The relationship between Christianity and feminism is a close but vexed one. There is a striking history of writers and activists who have brought the two traditions into dialogue, including figures such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Phyllis Trible, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Mercy Aduyoye and Thandeka. There is an equally noticeable tradition of those within each movement denouncing the other as totally incompatible with their aims and understandings of the world.
Some Christian groups, spread across the spectrum from Catholic to Evangelical, have cited feminist influences within the Anglo-American culture of the past fifty years as toxic. Feminism has been blamed for the breakdown of traditional values, the marginalisation of men, the erosion of educational standards and the weakening of civil society. These critiques range from suggesting that “radical” feminism has shifted the emphasis of social attitudes too far, and that it is time for a mild correction, to drastic declarations that feminism is a worldview entirely incompatible with “Western” civilization.
But other Christians claim Jesus as the first feminist, and locate their sense of social justice firmly in the tenets of the faith. Again, these attitudes can vary from asserting that there is no necessary dissonance between the principles of feminism and Christian teaching, through suggesting that faith should affect the practice of gender justice, whilst feminist insights must have an impact on religious practices, to insisting that Christianity and feminism are nearly the same thing. Attitudes to faith within feminism also vary widely, from those who see it as a source of strength and enlightenment, to those who can only regard religious history as the record of the patriarchy in its most ideologically virulent form.
I discussed the question with three women whose thinking has challenged and enriched my understanding of the subject over the last few years: Rachel Mann, Hannah Mudge and Pam Smith. Hannah is a Christian writer and speaker who works in charity communications. Pam is the “virtual vicar” in charge of the Church of England’s online i-Church. Rachel is a canon of Manchester Cathedral, as well as being its poet-in-residence. I asked them to talk about the ways Christianity and feminism relate to each other, whether they think “Christian feminist” is a helpful term for them, and how the ideas and practices covered by the two terms interact in their lives. Their answers provided some intriguing insights. I hope I’ve summed up effectively the drift of the discussion – any unclarity remains my fault!
There was a general agreement that Christianity and feminism are compatible, and indeed more than compatible. Hannah sees principles which feminism articulates enshrined in central Christian sources, finding in scripture “the confirmation of the equality of men and women at creation” and “a radical blueprint for the treatment of women in the way Jesus included them in his life and how they were included in the early church”. Pam finds no intellectual dissonance in the two sets of ideas, which to her are “concentric”, remarking that Christianity has become “more and more apparently about social justice to me and feminism is also about social justice.” Rachel’s instinct is to be cautious about sweeping terms, and see a more fragmented series of local interactions between “feminisms” (in terms of chronological waves, or political priorities) and “Christianities” (the particular traditions and the “habitus of faith”).
They had also found a certain amount of resistance within Christian circles to the feminist ideas they espoused. This could come from the complementarian views of gender taught by more conservative Christians, which Pam describes as impractical and difficult to square with equality as a “kingdom value” which is “intrinsic to the Bible”. After having become a feminist in response to the misogynistic aspects of university life, Hannah didn’t at first realize that her membership of the Christian Union might conflict with the websites and books she was exploring. She describes feeling “unsettled and confused” when a woman at her church explained how she had come to terms with Christian teaching on gender, and accepted that women should not lead or preach. After struggling with the issue, egalitarian Christian literature and other Christian women led her to critique the model of “Biblical womanhood” which such teachings assumed.
In Rachel’s experience, push-back against feminist attitudes in the church can also make themselves felt in a subtler way. She recalls a liturgy she had designed for an event celebrating women’s ministry, using “seriously kataphatic” language in a playful way, “layers upon layers of wild designations for God” in terms which deliberately flouted the tendency to simply address God as “Father”. One of her fellow priests – also a woman – commented “Oh, it’s like something we did in the ‘80s”. This seems to typify for Rachel both a perception by many people that feminism has happened, that it was something a bit silly and embarrassing now, but perhaps needed in previous decades, and also continuing discomfort with what feminism actually still has to say. In her phrase, “on a day to day level for women priests, it can feel like we’ve been absorbed by the C of E Borg”, and a liberal priority to open specific opportunities to women may have sidetracked a more radical concern with gender injustice in the present as well as in the centuries upon which modern life and modern religion is built.
