[Feminisms Fest] (Attempting) Defining Feminism
Feminism. It’s a polarizing topic, and a pretty popular one in the Christian blogging world. With posts like this and this and this, it’s easy to get mixed up and confused about feminism. What is it? What does it mean? What positions is one required to hold in order to be a “true” feminist?
Growing up, I was taught that feminism wasn’t something Christians should embrace. Sure, there were self-identifying feminists who simply thought that women were human and should be treated as equal to men, and the early feminists were good women who won the right to vote and the right to own property. But modern-day feminists were selfish women who wanted more than just equality. They wanted to live without consequences. They were bra-burning, pro-abortion, don’t-need-a-man women.
Well, it turns out *some* of that is true. There are certainly modern-day feminists who believe that all men are inherently evil and that all women should be lesbians (say what?), but these women are clearly on the fringe and don’t represent all feminists. To say they do is kind of like saying Westboro Baptist Church represents all Christians.
I first started learning about feminism in college, when I took a class in child and family advocacy and policy. It was in that class that I learned that the first feminists were actually Christians advocating for justice and social reform. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the history and goals of feminism, and found that, at it’s core, feminism is actually a very natural complement to my Christian faith. Over its history, feminism has consistently been about pursuing justice and equality–initially for women, and now for all.
One of my more recent discoveries is that there are multiple “feminisms”–difference feminism, queer feminism, black feminism, etc. Each of these types of feminism has their own unique flavor, their own paradigms through which they analyze social issues, and, usually, one or two issues that they focus on more heavily than others (such as racism). As I’ve read about feminism and discussed it with others, these are what I see as the defining characteristics of feminism:
1. Recognizing privilege
This post is one of the best I’ve read explaining privilege. If you’re not sure what “privilege” means in the context of feminist discussion, I highly recommend reading it, as the traditional definition of privilege doesn’t completely capture the essence of “privilege” as feminists reference it. Feminism, as a system, asks hard questions about privilege and calls individuals to examine what privileges they have. Who has privilege? Why? How does that affect how they relate to the people around them? How does lack of privilege affect people? How can we be aware of our privilege so that we don’t unintentionally hurt those around us?
2. Dismantling power structures
While privilege asks who has a natural advantage in life, power structures are about who has more authority and power in society as a group. This is not about getting rid of authority completely (for example, no feminist I’ve ever read wants to get rid of the employer-employee relationship), but rather, which groups have the ability to oppress other groups based on societal structures in place. For the vast majority of feminists, the main way this is manifested is in a desire to see patriarchy eliminated (while feminism has evolved to be much more than a women’s movement, it’s still a women’s movement at heart). This is where things get a little hazy. Unlike what I understood growing up, feminists are not wanting to grab more power for themselves. Rather, they want to eliminate societal power structures altogether so that all humans are treated as equal, and given leadership based on their merits, not their gender, skin color, etc. Much has been written on how systems like patriarchy hurt not just women, but men as well. This is not about wanting to eliminate power for the sake of eliminating power, but undoing power structures and advocating for a better way that helps everyone involved.
3. Justice for everyone
Because of feminism’s framework of examining privilege and power structures in society, it has advocated for justice in a wide range of areas, from prison reform laws that would help men, to better work policies that would help families, to civil rights for people of color. While feminism has certainly failed to do this perfectly across the board (for example, When Everything Changed details the tumultuous relationship between the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism), the philosophical framework of feminism has provided a natural base for advocating for justice for everyone, both in public policy as well as in society in general.
This is a pretty academic definition of feminism, that highlights what I have seen as the defining characteristics across feminists of differing religious, political, and personal beliefs. No two feminists are exactly alike. Some are atheists, others are Christian. Some are in marriages that reflect traditional gender roles, others are exploring what equality means in marriage (or choose not to marry at all.) Just as no two Christians will agree on everything, no two feminists will agree on everything. The important part for me is that, unlike what I thought growing up, the basic philosophy of feminism is not only compatible with my faith, it is a natural consequence of it. As a Christian, I care deeply about justice and equality. Feminism provides a framework to discuss these issues.
Tomorrow, I’m going to talk more about why this is important to me, and what I think is at stake in this discussion. In the meantime, check out the link-up at J.R. Goudeau’s blog and see what other Christians are saying about feminism!
What about you? What is your experience with feminism? How would you define it? Do you think feminism is compatible with Christianity?