Thursday, February 13, 2014

Feminism: The Other F-Word

I’m a Christian. And I’m a feminist. For lots of folks, those two identifiers seem incompatible, antithetical, an oxymoron.

Are those things supposed to go together?

A few years ago, I gave a presentation at an academic conference at my alma mater, a Christian university. As a part of my lecture, I used a research-based creative piece I wrote that engages with Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene by recasting its only female knight while striving to stay true to Spenser's original art as much as possible. My rewrite was feminist. The room was mostly occupied by people who know me well, friends and former professors, so I found myself throwing out the F-word rather casually and without caveat throughout my presentation.

Somewhere along the way, I noticed a few of the folks in the room looking concerned, possibly even a little upset, and it dawned on me that I needed to stop and make a caveat or two: I just realized I've been casually throwing around the F-word [insert shocked faces here], you know, feminism… the other F-word, and that’s because most of you know me well enough to know the kind of feminism I mean. But that’s a bit unfair to the rest of you in here because of the bad rap feminism gets in Christian circles. 

We don't use words like that around here, young lady!

I went on to explain myself: I like men [insert comic relief]. I don't think men are evil or the source of all the world’s problems. I don't think all men are raving, sexist morons. Quite the opposite. I get just as upset about commercials and sitcoms and throw-away comments from women that make men out to be helpless idiots and blundering cavemen as I do with ideology that makes women out to be, for example, either perfect angels or whorish devils with no room for messy, muddling humanity, as is the case with our text today. I’m an egalitarian, which sometimes requires feminist efforts to raise women up from the dehumanizing social scripts proliferated by men and women alike, and sometimes requires masculinist efforts to do the same for men.

I hope that was helpful in assuaging the furrowed brows in the room. I couldn’t quite tell. I had a time limit and had to move on. If I’d had all day, I would have challenged them not to shy away from feminist scholarship just because there are some toxic versions of feminism out there. In fact, good feminism must exist, if for no other reason, because bad feminism needs to be answered. [Golly that’s good! Oh right, that’s because I didn’t come up with it; CS Lewis did (read “philosophy” where I wrote “feminism”).]

You can read more about Mr Clive Staples in Aaron's lovely piece, Surprised by Failure.
I think it’s important that as Christians we develop habits of thinking that are nuanced, particularly in regard to those ideas that stir up our most vehement reactions, the ideas we like the least and the ones we feel most threatened by. I think this is happening more and more; nuance is often one of the good results of Postmodernism. (What!!? Isn’t “good Postmodernism” incompatible, antithetical, and an oxymoron? Case in point. But that’s another post for another day, and one that can probably be done better by some of my fellow TTC writers. Cough-cough, hint-hint…)

Feminism in it’s extreme forms is ugly and certainly incompatible with Christianity because it dehumanizes men (and women). Any sort of approach that seeks to, for example, oppress the oppressors is the product of our fallen nature (even if it’s understandable); it is the epitome of hypocrisy to say: It’s wrong to oppress us, so we’re gonna oppress you as punishment. However, I would encourage those who, for example, believe the Bible speaks conclusively about gender roles (and therefore consider feminism antithetical to Christianity) to consider the ways in which their feminist, or egalitarian, brothers and sisters are challenging that position. A helpful article in this vein called, “Gender Difference: Lose the Boxes,” appears on Sandra Ghland’s blog Aspire 2 Thinking that Transforms. Do I think this essay or a hundred like it are going to change anyone’s position? Not necessarily. But I’m less concerned with that than I am with the need for us as Christ-followers to discipline ourselves to think outside our boxes, whatever they may be, so that, among other things, we can be unified in our differences through Christ rather than divided by them, a division that thrills our Enemy and those most hostile to our faith. [I could just as easily make the same exhortation to egalitarians, but this is a feminist post after all. ;) ]

For a good starter on thinking through a middle way between extreme feminism and complete rejection of feminist efforts, I recommend Dorothy L. Sayers’s Are Women Human? It’s a little book comprised of two short, very readable (and rather witty) essays: one critiques Feminism, the other, the Church.

Let’s work together to de-vilify feminism. There really should be only one F-word… Foucault! [insert winking emoticon here]


Scott Shiffer said...


This is great. I may even consider writing a piece on Good Postmodernism as a result.

Thanks for posting.

Scott Shiffer

reneamac said...

Yes! Please do a write-up on the value and the good that Postmodernism has to offer. Cheers!

Thomas Ladd said...

Hi Renea,

Thanks for the thoughtful post! Two thoughts occurred as I was reading it, neither of which is a criticism of the post, but rather "Hmmm, I wonder if I could pick her brain further about these things because what she has said so far is intriguing" sorts of thoughts.

First, in distancing yourself from more negative forms of feminism, you seem to come close at times to establishing something distinct -- a Christian feminism, if you will. Do you think it's worth talking about something entirely distinct from (though not necessarily a rebuke of) feminism called Christian feminism? If so, what would that look like?

