Fear, Fairness, and Feminism: Does It Have to Be So Lonely?

by Kendra Weddle
(with responses from Melanie Springer Mock and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

Birds scare me.

I don’t know why exactly, except that it must be in some way genetic since my father and sister share the same irrational fear. Last year I completely threw my neck out of whack during a Birds of Prey exhibit at the Texas State Fair when a huge falcon was dispatched to fly over the audience and land on its handler’s arm mid-way through the audience. I should have anticipated this maneuver when I picked out seats front and center. But I hadn’t considered the bird’s gigantic wings flapping so close that I could feel the air as it flew by, nor that the mammoth creature wouldn’t be courteous enough to avoid thumping people on the head with its long claws as it chased what I’m sure was a delicious mid-day snack.

The Many Things Fear Can Do
Fear can be immobilizing or it can propel us to act in ways that otherwise we might find inappropriate or illogical (as in a grown woman hitting the deck in front of about 500 people). And I sometimes think fear of the unknown “other” drives much division among Christians, especially around the idea of Christian feminism. Since this is not a term found very prominently in many or most churches, people have been led to believe it is to be feared, and subsequently rejected.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Consider, for example, a recent post on Julie Clawson’s blog, Onehandclapping, in which she tells how egalitarianism led her to embrace feminism. Even though Julie grew up as part of a movement denigrating all things feminist, it was her later experiences of patriarchy and her knowledge of Scripture that enabled her to see beyond her earlier assumptions and to change her mind.

Julie’s experience is, I think, an illustration of the way that many people come to see themselves as fully feminists and fully Christians. Once convinced by God’s dream of justice for all, there can be no looking back to condone patriarchy or to confuse male superiority/female subordination with the gospel. The fear of feminism is replaced by a new view of feminism as a statement of social justice.

Feminism : An Expression of Fairness
I know for me I had childhood experiences that cultivated a strong sense of fairness as in I expected to be treated like guys my age, and I did not want to be treated as my mother was by my father and my grandfather, who had both followed the traditional patriarchal belief that women were subordinate to men and that wives were to submit to their husbands. And, as I grew older and began studying the Bible as part of my academic training, I began to see more clearly how Jesus modeled a very different way of living: he respected women as persons and he sought them out as companions on the Way.

Over time I became convinced! Jesus did not condone treating any group of people as secondary and in fact demonstrated how going against societal norms was often necessary to extend grace, love, and genuine hospitality especially to the least and the last.

And yet, living in this boundary where only a small number of people have chosen to put down roots at the intersection of feminism and Christianity can be lonesome.

At least for me, however, there is no going back and certainly no desire to return to the narrow path of patriarchal claims. But the question I continually struggle with is how to share this perspective with others. As Melanie mentioned in her earlier post, breaking into the overwhelming silence where feminism and Christianity intersect is no easy matter.

Julie Clawson’s insight of marking the path where egalitarianism paves the way is helpful and perhaps a good place for further reflection. I’m interested in learning more from you, Letha and Melanie, about how you each find ways to extend this vision of being a feminist and being a Christian.

Melanie Responds

I resonate with so much that you express here, Kendra—right down to my inordinate fear of birds.

Like you, I experienced in my childhood a strong impulse toward fairness when it came to gender roles. It seemed like my brother always got the best chores, like mowing the yard, while I was stuck doing dishes; that my male peers had more fun during recess, enjoying flag football while I endured playing house; even that boys got to wear cooler stuff to church, like Toughskins jeans, while I faced the constraints of too-tight lace dresses.

Still, my journey toward Christian feminism has come slower than did yours, perhaps in part because I didn’t study religion in college or graduate school, and didn’t carry my childhood sense of gender inequity into any study of scripture or church history. Certainly I saw inequity in my own field of study, English literature: in the ways our classes focused on male authors, and in the ways my male peers sometimes treated my ideas with contempt.

Yet through college and beyond, I was a Christian, and I was a feminist, but those two identities remained separate, and it was not until meeting people like you, and then much later Letha, that I could begin synthesizing those identities into one.

