Broadly speaking, feminism is anything relating to promoting the voice of women in particular giving them equal political, societal, educational and religious voices.
Feminism as a worldwide movement is founded in women’s consciousness that as a group they are, and historically have been subordinate, and that this subordination is not natural but is socially, culturally, and religiously determined. Furthermore, feminism is the conviction that women and men are created for full economic, political, social and religious equality. Finally, feminism is women’s creation of alternative ways to arrange societies and institutions so that such an egalitarian future may become a reality. (The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Melanie A. May. Vol 1-3, Eerdmans, Michigan)
The History of Feminism
Western feminism as a political movement that has its roots in the American Civil War. Ironically it was led largely by Christian women. While women have always questioned societal values, and have voiced their views as far back as time itself, the political movement we know as feminism began out of the American Civil War. ‘happily married wives, mothers of large families, former slaves and educated girls’ gave birth to the women’s suffrage movement (Elaine Storkey, What’s Right with Feminism? Eerdmans, 1986, Grand Rapids, Michigan. p143) Their goals included female mission associates, establishing settlement houses, providing relief for the sick and destitute and advocating prison reform. Christian women marched in the front lines of the prohibitionist movement, opposing the moral ills associated with drunkenness – ills that included poverty, wife abuse, prostitution and the destruction of the family. Like many things, feminism started with goals which were apparently pro-christian and virtuous, but which evolved into something it never intended to become. At an international suffrage conference in 1902, with Susan B. Anthony presiding, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance was created. The alliance was dedicated ‘to secure the enfranchisement of the women of all nations, and to unite the friends of women’s suffrage throughout the world in organized co-operation and fraternal helpfulness.’
Throughout the twentieth century, this international alliance discovered significant differences among feminists. The issues brought by women from the countries of Africa, Asia, or Latin American not only were not the same as those of Western feminists; at times the various issues conflicted with each other. For example, Western women expressed concern for the growing poverty of Third World women, but they did not join in critique of multinational corporations or free trade agreements.
In short, as women’s networks strengthened, they discovered that one woman’s privilege was another woman’s burden. It became clear to stay relevant that women’s differences should be taken into account rather than focussing on assumptions about what they have in common.
Some literature before that time include the following books published:
‘The Superior Excellence of Women Over Men,’ Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1529)
‘The Defense of Good Women,’ Thomas Elyot (1545)
‘Egalite des hommes et des femmes,’ (Equality of Men and Women) Marie Le Lars de Gourney (1622)
‘Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord jesus. And how Women were the first that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus and were sent by Christ’s own Command, before he Ascended to the Father, John 20.’ Margaret Fell, (1667)
‘An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues, with an Answer to the Objections against this way of education.’ Bathsua Makin (1673)
‘The Education of Women,’ Daniel Defoe (1719)
‘Letters on Women’s Rights’, Abigail and John Adams (1776)
‘Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King’ (1789)
‘Women’s Petition to the (French) National Assembly (1789)
‘The Rights and Condition of Women’ Samuel May (1845)
‘Voting Rights Speech’ Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1848)
‘Women’s Rights’ William Lloyd Garrison (1853)
‘Female Ministry, or Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel.’ Catherine Booth (1859)
‘The Higher Education of Women,’ Emily Davies (1866)
and so on.
During World War 1, many women entered the workforce to replace men entering the armed forces.
However, when men returned from the war, many women abdicated those positions to accommodate the new male workforce.
In 1920 the women’s movement actually lost some of its momentum, but by the 1960s the world was ready for revolution.
Feminism is a distinct philosophy that shook the underpinnings of society in the early 1960s like a tsunamic earthquake shaking the ocean’s floor. Feminism is indeed an ‘ism’ – like atheism, humanism, Marxism, existentialism, or postmodernism. The ‘ism’ indicates that we’re talking about a particular philosophical theory, a doctrine, a system of principles and ideas. (‘You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby’ Mary A Kassian, Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Volume 14:2009)
The modern radical feminist movement is an outgrowth of Marxist liberation theology. It attempts to liberate women from being ‘oppressed’ by white, European, heterosexual males. This is ludicrous when it is realised that the conceptual foundation of modern feminism comes from such white, European, heterosexual males as Hegel, Darwin, Marx and Lenin.’(The Trinity: Evidence and Issues. Morey, Robert, 1996. World Bible Publishers, IA)
Here are the underlying premises of the argument of Biblical feminism.
- All knowledge, including theology, is socially informed.
- Women are not treated as equals (equality being defined as access to any task a male can perform in the church)
- Women are oppressed. (oppression being defined as denying access to any task they choose in the church)
Radical critique of religion, particularly Christianity has been central to the critique of patriarchy by feminists. As early as 1893 women argued that the church has not merely been the site of, but also the seedbed of the suppression of women. However, a long silence separated these thoughts before they were resurrected in the 1960s and 70s when women once again questioned the role of women in the church.
This period of feminism focussed on the ‘sameness’ between men and women giving rise to words like ‘sexist’ and ‘sexism’, meaning anything that sought to differentiate in a derogatory way distinctions between the sexes. The post-modern feminism recognises differences between sexes but asserts these differences should not ‘discriminate’ women from doing the same things as men. Biological differences are a woman’s misfortune, not her crime. Therefore maternity pay and leave are the product of the post-modernist world. An earlier feminist would have fought for a woman’s right to deny her biological differences.
