Feminism: Neither the Problem or the Solution

Feminism. It’s a polarizing word. Some equate it negatively with abortion rights. Others believe positively that it is THE moral issue of the 21st century. “Women’s rights are human rights” – that’s the mantra, at least. In reality, feminism is a very broad term for the basic movement toward women’s rights. In some circles, it leads to the promotion of very troubling things, like abortion. And in other arenas it promotes very good things, like ending forced female slavery or genital mutilation. Somehow feminism has become the big bad guy (girl?) among conservative leaders when it comes to gender issues, and I’m curious how that happened. Feminism is not a monolithic movement, and it does not have uniform, anti-Bible results worldwide. At the risk of all kinds of unsubscription notices to this blog (possibly even more than when I talked about whales), I think it’s worth discussing feminism for a bit, and not from a position of condemnation of the movement.

I’ve noted over the last few years that many conservative complementarian Christians mock or dismiss what they call biblical feminism. Some say the words biblical and feminist are antithetical, that they are mutually exclusive. The idea is that people claiming to be biblical feminists are really just compromising the Bible because the very nature of feminism is anti-Christian. I feel compelled to say that I strongly disagree with such statements. And I disagree with it based on my convictions from Scripture that are based on a straightforward reading of the Word of God that values its clarity. In other words, I embrace facets of feminism based on my conservative evangelical reading of the Word, the same hermeneutic that is espoused by many people who trumpet the idea that feminism is inherently anti-Bible. I believe that not only can you love and obey Scripture and also embrace feminism, but that there are movements under the umbrella of feminism that Scripture COMPELS us to embrace. 

Among those that believe you have to hate feminism to be a good Christian who loves the Bible, feminism is equated with a liberal, unorthodox view of Christianity and the Bible at best or a downright atheistic/agnostic view of Christianity at worst. But is that true? Is a straightforward reading of Scripture that values the perspicuity of the Bible at complete odds with feminism? I don’t think so. Certainly not all things that fall under the umbrella of feminism fit Scripture. But much does. And much under the umbrella of feminism that fits Scripture would not be championed in society if not for the movement called feminism.

Feminism is a big word with different definitions for different people. For this discussion, we are best served to go back to the basic definition of a feminist as given in the Oxford English Dictionary: “an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women”. Then, based on that definition, a Biblical feminist would be an advocate/supporter of rights/equality for women with Scripture as her/his basis. According to that definition, I am a Biblical feminist – I am an advocate and supporter of the rights and equality of women within the constraints of Scripture, and I embrace that BECAUSE of the instructions of Scripture, particularly those on the woman as an image bearer of God. I must in strongest terms disagree with the conclusion, at least based on that definition, that the very nature of Christianity is antithetical to advocacy for the rights of women.

This super suspicious view of feminism has its foundation in Susan Foh’s interpretation in the 1970’s that Genesis 3:16 predicts women will sinfully desire to control their husbands. See this post for an in depth look at this. If that is your foundational view of the problem the fall of man brought into the world for women, then of course, feminism is the uber-manifestation of it. Susan Foh is quite clear in her paper presenting this new interpretation of Genesis 3:16 that her interpretation came about because her concerns about feminism caused her to reexamine this Scripture.

So, feminism was concerning. Foh reevaluated Genesis 3:16 and concluded that the woman would have a sinful tendency to dominate and try to control the man, which then explained feminism as a result of the fall. Then those holding that view dismiss feminism as simply a movement for the rights of women and label it instead a movement of women wanting to take control over men. Feminism then becomes evil by its very foundations, the curse playing out among women.

However, what Genesis 3:16 actually says, in my opinion, is that women will have pain in childbirth and be ruled oppressively by the man, yet still have some kind of strong desire for him. In fact, what Genesis 3:16 is describing is the very real problem that feminism rose up to address – oppression of women. The problem with feminism is that it is an inadequate solution to a soul deep problem. Feminism won’t rescue women. Only Christ and the good news of His life, death, and resurrection can rescue either men or women from all the pain and suffering the fall of man brought into the world. Feminism is just a coping mechanism, an imperfect one at that. It is not the root of the problem between the genders, nor is it the solution.

Furthermore, sometimes the methods trumpeted to bring equality to women that fall under the movement of feminism actually profoundly harm women, abortion being the primary one. Consider the fact that in China there were 19,000,000 more boys than girls under the age of fifteen in the last census due to sex selective abortions.  A new documentary highlights how internationally the words, “It’s a girl,” are some of the deadliest words that can be said about a pregnancy or newborn babe.  It’s ironic in a disturbing way that the late stage methods of birth control that some (and note I said SOME, not ALL) feminists espouse worldwide tend to disproportionately harm female children.

