by Kimberly B. George
When I started reading All We’re Meant to Be, I remember flipping back through the pages, double-checking the copyright date. Really? I said to myself. 1974? How could this book have been written 34 years ago and yet feel like it was written for my generation? Christian women like myself in their 20s and 30s need this book today just as much as when Letha and Nancy first wrote it. My generation is still debating so-called biblical gender roles, wondering whether a woman can have both motherhood and a career, and asking if this country is ready for a female president. Meanwhile, other important issues—like the shocking rates of domestic and sexual violence in our country, or global poverty affecting women without access to jobs and education—still remain somewhat under the radar.
Why I Care
As a third wave feminist, I am aware that I am fortunate enough to inherit the opportunities for which my second wave foremothers pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s (and the first wave feminists much earlier). But I also find myself in a historical moment with so much left to do. And while my generation is indeed struggling with many questions, I still notice a lack of engagement by those in power—often men from the pulpit—to address the needs of gender reconciliation within our churches. In the conservative Christian circles in which I have moved, I have heard much skepticism towards feminism and even from time to time a thoughtful critique of its honest failings. But what I have not heard enough are prophetic words from churches ready to step into the difficult, redemptive work that is necessary for women to be fully treated as co-heirs of the kingdom and image bearers of God. I don’t hear voices from the pulpit actually naming how sin is entangled in our human systems of gender and power. I don’t hear most preachers exposing how scripture is misused so that women’s voices are being silenced in our churches, or how domestic violence is hidden in our own communities, or how global economic systems are trafficking women into slavery. There is still so much work to do. The world still needs feminism.
At the same time, I believe that in my 20-something generation, we are seeing a resurgence of fear around feminism and its goals. All too often, I hear the term used pejoratively, as though it can be dismissed as anti-family and anti-biblical. Too often, feminism is not understood within historical, multi-cultural contexts. Within certain influential Christian groups, there is very little understanding of what feminism is essentially about: standing up for the oppressed, having the eyes to see gender injustice, and re-envisioning how men and women could work together as equal partners in life. Many faith communities do not comprehend the full scope of gender equality and how it fits within the heart of the Gospel. For them, feminism feels threatening. The very word can feel antithetical to many people’s view of proper Christian womanhood. It does not feel like an invitation to something more whole and redemptive. We need to help such people change their negative perception. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
Invited to Tea
When I was a teenager, I remember being given specific instructions for how women should follow Jesus. One Saturday, the girls in my Bible study were actually invited to a church tea party. Over scones and Earl Grey, we learned how to fulfill our feminine roles. God would send us husbands, we were told, and we would live out our calling as Christian women in submission to our husbands and in service to our families. We were taught to have gentle and quiet spirits and to live always under the authority of the men in our homes and churches. It was assumed that following Jesus meant embracing our roles as wives and mothers and turning from “worldly” pursuits of careers outside our homes and churches.
But I never could quite swallow the instructions. What I was being told did not fit how God had made me, nor with the interests and abilities God had given me. And while something seemed amiss, I did not at the time have the vocabulary to speak my own resistance. I do remember, though, feeling it in my body. I remember tensing up and looking around the room, wondering if I was the only one who felt a bite of scone stick in her throat.
Questioning, Understanding, and Struggling
When I went away to college and began to fall in love with literature, history, and religious studies, my world opened up to me—and it was then that I started to understand better my own heart, too. I began to hunger for women’s voices in my textbooks; I began to long for the voices I had not been hearing. In the larger global context, I saw how important it was that women were being trained in medicine, literature, politics, and theology. Women bring unique experiences and perspectives to the world. We cannot simply deny half the population their right to be heard and engaged in cultural discourses. There is a reason the image of God was given to both Adam and Eve; we actually need each other. We need each other’s voices equally in our homes, and we need each other’s voices equally in society and in our churches.