The 1970s saw the ordination of women in churches like the Lutheran and Episcopal churches, and many women graduated from theological seminaries. A groundbreaking consultation in 1974 at the World Council of Churches in West Berlin considered ‘sexism in the 1970s’ to discuss the place of Christian women. One speaker spoke of sexism as heresy, and ‘The Community of Women and Men in the Church’ was a study cosponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order and the Subunit on Women was formed.
Although increasing numbers of women are being ordained, increasing numbers of women are also leaving pastoral ministry for ministry in non-traditional settings. In short, ‘women and the church’ is continuing to be critiqued as women change their function within the church, resulting in constant changes of philosophies amongst feminists.
What are Biblical feminists?
Secular feminism can take many different forms and be guided by many different philosophies as its supporters seek to develop a society in which women are free to achieve their full potential.
Biblical feminists make a significant break with the secularist’ approach. Secularist centres around competing for equal rights; biblical feminism centres around creating equal opportunities to serve. The secular feminist says ‘I am entitled to compete on an equal basis with men’. The biblical feminist says ‘I seek the freedom to follow Christ as he calls me to use my gifts in God’s service without gender restriction’.
The Goal of Biblical Feminism
Biblical feminists believe that Scripture affirms the worth and value of men and women equally and that everyone should have equal opportunity to serve God, with no tasks having gender definition. They take Gal 3:28 as their mantra ‘there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Biblical feminists advocate partnership, not competition, mutual submission, not gender defined requests for submission and love; the priesthood of all believers, not a male hierarchy.
The Hermeneutics of Feminism
……..it has become abundantly clear that the scriptures need liberation, not only from existing interpretations but also from the patriarchal bias of the texts themselves. The more we learn about feminist interpretation the more we find ourselves asking, with Katherine Sakenfeld, ‘How can feminists use the Bible, if at all? (Biblical Feminism, a Christian Response to Sexism. Gretchen Hull. Priscilla Papters 5:3 (Summer 1991) Minneapolis
………what hermeneutical principles do Christian feminist regard as of prime importance? According to Rosemary Radford Ruether human experience is the starting point and end of the interpretative process. (Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Letty Russell (ed). Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1985. P11)
……..Christian feminism regards women’s experience, not Holy Scripture, as the highest authority in all matters of faith, worldview and practice. The feminist critical principle as expounded by Fiorenza makes the feminist theologian and the feminist community the criterion of truth. At very least, there is a serious loss of prophetic capacity if the interpreter and the community become the highest judges. Who is to judge whether a statement in the Bible does or does not promote the full humanity of women? Who is to judge whether the feminist community has departed from the truth? Why the feminist community of course! Dare anyone name this idolatry?
It is not without significance that Letty Russell, Ruether, Fiorenza and Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite all acknowledge that the Bible is against them. Ruether declares that feminist theology cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible. As Daphne Hampson argues, Holy Scripture and the feminism we have discussed are incompatible. (Themelios 17:3, April/May 1992. The Hermeneutics of Feminism. R Letham.)
Patriarchy is the enemy of feminism, because it expounds that men are the heads of their families, and therefore implies task differentiation based on gender. To recognise a feminist, ask them their views on patriarchy. A feminist will seek to break down a patriarchal society, and they start this by eliminating distinctions between the sexes.
Gretchen Hull, a board member of the Council for Biblical Equality speaks of ‘the sin of patriarchy.’ According to Hull, one does not reform patriarchy, one eliminates it. The end-result – where egalitarian Christians refuse to go – is the elimination of the God of Scripture, the great Patriarch from whom all families derive their name (Eph 3:14)
The Jewish feminist Naomi Goldenberg blames God for being the architect of the patriarchal society. ‘We women are going to bring an end to God,’ she states (Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions. Beacon Press, Boston 1979). We could ask ‘How are they doing?’
Where to now?
Most women do not come across the kind of blatant error in the two previous sections. They are more likely to come across the subtle arguments ‘we should all serve equally with access to all tasks’.
Betty Friedan argues in ‘The Feminine Mystique’ that the average housewife was trapped, bored and unhappy. Her answer was for women to join the workforce with irrevocable societal consequences.
Noone could argue against Betty Friedan’s premise, although this is subjective. But one could argue against her solution. This is because for women who do not find fulfilment in their domestic lives it is likely this problem will not find a solution in fulfilment elsewhere, because the lack of fulfilment stems from internal perceptions rather than external issues.
The feminist world is here to stay. We now live in a ‘post-feminist era’. That is, the goals and objectives of feminism have now been rejected for a softer and less radical feminism. But two or three generations of women have lived in a world that has been altered by feminists, irrevocably.
We can sit home and wring our hands and cry about it, or rejoice and have a party, depending on what side of the fence we sit. At the very least, we can accept that the world as we know it is here to stay, and society as we know it will function according to feminist principles, which have at their goal a loss of distinction between the sexes.
The solution is not in aspiring to the 50s housewife world. Nor is it aspiring to the 21st century liberated woman’s world.
The answer is to seek Christ, and acknowledge that no fulfilment will be possible without recourse to the spiritual life we can find through Him.
This philosophy will transcend times and gender wars, as we seek to apply our understanding of the authority of scriptures in an ever-changing world.
The authority of Scripture is clear about gender distinctions. But how these are applied will continue to change as society changes. It’s our duty to seek to find some reconciliation between our understanding of Scriptural principles with our life in the society we find ourselves in.
Hermeneutics: Bible exposition
Egalitarian: person who believes men and women are equal with equal access to every task without gender distinction
Complementarian: person who believes men and women are intrinsically equal but have different tasks to perform based on gender restrictions.
Patriarchy: belief in male leadership, as per Abraham the patriarch.