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“Christian” feminism

Rachel Held Evans recently wrote about becoming an “Accidental Feminist“—i.e., she found feminism through Christianity rather than finding secular feminism first and trying to integrate it with her Christianity.  While I’m not certain it was the point of Rachel’s post, I think her approach to this issue highlights an interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered several times over my first ten years as a feminist: Christian feminists’ emphasis on the Christian part of their feminism rather than the feminism part.  Obviously loyalty to God should come before loyalty to other groups or ideologies, but I still want to push back against this emphasis a bit.

In many ways, I think my journey towards identifying as a feminist was similar to Rachel’s: I experienced certain things in the church, I explored the biblical issues surrounding women’s ministry and gender roles in the home, and I only later began to read things written by non-Christian feminists.  However, I don’t feel the need to constantly clarify this fact or point out that I’m a “Christian feminist.”  I am a Christian.  And I am a feminist.  To call myself a Christian feminist makes it sound like I believe they don’t really go together or something and need to create all kinds of caveats around my use of the label “feminist.”  And to point out that I found feminism through Christianity makes it sound as if a different path would have somehow been “bad” or proven certain conservative nightmares about egalitarian evangelicals are true (“they really are just influenced by culture!”  etc.).

But I don’t think that’s the case.  One of the things I’ve always loved is seeing people who love justice first find Jesus second.  While Jesus may have introduced Rachel to feminism, I am even more thrilled to see feminism lead people to Jesus.  I think this is just as valid a journey as my own, and I don’t want to devalue it in any way.  While it might bother certain conservative Christians, I don’t think such stories should be hushed or treated as less than ideal in any way.  It may comfort people to think that ideas in the Bible led people to new ways of thinking about gender rather than such ideas about gender pre-existing someone’s reading the Bible.  However, if we really think all truth is God’s truth, it shouldn’t matter where or how someone learns to care about the issues God cares about.  If we believe God cares about women, then it’s fabulous for us to care about women, however we come to do so.

I also don’t think we should have to call ourselves Christian feminists, as if the only other sort of feminist is an evil feminist.  Feminism is incredibly diverse.  If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t understand that and seems to lump all feminists together under negative stereotypes, the answer is education, not labels that distance you from the rest of feminism.  During one summer in college, I was a part of a feminist book club with all sorts of feminists.  We had LGBT feminists, male feminists, very politically active feminists, artsy feminists, feminists who thought porn was freeing, feminists who thought porn was objectifying, etc.  And nobody assumed being a feminist meant you had to stand with them on every single issue because it was widely acknowledged that that diversity existed.  I don’t call myself a “Christian feminist,” as if I need a code for “good feminist” to differentiate me from the worst of feminism.  I simply call myself a feminist because it shouldn’t box me in any more than calling myself Christian should make you think I’m automatically a fundamentalist or a charismatic or a Catholic or a Presbyterian.

Additionally, I think it is counter-productive to talk about being feminist and Christian in a way that cuts ties with other feminists.  Many “Christian feminists” focus exclusively on issues relating to gender and Christianity and have little contact with feminists of other religious backgrounds or no religion at all.  I think this is a mistake.  Just as combatting poverty needs to be a group effort, challenging sexism needs to be a group effort.  Only when you are willing to work alongside others with similar concerns and goals will you really achieve your maximum potential.  And only when you’re willing to work with them can you become true friends with them, and only friendship with them can break down the walls between other feminists and the church (which have unfortunately been erected by other Christians).

15 Responses

  1. [...] Ashleigh Bailey, “Christian” Feminism [...]

  2. I am glad that you are pushing back against the whole “Christian feminist” thing because of its implications – that being any other kind of feminist is “bad.” I think Evans’ purpose was to answer the minority of vocal Christians who are saying that a person can’t be both Christian and feminist (the same ones who say a person can’t believe in evolution and still be a Christian). It is a shame that such a ridiculous ultimatum would ever be put on the table, even more, that it would need to be addressed; but many youths are being told by their pastors that they will lose their salvation if they accept these “secular” ideologies. It is very sad.