My question is, then, how do we help others who believe themselves Christians and feminists to embrace a synthesis of the two, as Christian feminists? Just last night, telling my dad about the EEWC Gathering I attended, and how revitalized I felt by my time there, his response (as someone who is a Christian and, at least theoretically, a feminist) was that he didn’t believe many Christians would ever trust feminists, nor that many feminists would ever trust Christians.

He may be right. But my time with members of EEWC-Christian Feminism Today has shown me that many women and men—through life experiences, biblical study, and right relationship with God—have found ways to unify Christianity and feminism into an organic whole where redemption, grace, and holiness reign.

So Kendra, I guess my answers to your question are that 1) I do not fully know how to extend the vision so that people can discover Christianity and feminism are not dissonant; and 2) I am grateful that other people, including you and Letha and EEWC, have extended that vision for me; and 3) there is still a good bit of work to be done, so that Christians and feminists can stand together on holy ground.

Letha Responds

I was attacked by a ferocious rooster when I was a preschooler, so I certainly understand what bird phobias are!

But fear of feminism is something I’ve never experienced.

Probably because I was a feminist before I had even heard the word, based on childhood ideas of fairness, much as you two experienced.

Probably because I believed that girls could do anything boys could do (and a competitive spirit meant I had an “I’ll show them that I can even do it better” attitude).

Probably because I was a feminist before my Christian conversion experience, and I found my feminism and Christianity fitted together nicely.

Probably because I believed male and female were created equally in the image of God and there was no difference in how God valued either gender.

Probably because I had a number of years of a personal relationship with God and experienced God’s love for me as a young girl before I ran into fundamentalist Christians and their insistence on male headship and female subordination.

For a time, I tried to embrace those gender hierarchical ideas that were so pervasive in fundamentalist sermons and writings, because that was what I was told the Bible taught. But it didn’t make sense. That’s when I started reading the Bible for myself, questioning traditional interpretations, noticing other scripture passages that were neglected by those who embraced patriarchy — and then writing about it.

And you’re so right. It was lonely. That’s why I was so grateful when I met Nancy Hardesty and asked her to join me as coauthor in a book project that was later published in 1974 as All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation. Nancy and I received oodles of letters from other women who expressed the same feelings as we had experienced and that you say you have felt, Kendra and Melanie. The letter-writers thought they were the only women thinking this way and they had felt so alone!

That was nearly 40 years ago. And it’s still happening.

The way out of the loneliness of being a Christian feminist is to seek and find sister Christian feminists and supportive men who share similar ideas. As you experienced, that is happening through our organization, EEWC-Christian Feminism Today. We need to help many others see they aren’t alone and that they don’t have to compartmentalize; they don’t need to keep feminism in one corner of their lives and Christianity in another. I hope we can provide such help through this blog.

Feminism and Christianity fit together well when they are rightly understood. Let’s talk in future posts about what these two belief-and-action systems have in common, what the misunderstandings are on both sides, what is behind the fear of feminism, and how we can help people move from fear to faith.

FemFaith Authors
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Her first book, "Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956," was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In 2003, Cascadia Publishing House published her book, "Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors." And in 2011, Barclay Press published "Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World," a collection that Melanie co-edited with Rebekah D. Schneiter. Kendra and Melanie co-wrote "If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be," published in 2015 by Chalice Press. Letha Dawson Scanzoni has authored or coauthored nine books, including "All We’re Meant to Be" (in 1974, with Nancy Hardesty), which many scholars consider to have played a major part in the launching and spread of biblical feminism. She served as the content editor for Christian Feminism Today from 1994 to 2014.

1 COMMENT

  1. “the overwhelming silence where feminism and Christianity intersect”

    Wow that’s a powerful description. The ground we biblical feminists inhabit can feel unstable and lonely because of the challenges of sustaining the both/and rather than the either/or, but it is also a most creative ground on which to stand.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here