Friday, April 30, 2010

Feminism Today: Some Necessary Clarifications

This week, I've been finishing up a research paper for school about the so-called "Quiverfull" movement in conservative American evangelicalism. For most Quiverfull adherents, feminism is a great evil, if not the great evil of contemporary Western society. This is not without good reason. There is much about feminism, especially in its First and Second Wave forms, that is threatening or even outright antithetical to some of Christianity's most basic beliefs.

This is why it can be so hazardous for a woman (or a man, for that matter) within evangelicalism to self-identify as a "feminist"--there is simply so much baggage that comes along with the label. Although I have explained elsewhere that I do, in fact, embrace the term feminism and some of my reasons for doing so, from the beginning I have accepted it with many qualifications (one important qualification is explained here). Unfortunately, the nature of the Internet and my busy schedule is such that I cannot always express these qualifications or do so adequately.

In reading over a good portion of the Quiverfull literature, I found what I believe to be some unfortunate misunderstandings about feminism in its complex contemporary form. This realization was most acute for me when I found myself reading a Quiverfull writer and agreeing with her critique of feminism, even as I am myself a feminist! I thought to myself: "Why is it that I'm a feminist and she is firmly patriarchal and we actually agree about this issue?" The answer, I think, is that some in the Quiverfull movement--and many within evangelicalism, at large--have some misunderstandings about feminism that I would like to try a hand at clearing up.

Before I begin, though, its important to recognize that there is not one system of thought or way of life that can be labeled "feminism." Actually, it is far more accurate to speak of feminisms, because there is a vast spectrum of perspectives associated with the larger, more general feminist movement to promote the well-being of women worldwide. There are Catholic, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian feminists. There are Jewish feminists and Muslim feminists, black feminists and Latina feminists. There are Marxist feminists, atheist feminists, and, yes, even evangelical feminists. And, all of these different versions of feminism have their own unique perspective and emphases. This is not to say there aren't some unifying elements. I have detailed five major ones here. But, this variety of feminisms should make us realize the extent to which there are differences of opinion--even very strong ones--within the movement at large. (Just as there are major differences of opinion within the broad spectrum of Christian traditions.)

Now, without any further ado, here is my attempt at six clarifications about contemporary feminism. In most cases, these statements and explanations apply to feminism as it is in an explicitly Christian form, but I will indicate those places where secular and Christian feminists concur. Also, these clarifications apply mainly to American feminists, since I am too unfamiliar with other forms of feminism to speak adequately to their views on these matters.

1. Many feminists believe men and women are essentially different and think that's a very good thing. In feminist theology today, it is actually somewhat passe to hold the opinion that women and men are essentially the same except for biology, as though reproductive parts are the only things that distinguish us from each other. Instead, many feminist theologians now hold to some combination of essentialism and constructivism.

In this perspective, generally speaking, it is believed that there are aspects of men and women that are essential (read: created that way by God) to their natures as men and women (besides just biology), as well as aspects of men and women that are constructed by society and culture. So, for example, women in general may be affirmed to be naturally more inclined to be nurturing due to their biological capacity to bear and nurse children. But, they're not necessarily naturally more fond of dolls than trucks, because that is something that may very well be a socially constructed preference.

Many of the feminists who hold to this view would affirm that men and women are complementary in their natures, together bearing God's image. There are even some feminists who would go so far as to suggest that the complementary nature of men and women means that it is not necessarily a problem to see men and women as properly suited for different roles in family, church, and society (although, you are still not going to see any of these women affirm anything close to patriarchy and/or "complementarianism"). One example of a Christian feminist theologian who affirms a version of this perspective is Roman Catholic theologian, Mary Aquin O'Neill.

2. Some feminists are decidedly pro-life. I know this one is hard to believe, because for so long feminism has been closely associated with abortion rights. But, a large number of feminists in recent decades have come out against abortion for a variety of reasons, both feminist ones and reasons of faith. They even have their own organization, Feminists for Life, that I would encourage you to take a look at. I have written my own defense of the pro-life position from a Christian feminist perspective here. Other pro-life feminists include Roman Catholic moral theologian, Jana Bennett, and Methodist pastor and ethicist, Amy Laura Hall.

