The F-Word: Why Feminism Is Not the Enemy

Foundationally, feminism is something we can, and should, get behind. 

Fifty years ago this month, Norton published Betty Friedan’s influential work The Feminine Mystique, a book commonly credited with inciting second wave feminism in America. The anniversary has incited all kinds of interesting discussions on the web recently as contemporary feminists critique Friedan’s vision and legacy.

I read the book in college, and while disagreeing with quite a few of her conclusions, I really liked it.  The book reads like a desperate howl. I found it in some ways inspired (particularly her critiques of media, consumer culture, and advertisements aimed at women – critiques that sadly still have resonance today).  And Friedan was right in her primary complaint: women should not be taught to find their satisfaction and value in being excellent little housewives.  But though she diagnosed the problem correctly, not all of her solutions or rhetoric were helpful (she spends pages comparing women staying home with their kids to concentration camp victims, for crying out loud).  Reading it, I could see why my dad said that feminism was just about women trying to be as selfish as men, putting their own need for self-actualization above anything else.

But in college I also learned that feminism was complicated, and that the beliefs of feminists varied widely; there were other feminisms than Friedan’s second-wave feminism. There were feminists who agreed with my dad’s assessment of second-wave feminism. Feminists who suggested that clamoring for a place at the patriarchal table, playing by patriarchal rules, was the wrong approach.  Feminists who critiqued Friedan for focusing solely on the plight of the white, upper-middle class woman, and feminists who suggested that Friedan’s generation left out some essential truths about womanhood.

There were also the (much-older) feminists I had grown up with: my literary heroines like Jo March and Betsy Ray, women for whom feminism simply meant getting equal educational opportunities, the right to vote, to have a job, and to own property.

I had always considered myself a feminist because of books I read growing up.  I also considered myself a follower of Jesus, but I found that for some people in the church, feminist was a dirty word.  Within conservative evangelical circles, feminism seemed to have a much stricter definition than it did within academia or in popular culture: to the church, feminism meant being pro-abortion and anti-family. Feminists were man-haters and probably lesbians.  To the church, feminism was purely an enemy.

Over the years, this cognitive dissonance between what I believed about feminism and what the conservative evangelical church said about feminism started to bother me more and more.

So I’m writing today with a plea.  Can we reconsider what feminism means in popular culture today, and how it might relate to our faith?

The three waves of feminism

To start, let’s back up and take a quick look at the historical place of feminism(s) in America.  Today when conservative evangelicals decry the role of “feminism” in modern American society, they’re usually concerned about Betty Friedan’s second-wave feminism.  But there’s a lot more to feminism than that.

Feminism in America began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and while a range of more conservative to more liberal groups rallied under its name, the primary goal of all first wave feminism was female suffrage.  They fought for the right to vote.  Many of these feminists were also dedicated Christians.

Without feminism, women in America would not have the right to execute a will, to own or manage property, to vote at school meetings, or to engage in business without their husbands’ consent.  Without feminism, women would have had no legal recourse against domestic violence or marital rape.

Basically, first-wave feminism fought for women to be allowed to represent themselves as individual adults rather than being only represented by a man.  The first wave of feminism is generally considered to have ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote.

The second wave of feminism began around the time Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published.  Many women, like Friedan, felt trapped by the “idealized domesticity” portrayed in the media as the primary role for women.  Families were in an historically new situation brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the second world war.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, America had been largely agrarian.  Many families worked together on the farms; while men and women may have had different roles on the farm, they weren’t working in “separate spheres.”  There was no clear distinction between “home” and “work.”  After the Industrial Revolution, more and more men began working outside of the home.  Then, during World War II, women often worked the factory jobs that men had left vacant while fighting overseas.  When the men returned from war and took back their jobs, women returned to the home. New utilitarian, evolutionary models of gender role distinctions – heavily influenced by the work of Freud and Darwin – became an entrenched part of family life in the 1950s. In the post-war prosperity, with distinct “separate spheres” for men and women, and with media representations of women dominated by a singular domestic ideal, many women felt stifled.

Second-wave feminism manifested in a number of ways, some of them legitimately troubling for Christians, and some not.  Yes, the feminist movement of the sixties gave us Roe V. Wade, but it also gave us funding for girls to play sports, protection for women against domestic abuse, and establishment of rape crisis and battered women’s shelters. It brought us closer to equal pay for equal work.

