Recent events in the blogosphere -- the Christian, dare I say, progressive blogosphere -- last week highlighted the need for some Feminism 101. Based on the outpouring of both gracious and not so grace-filled responses, including my own, I figured this would be a good opportunity to explain how I understand and articulate the basic tenets of feminism, particularly the feminism I practice -- one inspired and driven by my faith. It is particularly pertinent as I recently participated in a roundtable with other feminists of faith for the Ms. Magazine “femisphere” series. For that roundtable, I explained that I often feel like I am tiptoeing on a balancing beam (or even walking the plank) between my feminism and faith because some in both camps think you must be an either/or rather than a both/and. I said:
Given that this is election season and we’re all a bit cranky at this point, I’ll refrain from delving into the assumptions underlying the claims about political affiliation and “real” Christianity. Rather, I’d like to respond to the six tenets of what Christian feminism isn’t from the now inactive Christian feminism blog, adding my two cents for what Christian feminism is to me, at least. I said to me because feminists are an incredibly diverse group that do not agree on everything. For those more unfamiliar with us everyday feminists, the non-straw-man-type-feminists, think of it like the divisions within the church; we don’t all agree on everything, but we all agree on some things.The most prevalent misconception is that I cannot be a feminist and a Christian at the same time. Among [some] Christians, the logic is something like this: Feminists are liberal heathens, so if you identify as a feminist your salvation is in question since all “real” Christians are/should be conservative.
The authors of the Christian feminism blog, Julie Clawson included, include the following six negative definitions.
Many of these negative definitions (“is not” versus “is”) relate to long-standing misconceptions about feminism that are often perpetuated by those most invested in the status quo. Those in power know that if more people understand the core tenets of feminism, then they would want to change the status quo. As I wrote at length in these posts about worldviews as idols, many of those currently in power believe in a zero-sum theory of power: your gain is my loss, and my gain is your loss. In other words, if currently marginalized, less powerful groups (e.g., women) become more empowered, then those currently in power (e.g., men) believe that they will become victimized. This relates heavily to the last negative definition -- that feminism is not just for women -- but we’ll get to that soon.Christian feminism is not about hating men.
Christian feminism is not derived from liberalism.
Christian feminism is not secular feminism.
Christian feminism does not think men and women are the same.
Christian feminism does not think women are superior to men.
Christian feminism is not just for women.
1. Christian feminism is not about hating men, but it is about upholding the dignity and worth of every human being -- male and female -- precisely because they are made in the image of God.
The “hating men” rhetoric is one of the most long-standing misconceptions about feminism. While there are some feminists who are anti-men, they are a fringe group in the overall feminist movement. As Suzannah Paul recently wrote in her post on making peace with feminism:
Many of you are familiar with the late Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy books, especially The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson was an ardent advocate for women and minority rights in his home country of Sweden before his passing, and that passion flowed through his books. But many of you may not be aware that the Swedish and original title of the first book is Men Who Hate Women. Understandably, the English-language and particularly American publishers were less than keen to have that title line the shelves of bookstores, and they altered the title to be less aggressive, using “girl” despite Lisbeth being a woman, and including a note about her body modification rather than her character of being a woman who hates men who hate women.Peacemaking is the hard work of restoring the wholeness created and lost in Eden. It is the Kingdom of God taking ground over oppression, brokenness, and violence. It is shalom shining light on every shadow that obscures the image of God.
As a Christian, I don’t use the word “hate” lightly, but I also believe the church may not use it enough. If we are children of the Light and followers of Jesus, we are called to hate sin and hate evil, which is precisely what misogyny is. But we are also called to shine the light of God’s truth in the darkness.
2. Christian feminism is not secular feminism, but it is derived from faith in Jesus who treated the marginalized with dignity, respect, and love.
During Rachel Held Evans “A Week of Mutuality” last June, Julie Clawson wrote a thoughtful series on how she came to identify as a feminist. I encourage you to read the entire series here, but want to highlight a couple parts of her story. First, Julie recalls how she was emblematic of many women who came of age after second wave feminism, when backlash against the real “f-word” were particularly strong.
Julie then began to learn about the history and origins of the feminist movement in the United States. She was surprised by how many, if not most, of the early feminists were devout Christian women who advocated against slavery and for the right to vote. She explains:I was the perfect example of the “I’m Not a Feminist, but…” poster, which reads, “I'm not a feminist, but… I appreciate the right to help choose my government representatives. I enjoy the option of wearing pants or shorts if I want. I'm pleased that I was allowed to read and write. It's awfully useful to be able to open a bank account and own property in my name. I like knowing that my husband or boyfriend cannot legally beat me. It's really swell to keep the money that I earn…."
