Some Thoughts on Fundamentalism and Feminism

Dear Kimberly,

I appreciated your honest sharing in your last letter.  Your struggles during your teenage and college years are struggles that many of us have experienced.  But I wonder how many other bright young women have not chosen the path you  followed and instead have abandoned their faith rather than give up their feminism.  They thought they had no other choice if they were going to be true to themselves. That’s sad and unfortunate.  And oh, so unnecessary.

Your path has been similar to mine in that we both dared to question.  Somehow, we both realized that we had been confronted with a false choice — “Either you are a dedicated follower of Christ and obedient to Scripture OR you are a feminist.”  But each of us, two generations apart, somehow knew there was another way — that our faith and our feminism were not at odds. Instead, we found that our feminism supported our Christian faith and our Christian faith supported our feminism, contributing to an integrated whole.  Of course, it didn’t happen all at once, but a journey never does. We’re always in process, learning and growing.

Fundamentalism and Questioning

However, the strict fundamentalisms around the world — whether religious or political — do not welcome questioning and critical thinking.  They thrive on certainty, on an ironclad construction of reality that does not let other viewpoints in.

You and I were drawn to a form of Christian fundamentalism because of its emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus and our hunger to study the Bible.  And that was good. We have cherished that.  But at the same time, we were also exposed to the patriarchy, legalism, and rigid interpretations of Scripture that are characteristic of this segment of Christianity.  The fundamentalism that we were taught insisted on an imposed order (a place for everything and everything in its place, including women).  We became aware (perhaps unconsciously) of the view that questioning is a threat and that permitting it leads to chaos — the opposite of certainty and order in the fundamentalist mind.

Fundamentalists, like authoritarians in general, have a problem with ambiguity and paradox.  They yearn for the security of knowing everything is settled so that they don’t have to worry about gray areas. Everything must be clear-cut, definite.   As a group, they are characterized by dichotomization — the “either/or” style of thinking that you mentioned.  Persons who think outside that framework are threatening to the system, and yes, they can be labeled as heretics, as you mentioned.  The history of Christianity shows some pretty harsh treatment of so-called heretics!  At least you and I weren’t burned at the stake for our questioning (although years ago, I received a letter from an anti-feminist reader — a woman, incidentally — about a book burning for one of my books).

Being Part of an Ongoing Story

You indicated that when you talked to your kind and empathic college professor, you had thought your questioning of traditional interpretations meant that you were giving up your faith. But now you realize that this questioning was the beginning of a stronger, sturdier, more robust faith than ever.  That’s so wonderful, Kimberly.

I liked what you said about reading Alice Paul’s story and that of other early activists for women’s rights and how you were able to identify with them and feel that you are continuing the story.  You definitely are!  (Upon reading that statement in your letter, I remembered that after Nancy Hardesty’s and my book,All We’re Meant to Be, was published in 1974 and we were invited around the country to speak about it, we used to half jokingly, but half seriously, identify our teamwork — in regard to our respective life circumstances — with that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the 19th century.  Since I was the married coauthor on our team and was a mother, I identified more with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had married an abolitionist and gave birth to seven children; and Nancy, being single, identified with Susan B. Anthony.)

You are so right, Kimberly, work for equality is ongoing over history with all of us playing a part — not only in working for equality for women but also for social justice for other groups that have been and continue to be discriminated against.

Forms of Feminism (The Work of Gayle Graham Yates)

One reason some Christians (and others) have a problem with feminism is that they don’t understand it and have formed their opinions on the basis of faulty definitions promoted by those who oppose full gender equality and who consider it harmful to families and to the church.  We’ve already discussed that quite a bit in previous posts.

I think it might be helpful to look at a typology suggested by Gayle Graham Yates in her book, What Women Want: The Ideas of the Movement. Her study concentrated on the years from 1959 to 1973, when second-wave feminism was emerging. She said the movement for gender equality showed evidence of three different perspectives:  (a) women equal to men, (b) women over against men, and (c) women and men equal to each other.

“Women equal to men.” Yates calls the women-equal-to-men paradigm the “feminist perspective.”  This is the category that describes the pioneers who have worked to obtain the same rights, privileges, and opportunities for women that have been enjoyed by men — voting rights, property rights, educational and employment opportunities, and so on.  Some of that work has been accomplished, as we know, and some of it continues today in many areas.

“Women over against men.” Yates associates this view with the women’s liberationist paradigmwhich she defines as a “pro-woman antimasculinist model.”  She is talking about a more extremist segment of the second-wave movement for gender equality. “Theirs is a woman-over-against-men or women-separate-from-men stance,” Yates writes. “These women — and the feminists informed by this model are all women — are sometimes quite angry with men and assert that women should separate from men, either permanently or temporarily, to establish female identity and to support each other psychically as women.  This is the old masculinist concept turned upside down. . .” (p. 19).