Beginning in the 1990s, diverse strains of feminist thought and activity began to be identified as a third wave of feminism.  This third wave, in many ways born out of recognition of the failures of the second wave, emphasizes the fact that there is no one “feminism,” and that for decades “feminism” has neglected to acknowledge that women are of many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds.  While there are aspects of third-wave feminism that are, again, at odds with Christian belief (for example, some third-wave feminists argue that acting in pornography can be good for women, a way of claiming power rather than of being oppressed), the primary truth of third-wave feminism is that feminism doesn’t have a static, unchanged meaning, and that each generation and even each human must define it for themselves.

So, what is feminism, then?

With so many widely varying manifestations, then, what does feminism mean in American culture today?

Though feminists themselves disagree on all kinds of issues, all believe in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes.  Every expression of feminism in America over the last 150 years has this belief in common.

This basic definition of feminism has no conflict with scriptural teaching about men and women.  In fact, Christians would add “spiritual equality” to that list. (Whether complementarian or egalitarian,  all Christians believe in the priesthood of believers.)  Both men and women were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27).  Jesus routinely treated women with respect, offering them agency and dignity that their cultures often denied them.

This foundational definition of feminism does not require that we say that there is no difference between men and women.  It merely states that men and women should enjoy equal human rights.  I believe that this definition, rather than the radical agenda of some second and third-wave feminists, is what most people today associate with the word feminism.

Do we need feminism?

But hasn’t equality for women been achieved? Women can vote, own property, get an education and a job. Isn’t the truth about the full humanity and worth of women so widely accepted in society that we don’t need to fight for it anymore?

That may be true in America, or in some parts of America.  Maybe. (Even in America, 1 in 5 women has experienced partner violence.) But how about in the majority world? In the majority world, women are routinely treated as less valuable than men.

One only need look at the statistics about gender-selective abortion to see that female babies are aborted at a much higher rate than males.  According to the UN, 100 million girls are missing around the world – aborted, thrown in trash cans, dumped by the side of the road.  When families have limited resources, they won’t “waste” them on a girl.

IJM tells us that approximately 80% of human trafficking victims are women and girls, and the FBI warns that in America, there are currently almost 300,000 American youths who are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.  Women are more often treated like “property” than men are.

Half the Sky, a book by by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, documents many more inequalities women around the globe face today, and the ways that men and women are working to develop create solutions to right those injustices. The problems they find include:

Maternal Mortality: In much of the developing world, women don’t even have the basic right to see a healthcare professional. It’s commonly believed that visiting a doctor or nurse is just not something that a woman should do.

Gender Based Violence: Around the world, as many as one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex acts or abused in some other way, most often by someone she knows, according to the United Nations Population Fund. This problem is not limited to developing nations.

  • Between 15 percent of women in Japan and 70 percent of women in Ethiopia and Peru reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner.
  • The first sexual experience for many women was reported as forced – 24 percent in rural Peru, 28 percent in Tanzania, 30 percent in rural Bangladesh, and 40 percent in South Africa.

Economic Empowerment: Women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor, according to the UN, and fall far behind men in access to land, credit and decent jobs. Being poor means that women have almost no role in decision-making and are increasingly vulnerable to violence.

The fight for full equality of social, economic, and political opportunities for women has not ended.  The most foundational tenet of feminism has yet to be accepted in many parts of the world.

Feminism and Faith

I believe that when Christians offer unqualified criticisms of feminism, or frame feminism as an enemy to faith and family, what we unintentionally communicate to many people is that we do not support the full humanity of women.

Let me be clear: There is certainly no denying that some aspects of some feminisms have had negative effects in our culture and are contrary to our faith.  But the truth is that many feminists disagree with each other and critique each other, so to use the word “feminism” without any qualification communicates nothing.  We don’t need to agree with all aspects of all feminisms to agree with the one foundational tenet that all feminisms hold in common: the idea that women and men are created equal. In fact, as Christians, in the Bible we have the strongest philosophical framework for defining the full personhood of women.

So when conservative evangelicals decry the moral decline caused by “feminism”, we must be much more specific in naming our enemy.  Feminism can’t be shorthand for “those women in the sixties who burned their bras and left their families” (that’s clearly a straw woman).  When we name feminism an enemy, the world doesn’t hear us saying that we’re against abortion, or against homosexuality, or that we’re pro-family and traditional gender roles.  (In fact, first-wave feminism was pro-life, and pro-life feminism is increasing in popularity again today.) I believe that when we call feminism an enemy, most people in our culture today actually hear us saying that we don’t believe in the full personhood of women.

Feminism is the wrong enemy to choose here.  Some aspects of capitalism and individualism are also incompatible with Christian belief (and have been just as destructive to family and morality in America as feminism has!), yet we don’t name them as enemies.

