Feminism is one of those fences in our politics and our social institutions from which I find myself consistently frustrated with the people on both sides, often the extremes of both sides. That’s probably more indicative of my disposition than how moderate I think I am, but I think both sets of grievances are worth articulating.
On the Right
I’ll come right out and say it – I think much of the religious right is too preoccupied with calling out pro-context Christians for “picking and choosing” which passages of Scripture to believe and apply that they fail to recognize that they’re doing that thing they hate. If 21st century social structure should be predicated on what Paul said about the society he was living in 2,000 years ago, shouldn’t we fully commit to the framework he drew? He explained marriage hierarchy to the Ephesians – wives submit to your husbands, who submit themselves to God. That seems to be the place where the religious right is comfortable, both in marriage and outside of it. I’ve been told [too] many times that women aren’t equipped to be leaders, teachers of men even, because females are called to place themselves under males, submitting to the Lord’s will by submitting to the other half of the population called to submit directly to God. But why stop there?
The third chapter of 1 Peter is full of instructions for Christian women, some of which I think even the far right of the religious right would balk at. Women, wives in particular, are called to be the daughters of Sarah, who “obeyed” her husband and went far enough to call him “lord.” Of course, men are to be considerate of the women they marry, since Peter thought of us as the weaker partners. That’s not what “partner” means anymore. Ladies, got a question about something your pastor said on Sunday morning? Paul told the Corinthians that it’s actually disgraceful for women to speak in a church. Ask your husband when you get home, or your father, I suppose, if you’re still not married. And when I was a kid, I would get viscerally uncomfortable every time Paul blanket-alluded to the “gentle and quiet” spirit characteristic of women. I was born without one of those.
Isn’t the religious right guilty of “picking and choosing” here? By simply making men the leaders and women the gracious helpers, aren’t they stopping short of the design Paul had in mind for the early Christians alive in 60 A.D.? Wife, submit to your husband – but you’re no longer expected to call him lord. There’s a statute of limitations on the things that Sarah did. Where does the religious right draw the line, and who gave them the authority to draw it?
They’re not only leaving out the unnerving tenets of Paul’s very old philosophy – the religious right also overlooks the places where the most important tenet of their worldview turned the female-subjugating world Paul lived in on its head. There are dozens of stories about this, but my favorite is pretty compelling. The resurrected Jesus revealed himself first to women – women whose testimony about that revelation would have been thrown out of a court of law. The culture Jesus taught in oppressed women. So the audacity of the extent to which he lifted women up was memorable, and talked about. I’d argue he did that on purpose.
If cultural context isn’t important, then I need to reread 1 Peter 3, pack it up, and go home. If it is, the religious right needs to take a good, hard look at how Jesus responded to it. When the Bible is treated like a story about redemption instead of rulebook that perpetuates the subjugation of women distinctive of a long-gone society, women get to be equal players in the narrative. We are equal players, equivalently capable of leading, teaching, and instigating change. The opportunities afforded to women should reflect that, and the religious right should respect it.
And on the Left
The feminist movement as it was originally conceived was a reaction to a clear social problem that clearly hasn’t quite gone away yet. Female actresses and candidates for office are asked about award show dresses and which magazines they read, while their male counterparts get to wax poetic about their dreams of directing and how they’d confront Vladimir Putin. And per the rant I just finished above, there are too many places in the United States where women, particularly young women, are told that certain doors and dreams are not open to them.
For the record, as if this even needed clarification, I think women should run for president and teach college English and manage Fortune 500 companies and go to seminary and win Nobels and Pulitzers. Unadulterated feminism is ultimately about choice. Women should be able to choose to do what they want, what they love, what they feel called to do. Equal opportunity and access for women is a stabilizing, necessary cornerstone upon which we should build – or, in many cases, fix – our social and political institutions. We no longer live in a century during which a woman’s options were limited to full-time motherhood, and social and religious norms precluded a career and life unattached. That’s great. Like I said, women should have options. But modern feminism loses me when it makes some options sound more admirable and impressive than others, when it rhetorically takes some options off the table altogether, just because those used to be the only options we had.
Too many feminists are missing the mark here by redefining it. And they’re doing a disservice to the long and arduous historical movement toward equal rights and opportunities for the gender they represent by advertising contradictions. “Women should have the freedom to do whatever it is they want, as long as they don’t do that lowly and antiquated thing we don’t want them to do.”
Women who want, and are able, to be full-time mothers should be full-time mothers. Cultural commentators who relegate real-life women and female characters whose job and first priority are the raising and loving of their children to an outdated and unhealthy gender construct forsake what these women contribute to society. They reject choice. Most importantly, as they justifiably pontificate about the lack of leading ladies in 21st century popular culture, they overlook moms, our real superheroes.
If modern feminism isn’t advocating for choice universally, the movement begins to look like it’s arbitrarily deciding what women can and should be doing with their lives. If equal choice and opportunity is the ultimate goal, and I think it should be, we should be building up women right where they choose to be. Modern feminism, deliberately or not, has begun depreciating women who freely, wholeheartedly choose to stay home with their kids. That’s not patriarchy, and we needn’t be afraid of it.
So that’s where I stand – firmly, vehemently in favor of opportunity. For a right and a left that recognize, appreciate, and respect the breadth of interests, vocations, capabilities, and contributions of women and the choices they make.