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Discovering Christian Feminism – Part 3

2012 June 6
by Julie Clawson

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 and Part 2 here.

Cultural attitudes about women didn’t change overnight with the passage of women’s suffrage. For the first half of the twentieth century (and beyond), the dominant assumption was still that women’s place was in the home. (Indeed many of the first-wave suffragettes shrewdly played off of this ideology of female domesticity to argue that women needed the right to vote so they could better protect their homes and families from the evils of society.) It would require the practical realities of the Second World War for these Victorian ideals to be (temporarily) set aside as women flooded into the factories to keep this country running as the men marched off to war. As a result, feminism in this country began to shift, even though the old paradigm persisted. When Rosie the Riveter gave up her position in the factory at the end of the war, she did so in favor of the domestic life she had been told she should desire. The post-war years of prosperity, full of conveniences like electrical appliances and a car in every driveway, not to mention a newly built house in the suburbs complete with white picket fence, were sold as the new American dream. Picture the stereotype – a woman spending the day vacuuming in pearls who has dinner ready and a cocktail in hand to greet her husband with as he walks through the door. This was the life that women dreamed of – right?

The problem was that a whole generation of women had, for a few brief years, the opportunity to be more than the stereotype. They had used their gifts and talents, developed their creative side and used their intellect to keep this country running. That women were incapable of such tasks was no longer an argument that could be made. Having experienced a different path, some realized that perhaps this life of domesticity that everyone told them was their heart’s desire wasn’t really who they were made to be after all. Of course, society in general still was adamant that a woman’s place was in the home serving her husband and children. But some of these women weren’t even sure they wanted to have children, much less spend their days chasing around mini-Davy Crocketts or their summers on long road trips to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately there were very few options for the woman who didn’t walk lock-step with what culture mandated she should be. Sales of anti-depressants went through the roof. And the second wave of feminism began.

It would be an overstatement to say that this second wave was entirely built upon the existential angst of the modern white American housewife, although that did help create an environment ripe for a cerebral movement exploring ideas of subjugation and oppression as well as basic civil rights for all. Around the world groups of people who were denied full equal standing in society were gathering together and demanding that they stop being treated as lesser human beings. In America this mostly manifested itself in the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements. While this wave involved some political causes like the Equal Rights Amendment to guarantee equal social standing regardless of sex (this amendment was first introduced in 1921 and has yet to pass, despite repeated attempts), its main focus was on ending cultural inequalities and discrimination against women.

Women sought for the opportunity to pursue education, to work in whatever field they were gifted in, and to not be confined to the roles of mother and homemaker. They also spoke out against the habit of men controlling women by turning her into a sex object. In condemning pornography and the culture of rape (especially date rape) that was growing increasingly common, women demanded to be seen as real people and not just objects for men to use. But of course, how women thought these goals could best be accomplished differed widely, which is where a good deal of the controversy surrounding the contemporary feminist movement first arose.

For some women taking control of their bodies and not being forced into the role of mother led them to fight for birth control options including abortion (more on this later). To subvert the objectification of their bodies, some women choose to abandon the cultural trappings of femininity that they felt were imposed on them simply to make them into sex objects. So out went tight girdles, and painful high heels, and a few bras were set on fire for good measure as well. Other women reacted to patriarchy by painting men as the enemy. A backlash against men which asserted that women were far more capable of ruling the world became the mantra of some. Needless to say, the results were polarizing and the simple message that women should be treated as full human beings, worthy of respect, often got lost in the controversy. Unlike the Civil Rights movement which eventually gained general support in this country, feminism became something to mocked and reviled.

By the 1990’s the message of feminism had become nearly lost in all its baggage. While there were still a number of women diligently working to end discrimination and fighting for things like guaranteed equal pay for women, a hipper, young countermovement within feminism itself started to change the face of feminism. As Naomi Wolf describes it, in this shift, “The stereotype of feminists as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision of hip, smart young women.” Informed by postmodern and postcolonial thought, this group of women acknowledged that the needs of white middle class women don’t speak for all women. They started to explore diverse ideas of what it meant to be a woman – really getting into the ideas of gender, identity, and sexuality.

Reclaiming for themselves the definition of a woman became a priority. Instead of letting men’s objectification define women, either through our acceptance or rejection of their standards, these third wave feminist “grrrls” choose to reinvent femininity for themselves. If they wanted to be sexy, they weren’t going to let fear of being objectified stop them. So back came the high heels and bright lipstick – and more importantly, a control over their own sex lives. If they wanted to learn how to bake or knit and crochet they weren’t going to let fear of the cult of domesticity stop them from pursuing their interests. Expectations of culture could not contain them, they were their own women.

Unfortunately, with all this focus on self-empowerment, this wave often runs the risk of believing that the work of feminism is done. There have been so many gains for women that, as femininity gets redefined and sexual politics explored, there can sometimes exist an ignorance of what has come before and the hurdles that some women still face. To once again quote Naomi Wolf, “Feminism had to reinvent itself — there was no way to sustain the uber-seriousness and sometimes judgmental tone of the second wave. But feminists are in danger if we don’t know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make”. This current struggle within feminism both negatively permits the inaccurate stereotypes to continue but also positively makes rooms for a diversity of feminisms that cannot be so easily defined.

To be continued tomorrow with my response to this story of feminism.


3 Responses leave one →
  1. June 6, 2012

    What a great history lesson. I am loving these. I might have missed it – what book are you getting the Naomi Wolf quotes from? I need to add it to my list!

  2. June 6, 2012

    Proud to count myself among the lipstick-wearing, knitting, third-wave feminist grrrls. 😀 I’m loving this series, Julie!

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