The Other 'F' Word: Feminism and Christianity, Part One


(system) #1

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is currently engaged in a global conversation about women. The Church in North America in particular is having a passionate debate about the role of women in the official church hierarchy and what limits it should place on how women serve the Church. But there is much more to this discussion than women’s ordination. There is the issue of how the church listens to victims of sexual violence; there is the deeper theological question of “headship,” submission, and domination. There are allegations of gender discrimination in areas the Church ostensibly advocates equality, and so on.

Two young Adventists, Robert Jacobson and Trisha Famisaran, bring us the following conversation on Feminism and Christianity. Robert Jacobson received a PhD in mathematics at Texas A&M University, and will begin an assistant professorship at Roger Williams University this Fall. Trisha Famisaran is Director of the Women’s Resource Center and Adjunct Professor of Religion and Philosophy at La Sierra University. She is completing a PhD program in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University.

Robert Jacobson: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Trisha.

Trisha Famisaran: The pleasure is mine.

RJ: The notion that a woman can’t be misogynist or that only women are hurt by sexism is a prevalent idea in discussions about gender equality. Even sophisticated commentators often express this idea, if only implicitly. How do you respond to this idea?

TF: Misogyny is hatred toward women and girls, and creates an environment where women are literally unsafe in their own bodies. Men who hurt women and the women they assault—physically or emotionally—are both victims of a sexist system. Sexism is discrimination based on sex, which means that both men and women can experience it. For example, with occupational sexism, a stay-at-home father or a man who chooses a job that is traditionally “women’s work” might be considered “less manly” by his peers. It is important to understand that sexism is not just individual behavior; it is deeply embedded in social structures and has systematic effects. Accepting, participating in, and furthering sexism hurts women and men by perpetuating a system of domination and subordination. Women and men are both limited by sexual stereotypes and expectations. Women in relationships of inequality have limited options for self-determination, physical safety, and emotional health.

RJ: There is this related idea: the “some of my best friends are black” cliché which implies that one couldn’t possibly have prejudiced ideas about a group if one is so intimate with members of the group. I think advocates of equality really believe that if one could see firsthand the hurt caused by discrimination in the life of a loved one, it would change their mind. In fact, I think many equality advocates have experienced this themselves and have been personally changed by it. However, the uncomfortable reality is that many people’s prejudice is stronger than their love for their friends and family members.

TF: I once spoke with a man who said the following to me: “I love my wife. I treat her well. But I do not think she should become a pastor or church leader because that would alter God-ordained roles, in which I am the head and she is the body.” It is challenging to wrap my mind around how sexism and discrimination are defended as a way to protect, honor, and safeguard women, traditional gender roles, and the family unit. For many well-intentioned Christians, Scripture appears to prescribe very specific gender roles for men and women. A problem arises when the reader fails to understand that what appears obvious to them was filtered through an interpretative process that includes personal and social/cultural biases. Appealing to a literal reading of Scripture, one that disregards the process of interpretation, renders sexism invisible. It is important to take into consideration the differences in worldviews between the authors of the Bible and the contemporary mindset; resist constructing a singular concept of gender and sexuality in the Bible; and to remember that Scripture does not spell out specific answers to every moral question.

RJ: When we talk about gender equality, are we only talking about discriminating against women, or is there more to it?

TF: I think it is important to understand the attitudes and ideas that give rise to discrimination. Feminism responds to sexism by exploring historical attitudes and ideas; as well as aiming to define, establish, and defend equal rights and opportunities for women and men. Feminists have identified a number of social, theoretical, and theological problems. Christianity has been shaped by patriarchal ideas taught by some of its most influential theologians. Augustine, for example, denied that women possess the image of God: “but when she is referred separately in her quality as a helpmeet, which regards the woman alone, then she is not the image of God, but as regards the male alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined within him as one” (De Triniatate 7.7.10). This attitude understands men and maleness as the norm of humanity; normalizes the subordination of women; and identifies and defines women in terms of their relationship to men (e.g. husband or father). Thomas Aquinas described women as defective versions of men (“misbegotten males”). Martin Luther considered the possibility that women were equal to men prior to the Fall, but that subordination is a fitting punishment for all women, derived from his interpretation of Eve’s role in the Fall. The larger problem is that these attitudes become a normal and acceptable way of thinking, assumed to be devoid of social/cultural prejudices.

RJ: Can you explain to me what kinds of discrimination and inequities feminist thinkers have identified? Surely there is more to it than hiring policies barring women from certain positions.

TF: I have already mentioned occupational sexism, which shows itself in the wage gap between women and men, the glass ceiling, and stereotypes that limit and question individual ability. There is sexism in the way women and men are represented in the media. Television advertisements objectify women, or make men appear clueless in the kitchen, in order to sell a product. The use of language is sexist when it is not gender inclusive. I find this problematic in the lyrics of popular Christian music and hymns. Sexism occurs in educational settings when teachers have different expectations of boys and girls, or when a professor questions a woman for being in a course of study typically dominated by men. I continue to hear stories of women mocked in seminary classrooms. There is the problem of outright violence specifically targeting women and girls. Rape is used as a weapon of war and the statistics about women and children in the sex trade are horrendous.

