It 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 academia.edu.
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