The Other “F” Word [naomi]

“Feminism” is a dirty word to many good Christian folks. I was reminded of this last summer, when I watched a paragraph depicting feminism in a slightly positive light throw most people in my church discussion group into a tizzy. Talk about a hot topic.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m late to the girl party, but I’ve spent a good portion of my 32 years avoiding the subject entirely. In fact, I’ve learned that there are many sub-definitions of the word, “feminism”, so it is easy to see why it can be somewhat tricky to navigate the conversation, with everyone starting from a different understanding. I have read a lot of books and articles pertaining to women’s issues in my life, but it has only been in the last couple of years that some pieces have started to come together into coherent thoughts. Accordingly, this article reflects a small segment of my ever-expanding thoughts on the issue of feminism.

It all started with Mad Men. I mean, it started way before that, but it finally clicked when I watched the show, Mad Men (set in the ’60s) on which women are treated with the respect of a snail and are happily relegated to housewife or secretary roles, with the occasional breakout role of extra-marital affair. It horrified me and escalated from there. The Stepford Wives made sense. That over-the-top feminist prof in college, I get her now. The suffragettes on Mary Poppins. The rape of Tamar (2 Sam. 13) infuriated and destroyed me. Call the Midwife, birth control options and pro-choice arguments, they made more sense now (still don’t fundamentally agree with killing a baby, but I understand and have compassion on those faced with that decision, which is miles from where I once stood). It didn’t stop there. Sexual abuse statistics, gender-related language, roles of women within the church, models of dating and courtship, submission and authority philosophy, everything was up for grabs.

Call me naive (it wouldn’t be the first time), but honestly, what surprised me the most was that there was, in fact, something to be protesting. It hit me like a flaming bra: The feminist movement was warranted. Again, not that I necessarily agree with all the outcomes or methods of the movement, but there were (and still are) legitimate concerns about injustices, atrocities, and disrespect at such a base level against women throughout the ages and across racial divides.

After this revelation, I bought a book called Mommy Wars at a thrift store for a dollar, and boy did that throw a wrench in everything. These were high-level (empowered) women writing short essays on their decision to either become stay-at-home moms or to enter the work force. Obviously, these are incredibly hard decisions, and the best answer is not the same for every woman and family. Many of the essays were filled with depression, anxiety, and restlessness. Some were heartfelt and reduced me to tears. Almost all of them invoked use of the phrase “having it all”.

What surprises me most about this phrase is the welfare mentality latent within it, as though it is possible to “have it all” and not pay a price for it. High powered women “have it all” by employing nannies and/or housekeepers to steward their children and household for them. These workers are frequently underpaid and often have to give up mothering their own children in order to make ends meet. Each woman, each child, each house, each family pays the price of someone trying to “have it all”. I’m not saying it’s wrong, and I’m not saying that you can’t be a good mother and also be a career mom. I’m simply stating the obvious, that it is impossible to be two places at once, and something always has to give. For every decision, there is a cost (except with grace, which blows my mind and which is a different article entirely).

I have turned this phrase over and over in my mind: “You can have it all.” Who told us this? Where did it come from? Is this possible, for a woman to “have it all”? Is it good? Based on the essays I read, I gather that “all” includes being a mother and being a woman laborer. One thing that didn’t seem to factor into the conversation much is how the husband fits into this equation.

Speaking of men, let’s all take a quick break to peruse these entertaining pictures. Meet you back here in five.

Notice anything?

As I mentioned in my previous article, clothing is often a voice to what is happening in our times. This series of photos is really interesting to me because, while most men look awkward and uncomely in a women’s garb, most of the women look pretty close to normal in their male counterpart’s clothing. It strikes me that in our attempts to “have it all”, we have inherited not only equal pay wages and voting rights, but also equal levels of what once were typically male struggles–detachment, control, greed and lust for power, to name a few.

This is one of the areas where I see us getting it wrong. Healthy feminism doesn’t require a woman to morph into a man, it allows her to bring all of her self–strength, intuition, beauty and femininity into each situation. Androgynous dress is a slap in the face to humankind. And I really don’t care if you’re a woman who wears trousers and a slim tie or a Mennonite dress and head covering to work, the point is that we are brilliantly diverse and I refuse to accept the newest cookie cutter mold that demands that we ALL–man and woman–fit into it.