There is also the problem of failing to see women’s contributions within human history, and excluding their voices and gifts within the church and society. Women live in a world that has ignored their perspective for most of history. They have not been able to describe history from their own perspective since they have not been allowed to tell their own stories; or, if they do tell their story, it is not valued in the same way that a man’s contribution is regarded. We exist in a world where prescriptions for how to live are shaped by the descriptions of our lives. For example, women are described as emotional nurturers, and then internalize this as a prescription to nurture in a way that men are seemingly unable to do. This leads to women questioning their ability to enter politics or science-based fields, as well as preventing men from doing things that would appear to emasculate them.

Women have lived in a space between their lived experience and the shaping given to experience by the stories of men. In trying to understand the world, women have often suppressed or denied their feelings and perspective because they did not have a framework in which it was permissible to understand and articulate them. It is difficult to speak as a woman when the terms of speech are already laid out.

RJ: I have a confession to make. Whenever someone expresses the relationship cliché that men are providers and protectors while women are nurturers, I get suspicious of the person. Why is it okay to think men should not be nurturing? And who would want a partner, male or female, who is not willing to provide and protect?

TF: Women are thought to naturally possess what it takes to be a mother. They are thought to be caretakers in a way that men are incapable of. This is one element, among others, that give rise to the expectation that women should be mothers and parent in a way that men cannot. This creates social stigma for women who, for one reason or another, do not become a parent. Yet, the terms of parenting have been handed down in a way that shapes what we expect from mothers and fathers.

There is a saying, “A mother is a person who seeing that there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.” Women are expected to raise children in a self-sacrificing way that men are thought to be incapable of. I think this limits the form of love parents express toward their children. Why shouldn’t we expect a father to give of himself in the ways that we expect a woman to? I also think that a mother who will allow herself to eat a piece of the pie teaches her children an important lesson. Consistent self-denial is not healthy. (If she made the pie, she certainly deserves a healthy serving!) A woman is not less of a mother if she has interests and needs beyond those she cares for, and a man shouldn’t be considered a disappointment if he lives outside of gendered expectations.

I don’t mean to argue that parenting should be anything less than a nurturing relationship between a parent and child. I am arguing that the parenting relationship is gendered in a way that limits both mothers and fathers. Every family is different, and it seems a good thing to broaden the concepts we have of roles in the family. Both parents can be nurturing providers, for example.

RJ: I’ve never understood why the word “feminism” is such a bad word for some people.

TF: “Feminism” and the label “feminist” are frequently misunderstood. There is certainly a caricature of a feminist out there. She is an angry, bra-burning, butch lesbian who categorically hates men. However, it’s rare to find a feminist who categorically hates men. Men can also be feminists. Women did not actually burn bras at the Miss America pageant in 1968, yet the story developed as a result of inaccurate journalism. Not all lesbians are feminists, or butch for that matter. However, this caricature and the label readily elicit ad hominem attacks against feminists; that is, faulting them for who they are instead of engaging their ideas.

Samuel Koranteng-Pipim listed seven “worrisome” aspects of feminism on his website, Adventists Affirm. He cites the obliteration of gender roles, lesbianism, witchcraft, re-definition of God, gender-inclusive language, questioning the Bible’s inspiration and authority, re-interpretation of Scripture, and mutation of women’s ministries.

RJ: Wait... witchcraft is an aspect of feminism?!

TF: Some feminists adhere to Wicca, modern paganism that incorporates elements of witchcraft. This is a small group compared to the broad makeup of feminists. The core of feminism is a concern for women’s rights and equality for women and men. Feminists are a diverse group; there are evangelical feminists, liberal feminists, ecofeminists, mujeristas, Womanists (black feminists), and radical feminists, just to name a few.

Overgeneralizing and caricaturing what feminism means makes it easier for people like Koranteng-Pipim to reduce it to their own purposes. The basis of his argument is an attack on the “ideology of egalitarianism” and an “obsession with equality.” It might sound like his thinking is extreme since he critiques egalitarianism, where most people embrace it, at least in principle. However, his concerns are shared widely in the church. Koranteng-Pipim and others take it for granted that they already know the truth about nature and gender roles because it fits into their understanding of the world. To them, questioning the nature of gender is tantamount to questioning who God is. The problem is that it reduces nature, and even God, to human terms. It is tempting to constrain God to fit our own wants and needs, just as it is tempting to constrain other people by one’s ideas of who they should be or how they ought to live. This is a very interesting kind of colonialism, to dominate and dictate the limits of personhood based on one’s sex.

Read part two of this dialogue here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4707