Get behind me, white feminism

Today is going to be a day of hot takes on the Oscars and there was plenty to talk about: Neil Patrick Harris’ attempts to gloss over white-washing with failed enlistment of black actors, Sean Penn closing the evening by honoring his “friend” with a racist/xenophobic “green card” joke. I’ll be reading all of those takes and then getting back to my life because culture-making is as important as culture-commenting.

But I needed to say something about that Patricia Arquette speech. After thanking the Academy and all the people for her win, Arquette launched into a brief but emphatic statement about equal pay for women:

“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

The audience rallied behind her, and this gif was born:

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

Now, I’m all for equal pay. Collectively speaking, women are underpaid compared to men. What initially bothered me was how Arquette was tying equality to maternity. And on a night when much had been rightfully made about the overt Academy snubbing of black art, taking the platform to talk about equality without mentioning race at all seemed insensitive and inadequate at best. Unfortunately, it got worse after the show. Arquette went into the press junket and said:

“It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America and we don’t because when they wrote Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

Meryl-Streep-Prada-Glasses

Get out of my office, Patricia.

This is a classic mistake of white feminism. I’ve written before about the historical trespasses of the white women’s movement, so I won’t break into a full-blown recap here. I also have a small child harassing me while I’m writing this, so I will make a few quick points.

  1. The first lie institutional power will sell you is that there isn’t enough porridge, pay, or power to go around for everyone. This scarcity myth compels marginalized people to contend for scraps, and it is an utter distraction from the work of equality. It also reinforces the idea that hierarchies are fair, give turns, and can be trusted to divvy out measures of power and influences as they see fit.
  2. We can resist that scarcity myth and the power that’s using it to oppress folks by centering the needs of the most vulnerable. Calls for “everybody, let’s work together” are most effective when they say, “everybody, let’s work together and get behind this person who’s getting trampled.” While white women are marginalized in a patriarchal society, we cannot continue to build our success on the backs of people of color or anyone who is pushed out farther by institutionalized oppression. We don’t take down white patriarchy to replace it with white matriarchy. The whole dang thing has to come down.
    Master's House, Master's Tools
  3. Equality isn’t about chasing and catching up to white dudes. It’s about dismantling systems that prop up white supremacy, patriarchy, and the like. Again, we need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is full enfranchisement of marginalized people (including men of color who currently make less than white women do).
    wagegapbrokenupbyrace-011
  4. White ladies who aren’t willing to use their prominent platforms to talk about how black lives matter really should never, ever, tell people of color to come work for them. To do so is the height of entitlement and re-enacts dynamics of white supremacy. See point 2.
Back up, Khaleesi.

Get back to wardrobe, Khaleesi. Your privilege is showing.

It’s time for us to understand what Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw described as “intersectionality.” White feminism makes these mistakes time and again precisely because we insist that marginalized people get on board with us rather than doing the work to understand and serve them. As Christians, we are commanded to see and walk with the systematically and personally disenfranchised. Isaiah 58 reminds us that our good intentions and our ritual operations aren’t enough:

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Let’s stop playing by those old rules and build solidarity by looking at the whole picture and not just the part that affects only us.

Privilege in Feminism, Part 3-Centering Marginalized Women

The last two posts, I’ve looked at both biblical examples and American historical examples of how patriarchy grants certain women privileges over other women in order to preserve male-dominated order. I had planned to write an intense, equally-long final installment to discuss how we can move forward from this place of competition to a position where the voices of marginalized women take center stage and privileged women and men stand in solidarity with them against oppressive forces. I had planned to say a lot of things, but given the topic at hand, I decided to just frame up this post, and create a space where you all could hear from some of the women that are teaching me these days.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y'all a quiz.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y’all a quiz.

Much of the feminist and anti-racist scholarship of today is focused on a concept named by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as “intersectionality.” Crenshaw coined the term to describe the intersection of oppression that black women face as both women and as black people. This concept can describe any number of levels of oppression against a person or group of people. You can read a sample of her academic work at the link above. Crenshaw, like many of her colleagues, argued that until there was an effort to address the intersections of oppression comprehensively and holistically, marginalization and discrimination would persist.

