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.