Monday, July 14, 2014

What is Feminism?

You see how nice and normal feminists are?  :)
It seems pretty funny for me, an older white male, to be describing feminism.  Frankly, I shouldn’t be doing it.  But a number of my older male friends and fellow church members, and a few of my female friends seem to not understand what feminism is or what the goals are.  They’ve been paying attention to the feminist bashers who quote cranky feminists.  It’s easy, it turns out, to be a feminist basher, because the majority of Americans, according to Susan Fiske, find “feminists” as a social group to be unpleasant people.  This is mostly due to a misunderstanding of what feminism is.

My goal is to make a brief explanation of what feminism is so that when we talk about it, we can be talking about the same ideas.

1.       Feminism isn’t just one set of ideas
The core of feminism is the idea that women should be equal to men.  However, there are a number of different ways to go about that and there are a number of ways to communicate that.  There are a number of different kinds of feminism, and I don’t agree with all of them.  But the mainstream of feminism is represented below.

2.       Feminism does not hate men, it hates patriarchy
It is easy to point to a cranky feminist who has made male-bashing speech, but that’s not the feminism I support.  Positive feminism recognizes that Western cultures for the last three millennia have established systems which supported a male-dominant hierarchy, with a male-focused legal system and support structure.  Feminism recognizes that history has been run by an “old boy’s network” in which women were rarely invited, and usually only under duress.  Feminism doesn’t have a problem with a male president or male congresspersons or male governors.  They want a chance for women to hold those same positions.  They don’t have a problem with men providing input to law or science, they just want women to have equal input from their perspective.  This is something that has been missing for three millennia.

3.       Patriarchy hurts men as well as women
Patriarchy doesn’t merely determine a male-only input for how our societies are organized, but it also determines roles for men and women to fulfill.  Just as “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” is a patriarchal statement, so is, “a man without a job is no man.”  Under patriarchy, men are locked into these roles as much as women and are often considered failures by both men and women, because it isn’t all men who are in control, but the patriarchal ideal of manhood.  It is patriarchy which awards women more benefits in a divorce, even as it is patriarchy which awards men higher salaries.  It is patriarchy which shames men who get raped, even more than they shame women who are raped.  It is patriarchy which determines that spousal abuse is always from the man to the woman.  Feminism wants to do away with all role-based logic and allow each case to be determined on its own merit.

4.       Feminism isn’t about power, but allowing women to be heard
The cranky feminist might want to take power away from men because, they say, that men haven’t handled power very well.  Mainstream feminism, however, just wants both sides of the sexual aisle to be heard.  An excellent example of this kind of feminism is the hashtag #YesAllWomen.  It wasn’t about forcing a particular political agenda, but letting women share experiences that they felt were oppressive.  Under patriarchy, men are uncomfortable listening to women and sometimes get angry if women express their opinion when it opposes patriarchy or the hierarchy that patriarchy established.  Feminism gives a place for women to speak, even when it is uncomfortable, and gives them an opportunity to be heard.

5.       Feminism isn’t about breaking down society, but giving options
It is pointed out that some feminists are lesbians and there is the occasional quote by a feminist who is opposed to the nuclear family.  But mainstream feminists aren’t opposed to the nuclear family or stay-at-home moms or a woman taking her husband’s name after marriage.  Feminists want to give women the option to get out of these roles, depending on their choices, opportunities and the circumstances that they find themselves in.  A true feminist never disparages a woman’s choice to quit her job to raise her children, just because it’s not a choice she would make.  Rather, she would be glad because our society is offering women more choices than before.  A feminist would get angry at a corporation who pays women of childbearing age less because of their potential extra expense to the company because that limits a woman’s options in society.


6.       Feminism is for equality of all people, regardless of sex or race
Feminism isn’t about the superiority of women or of a race.  It is true that some feminism has not given equal opportunities to African Americans or to men.  But mainstream feminism allows voices that support equality of either sex or of any race.  Racism or sexism of any type does not belong in feminism, because feminism is about equality for everyone.  Yes, feminism focuses on  women’s issues, but the best form of feminism is about giving opportunity and a voice to everyone, especially to those women who have been silenced because they were women.

9 comments:

jlkroe said...

As a feminist, I approve.

Steven D said...

If feminism has been misrepresented by cranky feminists, perhaps one should also consider the possibility that patriarchy is glimpsed here only through a distorted lens. With deep respect, Steve, I do wonder if the putative demerits of patriarchy are simply an overreaction to bad examples of fatherhood (or men in general). Admittedly, such examples are not necessarily rare or difficult to recognize.

