The popular Christian website Threads has posted a piece in which two of their male contributors discuss feminism. I must admit that I haven’t been impressed by Threads‘ treatment of gender issues in the past. They’ve published some great writers like Natalie Collins and Hannah Mudge, but they’ve also run some stuff which came across as click-baity and cynical. This isn’t simply a question (I hope) of me disagreeing with some of their writers, and agreeing with others, but of thinking that they tend to frame the discussion around gender wrongly. Whilst there are some good points in this most recent piece, I think this is another example of gender issues being mishandled in Christian writing.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, issue is why two men are giving their views on feminism and whether it makes sense. Men’s views are not particularly marginalised in our society: the majority of economic, political, social and cultural coverage in our media is dominated by men, and framed for men’s consumption. Men are the ‘default setting’ in our culture, with things for women tending to be marked out as different. (See: pink biros, women’s interest magazines, etc.) One of the radical things feminism does is challenge this male-centred situation, focusing on women’s experience and women’s voices. Feminism is not just a topic, nor even just a way of understanding, it is an approach to the world. It is a way of doing things which seeks to liberate women, and part of that involves women being at the centre of it.
Which is not to suggest that men have no right to mention feminism, or think out loud about it. It would be pretty dazzlingly hypocritical of me to suggest that, given the contents of this blog! But it does mean that men talking about feminism need to be aware that this is a topic where our opinions may just not count. We may find ourselves in the unexpected situation of no-one remotely giving a proverbial what we think. Feminism – the movement for women’s liberation by women – is not ours to opine about, to judge or to validate. If we do speak about feminism, we need to be aware that we do not have the experiences which would render our words more meaningful than a personal attitude. When we say what we feel or think about feminism, we should be prepared for people to take that as an expression of our own feelings, and not much else: we can’t expect it to be taken as an objective statement on whether feminism is worthwhile or not. That might be a rather salutary experience for us.
So there’s no reason why men shouldn’t talk about feminism. We should just bear in mind the possibility that no-one’s listening. In the case of this article, the discussion happened as part of an ongoing series of two men giving their thoughts on life issues, so it’s not as if the magazine decided to commission an article on feminism from male instead female writers. But this is a topic where men should tread carefully. The piece starts on what seems like the right note to me, with a discussion of Roosh V and his ‘neo-masculinist’ movement, which they identify as a backlash against feminism. This is, after all, a men’s problem: the kind of violent misogyny which Roosh V and his supporters represent is a cultural illness specific to men, and it’s surely up to us to sort it out.
The conversation centres around this movement, and what men get out of it; the writers suggest that these men have bought into damaging ideas around power and identity which lead them to get validation by dominating others. I must admit I don’t really agree with the emphasis of their conclusions in this part of the discussion: for me, the response to ‘these people are seeking power in corrupt ways’ is not ‘really powerful people don’t act like that, to be really powerful you should do this…’ I worry that it buys into a concern with amassing power, even if the route to that power is supporting and aggrandising others. It feels too much like a concession to the terms set by macho culture to frame this in terms of how ‘really powerful’ people act. But that’s probably a matter of emphasis (if one which I think dogs too much Christian writing about gender.)
It’s also a little concerning how quickly the discussion slides into ‘what people find attractive’ and ‘how to treat your wife/ girlfriend’. Again, I can see how this makes sense, given the framing of the conversation in response to the misogyny get of the neo-masculinist movement, but I think it accepts too many of their assumptions. After all, one of the major insights of feminism for men’s everyday lives is the way a patriarchal and sexist culture relegates women to ‘the sex class’. Men are encouraged to see women as sexual objects, as potentially exploitable, as there for men’s enjoyment and distraction. Healthier thinking around gender will obviously want to address sexual relationships, but it will also expand men’s vision of women. Combatting macho attitudes and casual sexism is not simply a matter of discussing how you should treat your girlfriend, but of reframing the whole question of gender. It means, amongst other things, stopping thinking of ‘gender issues’ as ‘sex, relationships and my future wife’. To put it crudely, feminism doesn’t (only) ask men to treat their girlfriends better, it demands they stop regarding women as the category ‘potential girlfriends’.
