If someone were to go back and read everything I’ve written on the subject of gender over the last 25 years – a tedious sounding enterprise if ever there was one – they’d be able to see shifts in my thinking and in my use of language, particularly in the way I identify myself. I started out as a complementarian in marriage and an egalitarian everywhere else. After a few more years of study I moved to being an egalitarian across the board. But it’s only been very recently that I’ve begun to identify myself by the loaded word “feminist”. I’m aware that some of my Christian friends have strongly negative associations with the word. Heck, I’ve got some. I’m old enough to remember feminism when it was a high profile movement.
Anyone remember these ladies?
Of course, being a child at the time my strongest impression of feminism probably came from this.
Feminists are loud, masculine, man-hating, bra-burning, baby-aborting, goddess- worshiping zealots. AmIright?
Well, there may be some who come close to the stereotype. There are women who say that to be a feminist you must be pro-choice. I’m not; I’m pro-life.
There are women who believe that feminine spirituality and consciousness and experience are superior to what men bring to the table. I am not among them. To replace patriarchy with matriarchy isn’t progress; it’s payback.
There are women who view the institution of marriage as inherently unequal and oppressive. I am delighted to be married to Mr. Right, and to have been (primarily) an at-home parent for 20 years.
There are women whose central identity is “feminist”. Mine isn’t. I am first and foremost a child of God and a Christ-follower. That immediately puts me outside the camp of many other women who call themselves feminists.
So why use the term at all? Good question. It’s problematic, and I may change my mind down the road. But here’s where I’m at right now.
1. Those other terms are so darn clunky! “Egalitarian”, “mutual-headship” – are they really any better? They’ve got as much misunderstanding around them as “feminist” and they’re harder to say. Don’t make light of that: clunky words get in the way of clear thinking. I’m just glad I’m not saddled with “complementarian” anymore which is an awful word. Not only does it not roll off the tongue, it’s chronically misspelled (at least by me).
2. The basic meaning of feminism, stripped of added agendas, is one I embrace. I believe in equal economic, political and social rights for women. That’s not so crazy, is it? I understand that the devil is in the details, and so, for instance, the argument over reproductive rights will follow. Those of us who agree with the basic principle may disagree on its implications. But still; you get the point.
3. I have heroes to inspire me. We’re all born into a particular time and have no choice but to work within it. So, no, Priscilla, Lydia, Junia, Phoebe – they wouldn’t have called themselves feminists. I imagine, in fact, that they accepted many of the cultural assumptions within which they were immersed. Nevertheless, they were “blessed exceptions”. They were women who went against the grain and stretched ideas about what women can do, and be. And they weren’t the only ones. My heroes include Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Susanna Wesley, Catherine Booth, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day. I want to be as courageous as those women were. I want to pursue the Kingdom of God without worrying that I’ll be misunderstood or ridiculed. They had it hard: I’ve got it easy by comparison, and I don’t want to shy away from stating plainly who and what I am.
4. I have brothers who’ve encouraged me. There are male theologians, activists and thinkers who had the guts to embrace the term “feminist” long before I did. They helped me get past my fear of the stereotype. So thank you, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Jon Trott, and especially John Stackhouse, whose book Finally Feminist played a key role in my journey.
5. There’s work to do. Particularly on a global scale, the status of women in society is still at the heart of many of our problems. Want to address poverty in the third world? Make sure that girls have access to education. Want to fight human trafficking? Provide job training and business opportunities for women. Want to reduce sexual violence, child marriage, and honor killings? There’s no way through but to address the ideologies (some of them religious) that regard women as “weak…manipulative…morally unfinished…at the very least, expendable” (Thanks, Joss). The flourishing of the human race depends on the flourishing of the entire human race, both male and female. This is not the time to worry that someone might think I’m an angry lesbian because I call myself a feminist. When we are living in the fullness of God’s redeemed and restored creation, when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, I promise to stop calling myself a feminist. I won’t need to anymore.