I realize that as an outspoken person, my passions for justice and feminism can often exasperate my friends and family. I recently wrote for the #faithfeminisms conversation about the fatigue and discouragement that comes with being the token soapboxer in the face of sexism or racism. While most of the time, hope that people can change keeps me going, every now and then, righteous indignation is the fuel that ignites a fire in my bones to talk about these issues. Today, I’m all lit up on both accounts, so be prepared for some flame-throwing ahead.
First, the hope. As I left church this morning, I saw a note from a former student of mine: a bright young man serving in our nation’s military. He sent me a Huffington Post article that had upset him (men care!) and he thought I’d have an opinion. The gist of it is in this comment:
North Carolina Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, who is running against Clay Aiken this November, urged the Republican Party, especially men in the party, to bring policy discussion “down to a woman’s level.”
“Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level,” Ellmers said. “Many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they’ve got some pie chart or graph behind them and they’re talking about trillions of dollars and, you know, how the debt is awful and, you know… We need our male colleagues to understand that if you can bring it down to a woman’s level and what everything that she is balancing in her life — that’s the way to go.”
I don’t think I need to exegete everything that is wrong with these comments, but I will say this: we have 102 women in Congress, 82 in the House (3 of whom cannot vote on the floor because they are delegates). And this woman is one of our people. To put those numbers in perspective:
We make up about 18% of the House and 20% of the Senate and we’re 51% of the American population. Clearly women aren’t equally represented in our government. In fact:
Now for a lot of that time, we couldn’t even vote, so we’ll consider our current lackluster state of affairs to be progress. But how will we continue to make progress when women we choose to represent us think this way?
If I were reading this right about now, I’d probably be putting on my contrarian hat (one of my favorite hats) and arguing, “This woman is an exception, not the rule. Most of us don’t think this way. It’s easy to jump up and down when a prominent person says something idiotic like this.” And I’d agree with contrarian-me. But it’s been a bit of a week for me in this area, so indulge me.
At the same time that the hashtag for #faithfeminisms was gaining momentum, another internet movement emerged around a tumblr called Women Against Feminism, which features pages of photos of young women holding placards explaining why they hate feminism. Most of the opposition to “feminism” is misdirected and criticizes stereotypes instead of critiquing actual feminism.
In online conversations about this anti-feminism “movement,” I keep running into even more confusion about terms and definitions. This comment was a good example:
People don’t realize that feminism grew from a certain concept but that it really is just gender equality for everyone…not necessarily “womanism.”
This commenter clearly wanted to assert an affirming view of feminism, but in the process, she threw womanism (a concept she did not understand), under the bus. While we’re all struggling to learn the language, we have to show some grace to one another, but it is increasingly difficult to even have a conversation when people involved refuse to do their homework first. Emily Shire writes:
There is no question that Women Against Feminism is utterly and completely misguided in its understanding of what feminism is. But they aren’t only the ones. Feminism gets a bad rap, and people perceive the movement as meaning something very narrow and specific—and negative.
“I don’t need ‘feminism’ because I believe that men and women are EQUAL, not that women should belittle men.” Those posts hurt a bit more because they reveal how deeply misinterpreted feminism is.
An April 2013 poll found just 16 percent of men and 23 percent of women in America identify as feminists. The women behind Women Against Feminism aren’t exactly a minority. However, that same poll found 82 percent of all Americans agree with the statement “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” That’s the simplest and most accurate definition of feminism, but the movement has come to be seen as anti-men, liberal, radical, pro-choice, and many other things that it is not.
I struggle with this quite a lot, but I’m more convinced than ever that we need to keep talking and learning about feminism. Our society needs feminism and we perhaps need it most in our faith communities, where our misunderstandings of feminism and what it means to be human inhibit the spread of the Gospel: relegating women to second class, either by overt prohibitions of their voices and participation in ministry or by the implicit expectation that women are less competent to grapple with theology. Several of my Christian friends were posting the Women Against Feminism link with supportive, “Take THAT, feminists!” commentary. These misconceptions about feminism, and the perpetuation of those misconceptions have deep roots in our churches (particularly those that romanticize bygone icons of what womanhood should be).
Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a godly man that I deeply respect for his knowledge of the Bible and His love for our community. During the conversation, the discussion turned to gender roles, and our culture in general. Initially, I was pleasantly surprised that our dialog was so affirming and esteeming of women as partners in the ministry of Gospel. After a while, though, his comments shifted, and at one point, he lamented “gender confusion” and the “emasculation of boys who care too much about their style of dress and the way they look.” He went on to say that such vanity was a mark of femininity, to which I replied, “I think that’s a mark of superficiality, not femininity. As someone who works in women’s ministry, I’m bothered when we don’t expect more depth from women.” He changed course, not sure of what to make of my comment, but it was made obvious to me that his understanding of masculinity and femininity and mine were very different, and that to him, vanity was not a vice, but a legitimate expression of womanhood.
This morning, I spoke to our congregation about how my daughter made a decision to follow Jesus this week at Vacation Bible School. I told them about how when she got a Bible at VBS, she brought it home and eagerly gave it away to a friend in the neighborhood that told her he didn’t know much of anything about Jesus. The boy’s mother and I had an extensive personal conversation about faith and our families, and I had hope that some seed was planted with the family. After the service ended, I had several women I admire approach me, not to celebrate our daughter’s decision of faith, nor to commend our family on taking a step in loving our neighbors well, but to tell me they saw me on stage and thought my new haircut was cute.
I’m sure these women were speaking from a place of kindness, and I took their comments as compliments. But, it struck me as odd that after what I shared, that this was what they wanted to mention to me.
I realize that in writing this or anything else, I’m always taking a risk that I’ll be branded as “oversensitive” or received with a “here she goes again!” Yet, when I consider that there are people in power who think women are too stupid to follow the news, or that there are people I love in my church who are too preoccupied with silly societal standards of beauty to see God’s grace in the woman in front of them, I think to myself, “we still need feminism.” As Dorothy Sayers wrote, in her brilliant essay, Are Women Human?
Perhaps it is no wonder that women were the first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them as ‘the women, God help us’ or ‘the ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words or deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.
We still need the feminism espoused in the Gospel because we have yet to view women as Jesus does. And I won’t stop ranting about that until we have our share of the pie.