Author, poet, and activist Audre Lorde famously wrote:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference, those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
audreIn our current context, you see similar critiques of the myopic perspective espoused by prominent contemporary voices like Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Lean In, was touted as a call for American women to re-engage in feminism. Scholar and writer bell hooks panned Sandberg’s emphasis on women pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in her critique for The Feminist Wire:

Although Sandberg revised her perspective on feminism, she did not turn towards primary sources (the work of feminist theorists) to broaden her understanding. In her book, she offers a simplistic description of the feminist movement based on women gaining equal rights with men. This construction of simple categories (women and men) was long ago challenged by visionary feminist thinkers, particularly individual black women/women of color. These thinkers insisted that everyone acknowledge and understand the myriad ways race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects of identity and difference made explicit that there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call “women” struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

While works like Lean In bring feminism into the main stream of American culture, but rarely do they affect sweeping changes. This week, we saw similar skepticism emerge following a speech by Emma Watson at the U.N. (a speech for which she received immediate threats against her privacy and her person).

Is that spelled correctly?

Is that spelled correctly?

Watson was praised for her candor and her embrace of the term “feminism,” and while the moment was, for many, a needed introduction to feminism, it was not representative of the movement. As always, when we see these rallying points, we have to be circumspect about who is being left out of the conversation, and how we can keep moving forward, rather than setting up camp here in Women’s Studies 101. Consider these comments from Mia McKenzie on Watson’s speech as it centered men in the fight against misogyny (and really, read the whole post):

The underlying message here is that women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.

These critiques aren’t new. As long as someone is “discovering feminism” for the first time, there will be someone right behind them saying, “there’s still a lot you have yet to learn.”

This is a good thing.

If we are ever going to step out of oppressive paradigms and fully realize in a new Kingdom coming, one that is properly ordered around God and not a particular powerful segment of humanity, we need to commit to humility and to listening to the people who are pushed to the margin. That is, after all, who Jesus himself ran with on a daily basis.

With that in mind, here are a few additional readings for you to interact with and explore. You don’t necessarily have to agree with all of it, but you do have to listen. Consider them homework, if it helps. You do yours (don’t go asking your marginalized friends for answers, either). I’ll do mine. We can meet back and compare notes later.

Accomplices, Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally-Industrial Complex from Indigenous Action

Justice then Reconciliation by Austin Channing Brown

I, too, am racialized by Lydia Brown (includes discussion of disability!)

Killjoy Prophets: Troubling and Broadening our Liberation by Emily Rice (highlights current struggles within the “progressive” Christian community)

Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why It’s Future is Not Up to White Women by Brittney Cooper

I Can’t Believe by Micky Jones

Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy by Andrea Smith

White People, White Power, White Platform by Caris Adel

Extra credit (only because you can’t just click and read it, but get this anyway): More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership, and Faith. Authors: Asifa Dean, Christie Heller de Leon, Kathy Khang and Editors: Nikki A. Toyama, Tracey Gee, Jeanette Yep

Privilege in feminism, Part 2: Lessons from America’s racist history

We pick up our discussion of relative privilege and feminism today with a look at some slices of American history. I recently read an interview with scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom, following her presentation to a group of white feminists during which she said:

A lot of corporate capitalist feminism begins with the idea that feminism is always starting on the day the person discovered feminism,[But] my feminism can’t start when you discover it, I need mine to start 300 years ago. [She went on to tell the interviewer,] feminism wants to start today. Always. Even the historian in there said, Well feminism started in 1970—and I almost fell out the chair. Like, really? I’ve got black feminists organizing in 1889. But even when we’re talking historical terms we’re not dealing with history. And I think that an affirmative feminism would be precisely that.

Oh, how I wish our history was chock full of M&Ms instead of oppression!

Oh, how I wish our history was chock full of M&Ms instead of oppression!