In truth, we don’t need “feminism” in order to champion the full human rights of women.  We only need the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Because we live with the global reality that women are regularly treated as second class citizens, we must contend clearly and vehemently that the gospel of Jesus proclaims that women are fully human, equal in worth and value to men.

But until the day when the church is known for championing the rights of women around the world – until the day when our passion has caused “Christian” to become synonymous with “passionate about the full human rights of women” – let’s quit fighting against the word that most people of my generation already define that way. Let’s give up framing feminism as purely an enemy.

I’m a Christian.  And until the day when the world automatically understands that to mean that I believe in the full humanity and personhood of both men and women, you can also call me a feminist.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Amy Lepine Peterson

Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL Writing and American Pop Culture at Taylor University, but spends most of her time making a home in the cornfields for her best-friend-husband and two (frankly adorable) children. Look for her with a french press of coffee and a book or a screen, plus a little one on her lap, thinking about education, mothering, theology, tv, movies, music, and sustainable habits of living.

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    “when we call feminism an enemy, most people in our culture today actually hear us saying that we don’t believe in the full personhood of women.” BOOM. exactly, this.

    i appreciate your work here, amy.

  • http://kassierutherford.com Kassie

    “I’m a Christian. And until the day when the world automatically understands that to mean that I believe in the full humanity and personhood of both men and women, you can also call me a feminist.”

    This is the most eloquent defense of faith and feminism I’ve read. Thank you so much for writing.

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com Danielle | from two to one

    Thank you so much for this well-reasoned, well-thought-out piece, Amy. I especially loved the last paragraph!

  • Jody

    LOVE this!! What a reasoned, thoughtful examination of the topic. Great piece, Amy!

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah Anderson

    This is such an important conversation for us to have. As Christians moving in society, we MUST recognize that what we say and what other people hear is not always the same thing. This is true not only of how we speak about feminism but how we engage any controversial conversation whether it’s our history of racism, how best to help the poor, or gay marriage.

    I believe that as Christians we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of communication–we are called to speak in truth and love which means moving past labels and sound bites to do the hard work of actually trying to understand what another person is saying even if we can’t agree in the end. I don’t refer to myself as a feminist, but I’m realizing that this must not stop me from trying to understand what my Christian sisters mean when they do; or from recognizing that we might just share the same concerns for the dignity and safety of all of God’s image bearers.

  • Katie

    Thank for the reminder regarding the marginalization of women in the majority world. It’s easy for me to forget when I’m in my equal opportunity bubble, with my feminist husband and my female boss.
    But, what can we do to champion the rights and personhood of women everywhere?

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Okay, so you sold me. Thank you for this very informative and sensitive piece. It should be read widely by pastors and the communities they shepherd and preach in, as well as by their congregations.

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Thanks for this. It provides some much-needed nuance that Christians need to understand.

    I would quibble with you on one point, thought. If we’re trying to work with what most people in our culture today understand feminism means, I think we have to acknowledge it includes sexual liberation, as fought for by many second- and third-wave feminists, at its core. In fact, I’d guess that along with equality in the workplace, sexual liberation, a.k.a. “reproductive rights” (including abortion) is probably one of the two main values people would point to if asked about “feminism” simpliciter.

    If that is indeed the case (and I could be wrong, it’s just my perception), then I think it’s reasonable for Christians to be uneasy about owning the label, at least. It is going too far to reduce feminism to sexual liberation, but in so far as it’s key to what most folks today understand feminism is, perhaps we need to be careful about affirming feminism too quickly. And, as you say, we can believe in the full humanity and dignity of women without (necessarily) needing to call ourselves feminists.

  • Dogbreath

    Yeah, first-wave feminism took many different forms, which don’t resemble Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem much at all. In fact, there were even a few racist first-wave feminists who were primarily upset about the fact that black men could vote, but white women could not. They felt it ought to be the other way around, and that “the only way to make the white woman equal is to keep the black man down”. This particularly notorious one comes to mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alma_Bridwell_White
    Strange but true!

  • Vicki Krebs

    I greatly appreciate your insights, and would like to make a couple of comments. The lack of a unified definition of feminism, is one reason I cannot call myself a feminist. I am 55, and understood the first wave of feminism from studying history. As a college student in the 1970′s, my experience, even in the conservative south, was that people at that time definitely thought of feminism in terms of sexual freedom, right to abortion, and the idea of being a wife and Mother as less fulfilling than a career. I recently spent a couple of years at the largest university in TN, and found little has changed. I found that engaging respectfully, asking and listening graciously as people define their own view of feminism, and sharing a Biblical and global view of women everywhere, I made friends with those very different from myself, without embracing the title “feminist.” The students would not have believed me if I told them I was a feminist, and have no concept of a femist who is not egalitarian. Because I truly DO value each person regardless of ideology, they allow the conversation. I do not agree with the applications of complementarianism by the many and varied pastors and theologians I read, either, but it is a Biblical concept, based in the gospel, so I call myself one but define it clearly. Thank you for your thoughtful article. I hope it is read by many, that we would understand the true enemy, love humanity in the name of Christ, and see the gospel change us and others.

