A feminist closet? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadEvery now and again, a budding systematic theologian comes to my office and wants to talk about how to avoid being pegged as a feminist, and therewith avoid not being taken seriously as a theologian. Sometimes the students are feminists, but don’t want that aspect of their work to dominate or perhaps even to be visible for a time; in other cases, the students aren’t feminist – or didn’t start out that way – but are having experiences as they enter the guild that are raising these concerns for them in a new way. Perhaps professors are assuming that they are feminist simply because they are female, or perhaps male students are dominating in class and the professor is doing nothing to rein them in.

These students seek me out knowing that I am an avowed feminist and an avowedly feminist theologian. But they are concerned about the effects being or appearing feminist might have on their future careers. After all, they want to join the theological conversation in order to shape it – and their ambitions are right and justified.

I’m happy to talk through the different possibilities that exist for handling such concerns: how to participate in a classroom in ways that will make it more difficult for others to dismiss your contributions, how to think about the costs and benefits of speaking from a visibly feminist position, and so on.

Yet it saddens me enormously that students are so convinced that being marked as feminist will harm them professionally. I’m sad because of the question that matters most to me, a question that I’ve never raised in one of these conversations: what if feminism is true?

What difference would such truth make to this conversation? What difference might the truth of feminism make to an analysis of costs and benefits? What would be the difference for the choices that one makes as one’s theological practice takes shape? I don’t raise that question in conversation with students because it’s not one that’s entirely fair to ask them. Yet it is on that ground that my own choices in this regard are made.

My conversion to feminism happened around the age of 19, and it changed everything. Suddenly, the world made sense in a way it had never made sense before. Events that previously seemed like they just happened to me, or just happened to be the case, instead turned out to have causes, patterns, reasons. Not good reasons (to the contrary), but reasons that made them newly interpretable. I came to understand myself and the world in a new way, a way that supplied me with tools not only for analysis but also for action. Feminism tells the truth about what the world is like and about how it needs to change.

This is not to undercut the significant differences among feminists, to suggest that feminism is a monolithic entity, or to suggest that feminism is the only such discourse. As the slogan suggests, the only feminism we can live into is an intersectional feminism. But feminism was the first discourse that I came to love, and that formed me at as deep a level as my religious commitments did – even or perhaps especially at the points of conflict and intersection between them.

Becoming a feminist is a process, much like becoming a Christian (practice in Christianity) is. We learn to speak, live, and think in new ways. At 19, I made certain commitments to myself as a result of my feminist conversion. I promised myself that I would speak up in anti-feminist situations, even if I was afraid of the consequences. I knew that if I didn’t make that decision in advance, I’d be too cowed and too shy to speak up in situations of social pressure. Similarly, I swore to myself that I would never be a closeted feminist. At my small Seventh-day Adventist college, I had seen the effect of various forms of closeting on professors and students alike. Not being able to be honest about one’s real convictions has a corrosive effect on one’s way of being in the world. So I promised myself that I would never put myself in a context where the pressures to hide would be irresistible. I say this not to congratulate myself, since as a Protestant theologian I’m well aware of the human tendency to deceive oneself about one’s own motives, and to act well out of the poorest motives (e.g., a desire to think highly of oneself).

Ultimately, I encourage the students who come to me to make such decisions for themselves. What can they live with? When do they want to speak up, and when is the wisdom of serpents required? What times – of not having spoken – will they lie awake at night regretting, and what price for speaking are they willing to accept? Being a feminist can, after all, be costly – as it has been for so many of our great foremothers. Whatever price we might pay is much less than it would have been without their willingness to speak, and the rewards of the truths they spoke are yet the greater.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.

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Categories: Academy, college, Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Gender, Gender and Power, Patriarchy, power, Sexism, Women and Scholarship

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17 replies

  1. Fulling coming into feminism as a philosophy propelled me into what I consider my latest crisis of faith – the kind of thing that changes you and the way you think forever. It started with questions, confusion, and a deep longer for understanding that took years to come to some semblance of peace with. Unfortunately, I have experienced a feeling of wanting to be closeted as even my closest family has seemed less than eager to understand my spiritual feminist journey. It’s not their fault, really. Patriarchal thinking is all they know and it shapes their worldview which I then come in to threaten with my ideas. But it’s hard to resist the urge to stay quiet for fear of being ostracized by those you love and the public. But I realize if I (and other feminists) remain quiet, those who don’t understand never will and the mainstream media will be allowed to mis-educate the public on feminism. I guess it’s courage that counts. I respect yours and thank you for this thought provoking post.

  2. “I am not a feminist, but . . .” How many times have we heard these words?

    Several years ago, I was talking with one of my nieces about how society and institutions have wronged women. During the conversation, she announced, “Uncle John, you are a feminist.” I did not think her remark was complimentary, but had to agree. I also decided not to identify myself publicly as a feminst.

    That changed with the murder of one UVa lacrosse player by her boyfriend (also a lacrosse player at UVa)
    and the crude remarks by Rush Limbaugh about wanting to watch Sarah Fluke have sex

    So, yes, this alpha male who played three sports in high school, completed a marathon as an a adult and dated tons of beautiful women over the years came out as a feminist..

    Feminism is not just for women. Men need it also .I believe that our society benefits when the voices of women are heard.