But do you know why I can vote in my country against those very same policies? Because women during the first wave of feminism banded together to win that right. The reason Chinese women are gaining a voice in the media against forced abortion is in part because the feminist movement has raised the world’s awareness of their right to be heard. The general movement called feminism has raised awareness and caused societal shift on the issues of sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation of women in media, and the subjugation of women in 3rd world nations. THIS IS GOD’S COMMON GRACE TO NOT JUST WOMEN BUT ALL OF HUMANITY. Also, we should note that the notion that feminism is equated to a disdain of children is not universally true. In my little pocket of the feminist pacific northwest, I would say it is exactly NOT true. The feminists I know here love and value children, often putting me to shame with the thoughtful way they raise their children or engage for the good of children in our community.

When conservatives make feminism itself the big bad enemy and write off all the good that’s been accomplished under its name, we defeat ourselves. Instead, those who love the Bible will be well served to stop worrying about the term feminism. The term is not the issue, and God’s kingdom is ill-served when we make the movement for equal human rights for women our target instead of the true sins the movement rose up to address. The issue is the range of sins against women (and children) that cultures have accepted over the years. We who love the Bible can engage on those topics. That is good and right. And if we stay in the conversation, we have a voice of influence when some choose coping mechanisms that actually hurt humanity rather than help.

If you would like to read a survey of what the Bible does say about social justice, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.

22 Responses to Feminism: Neither the Problem or the Solution

  1. Mara Reid March 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    I so agree with what you have said here.

    Feminism is neither all good nor all evil. It has accomplished some good. It also has facets (Like the pro-abortion branch) that I oppose.

    Crazed preachers who villify and crucify it look more like Medieval witch hunters than anything else. They certainly don't represent Jesus in their rantings.

    Thanks for this

  2. Elizabeth@Warrior Wives March 26, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    Sweet! After getting increasingly frustrated with some of the more conservative “biblical womanhood” blogs, I was just about to write a post very similar to this, but you took care of it for me! I completely agree…Claire Smith talks about this in her book God's Good Design as well; she basically says that wherever the feminist movement has worked to eliminate injustices that are counter to God's purposes, she aligns herself with the movement, but wherever it does not line up, she completely rejects it. And really, whatever the church does not do, the world will come up with a way to do it instead.

  3. Wendy March 26, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    I've read God's Good Design but don't remember Claire Smith saying that. I should go back and read it more carefully. Thanks for sharing that.

  4. Kim Shay March 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    I've read Claire Smith's work as well as Susan Foh's. I also read a very interesting work by Kirsten Birkett, who is a historian and former feminist. She doesn't address a lot of the first wave feminism, which I was disappointed about, because there were good things. She focuses a lot on the rise in divorce and how it affects children. It's a worthwhile read. I don't think most of us understand the three waves and the difference between them. It's definitely an opportunity for us to learn. There is no point in being extreme in either direction.

  5. Elizabeth@Warrior Wives March 26, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    Just went back and looked at the section I was thinking of (p.15)…I might have slightly mischaracterized it. She doesn't exactly align herself with feminism but just says that “the good of feminism is entirely dependent on its reform agenda being consistent with God's reform agenda”.

  6. Luma Simms March 26, 2013 at 10:33 pm #

    Wendy, this was beautiful. We align ourselves with God when we call good what he calls good and when we call evil what he calls evil. The Lord is not mocked nor is he hindered. He uses it all for his glory and the flourishing of man.

    I am so grateful for your wisdom, your love and concern for women, and most of all for your high regard of the Word of God. By the grace of God we can all continue to have this conversation with respect and gospel love.

  7. Hannah Anderson March 26, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    Great perspective Wendy! Another concern of mine is that when we position feminism as the enemy, we tend to shape our understanding of womanhood in opposition to it rather than letting Scripture naturally unfold itself. If a particular text sounds too much like “feminism” (and since we know that feminism is incompatible with a conservative reading of Scripture), we try to force a meaning that the text itself doesn't support. You don't know how many times I've seen this done with Deborah and Abigail.

    For my part, I love the complexity of Scripture that champions the strength of both men and women at the same time that it delineates the differences. Being made in the image of God is far too marvelous to be simplified in either direction.

  8. Staci Eastin March 26, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

    Great post, Wendy. Thank you.

