Before I go on hiatus, I wanted to post some quick thoughts on Christian Feminism since Sarah Bessey’s book just came out and there have been quite a few posts about it this week.
I joined in a conversation over on this post by Tyler Braun (see my responses here and here) and shared some thoughts about ways that Christian Feminists and Complementarians (who adhere to traditional gender roles to different degrees) can dialogue and move the conversation forward.
I very much appreciate what Tyler was trying to do, and most of the comments on that post offered some really good insights into how we can approach each other better on this very emotionally fraught issue. But here’s what I wanted to add based on some of the negative comments that I’ve seen on both sides in this discussion.
First: Quick-And-Dirty Litmus Tests
As I said in my comment, there’s not really a middle ground between feminism and complementarianism. One (in the best cases) believes in full equality between the genders and the other promotes in structural, if not always inherent, hierarchy. As such, there’s not really a way for complementarians to have a full seat at the “feminist” table or vice versa, just like you wouldn’t expect a group of libertarians to give a dyed-in-the-wool liberal an “equal” platform on their docket. They can dialogue, they can respect each other, and they can learn from each other, but if they disagree on some fundamental things, in this limited context, they’re not going to give equal weight to words from people holding the other perspective. This is actually normal and to be expected when groups disagree. This, to me, is not the same as the “demonizing” form of polarization that admittedly often takes place.
Unfortunately, feminism (by which I mean promoting full equality, not matriarchy) has also been turned into a quick-and-dirty litmus test for “decent human being” in many circles. And I’m not a huge fan of quick-and-dirty litmus tests, regardless of whether it’s skirt length for conservative evangelicals or fair trade chocolate for mainliners or labels like this for feminists. Life’s too complicated for that. Heck, feminism’s too complicated for that. It’s a diverse movement with many parts, and most people just remember the bra-burning part from the 60s or the man-hating subset and haven’t kept up with where the movement at large is today.
Second: The “Decent Human Being” Table
I do think equality, the inherent worth of all human beings, and individual agency are pretty important ideas, and feminism was what taught me the most about them, so I will always be indebted to this movement and the men and women who came before me. But even if your rhetoric sometimes diminishes one of those three things, I’m not going to start by assuming you’re a terrible human being. I’m going to assume that either there’s a misunderstanding, you’ve been badly taught, or you’ve been badly wounded. I’m then going to offer you a seat at my personal “decent human being” table so we can have a discussion.
I’ve had surprisingly good results doing this. A lot of people with really terrible rhetoric are surprisingly nice people, and I’m not going to trample their humanity when there’s a good chance they’re actually on my side and they just don’t know it yet. For better or for worse, I’m a bridge-runner, not a bridge-burner.
That said, I’m also rather naive and optimistic, and that’s not always a good thing. I’m learning to be a little more careful. That means if I join you at the table and you start putting what I think is damaging rhetoric into practice, dehumanizing people or depriving them of agency even verbally, the conversation will be over. I’ll leave room for you to come back one day, but ain’t nobody got time for that right now.
A) You don’t have to label yourself a feminist to believe in and fight for equality. Those of us who do label ourselves that way are trying to fix many of feminism’s problems, but we have a ways to go. I’m not willing to lose a potential ally over a label that has genuinely hurt many good, decent people in the past. The label as a quick-and-dirty test just doesn’t work for me (although inherent equality of all, across gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc. does come a little closer for me as an idea).
B) You can be a kind, respectful, loving, decent human being even if you don’t always believe in functional equality. My criteria for decent human being includes things like showing respect for people you disagree with, being willing to examine evidence and change if necessary, and being kind, loving, and generous to those around you. I do think it’s harder to be a decent human being when you don’t believe in functional equality (and maybe impossible if you don’t believe in inherent equality). In that case, you’re trying to balance ideas that naturally lend themselves to harm with a desire not to harm. Soft complementarians have put a lot of things in place to try to protect women from harm within the hierarchy they advocate, like servant leadership, and that’s a tough tension to walk out. I respect that. I used to believe that, so I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt in the DHB category.
I’m also willing to give individuals a few chances to demonstrate other decent-human-being-type qualities, like treating people with with respect. Do that, and we can disagree on some of the finer points of feminism and all still be decent human beings (which doesn’t mean we’re perfect, just that we’re trying to get better).
One final (rather long) note on hurtful terminology:
I think I have the privilege of seeing some middle ground in this discussion because I haven’t been hurt too badly by either side (and both sides have wounded people). I have the luxury of being able to be more analytical about this issue. Some people don’t. Those people need time and space and friendship to heal, even though they don’t always act like healthy decent human beings all the time. They act like wounded decent human beings, and that’s OK. We have to allow for that. We also don’t get to set a timeline saying “you should be over this by now.” It’s what we would want for ourselves. It’s not OK to call them whiny or shrill or misogynistic pigs while they work through these issues.
Lastly, when people talk about privilege and structural inequality or racism or sexism and say that some ideas or perspective have been shown to be harmful to certain groups of people, they aren’t always automatically denying you a spot in the decent human being club. Sometime they are - see quick-and-dirty-litmus-test-issue above. But those terms don’t automatically mean that, and many of us don’t use them that way. If you’ve been called racist or sexist, or told that your attitudes are racist or sexist, I know that’s pretty hurtful. It brings up pictures of lynchings and riots and the KKK.
But if your ideas have been called that by a feminist or activist, I would ask you to give us a second chance. Many of us don’t mean those words in a hurtful way. We use them to identify underlying attitudes that perpetuate certain injustices and inequalities. Quick example - I had to use a wheelchair at a theme park last year so I could be with my family despite my chronic fatigue. I had a hard time with it because I thought it made me look “weak” and “disabled” to the people around me, or that they were judging me because I didn’t look sick enough to deserve a wheelchair. Those are able-ist attitudes. Despite the fact that I have never been even a little bit mean to a disabled person in my life, I clearly had some prejudices and poor attitudes about what it means to be strong and whole or to need assistance. I had just never examined them.
There are some terrible, hurtful, violent discussions about inequality and privilege and racism out there on both sides, mostly because there are a lot of hurting people out there. There are also some people who just like to hurt others or don’t know another way to communicate. It makes me sad that those discussions are usually the loudest. But there are good discussions taking place, and although they use some of the same words, they aren’t about putting people down or making anyone feel guilty. They’re about examining these underlying attitudes in our society that we may not even know about. They’re helping us look at our social structures to figure out where we are perpetuating negative attitudes or structural inequality and what we can do to change that.
This does not excuse those who have used those words to hurt others, stifle conversation, and dehumanize their opponents. Ever. I’m so sorry if that’s happened to you. But I think there is something valuable here. If you would like to know more about positive discussions around these terms, I can share some links that might help you get on the same page with the better conversations so you can be a more educated participant.
But if you have been hurt, I want you to know that you can take all the time you need to heal before educating yourself and participating in these discussions. Some of these conversations can be really painful when you’ve been treated badly, so I understand if you don’t want to join in right now. You’re still a decent human being in my book, and you’re still welcome here in the meantime. In fact, I’d be honored to hear your story.