This is the part where we have to separate feminist ideals from Christian realities. God created all people to be equal, but we are very different in our design, and with good reason. The truth is that we need each other, always have, and it is to our detriment that we abandon our design for some other green grass. Women, let’s not refute our giftings to receive man’s curse. Men, how about you use your natural power and leadership to propel overlooked individuals into places of influence.

See, this is where traditional feminism and God’s idea of godliness really have to diverge paths, because I don’t see much in Scripture about seizing our rights for ourselves, but about sacrificing our own rights in favor of each other. And this actually does means sacrifice, a loss of something we have taken for granted for a very long time. This is why the phrase “you can have it all” trips me up so badly, because it has a familiar ring to it in the form of the devil’s offer to Jesus in the desert (“All this I will give you… if you will bow down and worship me). Or how about going back a little farther and thinking through Eve’s temptation. The serpent offered her the ability to be like God and not pay the consequences for it (“You shall not certainly die”)–a repackaged “you can have it all” speech. I certainly am not trying to infer that women who are career moms are in league with the devil, just the opposite, I believe that there are women who are called to be CEOs, just as there are men. But a thirst for power or wealth and a do-what-it-takes mentality do not belong in a Christian’s life. We are called to follow Christ, and he laid aside his rights as the Son of God to become subject to death in order to raise us (men and women) with Him.

My husband, who is as much a feminist as I am, was sitting across from me at our kitchen table yesterday, coffee cup in hand. He said, “We don’t have to use the word ‘feminism’ in the context of our marriage because you are valued and respected; it’s a non-issue.” He was right. The problem with -isms (feminism, racism, sexism, classism, etc.) is that they reflect a prejudice either for or against someone. They exist because there is a deprivation. I look forward to the day when there will be no more -isms because the need for those words will evaporate. The day when husband and wife can work together as a team to see each person’s strengths capitalized, to make sacrifices for and with one another. The day when a fully qualified white male will choose to make room for another fully qualified minority female to wield influence, even if it means he loses some of his prestige. I believe this can happen, but not without some real sacrifice, and a felt punch to our privileges that we have enjoyed for so long, and, above all, a propagation of God’s heart and design for humanity.

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8 thoughts on “The Other “F” Word [naomi]

  1. Well done, Naomi. I really appreciated the comparison of the phrase “You can have it all” to the temptation of Jesus. Right on.

  2. Hmm. yeah – I think that as young girls/women in the church we are definitely taught to (politely, quietly, nicely) ignore the “feminist movement” (and all that may or may not entail) rather than looking to God and His word for insight/understanding. Even asking God, asking questions about this is something that has been considered ‘bold’. Thanks Nay. I’ve been really enjoying the dialogue that is emerging in all of this.

  3. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, with a lot of the emotions you just expressed. Thanks for sharing. I like Justin’s point about it being a non-issue inside a respectful marriage–and am grateful to be so blessed myself, and insofar as I am finally starting to dare to sometimes call myself a feminist, it’s in hope that every woman can experience that in her life situation.

  4. Great article. I agree with you that the Church views “feminism” as a dirty word and a subject altogether to be avoided, which is a pity because history, as you point out, does warrant its cause. I am a woman wrestling with the decision of whether or not I want to have children; the struggle is present because I do “want it all!” I want a baby and I want my business to thrive and I want to keep alive those interests that make me who I am & make me feel alive. I see “having it all” being less about “being a mother and being a woman laborer” and more about maintaining your unique identity, successfully adding to who you are rather than succumbing to being just a mom (and that’s in no way to discredit the incomparable role of a mother!). To liken what God expressed as clearly disobedient–as with Eve wanting to be like God & eat her apple, too OR Satan tempting Jesus to worship him instead–to the equivalent of women wanting a successful career, family and identity is possibly erroneous & sweeps the issue back under the Church’s rug (???). You’re right that this issue of feminism should be a non-issue, but the conversation that explores whether it’s right for women to want it all should not always presume as its starting point a disdainful female selfishness. Couldn’t we call selfish the females who changed the tide/rights of women through the feminist movement? Or Martin Luther King Jr. selfish for seeking more for a repressed population? I believe God does call every Christian–male and female alike–to thrive in every facet of uniqueness with which He created him/her just as much as He calls us to follow His example, even in laying down his/her rights. Wise living embraces both, not favoring one over the other.

