When Personhood is Not Enough: The Context of Feminism

[content note: potentially triggering abuse apologia, discussions of rape, hate crimes. My thanks to Suzannah Paul and Alan Hooker for prodding me to think about this topic.]

When I first started talking about feminism openly and fervently, I sat down for a cup of coffee with a conservative acquaintance. He asked me over and over to explain feminism, and it became really convenient to rely on aphorisms and platitudes. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” I’d say, trying to find the most agreeable and hardest to dispute path.

But after a few of these conversations, I realized that this one sentence wasn’t enough. Complementarians and egalitarians alike claimed to believe that women are people – they just had different notions of what personhood looks like. This seemed like common ground that allowed anyone of any kind of belief to declare themselves “feminists.”

In one particular conversation, after asserting that wives who experience abuse at the hands of their husbands are like underground Christians in China, martyred for a cause, this acquaintance told me that of course he believes women are people. They just have a different role to play.

That was when I knew something was wrong with my simplistic definition of feminism. It reached for common ground in a way that erased the context within which feminists work. It was a simple declaration that softened feminism to the point of near meaninglessness. Of course complementarians believe women are people! They’re just people who experience their full personhood within a particular role that doesn’t involve any preaching, teaching men, and submission to their husbands within heterosexual marriages.

Declaring that women are people is all well and good, but it needs to be done within a specific context. Declaring that women are people means nothing if you don’t have a context for discussing what personhood, bodily autonomy, consent, ownership, and full humanity mean.

This means feminism must carry with it a form of critique – and this notion makes many people uncomfortable. We want to declare ourselves radical by saying that women are people without acknowledging the patriarchal context within which such a notion becomes radical. Without an argument that patriarchy is oppressive, “women are people” becomes less a radical notion and more a mere statement of the status quo.

We declare that women are people because patriarchy tells women they are all the same and are supposed to be submissive to men.

We declare that women are people because patriarchy has told us for years that our bodies are public property and objects for men to use.

We declare that women are people because for years, rape was seen as a crime against property rather than a crime against the humanity of a person.

We declare that women are people because the first people to witness and testify to the resurrection of Christ were women – in an age where women were not to be trusted simply because they were women.

We declare that women are people because patriarchy has created a world in which women’s reproductive choices are subject to approval by the state, resulting all too often in pain, death, poverty, and hardship. 

We declare that women are people because we exist in a world where little girls are told to wear shorts under their skirts because men might be perverted, instead of men being reprimanded for being perverted.

We declare that women are people because Christianity has spent years telling women that they are to submit to their husbands, that they have no voice, and that God does not look like them.

We declare that women are people because lesbians around the world are subject to “corrective” rapes by men who are offended that women can find pleasure outside of the male realm.

We declare that women are people because trans women are killed for not performing gender properly.

We declare that women are people because women are far more likely to die at the hands of their husbands or intimate partners than any other group.

We declare that women are people because little girls are reprimanded for liking sports, as though shallow likes and dislikes are what defines one’s gender identity.

Without this vital context, the declaration that women are people becomes meaningless. Without this vital critique of the existing system, those who perpetuate the oppressions of women can declare themselves feminists without irony.

I cannot enact feminism without including critique that challenges existing patriarchal attitudes. Feminism without critique of existing structures is merely new age-y feel-good activism, not a radical notion at all. It cannot exist as an aphorism - it must be incarnated within critique, liberation, and understanding. We are people, yes, and that is radical because of our context. This is feminism.