On the other hand, I do see a patriarchal frame witnessed by the Scriptures and intrinsic to the nature of God's Kingdom. From a strictly relational dynamic, how else might any given Christian engage the Almighty without displacing or supplanting his role as our Father? I reckon that the disclosure of the first person of the Godhead as such (i.e. the Father) is not without good reason.

How do you understand the subject? That is, how do you reconcile the revelation of God the Father with an absolute disposal of patriarchy? I recently asked a similar question elsewhere of some "progressive" Christians and don't think that I received anything that resembled a satisfactory (or vaguely coherent) response. This is troubling to me as I currently observe such instability in both society and the homes of scads of professing Christians and wonder where such progress will lead.

One notable feature that marks at least 5 of the 6 failed (or fledgling; e.g. separated, but not divorced) marriages that I've become aware of over the past two months is the weakness of the role of husbands (and a dominance among the wives) in each of these homes. Each of these situations yields a wrenching example how wives left their husbands, and in some cases abandoned their children as well!

Without further belaboring the subject of marital infidelity, I do think it's difficult to ignore Divine order and instruction embedded throughout the biblical text that appears to commend one form of patriarchy or another. It is difficult for me to conceive of how one might imagine otherwise. Meanwhile, as I currently look through a glass (darkly), I hope that my goal to understand the article with a charitable intent didn't fail to see the value in it.

Steve Kimes said...

Good points, Steven.

The Bible, in general, was written in patriarchal society and so used the language of patriarchy at times-- "Father" was equivalent to "emperor" "sons" was equivalent to "children who inherit", etc. I find it fascinating that the Bible again and again dismantles patriarchy. In Genesis 1, men and women are made in the image of God and both are called upon to rule the earth. Eve is called a "helper" using the same Hebrew term that is sometimes used of God. The first one to witnes and proclaim the full gospel-- the resurrection of Jesus-- is a woman, and Jesus called women to be disciples, allowing them to sit with the men (Mary sister of Martha). Paul says that the social order is disrupted by the gospel, to such a degree that there is "no male or female". Women, such as Priscilla and Junias were leaders in the church.

As far as marriage goes, the problem is when one person takes their authority too seriously so that the other will not be listened to. Paul upheld the social hierarchy of husbands over wives, but that could have been because to do otherwise would have been illegal in Roman society. Yet he undermined that very principle by telling the husbands that they had to "love your wives as Christ loved the church, who gave himself up for her." In other words, wives, your duty is to submit, husbands, your duty is to die for your wive's sake. Peter tells husbands to consider their wive's needs or else their prayers would not be heard. And both Paul and Peter told the whole church, men and women, to "submit to one another." Paul said, "Consider others as more important than yourself."

It looks to me that the Bible, especially Jesus and the NT, supports the equality of all people in the kingdom of God, and they should all be listened to and the roles are not limited to one sex or another.

Alison said...

as a woman, a Christian, & a feminist I appreciate any attempt by a man to understand, and then translate to other men, feminist ideals. I pray that your reflections reach someone who may not listen to my own voice, but who can better hear from one of his peers.

Steve Kimes said...

Thanks Alison!

Steven D said...

Thanks for your considerate response, Steve.

Yet I believe that I’ve failed to understand your reasoning in drawing a clear parallel (equivalence) between a familial title and that of the emperor. I find it a wee bit complicated to presume that an underlying association exists between God’s title of Father and the emperor.

On special occasions if one were to build a case for veiled identity on the basis of context (e.g. a politically charged environs that may prompt encrypted language), it might make sense to re-conceptualize titles, but the identity of the Father is inscribed within every single book comprising the New Testament! Further, several verses addressing God as Father within the Hebrew Bible appear to preempt any notion that the familial title of the Father was either derived from or referring to a notion popularized during the [much] later Roman period (esp. Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:4, 19; 31:9; also cf. Isa. 9:6; Ps. 68:5; 89:26; 103:13).

*If* I’ve understood you correctly (please correct me if I’ve failed to do so [providing that you have the time and interest]), I expect that you can see why I find it more intuitive to presume that a Father is a father and a Son is a son..? Considering Jesus’ instruction to receive the kingdom as a “little child”, I’m hesitant to complicate matters by adopting an interpretive presupposition that simply isn't found within the text.

What I find fascinating is that you see “the Bible again and again dismantles patriarchy” while I see the Bible supporting and energizing it!?

