra-marital sex in the Old Testament), waits till Boaz is tipsy, then “uncovers his feet” (a euphemism for genitals in the cultural context), and puts them both at risk by staying the night. Then she waits for him to “redeem” her in cultural practice (which he’d be expected to do) by marrying her and becoming her go’el — a male relative who makes sure the family property remains in the family. And Naomi and Ruth were property. (As was the land of Naomi’s deceased husband, a bonus!)
Their only choice for survival was to use sexy times to trick Boaz into being forced to take them in. And God is thanked for this throughout. I give you the moral of the story: women need value and equality in society, not more patriarchal religious rules, in order to truly thrive. This is the picture of women’s struggles that I was hoping Huckabee would see.
Huckabee also missed a great opportunity to draw a parallel to today, when women are systematically undervalued and paid less for equal (or even better) work than their male counterparts.
American women who work full time are generally paid only 78 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterpart. Black women average 64 cents, and Latina women 56. Overall, the gap in pay translates to almost $11,000 less per year in median earnings for women and their families. This lost money could pay for months of health insurance, medical bills, child care, groceries, rent and student loans. It could even determine whether women can start savings. Fortunately, the gap is closing a little for younger women, but the inequality in earnings still starts right out of college.
Unequal earnings have the most serious effect on the more than 7.3 million families with a single working mother as the head. Creating a system of transparency and standard for earnings equality for equal work and contribution could lift families off of Medicare and SNAP. Equal pay for equal work is not a “women’s issue”…it effects the health of children, men, families and the economy.
Christian ethics are not about “looking to the top” as Huckabee mentioned. The top is doing just fine already. It’s about reaching into the struggles of those who are systemically undervalued with empathy, and working to create change. That is what Jesus did. Even the Pope last week called on leaders to address the “pure scandal” of pay inequality for women. As a consolation, Huckabee did offer a throw-away line that equal pay should be expected.
For women of faith, breaking our backs to glean the leftovers or relinquishing our dignity to manipulate a demeaning, biased system are not solutions. We already know we are equal in God’s eyes; it’s time to be treated that way in a what is still, for many corporations and politicians, a “man’s world.”