None of the three women were able to identify comfortably with the term “Christian feminist”. This was partly because of their personal histories: none of them had become a Christian before engaging with feminism, so their experiences had blended “secular” experiences of feminism with their later religious beliefs. Hannah spoke about her anger and misery at the unexpected “lad culture” in her university, which expressed itself in the objectification and intimidation of women. She had been aware of feminism previously only as a topic “in A-Level History”: I remember learning about the first wave of feminism – the struggle for women to get the vote and gain property rights, etc…but to me it was history; nothing particularly connected it to anything going on in my life.” Her university years changed all that. Rachel’s first encounter with feminism was also at university, in circumstances that complicate her relationship to it. “I first encountered [feminism] as a man. Curiously, it helped that my first feminist teacher was a man who saw himself as a feminist” since that “exposed me to all those questions that are raised by notions of male colonization of women’s theoretical positions and how far Western subjectivity is defined on a male/masculine model.” It wasn’t her Christian conversion which made her a feminist: “The language of my heart…in this area is not Biblical”.
Beyond these personal experiences there is a wariness about conflating Christianity and feminism into “Christian feminist”. Whilst all have a powerful sense of bringing the two into connection in their lives and ideas, there aren’t eager to produce a third term from them. Pam states “I am a feminist who is a Christian and a Christian who is a feminist”, adding that “I’m not sure at what point I would turn into a ‘Christian feminist’”. The ontology of it bothers her, and she’s also suspicious of “reading back” our modern identities into the Bible, especially given the ways that has been used by “traditional” interpretations. Hannah shares this concern, agreeing that it’s terribly important to be able to demonstrate that the Bible does teach equality and liberation, but that the shapes and histories of modern feminist experiences cannot be read straight from the Scriptural texts. There are practical and strategic benefits to holding the two closely together, not least persuading more conservative Christians than egalitarianism is an authentically Scriptural attitude. But there are also risks, such as finding that “Christian feminism” might be compelled to foreground emphases like “being gracious” rather than “angry”, which might distort its expression and also suggest that other feminisms are invalid because they express “legitimate anger”.
More broadly, there is unease about the potential of “Christian feminism” to isolate itself from other streams and forms of feminism. Rachel jokingly compares the risk to a “Heinz 57 Varieties” situation, where you simply pick from a dazzling array of options, before reflecting that the “57 Varieties” only ever existed in a marketing slogan. This finds an echo in Hannah’s concern that “Christian feminism” not become simply a soft-focus and narrowly-focused lens, going out of its way not to alienate men or conservatives, a “feminism that’s chiefly concerned with women’s role in the church, and that as a result, places less emphasis on women as a class and the whole gamut of issues that affect them”. As she says, “I don’t want the main thrust of Christian feminism to be that it’s ‘nice’ and non-threatening. It needs to be threatening!”
The other streams of feminism have their problems, too. The “self-righteousness” of those who feel compelled to tell other people what to do to fit “the template” makes itself felt both in religion and outside it, as Pam points out, registering her distaste for being lectured at by the “right-on”. As a woman in her fifties, she notices younger women regarding her as irrelevant or dismissable, despite the way an older generation’s struggles – for control of childbirth and breastfeeding, for example – have shaped the current situation. Hannah’s enthusiasm for the online feminist spaces which supported and inspired her has become tempered in recent years, as she mentions being “disheartened and appalled by some online feminist discourse”, which “evolved into a focus on performative ‘call-outs’, constant assumptions of bad faith, playground bullying tactics and monstering of women who hold differing views”. Rachel also finds herself “very aware of the vile spats which go on between gender activists”, which feel “wearisome and violent”. They don’t see Christianity as the “answer” to these conflicts, but rather as part of their own authentic form of thought and action.
I asked a set of questions about the trickiness and the complexity of living in Christianity and feminism, so the answers Pam, Hannah and Rachel provided have focused on these areas. But I want to their stress that their public speaking and writing elsewhere on these topics testifies to the profound connections between the two. It also demonstrates the solace and inspiration which they have found, and which they communicate to others. There’s a common theme in their comments, that the complexities in this area are not simply rarefied disagreements about terminology, but related both to people’s lives and their understanding of themselves and their world. They’re not simple because they’re immediate and rooted in profound questions.
I’m extremely grateful to Hannah, Rachel and Pam for giving up their time to discuss these questions, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the same issues. How do these questions relate to each other in your experience?