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at our own history. For those unfamiliar with women’s history in the United States, the fight for women’s suffrage that began before our nation was founded, began to gain momentum just before the Civil War. During that time, suffragists and abolitionists Lucretia Mott (shout out to Quakers!) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled to London to attend an anti-slavery convention with their husbands. At the assembly, the women were asked to sit behind a curtain where the male-only speakers and attendees would not be distracted by their presence. Infuriated by this, the women traveled back to the States with a plan that they would hold their own convention, this time on the rights of women as well as abolition. And thus the idea for the Seneca Falls Convention was born.

Love me some Lucretia Mott.

Love me some Lucretia Mott.

This is significant because here we see how intertwined feminism and anti-racism were at the beginning. Following the Civil War, however, the women’s suffrage movement became divided over the prospect of the Fourteenth amendment, which would grant voting rights to former slaves. Some suffragists wanted to pursue voting rights for black men before making suffrage universally applicable to all citizens (particularly women). Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who had worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on both abolition and women’s rights, was distanced from his former allies over their disagreement on the issue.
Ta Nehisi Coates offers a snapshot of the pervasiveness of the problem:

It got worse. By the dawn of of the 20th century, Anthony and Stanton were openly courting avowed white supremacists like Belle Kearney. 1903 found the old stalwart abolitionist, Anthony, in New Orleans at the National Association of Women’s Suffrage Association’s convention, enduring a rousing rendition of Dixie, and tolerating Kearney’s “semi-barbaric denunciations of blacks.”

By that point, some of the most ardent suffrage activists were outright racists like Rebecca Felton, who fervently supported lynching, and Kate Gordon who eventually abandoned the suffrage movement because a national amendment would threaten white supremacy. “State sovereignty and white supremacy are inextricably linked,” said Gordon. Kearney argued that “the enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy.”

Still, there were voices even then, advocating an integrated approach to both issues. Lucretia Mott, herself struggled to reconcile her own participation in both movements. But the most famous spokeswoman for both causes was Sojourner Truth. Speaking at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio in 1851, Sojourner Truth said:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

This rift between women of color and white suffragists continued into the next generation of women’s activism. As the women’s suffrage movement began to splinter into different groups with different approaches to the issue, suffragists of color continued to work at the margins of the “mainstream” white suffragist efforts. Activist Ida B. Wells, whose work against lynching was predated the Civil Rights Act by half a century, was invited to participate in Alice Paul’s famous 1913 suffrage parade, but asked to stand with her colleagues in a segregated unit of the parade. Wells refused, and joined her state in the procession in defiance of the white suffragists’ request. Wells consistently called out white supremacy in her anti-lynching work and as a feminist. She did not hesitate to take white Christians to task, either:

It is the easiest way to get along in the South (and those portions in the North where lynchings take place) to ignore the question altogether; our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.

Burgeoning white feminism was cooperating with racism on a number of fronts. During this period, Native people faced some of the most intense, organized oppression they had ever suffered. Scholar Andrea Smith writes, in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, that efforts to fold Native people in to white society was not only culturally-oppressive, but heightened danger for Native women:

 The “assimilation” into white society, however, only increased Native women’s vulnerability to violence. For instance, when the Cherokee nation was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears in the nineteenth century, soldiers targeted for sexual violence Cherokee women who spoke English and had attended mission schools instead of those who had not taken part in these assimilation efforts. They were routinely gang-raped, causing one missionary to the Cherokee, Daniel Butrick, to regret that any Cherokee had ever been taught English…Cherokee women were promised that assimilation would provide them with the benefits of dominant society , [when] in fact assimilation efforts made them more easily subjugated by colonial rule.

In contrast to this, feminists like Anna Julia Cooper worked to bridge divides among women of color and identify ways to combat patriarchy in solidarity with one another.  Cooper argued that women of color should reject the competitive power dynamics white patriarchy imposed:

Quoted in "The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper" (link to Google Book through image)

Quoted in “The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper” (link to Google Book through quote image)

Cooper went on to say, to all women, in her famous work, “Woman Versus the Indian:”

It is not the intelligent woman vs. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman vs. the black, the brown, and the red,–it is not even the cause of woman vs. man. Nay, ’tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear HER VOICE. It would be subversive of every human interest that the cry of one-half the human family be stifled. Woman in stepping from the pedestal of statue-like inactivity in the domestic shrine, and daring to think and move and speak,–to undertake to help shape, mold, and direct the thought of her age, is merely completing the circle of the world’s vision. Hers is every interest that has lacked an interpreter and a defender. Her cause is linked with that of every agony that has been dumb–every wrong that needs a voice.

