I’ve been straying from course in our Social Justice Bootcamp on Feminism to talk about topics as they present themselves, but I finally have an opportunity to do both! So this week, we’re going to dive back into what I planned when I started this series, and I’m going to mix in a few recent things as well.
Many of us are familiar with the term, “privilege,” as it describes the social, economic, or political advantages of a particular group of people. We’re used to hearing terms like, “male privilege” or “white privilege.” But today I want to dive into the idea of relative privilege and how it affects feminist activism. Most people think of feminism and they think of this:
We love Rosie. She’s as tough as any dudebro, though she’s still made-up and small-waisted, and she’s looking us right in the eye showing us that women mean business. But who are we leaving out with this image? What women are omitted when this icon becomes the singular story? As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her famous TED talk:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
So let’s start with two stories (better than one, yes?) from the Old Testament. The first, found in Genesis 16, begins with two women: Sarai and Hagar. Sarai is a well-off older woman, and has been unable to bear children with her husband Abram. Despite God’s promise that the couple would have a child and become parents to many nations, they have been unable to conceive. Living in a patriarchal culture that primarily values women because they can carry children, Sarai becomes desperate and takes the matter into her own hands. In the society of her day, it was lawful for a barren woman to have her servant bear children as her proxy. Sarai avails herself of this option and employs her handmaiden, Hagar, for the task.
Scripture does not tell us if Hagar consented to the arrangement. It’s likely that in that day and culture, Hagar’s vocalized consent would not have been needed. Hagar conceives, and as the years wear on, Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar’s child and Hagar’s new found social position as the mother of Abram’s only son. Sarai demands her husband cast both Hagar and her son Ishmael out of the household, and Abram complies, abandoning his own child to appease his wife.
What we see in this passage, beyond a display of desperation, human selfishness, or faithlessness, is patriarchy at work. Sarai is keenly aware of her [albeit limited] power in this culture, and she is frustrated when her power as a wife is jeopardized by her childlessness. Her power is relative, of course, to her husband’s, and she enjoys a measure of privilege precisely because she is 1) married, and 2) married to a wealthy man. As a woman, her privilege still does not match that of her husband, but she wields enough power to compel Hagar to bear Abram’s child, while maintaining her status as a wife. Hagar enjoys a measure of privilege herself, as the mother of Abram’s child, but her privilege isn’t enough to protect her in the situation, and ultimately, she is abandoned by both her mistress and her child’s father. As women, Sarai and Hagar are both at a cultural disadvantage, but to different degrees because of the relative privileges that patriarchy assigns to them.
Our second story is that of Queen Esther, found in the book of the same name. The book begins with the removal of Queen Vashti, who, in a moment of forbidden autonomy, refuses to come at the King’s command. Esther’s story begins here, in the context of a king who rules with absolute authority, who is surrounded by advisers who are plotting a genocide against the Jewish people. Esther herself is a Jew, but this fact goes undetected by the king’s court as Esther moves through the beauty pageant that is the audition for the next queen. King Xerxes admires her beauty and Esther is made queen. The conflict of the book hinges upon Esther’s undisclosed ethnicity and the impending danger of adviser Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews.
Once again we see patriarchy at work, but this time, at a point in history when ethnicity is a governing factor as well as gender. Esther has immense privilege as Queen, but all that is predicated upon the understanding that she is a Gentile. In the culminating apex of the story, Esther goes in to the king to defend her people, knowing full-well that in defying the patriarchal law against approaching the king without being summoned, her royal privilege will not be enough to save her: “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.“
Both of these stories illustrate the challenges women face navigating a patriarchal order. In both cases, women had to make choices about how/when to use their relative privilege. Sarai chose to use her to preserve her own power. Esther chose to put hers on the line for her people. We have two models here of how the moral evil of privilege can be leveraged within patriarchy: for self-promotion (essentially codifying both relative privilege and the patriarchy-at-large) or for the promotion of marginalized people (undermining both the privilege and the patriarchy).
In our day we face the same choices: women can play by the patriarchy’s rules and happily advance as far as the patriarchy allows, or they can actively work against the patriarchy by promoting the voices of the marginalized and sharing risk in solidarity with those groups. When women choose the former over the latter, they are buying into the myth that an oppressive system is selling: competition is fierce and there are only so many seats to be had at the table. Feminism seeks to make the table bigger, and invite marginalized voices to take their place there. Jesus does the same in Luke 14:
When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Hierarchy creates privilege. Christian feminism works to disarm those powers.
Esther’s story shows how much more complicated all this gets when there are other factors at work besides gender. We see these same forces at work in our society today when it comes to feminism and race. In the next post, we’ll take a brief look at how these two issues have tangled in our American history.