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