As history marched on, once again, the advancement of people of color and women coincided during the Civil Rights era. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique shook the culture in 1963, and raised up a conversation about the plight of domestic, middle-class, educated white women with her discussion of “the problem that has no name.” Friedan wrote:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question “Is this all?”
Friedan’s tome quickly became the rallying cry for a second wave of feminists. It remains an important work today, yet the book is clearly written through a focused lens that normalizes the middle-class white woman’s experience and pushes the concerns of working women, women of color, single women, etc. to the margins.

The 1960’s saw the enactment of the Civil Rights Act after long state and local battles to end segregation and abridgment of voting rights. That same decade produced leaders like Dolores Huerta, who, working alongside Cesar Chavez, organized farm workers and pursued just living conditions for Latino agricultural workers. Huerta called for solidarity and ears to hear the marginalized voices of women of color at a time when white feminism was the talk of the day.

I'm here for Huerta.

I’m here for Huerta.

At the same time, Japanese activist and internment survivor Yuri Kochiyama was working with Malcolm X and the black, latino, and Asian-american communities to advance equality for all. Kochiyama was an outspoken advocate for solidarity at a time when movements were often compelled by the structures of white supremacy to compete for advancement and white acceptance. Before her death last year, Kochiyama charged younger generations:

And I think today part of the missions would be to fight against racism and polarization, learn from each others’ struggle, but also understand national liberation struggles — that ethnic groups need their own space and they need their own leaders. They need their own privacy. But there are enough issues that we could all work together on. And certainly support for political prisoners is one of them. We could all fight together and we must not forget our battle cry is that “They fought for us. Now we must fight for them!”

Lord, I love a woman with a bullhorn.

Lord, I love a woman with a bullhorn.

Alongside these actions, second wave feminism’s leaders began working to overcome some of the divisions of the past, and sought opportunities to reach beyond whiteness to work with feminists of color. Up-and-coming feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote in 1969 in New York Magazine:

Finally, women began to “rap” (talk, analyze, in radical-ese) about their essential second-classness, forming women’s caucuses inside the Movement in much the same way Black Power groups had done. And once together they made a lot of discoveries: that they shared more problems with women of different classes, for instance, than they did with men of their own; that they liked and respected each other (if women don’t want to work with women, as Negroes used to reject other Negroes, it’s usually because they believe the myth of their own inferiority), and that, as black militants kept explaining to white liberals, “You don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles.”

Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes

Unfortunately, these collegial meetings and cooperative efforts, though outshining their foremothers in inclusivity and solidarity, still consistently centered white feminism, and those privileged enough to be earning a “voice” at the table. In that same piece, Steinem wrote:

The middle-class, educated and disillusioned group gets larger with each college graduation. National Organization for Women (NOW)—founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan, among others, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men” — is a very effective voice of this group, concentrating on such reforms as getting irrelevant sex-designations out of Help Wanted ads and implementing Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Women like Steinem were using their platform to raise some of the issues that women of color faced, but they were doing so from a position of relative privilege.

Feminists like Angela Davis became more prominent in the movement, and kept white feminists accountable with her critique of capitalism and activism for black liberation. Davis not only challenged patriarchy, but she questioned “mainstream” (aka: white) feminism’s ignorance of history in it’s struggles for political power, economic equality, and reproductive justice. At a time when abortion became the centerpiece of the white feminist agenda, Davis raised questions about the historical omission of reproductive crimes against women of color (including forced sterilization), and openly educated the movement about its eugenicist roots of the contraception/abortion. In her 1981 book, Women, Race, and Class, Davis wrote:

Over the last decade the struggle against sterilization abuse has been waged primarily by Puerto Rican, Black, Chicana, and Native American women. Their cause has not yet been embraced by the women’s movement as a whole. Within organizations representing the interests of middle-class white women, there has been a certain reluctance to support the demands of [these campaigns]…While women of color are urged, at every turn, to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves.

