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I’m not sure when it became standard to blame feminists for the problems in society, but it seems to be the norm. Whether at a large state university or a small Christian college, when I ask college students if any would identify themselves as feminist, only a few raise their hands. Yet, when we discuss the meanings and definitions and variations in feminism, most all students agree that inequality among the sexes exists and that it should not exist. So why the refusal to accept the label of feminism?
Some of the most popular answers? Bring on the clichés:
I’m not a feminist because feminists are:
Have short, butchy haircuts.
Some feminists are angry and some hate men, but is that really limited to just the category of feminists? Some are lesbians, but many are not. As for the short butchy haircuts, all I can say is that the majority of women in every church I have been a member sport the short butchy haircut, so I’m not sure how that fits into this discussion. I’m guessing some are feminists, but not all. I’ve even had someone tell me that I didn’t “look like a feminist” which tells me that people have a very distinct image in their minds of what a feminist is or what a feminist looks like.
When I examine the ideas, literature, politics, speeches, authors, activists and print/media culture from the 1970s, I see the popularity and mainstream appeal of feminism. And when I examine the ideas, literature, politics, speeches, authors, activists, and print/media culture from the 1980s, I see a strong backlash against feminism. Most importantly, this backlash managed to thoroughly discredit feminism and turned the term feminist into an angry, unappealing label that people STILL fight to avoid, despite agreeing with the main tenants of feminism. How did the backlash achieve this astonishing victory against feminism? I don’t know that I can fully answer that question. It wasn’t necessarily the Right to Life movement. As Allison Vander Broek pointed out, the Religious Right began by fighting against desegregation before they began to mobilize against abortion.
I’ve been a fan of Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale for quite some time. The original Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a chilling adaptation of Atwood’s book (and, notably, Atwood is a consulting producer on the series). The series is set in the future, when the state of Gilead takes over the U.S. Atwood does not explain the origin of the issue, but infertility and sterility are rampant, leading to very low birthrates and very few healthy children that are successfully born. As a result, the few fertile women are rounded up and distributed as “handmaids” to the Gilead commanders so these handmaids can produce children for these women of high status that cannot conceive their own children. But Gilead is a “Christian” state, so the language is riddled with Biblical references. Most significant for the handmaids are the tales of patriarchs (as in Abraham and specifically Jacob) who “take” handmaids and use them to produce offspring. Because the novel and the series take place in the recent future, the changeover to the state of Gilead is still fresh. The Handmaids are women, most of whom had children before Gilead ruled the US. Gilead took away their children and redistributed them.
First, it is a bummer to once again see Christianity get a bad rap in the mainstream. I know we all despise hypocrites, especially those that browbeat others with moral superiority and then exhibit the same depraved behavior as everyone else. It’s an age old human frustration. But not exclusively in the Christian domain, despite the long history of Christians as hypocrites. I guess a hypocritical Christian never really gets outmoded as the villain. Sigh. But okay, I get it.
Second, I was fascinated to hear the press surrounding the series launch. Some interviews claimed the show wasn’t feminist. What? Atwood’s novel is written in the 1980s as a particularly salient response to the backlash against feminism. Atwood’s novel explores that very premise: if we blame feminism for all the problems in society, what would society look like if we exercised the opposite of feminism? If we eliminate all of women’s control over reproduction and parenting, what would society look like? If we placed men exclusively in charge, what would society look like? For Atwood, Gilead. For a historian, it’s called the first 4,000+ years of human history.
But it seems to me the main point is that the press tour did not want to pigeon hole the series as “feminist” because that’s a negative attribute. Mainstream people would not watch a show that is described as feminist, even if the entire novel, premise of the show, and virtually every plot line is feminist. Later, actress Elisabeth Moss and others corrected themselves that the show indeed included feminist ideas, but they still sort of avoided saying the “f-word” as much as possible.
We look back and laugh at the big frizzy permed hair and tight-rolled mom jeans of the 1980s as ridiculous and silly, yet seem to fully embrace the 1980s backlash that discredited feminism.
Does it make sense to blame feminism for all the problems in society? Is it women and men who thought equality was important that ruined society? Or was it ruined before? If feminists ruined society, then surely society should have been perfect or at least ideal in most of human history before feminism became mainstream.
Rebecca, perhaps part of the problem is a certain wariness about all ideologies–all “isms”–communism, liberalism, socialism, patriotism, nationalism, environmentalism, fundamentalism, even conservatism. Not so much consumerism, though … Not that we aren’t ideological, of course. Just wary of being locked into an “ism” …
Agreed. Millennials seems especially averse to labels of any kind. I can understand that wariness, and share it, to some degree.
But do you think there are at least a few labels that most can agree to adopt, especially when they agree with the concepts of the label?
I also think that some Christians who agree with critiques of feminism have not shared the political agenda of the feminist movement. Is it possible that a biblically informed feminism might offer a different response or voice that other streams of feminism? I know that while attending seminary I became much more aware gender inequality and the experiences of those who experience it. However, when I attended seminars and classes (typically the only male at that time) I was informed that I could not be a feminist since I was a part of the dominant patriarchy. So, I understand that not everyone is welcome to use the term to describe their viewpoint.
Thanks for sharing. You absolutely can be a feminist! Remember that the first wave of feminism, which rallied around women’s suffrage, required an all male US Congress to vote for women’s suffrage. So men are absolutely required and welcome in feminism. Who better to help work for equality alongside women?
I also agree that a biblically informed feminism looks somewhat different from the mainstream politically active voices of feminism (stay tuned for my next post…)
To BBeebs’s point above: The conservative evangelical church sold itself to the Republican party over the decades, and equality disrupts the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ ideology of home life. Liberation of women would also require businesses to pay equal wages to women, and the idea of women having equal rights as white men scares the power structures that currently exist.