    • Ashleigh Bailey

      I do think that Rachel’s purposes in her post were positive and definitely won’t want to imply otherwise! But the language we sometimes have to use to help others feel comfortable with feminism is sad! :-/

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. [...] Bailey’s on “Christian” Feminism, writes in response to Rachel Held Evan’s post on being an Accidental Feminist. Steven Holmes [...]

  4. Melanie Springer Mock

    One of my FB friends put up this link, and I’m glad she did. I appreciate your thoughts on this, but want to point out that I identify as a Christian feminist to separate myself from other Christians, not other feminists; I identify this way to try to reclaim the identity “Christianity” from all the negative connotations folks have about the term Christian, not because I want to show I am a “good” feminist, separated from the “bad.”

    The Christian feminists I know, mostly through the organization EEWC/Christian Feminism Today, are of a similar bent, and covet opportunities to partner with other feminists to create change. They are the most inclusive, justice-seeking group of which I’ve ever been a part. At their last conference, we heard from pagan, Jewish, and Muslim feminists as well, and talked about how we can build bridges to work toward justice and equity for all.

    At any rate, I simply wanted to point out that some Christian feminists identify such as a way to show that not *all* Christians are close-minded patriarchs. I sometimes identify as a progressive Christian for the same reason.

    • Ashleigh Bailey

      This is a really good point, although one might be able to debate whether “Christian feminist” or “feminist Christian” is more useful to this end. Regardless, I completely understand your desire to help others understand the diversity within Christianity. Within various contexts I, too, have wanted to make a point of letting others know I’m politically liberal, believe in evolution, am not an inerrantist, etc., because I know many people are used to thinking certain things are antithetical to Christianity thanks to their own upbringings, the media, and similar sources of misinformation. I’m always excited to let people know that being a Christian doesn’t mean giving up one’s feminist beliefs and that faith can actually continue to empower one’s feminist vision in fresh ways!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Larry Zimmerman

    What do you know new and improved denominations

  6. Virgil

    You should not call yourself a Christian feminist, because such a thing cannot exist. It is a contradiction in terms, you might as well call yourself a round triangle.

    Christianity and liberalism (the mother of feminism) are entirely incompatible belief systems. If you think you can adhere to both, my guess is that you either don’t understand one of them, or are out to undermine Christianity.

    Aside form all that, we can judge a system of ideas by its fruit. The fruit of feminism is chaos, suffering, and death. So, therefore it must be rejected by anyone claiming to worship the Lord of life.

    • Virgil, I definitely disagree with your negative generalizations. Such a thing as a Christian feminist can and does exist, clearly. Your use of terms needs to be grounded in a historical study of both politics and culture, as ‘liberalism’ is a relative and subjective term in the political arena, and also, as Christian women who are feminists have been around and active since the founding of our nation (Abigail Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Harriet Tubman, etc). In response to the great injustices committed against all people, including women, they and countless others have risked their reputations and sometimes their lives so that women would be considered as equals.They were considered radicals in their days and clearly they gave voice and life to many, since through their writings and actions, many were freed from slavery, and former slaves and then women were given the right to vote. They were and we are still considered radicals, since many people are so scared of the term ‘feminist’ that their initial reaction is defensive. But feminists would hope that their first reaction would be one of curiosity and a willingness to learn about what makes a person someone who believes in the equality of all people.

      • Of course it’s possible for a real existing person to call herself a “Christian feminist.” What I have said from the beginning is that a “Christian feminist” cannot exist in any coherent logical sense. A woman could call herself a round triangle, but that wouldn’t make her one.

        I am not using “liberalism” in a subjective or relative political sense. I am using it to describe a set of philosophical positions that emerged from the Enlightenment that emphasized liberation from traditional forms of authority among other things. The content of liberalism in this sense is well defined and generally agreed upon by scholars. Of course, you are free to dissent from the scholarly consensus, but if you do, I’ll have no idea what you are talking about.

        Going through history and slapping the label “feminist” on women who lived long before that term even existed is an unfair means of attempting to recruit historical figures for your cause who might very well have disagreed with a great deal of what “feminism” now means.

