Not that long ago, I would have distanced myself from the word ‘feminist’. I would have held it at arms length, and maybe even gone so far as denying that I was one. Through my late twenties and thirties the last thing in the world I would have wanted to be known as was a feminist.
Not because I didn’t believe that women should be treated equally; not because I thought that women really should be paid less and certainly not because rape, sexual harassment and the diminishing of the reality of those things didn’t matter to me. They all did, and do, matter very much indeed – all the more so as I learn how both my faith and feminism are intertwined with each other.
What caused me to distance myself from the fiery early feminism of my youth were those things that continue to cause such arguments, difficult conversations and schisms** within that movement now: the colonial racism, the appalling transphobia, that strange dichotomy within feminism that calls for an end to a bi-gendered approach (because that keeps women in a pre-defined box of idealised womanhood) yet struggles to accept trans*/transgender women; the obsession with wanting the same power as men (best typified by the hot mess that is the ‘Lean In’ thing), yet failing to notice how our daughters still sought to define themselves by how they looked.
(**I’m a Christian – I know a good schism when I see one.)
In fact, whilst Western Women had the vote, the right to an education, access (at least in some cases) to birth control and a degree of bodily autonomy that their Grandmothers and Great-Grandmothers could only have dreamed of – it seemed to me that in some very fundamental ways, the political movement that was feminism was more interested in navel gazing and a self-obsessed approach to the world than in addressing the primal motivators that prevented it from making the kind of changes of which it was (and still is capable) of.
It is not an accusation, or criticism, to say that we white western women have internalised colonial, racist, hetro-normative societies attitudes along with the rest of western society. Despite being so angry about all of these things (but without the language to articulate them, far les address them) I had also internalised these same things and no amount of ‘liberal mind set’ was going to change that. How could it. Growing up, the People of Colour I saw were often objects of fun, I cannot recall the media giving a platform to the work of women of colour and I would be hard pressed to think of any representation of trans*/transgender people that wasn’t sensationalist and poorly informed. (And very little changes there).
So for all the ‘wins’ that feminism had achieved – or helped to achieve – the lack of both grace and generosity in the face of such victories is either startling, or not surprising. How far can feminism really go – how much can it really achieve – without addressing the internalised racism (both colonial and prejudicial), the patriarchy we thing we think we are actually fighting against, the transphobia.. why, if we are truly ‘liberating’ ourselves can we be so absent of joy in that liberation that we would not want to change all these other oppressions?
Stopping the daily sexism that women still have to deal with will not liberate us; ending the violence, the rape culture and the victim blaming will not free us: not if feminism remains so white/cis centric, so bound up in patriarchal, colonial structures within which we have allowed ourselves to be defined.
That is why my feminism and Christian faith are so bound up in each other: the liberation offered by Jesus was not focussed on the external, but the internal. Each of us must engage in an internal journey to free ourselves of the chains which bind us to the slavery of power. If we struggle against the powers that bind our external lives without seeking to free ourselves of power which would still bind others, the struggle will never end.
Do we want equality – or a platform for power? Do we want liberation and equity – or rights for ourselves that maintain the status quo? Are we angry about what happens to us – or driven to change the world for the benefit of society as a whole?
I want a feminism and a faith that is gracious in it’s failures, generous in it’s victories, courageous enough to hear the hard questions – and honest enough to answer them.