  • http://www.sarahbessey.com Sarah Bessey

    *standing slow clap*

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Thanks for this post Amy. It provides clarity that we badly need. This is a complex topic, but I find that Christians should be able to agree that God created men and women equal in God’s image and that much of Jesus’ ministry upended gender stereotypes in a way that put women in a far more equal footing than modern readers often realize.

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah Anderson

    @Vicki I find myself in a very similar position. Because of the varied definitions of “feminism,” I refrain from using it to describe my understanding of male and female equality. But also like you mentioned, there are so many expressions of comp views that I find the need to nuance and clarify my position there as well. In the end, I think it’s incredibly important to be able to recognize when labels become a barrier to conversation–in either direction–and be willing to move past them for the greater goal of robust, meaningful engagement with the core issues.

  • http://allpartoflifesrichpageant.blogspot.com James

    Thank you! This was very informative. I never realized “feminism” was so diverse.

    Most people do not understand academic feminism. Instead, we see what the media has presented to us. The media image of feminism is angry, materialistic, anti-male, irresponsible, privileged white women obsessed with contraception and abortion. Such an image makes a good foil for the media image of the angry, self-righteous, patriarchal, controlling, uneducated white male, anti-sex, Christian. Both are characatures, neither is reality.

    This is not to say that all forms of feminism are positive or good. Some forms of “feminism” are little more than covers for misandry, reverse sexism, and religious bigotry. And this a big problem: It alienates potential allies and emboldens opponents. Yet many feminists seem oblivious to it.

  • Krispin

    *joining slow clap*

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  • http://www.amylepinepeterson.com Amy Lepine Peterson

    Thanks so much for your comments, friends and strangers. I’m especially grateful for the thoughtful, engaged critical comments from Hannah, Jeff, and Vicki. Let’s continue this discussion!

  • http://lisadelay.com/blog Lisa Colón DeLay

    Amy, that last sentence packed quite a punch. No wonder you went viral.

    kudos and well done.

  • http://purplebuoy.wordpress.com Jennifer @purplebuoy

    This is awesome and much needed~~Thank you! Be blessed:)

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  • Douglas

    Very well done. Thorough, concise and convicting. Thank you very much for righting this.

  • Dewey

    Oh my stars…you *get* it! I had a very, very difficult time trying to swallow a women’s Bible study that stated feminism and Christianity are mutually exclusive. I thought I was a lone fish on a bicycle being a Christian with top-secret feminist leanings.

    Instead, I find this article clearly articulating my reluctance to give up the good fruits of feminism. Praise God, rape is illegal. Domestic violence is illegal. Women are human, not property. This is good.

    Additionally, I find feminism instructive in broadening the perspective of beautiful. Fat, skinny, long hair, pixie cuts, fine features, coarse features, big noses, unibrows, crooked teeth, bellies, and cellulite…imago dei.

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  • http://stowellbrown.blogspot.com/ Flyaway

    Very well written. Thanks. I will forward to my Bible study group. When I said that Jesus was the first “woman libber” I wasn’t understood by the group.

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  • Red

    This is a great article. I find myself running into this problem again and again; how to explain to people that Christianity and feminism (at least the basics of feminism) don’t have to be completely opposed. The fact that I call myself a feminist confuses some people.

    I have very mixed feelings about second-wave feminism. On the one hand, I understand those who critique it for disparaging the role of housewife and mother (a role which many enjoy and which can be very fulfilling!) On the OTHER hand, as a woman who is already certain that I don’t want to be a stay-at-home mom for any length of time, I sometimes identify strongly with what you call the “howl” :) of second-wave feminists who felt that they were being forced into a box they weren’t suited for.

    While I think second wave may have gone too far in disparaging homemaking, I have to say…the church might take at least a gentle pointer from them. The church culture in North America still has a loooooong way to go in recognizing that some women want to keep working after childbirth and that men should be as responsible for their kids as women are.

