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Christian feminism is not an oxymoron

21 February 2014

Despite many who believe the contrary, Christianity and feminismare natural and fruitful companions, says Vicky Beeching

"THAT is totally untenable!" my friend yelled over the party music. "You can't be a feminist and a Christian." She was a staunch atheist, and spent the evening telling me, as many have done before, that Christianity is unavoidably and embarrassingly patriarchal. She urged me to throw off the shackles of my misogynistic faith.

I am surprised at how frequently this happens at feminist gatherings. Regularly I find myself the only Christian present, treated like an anomaly in need of conversion to fully fledged, religion-free feminism.

Often it takes me a while sheepishly to admit my faith in these circles. Finally I pipe up that actually I do "believe in that stuff", between the tirades of "God is dead" and "Religion is the oppressor!" that usually emanate from the microphone. In years of attending feminist seminars and marches, one thing has become clear: you are about as likely to meet another Christian there as you would a vegan at a meat-feast buffet.

Occasionally I have found my faith welcomed by fellow feminists. But, more often than not, the confession of Christianity has been met with the sort of facial expression you would pull when opening an awkwardly disappointing Christmas present.

I don't resent this. In fact, I empathise with why many women shudder at certain elements of the Bible and the Christian tradition. Phyllis Trible's powerful book Texts of Terror (SCM Press, 1984, 2002) highlights some of these difficult passages; she skillfully demonstrates why a surface exposure to scripture could be repellent to anyone concerned about gender equality. It is not difficult to see why a religion with a male God, a male Saviour, and 12 male disciples would be off-putting initially. It is something I have wrestled with for years.


STRANGELY, I find a similar attitude at many Christian gatherings. When I speak on faith and feminism at church-based conferences, the questions afterwards invariably contain responses from Christian women who feel that feminism is an unhelpful movement.

"It's a school of thought associated with shrill, angry, bra-burning, man-haters," one earnest woman told me; "so that's not really compatible with the loving, gracious God we worship, is it?" Other Christians have told me that they feel it is best to throw out the term "feminist" altogether, and instead talk about "gender equality". That, they argue, stops people stumbling over what they see as the unhelpful baggage that feminism has acquired over the years.

So, whether among atheist feminists or Christian women, I have found myself stuck in the middle, peddling an amalgam of two entities that both sides view with suspicion. To many, the combination is as bizarre as pesto ice-cream or chocolate cream-cheese (and, having sampled both, I can see why anyone would steer well clear). "We are best in our separate camps," I have been informed by women on both sides of the debate. "There are too many tensions to overcome."

Of course, many will be aware that Christian feminism is very much a compatible school of thought, and has been the focus of rich scholarship over the years. It has becomea well recognised academic field, thanks to foundational work from women such as Rosemary Radford-Ruether, Mary Daly (although I strongly disagree with her transphobic views), and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

Yet I am constantly surprised that the concept of Christian feminism has not permeated the culture of either feminism or Christianity deeply enough to dispel the myth of their incompatibility. More conversation is needed to raise awareness and increase dialogue.


THIS topic came up at the recent "Makers Conference" in the United States - a gathering that exists to highlight the work of women who "make America". The leading feminist Gloria Steinem was asked what she viewed as the biggest problem with feminism. Her answer was surprising: "What we don't talk about enough is religion," she said. "I think we really have to talk about it. Because it gains power from silence."

She is right. The intersection of gender equality and religion must be given more time and focus, within both Christianity and secular feminism. There is too much misunderstanding; too much of a sense that we are on opposite teams rather than potentially powerful comrades.

When handled well, as exemplified in the scholarship of Schüssler Fiorenza or the feminist liturgy written by Miriam Therese Winter, Christianity can dust off its patriarchal reputation and prove a strong ally of women's rights. The history of the equal-rights movement is intertwined with faith; for women such as Julian of Norwich to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Catherine Booth, passion for liberation was rooted in heartfelt religion.

True Christianity stands for the equal rights and equal value of all human beings. Yes, some versions of it have represented women as inferior and restricted to certain roles. The church Fathers made a powerful job of that; for example, Tertullian (AD c.160-c.225) stated: "Woman is a temple built over a sewer," and that she represented "the gate to hell". These words take some serious undoing, but such variant interpretations should not be allowed to rule; those of us whose interpretation of Christianity represents liberation must speak up.

Jesus was a feminist: he shocked his peers with the counter-cultural, radical equality that he extended to the women around him. So I feel very comfortable aligning myself with a movement that represents his heartbeat for gender equality.

To some, this may seem an oxymoron, but the more dialogue that takes place to dispel the misunderstandings from both sides, the more powerfully secular feminists and Christians who support gender equality can stand together. Perhaps one day at a feminist party, someone will shout at me that I am boringly predictable for holding both Christianity and feminism together, as they are such obvious and harmonious bedfellows. But until that day, there is much work to do.


Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer, and broadcaster who is researching the ethics of technology.

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