Discovering Christian Feminism – Part 1
In conjunction with the One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality series Rachel Held Evans is hosting on her blog this week, I will be posting a five part series describing my initial journey to becoming a Christian feminist. Dealing with the issue of feminism (or the real f-word for many Christians) was the biggest hurdle I had in embracing egalitarianism, so while the journey for me involved various other aspects (wrestling with scripture, facing my demons…) this week I’ll be focusing strictly on how I dealt with the ‘feminist’ issue at the point in my journey when I was in the process of embracing egalitarianism. This series is just a glimpse of my process and may seem simplistic and restricted to some and too extreme for others – I simply want to share where I’ve been and hope it sparks valuable discussion.
A few years ago one of those viral YouTube videos making the rounds opened my eyes to the precarious place respect and equality for women holds in our society. The video portrays a male student at the University of Vermont going around asking female students to sign a petition to end women’s suffrage. The gag was that most of the women actually signed the thing saying that of course they don’t want women to suffer. Only a couple of women adamantly refused to sign and challenged the guy on why he was seeking to end women’s right to vote. Sadly, a number of people used this video to argue that if women aren’t intelligent enough to know what suffrage is then perhaps they shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all. However, I was more struck by what it revealed regarding the extent to which feminism is mocked, and even reviled, in our country.
The feminist movement is a threat to patriarchy, there is no way around that fact. And any voice or movement that attempts to challenge the power and prestige of those supporting the status quo is bound to receive some major push-back. Since actually engaging in conversation about whether women are fully human, worthy of respect, and intelligent would be devastating to the culture of patriarchy, feminism isn’t debated in our culture; it is simply slurred. Feminists have got to be one of the most mocked, reviled, and misunderstood groups in our country. From the epithet “angry feminist” to Rush Limbaugh’s pet phrase “feminazi,” feminists are portrayed as the pond scum of society. The campaign against them has been so successful that almost no one wants to be called a feminist, even the feminists.
That’s where I think the sad roots of this video lie. Girls in most areas of our country are rarely taught the history of the feminist movement. History is generally “his-story,” so the struggles of women to have a voice in our culture rarely make the textbooks. If students are taught anything at all about the great achievements the women’s movement has made (like the right to vote), they are not encouraged to take pride in it. Instead girls are often made to feel embarrassed by any association with feminists. They don’t want to be seen as angry, or bitchy, or asexual, or Nazi-ish (whatever that actually means). So even if they care about equal status and rights for women, the last thing they want is to be called a feminist.
This was the culture I grew up in. Feminist was a bad word, the real f-word. My culture shamed me away from it and the church told me that to be a feminist was the antithesis of being a Christian. Strong, successful women who might merit having the term applied to them were the brunt of endless jokes, especially those told from the pulpit. I mean, I lived in Texas during the 1990’s. From that vantage point, the most despised and mocked person on earth was Hillary Clinton. For a time it seemed like every other car had the bumper sticker “Impeach the President and Her Husband Too.” Politics had little to do with it – as a strong, educated, independent, and successful woman she was everything patriarchy didn’t want women to be. Act too much like that, too much like a feminist, and you would be mocked as well.
So I found myself faced with a real dilemma as I began to emerge from the world dominated by patriarchy and embrace egalitarianism. I came to understand that the entire premise of patriarchy –that men are, by nature, more capable than women — was not only wrong, but also immensely harmful to women. The messages patriarchy fed us about our worth and identity as women caused great pain to women, kept us from serving God, and prevented us from fully becoming the persons we were created to be. I no longer assumed that the message of patriarchy and the message of the Bible were one and the same. I knew I could no longer be a part of the world of patriarchy. But did affirming my worth as a woman created in God’s image mean that I was, *gulp*, a feminist?
While part of me wanted to embrace the label ‘feminist’, but there was just all that baggage associated with the term. Ironically, I found that I was a lot like the women in that YouTube video. I cared about women, but was too afraid to really learn what feminism (and its long history) was all about. 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…."
Yep, that was me. I was all ready to escape from patriarchy’s lies, to live into my full potential as a woman, and to benefit from the work of feminists of the past, but I was scared to actually call myself one. I didn’t want to be mocked or called a feminazi simply for suggesting that women were people too. And then there were the bigger, scarier side issues that usually came along with the f-word. Didn’t being a feminist mean that I had to be pro-choice and a man hater? I was neither of those things, so even though I felt like I supported a lot of the stuff feminism stood for (being allowed to vote, own property, and get an education are pretty nice perks after all), I just didn’t know if I could claim the label.
That is, until I took the time to actually find out what feminism really was all about.
(look for Part 2 to be posted tomorrow)