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Feminism and a common vocabulary

October 15, 2012

I have been looking forward to working on the biblical studies carnival this month. I enjoy reading the different posts in the biblical studies blogosphere, many of which I do not comment on. Just because I usually post of issues relating to women does not mean that I am not interested in reading widely on other topics. Perhaps I don’t feel that I have much to contribute in some areas so I just read. That’s how I see it.

I really want to link to this review of Rachel Held Evan’s recent book on biblical womanhood. But what can one say about this paragraph?

As anyone who has read my blog consistently for a long time knows, I am steadfastly against so-called “complementarianism” as it is taught by leading conservative evangelicals. In a truly godly marriage there is no need of it. And it reeks of male resentment, fear and desire for control. On the other hand, I’m no fan of feminism. Of course, much depends on what “feminism” means, but far too often these days it means implicit, if not explicit, belief in female superiority and requirement for men to become like women in order to be acceptable. It too often means the total obliteration of masculinity (I’m not talking about “machismo,” but non-threatening male ways of relating).

Complementarians, by definition, believe that men and women are in a hierarchical relationship of leader and follower, or leader and supporter. Feminism, by definition, is about the equality of women. There is no place that I can find a definition of feminism as “female superiority.” If we are to take everything that is “implied” in a belief, we would never come to any agreement. We have common understandings so we can participate in community.

It will continue to be very difficult for women to participate in the biblical studies community if they cannot allow themselves to be labeled as “feminists” without having to explain that they are not advocating the “total obliteration of masculinity.” I am not sure how to move forward in a positive way in this community unless women are allowed to not believe in their own subordination without this kind of discussion.

I really don’t know how to go forward on this.

Update: Dianna Anderson has responded to Roger Olson here.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. krwordgazer permalink
    October 16, 2012 2:22 pm

    I think Roger Olson is trying to champion women’s equality, but is coming from a place where it’s hard to see the patriarchalism our culture swims in without noticing it, like a fish doesn’t notice water. I also think it can be difficult to be a white male today in this time of transition and the upsetting of norms, and he wants to stand up for men without necessarily understanding that feminism actually wants to stand up for them too.

    In any event, I have discoursed with “radical” feminists and, like Roger, have been dismayed by some of the sexist, belittling things they say about men. I don’t blame him for disliking that– though he shouldn’t use that stance to define all of feminism! But he isn’t the first older white male preacher I have seen do so.

  2. October 16, 2012 5:38 pm

    It’s important, as you do Kristen, to distinguish between good feminisms and bad. (I shudder to use adjectives like “radical” and “extreme” as modifiers of labels for people of any sort, however.) The best definition of “feminism” is the one that the good feminist bell hooks gives us. (And I’ve looked an awful lot at the whole question of what’s good about it.)

    “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago [in 1985]. It was my hope that at that time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.”
    –bell hooks
    “Feminist Politics: Where We Stand”
    Feminism is For Everyone: Passionate Politics
    page 1

  3. October 16, 2012 5:52 pm

    I’m not sure Rachel Held Evans is entirely able to find “feminist” a useful term. She writes in bold font: “Now, let me be clear: I am not interested in countering these irresponsible interpretations with equally irresponsible interpretations that render Esther a feminist hero.” And she goes on:

    “Because we can’t allow a woman like Esther to be crammed into our preferred molds—as a Disney princess, a victim, an easily-dismissed whore, a contestant on ‘The Bachelor,’ or even a feminist.

    Because Esther is so much more than that.

    Like every woman, and like every hero and heroine of Scripture, she is more complicated than we wish her to be.”

    As if feminists are not more complicated than they/we wish to them/us to be.

    It was in some conversation after you post where we began to talk about whether interpretations of Esther might be really be complicated, as in

    responsible and feminist and Jewish interpretations.

    So back to what bell hooks suggests, why wouldn’t men and women engage in the movement to “end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”? Why not be feminists and act this way? Why not work and work in very rigorous and active ways toward “an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism”? How could that possibly be “the total obliteration of masculinity”?

  4. October 17, 2012 1:54 am

    Kurk, you said:

    Why not work and work in very rigorous and active ways toward “an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism”? How could that possibly be “the total obliteration of masculinity”?

    I think that there is a certain segment of society that sadly views the nature of masculinity as being in charge, particularly of women. That definition of masculinity is certainly threatened by people understanding and resisting sexism– and if that’s how someone defines it, naturally they will see masculinity itself threatened with obliteration.

    I’m going to have to read bell hooks. I think I’ve been reading paraphrases of her for years without actually reading her.

    Does she intentionally not capitalize her name? If so, I want to honor her wishes.

  5. October 17, 2012 5:12 pm

    Thanks Kristen. Yes, bell hooks intentionally uses the lowercase letters as the initial letters of this pseudonym of hers. It’s full of meaning(s). She tells the story of the name in her chapter, “to gloria, who is she: on using a pseudonym,” in one of her books. My friend in blogging and in real life, Rod, says “I love my books by bell hooks. I especially enjoy her criticism of modern entertainment (movies, etc) produced by African Americans.” In her book, Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks writes confessionally:

    Coming from a Bible-toting, Bible-talking world where scripture was quoted in everyday conversations, I lacked the psychological resources and know how to positively function in a world where spiritual faith was regarded with as much disdain as being from the geographical south.

