With Friends Like These...
“As all advocates of feminist politics know most people do not understand sexism or if they do they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” – bell hooks
My parents have been married for over 40 years. At their 25th wedding anniversary celebration – we had a giant to-do with a dance floor and a DJ and everything – I remember looking through their wedding album. In it, I found a picture of them staring at a car that had been somewhat mutilated . A much younger version of my father had his hand out, wiping shaving cream from the hood while my much younger mother watched.
“Dad, what’s this?” the ten year old me asked.
“Oh, we knew this girl who was a feminist and she didn’t believe in marriage. She put ‘suckers’ on the hood of our car during the wedding ceremony.”
This was 10-year-old Dianna’s first introduction to the word “feminist.” I avoided the label for years afterward – even though I was functionally feminist in many of my dealings – because I didn’t want to be associated with the woman who called my parents “suckers” for getting married at the age of 21 in 1972.
I wonder, sometimes, if theologian and Truett Seminary professor Roger Olson had similar encounters that left a bad taste in his mouth about feminism. For all his talk of egalitarianism, he seems to have a specific bone to pick with what he calls “radical feminism” – which bears no actual resemblance to the radical feminism as I, a member of the feminist movement, would characterize it,* but rather as it means people like me, people who bother to claim the label of “feminist.”
He has written previously about how “Christian feminists” – something he seems to insist is an oxymoron – are destroying orthodoxy by questioning whether or not God is male and inserting such gender neutral labels in worship songs. At the time he wrote this last year, I’d attended some pretty liberal churches, and none of them (with the exception of a Unitarian Univeralist church, which is hardly mainstream) had anything but traditional, orthodox (male) language surrounding God.
When I pointed out that he had taken the fringe of the academic Christian feminist movement and turned it into a spectre threatening mainstream worship, he told me that if I don’t agree with these theologians he quoted, I should drop the label of feminist.
After that infuriating encounter last year, I dropped Olson from my radar, and didn’t pick him up again until his review of Rachel Held Evans’ new book, The Year of Biblical Womanhood, came up this weekend. And boy, I should not have been surprised, but I was.
Here’s what I know: Roger Olson is a smart man. He knows what he is talking about when it comes to theology, and I appreciate him as an egalitarian and Arminian. But I cannot call him my ally in the feminist movement (and I think he would not want to be), because he fails magnificently to enact a basic academic principle in his arguments about feminism: a gracious definition of terms that would be recognized by the group about whom he is talking. Put more simply, he fails to define his terms in a way that is universally recognizable as correct. He changes the definition to suit his bias, which is anti-academic, ungracious, and misleading. Worse, he doesn’t seem to care.
In his review, I was clipping right along with his discussion of the inconsistency of Biblical literalism in the complementarian camp, until I got to this weird, absurd claim:
How about A Year of Consistent Feminism? Maybe one month would be devoted to lobbying congress to change the law to require young women to register for the draft! I don’t see it happening.
Um, wait, what? Where did that come from? Where does he get the idea that feminists aren’t fighting the draft? Certainly not from reading actual modern-day feminists and discussions that are happening, re: the draft, like this one, this one, this one or this one.
(What’s worth noticing here, as well, that the leap to the draft as an “inconsistency of feminism” is a very common tactic used by Mens Rights Activists, which makes me instantly distrust Olson’s definition of feminism.)
After this small, weird hiccup, Olson’s review takes a left turn into WTF-ville. Olson is unaware, evidently, that he just spent most of this post praising a book by a woman who has, on many occasions, featured feminist writers (yes, me) and claimed the name of feminist. Regardless, Olson launches into a screed against feminism, saying:
On the other hand, I’m no fan of feminism. Of course, much depends on what “feminism” means, but far too often these days it means implicit, if not explicit, belief in female superiority and requirement for men to become like women in order to be acceptable. It too often means the total obliteration of masculinity (I’m not talking about “machismo,” but non-threatening male ways of relating).
I am both familiar and unfamiliar with the feminism with which he is discussing. Usually, the “changing gender” argument goes the other direction, but I’m not surprised to see him characterize feminism as emasculating for men. I am … annoyed? infuriated? …to see it coming from Roger Olson, a man who insists on being able to define “evangelical” as a label for himself but refuses to grant that same grace toward men and women who claim both Christ and feminism.
Without support or substantiation (and, when pressed in the comments by myself and others, still refuses to provide support for his broad claim, citing instead book titles), Olson claims, essentially, that feminism is about the domination of women over men and that male allies in feminism must have been emasculated. The spectre of feminism in his mind is the woman who wrote “suckers” on my parents’ car, not the woman who spends her evenings counseling rape victims on a crisis hotline that it’s not their fault, or the woman who advocates for the poor in her neighborhood on a national television show, or the woman who fights for her right to go to school and gets shot for it, or the numerous feminists arguing against drone strikes in that same neighborhood, or the feminists who argue for the inclusion of the marginalized in every sphere, or the male feminists who spend time advocating for the rights of the women around him.
My feminism – the feminism of today – is Christlike.
It advocates tirelessly for the poor and the hurting. It speaks truth to power. It calls for the recognition of all of God’s human creation to have equal rights under the secular state. It is intersectional and inclusive in its advocacy for those abused and downtrodden by the evil action of dehumanization.
The feminism I know argues for the rights of men not to be raped in the prison system and to have more support in being believed in incidents of abuse.
The feminism I know argues for the rights of children to be with the parent who is best suited to care for them, not for it to be assumed that they would automatically go with their mother.
The feminism I know advocate for paid paternity leave as well as maternity leave.
The feminism I know includes Stay at Home fathers as well as Stay at Home mothers.
The feminism I know advocates for access to welfare, food stamps, and universal health care because women are more likely to be living in poverty than men.
The feminism I know advocates not only for equal pay for women, but for equal pay for men of color, women of color, trans* people, and LGB citizens.
The feminism I know wants the best representatives of Jesus Christ in the pulpit, whether they be women or men.
The feminism I know more closely resembles the community vision for God’s church than a lot of churches I’ve encountered in my lifetime. My feminist friends spend their weekends volunteering to help victims of rape, raising funds to support women in poverty, finding ways for these impoverished women to access medical care, advocating and pressing their legislators to reject anti-woman measures and to pass measures protecting women from violence. My feminist friends represent a greater diversity of races, genders, backgrounds, and sexual orientations than any church I have stepped foot in over my 26 years of life.
My feminism is wrapped up in the identity of Christ as an advocate of the marginalized, as an advocate of equality, and as an advocate of the poor. I advocate as a feminist because I am a Christian, not in spite of it.
My feminism is Christlike and far from matriarchal. I suggest, Dr. Olson, that you acquaint yourself with actual feminism and actual feminists before you talk of what you do not know.
*The definition of radical feminism – or radfem, as they themselves call it – is a feminism that views gender as a set binary (meaning trans* men and women are to be hated) and views all heterosexual relationships are inherently unbalanced and therefore women must be lesbians to be true feminists. Most mainstream feminists you speak to today will tell you that radfem activism flies in the face of the necessary intersectionality and inclusion that characterizes modern-day feminism.