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

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Feminism and Me

I've long considered writing a post on this subject, because it explains so much of who I am. Lately, spending more time in the Christian blogosphere than the literary one, I came across the opportunity to engage in the subject with other Christians. Enter FeminismsFest - an effort to get people (especially Christians, I gather) discussing what feminism means to them. And while my posts for FeminismsFest don't keep this strictly a book blog, yet, as with so much of my life, books and words gave birth to this part of me too. It's a long and complicated story, bear with me. I've tried to provide some structure by weaving the suggested questions into my story.

  What is your experience with feminism?

Growing up in a conservative Seventh-day Adventist Christian home, I didn't hear a lot about "feminism". (I certainly can't remember when I first encountered the idea or in what light.) My mom was a stay-at-home mom; my dad made the living. Girls were supposed to be ladylike; gender differences were marked. (Of course, I wasn't always ladylike - screaming out the window of the car and being rebuked, playing "the girls chase the boys" while my parents attended spiritual seminars.) Reserve and modesty, I was taught, surrounded a girl with a wall of protection. It wasn't stated, but it was implied, that bad girls brought bad things on themselves.

Yet I also read books about strong women and girls, like Florence Nightingale or Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember reading about and admiring Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  In fiction I met Jo March and Anne Shirley, girls overflowing with ambition and autonomy.

Around age 13, under the influence of a uber-conservative 19 year-old friend, I eschewed pants in favor of long skirts and dresses. For a little while modesty was my hobbyhorse, and I was drifting in the direction of Christian patriarchy.

Continuing my story with the second question: What’s a story or a memory or a person that you associate with that word?

Though I didn't realize it then, the pivotal moment came at age 14 when I first listened to an unabridged audiobook of Jane Eyre. I was obsessed. I sat on the hardwood of my bedroom floor crying over the beauty of Rochester's words, "My bride is here, because my equal is here, and my likeness."

I don't mean that those words made me a feminist, though they resounded deep in my heart. Rather, it was my new obsession with the story that led me to pick up The Madwoman in the Attic. That book didn't make me a feminist either, but it gave me a new perspective and a new language on patriarchy and women's struggles with oppression through the ages. I had found the unifying story in the classic novels I was reading: the women's story.

 My "wordlly" interest in literature and film led me to become a fan of actress Emma Thompson. In her interviews, she talked about feminism a lot. Her work with the Helen Bamber Foundation opened my eyes to the horror of human trafficking. Her letter to herself at age 16 helped me, at that same age, to stop worrying about how others saw my body.

 Why does it have negative or positive connotations for you?

I was coming to accept the label "feminist" for myself, but my Christian culture still repelled it. A strong "mother in Israel" - a matriarch who wasn't afraid to rebuke men - once cautioned her granddaughter and me with the words, "You don't want to be women's libbers."

Why not? I asked myself. Didn't Jesus come to proclaim "liberty to the captives... [and] them that are bound"? (Isaiah 61:1)

The culture I was raised in would probably be described as complementarian, although the "as unto the Lord" clause of Ephesians 5 was emphasized. Beyond the proof texts offered by complementarians, historic Adventism's problem with the women's movement encompassed the free-love-advocating spiritualists, like Victoria Woodhull, who were prominent in the suffrage movement. 

Usually I don't find the above issue especially problematic. I believe I can consider myself a part of the women's movement without supporting everything done in its name, just as I don't support so much done in the name of Christianity. Yet some days it worries me a little and I want to distance myself from much of feminism, just as I want to distance myself from much of Christianity.

Frequently disturbing for me have been texts like Ephesians 5: 22-24. Sometimes I've been sure that I can't submit to a mortal man so fully, so will have to be perpetually single to maintain my Christian obedience. Lately, I've come to understand verse 22-24 as subordinate to verse 21.

Most days I'm pretty firmly on the side of women's ordination, although mentioning Korah, Dathan and Abiram may bring niggling doubts about questioning God's choices.

I still don't know how to deal with the Old Testament's patriarchal pronouncements on rape, virginity, and impurity. I admit that there's sometimes a conflict between the Old Testament and the feminist sensibilities I've developed. And then I remember that the all scripture testifies of Jesus - He who makes all one in Him. (Galatians 3:28) And, yes, I'm still confused. Some days I'm stronger in my feminist beliefs, some days in my Christian ones. I confess that I question and reexamine the bases for both.

How do you define the term, either academically or personally? What writers have you read whose definitions you want to bring out?

I can't think of a quick definition off the top of my head, other than one that has been attributed to various sources. I believe I first read in Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

My feminism has come a long way from my tentative first steps opening feminist literary criticism. I now understand the way "modesty" and "purity culture" contribute to ubiquitous rape culture. (More on that in another post.) I identify with many feminists as (generally) politically liberal. I recognize the intersectionality between gender, race, and feminism. I don't like abortion, but I get really angry about the way it's opposed by many Christians, Republicans and (let's face it) rich, white dudes.

I haven't actually read a lot of feminist books. More of my influences (especially in the last few months) have been from feminist bloggers, like thefemcritique on tumblr, and HerbsandHangs (especially dealing with rape and rape culture). Love, Joy, Feminism was especially interesting when I was reading, in fascinated horror, about the purity movement last year. I don't agree with everything on these blogs, but I think they give a good sample of secular feminist thought. I also have quite a bit of stuff on feminism on my own Tumblr blog.

Well, I must hie me to bed. I've only scratched the surface of my own relationship with feminism, but there's two more days to try to dig a little deeper. My hope is that, disjointed and shallow as these posts may be, they will help someone understand feminism a little better.

The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.
-- Susan B. Anthony

No comments:

Post a Comment