The gift of the divine image that God printed within humankind (aka man and woman) does not strike me as a direct address of the subject. The responsibility to rule the creation (Gen. 1:26-28) that was committed to their trust does affirm something of the dignity invested in humanity. Evidently, he designed the race (i.e. male and female) with qualities that set them apart from other creatures in placing humans above the creation as ruling stewards. You would already know that I view this measure of responsibility as setting humankind on a higher plane of authority than the beasts and such. I don’t see how this scenario addresses the particular subjects of patriarchy or feminism apart from affirming the value of human life in general as a unique gift from God…

The Hebrew of Gen. 1:18b reads אֶעֱשֶׂה-לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (“I will make for him a helper as a counterpart [in front of] him”). While it is true that “ezer” is sometimes used with reference to God in Psalms (33:20; 70:6; 115:9), this should come with little surprise as without help from God we would be hopeless. I am not sure what connection you may have in mind in drawing a parallel here? [Not to profane matters, but here in Jerusalem one might reasonably expect to hear a store clerk ask “Can I help you?” while citing the Hebrew verb for help based on the identical root as the noun.]

On another note...
The fact that women were the first to testify to the resurrection of Christ does grant that Christians respect women, but I’m still wondering how a challenge is mounted here against patriarchy, that is, opposed to a strange abuse of its derived order. The same could be said for the social interaction of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Without question, the gospel disrupts the social order of the world. On that note, may not Gal. 3:28 also fit into this paragraph? Further, if Paul intended to abnegate male family headship, it appears that he decided to send the opposite message to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Titus and Timothy. One must also presume that Peter’s understanding was deficient in handling the matter (1 Pet. 3).

Must the kind of leadership that Priscilla and Junia[s] (presuming that Junia[s] is indeed female) are of note for within Scripture somehow be at odds with patriarchy? Not from how I’ve ever understood the text *or* patriarchy…

Steven D said...


It’s difficult to imagine that Paul would give instructions to a church body (or individual) in support of male headship while actually intending to convey a very different message to his recipients. Unless he also meant something that differs from what his own self description suggests, Paul doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would grant an apostolic rubber stamp to a social order that he considered compromised…regardless of Roman socio-political pressures. Again, Peter would also have theoretically succumbed to similar pressures as he expresses similar ideas in his first letter.

Certainly I agree that a listening heart is integral for a meaningful marital relationship to continue developing, yet I’m again baffled about how maintaining a listening posture should be understood as somehow mutually exclusive from a patriarchal family structure (or the honoring of male headship in a family). Apparently I’m with you as we both understand the husband’s role in marriage is to love his wife as Christ loved the church (i.e. to die). Notwithstanding the challenges this presents to every married man (egalitarian or otherwise), I see nothing stemming from this command that conflicts with a patriarchal family order. To the contrary, it seems to me that the command provides gospel-ized balance within family structure.

[My attempt to make a point with something that I know very little about: Might one not equally take issue with the concept of monarchy as an inappropriate governing paradigm? In so doing one might effectively reject the concept of a kingdom order. However, if the kingdom order is upheld by a king who consistently enslaves himself to the interests of his citizenry (setting a pattern for others to follow), it seems to me that the monarchy would be safeguarded from the hazardous forms of corruption that one might otherwise associate with that particular form of government, no..?]

Is it possible that the enemy of relational dynamics is not patriarchy as an inherently wicked and oppressive social structure, but rather abuses of authority and power as expressed through the flawed components that are plugged into a given patriarchal order?

Of course I agree with you that everybody is on equal ground under Christ’s scepter, regardless of gender or any other distinctive. On the other hand, how might one conscionably support either family roles or church offices that conflict with what one sees prescribed in the Bible? In case you (or others) might wonder, I have no animosity toward brothers or sisters with whom I may aggressively disagree about the subject. Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful response. Hopefully the length of this reply isn’t too ridiculous, I realize that you have plenty to do; my apologies if this comes as a distraction.

Steven D said...

Steve, I can see that my last comment was not only lengthy (only half of it appears to have posted), but also probably not necessary. Since writing yesterday's response it has occurred to me that your time has a higher premium on it than to spend it writing back and forth about the concepts of feminism and patriarchy.

I would consider it a favor if you would simply remove what is posted of my last response (I can see that it's not so clear of a message anyway), and call it good for now..? Thanks for your time, sorry for any distraction that I might have become.

Peace in Christ,
Steven

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