“Feminist” is a label I have never been very comfortable with, even if I can understand why others may assume it is one that fits me. Partly it is because I don’t like any labels. Giving yourself a label, or being given one by someone else, seems to me to put a person in a box, assuming they hold a whole set of ideas, values and perspectives. But in my experience most people don’t come in such neat packages, and I know I certainly don’t. I can quite easily hold opinions and perspectives that might seem to others to be contradictory, belonging to two quite different boxes at the same time.
But I think perhaps another reason I haven’t liked “feminist” in particular is that others can see it as self-serving. I am a woman in a profession which was traditionally reserved for men, and so holding views usually associated with ‘women’s rights’ can be seen as having an agenda for myself, pushing myself forward, wanting to get ahead. I hope those who know me know that has never been my motivation for anything. But as a Christian, even the fear that other people would think I had that agenda has sometimes been enough to prevent me from speaking up about issues of gender inequality. I don’t want to be seen as ‘strident’ and I don’t want to be seen as concerned about one single issue when there is so much more to who I am.
I have also had the privilege of being treated equally to men in spaces where people might not have expected that to be the case, and so perhaps I haven’t always felt like I ‘needed’ feminism. But the older I get, and the more the internet and social media allow me glimpses into some of the attitudes others have, the more I have begun to wonder about this. Is it time to start calling myself a feminist?
Only if I get to define what that means to me, and not be judged by your expectations of what that word signifies!
One of the simplest definitions of feminism, oft quoted but apparently originally attributable to Marie Shear, is this:
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.”
Seems obvious and easy to assent to? I like it, but there is a second part needed, as Emer O’Toole points out with humour and punch in this article: feminism also involves the belief that there are systems and attitudes in our world which sometimes lead to women not being treated as such.
Now, as a Christian, I actually don’t think Shear’s definition goes far enough. I would say, “The gospel includes the radical notion that women are created in the image of God, called to play a vital part in God’s plan of redemption for the whole world, and co-heirs with Christ,” as of course men are too. But there have certainly been times, and systems and attitudes, in the church when the people who embody the Christian faith have not treated women as such.
I am thankful to be in a church context where women are accepted and affirmed as members and as ministers. That has not been my ‘fight’ and I’m humbly grateful, knowing that many others throughout history and around the world have not been so fortunate. But sometimes I wonder … does the fact that we can ‘tick the box’ that says women are allowed into ministry sometimes lead us to think that all issues are resolved and we can move on? And do we then fail to notice the more subtle ways in which women can be overlooked or looked down upon? Or the unspoken assumptions that unintentionally reinforce the message they have heard in so many other places, that they are not enough?
Perhaps here lies another reason I have been reluctant to name this issue as one I care about. It is subtle and can therefore seem less important, not worth making a big deal about, especially when there are bigger problems in the world. But we are allowed to care about more than one thing at a time. And given what I am seeing in our culture, this is something I believe the church needs to get right.
So, part of my thinking aloud includes commenting on some of the things I see in the church that can cause her daughters to feel less valued, less called, less gifted or less loved, simply because they are female. I want to use my voice, not because I have an agenda, but because I have an opportunity. I look at the young daughters my sister and my friends are raising in today’s culture and I hope and pray that in the church, of all places, they will know that they are loved and valued not for what they look like but simply because they are. If I can use my voice to play some small part in these young girls knowing and experiencing that they are equally valued and loved by God and are called to play a significant part in His plan, then I will take the opportunity to do that. And if that causes people to give me the label ‘feminist,’ whether as a positive or a negative … well, I guess I am okay with that.