On Feminism and Evangelicalism

As part of my PhD research, I read Betty Friedan, heard Gloria Steinem in person, and spent a bunch of semesters exploring the history and teachings of feminism. And after I did so, I reached the conclusion that evangelicals in general need to pull back and regroup both in our representations of feminists and in our approach to reaching them.

Just as there is not one “Christianity” but many Christianities (e.g., Orthodox, Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Armenian, Calvinist), there are many feminisms (liberal, radical, Marxist, socialist, lesbian, biblical, difference feminists [we are women—viva le difference! from men] and sameness feminists [we’re the same except for biology]), and more.

Liberal feminists came out of the Equal Rights Movement. Betty Friedan was one of them. They are interested in equality, not to be confused with sameness. That is, they want the law to quit “seeing gender,” i.e., being biased against one sex or the other in terms of job opportunities, pay, child custody, and property ownership, for example. These feminists were never for unisex bathrooms, though I myself claimed they were in a scathing article I wrote against the ERA in college. I was wrong.

Liberal feminism is concerned with attaining economic and political equality within the context of a capitalist society through reforming, improving, and changing existing systems. In Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, she gave voice to women wanting more for themselves than domestic tasks that had been stripped of much of their interesting work (which had long since been shipped off to factories) in such a society. Many Christians describe her as demeaning the vocation of homemaking, but that is not a fair representation. Friedan challenged the misogynistic presuppositions of Freudean psychoanalysis, arguing that women did not envy men’s penises, but rather their opportunities.[i]  A woman should not have to be a homemaker, she felt, if said woman doesn’t want to be one. And if she is one, she should not be told that her children are her entire identity.

The number of books sold—three million in its first three years in print[ii]—demonstrated that Friedan had given voice to what many felt.

The radical feminists, on the other hand, came out of the Peace Movement. They saw and see so much wrong with materialism/capitalism that they think we will never have equality under the law. Solution? Overhaul society. Radical feminism focuses on patriarchy as the main cause of women’s oppression and operates on the belief that the system is too deeply ingrained and corrupt to modify, so must be radically overthrown. So forget the liberals’ efforts to modify existing laws and work within the system. Radicals want to make noise, shake it up.

That’s why so many in this group are also big into environmentalism, sometimes Marxism, sometimes socialism, peace, and no nukes. A radical feminist professor of mine said to me, “There is much in Christianity that would oppose materialism too, right?”

As the waters of second-wave feminism have receded, numerous puddles have remained, but every resulting feminism challenges some aspect of social, political, or economic structure.

The different strains break down as follows:

  • Liberal – Individual rather than collective. Seek reform, not revolution. Liberal feminists work within a capitalistic system, laboring to change laws to provide equal opportunities for males and females. A liberal feminist measures progress in the numbers of women and men occupying positions previously considered male-only or female-only. Liberal feminism is the most “mainstream” form of the many feminisms. While socialist feminists focus on collective change and empowerment, liberal feminists focus on individual change and empowerment. Liberal feminists tend to minimize gender differences, not necessarily from a belief that they don’t exist but from a belief that they shouldn’t matter legally.
  • Radical – Collective rather than individual. Seeks revolution, not reform. Radical feminists believe the only way to achieve gender equality is to overhaul society. They see male domination of women as the most fundamental form of oppression, and they focus on understanding how men obtain and use power. Because radical feminism shares with socialist feminism the commitment to dramatic social change, radical feminism is often grouped with socialist feminism. Radical feminists view society as patriarchal and believe patriarchy must be transformed on all levels.
  • Cultural – A subset of radical feminism is cultural feminism. Cultural feminists maximize gender differences. They tend to stress attributes associated with women’s culture (e.g., caring, relationships, interdependence, community), insisting these attributes must be more valued. They reject what they consider unisex thinking in favor of affirming women’s essential femaleness. They tend to de-value virtues typically attributed to men such as domination, autonomy, authority, and independence.
  • Socialist feminism – Collective rather than individual. Seek revolution, not reform. Whereas liberal feminists focus on empowering the individual, socialist feminists seek collective change and empowerment. Socialist feminists believe that capitalist societies have fundamental, built-in hierarchies, which result in inequalities. Thus, it’s not enough for women individually to rise to powerful positions; instead power must be redistributed. True equality, they believe, will not be achieved without overhauls—especially economic overhauls.
  • Marxist or materialist feminism – Collective rather than individual. Seek revolution, not reform. While generally opposed to Socialism, Marxist feminists have much in common with socialist feminists. Marxist feminism is based on Marxist views of labor reform. Like socialist feminists, they believe capitalism is the root of the problem, and power must be redistributed.
  • Womanists – The mid-seventies saw the rise of womanism. Womanists emphasize women’s natural contribution to society (used by some in distinction to the term “feminism” and its association with white women). Womanists see race, class, and gender oppression as so interconnected that those who seek to overturn sex and class discrimination without addressing racism are themselves operating out of racism. And they tend to view arguments about whether moms can work as white, middle-class concerns.

Whatever the form, the vast majority of those seeking women’s equality are not man-haters. I heard Gloria Steinem say that one of her greatest frustrations is that she has been accused of being a man-hater, and she is most adamantly not, nor has she ever been. In fact, she said the saddest letters she receives are from male prison inmates empathizing with women who have been raped/oppressed, because they these men are finding themselves victimized behind bars, and they now identify with the suffering.

See why I bristle when I hear evangelicals talk about “the feminists”?

[i][i] Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique. (New York, NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963.  See especially the chapter titled, “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud.”

[ii] Source: Ben Wattenberg, “The First Measured Century,” PBS.

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