    Like bell hooks, I’m from this place too, more or less, and now more belong to it. So is Rod. But so is Roger E. Olson, who wants to say anyway, very publicly here, he’s “no fan of feminism.” I’m glad Suzanne has brought this to our attention!

  6. October 18, 2012 1:42 am

    Kurk, thanks for the information!

    I think it’s important to remember that in many sects of Christianity, particularly evangelicalism, “feminism” is a bad word, and self-identifying as a feminist can result in loss of readership, etc. It’s not surprising that the word has a negative “feel” for those who were raised hearing it used practically in the same way “the devil” is used. It’s also not surprising that they have a negative impression of what “feminist” means, or that they would want to distance themselves from that word.

    Personally, I often identify myself as a Christian egalitarian when talking to evangelicals, and as a Christian feminist when talking to everyone else. This is because non-evangelicals largely don’t know what “Christian egalitarian” means, and to them “feminist” is not a bad word.

    It’s too bad that feminism has been vilified in this way, but I think some understanding is due to those who are trying their best to be feminists while interacting mainly in environments where it has already been vilified.

  7. October 18, 2012 2:46 pm

    You are right. For many evangelicals, it’s the F-word. “Feminism” and “Evangelical Feminism” and “Egalitarianism” even are all phrases broad stroked by individuals who seem, to me at least, intent on making their position on the sexes the true one that must be True for all time. Truth, of course, is what the Bible says, has always said, and will always say. So there’s little discussion. And then “feminism” comes in and wants to change all of that.

    I remember reading something Mary Kassian wrote only about a year and a half ago, for example:

    Since New Testament times, Christians believed that the Bible taught that God created male and female with complementary differences and roles. There was no word to describe this position, since no one had ever questioned it. But about 50 years ago, feminism changed all that. And by the mid-eighties, when Egalitarians and Evangelical Feminists eagerly jumped on the feminist ideological bandwagon, it was necessary to come up with a label to identify this traditional, orthodox, historic belief. That’s when we came up with the term “complementarian.” It simply means someone who believes that the Bible teaches that God created men and women with equal, yet distinct roles. A complementarian is a person who believes that God created male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus.

    Ironically, Kassian wrote this in the context of her blogpost in which she’s arguing that “Egalitarians and Evangelicals” use a “straw man” logical fallacy by constructing “Scary Straw Women of Complementarity.” The irony is that Kassian is constructing “Egalitarians and Evangelicals” to argue against them. There’s essentializing and, as I said, broad-stroke targeting and pigeonholing and demonizing just to prop up the Truth of complementarianism as Biblical. Well, this is not to ignore how the likes of Mary Daly, Letty Russell, and Phyllis Trible may be in the back of Kassian’s mind. Or would it be people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia E. Smith, and Lucretia Mott that more trouble her True complementarianism? These, as we all know, are all women, all Christians, and all feminists in America. Moreover, they are not all alike.

    So then we come to some, women, who call themselves “Christian feminists.” In the BLT blogroll, you’ll find them. They start off by telling what they are “not” and get around to saying “as christians we are feminists in the tradition of the first-wave feminists of the 19th & early 20th centuries—-many of whom were christians who fought for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women (e.g. women’s suffrage).” Clearly, these women are likely more interested in Cady Stanton, Smith, and Mott than in the works of Daly, Russell, and Trible. Who is more palatable? Who more beneficial or threatening to one’s Truth, to one’s “Biblical” hood?

    You may have noticed that the BLT blogroll also includes those who declare this – “Mission:
    A safe place to be feminist and faithful.” These are the Feminist Mormon Housewives.

    And here are more from the BLT blogroll: “The mission of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha. We advocate meaningful participation and equality for women in family life, synagogues, houses of learning and Jewish communal organizations to the full extent possible within halakha. Our commitment is rooted in the belief that fulfilling this mission will enrich and uplift individual and communal life for all Jews.”

    And on the BLT blogroll, there’s an individual saying this: “I am a progressive (observant but unconventional) Muslim and Unitarian Universalist feminist academic, raising a son from a previous marriage, and learning about Sufism.”

    Who we’ve neglected, I think, are those who are feminists but who cannot wear the label. I’m talking about womanists (or as some white feminists call them “afrafeminists”).

    What I’m hoping we all see is how inadequate and unfair and oversimplified and vilified “feminists” can be. Who can really declare with a straight face that feminism “means implicit, if not explicit, belief in female superiority and requirement for men to become like women in order to be acceptable”? And that feminism “too often means the total obliteration of masculinity … [that is, the total obliteration of] non-threatening male ways of relating”?

  8. October 19, 2012 1:07 am

    You’re onto something with all those examples: it’s hard to know what feminism means today. Rather than having a consistent definition, as it might have in some eras, it has become a term most often defined relatively. A group might describe themselves as feminist relative to another part of their community identified as non-feminist. But if you try to compare the beliefs of one group of self-labeled feminists to another, they will likely diverge as widely as the beliefs of the feminists compared to non-feminists of a single community.


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