There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Embracing the Labels (FemFest Day 2)

 Welcome to Day 2 of the Feminisms Fest synchroblog on the topic “Why Feminism Matters.” Link up below on my blog,, considering these questions: What is at stake in this discussion? Why is feminism important to you? Are you thinking about your children or your sisters or the people that have come before you? Or, why do you not like the term? What are you concerned we’re not focusing on or we’re losing sight of when we talk about feminism? Why do you feel passionately about this topic?

Labels are scary. When I'm blogging on tumblr, where many of my followers seem to be feminists, I have been reluctant to talk much about Christianity. I worry they might equate my Christianity with a certain set of politics and decide I'm not the right kind of feminist.

I have a tag on this blog that I've used a couple times: "feminism - maybe". In my "real" off-line life I have sometimes been reluctant to call myself a feminist because many people I know equate feminism with a "secular agenda."

There are more substantial problems with both labels too. No, I don't agree with everything ever advocated in the name of feminism. I can sympathize with those who find the feminist label problematic because they feel the movement has not embraced them as women of color, trans-women, etc. Yes, I'm concerned about racism, poverty, sexual abuse, and rape of both sexes (and all genders). Sometimes I think I should just go with the label humanist.

And yet I'm afraid not to identify as feminist.

 I'm afraid because misogyny, patriarchy and rape culture are insidiously hidden in the way many people speak.
I'm afraid because this isn't just a woman's issue; patriarchy and rape culture hurt men too, so feminism is humanism.

I'm afraid because in a culture of pervading marginalization, if I don't speak my convictions loud and proud, my silence may be seen as endorsing the norms.

As I've said in my previous post, if there's one thing my feminism challenges, it's my Christian faith. Sometimes my faith challenges my feminism. However, I'm also afraid not to declare myself a Christian feminist. 

I'm a Christian feminist because I've sat through sermons where it was declared that if a woman's ankles are showing she is naked.

I'm a Christian feminist because a man whose religion seems to be about preventing the spread of women's ordination has sat in my parents' house and said, "You lie," to his wife. He publicly spoke those hurtful words merely because she disagreed with him on what time she'd been ready for church that morning. 

I'm a Christian feminist because when a prominent youth leader in my denomination raped a young woman, some people considered her the devil's instrument to bring "a man of God" down.

I'm a Christian feminist because I think more women in leadership would mean that situations like the one above would be handled with more compassion and understanding for the survivor, less commiseration for the member of the boy's club.

Yet, somehow, in all this "I'm afraid", my feminism is about seeking perfect love that casts out fear. (1 John 4: 18)

Feminism is about casting out the fear every woman feels walking alone at night. Who are we kidding? It's a fear every woman feels walking alone. Period.

Feminism is about casting out the fear every rape survivor feels in telling her story, because she knows "What were you wearing?" and "Have you had sex with him before?" will be asked.

Feminism is about ending the fear every woman has that an unplanned child will shut her door to education or hang a scarlet letter around her neck. 

Feminism is about casting out the fear of hearing expressions of surprise, disapproval or hatred directed at women in more typically male-dominated careers, disciplines or activities.

Feminism is about how I just reworded the above sentence from "masculine careers" to "male-dominated", because we start telling girls and boys how their minds should work so early in life.

Feminism is about making these fears obsolete because women are treated as full humans.

In closing, let me return to the question of labels. I choose to consider myself a Christian, despite having dozens of questions and being appalled by countless "Christians" who have besmirched the name. I embrace the label because it connects me with a community of people across time, continents, race, and gender, who have loved the same Person. The name connects us in our questions; even if they aren't answerable now, we're committed to seeking answers, seeking love.

The same is true for me as a feminist. Yes, I still have unanswered questions about feminism, some of which I'll talk about in tomorrow's post. However, embracing the label grafts me to the movement, the passion, the search, the conversations. I am invested in this ideal and in its everyday, gritty practicalities. Like my faith, feminism gives me hope while I bleed for a suffering world. Yes, some days it makes me afraid. Ultimately, though, it gives me a vision of love casting out the fear and torment faced by women around the world.

What about you? What gives you vision and hope? What labels do you embrace or reject?


  1. I don't see why a Christian should not be a feminist. I have Christian friends (tolerably devout) who are feminists. Christian women in fact can benefit from being feminists to defend themselves from some unsavoury Christian young men. (or any unsavoury young men).