  7. LM

    Virgil: WHAT? Trust me, you have no clue on this one. There actually are feminists who are moderate, and some who are even *gasp* conservative theologically and/or *gasp* socially. There are even feminists who are (*conspiratorially whispers*) right-to-life. Seriously. Feminism has nothing to do with the trip that Fundamentalists and complementarians are spreading around about it. It is not anti-male. Trust me on this one: I heard more horrible things about the uncontrollable sexual nature of men in fundamentalism than I ever heard from a feminist. It is simply, in its purest form, part of a philosophy that values *all* life. That hardly leads to chaos, suffering, and death. Now, I can tell you about women who have been beaten or raped by “Christian” men who thought they had the God-given right to do those atrocities, on the other hand… but oh yeah, who cares about them? They’re only women. *rolls eyes*

  8. LM,

    Your comment does not address my argument at all. Simply pointing out that there are lots of different kinds of “feminists” does not negate the fact that all feminists agree on certain core ideas. Those core ideas are incompatible with Christianity.

    Pointing out that lots of people are confused and then arguing that the wide diversity of confused people proves there is no such thing as a confused person is non-sense.

    Also, simply asserting that feminism is not anti-man, does not change the fact that feminism’s core ideas are all about overturning a man’s authority in the family, church and world. You’re simply stating otherwise achieves nothing.

    To claim that feminism, the set of ideas that has murdered 50 million babies, values *all life* is so ridiculous as to be laughable.

    Your introduction of these purported Christian men who believed they had the right to do something evil, is another irrelevant red herring. The argument here is about ideas, not about whether you can come up with a few horrible anecdotes.

    • Take some time to read some Christian feminist theory, and then come back and make the same claims. Scholars with serious grounding in the Bible, church history, and theology have written convincingly about the ways Christianity and feminism share many core ideas, based on scripture (yes, indeed, there are biblical feminists! Imagine!) who show ways the Bible supports their feminist convictions.

      Can you point to actual core texts that show that feminisms ideals are all about overturning man’s authority? What you’ve written here seems more a caricature of feminism, and not what feminism is like for many (nay, most) of the women and men I know who claim a feminist identity.

  9. Thank you for writing this- I really enjoyed your perspective on this topic. As a Christian woman, I hope someday to be so brave as to openly call myself a feminist- which I am. The circles I’m in now have such a negative association with even just the word “feminist” that I haven’t been brave enough yet to identify myself as one.

    What is it with the negative associations with feminism? The thing that frustrates me the most is that most of the things that people claim to hate about feminism aren’t even true- they’ve built up such a prejudice about feminists over things that don’t have anything to do with feminism!

    Anyway, thank you for your thoughts, and for encouraging this (for now) secret feminist.

    • Ashleigh Bailey

      Anna, I understand how hard it can be to “come out” with certain positions in certain circles! Know that you are in good company, though. There is a group called the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus which tends to be more moderate-to-liberal theologically, as well as a group called Christians for Biblical Equality which tends to be more conservative-to-moderate theologically. You should Google them both for access to some good resources! For me it helped a lot to see that there were Christians more theologically conservative than I was who still thought feminism was a legit position for a Christian to take—made me feel like less of a heretic, hehe.

      It’s nearly ten years since I became a feminist myself, and I think usually time (and more contact with other feminists) helps you get more comfortable with identifying as one. :-) At some point you sort of just start rolling your eyes at those leaders and organizations which make a big fuss about feminism, and you start to feel a bit sorry for all the regular people in the churches and denominations that are so opposed to gender equality, as it really just hurts them! It is frustrating and sad, especially, to hear how strongly some Christian women defend patriarchy because it’s what they were raised in. In time you’ll probably be less phased by what they think of you and able to choose to either have less contact with those people who are annoying and frustrating OR to maintain friendly relationships with them in which differences are acknowledged and respected as valid Christian opinions. Sometimes they will be less reactionary towards you as they see that you didn’t go start worshipping Mother Earth, slaughtering babies, or punching men in the face. They may still disagree with your feminist views, but they will start to see that it is something a Christian can embrace and still be a Christian.

      Anyway, I’m sure I’m telling you stuff you already know, but I just wanted to encourage you—I think it will get better. And you’re brave to be a feminist on your own without the support of others! :-)

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012