It’s Called AltFem, Not CtrlFem: An Eccentric Report

It’s Called AltFem, Not CtrlFem: An Eccentric Report September 25, 2014

Yesterday I went to the launch of AltFem, a new magazine from the people who brought you AltMuslimah and AltCatholicah, which explores the intersection of feminism and what I suppose we must call “traditional” faith. It was a religiously diverse event–lots of headscarves; several babies! I spoke on the first panel, about forging a more inclusive feminism. I’m going to do at least one more post inspired by the event, which will be on an underexplored aspect of Mary’s role as model of motherhood, but for right now I’ll just give you some very very scattered notes.

* You can see other people’s reactions at the various hashtags #altfem and #faithfem. Diversity!

* Before the event I’d suggested that I might talk about the issues I discuss here, here, and here, about rescuing submission and obedience as sometimes-positive categories. Right now I think if you say those words people’s immediate and often only reaction is to see the potential negatives, the misplaced trust and justifications for abuse of power. That skepticism is important. But we’ve lost the ability to articulate the genuine beauty, sublimity, and joy which can be found in obedience.

Because feminist discourses tend to use an axis of power/oppression as their main analytic tool, they have an even harder time than most mainstream discourses articulating a positive vision of surrender, obedience, humility, or authority. And so feminisms often become justifications for seeking worldly power–military, corporate etc. Women are encouraged to strive for material and social success, rather than men being encouraged to strive for greater surrender, humility, and obedience. (Apparently my line, “Maybe the problem isn’t that women lack power but that men lack humility,” was pretty popular.) This not only targets women’s behavior as the problem, contributing to the constant “you’re doing it wrong” woman-blaming which is endemic to feminism in a misogynistic culture; it also accepts worldly value systems which the Gospel rejects.

I was surprised and heartened by how many people wanted to take up this idea. The critique of worldly power and revival of the metaphor of surrender recurred throughout the launch party/conference. My impression is that this is something a lot of religious women really want to talk about.

* The critique of power and praise for obedience gained a lot of credibility from the fact that at least two of the panelists who talked about it had done a lot of advocacy against domestic violence. (Shahed Amanullah and, I think???, Christy Vines. I remember it was two of us but not which two.) Obviously women’s praise for submission can become a justification for abuse, and I was really grateful that we had panelists who had up-close experience of how that works and how it can be countered.

* I always learn stuff when I run my mouth, and this time, I was able to articulate something I hadn’t quite grasped before: Human beings need relationships in which we obey. We need obedience as much as, and in much the same way as, we need to feel that our voices are heard and our needs considered. We need hierarchical relationships, where one person more-or-less commands and the other obeys; we need relationships of mutual surrender in which the partners either submit in turn or submit to one another so constantly that figuring out who is “obeying” at any given moment is basically impossible; and we need relationships which move from hierarchy to mutuality.

(The “more or less” is important, though. I listen to my spiritual director and do what he says as a general rule, but my freedom is intact, and I trust that he respects me and listens to my concerns, even when I disagree with him. It’s a hierarchical relationship but not a rigid or controlling one. If you don’t like “commands/obeys,” as a word to describe that dynamic, maybe “guides/follows”? I personally find thinking of my role as obedience helpful–it’s good for my humility!–but like, my whole thing is that different people need different metaphors, even when expressing a universal human need.)

* I was hilariously scatterbrained and inarticulate, for which I apologize, but I did manage to suggest that many men have experienced a salutary education in obedience and submission through the 12 Steps. This is basically Helen Rittelmeyer’s point again. Among the people who respond well to 12-Step spirituality, many of them report that the concepts of surrender and humility were hugely important to them. Lots of these people are men. (I agree with those who speculate that emphasizing or demanding acceptance of metaphors of surrender and powerlessness can be less-helpful and even damaging to women, especially women who are often already deeply ashamed and traumatized.) One question we might ask is, Why didn’t these men get their education in humility from their church? What was the church not saying to them?

* One audience member asked a question about how, as a lgbt-identified faithful Mormon, she could ask for greater respect from progressives. I mishandled this question badly; my response is the thing I most regret about the event. So if you’re reading this, anonymous lgbt Mormon person, this is an apology to you.

Here’s A Queer Calling answering the actual question.

The striking thing about this moment, from a less self-centered perspective, is that the other two panelists who answered gave basically the objectively correct answer, which is: Tell your story. Be honest and personal and get to know people, and they will generally begin to see you as a person and not an ideological caricature. Find spaces where you feel safe enough to do that.

I’m pretty sure I was the only lgbt-identified person on any of the panels; and so the fact that my fellow panelists totally grasped the question and responded empathetically and wisely seems to me like a great sign both about the AltFem team and about the progress we’ve made in presenting lgbt issues within “traditional” (ugh) religious communities.

* Mollie Z. Hemingway is one of my favorite personality types, the happy warrior. I loved her story about how when she was growing up her mom would explain un-Christian stuff, on the TV or wherever, with, “That’s what Americans do. We don’t do that.”

* Also loved Jamillah Karim’s phrasing when she said that her faith gave her the courage to resign her tenured post at Spellman College to homeschool her kids.

* Hemingway on Twitter: “Yeah, is like a good version of Bridget Fonda nursing her baby while plotting murder in A Simple Plan.”

* Susan Katz Miller ditto: “So I left my teenage son in charge of the brisket and went to speak at . The veggies are burnt, but it’s tender. A sweet new year!”

* Rabia Chaudry ditto, quoting one of the Muslim panelists (I’m sorry, I didn’t write down who said this): “Hadith: a woman in pregnancy has same reward from God as someone in constant prayer & fasting.

* SojoWomen quoting Salma Abugidieri: “S.Abugidieri on gender norms & religious dating:”Marriage is about mutual love where both husband and wife are submissive to God.”

* Sarah Pulliam Bailey quoting Hemingway: “It’s not a Christian idea that family matters above all other things. That’s not in Christian history. — ” (MZH also had great stuff on forgiveness as part of marriage’s core, American Christian idolatry of marriage, and Martin Luther changing diapers, which is one thing I am okay with Martin Luther doing.)

ETA: Oh man, that should obviously be “one thing I am okay with Martin Luther changing“! Esprit d’escalier strikes again.

Anyway, I got a lot out of this event, and look forward to seeing where AltFem goes.

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