Are We Still Having This Conversation?

I keep collecting what I think I should call “whiplash stories.”

Here’s the most recent example.

A couple of weeks ago I participated in my town’s third annual Downtown Celebration – kind of a Main Street festival, complete with live music, food and other vendors, pony rides for kids, and a pint-sized train circling the newly renovated downtown square.  I sat at a table as part of the “Authors & Artists” tent organized by our lovely little independent bookstore, Our Town Books, to sell and sign books.

An older man came up at one point, jabbed his finger at one of the three of my books, Feminism and Christianity, and said:

“What is this about?”

(ummm … is that somehow a misleading title?)

“Let me put it this way,” he started again, “what is your definition of Christianity?”

“Well,” I said, “in the book I define it as …” and I tried to share some of the basic definition for the religion that I use there.

“Well … how in the world can you think that’s compatible with modern feminism?”

And it began.

To be honest, I tried to listen to and answer some of his questions, but he had no interest in hearing what I had to say.  Darlene, a retired friend and fellow member of my local book group, also happened to be standing there at the time, and she did a much better job than I, trying to answer him.  He insisted that “the founding fathers weren’t stupid were they?” (I have no idea what that meant … something about women not voting) and reminded us that “Christ himself says that women are to learn in silence and full submission to men ….”  You can imagine how quickly we corrected him on that textually false point.

Then, Darlene replied, “well, Christ was a feminist you know …” and the old man nearly dropped his lunch right there.  I’m not so interested in that idea, incidentally, as you can read about here. But the look on that man’s face was priceless.

“Ma’am that’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”

Are we really still having this conversation?

He didn’t buy the book.

Then, not more than two hours later, I was at home on my back porch swing reading Twitter and discovering the hashtag conversation from the Women in Secularism Conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, #wiscfi.  It was clearly a fantastic gathering of feminist scholars, writers, and activists and I was enjoying live tweets from panel sessions.

And then … 

“Jacoby: liberal religious wmn have adopted/adapted feminism, even tho feminism is anti-religion.” (@SarahPosner)

“A religious feminist is like a bacon-eating vegetarian.” (@mzdameanor)

Wait … are we really still having this conversation?

The author of the latter tweet insisted that she didn’t mean it as an insult, rather as “sarcastic social comment on cognitive dissonance” that apparently is required if one is going to claim to be both religious and feminist.

Her assumptions about what is and is not required to take both religion and feminism seriously are obviously quite different from mine.

Rejected by old conservative religious men.

Rejected by young(er) hip(per) atheist feminists.



Here’s a difference, though.  I joined in some of the #wiscfi chatter at that point, and had a brief exchange with one woman who followed me, and then tweeted me this:

“I have a feeling we’d disagree on a lot, but that can be interesting!”

“Yes! And a lot more fun than the cranky old man who tried to argue with me about feminism & Christianity this am at a book signing.”

“Ha! That sounds like an awfully low bar, though.”

So, I think she might actually read my book, even if she disagreed with every other word of it.  We could probably have a drink and a chat, which I’m just guessing wouldn’t happen with the cranky old man at the book signing.

Still, I sometimes can’t believe I’m still having these conversations.  But I am, and we are.  That’s why I started this blog, and that’s why I wrote that book, Feminism and Christianity, in the first place.  Five years ago I had similar stories of Christians rejecting my named use of feminism, and experiences of feminists rejecting any talk of particular religions and theological ideas.  I tell those stories in the book’s introduction.  Three years ago I had another pair of conversations via Twitter that I used as part of my article “Conversations and Intersections” in Sex, Gender, and Christianity.  At the end of that article, I wondered if in fact the opposed pairs of rejecters-of-me were strangely more alike than one would assume.

Or maybe it just feels that way if you’re their common target.

Here I stand … but I’m getting tired of standing, so I’m going to hang out on my back porch swing for a while now.


About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Ian Johnstone

    Hi Caryn, I always feel a little nervous, as a man, posting on blogs of this subject and being misconstrued! Which, in itself is a shame and a sad reflection on the state of the modern church (and our collective ‘western’ social mentality!)

    For the record, I believe Jesus was and is a radical in nearly every area of human interaction. But in particular, I believe He was totally promoting, modelling and teaching radical feminism through show and tell.

    To my mind, You are absolutely right; the fact that we are still having this conversation is both sad and annoying.

    We are in different traditions from a Christian perspective and slightly removed geographically; I am part of the House/organic whatever you want to call it church movement and an ex-pentecostalist! I am also an Englishman, so apolourgies for the British spelling! :)

    I have spent many years ‘de-toxing’ from bad teaching and deeply ingrained religious nonsense including the roles and responsibilities of women in the body of Christ!

    Jesus didn’t send a blue Holy Spirit for boys and a pink one for Girls!

    We are all filled with the same Spirit; the same authority and annointing (not kean on that word)!

    The historic spurious use of scripture to bolster the misogynistic ‘church’ agenda is wrong and sailing very close to the wind spiritually! Not to mention, how Jesus really views our institutional segregation of over half his body!

    My point, really, is to encourage and support.

    In short, He loves His sisters with a passion. They never deserted Him
    in life and you are precious to Him now as His co-workers in the body.

