On being a feminist and a Christian

Hiking at ShenandoahIn the community I grew up in, the phrase “Christian feminist” would have been perceived as a laughable oxymoron. Surely, one could not be both a Christian and a feminist! This is what my childhood community believed and taught. For all of its benefits, the evangelical homeschool community has never been a champion for women. Thankfully, my parents were thinking humans. They never forced us to conform to our culture’s limiting and backward perspectives of women, which advocated that girls stay home and learn to sew and practice “godly homemaking,” in preparation for the strapping husband who would show up at their doorsteps to court them in a pre-arranged agreement between their respective fathers. We knew some families who wouldn’t let their girls learn how to drive or go to college. This is not a joke. These extremely patriarchal notions were taught, believed, and perpetuated. I am always grateful, however, that these beliefs were not taught, believed, or perpetuated by my parents. My sister, for heaven’s sakes, became a nationally acclaimed hockey player. If that’s not a slap in the face to the conservative picture of meek, dainty girlhood, I don’t know what is.

As I grew up, I learned to laugh about the misogynistic ways of the community I was raised in. All of the tight-fisted and closed-minded reasons I had for clinging to conservative gender philosophies began to fall away. My university education was eye-opening, as it was for all of us to varying degrees. In particular, I began to respect women as artists and academics in a way that I had not before. My primary school and high school education, while broad, was traditional and credible information always came down from the infallible hands of a white man. The university introduced a new way of thinking and a new way of perceiving women as leaders, teachers, and creators. UNC-Chapel Hill, unlike other universities of its size and prestige, does not give preference to applicants based on gender; so, UNC’s class profile is nearly 60 percent female. I had no shortage of intelligent, capable, ambitious young women to surround myself with. As you know by now, I also fell in love with Virginia Woolf and her beautiful and compelling words in her essays, novels, and letters were particularly formative for me.

But as all of my old beliefs about women were chipped away, what continued to bother me was how those patriarchal ideas about men and women weren’t entirely gone from my life. Vestiges of these patriarchal politics cropped up in the Christian groups and churches all around me. Yes, they weren’t as blatant as what I knew as a homeschooler, but the church at large wasn’t very progressive toward women. The general message I received from church was that I, as a woman, was expected to serve on the cupcake committee but not contribute to church leadership, which was a boys-only club; I was expected to be a stay-at-home mother and if I wasn’t, I was failing God, America, and my children; I needed men to teach me anything worth knowing.

This struck me as odd. It still does, I guess. Jesus was all about justice and fairness for women. Things get murky with Paul and other writers, but if we’re just talking about what Jesus did and said, his approach toward women was extremely radical and loving. Women were not second-class humans to Jesus, although they were to the rest of his entire civilization. Jesus would not have asked the ladies he knew to bake cupcakes while the men did important stuff. No! Some of the very first churches were started by women in women’s homes (at least in the beginning, until they were edged out of any positions of leadership). From what we know of Jesus in the Gospels, women deserved the same respect, attention, and education that men did. While the world at large still doesn’t believe this (yes, even us “modern” Americans, where women are STILL paid 77 cents for every male dollar for the same jobs), shouldn’t the Church at least believe this?

Yet. It’s not polite to self-identify as a feminist among Christians. This was something I learned early on. Eyebrows shoot up. Women whisper that you shouldn’t say that; don’t you want to get married? Men back away. Suddenly, you’re not a thinking human, you’re a MAN HATER! A destroyer of FAMILY VALUES! A lot of Christian men I know are afraid of feminist women. In their defense, they may have met some unfortunately vociferous and self-righteous feminists who made them feel evil just for being male. That’s wrong. But this, however, is not the majority of feminists. The majority of feminists I know love men and want men to do well and prosper. But they also want women to do well and prosper. That’s all. When I say I’m a feminist, all I mean is that women should be treated like Jesus treated them. In love, fairness, justice, and equality under the law. The majority of women around the world today are not treated with fairness and justice. This is why I call myself a Christian feminist.

Feminist friends find it hard to believe that I’m a Christian. It goes both ways; they also see the terms as exclusive. I remember the disapproving and surprised looks from my Harvard-educated lesbian thesis adviser when she found out that not only was I a Christian, but I was also getting married at the age of 22. “I know how this looks,” I always wanted to tell her. “I’m writing a thesis about the subjugation of married woman in a patriarchal society, and here I am getting married straight out of college! I know it sounds like I have no self-awareness! Maybe I don’t. But I think these values of feminism and Christianity can live together peaceably.”

They can, after all. If Jesus wasn’t a feminist, I don’t know who is.