[This is a post from 12th November 2011, but I've resurrected it from my blog archive in honour of the "Million Women Rise" feminist march that I participated in today]
It’s interesting to see the reaction I get when I drop into conversation with Christians that I am a ‘feminist’. It seems to have polar effects; some are delighted and wholeheartedly agree that women need full equality in society and the Church. Others respond differently and seem repelled by the term, associating it only with bra burning, shrill angry voices and a mission to overthrow men.
These responses have made me question whether the term is a helpful one or not. I am all for feminism if it’s about true equality. But not if it’s a masquerade for man hating, as that’s merely inequality of a different kind.
Feminism is a potent word. What does it make you think of? It usually conjures up caricatures that hang over us from 1960′s media stereotypes. Many Christians react negatively to it, thinking it means women who: hate men, are rebelling against God’s created order somehow, don’t embody the loving character the Bible encourages, reject the idea of marriage
None of these things need be true. I’m not saying we should re-write history and pretend that Feminism hasn’t been associated with these kind of things. I’m saying that we need to reclaim it in its purest sense. The terms “Christian” has gathered all manner of odd stereotypes and caricatures over the years. Yet we dust that word off and labour to retain its true meaning. We wouldn’t dream of abandoning it because of past associations – like the Crusades, for example.
This is what I am suggesting here – Christians reclaiming a line of thought that is actually very Bibical and refusing to allow its caricatures and stereotypes to rob us of a great term. It’s basic definition is as follows: “Feminism: a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, social rights and equal opportunities for women.”
That sounds like a pretty accurate description of what Jesus stood for! He broke numerous cultural traditions by taking women seriously and giving them equal respect and dignity. For example, talking with the woman at the well while his disciples watched with total shock. Or having friends like Mary Magdalene whose past was dubious. Or choosing not to judge the woman caught in adultery. Or choosing a woman to be the first person who saw his resurrected body. Or choosing women to be among the group of disciples who followed him everywhere.
Granted, there were no women in the 12 disciples, but to me that is related to the culture of that era and the lack of education available to women, rather than doctrine. However, women played a key role and were even among those who funded the whole ‘discipleship tour’ as Jesus and all the followers went from place to place. Luke 8 says: “Jesus travelled from one town to another, proclaiming the good news…The Twelve were with him and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary…Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
Far from not being central to the core of Jesus’ ministry women were active parts of learning and supporting the entire operation. “But they were helping administrate rather than teach”, you may say. Well, take another look at the story of Mary and Martha. Here Jesus gave teaching that was shocking to his era. Rather than affirming the cultural limitations of women doing domestic work, Jesus declares that Mary wanting to sit at his feet (as one learning from a Rabbi) and engage in theological study was good and in his words ‘the better part’. Fascinating.
In a society where women were definitely second class, Jesus reached out to them and gave them equality in worth and value. This is the true heart of what feminism should represent. Many have taken feminism to extremes that invalidate it’s true message. If it’s aim is for equality, it should be equality for all – not bashing men or diminishing them. Otherwise it becomes hypocritical. We are equal reflectors of the imago dei and only when we are BOTH affirmed can we have true equality. Men can also be Feminists, as well as women (like I would argue Jesus was and is). It’s simply a term meaning we all want equality for people regardless of gender, which is a very Biblical desire.
Although the world has come a long way there is much work to be done. It blows my mind that it wasn’t that long ago when women couldn’t vote. It was only in 1910 that Universities allowed women to study. Only recently the Equal Pay Act was passed and still doesn’t seem to truly be reflected in the workplace. I hope Christians are able to reclaim the term feminist and feminism. Feminist theology is a genuine area of study and there are many great books written on this subject. Their aim (the ones I like, at least) is to restore the genuine dignity and equal value of women that Jesus so beautifully modelled. If you want a good starting place, read “What’s Right With Feminism” by Elaine Storkey.
The role models I look to in the pages of the Bible are females like Deborah who bravely stood as the Judge of Israel and led Israel into fierce battle. Or the ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ who excelled in business, provided for her family and bought and sold property. Or Esther whose courage rescued the entire nation. The portrait of Proverbs 31 alone is stunning; she was a woman with vision a powerful career, a strong home life and is someone who is held up as a model for us all to imitate. On that basis, I feel comfortable saying I believe that Jesus is a feminist and that Christian feminism is absolutely and utterly not an oxymoron.