Christianity and Feminism, part 2: Objections to Feminism
Part 2 of a series on feminism and Christianity. Read part 1 here
Last week, I wrote about how scripture displays the importance of women to God, as women are frequently honored or elevated in ways that run counter to the patriarchy of the ancient world. Since feminism is a recent movement, nothing in the bible explicitly affirms it. But feminism affirms women as the equals, not the subordinates of men, and aligns with the liberation of the oppressed that occurs so often throughout scripture.
Just over 200 years ago, feminism begin to arise a social movement designed to elevate and dignify women in the face of patriarchal social structures. Early feminists, like Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, primarily argued that women should be educated. They claimed that women were not naturally intellectually inferior to men; instead, they seemed inferior because they were denied the educational opportunities given to men.
From this modest beginning, feminism has grown and changed. Feminists have, slowly, won women in the western world the right to own property, vote, attend college, handle their own finances, and work after marriage and childbearing. Most broadly, feminists argue that men and women are equal and should be treated as equals; biological sex alone should not lead to different treatment.
Thanks to feminism, attitudes towards women have gradually shifted in American society. Most people no longer believe that women are too physically frail to run marathons or that higher education will make women go insane. Even in the church, only a small minority argue that women were created as inferior to men; women may be barred from certain positions, but the argument rests on roles, not female inferiority.1
Despite the many ways in which feminism has reshaped western society over the last two centuries, American Christians — especially evangelical Christians — tend to resist feminism (and not only Christians; many people outside the church are also reluctant to identify as feminists). Why does so much opposition to feminism exist in the church? What about feminism engenders so much resistance?
Given the progress that feminism has made over the last century, some in the church (and beyond) no longer see feminism as necessary. From this point of view, feminism is no longer about advocating for women’s full participation in society but instead about special treatment for women.
Others view feminism with suspicion because they see the tearing down of patriarchal structures as the equivalent of tearing down society or, worse, destroying the created order. It may be fine for women to vote, but when women out-earn men and take on leadership roles in churches, businesses and governments they threaten the often unquestioned and unexamined social power of men.
Yet another objection to feminism is its association with the sexual revolution and with abortion rights for women. Many, if not most, contemporary feminists argue that women should be freed from sexual double standards and not shamed for behavior that men engage in without censure. And many feminists do prioritize a woman’s control over her own body, elevating the woman above her fetus.
For some Christians, these objections are enough to rule out the possibility of Christian feminism.
But I think that feminism is too valuable a movement to simply dismiss. Christian feminists will no doubt differ from their secular counterparts (and even from each other), but feminism like Christianity itself has diverse and often conflicting strands. If Christians can recognize that women still need to be freed from the bondage of patriarchy, feminism can offer the tools to help us in that work.
To address the first objection, that feminism is no longer necessary: feminism certainly has made progress. Discrimination on the basis of sex is no longer legal in the United States; women can vote, own property, run for public office, and open their own bank accounts. Despite legal protections, however, women still face an uphill climb in many of their endeavors. Sexual harassment and assault is distressingly common even in the workplace, as the #MeToo movement is showing; women make up only a fraction of Fortune 500 CEOs and remain under-represented in political office.
Feminists are still working to highlight and tear down the barriers that women face on a daily basis. These barriers vary, of course, based on other intersecting aspects of privilege (as a white, straight, educated woman I have faced fewer barriers than others). But the obstacles women face are real and if women are to participate fully in society we must do the painful work of identifying the ways in which our culture holds women back from their full potential.
The point above is closely related to the second. Because much of feminism is about changing cultural attitudes towards women, it can feel like a tearing down of traditional society. The painfulness of this change points to how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in our society: smashing the patriarchy means rethinking myriad assumptions and traditions about everything from how families work to who gets to speak with authority (and without interruption).
For Christians who see patriarchy as part of God’s created order, feminism presents an existential threat. But if we recognize, as I believe scripture shows, that patriarchy is part of the curse and a sign of relationships disrupted by sin, then the work of feminism aligns with our work as resurrection people. Feminism is thus doing the work of combatting the effects of sin, and Christians should be the first to join in this work.
But the third objection, about sexual liberation and abortion, often holds Christians back from joining with feminists in this work. I can’t fully wrestle with either topic today, but we need to remember that feminists hold a range of opinions on these topics. While some see pornography and hook-up culture as empowering, others see them as damaging to women. Both, however, want to see women enjoying their sexuality in safe and healthy ways — and while Christians may define safe and healthy in slightly different ways, our goal isn’t actually that different.
Abortion is perhaps the thorniest issue, one that Christian feminists must wrestle with. And yet, few pro-choice feminists celebrate abortion; even as they fight to keep it legal, they work to support women so that they don’t have to choose abortion. Affordable contraception, robust social services, low-cost childcare and better (much better) maternal leave policies would all make it more possible for women to have their babies. Christians should (and do) also engage in this work, modeling an approach to this issue that cares deeply for both mother and child.
Feminism is a complex social movement, but at its core it attempts to reverse the patriarchal social structures that keep women from reaching their full potential. If we view patriarchy as one of the oldest sins, little prevents Christians from joining the work of feminism.
But even if they can embrace feminism, why should Christians do so? What does feminism offer that a mere rejection of the sin of patriarchy can’t? I will turn to that question in Thursday’s post.
This argument is still incredibly problematic; while one may maintain a theoretical distinction between a person’s appropriate roles and a person’s value as a human being, in practicality these distinctions collapse. But it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Christians who affirm traditional gender roles do not affirm that women are inferior to men.↩