Personally, I identify as a feminist because I am a follower of Christ. It always just made sense to me, possibly because I grew up in an egalitarian household or because my Jesuit Catholic education stressed social justice. But many of you grew up in a culture and/or church community that stressed the evils rather than the benefits of feminism. Many of you came to identify as feminists in an accidental way like Rachel Held Evans, who describes how it was understanding how radical Jesus’s treatment of women was that changed her views on the f-word. We all have different stories and different opinions about feminism, but we all likely agree on the basic tenets of treating all others with dignity, respect, and love.In 1848, a group of some 300 men and women met in Seneca Falls, NY to demand freedom and rights for women...This is where the official feminist movement began – with a small group of people trying to apply the same ideas about human freedom that pushed them to fight for the end of slavery to women. Nothing evil or scary, just a plea for basic dignity, freedom, and respect.
3. Christian feminism does not think men and women are the same, but it does think that there are not the same differences between all men and all women.
Interestingly, this misconception of feminism is also one of the most prevalent misconceptions about egalitarianism. The truth is that feminism and egalitarians are not about erasing the differences between men and women. They’re not about ignoring the biological and anatomical characteristics of males and females. But they are about refraining from reducing people to prescribed roles, abilities, and responsibilities based on your genitalia.
As a Christian feminist, I believe that one of the most seemingly benign ways some in the church rob individuals of their humanity is by reducing them to roles based on sex. They argue that men and women are inherently equal, but just are assigned different roles. I’ve written about the intricate linguistic gymnastics of complementarians in a series of posts, but since then, something has become readily apparent in this relentless debate:
Equality doesn't mean sameness, but it also doesn't mean that there are the same differences between all men and all women. That line of thinking is called gender essentialism: prescribing roles and abilities based on sex, not gifts.
4. Christian feminism does not think women are superior to men, but it about empowering and amplifying the voices of those rendered voiceless, many of whom are women.
The narrative of the rise of women leading to the decline of men depends on the fear tactics inherent in a zero-sum mentality. We have Hanna Rosin and plenty of others to blame for perpetuating this myth, but those of who reject this ideology also have a responsibility to proclaim an alternative story: the best indicator of a state’s peacefulness and prosperity is how women are treated.
When women are economically empowered to provide for their families, it does not directly correlate with men “not wanting to try anymore”; it enables families -- women and men, children and grandparents, etc. -- to not only survive, but thrive. When women are allowed more control of their reproductive choices, it does not result in droves of females rebelling against families; it leads to more improved health and education for herself and for the children she already has. If you haven’t already, read Half the Sky and research the organizations profiled throughout the book. Or watch the PBS two-part documentary series of the same name. Or email me and I’d be happy to provide you with a range of recommended resources.
Frankly, this misconception about feminism annoys me. Far too often, this false dichotomy has been used as a silencing tactic, a way to keep women in their place. It is especially insidious when this “female superiority” line is used to dismiss or minimize abuse. In these cases, it says more about upholding patriarchy than trying to assume a matriarchy, which is never what the vast majority of feminists have proposed as the solution to injustice and oppression.
5. Christian feminism is not just for women, but it is for women and men, all of whom are oppressed by patriarchy -- a system of male domination and female subordination.
While women and other non-”traditional” men are oppressed most in a patriarchal system, even the men who are oppressing are also hurt by patriarchy. For a more in-depth understanding of how patriarchy harms men, I highly encourage you to read this insightful, thought-provoking post at SAFER, an organization run by college students advocating against rape culture on campuses. SAFER focuses on several pressures men experience in patriarchy, namely:
- To be tough and invulnerable
- To exert male dominance over others
- To be emotionlessness and not show affection
- To express power through violence
- To uphold traditional gender roles (e.g., to refrain from “feminine” roles in caring for the home and family)
One of the reasons why my husband and I are feminists is because we reject these expectations for men and the corresponding expectations for women. First off, they just don’t make sense for us. Even if I enjoy cooking more, it doesn’t mean that I do because I am the wife. Even if my husband enjoys fixing stuff around the house more, it doesn't mean that he does because he is the husband. As I’ve written before, we practice mutual submission in our marriage out of mutual respect and love, not out of adherence to rigid, so-called “biblical” gender roles. But we also identify as feminists because we want to help bring about a more just, equitable, and peaceful world.
As a Christian and a feminist, I believe in the intrinsic dignity and worth of every human being. I believe in loving God and loving others with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving my neighbor as myself. But let’s not kid ourselves: love is hard.
Sometimes this love looks like casseroles for sick neighbors or giving to missions, but sometimes it is more hardcore, more life-altering, more painstaking.
Sometimes it looks like walking alongside a survivor of assault struggling with PTSD.
Sometimes it looks like affirming the callings of women and men.
Sometimes it looks like helping others recognize their privilege and take up their cross.
And sometimes, it looks like fighting like hell the dismantle the patriarchal norms that perpetuate violence and oppression, that rob people of their humanity.
I hope in some small way that these words echo through the baggage many of you have with feminism and that you, too, see that you can be both a feminist and a person of faith.