Feminism Has an Image Problem

Letha,

I really appreciated what you touched on in your last letter, especially your explanation of the typology Yates uses to understand second-wave feminism. The “women over against men” category—which describes the more extremist segment of the movement—struck a chord with me. As you know, the perception that feminism is about angry women wanting to dominate men gets a bit of leverage from conservative pulpits! I could share with you some excerpts from sermons I have heard, but we’d probably both experience a rise in blood pressure. So, I think I won’t!

Instead, I want to begin this letter by looking at some thoughts you stirred in me with Yates’ categories—namely, how I feel about my own generation’s perceptions of the term “feminism.”

A Limited View

I have mentioned this to you before in previous posts, but I do feel as if women my age have been socially conditioned to see almost all feminism as the second of Yates’ categories—the “women over against men” way of thinking, and they understandably resist that image of feminism, and often have not been given more positive images. And yet the irony is, I wonder how many of us have actually met that man-hating feminist, though it seems that she must lurk around to keep getting all this attention in people’s minds! All the feminists I know (and I know a lot of them) actually like men—we like them so much we believe in truer, more vibrant partnerships with them, and we believe in working for egalitarian societies in which both women and men can live more freely.

I don’t know what to do with the reality of people’s perceptions towards feminism within my own generation. I find it ironic that most young women take for granted that they can vote, attend universities of their choosing, use the libraries in those universities, have access to birth control, open a checking account as a married woman, own and inherit property, etc., and yet when asked if they are feminists? Oh dear. Not one “of them.” To a certain extent, I understand. The “women over against men” model is too often the popular image—it is that image which is so sensationalized in the media and spoken of from the pulpit.

I get so frustrated that the term “feminism” is often used pejoratively, outside of a historical analysis, and with the assumption that it is somehow one monolithic movement—not many different movements, always shaped by historical and contextual variables. In Christian circles, the use of the term gets even more shallow, perhaps in an attempt to keep out the ambiguities and questions. Not only is feminism often equated with being anti-male and anti-motherhood, but it is also represented as being anti-God. (Eve, of course, is then seen as the first feminist!)

Furthermore, the problems in these perceptions only get worse because some Christians hear feminism spoken of mostly in relationship with abortion, so that in the end, the “f-word” is seen through a very constricted lens. I do understand that many Christians fear the association of feminism and abortion, and might want to write off feminism for its role in Roe v. Wade. However, it is time for Christians across party lines— and those who embrace the word feminism and those who reject it— to come together for more productive conversations on “life” issues. I was appalled at the recent election and how many evangelicals seem to limit the meaning of whether or not one is “pro-life” to how one feels about the legalization of abortion in America, as though there is one “life” issue. Yes, I am “pro” the lives of American children—as I am pro the lives of children in Iraq and Darfur— and pro the lives of the thousands of children dying every day from lack of clean water. I am also pro the lives of frightened women in my own country who honestly feel that they have no options or resources for unplanned pregnancies. Changing a law (and going back to a world of back-alley abortions) is not going to help churches to actually start loving their neighbors in practical ways and offering hospitality, non-judgment, and a place of safety for difficult decisions. Being pro-life requires a great deal more of somebody than being passionately against abortion. But, feminism’s very association with the polarized issue of abortion gets simplistically used within faith communities to write off the complexities of both abortion and feminism.

If the many forms of feminism are going to be understood by more Christians, than these two issues—fears of man-hating feminists, and the notion that abortion is a clear-cut issue or that all feminists think the same way on abortion—need to be looked at with a more nuanced view. But, as you explained so well regarding fundamentalist Christianity, religion is often not the place where ambiguity, paradox, and nuance are allowed to thrive. To quote your last letter, it is prone to “an ironclad construction of reality that does not let other viewpoints in.” Yet, for both the gifts and faults of feminism to be understood well, my generation must invite the complexity of the term, not be lazy in our analysis of it, or let ourselves fall into simplistic “either/or” thinking.

My Own Suspicions

Even in my own journey, I know that the process of wresting with the perception of feminism has not been easy. When I wrote you the letter while reading Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, I was struggling with my own ingrained biases towards second-wave feminists. Before I even opened the first page of her book, I felt suspicious of what I might find there, which I felt was rather odd.

