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Discovering Christian Feminism – Part 5

2012 June 8
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, Part 2 , Part 3 and Part 4.

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.


15 Responses leave one →
  1. June 8, 2012

    Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree more. Bravo!

  2. June 8, 2012

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this series this week. Thank you so much for the history lesson and for giving me lots to think about.

  3. June 8, 2012

    Aside from Rachel’s series, this has been my favorite series to read. I have learned so much. Something I’ve been thinking through in all of this, is how to inspire more women to want to understand what being an egalitarian, being a feminist, means…how to get them to want to know more about our history and place in the world. I have a very active personal FB page, and I’m constantly posting links and articles, and usually I will get a ton of ‘likes’ and comments on things. I’ve linked to a couple of Rachel’s posts, and a couple other interesting ones I’ve found, and….crickets. I think that most people see the title, and write it off as liberal women stuff, and don’t even want to read it because they know they will disagree with it.

    Which obviously is their prerogative….but it is frustrating, as a person who wants more women to see the freedom and worth they have, and would like to publicly call myself a feminist without having to endure the misunderstandings and labels that go with that. (wouldn’t we all!)….maybe I find this more frustrating b/c the way I changed my views was by reading books and articles…….it’s just frustrating to be in a place where you know you’re just going to be running into a brick wall time after time, which just makes me want to keep my beliefs to myself. Which isn’t doing anyone any good.

    • June 9, 2012

      I share your frustration. What I find the most difficult are those who think that this discussion is over. They either refuse to associate with non-egalitarian people or they don’t believe they still exist. And many in the church think that just because their denomination “allows” women to be ordained (even if actual practice doesn’t live up to ideals) then there is no need for further conversation and any woman who bring up equality issue is just stirring up trouble and distracting the church from “real” issues. Either way – declaring feminism is too liberal an issue to talk about or that its too controversial or of the past to talk about – the outcome is the same, equality doesn’t get discussed and hierarchies remain.

  4. June 8, 2012

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this series! So helpful and informative. Thank you for sharing – I have learned a lot. :)

  5. June 8, 2012

    I have enjoyed reading this series. I’m a bit older than you – an early subscriber to Ms. Magazine, if that dates me. In recent years, I have identified myself as a disgruntled feminist. I held such high hopes of seeing a society that embraced egalitarianism. Hasn’t happened. You are right that we need to embrace labels that speak to our truth – even if others have “hijacked” them to make them terms with negative connotations or terms of derision. Christian Feminist. Sounds good. We still have a long way to go.

  6. June 10, 2012

    Thank you Julie, for an informative, intelligent and gracious view of feminism (AND Christianity).

    To hear the story, tracing its history and seeing how far we have come has been inspiring as well as encouraging. We are not *there* yet, but we are on the way.


  7. June 11, 2012

    I loved your series on this topic. You’ve done a great job describing your journey and explaining the obstacles you faced and how you dealt with them. I hope that many, many women and men will read what you have written and understand that the positive aspects and the importance of feminism outweigh any negative baggage they have associated with it. Unfortunately it seems that too many people simple accept the negative stereotypes and never take the time to actually find out what what it’s really about.

  8. June 12, 2012

    Great series!

    I really appreciated how you showed the difference between what many people think feminism is and what it actually is/can be. I have always been frustrated with my Christian community who have dismissed feminism without really understanding that it is actually about equality.

    Like you, though, there are some aspects about the feminism movement that I do not support–abortion, for instance (although I don’t think it’s necessarily a black and white issue). Yet, I think that that is the true brilliance of feminism. I can disagree with other feminists about abortion, and still be a feminist. I could be a stay at home mom and still be a feminist. I have the choice to have whatever career I want and can be respected for it (or at least should be).

    The feminist movement has allowed women to make their own decisions without letting anyone tell them what to do because they are actual people with thoughts and opinions! (shocking, I know).

    I think many Christians have a difficult time separating the fight for equality and justice–treating women as equals–from some of the more controversial views of some feminists–abortion perhaps–which is certainly not embraced by all feminists. These issues have blacklisted the feminist name, which I think is incredibly sad, since I think if most people understood what you were saying, they would realize that they are actually feminists.

    I hope to post some of my own thoughts about feminism on my blog in the future–yours was very thought provoking :)

  9. Gordon Schneider permalink
    July 3, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your story Julie! It has saddened me over the years that the Church has been so scared of embracing the word “feminism” that it has missed out on the marvelous insights and affirmations it offers. I hope that your story can inspire others to resurrect the concept in the Church. We would be so much richer & grace-filled for it!

  10. August 26, 2012

    Hi Julie,

    I think we have “spoken” before. I just landed on your series from RHE and am so glad to have found you again. I began to realize a little over a year ago when I was going thru the process of a divorce and searching God’s word as to whether or not I had biblical grounds for divorce…that God was the first feminist…and it made me excited yet uneasy as I too had some of the same feelings towards the word you did. Thru the last 15 months, though, God continues to knock down my assumptions of S/He is and show me that much of what I have been taught is not truly who S/He is…and that much of my suffering – while initiated by the society/culture and Church at large – was being perpetuated by my own beliefs I wasn’t willing to relinquish about myself and about women and men and God her/himself. I am reading Sue Monk Kidd’s book “The Dance of a Dissident Daughter” and cannot recommend it enough to any woman who wants to awaken to the truth of the patriarchal society we live in (for I think I was in denial most my life having been raised in the late 80s-early 90s)…and also for men. For while I think the feminist movement helps women to be free.. I would also attest that it helps men to be free as well. God is ALWAYS in the business of moving people to freedom from oppression and injustice…and much of that stuff happens in our own mind. But if we – as both men and women – can rethink women and our place in society – it will also force us to rethink men and their role in society…allowing all of us more freedom to be who we are called to be in Christ. It really is a win-win situation for both sexes.

    Currently I am writing my own experience of finding my place as a feminist and searching for the Divine Feminine in God. Here is the landing page for the series:

    Would love your feedback!
    Blessings and Joy to you,
    a.k.a the Joy gal

  11. August 26, 2012

    I meant to ask if I could link to your series as a background study for those reading my blog. I had a summary knowledge coming out of this last year that the feminist movement – like many other movements – had come out of the Church. But it is nice you have done the write up for me and others!!

  12. July 23, 2013

    Wow, thank you so much for these articles. I happened to stumble across them and each one brought tears to my eyes. You have articulated everything I have been thinking for the past year or so in such a beautiful way. I’m 19 and I identify as a Christian feminist, and I’ve gotten so much hatred from the church (especially men!) because of it, but I’ve never once wavered from my stance. Thank you so much again for posting these articles; you’ve truly blessed me in such a huge way!


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