I don’t think of myself as a feminist because of decades of ingrained negativity that I was taught — usually passively. Yet, I just shake my head when I think that we still do not require businesses in America to pay women equal pay for equal work… we’re sadly running away from the goodness of the gospel. It simply costs us too much.
Thank you, Rebecca, for your thoughtful piece. I admit up front that I have yet to read the book or view the series, so consider that. But I observed the reticent response to the f-word throughout my teaching career. In addition to the explanations you offer, I would add the role of the hard Right (both religious and secular) in fomenting backlash against feminism since 1980. The 4 disparaging descriptions of feminists you cited were among epithets venomously dispensed by the talk radio bloviators and their supporters, to demean and demonize feminists, as part of their larger goal of reversing many of the social and cultural trends since the 1960s. Unfortunately, they have much influence.
Hi Rebecca. I think that your use of Atwood and her work unwittingly illustrates and reinforces why many might reasonably reach a conclusion that feminism is often about being angry and expressing a degree of hatred of men. You say that Atwood seeks to answer these questions: What would society look like if we exercised the opposite of feminism? If we eliminate all of women’s control over reproduction and parenting, what would society look like? If we placed men exclusively in charge, what would society look like? You say her answer to those questions is Gilead. Which is to say that if men are completely in charge, the result is a society whose defining characteristics are greed, cruelty, hatred, manipulation, and abuse. It does not take an unreasonable person to conclude that this work, along with many other feminist works, traffics in anger and hateful, ungracious characterizations of men.
The rhetoric of feminism often is so hyperbolic as to be unhelpful. From my observation, feminists are generally their own worst enemy when it comes to sullying the reputation of feminism.
Hi Eric. You raise some good points here. I wonder if Atwood’s Gilead is not just ‘men in charge’ but ‘men in charge, who blame feminism for what’s wrong in society, particularly with the nuclear family and want to punish feminists and/or feminism.’ After all, the book is set in the not so distant future.
Or, perhaps Atwood is saying that ‘men in charge’ is always comprised of greed, cruelty, hatred, manipulation and abuse, but it’s only after the second wave movement of feminism in the US that women and men are more likely to call out that behavior and/or are less likely to tolerate that sort of behavior.
I’m not sure exactly what Atwood intended. But my struggle is to understand why those who champion the rights of half the population (which is not a minority), are treated as angry in a negative way. I see parallels with the Civil Rights Movement, with an emphasis on nonviolence, and the treatment of the Black Power movement, with an emphasis on anger and discontent and violence. Do you think white Americans tend to ignore, demonize or merely dismiss champions of civil rights as “angry” black men or women and “angry” feminists?
Hi Rebecca. Thank you for your interaction. I was reacting to what you said Atwood was answering and what you said her answer is. No matter which alternative you prefer, you’ll probably have to concede that Atwood paints a picture of men that is grotesque. I contend that such portrayals serve to establish and reinforce the very stereotypes that are vexing to you. If this is how Atwood “champion[s] the rights of half the population”, should it be surprising that many (men and women alike) are turned off by such an approach?
It seems to me that the Christian who wants to wear the feminist moniker faces enormous challenges caused by the nature of much of secular feminist rhetoric. I happen to believe that a better approach for Christians is to eschew the incessant gender (and racial) categorization and victimization racket found in the broader culture. Our approach as Christians is better (I believe) when we counter-culturally apply the gospel, with it radical notions of love and equality, rather than to glom onto secular movement with their fraught language, labels, and motivations.
To answer your last question, I would again put aside the attempt to characterize what “white” Americans do or think, which frankly is not possible to do in any rational way. I have not observed that civil rights advocates are generally dismissed by any segment of the population as “angry”. In the corners of the world I have inhabited (mainly rural, and thus largely white), I have probably never heard black men referred to as angry. I have seen plenty of having the ideas, approaches, and assumptions of civil rights activists and feminists challenged, but I do not routinely seen them dismissed as angry. It is quite possible to you have observed other tendencies in other contexts. I wonder, then, if it is ever appropriate for those who have been dismissed as angry to examine some of their rhetoric and message to see if there are better approaches that won’t get such reactions, rather than dismissing others as racist, misogynistic, or the latest –phobic slur that is in vogue. In short, I believe the politics of identity and victimhood as occurs in our society today in North America is terrible damaging, generally anti-gospel, not conducive to any sort of reconciliation, and an arena/approach that Christians would do well to avoid and counter with better solutions to our universal tendency to hate God and our neighbor.
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with your idea that “our approach as Christians is better (I believe) when we counter-culturally apply the gospel, with it radical notions of love and equality.” It seems to me that the problem is HOW to do that effectively. Historically, has this ‘Christian approach’ of ‘love and equality’ worked? Recent events seem to indicate that the deep divides of race continue to divide deeply. I agree that jumping on the mainstream culture’s bandwagon of jargon is problematic, but what is a realistic alternative?
As for the “incessant gender and racial categorization” and “victimization” you name, Adichie writes, in her booklet, We Should All be Feminists:
“Some people ask, ‘why the word feminist’ Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that’? Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general — but to choose to use the vague expression ‘human rights’ is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.” (41)
I suspect much of the same logic would apply to racial divides. Yes, we can call it human rights. But when one specific group is historically enslaved and oppressed, how is it not very specifically about black and white Americans? How can we heal the deep divides of gender and/or race without naming/addressing the divisions that created these divides in the first place? If we can’t name the problem, how do we fix it?
How do we apply this counter-culture gospel of love and equality to our society and world?