    The other day I heard about this guy in my uni who was known for going about trying to convert reluctant people. (He once tried to convert me on hearing I was an atheist). I've had people who had tried to convert me before, but at least those people genuinely feared for my soul. This idiot was trying to show his superiority and dominate over me, which got on my nerves. Well anyway I hadn't heard about him for 2 years when I met some people who said he was expelled for barging into a girl's room without her permission. He had been stalking her before. In fact he had been pursuing some reluctant girls in his class at the same time and bragging about how he would take them out for dinner. So I was disgusted that despite putting on a very religious fanatic front he was no better than other people. Also I think that he expected me to go out with him on account of my being a "sinning" unbeliever, therefore I must be "beholden to him." Needless to say it didn't work. What kind of person wants to date a woman he despises?

    So these are the kind of cretins who will expect young Christian women to date them just to satisfy their low pleasures. Because women are supposedly at the will of men. Now a devout Christian woman might submit in terror, but we must teach these people a lesson. Also, Charlotte Bronte was a devout young woman but her thoughts were remarkably un-religious at times. It certainly didn't hurt her writing.

  2. Glad to hear your thoughts, Caroline! I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear in my posts: I'm unequivocally a feminist and I actually think all Christians should be too. I think Christians should be at the forefront of all fights against oppression. (My new favorite Bible verse is Luke 4:18) I may have to rewrite those posts to make my position clear to those who aren't familiar with the rhetoric of Christian discussions.

    However, I talked about my doubts as a Christian feminist because there's a culture in American evangelicalism that is very down on feminism. I don't think it's so rampant in the UK, so you probably don't know about it. But many of these Christian bloggers come from conservative backgrounds where feminism has been considered an enemy - "the other 'f'' word". (One of the worst aspects of evangelical anti-feminism is a really disgusting movement called Christian Patriarchy where girls can't go to college and have to stay home and obey their fathers or brothers until they marry.) And I have to confess there are verses in the Bible that seem quite anti-woman (Old Testament) or anti-woman-in-leadership (New Testament). I've heard these texts lot in my life, making me alternately question the Bible and my ambitions as a girl. So that's why I'm so grateful to have found people examining these Biblical statements in their cultural context and not excusing abuse because of "ordained gender roles" (read that as "1950s housewife") or "modesty" principles. Tell me if that still needs more explaining, there's a lot of jargon in Christianity.

    I'm sorry for your bad experiences with this guy and other "Christians". As one of the bloggers for this synchroblog said (I reblogged her post on Tumblr as "Defining Feminism") even if words are misused, they still have an original meaning. The same goes for "Christian" and that guy clearly was neither a Christian nor a decent person. If a Christian is a Christ-follower, than he needs to start by showing the genuine care and respect for every person - especially the marginalized and "sinners" - that Jesus showed.

    When you say "What kind of a person wants to date a person he despises?" I think you hit on the nerve of patriarchy. Whether this guy got his misogyny from a so-called Christian source or not, he'd obviously learned women were there to be controlled and thus feed his ego. Which is a prime example of why patriarchy is dangerous.

    You know, I don't think Charlotte Bronte's thoughts (in regard to women, at least) were so much un-religious as that Victorian society (like many evangelicals today) had decided the Bible was written to uphold their culture and ideals. In fact, I think Jane Eyre is remarkably Christian in advocating for the oppressed women and governesses. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Jane tells St. John she'll go to India as a female priest. And he reacts just like many conservative Christians today and basically says that can't happen because it's not the tradition, and because if you're a woman you automatically must be prone to falling in love with random men. She doesn't reject St. John because she's not a Christian; she rejects him because his patriarchal interpretations of Christianity would destroy her individuality.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I'm glad to hear how you see the issue as an atheist. I also hope that I (and other bloggers - check some out) can help you see Christians who are more concerned about people and their stories than converting them.

  3. Well it is long but I like long comments. I've often wondered whether somebody should write a new edition of the Bible so it applies to a modern context, or it might confuse people. In the UK Anglicans are remarkably modern, so what might pass off as liberal or ordinary elsewhere would be considered sexist and old-fashioned here. Which is sometimes too much. There are still problems, like not allowing female bishops or preventing gay marriage. But at least people are making noise about it.

    There is nothing wrong about modesty as long as it is not sexist or oppressive. Modesty should be encouraged regardless of gender. I can't stand this culture that encourages everybody to brag about themselves and be brash and bold. You should be modest not because you are a woman, but because it is good and it is pleasing to other people to be modest. And those who don't allow their daughters to graduate or work are actually committing a sin, because they are depriving them of a living, and expecting them to sell themselves to a husband they do not love, which is an even bigger sin. But this should be the case whether you are a Christian or not, because everyone should be good regardless of their beliefs. Unbelievers do have an ethics code (well some of them) which at its best, is magnanimous to mankind.

