A ViewPoint by Paula Trimble-Familetti, PhD, and Stephee Bonifacio
As a new member of Christian Feminism Today’s Executive Council, and a researcher at heart, I was talking with my niece recently about feminism and current feminist thought. My doctoral degree is in international feminist theology, and she’s a recent graduate of Whittier College with a theatre major and an interest in women’s studies. I enjoyed seeing her play the role of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstoncraft’s daughter, in Dorothy Louise’s adaptation of Frankenstein. After our fascinating talk, I wanted to crystallize some of our ideas, so I sent Stephee a list of questions and asked her to reply with her answers. Our exchange follows.
Paula: CFT’s Website Content Manager, Dr. Katie Deaver, has raised a few issues that reminded me of some things you and I talked about. I wonder if you would be willing to share what you know about the differences between feminist thought among members of your generation and earlier feminist thinking.
Stephee: Sure, I’d be happy to share my thoughts. It’s all kind of rambling, but I hope it’s helpful.
Paula: How would you describe current feminist discourse?
Stephee: Most of the feminist discourse I see and participate in is of the mindset that if your feminism isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminism. In 1989, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectional to “describe how individual characteristics such as race, gender, and class interact with one another to compound discrimination” (Makena Huey in “If It Isn’t Intersectional, It Isn’t Feminism”). I think intersectionality is the most important facet of current feminism because it allows for the women’s movement to prioritize combating the oppression that arises when multiple oppressive systems collide.
Paula: How does current discourse differ from second-wave feminist discourse?
Stephee: What I know of second-wave feminism is that while it existed in tandem with the civil rights movement, there wasn’t a lot of cross-over (and there should have been). The second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the post-feminist movement of the 1990s, where everyone essentially believed feminism had run its course (maybe even gone too far) and was no longer needed. So in this mode of thought, a person who has a highly esteemed job — for example Scully in The X-Files — should have nothing to complain about because she has the job. This view totally ignores the systemic oppression women face, even in these high-paying jobs. And this systemic oppression is all the more compounded when you are queer or a BIPOC (a Black or Indigenous person, or a Person of Color).
When I think about those decades, I think about the lack of intersectionality in the “movement.” Sheryl Sandberg, in her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, tried to revolutionize feminism by instructing women simply to “lean in” — to go for opportunities without hesitation. It’s not enough to lean in; that doesn’t work all the time. Sure, for some wealthy white women, this advice to buck up and take charge in their workplace might be just what they need to hear. But for many women, the “lean in” phenomenon can be not only ineffective but dangerous.
Paula: How would you describe third- and fourth-wave feminist thought?
Stephee: I’m actually not sure what is considered third- and fourth-wave feminist thought. Are we in the midst of fourth-wave feminism right now? From my understanding, third-wave feminism focused on reclaiming the things post-feminism had taken away (that is, redefining ideas the media had perpetuated about womanhood, gender, beauty, sexuality, etc.). I think those reclamations and redefinitions were mostly cisgender, white, and heterocentric, thus giving birth to fourth-wave feminism, which focuses on wide outreach with social media and intersectionality.
Paula: How would you describe the points of intersectionality between feminist thought, liberation theologies, and anything else you can think of to add?
Stephee: I don’t know much about liberation theology; I’ll have to read more on that. But I think the most important part of this wave of feminism (and all current activism, really) is that we are no longer existing in any sort of binary. We are unveiling the complexities of this oppressive patriarchal society we live in, and by acknowledging the vastly different ways oppression occurs and affects people, we are getting closer than we’ve ever been to dismantling these oppressive powers.
One of my friends and I were just talking about how we were reading that white women and men of color have always been the weakest links in the effort to secure equity and liberation for all. Men of color can identify with their maleness/manhood, which equates with power. White women are able to identify with their whiteness, another form of power. In an attempt to maintain their illusion of power, white women might block BIPOC. Men of color might enable other men’s power. It’s interesting (and kind of horrific) to examine the ways in which one might choose to vote against one’s own interests to preserve this illusion. Think Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America, the drama mini-series produced by FX and currently available on Hulu. But I suppose anyone can be indoctrinated enough to go against their own interest.
