This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Ruth Marston is a third year Master of Divinity student at the Claremont School of Theology. She is currently seeking Elders Orders in the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. A lifelong feminist, Ruth hopes to serve churches by helping construct communities of faith that educate, empower and value diversity as a divine gift. She enjoys Science Fiction, dry humor, and has been known to drive twenty miles for a quality cup of coffee.
A fellow student spontaneously invited me into her apartment in for tea. It was at the beginning of our Master of Divinity Degree. We were just discovering the physically and spiritually grueling nature of the three years in front of us, and I think we both sensed that friends would make this journey possible.
I smiled and shoved my hands into my pockets, trying to hide the extreme embarrassment of what just happened. I may have just infringed upon her hospitality by bringing the word “feminist” into her household.
“Yep, I read a lot of feminist theology,” I said with an easy and open smile.
I embraced the word with the casual ease of a woman raised in the 90s in the Pacific Northwest. Looking back, this upbringing was decidedly feminist. In the confidence of a seven-year-old certain of her ability to be whatever she wanted in the future, I informed my parents that I wanted to be President of the United States. My father’s response was to help me further develop my health-care reform and anti-war platform through conversations about newspaper articles and taking me to as many political rallies as possible. In high school I saw my mother earn $25,000 a year less than her counterparts for more work because “she didn’t have a college degree.” As Hoagland says, when discrimination happens, they don’t say it’s because you are a woman, they say it’s because you’re not good enough. So confident that occupationally, I could be anything I also knew that sexism materially affected our household because of wage discrimination. Therefore, feminism was the simple political solution to systematic oppressions for women. In college, the discovery of feminist theologies reinforced my understanding of the universality of God’s love and the desire to find metaphors, images, and ideas about God that transcend our patriarchal society.
And so I babbled this history to her, to cover up the sudden, shocked silence between us.
“Honey,” my possible friend, said to me, “Black women didn’t want to go into the workforce in the 1970s. We had been working for a long time. We just wanted to be able to be home to raise our kids, instead of raising other people’s kids.”
I knew that critique. I read the standard womanist descriptions of Alice Walker in college. I knew that racism has been and is prevalent throughout feminist discourse. Feminists often assume that the same models of liberation are obviously applicable to women of all races inside the United States, not recognizing that liberation doesn’t mean the same thing. The word feminism carried none of my positive connotations, and every negative one for her. And now, I realized that I had casually tracked the shit of racism into my friend’s bright and comfortable living room after she had invited me to a pleasant cup of tea.
So I did one of the smartest, bravest things I have ever done in my life. “Tell me more, please.”
She searched my face. A beat of silence descended into the conversation. Then another.
“If you’d like, if you’d feel comfortable, I mean….” I trailed off. Suddenly, I realized that I may have asked too much. Here was this 20 something white girl asking a 50 something African-American woman to tell me about her experiences. Was this too a mark of privilege, that I could ask and assume she would tell?
The teapot whistled. She turned and grabbed two mugs out of her cupboard. “Well, this is how it was,” she began. And we had one of those conversations, woman to woman, that is infused with the movement of the Spirit. Through her stories, the academic discussion of feminist critique became personal and important. We learned from each other that day. And yes, three years into seminary we absolutely claim each other as friend.
I often thank feminism for liberating my voice and opening up new possibilities for my identity. I can pray to my Mother God, I can make assumptions that woman’s experiences matter to the academy, and I can advocate for the full and integrated equality of women in our economic, political, private, and spiritual spheres of our societies. Yet, I also have come to realize that my gratefulness for feminism cannot be thrust upon others as the standard for reaction to oppression of many sorts. Through our conversation, I realized that I cannot just talk about feminism liberating the woman’s workforce, but also liberating women from the burden of forced economic decisions. Women should be able to choose to work in a sexist-free environment and women should be able to be the primary caregivers to their families if they so choose. All women’s work needs to be valued as an important part of our society.
Feminism has its shadow side in its history and connotations. Someday, I hope that I will be able to overcome some of the racist baggage in the academy (and feminist discourse) without the incoherent, painful awareness of the ways in which my privilege plays out to my advantage. Yet to assume that I can overcome this problem on my own without embracing the critiques from all women, than I cannot hope to escape that privilege.
I thank feminism for liberating my heart, emboldening me to ask the hard questions and opening my soul enough to hear the hard answers too. And I thank feminism for allowing me to claim my seminary-sister as friend.
Categories: Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue