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Discovering Christian Feminism – Part 2

2012 June 5

This week as part of Rachel Held Evans’ One in Christ series I am posting the story of my journey to Christian Feminism – Read Part 1 here.

Finding out about all that stuff they don’t teach you in school because of the negative stigma our patriarchal culture has attached to feminism, actually helped make a lot of sense out of the whole movement for me. But isn’t that how it usually goes – the fear of the unknown must first be removed before it can be understood for its true self. So here’s a crazy brief and over-generalized overview of the history of feminism. It’s obviously not the full picture, but I hope it’s enough to help you see what I saw – that feminism has a rich history full of diverse voices.

Feminism in a Nutshell
The first historical fact that I discovered once I started looking was that there have been feminists throughout the history of the church. Okay, so they might not have used that term, but there have always been people who have been using their voice to advocate for women even in the face of opposition. There were the young Christian women in 3rd century Carthage who tried to overcome the stigma of being female by pledging to remain unmarried (and therefore perpetual virgins) and forego the veil which was the symbol of women’s shame. Sadly, they were met with the response that not even virginity or baptism could transcend the shame of being a woman. Then, in the 12th and 13th centuries, during a time when a woman’s only options were commitment to an arranged marriage or lifelong enclosure in a convent, a lay movement called the Beguines arose which offered women a third way. Women could commit to living in community with other women where they would engage in spiritual and intellectual endeavors without having to commit to lifelong chastity. Think of it like an early college for women during a time when most women weren’t even deemed worthy enough to be taught how to read. Living in community, discussing theology – sounds like my kind of ideal dorm life experience (yes, I am a bit of a theology nerd). Unfortunately, many of these women were accused of being heretics and burned at the stake for their pursuit of the life of the mind. Then, in 1617, Rachel Speght became one of the first women to publish a pamphlet under her own name (as opposed to a male pseudonym) in which she challenged a popular theory of the day that claimed all women were corrupt and therefore must be despised. Her pamphlet implores men to stop showing ingratitude to God by treating the women around them as less than the equal partners God created them to be. Although they often faced dire opposition, these voices are a historical testimony that the barrier to women answering the call to serve and follow God wasn’t always accepted without question. These women saw themselves as children of God and pleaded with the world to honor God before they honored philosophies that silenced and restrained God in the name of silencing women.

I personally was amazed to discover that one can look back on almost any period in history and find evidence of voices resisting the totalizing messages of patriarchy. But I also realized that feminism as a movement didn’t fully begin to coalesce in the Western world until the nineteenth century. When we use the term today (really use it, not just as an insult or a stereotype), it actually refers to what historians and other cultural observers have designated as three separate waves (or historical periods) of this movement to advocate for, give voice to, and empower women.

So if you were like me (and just about every other person who grew up in America) you saw the movie Mary Poppins as a kid. Amidst the spoons full of sugar and chim-chimneys you caught a glimpse (albeit a negative one) of one of the main purposes of first wave feminism – getting women the vote. While Disney portrayed Mrs. Banks cluelessly marching for the vote as evidence of how she neglected her children (and then turning her “Votes for Women” sash into a kite tail once she reprioritizes her life), they at least planted in the minds of a generation of kids the reminder that women had to fight for the right to vote. Yep, for most of our country’s history women were not considered intelligent or capable enough to have a say in who made the laws they had to live by.

If you can recall from your 5th grade social studies class, when the Founding Fathers of the fledging American nation declared our independence, they proclaimed that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The unspoken but assumed footnote at the time was that “all men” only referred to white males who were rich enough to own property since they were the only ones allowed to pursue those unalienable rights and have a say in how the country was run. Women, the landless poor, and people of color were generally considered more as property to be owned or, at best, protected. From the horrors and abuses of slavery, to the limits that kept women and free minorities from owning property, opening a bank account, going to college, or voting in an election, those rights were obviously not available to America’s “second class” citizens.

It was from our nations’ churches that the cry of “this isn’t right” first arose. Many Christians who took seriously the command to love others and who believed that in Christ there is “neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) started speaking out for equal citizenship for all. Many of those early abolitionists were also the early feminist voices – some pushed towards that cause when, as women, they were denied the right to speak out on behalf of abolition. They cared so deeply about freeing those held in physical bondage that they saw the need to help women escape from bondage as well. In 1848, a group of some 300 men and women met in Seneca Falls, NY to demand freedom and rights for women. Their declaration concludes

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation–in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.

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. These were freedoms which, at the time, were actually becoming more and more elusive as the culture at large bought into Victorian ideas regarding the role and place of women. As the industrial revolution created the new social categories of working in the home vs. working outside the home (previously unknown since, in agrarian cultures, everyone worked at home in the fields) the idea was spread that women (meaning white women) were solely domestic and therefore belonged only in the home. Many women knew they didn’t fit this imposed role and came together to resist this societal impetus to place them in such a cage. In standing up for the freedom of both women and slaves, the emancipated slave Sojourner Truth in 1851 delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech dismantling the hypocrisy of this cult of domesticity.

I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

You have to admire the audacity of a black woman in that time standing up to patriarchy by calling it out on its inconsistencies. Women like her helped change society. And other women joined the early feminist movement because they believed that if women had a voice then they really could change society. In 1870, Julie Ward Howe called for the celebration of the first Mother’s Day asking women to come together as one and use the combined power of their voices to help end the strain war had on families. Think of that, next year, when you send the sentimental card and flowers or take mom out for brunch (it could at least make for some interesting conversation – “Hey mom, did you know that Mother’s Day started as a feminist anti-war protest?”). Others joined the cause as a way to advance their work for prohibition to ensure that their husbands no longer drank the paycheck away, destroying their families in the process. For these women, working for rights for women, especially the right to vote, was utterly rooted in a desire to help make the world a better place.

By the early 20th century, as women still didn’t have the right to vote, the outcry became more vocal. Huge marches were staged demanding that women be given this most basic right. These women risked beatings and jail time to fight for this cause. They were generally met by the very large, and very well-funded, anti-suffrage movement, which argued that women didn’t really want to vote and weren’t qualified to do it anyway. But finally, in 1920 with the passage of the nineteenth amendment, women in the United States were granted the right to vote and have a say in their own government.

To be continued tomorrow.


18 Responses leave one →
  1. June 5, 2012

    i love it. i have a post up about black baptist women’s activism 100+ years ago. our feminist roots run so much deeper than the 1960s, and christian women have always agitated for change. thank you for reminding us.

  2. June 5, 2012

    These stories are so important and re-telling them is our door to freedom. It makes me think of this line from the poem Passover Remembered by Alla Renee Bozarth

    Pass on the whole story.
    I spared you all
    by calling you forth
    from your chains.

    Do not go back.

  3. June 5, 2012

    I always love what you write, Julie, but you are absolutely knocking them out of the park with these posts. Bravo!

  4. June 5, 2012

    Thank you for this wonderful primer, Julie! As a fellow Christian feminist, I’m always amazed at how people in the U.S. think that feminism was created in the 1960s, when in reality women like the those in history you mentioned and my favorites — the original abolitionists (against slavery) 100+ years ago — were “church ladies.”

  5. Karl permalink
    June 5, 2012

    I first began to learn in detail about Christianity’s deep involvement in crusades for social justice during my first semester at Wheaton, where the book “Discovering an Evangelical Heritage” was required reading in the freshman “Theology of Culture” class. Good book – I wish churches would use it in Sunday schools and Bible Studies in place of some of the usual fodder. The Amazon description:

    “When it first appeared, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage was widely regarded as a groundbreaking historical work. The continued relevance of the issues with which this book deals justifies its reappearance . . .

    “For instance, Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army and ardent feminist, offers a powerful testimony to the impact that Christian witness can and should have upon society. Likewise, abolitionist Theodore Weld, converted under the ministry of Charles G. Finney, showed what a response to the radical call of Christ means as he strove to right social injustice and inequity during his day.

    “Despite the hardship and consequences of living out their faith, these and other evangelical forerunners left a heritage to be remembered and an example to be followed. Like the author himself, the reader will be challenged to rethink his or her own relationship with Evangelicalism and will have to reflect upon the broader significance of that movement in American culture.”

  6. June 5, 2012

    This past weekend, as I took my daughter back to her college in the Washington, DC area, I passed by the Lorton Reformatory/Occoquan Workhouse. This facility is where Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and many other suffragettes were incarcerated for picketing the White House in 1917. These brave women underwent literal torture so that women across the US would ultimately gain the right to vote. More Americans need to be taught our entire history so as to appreciate what feminism means.

  7. Jennifer permalink
    June 8, 2012

    “While Disney portrayed Mrs. Banks cluelessly marching for the vote as evidence of how she neglected her children (and then turning her “Votes for Women” sash into a kite tail once she reprioritizes her life)…”

    Interesting – I never even picked up on this subtext as a kid. I remember thinking how cool it was that their mother was out protesting! But now I can definitely see the subtext. Huh.

    And I had never heard of the Beguines – thanks for the information!

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