My prejudgment surprised me because I knew I had always harbored questions similar to those of feminists, always sensed within me something was not right about the limitations women internalize about their own beings. I knew women’s voices were missing in the history books, and in my understanding of faith, and that this was a growing problem for me. Yet, something in me wanted to distance myself from “them”—those feminists who seemed so “other.” It wasn’t until I started reading their own words—not what others say about them—that I saw not only their diversity, but also their honest gifts and failings. “They” became humans to me, not a category; and I realized I had far more in common than in division. It was only then that I felt comfortable with the term. It was then that I realized I had been fed a stereotype and had not been exposed to different streams of thought within feminism. After making this discovery, I wanted to reclaim the word.

Some might argue that feminism is yesterday’s word—but I think we need to keep using it until we create tomorrow’s language. It is the word we have now to remind us there has been a ubiquitous, historical, and problematic relationship between power and gender; but in a crazy act of redemption, our world currently is experiencing labor pains, and we wait for the birth of a truer lived equality between men and women. We work as midwives to that equality. Will evangelical Christian churches in America be part of that? Or will they sit on the sidelines of justice? Will they miss this historical moment, convinced that the “agenda” of feminism (as though there is only one) is in essence anti-biblical?

Where to Go From Here

The battle over the meaning of the word feminism points out the importance of being willing to study the details of history, so that our words are not just lost to polarized discussions but are seen in the light of historical realities. This week I came across an interview with Ann Braude, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, who had this to say about a conference she helped put on a few years back that opened communication between feminists of different generations. In an interview with Wendy McDowell, she explained the rationale behind the conference:

“There are two aspects to the experience of younger women that motivated this project. One is that for those in religious contexts that have been very much influenced by the women’s movement, they assume that’s the way it always was and they don’t know that it was a struggle to get things to that point, and they don’t know that these are changes that could be undone, and have been undone in some venues. That was one set of concerns. The other is that they’re reinventing the wheel. This was brought up very graphically by Gerda Lerner, the historian of women who spoke at the conference, and who has written about religion and the rise of feminist consciousness going back to the Renaissance, but particularly focusing in the nineteenth century. She observed, and any historian could observe this, that many religious women today are fighting the same battles over particular biblical texts and church teachings that religious women have been fighting for over 100 years and in some cases 200 years. That’s very sobering to think that our nineteenth-century forebears resolved these issues in their own minds, but because we are not apprised of their stories and those resolutions, we have to reinvent them. We see this across the spectrum in religion and that’s why I believe that the writing and teaching of history is so important.” (Go herefor the complete interview.)

Ann Braude and Gerda Lerner are right—we cannot keep reinventing the wheel! The stories of our pioneering foremothers need reception in the new generations. And as much as feminism is just a stereotype of a “woman over against man” paradigm, the positive stories have not been passed down. As one of our readers put it so succinctly, “It bothers me that this kind of fundamentalist thinking gets perpetuated generation after generation, and that women of each generation have to deal with it again and again.” That I myself would open Friedan’s book with more suspicion than gratitude is telling me something. That I am only recently discovering my connection to feminist evangelical women of the 19thcentury is telling me something. The stories of women pioneers—in both secular and faith-based spheres—are still not getting told.

And I think that is an issue that third-wave feminists have to face.

Your friend,
Kimberly

Kimberly George
Kimberly B. George directs Critical Social Theory Consulting, an innovative business that brings specialized academic theory on power, privilege, and social justice (including the tools of feminist, critical race, and queer theory) into spaces such theory is not traditionally taught. Kimberly holds an MA (summa cum laude) from Yale University, where she was a Merit Scholar from 2009–2011, and a Postgraduate Associate in Gender Equity and Policy from 2012–2013. She’s currently a doctoral student, where her scholarship focuses on structural violence, psychic life, and creative pedagogies. Kimberly is also a writing consultant, supporting both creative and academic writers. Her own writing has appeared in such publications at The Feminist Wire, NewBlackMan (in Exile),The New Haven Register, The Washington Spectator, Feministing.com, and The OpEd Project’s ByLine Blog.

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