    I think a lot of us take for granted the good things feminism did for women, like the right to vote and equality in the workplace, and focus only on the negatives.

  9. Wendy March 27, 2013 at 12:22 am #

    Thanks, all, for the encouraging comments and feedback! Elizabeth, thanks for going back and checking. That sounds consistent with how I read her words when I read the book.

  10. wendi March 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    I so appreciate this blog, in that you are willing to engage in some of these possibly polarizing discussions on gender with grace and wisdom. You remain faithful to Scripture and challenge possible misinterpretations. I look forward to reading your books!

  11. Lisa Spence March 27, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    A friend and I were discussing “Downton Abbey” and the episode with Daisy that began to explore some feminist themes. My friend said “I'm no feminist but I think she should take the farm!” Or something to that effect. As we conversed we reminded ourselves of the very real and just complaints feminism embodied as well as the good things that feminism accomplished. Some of this is lost is our evangelical rhetoric. Like the commenters before me, I appreciate this post as well as your commitment to address these issues with grace and wisdom.

  12. Lisa Spence March 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    *the real and just complaints that feminism initially embodied” is what I meant to say 🙂

    In other words, there were serious injustices that needed to be addressed…

  13. Marg March 28, 2013 at 1:18 am #

    Wendy, your post is refreshing.

    As you say, “feminism” is a very broad term. Its most basic meaning is that men and women are equal. I think very few Christians would disagree with that.

    One big difference between many secular feminists and Christian feminists is selfishness versus Christ-like selflessness, submission and servanthood.

    Thanks for a great post!

  14. Sharon Letchford March 28, 2013 at 2:13 am #

    I've studied Claire Smith's book for a while and I'm not seeing her saying much that supports feminism at all. In fact the whole book is poorly researched and referenced and she presents feminism as the 'big bad' along the same lines as the likes of Mary Kassain & co.

  15. Anonymous March 28, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    Something that is often not mentioned (probably because it has been forgotten) is that the early feminists were strongly against abortion. In fact, they believed that abortion degraded women. for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “When you consider that women have been treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” Susan B. Anthony described abortion as “murder,” and “infanticide.” Alice Paul considered it the ultimate exploitation of women. The early feminists saw abortion as a symptom of women's oppression—because they were abandoned or pressured by boyfriends, husbands and parents and lacked financial resources to have a baby on their own—not a solution to it. They believed that abortion would be done away with when the oppression of women ceased. Just some food for thought.

  16. Sarah March 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    Thank you. Wendy, you are a kindred spirit. You so very eloquently expressed the thoughts, discomfort, and frustrations I myself have felt for many years. I am joyful to be a part of Reformed churches God has kindly placed me in, but it has been somewhat confusing as to why so many of us conservative evangelicals are quick to bash feminism all together. I appreciate and praise God for saving you, making you a woman of the word, and for your wisdom and tactfulness in helping us think through these things.

  17. Wendy March 28, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

    Wow, Sarah. Your words mean a lot to me. Thank you!

  18. Persis March 28, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

    Thanks for this post, Wendy. I'm also frustrated with the depiction of feminism as the embodiment of evil in the world. I am grateful for the right to vote, hold property, and have legal protection.

    Thanks for consistently being an advocate of the gospel as the solution.

  19. Susan March 29, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    Wonderful post and I totally agree!

  20. Chimae Goncalves March 30, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    So appreciate your gift! I am new to your blog and experience such freedom here.

    I recently read that women executive officers in fortune 500 companies are stagnating at 14%. I often wonder how difficult their life must be…being torn between using their gifting, spending time with God, being a good spouse and raising children biblically and perhaps studying and staying up to date with market changes.

    I often wonder if they have any female friends that can support them, pray for them, mentor them and not condemn them just because it seems strange that they could choose this difficult path and serve God at the same time.

  21. Jenny Rae Armstrong April 2, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    Thanks so much for this post, Wendy. It is beautiful and thoughtful as always. The mean mischaracterizations and scary straw men Christians create to discredit their brothers and sisters who believe differently on some issue do nothing to advance the Kingdom, and we all miss out on so much (relationships, encouragement, new insights) when we can't discuss different views charitably, in conversations and relationships soaked in God's grace. Fear and accusation is a poor substitute for love and encouragement.

  22. Anonymous December 5, 2013 at 3:47 am #

    Thank you Wendy. Your article was very enlightening. Thank you for allowing women to post here and say what's on their minds. I am glad you did not delete me. You gave an angle that helped others to see feminism. For once a site about feminism where the author did not allow others to condemn and blame women.