Discovering Christian Feminism – Part 5
Even as I embraced the identity of a Christian feminist, I still encountered countless misunderstandings regarding what it meant to actually own that label. The fear and the ridicule remained, and even increased as people tried to grasp what it meant that I was a Christian and a feminist. I recall being in a small group once in a church where I self-identified as a feminist. Immediately one of the women in the group spat out at me, “Oh, so you’re a baby killer.” To her, nothing else I said mattered since she could label me according to what she thought she knew about feminists and therefore dismiss me. While I fully understand how intimately tied the abortion issue is to some strains of feminism, it continues to amaze me how that one controversial issue has been used to shut down the entire conversation regarding the freedom and worth of women in certain circles. Especially in the church, where abortion is often opposed, many women feel like they can’t explore what it means to develop their full potential as women because of the fear of being associated with abortion. Yet discovering the freedom that comes in Christ for women should not be restricted because of fear and misunderstandings. There is such a rich history of feminism that has nothing to do with abortion and that even opposes it, I just wish that full and diverse story could be better understood.
Other misunderstandings are a bit more disturbing. A few years ago I received an anonymous and rather creepy email from a guy who said he found it entertaining that I would write about feminism on my blog and be angry at men who beat their wives, commit adultery or generally look down upon the female segment of society. He asserted that the only valid reason I would be a feminist is because I must have been sexually assaulted as a child (I wasn’t), and that to get over my issues (and avoid becoming a lesbian) I must allow men to have sex with me every day to knock the feminist chip off my shoulder. Not exactly the sort of email I enjoy receiving. It would be easy to write this guy off as crazy, but over the years I’ve discovered that his perspective is not that uncommon. Those that can’t accept women as equals and who see us only as sex objects to be used for their entertainment honestly have no idea why women would dare strive for respect and equality. To them it is simply a sign of dysfunction, generally of the sexual sort.
Then there are others who, while they understand the message that women desire dignity and respect, believe women only do so out of a desire to make women the dominant sex. Patriarchy continues to encourage fear of feminism by spreading the lie that it is about dominance and not equality. The July 2010 issue of The Atlantic played on these fears as they titled a widely-read cover article highlighting the advancements of women “The End of Men,” implying that if women succeed it must be at the expense of men. And while I agree that for respect to flourish, patriarchal attitudes that denigrate women or privilege men at the expense of women will have to be sacrificed, those things are sins that need to be repented of and not the core aspects of male identity that some have argued they are.
None of these misunderstandings are what feminism is basically about. Wanting to release women from oppression, to allow her to be who God made her to be does not mean that others must be hurt in the process. These are fears and misunderstanding that are sadly encouraged in our culture, ensuring that feminism remains generally reviled. But as a Christ-follower who cares about truth (not to mention justice), I believe it is necessary to oppose these lies and dismantle misunderstandings with the light of reality. That’s why I no longer fear being called names like feminazi, I would just rather help others see that the message of freedom feminism offers is the exact opposite of Nazi Totalitarianism. But of course, not everyone agrees with that approach.
Some Christians believe that the negative connotations surrounding feminism are reason enough to shun the label. In our world that is often hyper-obsessed with labels, I see how this can be a good way to attempt to avoid confusion. Sadly though, what I often see is the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. When people reject the term feminist because of its negative associations, they often similarly try to distance themselves from the very things feminism stands for – even the good things. Christian writer Frederica Mathewes-Green, who once claimed the term feminist (and even served as Vice-President of Feminists for Life), often cites such connotations as one of the reasons she chose to distance herself from and eventually abandon feminism. As she explains it, she just couldn’t continue using a term that meant one thing to her and her friends and something drastically different to others.
I sympathize with her (and understand that this wasn’t the only reason she rejected feminism), but at the end of the day can’t I bring myself to agree. There are some labels I want to claim even if they have negative connotations for some. Like the label “Christian,” for instance. For a lot of people in this world the term Christian is synonymous with hatred, and often for good reasons. So even while I will from time to time use differing terms (like Christ-follower) to describe my faith, I am not going to abandon the label “Christian,” no matter how many negative things (both true and false) can be associated with it. I’ve come to feel the same way about feminism – there is too much good there, too much hope for women, to reject it out of hand.
Feminism is diverse just like Christianity is diverse. I appreciate the comment a woman left at my blog once regarding claiming the term feminist in light of this diversity – “All of that is precisely why I call myself a feminist – particularly in more conservative Christian circles. If I don’t self-identify as a feminist, then that allows people to maintain their stereotypes of feminists and who we are.” I went from fearing a term I didn’t really understand to finding hope and encouragement in its message. What I thought was a hurdle, preventing me from accepting a fully egalitarian position, actually gave me greater insight into how I could live out a faith that sought to bring freedom to the oppressed. Like the commenter on my blog, I choose to embrace the term because I saw the good in it – a good I want others to see as well.
I no longer think of “feminism” as the f-word or a term to be avoided, but a way of life to be embraced. A way of life that helps women break free of the cage of patriarchy and find the space to become whole.