Every 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.