Danielle Vermeer says feminists of faith want a seat at the table, but are secular feminists willing to listen?
Far too often, the conversation about what feminism means and why it matters stops before it even truly starts. This is especially the case for many who grew up in conservative religious communities that vilified the other f-word, labeling all feminists as bra-burning, man-hating, and baby-killing women. While clearly hyperbolic, this trifecta of terms successfully upheld a straw (wo)man argument against feminism in communities of faith because it appeared to denigrate the top three holy expectations for women: femininity (by “bra-burning”), marriage (by “man-hating”), and motherhood (by “baby-killing”).
Since the coordinated backlash against feminism developed during the second and third waves of the movement, many of my millennial peers grew up with a warped understanding of what feminism is. This is even more the case among my peers who were raised in conservative and/or fundamentalist Christian communities in which feminism was not only vilified, but also considered literally evil.
As a self-identified feminist and Christian, the perpetuation of this mischaracterization of feminism among my more conservative religious peers grates heavily on me. So a few weeks ago, I decided to do something about it. Two fellow bloggers and I hosted a three-day synchroblog called Feminisms Fest (#FemFest) on what feminism really is, share stories of our experiences with it, and what questions we have as we wrestle through remaining issues. Over the course of these three days, more than 130 posts poured in, the majority of which were from Christians who are finding healing and empowerment through feminism. As #FemFest contributor Emily Joy Allison shared, “Where the prevailing [Christian] culture said you are wrong, you are dangerous, you are unsubmissive, you are undesirable, you are not enough, you are too much, feminism said you are a person.”
Sifting through the #FemFest posts from mostly Christian feminists illuminated three main themes. First, mainstream and/or secular feminists need to better engage feminists of various faith backgrounds, and in particular Christians if they are going to keep the movement going forward in our still heavily religious society. Second, faith-based feminists are best-positioned to translate and dismantle the pseudoreligious sexism in our policy and politics. And lastly, these feminists of faith are most qualified to disseminate feminist values in their religious communities as trusted, non-threatening representatives of feminism.
Mainstream, secular feminists need to better engage feminists of faith to keep the movement going. Many religious feminists, especially Christians, are just now beginning to challenge the patriarchal constructs of their faith traditions. They are questioning if and how their feminism and faith can coexist. They are connecting the dots between purity culture and rape culture. They are pushing back against church teaching that bars women from leadership positions outside of working with children and babies. They are confronting the intersections of various types of abuse, including spiritual abuse, which oftentimes is not discussed in the mainstream feminist movement.
These faith-based feminists may not agree with secular feminists on every so-called controversial issue such as marriage equality or reproductive rights, but they want to be allies and be a part of the movement. Let them be, despite disagreeing or even precisely because they disagree and can bring new ideas to the table. Plus, the reality is that for better or for worse, you need them in this fight.
Feminists of faith are also well-positioned to deconstruct, challenge, and counteract the pseudoreligious sexism perpetuated by religious leaders in policymaking positions. Since many mainstream feminists self-identify as non-religious or even anti-religious, the language of religious leaders can seem off-putting, off-topic, and often downright irrational. It may even seem like they are speaking a completely different language, especially when talking about complicated topics such as reproductive rights or gender roles. It can be easy to dismiss them as crazy religious folks who others will see right through. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
But for feminists of faith, this religious-speak is their mother tongue. They even may have spoken it in their past lives in attending right to life rallies or signing purity pledges in youth group or learning that feminism was the other f-word. Because of this history, they are best able to translate it for those outside of the conservative Christian subculture. For instance, when a candidate for Congress last fall explained that he is anti-abortion even in cases of rape and incest because “pregnancy from rape is a gift from God,” feminists of faith immediately understood the poor theology and flawed logic behind this statement, translated it for those outside the subculture, and deconstructed it with authority. We need more of this because we have no shortage of loud-mouthed pseudo-religious leaders who directly influence our nation’s policies and affect our local communities.
Faith-based feminists are also most qualified to disseminate feminist values to their religious communities. For many secular and/or mainstream feminists, the faith community—especially patriarchal religions like Christianity—may seem like a lost cause, unable to come to terms with modernity and the changing role of women and other traditionally marginalized populations. But I want to assure you that a tide is turning for feminism, and it’s happening in our church pews. Bloggers like Shaney Lee are proclaiming that “unlike what I thought growing up, the basic philosophy of feminism is not only compatible with my faith, it is a natural consequence of it.”
These feminists of faith are subversively changing the system from within. They are intrapreneurs, subtly changing the norms and beliefs and language of their religious communities. They are bravely stepping out and speaking up about feminism, even if they use other terms so as to avoid confusion at first. In their marriages and churches they are promoting egalitarianism over hierarchical gender roles. And in quiet, yet profound ways they are pushing back against reductive, gender essentialist teachings about the proper roles for men and women as people of faith.
Take the following scenario as case-in-point for the important role that faith-based feminists can play in the movement. A couple weeks ago conservative religious leaders and popular authors Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh DeMoss discussed the evils of feminism during a pair of interviews with Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization. While loaded with straw man arguments against their definition of feminism, I’ll highlight only a couple to give you a sense of what these interviews were like:
Kassian: Don’t make decisions based on practicality. You may have a job where you earn more money than your husband, and it may be practical for you to go out and earn the money and for him to stay home. But there’s something in terms of identity that you’re going against when you do that. God created men to draw their identity from work…God created woman to draw identity from relationships and networking…Women have a unique and specific responsibility for the home in a way that men do not have.
DeMoss: We need to be sensitive to the occasions where women have a background of abuse—but we can’t say that the solution for abuse is for women to “cling to their rights.” Christ laid down his rights…We are the most like Christ when we are serving, and when we’re not “the end thereof is the way of death.” Feminism is the “forbidden fruit,” and the world’s ways are attractive, but when we bite into it we get a mouthful of worms.
Unfortunately, statements like these are quite commonplace in the conservative Christian subculture that lauds traditional (“biblical”) womanhood and vilifies feminism. But Kassian’s and DeMoss’ confident assertions of having a monopoly on Truth are no longer standing unchallenged. After learning about these interviews, a Christian feminist, wife, and stay-at-home mother of five contacted her church to object to the use of Kassian’s and DeMoss’ new Bible study for the women’s ministry. Her church may not reassess their decision, but this brave new feminist stood up against the religious authorities to proclaim a different Truth: that all are equal because all are made in the image of God.
Feminists of faith want a seat at the table. And while they may prioritize different issues—such as combating spiritual abuse over passing marriage equality laws—they are willing to do what they can to keep this movement going forward. The only question for mainstream feminists is if they’ll truly welcome faith-based feminists to the table.
But as a Christian feminist, I can’t answer that question.
Danielle L. Vermeer is a social impact consultant by day and blogger on the intersections of marriage, faith, and feminism by night. Her writing and projects have been featured on the Huffington Post, ForbesWoman, the Daily Beast, and Role/Reboot. Connect with her at www.fromtwotoone.com or on Twitter at @fromtwotoone.