    • John, one of my best friends and the strongest feminist I know, is male, and also named John! I’m glad to see our local Women’s Centre activities not just welcoming, but encouraging, to men.

      Perhaps one of the fears about “coming out” as a feminist is the faulty and inaccurate opinions about what feminism stands for? But that might be a whole other post!

  3. Labeling ourselves or other people as anything at all is never truly accurate. No two writers at FAR are anything like each other!!

  4. Feminism doesn’t stand alone. We are not “just” feminists. We are people who believe in freedom and equality for everyone. We believe in racial equality, national equality, and sexual equality. The “feminism” part may be emphasized more in parts of our lives, or in certain activities in our lives, but I don’t think any of us would condone a child being harassed because she was black. When we look upon feminism as part of this whole, we can all say proudly that we are indeed feminists. And this is something we do indeed need to teach students.

  5. very inspiring and such an unfortunate truth of how labels can create such negative connotations to distract others from the truth of the label itself. Great read! thank you for sharing your wise words.

  6. The last time I checked, many feminist/womanist/mujerista/Asian, Native American and queer theologians were taken quite seriously, seen as excellent educators, and doing some of the gold standard work in the field both academic and activist. Let us invite and encourage all to join their company.

  7. What amazes me is that this conversation is actually still necessary. That openly being a feminist could harm one (still). I’m fairly new to feminism, the last say ten years of my life that I actively, loudly, at any time, any place, speak up when it is necessary. And it is often. Still. In researching the origins of feminism, for how long has it been that women have actively advocated for women’s rights … it’s been HUNDREDS of years! Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of feminism as far as I can ascertain. My question is, why is it taking so really very long for feminism to become the norm? Not only among men, but among women too. The last week or so I decided it’s the violence perpetrated against women. We’re afraid we may get hurt or even, in way too many cases, die.

  8. I don’t know where this idea of being a feminist is so scary for young women theologians of today. Women have been a power in theology for a very long time now, are taking over the liberal protestant churches everywhere, and I believe have outpaced men in masters and PhD programs at liberal seminaries. No big deal. So this “I’m not a feminist butism” seems odd to me.

    I’m an out radical lesbian feminist, I work for a huge male dominated corporation, and I take no prisoners. I carry the double ax into combat every day with those hetero males, they shut up when I walk in the room, they know I’d deck them in two seconds if they said ONE WRONG word in front of me. So what difference does it make? What makes women so weak and male pleasing today? Don’t get it. It doesn’t matter what men think, they are orange cones on the freeway, I drive around them on a good day, I run them over if they act up. Men are not feminists, they have nothing to do with women’s liberation, they are in the way of freedom and have nothing to offer women of the world. They can make caffe latte, they can shut up, they can clean the toiletes, they are nothing in the course of women’s liberation.

    One thing I’ve learned and I say it again and again be out loud feminist proud, because men will be jerks always, they are nothing. Women on the other hand are meant for our great intellectual revolution and no man stands a chance anymore, so go for it. If you haven’t bashed a male in an argument or beaten them into the ground academically, you haven’t had the thrill of defeating the enemy in battle, in great intellectual battle. Men are not the revolution, they are cones on the freeway, what needs to be done is to wake women up so that all women can speak softly and carry a double ax. Sheesh, who cares what men have to say ever?!

  9. I find this very sad, four decades after Violet Lindbeck, Judith Plaskow and I opened the feminist conversation at Yale by bringing Rosemary Radford Ruether to speak.

    What you say about the costs of not speaking and not being your-self is very moving.

    • We’ve been in massive backlash against feminism for a very long time… FOX news, Rush Limbaugh, and men use the term feminazi often. What young women don’t know is that nothing has changed structurally, and whether you are a moderate or a radical feminist, to men all feminism is bad. Men are still valued, and radical feminists are still silenced, nothing is new. Hetero women always want to protect their sons and male please and think that being reasonable with men gets us anywhere. Enough fantasy. But I see a clear difference in hetero women and lesbians in this feminism. Privilege and male pleasing still hold back honest enquiry and hetero women still care what men think. As long as this continues hetero women will fear the “F” word.

      • Thank you Turtle Woman ! I’m rising 61 and was wondering if what I knew as feminism had died out entirely ……

  10. An then there are all those closet social democrats, those liberals…

  11. “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
    — Rebecca West

    This is exactly how I see it. Why is feminism a dirty word? Why do we need this label when all we want is equality and have our voices heard? Is there a similar label for people who are anti-racism? I can’t think of one, apart from “people with common sense”.
    What puzzles me is why some people feel they need to use words like “feminazi”. Are they feeling threatened or they just very unpleasant people who feel better about themselves when they offend others? (or is that the same?) I would really like to know the reason for the oppression of women through the ages by different cultures. Are we that dangerous?

    • Yes, I firmly believe that fear of women’s power is what lies beneath patriarchy and the denigration of feminism. What other reason could there be?

  12. Being true to yourself seems to me to be the most important value in this discussion. Can anything really substitute for personal integrity? And beyond that, I worry about the effects of cognitive dissonance on your students. Research has shown that when people take positions that are at odds with their own thoughts and experiences eventually their thoughts will shift towards those feigned positions, i.e. eventually your students won’t be feminist anymore.

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