Still, many young white feminists today are unaware of women of color’s contributions to the movement. Despite moments of solidarity, second wave feminism, like the generations of feminism before it, remained dominated by the agenda of white feminists.

Once again, whiteness was central to the move for increased women’s rights, so much so that author Alice Walker coined a new term, “Womanist” to create distance from “mainstream” feminism and advance a broader agenda that challenged capitalism, patriarchy. Walker wrote, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Womanist feminism incorporates the concept of intersectionality, and actively confronts the multifaceted barriers created by supremacy.

Next week we will look at a few contemporary examples of these challenges within feminism today and I hope to offer a suggestion or two about how we can get feminism past mere inclusivity (though that still needs to be a priority) and move forward through the leadership of women on the margins.

Privilege in Feminism, Part 1: Lessons from Scripture

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:

Iconic, right?

Iconic, right?

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.

rosie2

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, U.S. Office of War Information

rosie

Robert Valadez, “Rosita Adelita” (image links to artist’s site, posters available for purchase)

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.

And you thought Elsa was a badass.

And you thought Queen Elsa was a badass.

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.

Shut it down: Catcalling

This is going to be a quick one, y’all. I saw this infographic (image below) on Feministing today and it disturbed me, to say the least.

I decided to respond to it because I think it’s doing that thing that often happens in the [white-] feminist movement where sex positivity is thrown around as cover for the misogyny of seemingly progressive people. I’d say the person who wrote this means well by it, but the spokesperson here is Playboy, which as we all know, has a long and profitable history of objectifying women and perpetuating patriarchal standards of beauty. Street harassment affects women who rely on public transportation (so as suburb-dwellers, car-commuters, may be tempted to write it off as “not a problem.”) And it disproportionately affects women of color and LBTQ people (Playboy doesn’t have a sparkling record in those departments, either). So, unlike some of the commenters on Feministing, I don’t buy it. Tainted well. My take:

should-you-catcall-herTo read documentations of personal accounts of street harassment, check out the hashtag #YouOKSis on Twitter (warning: this could be triggering, it’s overwhelming to see it happening in real time to so many people). For more info on combating catcalling, visit Hollaback, Stop Telling Women to Smile, or Stop Street Harassment or consider how you can intervene as a bystander when you see it happening.

stoptelling

And if you need a palate cleanser, take a look at what male allies do:

Still ranting after all these years

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:

Thought I'd use pictures for Congresswoman Ellmers

Thought I’d use pictures for Congresswoman Ellmers

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:

The dreaded pie chart

The dreaded pie chart

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.

A common misconception: feminism does not seek to replace patriarchy with matriarchy. PS- supremacy is the enemy, not men.

A common misconception: feminism does not seek to replace patriarchy with matriarchy. PS- supremacy is the enemy, not men.

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).

We're movin' on up, y'all.

We’re movin’ on up, y’all. And by “we,” I mean, upper-middle-class, well- educated white women with high-earning husbands.

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.

To be fair, my hair is looking pretty amazing these days, but there were bigger matters at hand this morning.

To be fair, my hair is looking pretty amazing these days, but there were bigger matters at hand this morning.

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.

I want all the whole pi.

I want the whole pi.

The Multiplied Injustice of Victim-blaming

I was really going on vacation this week, friends. But then this happened:

Conservative columnist George Will, in response to the movement to overturn rape culture on college campuses:

[Colleges and universities] are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate. And academia’s progressivism has rendered it intellectually defenseless now that progressivism’s achievement, the regulatory state, has decided it is academia’s turn to be broken to government’s saddle.

We’ll be looking at biblical texts that involve sexual assault in the coming weeks and what God thinks about rape [spoiler alert: He’s adamantly against it], but I can tell you the facts are these:

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[Source: rainn.org , and apologies that these are screen grabs. Go to the site if you want working links to the articles cited.]