When it comes to discussing women in the Bible, and a theology of gender, there are some potentially useful ideas expressed. The point that the Bible shows women being a central part of Christian life, for example, and the complicating factors of the Fall narrative and a specifically Christ-centred interpretation of human history. But it’s also in this section where I think the emphases I worried about earlier throw the conversation off-course. Saying ‘So if you are a man, if we have any power over women, it’s to say: “You are equal, and you can reign and rule equally” seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand both power and gender oppression. Men don’t offer women liberation, they don’t tell them ‘you are equal’. That’s not how liberation works, surely. An equality which is bestowed by the oppressing group is no equality at all.
I can see how this develops from the approaches so far in the article: if feminism is something for men to give their judgement of, if ‘gender issues’ are the question of what men should give women, then this makes sense. It’s not by any means the worst conclusion that could be reached from those assumptions. But it does show how flawed they are, and how much they restrict the ensuing discussion. Wanting to keep men’s ideas and men’s opinions at the centre of the discussion leads us to a vision of liberation and equality in which men graciously offer women their sanction to be full human beings. It’s a pretty hollow notion.
The discussion then addresses feminism more explicitly, with the idea that people are subject to a temptation to ‘go all-out to prove themselves’ rather than believing they are inherently powerful:
It’s interesting, because sometimes as man, I’m just going to be honest here, I feel as if some elements of feminism, in trying to redress the wrongs of such a long period of misogyny and inequality, are reacting just to try to prove a point – some people aren’t going to like this, sorry! – I think that women are obviously right to redress the wrongs of the past, but when anyone reacts strongly to error, they end up creating more error.
Here I’m afraid I disagree entirely with the writers. Not only is it faintly ludicrous to suggest that feminism is ‘just try[ing] to prove a point’, but it is not men’s place to adjudicate where feminism is going right or wrong. It is certainly not our role to explain to women how they should react to centuries of male violence and hatred towards them. The ‘long period of misogyny and inequality’ the writers are referring to wasn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon like earthquakes or coastal erosion. It was something men did to women, over hundreds of years. Recognising that should make us see ourselves as part of the problem, not enlightened observers who can stand back and explain to women how they’re doing liberation wrong.
What point is it that women are supposedly trying to prove with feminism? That they are fully human? That they deserve human rights? This is the language of abstract speculation, in which men seem to imagine women objecting to sexist language advertising, or cat-calling, or the wage gap are attempting an point-scoring exercise. Since these issues feel to them like an analysis of linguistic patterns, or sociology, or economics, they assume that women are trying to put them intellectually ‘in the wrong’. I suspect women do not regard these as abstract questions, and that they do no protest about them because they are easy intellectual wins. But it’s easy to see how this attitude is related to the question of who is centred in the discussion, and whose interpretation of the world is regarded as important. When a man says – as one of the writers does – ‘I don’t think that’s a gender issue’, he ought to be aware of the irony of his statement. Having acknowledged the massive history of oppression and abuse women have suffered, this article seems to wish that history away. Men have that luxury. Women don’t.
The final passages of the discussion centre around a story of a positive role model, a very wealthy man who sacrificed his ambitions to ‘honour the dreams of his wife’. He gave up his empire in order to ‘move to the back woods of Nebraska, raise their daughters and spend time with her ageing parents’ and ‘it was a struggle for him to give up his desires for his wife’s’. I’m afraid this story, and the way it is held up as a wonderful example, displays exactly the problems I’ve suggested are woven into this discussion as a whole. The man’s ambitions had apparently been given full scope during his life (part of the point of the story is how powerful and successful he’d been, in order to underline his great sacrifice), and he graciously stopped following them to indulge his wife’s dreams. Those dreams could do with some scrutiny: she dreamed of a quiet domestic life, in which they parented their children and took care of elderly relatives.
It seems telling that these are assumed to be her dreams and desires, as opposed to a central part of his life as a human being with a family. They were, after all, his daughter as well. They were his in-laws. It seems strange to set up the hard, unglamorous work of caring for the young and the infirm as this wild dream his wife wanted to pursue. Or it would seem strange, if those activities hadn’t been assigned to women as their supposedly ‘natural’ interests. Patriarchal society not only categorises women as the sex class, it also regards them as the caring class. In this story the basic work of human relationships is framed as the burning dream of a woman, which a man is sacrificing his own desires and ambitions in order to gratify. This, I would suggest, is another outworking of setting men at the centre of gender issues, of assuming what matters about feminism is ‘how I should treat my wife’. The story as told here reads to me like an indictment of a man’s selfish collusion with a sexist and patriarchal society, all the while proclaiming his sacrificial love to the women he regarded as his. It sums up my problems with this article, and highlights the risks of thinking men are the measure of gender equality, or the authorities on it.