    Religion does have its uses, apart from teaching you morals. There's a sense of community and friendship that atheism can't give you. On the other hand at its worst religion can encourage patriarchy and narrow-mindedness. Atheism is intellectually liberal. But at its worst it is unfriendly and immoral (doing wild stuff and being uncharitable to others).

    Jane Eyre is about the balance between the dangers of heresy (Rochester) and oppressive region (St John) and how Jane achieves it with liberal Christianity (which is what Anglicanism was supposed to be, except they didn't like Catholics). St John sounds rather Utilitarian (18th century rationalism) whereas Jane sounds more humane (19th century Romanticism).

  4. Oh, sorry it took me so long to reply. My problem is that I procrastinate on Important Things and then have to rush to finish them, and ignore stuff like this. Anyways...

    I understand your point of view about writing a new edition of the Bible. However, as a Christian I DO believe the Bible is inspired (though not word for word, audibly). Even though I often can't understand why certain things are in it, I still don't believe it should be tampered with. That, however, doesn't mean I think all (especially extremely literal) interpretations of it are valid. What I want to see are hermeneutics that place the culture and the language in context and acknowledge that God works with different circumstances and cultures differently.

    Just recently I've encountered some Anglicans online whom I admire very much, and I'd like to explore their tradition more at some point.

    You're right that modesty is an important virtue. I do notice, though, that you're placing as much importance on modesty of demeanor as on modesty of dress. Often that's not done in conservative Christian circles - the long dresses make women feel superior to women in pants. Also, because so much emphasis is placed on protecting men from temptation, it's sometimes implied that a man's sexual problems (or occasionally even crimes) are the fault of immodest women. Btw, what do you think modesty for men looks like, or do you simply mean modesty in the way of not boasting? Certainly men's bodies can be objectified too.
    You know, I hadn't thought of the Christian Patriarchy model in terms of the "sin" of marrying a man one doesn't love. (Also, these people place a lot of emphasis on guarding the heart for that one person, and God revealing who he is, so in a way I think they manufacture love because when they marry him it's time to "awaken love".) But it's interesting that Charlotte Bronte and even Jane Austen had such a strong view of the imperative of (romantic) love in marriage, isn't it?

    Your excellent thoughts on atheism and morality reminded me of George Eliot. She (and Rohan Maitzen's online articles on her morality) helped me understand and appreciate a morality based not on revelation, but on empathy. Of course I agree that unbelievers have an ethics code. (As a liberal-ish person, I often find it better than the evangelical Christian one that condones the War on Terror or is dehumanizing to homosexuals/women, etc.)

    On Jane Eyre, yep, we're on the same page. I would be curious what writers you think Charlotte's "liberal Christianity" was influenced by. I know she did remain staunchly anti-catholic and mocked the Catholicizing Oxford movement in Shirley.

  5. It's rather silly to blame women in skirts for alluring men. Skirts are very common. (Unless you're talking about some of those who deliberately dress provocatively because they're so desperate to ensnare a men). Modesty for men to me means not boasting, not forcing their views on women (which MANY men are susceptible to, even liberal scientific sorts.) I can sort of tolerate these guys though, the liberal scientific sort, because they usually talk some sense. I think men who keep on removing their shirts for no reason are ridiculous but luckily the sort of people I mix with don't really do that. I often feel disgusted with women who will keep on dwelling on Colin Firth's wet shirt. Of course admiring people's appearance is perfectly all right but some admiration is of the vulgar sort. (Particularly if said admiration dwells less on a well-sculpted face compared to other parts). Nowadays you are more likely to hear people complimenting a woman on her legs than her face, and so classic beauty seems to be denigrated compared to sensuality. But I'm rambling on other things.

    Actually I see nothing wrong in saving yourself for that one person. As long as you love the person. I think that's why I admire Anne Elliot and Jane Eyre. George Eliot was a curious case. If I'm not mistaken she was an agnostic but believed that people should have faith. (Darwin, another famous agnostic, didn't want to propagate atheism though urged to. He feared that people would become immoral).

    Charlotte Bronte is one of a kind. Her style is very hard to emulate and so major writers can't be much influenced by her. George Eliot admired her very much but I have no idea if she was greatly influenced by her. Though The Mill of the Floss seems rather Jane Eyre-ish.