    • lavitadipasseggiata — Thank you for your thoughtful response. I apologize for the delay in responding to this comment, but I have needed considerable time to “chew” on your thoughts and have read your comment a half dozen times to process it fully. I have a couple of thoughts in response.

      The first thing that stands out to me so clearly in your comment is your equation with interests and identity. While I do think that interests are natural, healthy and good, for a Christian, they do not belong in the same category with “identity”. They do not make you who you are, only Christ can do that. This has been the single hardest lesson of motherhood for me. I gave up my profession and many of my interests to become a stay-at-home mom (which I don’t think is for everyone, but this was my path), and I found myself stripped of everything I thought made me valuable and “alive”. I was left with Christ (and a very loving husband) telling me over and over again that I am significant because of who I am in Christ, nothing less, nothing more. I can’t tell you how freeing this has been, as I have slowly re-engaged these interests.

      Additionally, a baby certainly does add to who you are, but this is not why we have children, simply because we “want” them for ourselves. Parenting is a calling (and a high one at that). You do well to think it through carefully, because it certainly will change life dramatically for you. I wonder how your husband factors into this decision?

      Regarding female selfishness, I don’t think it’s selfish for women to want what is rightfully theirs (equality), but “wanting it all” comes with a price (for both men and women), and we are only beginning to see the consequences of this mindset. Many of the women (and MLK, who you mention) who stood up for their rights did it in a peaceful way, even when that meant sacrificing their lives and dignity, so no, I wouldn’t call that selfish in the least. I do wonder, however, how history would be different if instead those who were in power laid down their rights for the other. What if the Christian men who saw the inequalities, instead of repressing women more, stood up for them, even though it meant that they had to decrease? What if Christian white people stood up to white supremacists and said, “no more”? Indeed there were those, but only a small minority.

      Again, thank you for your comment. I really appreciate dialoguing about this issue because, as I mentioned, I am still learning a lot about it myself.

  5. Good stuff, Naomi. This article — http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/ — by Anna-Marie Slaughter in the July/August 2012 edition of The Atlantic made quite the cultural explosion — continues to have a big ripple effect — especially regarding concepts of power, sacrifice and the definitions of “having it all”. It is quite long, but worth the read.

    Your article caused me to think even more deeply about the idea of “having it all”. As a man or a woman, I think it’s quite appropriate to want to have it all if that is defined in the contexts of God’s government. CS Lewis said it so very well in “The Weight of Glory”: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

    Nelson Mandela beautifully reiterated the same core concept: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    I’m growing more and more to the point where I believe that we were definitely made to have it all. All is Christ; and having it all means having all of Christ which also means living in accord with His government and ways, which you eloquently point out in your post. Feminism — while redemptively being used by God — is a distraction; as is masculine chauvinism (maybe even idols, dare I say?). There are higher dimensions to be realized.

    Loved your post.

  6. One new thought… semi-philosophical.

    For the most part, I don’t think that Christians (even now) should identify themselves with any -isms, even religious ones. If there is a part of a movement (such as feminism) that has elements of truth and love in it that are Christ-like, it should be pointed to the fact that true-Christianity had those elements first. Even if it’s something not typically associated with Christianity, it could be a way to redeem people’s notions of what following Christ is like or a way to show the Father’s heart rather than ways we form Him to our means.

    This is hard work.

    To be a Christian feminist seems [1] redundant in certain aspects or [2] an unhealthy union. For the latter, it seems new-age-ish, taking this and that and mixing it up to form what you want. For the prior, if the main element of feminism is equality of worth to men, Christianity proclaims that and if people don’t know, or believe, or respond in that matter, they need to be instructed rather than Christianity having an addendum placed on it.

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