Unfortunately, it is this model that some people believe represents all feminism, and an extreme caricature of this idea is spread by anti-feminist radio commentators, as summed up in Rush Limbaugh’s term “feminazis.”

In your letter, you alluded in passing to the comment of one of our regular readers who recently expressed concern about a statement he had read in a professional journal. The quotation was from the director of a rape crisis center that does not permit male volunteers to work there. (I did ask the reader who wrote the comment to send the complete article, as he had offered to do; and I am deeply appreciative of his sending it. See his comments with our Oct. 25 post.)

The research data presented in the article he referred to indicated that the quotation he shared with us was from only one out of the six centers studied.  It alone had a policy against male staff and volunteers.  All the others had male volunteers (or in one case, had had them in the past, even though none were there now), and one of the centers surveyed had male paid staff members. The article also indicated that the issue of rape crisis centers accepting males as staff members, volunteers, and victims is being much discussed at this time, and attitudes seem to be changing. As the article’s author notes: “As society increasingly recognizes that males are rape victims and that services should be made available to male victims, some rape crisis centers and programs may need to come to terms with the idea that they can maintain feminist ideals while serving male victims (Shana L. Maier, “Are Rape Crisis Centers Feminist Organizations?” Feminist Criminology, Vol. 3, No. 2, April, 2008, p. 97).  She goes on to say that an important opportunity is also being missed when rape crisis centers and programs do not include male staff members and volunteers, because they could lead programs that could “educate other men or boys on their responsibility in ending sexual violence against women” (p.97).

Of course, not all cases of set apart “women only” space should be assumed to indicate an anti-male stance promoted by more radical “women-against-men” feminists.  Sometimes, there is a need for women to have safe, healing space and a time with their own in-group because of specific needs, including a need to listen to each other and help each other feel free to express long pent-up feelings that they don’t feel free to express when men are present.  Social movements begin when people become aware that the painful, unjust treatment they have experienced  is not theirs alone and begin to find others with similar grievances. The personal becomes political and they can work together for systemic change.  That is what happened in the consciousness raising groups of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Still, it hurts if one is a member of any privileged or dominant group (for example, males in a patriarchal society) and wants to help those who have been treated unjustly (the females in that patriarchal society) but is turned away by that group because group members want to effect change without assistance from persons outside their own group. There have been instances where this has happened in various civil rights movements seeking to correct and overturn social injustices — whether on the basis of race, gender,  sexual orientation, or anything else. But most such groups realize they need allies who join with them in striving for social justice and equality if change is going to happen.

But I have digressed and need to get back to the final category of the Gayle Graham Yates typology.

“Women and men equal to each other.” Yates describes this model as the androgynous paradigm — one in which women and men work together to define the way they want society to be. “It holds that tasks, values, and behavior traditionally assigned to one sex or the other should be shared by them both, except for behavior dictated by purely physiological differences.”

In other words, it’s what you and I have been talking about in this correspondence, Kim.   It’s just letting people be who they are and encouraging them to express their humanness in whatever way it fits their own personalities, talents, interests, and abilities as individuals.  According to this paradigm, neither women nor men have to fit into a particular role imposed by society. Rather, they work to change societytogether. In the words of Yates, “The focus for identifying the enemy of the women’s movement is on cultural forces, attitudes, and institutions, rather than on men. . . .” (p. 169).

That’s all for now.

Your friend,
Letha

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Letha & Kimberly –
    Its fascinating to read your experiences of fundamentalism. It doesn’t change, does it? My age is right in the middle between you all, and I grew up in a fundamentalist Independent Baptist church. My assessment of fundamentalism runs parallel with yours – heirarchy, power over, either-or thinking, unquestionning allegiance to what is taught by certain approved leaders. I was taught to reject what I now know was a stereotype of feminists, although at the same time thinking that I could achieve anything I set my mind to – except preach, of course; and it seemed fair to me to be paid equally for equal work – but I wasn’t a feminist! What began to move me out of fundamentalist thinking was realizing the inconsistencies in interpretation, in standards, and in everything else, as I dealt with my father’s early death. These “cracks” in the facade eventually broke down the whole system.
    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. My own daughter is dealing with it now, too! I still get agitated engaging anyone who is so dogmatic. As a Presbyterian clergy, my denomination has affirmed women’s ordination for 50 years – and yet so many of us cannot find a church to call us after that initial call. Inequality in the mainline churches now is a lot more subtle, and harder to identify -but its still real.
    Blessings,
    Becky

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