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Discovering Christian Feminism – Part 1

2012 June 4

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)

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32 Responses leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink
    June 4, 2012

    I think the very word ‘feminism’ is not particularly useful for many people. It appears to be used by many people who want to go to the other extreme and thus create the very same problem but with a different gender. Equality is far more meaningful and suffers less from the many fundamentalist feminist approaches and reactions. Mutual respect and equality are a better and more accurate way of how we should be….. especially when seen in the light of trinitarian theology – the lens we should view as much as possible through.

    • June 4, 2012

      Andrew – this series is about my journey of overcoming the fear the negative stereotypes associate with the term ‘feminist’. It is a diverse movement, but as part of the process of seeking truth I’ve come to embrace the term.

  2. June 4, 2012

    For those who fear women or feminism for whatever reason, it’s far easier to mock and name-call than to engage with actual ideas. If there’s a real discussion where ideas are discussed, there’s a chance that these mockers could change their minds, and that right there is what they fear the most.

    I’ll also add that I can’t think of anyone I know who has gone from feminism to patriarchy or egalitarianism to complementarianism. I know a bunch of people who have switched the other way around. I’m sure there are exceptions, but if we’re dealing with percentages, I know far more people who have changed from complementarian to egalitarian. A little food for thought, even if it’s not a formal survey.

  3. Susan permalink
    June 4, 2012

    I went from Catholicism (big impersonal church) to Reformed Baptist (very small). At first, I was embraced and appreciated as an equal, ministered to directly. Three years later, my husband converted, and everything changed. Complementarian clamp down, and because I am very educated, they tried to “correct” me for years. We have finally found a nice Baptist church, not complementarian. What a relief! The joy returns.

  4. June 4, 2012

    julie, i’m eager to read your whole series. it’s a shame that so many christians have let narrow-minded and even hateful power-brokers steer us away from a movement that affirms and esteems women’s equality, agency, and humanity.

    you know in the usual suspects (and something similar in screwtape), there’s the line
    “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” i’m inclined to think that patriarchy has us bamboozled similarly. women–and men–aren’t feminists because we’ve ingrained the inequalities and lost the ability to recognize them as problems to overcome.

  5. June 4, 2012

    What a lovely post! How nice to read what you have to say.
    Thank you.
    The old Catholic feminist feels quite happy :-)

  6. June 4, 2012

    Oh I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series. I think I’m almost at the point where I am willing to use the F word on myself. I just read a biography of Margaret Sanger and I was appalled at how much I didn’t know about women’s history at the turn of the century, or how much I owed to her for what she did. I just always associated her with the pill and that was it. It was fascinating reading. I happened to mention what a great book that was on Facebook, and I had a friend ask me why I was so impressed with her, b/c this friend runs the local pregnancy crisis center….so that was an interesting conversation, haha.

    I just wish that this kind of stuff was taught, and the complexity of all the issues and people involved were more well-known. I hate that everything is reduced to black and white, and being a feminist is thought of as something so bad, instead of a range of thoughts and issues.

    It’s also such a shame that 100 years later women are still having to fight for respectability and equality :(

  7. June 4, 2012

    I’ve always known I was a feminist, but just this year I’ve embraced (vs. accepted) that identity, and decided I want to speak out about this and “make a fuss” as “good women” don’t. This post was a beautiful reflection on journeys toward feminism, and I loved the tongue in cheek graphics.

  8. June 4, 2012

    Thank you, Julie. I have always identified as a feminist – and I am a Christian. According to dictionary.com, a feminist is one who advocates for “social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” In church I’ve heard men and women both back away from the term and insist they (or their mother/sister/wife/girlfriend) are not a feminist, as if it’s not just a bad word, but actually un-Christian. It saddens me because the these individuals disparage the hard work of earlier feminists yet enjoy the benefits that were gained. Everything from having the right to vote to staying employed during pregnancy to choosing to wear pants to church. A history lesson is definitely needed. Looking forward to reading the rest of your series.

  9. June 4, 2012

    Julie, you honor us when you tell us your story. Thank you.
    Skimming through your comments to this point, I am struck that a few people are uncomfortable with the word “feminist.” As a guy, I have considered myself a feminist for many years. At the same time, knowing what I mean by that: a male’s take on your fine checklist, I also know what the term means to some and sometimes means to me.

    If an idol is any good thing in creation which gets pulled out of its creaturely place to be agrandized, then the movements which support such efforts are usually described as “isms.” A prof of mine once said, “Whenever we are confronted by an ism we can know that someone thinks the have found “it,” the answer to life, the universe and everything. (This was long before the post-modern answer to that very question was determined to be “42.”) So, said the prof, “An ism can be referred to as someone’s ‘Is It.’ Communism elavates the community over the individual and individualism returns the favor, etc.”

    So, you see where this goes. Although we usually think of sexism as elevation of the male gender over that of the female, feminism sometimes reciprocates an opposite idolatry. Obviously, the answer for us to the question, “Who is the One, is It?” can only be answered by naming the creator who called forth males and females into mutuality.

    I suspect you know all this. Indeed, I have read you long enough to know you do. Then again, I know not everyone understands many of us use the term to mean two very different views.

    So, keep on writing, Julie! We can all come up with a better, a less absolutist name for what we are later.

    I also hope you will take a gander at my three — less ambitious than you — posts on RHE’s mutuality synchroblog. They are biblical studies of I Corinthians 14:34-38 (today), Ephesians 5:22 (tomorrow) and I Timothy 2:8-15 (Wednesday) when the story of God is read within a Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation motif. I am at http://gracetracer.wordpress.com.

