One of my favorite classes that I took as a graduate student was “19th Century Rhetoric” with Dr. Lisa Shaver. I know, the class name sounds totally boring, but it was honestly one of the most interesting classes from my two years at Baylor (next to Dr. Ralph Wood’s religion and literature course, which I was taking that same semester).
In this class, we particularly examined the abolitionist and moral reform rhetoric from middle-class Methodist white women in the larger cities. These were women of some privilege, who took their Christian faith to heart and formed communities in order to fight for women who didn’t share their position. These Moral Reform Societies advocated against the sexual double standard and advocated for laws to protect women who were victims of abuse and women who were impoverished because of the laws against owning property. These Reform societies eventually evolved into the Temperance Movement that produced numerous novels about the plight of women who had abusive, alcoholic husbands.
The other branch of evolution from the Reform societies (which were closely tied to the religious awakenings lead by Charles Finney) turned into the abolitionist movement and the suffrage movement. Many of the women realized that one of the major roadblocks to advocating for laws to help women was their inability to vote and to be elected to legislatures. It’s hard to change things that affect you if you are not represented by the institutional powers.
The suffrage and abolitionist movements sat at a curious intersection. Many white suffragettes were resentful that black men got the vote before white women. Racism pervaded the suffragist movement, and it’s no surprise that it was led mainly by white women who saw justice as a set of steps – “First, I get my rights, then I can advocate for yours, if I deem it worthy.” (Unfortunately, the racist history of white feminism indicates that this trend is continuing today).
The abolitionist movement was also, unsurprisingly, charged with racism, but racism of a different kind. White women from the North wrote letters to their white “sisters” in the South, advocating that they push their husbands toward abolition. Sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke were particularly fierce in this kind of letter writing campaign. But while all these white ladies were writing letters supposedly for the advocacy of human rights for people of color, advocates of color were being ignored. It was a benevolent kind of racism.
In this class, we read Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech. The edition we read had contextualized the speech by including parenthetical notes about when it was interrupted by the protests outside the building where she was speaking. This was the first time that I, a white woman, realized that this woman was protested simply because she was advocating for her right to exist as a person of color. And she was rejected by many white abolitionists because of the controversy she brought with her – these white feminists were happy to advocate for her, but not with her.
This narrative repeats itself day in and day out within mainstream feminism. This goes beyond merely tone policing – it’s not the way people advocate that causes them to be pushed aside by Nice, White, Professional Feminism, but often what they are advocating as well. The black woman who advocates against reclaiming the concept of “slut” is silenced and cast aside as “argumentative” and “angry” – despite the fact that the argument is well-worth examining as “slut” is a label often placed on women of color simply because of their color and thus “reclaiming” it is not necessarily a radical act.
The problem here extends out of an idea of justice as progressive and linear. Now, I realize that sounds funny coming from a self-identified progressive, but let me explain. I’m using “progressive” here not in the political sense, but in the sense of advocacies running in certain orders. White Feminists – particularly white Christian feminists – tend to advocate first for themselves, then for other groups. It is “wait your turn” feminism – the same feminism that outright ignored black women advocating for their rights because white women not having the vote was “more pressing.” It is also feminism that advocates a prescriptive that works for all people, rather than looking at individual lives and finding freedom for them.
It’s the feminism that says “we’ll advocate for trans* rights once we have marriage equality.”
It’s the feminism that says “we’ll advocate for lesbians in leadership once we have heterosexual women ordained.”
It’s the feminism that declares “if this strategy worked for white women, then it must work for all women, and if you disagree you’re just wrong.”
It's the feminism that says "we need to be better allies to our allies."
It’s the feminism of “leaning in,” of “slut walks,” of pro-choice advocates using disability as a reason to have the right to abort.
Women who don’t act in ways that are appealing to the patriarchy – women who are angry, women who work as strippers and sex workers, women who aren’t “nice” and “calm,” women who aren’t white, middle-class, and orthodox – are cast aside, mocked, and belittled as “divisive.”
Bothering to exist outside the ideal, bothering to be angry in ways that aren’t sanctioned as useful, bothering to say “that’s not good enough” will get you smacked down by a feminism that thinks appealing to the patriarchy is the best way to advocate for themselves. It’s the feminism that reminds us that the patriarchial misogynists are human, too, that tells us to calm down when we’re upset over a violation of our rights, that says that we must accept the crumbs we get from the table and forgive our abusers because they're "just like us."
I don’t stand with that feminism. I don’t deign to believe that I must be “nice” and “calm” before I'll get the attention of people who never wanted to listen to me in the first place. It’s simply not in me to appeal to my oppressors so that they might oppress me less.
I celebrate a feminism – and a Christianity – that is messy, that is fraught, that is angry, and that seeks justice for everyone, because it knows that justice does not wait its turn. We can disagree, we can argue and fight all we want – it’s not a threat to feminism; it’s a blessing of it.
A Christian feminism can’t and shouldn’t tolerate oppression and injustice. And there’s no way to say that nicely enough to please the patriarchy.