The New York Times magazine labelled 2015 as “the year we obsessed about identity”,[1] and it’s an obsession that isn’t finished yet. Answers to questions of personal identity—‘Who am I’ and ‘What do I identify as’—are now shaping public discourse, and increasingly the answers are expressed in labels. I even discovered recently you can now ‘identify’ as vegan!

And one of the labels people are obsessing over is whether or not to be a feminist.

Many Christian women (and men) are wrestling with the same questions. Are we feminists? Can we be? Do we need to be?

Answering this question in 2016 on ABC’s Q&A , Michaelia Cash, then Government Minister for Women said she didn’t call herself a feminist and didn’t think it was necessary for her to do her job well, whereas Labor Senator Penny Wong, said she does call herself a feminist because it associates her “with a set of political beliefs that she believes passionately in”, and that if someone said to her that they’re not a feminist, she’d ask them, ‘What’s your problem?’”

Many Christian women (and men) are wrestling with the same questions. Are we feminists? Can we be? Do we need to be?

The Question of Definition

And that’s where we run into our first question: Which feminism are we talking about? It’s had several waves, and keeps evolving, and even fragmenting.

So, which feminism do we mean?

Broadly speaking …

First wave feminism sought equality with men in society: things like the vote, access to education, and legal rights like owning property and bank accounts.

Second wave feminism broadened the equality agenda to the home and gender roles and relationships. It was fuelled by the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the sexual revolution, and access to so-called safe abortion.[2] ‘Women’s liberation’ gave way to ‘feminism’ and the celebration, and social and economic empowerment of women. Think of Helen Reddy’s song ‘I am woman hear me roar’ (if you’re old enough to remember).

It’s hard to sum up third wave feminism: there’s the ‘raunch culture’ and sexual empowerment à la Miley Cyrus’ ‘wrecking ball’ music video—but there’s also a focus on women of colour, lesbians, bi’s, trans women, and other minorities, increasingly, seen through the compounding effect of belonging to several minority groups at once, in what’s called intersectionality (like being female and black and immigrant and gay), and where the interpretative grid is about privilege and power.

The common threads in third wave, it seems to me, are a focus on each woman’s individual choice and subjective experience, and (at the same time) a collective view of women as an oppressed disempowered underclass, with men as their privileged oppressors, in particular, white, western, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual, ‘cisgendered’ men.

The common threads in third wave are a focus on each woman’s individual choice and subjective experience, and a collective view of women as an oppressed disempowered underclass

Now, growing out of that essentially Marxist paradigm, there’s fourth wave feminism—seen in the #MeToo and Time’sUp movements—which uses the internet to campaign for safety for women from sexual harassment and violence (especially on uni campuses and social media), and other emblematic issues such as domestic violence, and female genital mutilation.

As with third wave, fourth wave feminism is not just about women, sexism and misogyny, but about minorities, racism, homophobia and transphobia—and that has sparked something of a turf war amongst feminists since many of the old guard don’t think trans women (who are biologically male) are women at all, and so on it goes.

So, when we ask what we’re to make of feminism as Christians, the first question is ‘Which feminism?’—because even the leading secular voices agree, there’s no one answer.[3]

Now maybe all we mean is the bare-bones-dictionary definition Emma Watson used in her HeforShe speech at the UN: “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”.[4]

But what are these ‘rights’? Watson’s speech hinted at her support of abortion, which she’s openly stated elsewhere,[5] so this bare-bones definition is not as straight-forward as it seems. Again, it depends who’s using it and what they mean by it.

Should We Join the Movement?

The second question is whether we need to associate with the movement if we agree with only some of its beliefs. Is the feminist label something we should take for ourselves?

I don’t think so.

Let me be clear. I don’t think feminism (taking all the different expressions as one) is all bad, and I do think some of the inequalities it has sought to address were and are real.

Gender-based inequality (e.g., in regard to safety, justice, healthcare, education, employment) is wrong, as are all beliefs and structures that treat some people better than others: race-based inequality, faith-based inequality, wealth-based inequality, just to name a few.

Moreover, feminism has delivered things we can be thankful for: women can now vote, own property, have bank accounts, have full access to education, sit at board tables, run for parliament. Rape in marriage is rightly now a criminal offence, violence against women is a community concern, fathers are expected to spend more time with their children, and men can shop and cook dinner without having their manhood questioned.

Feminism has delivered things we can be thankful for, but not only feminism could have brought them about—and it’s not clear that it did so in the best way.

These are all good things, but not only feminism could have brought them about—and it’s not clear that it did so in the best way.

Different Foundations

Part of the problem is that feminism, even the bare-bones definition, is built on an inadequate notion of ‘equality’ and on questionable assumptions of what’s ‘right and good’.

It’s all very well to say that women and men should be equal, but equal in what? And why? And why is this good? And who will be the judge of when we get there?

Feminism only gives us half the picture. It’s not a complete worldview or belief system, and what beliefs it has, often (but not always) are in direct opposition to God’s word (think of abortion,[6] or the idea that gender is just a social construct).

Feminism has only done good where its concerns align with God’s will. That’s because only God determines what is good and right. This is why feminism has sometimes been a tool in his hands to promote justice and peace, and the common good for all (not just women). He has used it, just as he uses other aspects of human endeavour: democracy, science and medicine, industrialisation, and free market economies, and much more.

But these are not absolute goods, and can all be used in ways that are not good at all. As Jesus says, “No one is good except God alone” ― everything else can only be good to the extent it agrees with him.

Feminism then is not the enemy, but it’s not a friend either. As Christians we believe in and live by something more true and infinitely better, the good word of our good God, and which does not agree at all points with feminism.

In my next post we will spend some time looking at some key aspects of what the Bible has to say about our existence as women and men and think about how that can help us think about feminism.

Photo: unsplash.com

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/magazine/the-year-we-obsessed-over-identity.html?_r=0 Accessed 14 July 2016

[2] I’ve said ‘so-called’ because while it may be safe for the mother, it is not for the unborn.

[3] Cf. http://diglib.bis.uni-oldenburg.de/pub/unireden/ur97/kap1.pdf Accessed 10 September 2018.

[4] https://www.thoughtco.com/transcript-of-emma-watsons-speech-on-gender-equality-3026200 Accessed 3 September 2018.

[5] https://twitter.com/emmawatson/status/822756607553601536?lang=en Accessed 3 September 2018.

[6] I realise some groups label themselves ‘pro-life feminists’, but the eventual exclusion from the Women’s March in Washington DC in 2017 of one such group suggests they are not accepted by mainstream feminists, and illustrates one of the problems of accepting the ‘feminist’ label. See https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/1/22/14335292/womens-march-washington-abortion-pro-life-feminists accessed 28 March 2018.