Second, I think you were absolutely right that you had to start this conversation making it clear what feminism does NOT mean for the Christian. I was wondering if you could briefly discuss the opposite. In other words, we need not fear someone who embraces both Christianity and feminism, but why would a person choose to do so? Feminism may not be harmful, but in what ways is it helpful? Again, this is beyond the scope of the original post, which I recognize. I'm just curious to hear more of your thoughts on the topic.

Mark B said...

On this topic, I'd recommend Eve's Revenge by Barger.

reneamac said...

Hi Thomas. Thanks for your thoughtful questions!

First: Is it worth creating a distinct category such as "Christian feminism"?

Perhaps, but I'm reluctant. I think such a thing might too easily become an isolationist tactic and part of the large web of the Evangelical Ghetto, though I assume that wasn't what you had in mind. I'm reminded of people's use of "Christ followers" to distance themselves from the squeaky wheel "Christians" who give Christianity a bad rap. Because Christian feminism could never be entirely distinct from feminism, I'm not sure how effective or helpful it would be, much like the Christ followers distinction. I think Christ followers is a fine term; I think it's useful, but I don't think it accomplishes the goal of distinction... only praxis does that. Finally, I'm reluctant because I am a reform-from-within kind of gal.

On the other hand, it is certainly important to develop a Christian feminism from a worldview stance. In other words, how do we think Christianly about feminism? How does Christianity, particularly with it's emphasis on human dignity, support feminism better than other worldviews? Would feminism be possible without Judeo-Christian ethos? (I doubt it.) Is the Bible misogynist, or is it actually feminist (egalitarian) considering the contexts in which it was written? This line of thinking may be more along the lines of what you meant in the first place.

Have I completely misunderstood your question? I'm not sure I've answered it.

Second: As a Christian, what are the benefits of identifying oneself as a feminist?

Incidentally (or one might call it Divine providence ;) on the same day I published this post, Rachel Held Evans posted a readers' questions based interview with a Christian feminist as a part of Evans's really great series "Ask a..." While I emphatically disagree with Anderson's hard-drawn lines about abortion, much of what she says I agree with, and more to the point in regard to your question, she does an excellent job, I think, of addressing why one might choose to identify him or herself with feminism because of the ways in which feminism is helpful.

Anderson discusses the historical significance of the term/movement, the importance of thinking through "gender differences," why feminism isn't just for women (why there are male feminists), the biblical hermeneutic for feminism, and a particularly good section at the end on the benefits of feminism (insofar as feminism lifts women up from dehumanizing scripts) that the Church is largely missing out on.

You can read the whole interview here:

Is that at least a descent start? What have I missed?

reneamac said...

Mark, I have skimmed through this book and liked it enough to buy it, but I have yet to read it thoroughly. From what I have read, it also seems to me a rather good recommendation, so thanks for making it! And now that you've reminded me of the book, it's going to the top of my summer reading list. Cheers!

reneamac said...

Thomas, another way I seem to have distinguished feminism from "Christian feminism" is by framing feminism under the umbrella of egalitarianism [by which I simply mean dual interest in the uplift of men and women (rather than 'not complementarian'... there are complementarian feminists, though I can't imagine many of them calling themselves that :)]. Now, you don't have to be a Christian to engender egalitarian feminism (in fact, most of my colleagues and classmates seem to be eschewing man-hating feminism and instead showing egalitarian interestes), but I do think in order to be a Christian feminist, one must be interested in the uplift of men as well as women. I don't think man-hating feminism can be Christian feminism.

What are your thoughts?

Thomas Ladd said...

Hi Renea,

Sorry, for just now responding. The past few weeks have been hectic. I think this conversation you started here is carrying over nicely into other recent entries on the blog, and so maybe continuing it here isn't necessary at this point. Still, I wanted to post at least one more comment on here to acknowledge your effort to think through my questions. To not recognize that effort would seem rude, and I did find your responses helpful!

If we speak of the goal of feminism in very general terms as being the uplift of women (and I think you are right in pointing out that, historically speaking, feminism has not intended this uplift to come at the expense of men), then certainly feminism and Christianity are quite compatible.

I suppose where further conversation would need to go (at least in my mind) is:

1)Are the motivations for the uplift of women compatible in feminism and Christianity (does something in secular feminism complement, or at least not contradict, the motivation of the imago Dei)?

2) Are the visions of what a properly uplifted woman looks like according to a secular versus a Christian feminism compatible, similar, contradictory, etc?

And sure enough, I think our entries on TTC are starting to hone in on those two exact questions :-)

reneamac said...

Again, good questions. Thanks Thomas. And I think you're right too about the current conversation on the blog in relation to the good questions you're asking here. I'm enjoying our complementarian-egalitarian discussion, and I'm learning and thinking a lot. :)

Aaron Smith said...

Thank you for including the soap-in-mouth photo. That was fun.

reneamac said...

You're welcome, Aaron! It's the small things.