3. Some feminists are against the use of contraception. This is another tough one, I know, because feminism has long been associated with birth control, especially the Pill, and "sexual freedom" (whatever that really means). But, there are a growing number of feminists who are examining the moral, ethical, and social ramifications of artificial birth control and finding that they do not line up with feminist convictions. Instead, many would advocate that natural family planning (NFP) methods are more affirming of the reproductive capacity of women's bodies, more empowering for women generally, and more equalizing in the marriage relationship (since NFP requires both husband and wife to be involved). Also, feminists with these views would say that children should be welcomed as a gift, not looked upon as a "mistake" or hindrance to a woman's life. And, as an added bonus, NFP methods do not pose any potential environmental harm because it does not utilize artificial hormones, which inevitably make their way into our water supply. For more about this perspective, you can take a look at this online article.

4. Some feminists are against sexual promiscuity and even defend a traditional Christian view that sexual expression is intended for the marriage relationship. Many feminists, particularly Christian feminists, have concluded that the "sexual freedom" women gained through the Pill and the 1960s resulted in very little real freedom for women. In fact, it really resulted in more freedom for men--freedom to sex without consequences and freedom from their children--the many, many children who have been born out of wedlock since the sexual revolution.

Many feminists have surveyed the social and economic landscape over the past fifty years and realized that "sexual freedom" for women has, by and large, led to rising teen pregnancy, very high abortion rates, an exploding number of single moms, and the "feminization" of poverty (meaning, the majority of those living in poverty in America are women with their dependent children). So, many of these feminists now advocate for "sexual freedom" as freedom to wise decision-making about sexuality. And, among Christian feminists, this usually means affirming that sexual expression is best suited for the marriage relationship, not only because it is in keeping with the Christian moral tradition, but also because it is really better for women and children in the long run.

5. Some feminists are very much pro-motherhood and pro-homemaking. I know there is a strong sense among non-feminists that feminists, in general, despise family, motherhood, and homemaking (especially homemaking). Although this may have been true in the past, the truth is that there are a growing number of feminists, secular and Christian and otherwise, who are decidedly for family, mothering, and homemaking. In fact, feminists have produced some of the best scholarly literature on these topics in recent years, including histories and sociological studies of homemaking worldwide. They may re-conceive these concepts and practices in ways that differ from non-feminists. For example, they're not going to advocate that God has ordained in creation that a woman's "place" is in the home. But there is no doubt that many feminists today have embraced motherhood and family as an inherent good. See some good books on the topic of homemaking, nurturing, and "women's work" here, here, and here.

6. Some feminists are stay-at-home moms. Yes, believe it or not, some feminists have chosen to be mothers at home. They do so for a variety of reasons and in a variety of situations, but there are plenty of women who reject patriarchy and divinely ordained gender roles, but have chosen the life of a homemaker (and are blessed to be able to swing it financially). You can read blog posts by a couple of such feminist moms-at-home here and here.

And, just as a side note, it may surprise some of my readers to learn that even though I'm a self-described Christian feminist and even though I'm pursuing a Ph.D. in theology, I have not ruled out the possibility that when I'm all done and I have "Dr." in front of my name, I may just decide to remain at home with my children to be their primary caregiver (and maybe even teacher) for several years. Who knows? And, were I to do so, I would not cease to be a believer in the basic equality of the sexes before God, as well as the Spirit's gifting and calling of all types of people to all types of service, regardless of their gender.

1 comment:

Karla said...

"And, were I to do so, I would not cease to be a believer in the basic equality of the sexes before God, as well as the Spirit's gifting and calling of all types of people to all types of service, regardless of their gender." Do you think it's inconsistent to agree with this statement and still hold that the Bible suggests (or clearly states, depending on your interpretation of the text) some specific roles? I feel like the the roles traditionally assumed from the Bible (women should keepers at home, keep house, show hospitality, wash the feet of the saints)is in keeping with the feminism that believes we are created differently and are therefore better suited to those assignments. I also think our culture has failed our women in not teaching them these arts anymore, so therefore many women do not feel like they come naturally or that they are suited for them. Or if these tasks constitute hard work or drudgery, the character has not been built to endure them and roles outside the home seem easier, more glamorous or more quickly fulfilling. The role of being present to raise the children and make a home is a long temporary job in which one gains much wisdom and develops character to do more academic and leadership roles after that period (meaning they aren't mutually exclusive). I also am not saying that excludes any of the myriad other skills, tasks, jobs, positions,ministries etc, that can be done by either sex and might have culturally be assigned to men only in the past.

I didn't read any of the links you posted, but I wondered if I was simply developing my own philosophy here or it was based in any theological thought from what you studied. I also am not saying I judge other positions.:)

I know you are too busy to answer this right now, so someday we'll get around to it. I still havent' read the paper you sent me (I'M SO SORRY). I am really interested but forgot about it for awhile because I was so busy when you sent it.