Questions that Matter: What is Feminism? by Elise M. Edwards

elise-edwardsIt certainly is a busy time of year for me, but I’m fortunate that many of the events I am participating in offer a chance to share what is important to me.  Next week, I’ll be speaking to a group of students in one of my campus’ residence halls about feminism and Christianity.  For this informal setting, I was allowed to choose my own topic under the broad heading of “Questions That Matter.” I’ve decided to take on the f-word in religion and attempt to explain why it’s important to me and how it relates to my religious identity.  Although I’m still trying to figure out what to say, I’d like to share my thoughts so far and get some insight from you.

Let me provide some context: I teach at a Christian university where a large number of students identify as Christian in one way or another.  Many of them, although not all, are more ideologically and politically conservative than I am, but I make an effort to understand their views, and to respect their positions when the students are informed and sincerely motivated by noble principles.  As at many colleges and universities, we have more female undergraduate students than male undergraduate students, and the majority of those women are pursuing degrees related to their career aspirations.  My students will enter a workforce that is more egalitarian than in previous decades, but during the college years and after it, they still encounter traditional gender roles and navigate complex social pressures about marriage, sex, and adulthood.

On the first day of classes, I usually describe myself as a black feminist and explain the implications of that for the course readings and topics I’ve selected, and for the language we will use to refer to the divine and to people in our class.  I usually have a student or two come up to me after class to tell me they are relieved or excited about my feminist perspective, but I know from course evaluations and conversations that occur later in the semester that some students are uneasy about my views.  I can understand that.  Defenders of patriarchy should be uneasy.  My feminist agenda is at odds with some Christian agendas.  But as regular readers here know, I have found a way to claim both feminism and Christianity.  Several of us have explained why and how we connect faith and feminism in the books Faithfully Feminist and Women Religion Revolution.  I also understand that some students who are uneasy with feminism don’t quite know what it is or how it might relate to their own beliefs. (If you have not read Samah Elbelazi’s post from yesterday describing her work to define Libyan feminism, you should check it out.)

I see my conversation with the students in the residence hall as an opportunity to put a face to a movement or label that too often gets vilified or misrepresented. I’m sure some of them associate feminism with “pro-abortion,” “pro-gay,” anti-Trump political agendas and hating men.  Of course, many (but not all) self-identified feminists do advocate for reproductive justice, pro-choice policies, and LGBTQ rights.  Feminists do oppose patriarchy and misogyny and therefore criticize the men, women, and presidents who perpetuate it.   But I hope to help these students see that the reason we do so is because of our concerns about power, its unequal distribution, and its effects.  (See Carol Christ’s popular post about Patriarchy as a System of Male Dominance Created at the Intersection of the Control of Women, Private Property, and War.) Like many idealistic young people, feminists, too, want to create a world that is better and more oriented toward justice.  I believe God seeks this, too.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines feminism as “Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this.”  Rosemary Radford Ruether puts it more simply and eloquently on FAR’s What is Feminism page: “Feminism basically means the affirmation of the full humanity of women.”  Affirming women’s full humanity means that we are committed to deconstructing systems that privilege male power over other forms of power and that we reconstruct these systems in egalitarian ways.  Intersectional feminism is so critically important for this task.  Feminists can be unaware of our own power and the ways we marginalize and dominate others.  White feminists can ignore the ways they are complicit in the subjugation of non-whites and need the correctives offered by womanists, mujerista, and other feminists of color.

Dr. Elbelazi’s post reminds me that defining our own particular forms of feminism is a process best pursued while  intentionally opening ourselves to learn from others (inside and outside the global feminist movement) who are committed to justice.  I know that as a Christian, I occupy a place of privilege in many parts of Western culture—this is especially true on my campus where my religion, class, and level of education puts me at an advantage.  That privilege has already granted me the authority to have that upcoming conversation about Christianity and feminism with the students.

So what will I say?  I may offer a vision of the Christian faith that promotes the ordination of women, challenges the normative maleness of God, and affirms the bodily integrity of all people.  I want to extend hope for what’s possible within this broad faith tradition of mine.  But I also plan to listen and to learn from my conversation partners who embrace other spiritual paths and none at all. They may reveal what a black Christian feminist like me cannot see about my complicity in systems of injustice.  So, friends, I open it up to you.  What do you hope I hear and say in this conversation to come?

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or

Categories: Academy, authority, Belief, Black Feminism, Christianity, Community, Education, Faith, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, General, meditations, power, Power relations, Relationality, Social Justice

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13 replies

  1. I appreciate you will probably want more from me, but I hope you get validation for your position of “Defenders of Patriarchy should be uneasy”. That made me smile and I think it is a great line.

    I also thought of the mainstream film ‘God is not Dead’, which can now be bought as a DVD. It is based on a true story of a christian on a university campus, who enrols on a course where the lecturer, wants to get through the curriculum faster and without undue fuss, so suggests that the class sign statements that say that ‘God is Dead’. There is only one person in the room, who is not prepared to sign this statement, and he is then faced with the challenge of defending God, with his classmates as the jury…..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How do we make more room in Christianity for women and people of color? How does it feel as a woman or a person of color to grow up in Christianity being told that we are made in the image of God … but that image is of a white male? I grew up in a Catholic church with not much of an affinity for the sermons nor Jesus, but I liked ‘Church’: the incense, the stained glass, the music, all of the people.

