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Christian Feminism

February 25, 2013

As I wrote that title my mind was visualizing all sorts of potential reactions you might have to it.  Because I have the dreaded “three marks” of being (a) an evangelical, (b) male and (c) old, there is an automatic assumption that I must be on the “anti” side in a discussion about feminism

When you add to that description the fact that, in the way she lives her life, my wife is a complementarian’s dream the case seems to be closed.  Peggy, after all, likes many “female” roles such as cleaning and cooking.  In addition, she is active in a ministry to women, a “permitted” role for a woman.  Nobody even asks what we think about feminism, they are always sure they already know.

This month marked 50 years since the publication of Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique.”  That anniversary has triggered a rash of articles and commentary on feminism and, in particular, Christian feminism.  A quick web search will give you all sorts of thinking on this latter subject.  You can find learned articles assuring you that:

–          There is no such thing as Christian feminism.  Feminism is the enemy of our faith and needs to be confronted boldly.

–          Christians are, or ought to be, the ultimate feminists and we should declare to the world that we, above all others, are the only ones who know what real feminism is.

–          Christianity is one of the main oppressors of women and it needs to be left behind as sexist and evil.

–          Feminists can be Christians as easily as non-Christians in the same way they can be either Republicans or Democrats; this is an apples and oranges discussion.

If you read such articles you will find one thing to be very clear – that the definition of feminism is very unclear.  Yet, as is common in our age, that lack of common understanding of what we are talking about in no way inhibits our penchant for arguing about it.

Most people agree that feminism began in our country in the late 19th century around the issue of female suffrage, the right to vote.  Without this feminism a woman would not have the right to vote for her children’s school board, the right to own and manage property, the right to draw up her own will, the right to engage in business without her husband’s consent.  In addition she would have no legal recourse against domestic violence.  Looking back on this time that is now called “first wave” feminism we will see that (a) virtually every aspect of it is accepted today as right and normal and (b) Christians were often in the forefront of the movement.  In this sense therefore, being a Christian feminist is generally considered OK.

The problems started around 50 years ago in what we now call “second wave” feminism.  Women such as Betty Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown began to speak to the issue of gender roles; the cultural stereotypes of “spheres” of home for women and work for men.  They correctly pointed out that the idea of home/work spheres were largely the product of the industrial revolution and that utilitarian/evolutionary models that were influenced by the work of Freud and Darwin.  This wave manifested itself in a number of ways that were troubling to Christians and, as a result, most Christians found themselves in an uncomfortable alliance with those two men.  In any event, the idea that you could be a Christian feminist pretty much went out the window.  However, in this wave too we could find core teachings that Christians generally do not dispute, that of equal opportunity and of equal pay for equal work.

Defining current or “third wave” feminism is much harder to do and it is now that the idea of Christian feminism is coming back and there are many articulate defenders of this concept.  There are at least as many scoffers, most of whom have the dreaded three marks, being older male evangelicals.  Since I too bear these marks I find I am tossed into, or welcomed into, the “against” camp before I open my mouth.

Regarding the third wave, it is hard to see things in progress with any perspective but it does seem that there is no coherence in the wave.  All sorts of ideas are running in parallel.  In fact, lack of coherence appears to be the hallmark of the wave; the idea that feminism may be different to different women.  But we need to understand that Christian feminism is, in essence, a part of this diverse scene and developing under our noses.

So the time has come for me to stand up.  I was going to say “man up” but I don’t think you can use that term in a discussion of feminism.  Am I a Christian feminist or not?

I don’t know.  I do know I have some thoughts on this subject.

–          I am strongly in favor of political, social and economic equality between men and women.  Indeed, as Christians, we should add spiritual equality to the list.  I also feel it is not enough to be “for” these concepts, I must actively support them.

–          I reject the construction of stereotypes containing the worst of what we fear in feminism and attack them as if that alone is what a feminist believes. 

–          I acknowledge that the Bible was written in a time where the dichotomy of home/work spheres was largely unknown.  In those agrarian times there simply was no such easy distinction.  We need to take the examples of the Bible into our vastly different times with humility.  I am not saying the Bible has nothing to say about men and women but we must admit that, when we draw from it, we are discussing applications we make from across the centuries and not the Bible itself.  Some of these applications, such as hair-splitting discussions of gender roles, get pretty weird.

–          I believe that we Christians must play a role in fighting the hardships that women still face here and across the globe with issues such as domestic abuse, sex trafficking, and economic disadvantage among others.  I must be sure that my abstract theological opinions do not inadvertently support or enable these horrors.

–          I reject the idea that feminism is automatically the new F-word and anti-Christian.

So, you tell me.  Am I a Christian feminist?

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From → Christianity

2 Comments
  1. Yes, I would say you are … and a good writer, too!

  2. Billyy McMahon permalink

    I’d say that you are a Christian Feminist! I’ve found it helpful to keep in mind that there is no such thing as Feminism (with a captial F)… there are many different feminismS. It is very tempting to assume some sort of monolithic definition of something that might seem foreign and strange. Some feminists would advocate for economic equality above all else. Disparity in pay in the workplace would be the “big thing” we ought to fight against. The list goes on and on- from seeking to dismantle patriarchy, allowing an opportunity to share one’s voice, to challenging gender roles. There’s so much diversity in this philosophy that I’m hesitant to be tied down to one definition.
    Great post!

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