Rape happens. And it doesn’t happen in a cultural vaccuum. Rape is notoriously underreported and difficult to prosecute. One of the better definitions I’ve read from Marshall University’s Women’s Center:

Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

In our society, we have a number of ways of subverting justice when it comes to rape. That’s what rape culture does. (If you need a quick primer on a few examples of rape culture, BuzzFeed, of all places, has one.)

Honestly, not a day goes by where I don’t see some piece of this play out in front of me. Twenty minutes of television usually does the trick. Today, one of those moments was when a friend posted an article by Zaron Burnett on Facebook entitled, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture.” The article was but one point of view on the subject, but it was immensely helpful, written by a man for other men. My friend had but one commenter, a male friend, who said, “I read this. Interesting, but a lot of BS, also.” No other comment or elaboration. Just dismissal. And a perfect example of rape culture. In rape culture, survivors, survivor advocates, activists, are all “just playing the victim.”

George Will even argues, being a victim is a status thing: everybody wants to be a victim. Everyone wants to claim victimhood, he says. Progressives are conferring a special status upon victims, thereby making victimhood desirable. This idea of this is utterly deplorable. To be victimized is horrific. Rape survivors are consistently retraumatized by a culture that is openly hostile to them.

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We’ve reached a place in our society where we treat victims of injustice with contempt. We do this with victims of racism and sexism, and we do this to victims of sexual assault. But we don’t do this with murder victims. We don’t talk about how someone was walking around all alive and stuff. Just breathing and flaunting it in front of people like that. We don’t ever say to someone calling for justice in a murder, “If you keep talking about how your loved one was murdered, murder will never go away. Stop being such a victim.”

We don’t do it with armed bank robbery. What were they thinking opening a big business right there? Just putting out all the signals that it was a place where you could go and get lots of money if you had some guns, a president’s mask, and a team of criminals/surfers.

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The only thing more ridiculous than George Will’s claims is the possibility that Keanu Reeves could pass for an FBI agent.

Blaming victims for their victimization multiplies the initial offense and it intensifies injustice. Why is rape one of the few crimes addressed this way? Could it be because it predominantly (definitely not always) affects women? It seems so.

Another way we do this in our society is by insisting that women be prepared for eventual (or inevitable assault). While we all see the statistics above and agree that rape is a problem, we disagree about how to solve it. Generally, the burden for rape prevention falls heavily on women, who we tell to take precautions: check under your cars, don’t wear a ponytail that makes you easy to grab, travel in pairs or groups, don’t leave your drink unattended. We hear “Rape is bad, don’t get raped.” We rarely hear, “Rape is bad, don’t be a rapist.”

Like many of you who are parents, when the time comes, I’ll be talking to my sons and daughter about how to navigate all of this. Like Miss Nevada, now Miss USA 2014, I will likely teach my daughter how to defend herself, or hold her car keys like a shiv, as one tweeter said. But I’ll be damned if I stop there without telling her that such preparation is unfair, that it won’t necessarily save her, and that if something so brutal and unjust ever happens to her, it’s never her fault. I will tell her that we don’t beat rape with our martial arts training, or our keys, or our whistles, or our less-snatchable hairstyles. We defeat rape with justice. We fight it with compassion and with advocacy. We tell our men how we want to be treated and we expect them to listen, as any decent human being (ahem, GEORGE WILL) would.

Because once we acknowledge the presence of rape culture and are horrified by it, our effort to change it should start with listening to survivors, and not blaming victims in the first place. Victims are not the problem. Being a victim is not the problem. Victimizing is. Assault is. Misogyny is. Racism is. The fact that we even have discussions about how we shouldn’t BE victims/shouldn’t “make ourselves” victims/shouldn’t “talk about being victims” is the problem. Victims are people unfairly imposed upon and acted upon. Let’s start focusing our attention on stopping perpetrators before they victimize people. Instead of giving victims lectures about their victimhood, let’s give them the hope of justice.