    Nowadays, I have no label. As I have worked on an app for the past three years promoting the ‘divine feminine’, I have lots of friends who are Pagan, Atheist and hold such different ‘spiritual’ views and practices than what traditionally the Catholic church allows.

    My daughters and my husband (occasionally I do as well) go to one of those large, progressive Christian churches. I do not go often as I find this one very masculine slanted. So insidious that my husband did not notice it, but I said that it felt ‘off kilter’ to me: male rock bands, male ministers, ‘he’ and more ‘he’, all ‘he’,’his’ and ‘Father’ straight edges with nary a women leader nor some rounded circles in site.

    Than my husband through a friend was told yes,they do specifically cater to the men and children. Their reasoning being that if you ‘get the men and the children’, you have the whole family (as the ‘good’ women will go regardless.) Lol. Not this one.

    The funny thing is sometimes I do go, and yes, my kids LOVE it there: climbing structures, music, treats – nothing like its Catholic parallel of the crying room at the back! And I usually enjoy it there as well. There are what looks like to ’empathetic’ me, ‘happy’ families and kids abounding. My 5 yo comes home with a bible verse that she has memorized about not being afraid and having courage. These are good things, good community and good messages.

    But isn’t it time they ‘marketed’ to me as well?

    I recently went to Parents day for their Wednesday classes. It was a large modern, stadium seating auditorium with large screens and the full audio set-up. A woman speaker did a ‘warm-up’ with a brief song with movement, then handed it over to the man for the rest of the program. There was one black man sitting in the back looking bored, but other than that, the large majority of parents were white fathers. For one of the first times in my life, I noticed how many ‘he’s’ and ‘our father’ were sprinkled through-out his twenty minute message, and I really sat and thought about how that was influencing my two daughters.

    Do you know what? Ironically, now that I do not often call myself a ‘Christian’ any more (but I do call myself a ‘feminist’ ;) ), I at this point in my life, have a better relationship with Jesus. Him and I are ‘conmadres’, and I know that he would agree, that until Christianity moves away from its continual portrayal and implication of a white male God, it is not the religion of compassion and inclusion that he stood for.

    A-women. That’s all I have to say. Sending love and well wishes on your talk. May She come shining through.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for sharing this with me. The male-centered language really bothers me… I never even considered that it might be part of an intentional marketing strategy. It does make me sad to think that when a church like this seeks to appeal to men, assuming (rightly?) that many women will simply follow simply replicates the message women receive too-often that our needs and desires are secondary. We’re not talking about a reciprocal trade-off, but a persistent subordination of women’s paths of seeking the divine. Insidious! I hope your work affirming the divine feminine heals some of this toxicity!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Intentional marketing strategy from the past 5000 plus years lol … thank you and best wishes to you as well. And yes! I think we’re ‘on’ to something, here is a post from Patricia Ballentine in response to your article and my comment: “I cannot give this a bigger Amen AND Blessed Be. I shared during the time of the Winter Solstice that I believe I am a better “Christian” now that I am a Pagan than I was when I was Catholic. And within the past year I have expanded my work as an interfaith Priestess, working with groups comprised of folks from many, many religious expressions. This weaving…and re-writing through interfaith work is, I believe, uniquely Women’s work. And in a world so polarized it will take Women within the religions of the world to bring the change.”

        I LOVE that part about ‘weaving’ and how we as women are uniquely suited to it!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Elise for what you’re about to undertake. I’m a recovering Catholic myself and I am very disheartened that Christianity used to be liberation thealogy but now its prosperity gospels. The Church stood with FDR to help usher in the social safety net, but they seem absent from the fight to help restore any equality and justice. That’s just my perspective these days, but I’m very interested in shedding light on how corporations have shaped American Christianity and churches have abdicated their responsibility in the areas of social justice and shame on them! I’m also surprised in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement we have not heard anything about patriarchal religion’s role in shaping the narrative or consciousness of men. Good Christians and feminists have been way to silent, IMHO on these important topics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You might be interested in R T Kendall’s new book ‘Whatever happened to the Gospel’. I haven’t read it yet but I have it on order. I was reminded of it whilst reading your comment. In the blurb it talks about the fact that we have the Prosperity Gospel, the Name it and Claim it Gospel and the Political Gospel but what about the Gospel?

      Although I have not looked at it, there is also a “Church Too” hashtag.

      Kind regards

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for saying this. I absolutely must address patriarchal religion’s role in shaping our cultural narratives about masculinity!


    • Karen I just wanted you to know that there are progressive denominations, such as the United Church of Christ, that work for social justice and equality. I do agree though about patriarchal religion’s role in shaping the narrative and consciousness of men, and I would add, of women.


  4. Thanks for your thoughts here Elise, enjoyed your post — much depth in it, also challenging and interesting in helpful ways.

    I don’t think we could have any better question than WHAT IS FEMINISM? And yet it seems to me to be a question for each of us to answer individually — also, at the same time, maybe that definition should be in flux, if we want it to be, as well as how do we apply it within the context of our activities.


    • Thank you! I absolutely agree that there is some fluidity to the definition as we apply it to our own contexts. As long as empowerment and justice remain common and central to our work, promoting different expressions of the feminist agenda seems positive.


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