altar boy or girl, face not visible

The Seeds of My Sexism

by Jacqueline Jannotta

A vicious catch-22 frustrates the hell out of me, particularly as a mother of daughters: we need more leaders who are women and people of color, but this doesn’t happen because we don’t have enough women and people of color in leadership roles who can advance those needed changes. Whether in government, the workplace, religious institutions or elsewhere, this dilemma stems from the notion of “to become it we must see it” — yet we don’t “see it” enough to “become it.”  Further compounding (and confounding) the issue is that sometimes even those who stand to gain the most from a change will still push to keep the status quo. In the 21st century it should not be this hard to get past historic precedent when it comes to visible and necessary changes in leadership. Yet here we are. 

When faced with a mystifying issue like this one, I often scan my past for insights. Sure enough, my thorny, imperfect life did not disappoint in this case! Sexist self-discrimination reared its ugly head in me decades ago, with its seeds no doubt planted long before I was even self-aware.

When I was a few weeks old, a priest baptized me. Same for nearly every member of my family going back centuries. When I was 13, a bishop conferred the sacrament of confirmation onto me, just like every other Catholic who comes of age in the church. And for the past 2000 years, a pope has been the leader to each one of those priests or bishops. What do they have in common? 

They are all men.

Growing up in the Catholic Church, one thing does not go unnoticed:  A man is the one at the altar commanding the masses (so to speak) with his unshakable power to bestow official blessings. This simple fact wields deep, invisible influence that manifests in unexpected ways, like it did for me…

When I was a young girl in the 1970s, a technical rule-change shifted the workings of the Catholic mass. Whereas priests had always been the only ones allowed to pass out Holy Communion, in certain instances they could now rely on non-ordained “Eucharistic Ministers” for this task.

For those not up to speed on the Catholic Church (which, frankly, includes myself these days), Holy Communion—or the Eucharist—is created when a priest (or higher-up) changes ordinary bread and wine into the declared “body and blood of Jesus,” which church-goers then ingest. As barbaric as this may seem, it symbolizes that followers of Jesus *are* the church. So when Catholics receive Communion, they all have a piece of Jesus in them — as a unifying sacrament, repeated week after week.

The change allowing Eucharistic Ministers to distribute the sacramental bread and wine meant that regular men and women(!) could stand up by the altar and do what only ordained priests could do before. From where I sat in my pew one random Sunday, women were suddenly deemed holy enough to touch and distribute the consecrated bread to parishioners. While this may have marked a tiny advance for the role of women in the church, here is my dark confession:  In my immature child-brain, I thought it best to avoid the lines where women were administering Communion.

Why? Because every church experience up to that day had told me that only men held such power. I mean, after all, God was a “He” and not a “She,” right? (Though with the uncertainty of many scripture translations, my bet is that God uses They/Them pronouns!)  Other than the virgin mother Mary, a woman was never a significant part of the equation in my childhood church experience. And since all the women I knew were incapable of being virgin mothers, they were inferior by default — ergo wouldn’t the Communion they distributed be less holy than the same offered by a man?

I spent several weeks skirting around the women to get Communion from the men, before I adjusted to the idea of women passing out bread of equal holy “potency.” I doubt I was alone in struggling to accept this change. But once I noticed enough people seeming nonplussed about receiving the Eucharist from women, it stopped bothering me. I went with the flow (and eventually flowed farther from the patriarchal church in all its glory, beauty and corrupt perversion too).

When I look back at my slow acceptance of women having a modicum of authority at the altar, I notice parallels to the catch-22 dilemma at the top of this post. It was the passive visual of seeing others be okay with women in a superior role that allowed me to be okay with it too. Today, my more mature and critical-thinking self can embrace the need for gender (and racial) diversity in leadership without needing “permission” from my peers. But there’s no denying that prevailing beliefs (perceived or real) fuel our biases and have a powerful hold on human progress.

I don’t know if, or how, the “See-it-to-become-it vs. Become-it-to-see-it” dilemma will resolve. But I do know an obvious truth: we base what we *think* is possible on what we see in front of us. And what we see (in our environment or in the media) is based on the precedent of what has existed before. 

I’ve forgiven the sins of my early sexism, but I don’t want us to repeat them in our quest to advance the leadership of women and people of color. Humankind doesn’t have to wait until some invisible “powers that be” change the rules, like what happened in the Catholic Church. We can change the rules, one formerly suppressed voice at a time. After all, the rules only have power over us if we agree to them.  

The next time any of us faces a choice between “the way things have always been” and “the way we want things to be,” we should pause for a moment. If we find ourselves leaning toward the former, do we really believe that’s the best option? Let’s check ourselves for any seeds of bias before we choose. Because they were probably planted without our permission, like those of an invasive weed that clouds our ability to see the value of what could flourish. When we cultivate self-awareness, watered with the belief of what’s possible — then even if we can’t see it first, we can trust our collective garden to grow into a vision of beauty.


As a “penance” for my misguided avoidance of women at the altar when I was a child, I wanted to do something to help prevent girls today from cultivating such damaging internalized sexism. Aside from raising my daughters with greater self-awareness, I feel really great about supporting this awesome organization that inspires girls to thrive.

3 comments

Nancy Napolitano February 22, 2020 - 12:24 pm

Without a doubt that what we see in our environment and in the media will mold our beliefs and our behavior. Unfortunately many do not question themselves and accept the norm, even if it is not right. In the pursuit of becoming better people one should always question how can I improve or make this better.

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Jacqueline Jannotta February 27, 2020 - 11:46 am

Totally agree, Nancy. And I think if the ones who are more “awake” do question themselves openly it gives others permission to do the same…and then the “becoming better people” thing will spread. It’s why I’m doing this and hoping others join in, however it happens:-) Thank you for commenting!

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Becoming People Who Inspire Girls to Thrive - BecomingBetterPeople.us February 28, 2020 - 12:36 pm

[…] penance for my internalized girlhood sexism, I am delighted to support an organization that has been around for over 150 years in the service […]

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