    Women have been the hand that rocks the church cradle for generations. You are the heart and the home of our fellowships. You are uniquely equipped spiritually (at least my wife seems to be; she can discern on a level that I can only marvel at!). You are intellectually equal, if not superior and we should not be afraid of allowing you to exercise your God given abilities in the body. As human beings, we compliment one another, as equals, perfectly. Which, I believe was God’s original intention…. until He returns :). You carry and nurture new life, our precious children (and grandchildren), caring and loving as mothers, when often all else abandon and leave!! When we learn to live and work as one before God, through Christ Jesus, the Head, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, will we be ready as a bride made ready for her Bridegroom!

    Enjoy your backporch in the knowledge you speak, act and operate in the full authority of the King who called you out to serve Him.

    A friend and brother in Christ!

    p.s. My wife and I are visiting our brand new grandson in Michigan next week……. very excited. :)

  • MaasNeotekPrototype

    I assume the man you spoke to was referring to 1 Timothy 2 when he spoke of women learning in silence, and while you’re right that Christ himself didn’t actually say that, I’m curious to see how you reconcile that chapter of 1 Timothy with feminism. I’m not a Christian (though I used to be), but I truly don’t know how you could read verses 11-15 and not come away with the notion that women are inferior to men.

    • carynriswold

      I come away from that text understanding that it’s author was writing from, to, and for a very different context.

      • Keane

        Can’t the same be said of the whole Bible itself?

        • Pseudonym

          Yes, but it’s especially true of the epistles. Even the ones that are genuine are, for the most part, specific instruction to a specific community that was experiencing specific problems.

    • LutheranChik

      Reading Scripture non-contextually and uncritically is not a mainstream/mainline reading of Scripture. (And the ELCA is a mainstream/mainline Protestant chn urch body.) So, number one, we aren’t of the fundamentalist opinion that every utterance in Scripture was transmitted directly from the mind of God to the hand of a passive scribe; we are aware that the books that make up the Bible were authored and redacted by complex and fallible human beings who brought their own personal and cultural baggage to the task. Number two, if one wants to give the author the benefit of the doubt, there is some reason to believe (and I also had this explained to me by someone who worked in a developing-world church in a country where women were traditionally barred from education, and were also segregated during worship) that the 1 Tim passage refers to a local, logistical problem in the congregation being addressed; that women, who haven’t had the experience of learning in a traditional classroom way, were shouting out comments and questions from their “women’s gallery” to the worship leader and creating a distraction; and the author, paternalism aside, is responding to that issue and not to some universal proclamation about female silence. (Indeed, in I think I Corinthians it talks about women “prophesying” in worship, which wouldn’t be possible if they were all supposed to be silent.) And finally — in our view of Scripture, it’s okay to say that the authors may have been wrong. — that he either a sexist who really didn’t understand the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ interactions with people, or else he was way too accomodating of his culture’s mores regarding subjugation of women. It’s possible to be Christian and to engage critically with Scripture, once you have access to contextual tools to do so.

  • Mary Ellen Sikes

    Hi Caryn, for what it’s worth I’m a 60YO atheist woman who doesn’t see a conflict between Christianity and feminism. (Not that it’s my place to say what’s compatible with another person’s faith! But just saying how it looks from the outside, as someone raised Catholic.) I do see a conflict between feminism and *some* Christians’ view of their faith – just as you experienced at the street fair – but I could say the same about feminism and *some* atheists’ view of atheism. It all gets back to your title: Are We Still Having This Conversation? We have some pretty stubborn societal views about women that cross a variety of lines.

    • carynriswold

      Great point about “some” christians’ views and “some” atheists’ views.

  • Adam Lee

    Hi Caryn,

    Fellow Patheos blogger here. :) Plus I was at that conference, so maybe I can offer another perspective.

    When the speakers at WiS made those remarks about bacon-eating vegetarians, I can say pretty confidently that they weren’t asserting it’s impossible to be religious and a feminist. I think they were saying the same thing I’d argue: that it’s self-defeating for a feminist to identify with a patriarchal religion like Christianity, which, however you may reinterpret it, has been the staunch ally of institutional sexism for centuries if not millennia, and still is today.

    Every generation of the feminist movement has had to fight against incredible resistance, originating primarily in religious beliefs, about the “proper” roles of women. Arguments for women’s equality, in my opinion, are much more solidly grounded and effective when you’re not carrying that baggage.

    • VorJack

      Hi, another Patheos atheist blogger here. (we’re pretty common around these parts.)

      Lemme just add some context to Adam’s explanation. The online atheist community is currently convulsed (I think that’s the word) over the role of feminism in the atheist movement. Jacoby et. al. are likely trying to strengthen the attachment between feminism and atheism. In doing so, they’re making feminism seem opposed to religion.

      FWIW, if you missed it, the folks at that conference had to deal with a “cranky old man” who wanted to lecture them about feminists “silencing” their critics. They got compared to Marxists. Yeah, we get ‘em to.

      You’re not actually being rejected. I’m afraid it’s more that you’re caught in the crossfire. Sorry about that.

      • carynriswold

        Appreciate both responses – nothing to apologize for. ‘Tis reality in a complex world.

    • JTEberhard

      Yet another Patheos blogger. There seem to be more of us than men on earth.

      Just wanted to say I’m on board with Adam’s comment. :)

  • Pseudonym

    Truly, we’ve come a long way from being “the religion of women and slaves”.

  • Cynthia

    I’m standing with you. Also glad to share the swing. It IS frustrating that we are still having this conversation but I think the reality is that we will always need to, especially when people don’t listen, which has also been my recent experience with conservative Christians. Peace and joy of the Spirit be yours Caryn and thanks for the article.