    Until the day when my desire to keep working isn’t seen as odd or an anomaly, and until the day when caregiving dads are no longer looked down on or asked if they’re “babysitting for the day,” and until the day when “continuing to work” doesn’t automatically come with the qualifier “When the kid is at least X years old”…I still think second-wave feminism has at least a little something to say within the church.

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  • http://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/ Retha Faurie

    Amen, sister, preach it!. I once did something in a similar vein, but I did not go into the history of feminism:
    http://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/why-i-hate-the-word-feminist/
    You express my feelings very well.

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  • http://www.estheremery.com Esther

    You’re such a smart writer! I’d love to hear you tackle that issue of sexual liberation, and divorce rate. I personally have a cognitive dissonance here, in that I hear feminism blamed for the divorce wave of the early eighties, but personal, anecdotal experience links many of those divorces to selfishness of men, leaving their wives and children behind. Thoughts?

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  • Dale

    Really well-written article. There seems to be a common sentiment among commenters that sexual liberation and empowerment is a bad thing… somehow anti-family. I’d be interested to hear why that is. Thanks!

  • Rachel Thompson

    I really like this article and as a college student at an Evangelical Christian college, I completely agree that the church has treated feminism as a bad word, if not laughable (as often evidenced by the comments of my male peers). However, one claim this piece makes is that Feminism has already accomplished most of its end in America, because of the equal rights we already possess. Yet, I don’t entirely agree. Yes, we are very blessed to live in a country that provides woman ample academic, career, and legislative opportunities and this is what the egalitarianism aspect of feminism demands.

    On the other hand, I think an important goal of feminism is to change the way women are thought of and portrayed in society, and as far as that goes, the whole Western world has a long way to go. Consider how in modern advertising women are often employed as sexual objects to sell a product–we still do that pretty consistently in the US. Simone de Beauvoir would certainly agree with me on this point.

    It would appear then, that both the US as well as the rest of the world need to continue to reform their ideology about woman, as the egalitarian ends of feminism cannot be achieved without this crucial step.

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  • http://www.amylepinepeterson.com Amy Lepine Peterson

    Totally agree, Rachel.

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  • AStev

    Setting aside the lack of a unified definition, perhaps part of the confusion for evangelicals lies in the fact that the very word “feminism” itself doesn’t automatically communicate “equal worth”; rather, the label considered alone seems to indicate preference for females. I suppose it could be argued that in some contexts, a “preference” for females is actually just a course correction back to the center, but I nevertheless think the word is insufficient from the get-go.

    That being said, I realize it’s difficult to come up with a simple alternative label to describe how male and female, though maximizing God’s glory in being created differently, are nevertheless equal in image-bearing value. I suppose the label “egalitarian” comes close, although in practice it can lead many to minimize real (and God-glorifying) gender differences. The “complementarian” camp is the inverse – while it’s true that they embrace both gender differences as well as the truth that women are equal in value to men, nothing in the “complementarian” label itself makes the latter clear (which no doubt leads to misunderstanding both inside and outside those in that camp).

    What an irony that, with the English language’s habit of assimilating words from other languages, and rapidly spawning new words of its own, there are still so many concepts that aren’t satisfactorily described with existing words.

    On a completely unrelated note, I smiled a bit when I saw you’re at Taylor U. There’s a little piece of me that will be forever stamped “Third West Wengatz”.

  • Richard Rabil, Jr.

    This is a well-articulated article on a complex subject. Thank you. I too have faced confusion and resistance from my Christian peers when I try to explain that I am a conservative evangelical who is also a “feminist,” and have struggled to communicate clearly what I mean by that. Excellent article with some good thoughts we can all use to further this conversation in the church.

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  • Corey

    Amy- If a man may be so bold, might I suggest reading feminists outside of the liberal tradition? As you say, feminism is multi- facted, but the most dominant version, both in the culture and in the academy, emphasizes a kind of autonomy that makes an idol of the self (whether it’s a female self or a male self). However, such leading feminists as Jean Bethke Elshtain and Elizabeth Fox- Genovese write explicitly on Christian themes and they emphasize the communitarian social good rather than autonomous individualism (which, again, I see as just more modern idolatry).

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  • Lucy Panda

    As a feminist I appreciate your knowledge and commitment to accuracy (i.e. the truth). Would you consider writing a parallel article along the lines of “The E-Word–Why Evangelicalism is not the Enemy.” Because as a non-Evangelical I find this particular branch of Christianity to be morally abhorrent. [By evangelicalism I mean churches that grew out the “Great Awakenings” (e.g. Methodism, Baptists, for more details see http://www.wheaton.edu/isae. Can a feminist, in good conscience, refer to him or herself as an Evangelical?

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