    Blessings!

  10. Andrew permalink
    June 5, 2012

    Maybe anyone’s view of the word ‘feminist’ depends on the context often seen. My wife (also an Ordained Minister) is my equal, but then again my particular tribe (Church of the Nazarene) has had women ordained for 100 years this year. We are not a perfect tribe, but our theology isn’t male dominant in how our churches etc exist or as we are called to be.

    My real objection to any polarization of gender and what it means to be human is largely a theological position – shouldn’t this be everyone’s position? I don’t see God preferring one gender from the other, but I do see a God who embraces diversity in difference as being a blessing rather than a problem. So, whilst some may choose to associate themselves with being feminists, I do think the bigger picture is really about being truly human towards each other regardless of gender, in fact equality.

    As I said earlier, I have seen too many examples of fundamentalism in those who proclaim to be feminist. For those seeking a mutual equality, feminism is not just negative, but also quite destructive when engaging conversation… the soap box comes out very quickly, and any decent conversation with mutual respect seems to be over-ridden by many voices in a one-sided ‘dialogue’.

    The word ‘feminist’ has become something very different to many people….. and for very good reasons.

    • June 5, 2012

      Interestingly, working for that dignity and equality towards each other is the main focus of feminism for many – and yet you call it negative and destructive. How the term has been denigrated in our culture and feminists depicted as evil creates that fear and dislike. Feminists, like Christians, are of course diverse but it would help to let them be part of the dialogue instead of rejecting them based on stereotypes.

    • June 5, 2012

      Andrew, what in the world do you mean by “fundamentalist” feminism? You’re talking in vague generalities, and I can’t for the life of me figure out who or what you’re referring to. Sounds to me like you’ve fallen prey to exactly the problem Julie is trying to highlight – that most people (like yourself) who are in fact feminists, nevertheless have had too many negative connotations drilled into them by those who hate feminists, and thus are unable to see the term in a positive light.

      Allow me to suggest that while yes, you may have met a few strident and passionate feminists in the past, that doesn’t mean there is anything inherently wrong with being a feminist. In fact, if feminism is true and right, then why shouldn’t we be passionate and strident about it? Perhaps what you call “fundamentalist” is simply what it feels like when the oppressed speak truth to power?

      • June 6, 2012

        Mike, I agree with you in all but the term, “feminism.” Andrew is referring, I think, to “fundamentalism” in the way some feminists have absolutized their position. It is not hard to find secular feminist statements where, because God is not their greater party and both men and women the lesser party, their feminism ends up putting down men as strongly as sexist males who know no lord put down women.

        Who is the One? Jesus is the One. Strident, “fundamentalist” feminism does not recognize this starting place. It is a reverse Humanism, a Hufemalism. There is an inevitable eternal struggle for dominance which will always exist among those who do not know God as their parent and themselves as the girls and boys at the table, by grace.

        A quick read through the 70s-era books gaive me the distinct divide between those who seek dominance and those who want a co-equal place at the table. I am not Andrew but I think that is what he is getting at. It certainly is an issue for me. I have often called myself a feminist and found people reacting to The Female Eunuch rather than to me. I have no place in my world for people who wish to de-throne MAN from his idolatrous throne only to replace him with another idol called WOMAN. Neither male nor female may have that place in God’s new creation.

  11. June 5, 2012

    Count me in as one more male claiming to be a feminist. I am surrounded by women who are working toward becoming more fully human just as I am. And it’s not just because they are comfortable climbing a tree with a running chainsaw (true story), or that they want me to teach them how to use a power miter saw and nailer to install new moulding for a dining room (also true story) … (and that was just last week’s adventures) … it’s because we all want to become all that we were created to be and do all that we are capable of doing.

    Seeing woman loosening the binds of the restrictive corsets that men have placed them in makes my heart sing. I would love to see more men breaking free of their self-imposed limitations as well.

  12. Andrew permalink
    June 6, 2012

    Mike, by ‘fundamentalist’ I mean those people who are rather lop-sided in view, who only see their side of any ‘discussion’ and therefore an unwillingness to engage unless already in agreement.

    To use the language of feminism is a mistake I feel, when really it amounts to equality and a mutual acceptance of it. I don’t think any person (regardless of gender) should really be more inclined to consider themselves as being feminist…. it is really about equality. The word ‘feminist’ is a loaded one, and has tended to be unbalanced just as being patriarchal is. I agree with all that Jim has said above, but would not consider myself as being feminist, I would view the idea through a theology that is trinitarian…. to be more like the humanity as intended…..

    I agree I have come across some bad examples of feminists…. unfortunately they have tended to be women who are over-compensating, maybe there is an insecurity in themselves outside feminist thinking, but they have created an inbalance also.

    • June 6, 2012

      I would rather embrace the term and work to add some color to it rather than abandon it because some have tried to paint over it with power and domination. Feminism for men is larger than just mutuality and equality. It has little to do with encouraging women to somehow grow a y-chromosome and everything to do with men learning to embrace their X-chromosome. Just the thought of that scares the crap out of some men I know … and makes most of the rest of them squirm at least a little. Pulling that term back, owning it, and working to redeem it feels right. I am pleased that there are at least a few of us walking together in that direction … and proud to be a feminist arm-in-arm with my sisters.

      • June 6, 2012

        Yes, Jim and until we find a better way of saying it, I agree completely. Christian feminism is about us males and females becoming more human, more specifically and fully ourselves.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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