Paula: I haven’t watched the series. I remember seeing her interviewed many years ago and she made my blood boil.
Stephee: For me personally, as a white, cis, heterosexual female, it’s important to continue educating myself about every other realm of oppression. I want to use my voice and read and learn how to actively be a strong ally. Ally is a verb, not just a noun, and I am working to better my active allyhood every day. It’s so important to realize that privilege isn’t a bad word. It’s something I have, that I can use to help others. Admitting that I have white privilege doesn’t mean I haven’t been through anything in my life; it simply means that systemic racism is not one of the hardships I’ve faced. Toni Morrison said in an interview, “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is white people have a very, very serious problem.” Racism is a problem for white people to deal with. And, maybe that sentiment translates to feminism in some way; we need men to speak up and actively be fighting against the oppression that directly benefits them.
Fourth-wave feminism is definitely the best we’ve had, but it’s still not perfect. “White feminism” still manifests, but in more subtle ways. For example, Western women may assume that hijabs are symbols of male domination in Islam, or we may simply assume that all women experience the same forms of oppression; we may not consider ill treatment for race, class, sexuality, religion, etc. All women, especially white cisgendered women, need to work to “heal the patriarchal programmed desire to be seen as pretty, nice, quiet, and desirable if we are going to be effectively anti-racist,” to use the words of Florence Given, a 20-year-old queer social activist in London. 1
Given points out that we often attach ourselves to desirability because, on an internalized level, we believe being desirable determines our worth. The way we are perceived by men gives us value, so we learn to stay in line with what they like. We may even accept the stereotypes of the “angry feminist,” the “man-hater,” and the “difficult woman,” and we may try to avoid being these things. Male validation will never fulfill us, however; it brings only the illusion of validation. Seeking validation creates a state of being that relies on our submission to patriarchy and our repression of our authentic selves.
Paula: I’m very interested in how much feminist thought and theory you absorbed in college.
Stephee: I’ve gotten a lot of information from Givens’ book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty (Octopus Books, June 2020). I love her. She said something recently that really sums up feminism in the present moment: “I’m telling you now—give it the fuck up. Give up whatever ‘desirable image’ you’re falsely projecting and clinging to for male approval if it’s costing you your silence, your genuine desires, your beliefs and your voice—because in this case, it’s also costing Black lives.” 2
I’d like to sum up current feminist discourse by quoting Rachel Ricketts, a New York author and lawyer who works on dismantling racist heteropatriarchy. In her post “The Grief Inherent in Being Black and Feminist…” she writes, “There are enough folks with enough power and privilege to create change. I’m talking to white women. The gift and beauty of being an oppressed oppressor is that you have your heart open in a way to what oppression actually is and feels like. So you’re more willing to transform that. That’s where loving anger can be utilized.”
Paula: Thank you for outlining for me these changes in modern feminist thinking.
Of course, we in CFT are committed to ending not just the social inequities women face around the world but especially the inequality rooted in male interpretations of the Bible. We use feminine and gender-free language for God, and we work to liberate Christian churches, colleges, and organizations from male control.
CFT was founded in 1974 by second-wave feminists, mostly white, but we’ve been committed to LGBTQ equality for 35 years and to intersectionality, as well. In fact, you might be surprised to hear one of the ideals the early Christians tried to live up to: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NSRV).
Stephee Bonifacio is a recent graduate of Whittier College with a B.A. in Theatre and Communication Arts (Performance Emphasis) and English Language and Literature (Creative Writing Emphasis). She is an actor, singer, and writer.
1 Instagram post by Florence Given (@florencegiven), fifth image/slide in the series.
2 Instagram post by Florence Given (@florencegiven), seventh image/slide in of the series.
© 2020 by Christian Feminism Today.
Please request written permission before reprinting any part of this article.