And yet, I see many Christians in my generation really struggling with how we can encourage women to have more opportunities and still keep our families intact. I recently read an article on a well–known church’s website where a mother confessed what she considers her sin of idolatry for wanting to finish the 10 credits she had left in her master’s degree program. She explained how much she longed to finish her studies, but how she finally realized she needed to “repent” of that desire and embrace her role as a wife and a mother and not pursue “worldly” dreams. And while I understand that for some women, God has given the financial means and the desire to stay at home full-time, other women might have God-given vocational dreams in addition to their immediate families. (And some women do not have the luxury of choice but must share the breadwinner role out of economic necessity or even shoulder that responsibility alone.)
Can we find ways to honor family life without creating man-made rules about roles? What if indeed God wants a woman to finish her degree and use it on behalf of others? What if a husband and wife could find better ways to co-parent, while supporting one another’s tasks outside the home, too? It is not that I want to dismiss the priority of family life. I want to esteem motherhood and fatherhood and caring well for our families. But as Jesus reminds us, our families are not just our nuclear, immediate families. We have a global family to care for, too; and it has never been more urgent that Christians embrace seeing themselves not just as individuals but also as members of a community. The girl in Uganda who must enter prostitution to eat—she is my sister, too; perhaps the talents and resources God has given me can be used to help her. The woman who goes to your church and has silently suffered domestic violence—she might need female lawyers to speak on her behalf until she feels safe enough to speak on her own. We need female politicians, too, because a woman in Congress brings perspectives and priorities to our world that a man would not. We need men and women with strong voices in both public and private spheres, because the work the world needs done takes men and women working side by side.
Every time I hear a woman has sacrificed one of her passions—like finishing her master’s degree—I have to wonder what has been lost. Would she have given her voice to medicine? Education? Politics? How would God have used her unique passions in and through her? What did God have in mind for how her voice could impact her global family? While I cannot judge the path of this one woman—nor am I a mother yet to know firsthand the complexities in raising children—I am concerned that once again in my generation, it seems things are becoming either/or for many women. Either you build a career and potentially neglect your family, or you stay at home and potentially neglect other important dreams. If we were more creative, could we not find third ways outside our “either/ors”? This is a crucial question facing young women today. As third wave feminists inherit the work of those before us, we still need to wrestle together with the question of how women’s contributions will be supported in both the family and societal spheres. The work is not done.
When I was quite young, I watched a documentary with my mother about the suffragist movement. I don’t think my legs could even reach the ground as I sat there wide-eyed on the couch and learned what women had endured so that I could one day go to college, vote, own property, and seek my own dreams of being a writer. I remember wishing I could have been part of the marches in front of the White House or could have campaigned for university doors to be opened to women. As a little girl, I wondered if all the work had already been done, and I felt even a twinge of sadness that I came too late to help. Now at age 27, with my eyes ever more open to the needs for gender equality in both local and global communities, I can receive the gifts of my foremothers and use them to continue the work.
I do believe that third wave feminists are in a unique position. We have been given much, and much is also required, as we continue to engage the questions facing women and men today. There is much left to do to ensure that new generations of women are able to make new progress in gender justice.
For all of us who are feminists and claim faith—whether we are 27 or 72— there still remains the most profound work of all: the work of hope. Together, we are called to seize hope and imagine the beauty for which we long. We must believe that the church could step into its fullness and labor for the image of God to be recognized in women. We must believe that the perpetrators of domestic violence and the abused could both find healing and sit down at the same communion table. We must believe that one day every little girl in the world who wants to go to school will be given the resources to assist her in her dreams. We must believe that women writers will be given their “rooms of one’s own” to write the manuscripts for which our human history is still impoverished, since only in the last few hundred years have women writers been able to add their voices to our canons of literature. We must believe that both men and women will find freedom when patriarchy is dismantled and a truer partnership replaces the worn out hierarchy. We must believe that our families will be better off when both mothers and fathers are equally engaged in the work of child raising. We work for such things now because we believe God desires to bring God’s will to earth as it is in heaven.
Sometimes I think our vision of gender justice comes like a butterfly that we can’t quite cup in our hands, but we can see its vibrant wings and chase it. We can run and feel the wind and allow the Spirit to fill our lungs. We can chase beauty together, because that’s what it’s all about. To work for justice in our world—gender, racial, economic, or any other kind of justice—is really to chase beauty. And sometimes I see it.
© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in Christian Feminism Today, Spring (April-June) 2008, volume 32 number 1.