Polarization: Christianity against Feminism from What's Right with Feminism by Elaine Storkey

Polarization:Christianity against Feminism

What's Right with Feminism
by Elaine Storkey, SPCK, 1985, chapter 10, pp.113-120.

Elaine Storkey is a lecturer, writer and broadcaster

Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

On the whole Christians do not react as hysterically to feminism as they did a decade ago. As more people within the Church have recognized the truth in some of the feminist arguments there has been a softening of attitudes and a willingness to listen. Some Christian women have noticed that the description feminists give of gender stereotypes tallies surprisingly with their own experiences as women within the Church. Men too have admitted that these same stereotypes can force them into behaviour patterns with which they feel uncomfortable. One issue in particular has drawn together the most radical feminists and the most conservative Christians: that of pornography. Although feminists recognize that it is from a very different position (one which they would call ‘repressive’), they have accepted the support of Christians on the campaign against pornography, and barriers a decade thick have begun to shake, just a little.

In addition to the situation I have just described, attitudes to feminism within Christian circles are frequently split along political lines. For an undoubted feature of Christianity in the 1980s is the growth of polarized political camps. Those groups which have shown more sympathy with the ‘left’ wing have also been ready to meet feminists more than half-way on a large number of issues. At the same time they have faced an attack from the conservative ‘right’ which usually accuses them of moving away from the authority of the Scriptures. They have, it is argued, become theological relativists. In some cases of course this will regrettably be true, and yet in many instances the attack is unwarranted. Certainly it has also been the case within the reformed and evangelical positions that new stances taken up have been scripturally-directed, rather than scripturally-defiant.

Right-wing attitudes within the Church, (although not seen as right-wing by their adherents but as politically neutral!) continue their challenge and attack of contemporary feminism in a strident, often aggressive manner. Probably, amongst Evangelical and reformed Christians in the United States and Britain, this would even remain the pervasive attitude. The majority of Christians would react with irritation to the very notion of woman’s oppression. Most would not be able to imagine how feminists can even posit this suggestion. The whole idea is ludicrous. What are these women on about? Others would more decisively see the women’s movement as distinctly evil, as bent on destroying the Christian fabric of society. Some Christian men undoubtedly react in exactly the male chauvinist way already predicted of them. Christian women too often go to great lengths to denounce ‘women’s lib’ and assert their own total commitment to their families, as if the the two were automatically incompatible. In some circles the mere mention of ‘women’s rights’ is enough to start adrenalin cascading. Feminism is bad news. In lecturing to many Christian groups I have observed this attitude first hand. In reading the literature from this position I understand why.

Stereotypes of feminism

Many books and articles written by Christian authors have something detrimental to say about the women’s movement. The most vehement are probably American. In those, even a mild veneer of courtesy to feminists is uncomfortably absent. What is frighteningly similar about all these writings however is (unavoidable) evidence that they start from a position of ignorance. Caricatures and stereotypes of feminists are curtly offered; accusations are hurled and indictments are made. Many lament the loudness and arrogance of feminists in tones like the Niagara Falls. Yet it is my firm conviction that most of these authors have never read any of the feminist writers they criticize and have little understanding of what they are saying. All feminism is the same: radical or extremely radical. There is usually no attempt to examine any of the major differences of approach or analysis, and little effort invested in checking the most basic allegations. Considering the number of careful (and scholarly) feminist works now available, this dismissal-without-examination is discourteous indeed. It is made even worse by the fact that the books or articles including such comments are frequently tritely written, handling important issues with such superficiality that they can only do a disservice to the Christian reading public. The tragedy is that this material is all that many Christians ever look into.

Feminists then, according to popular Christian myth, are out to dominate men, to prove that they can wear the pants. Their main interest is to prove their superiority, both at work and in the home. A few examples, chosen at random, will make the point. Consider this passage taken from a British magazine which circulates to thousands of Christian women. Feminism, we are told, is ‘a grim competition between the sexes, with the woman of today desperately trying to prove that what a man can do she can do better.(1) In another book(2) the same point is made graphically, although jocularly.( cartoon picture omitted)

Yet they are clearly wrong. Most forms of feminism eschew competition, and domination has never been a feminist aim. Nevertheless, the theme is echoed again and again. An American book this time, The Christian Couple by Larry Christenson, tells us ‘Considerable rhetoric in the feminist movement can be translated into the simple complaint “Why can’t we be where the important things are happening?”’ and later ‘The radical feminists . . , are seeking with all the power of the modern media to impose another role upon women. When the verbal smoke clears what you are left with is the idea that the only life worth living is a man’s life’.(3) It is a pity that where many others would see cogent arguments this writer only saw ‘considerable rhetoric’ and ‘verbal smoke’. If he had been more prepared to investigate the fire he might have realized he had got the idea wrong. Which feminist is he talking about? Radical feminists are not interested in living a man’s life. The whole point is that they want to live an oppression-free woman’s life. However their critics are disinclined to consider such details.

The same theme takes a new twist in the next allegations, where ‘The Women’s Lib Morality’ is blamed for contributing to family breakdown. We read:

In the name of equal rights for women a whole new life-style is creeping into the family domain, one that is weakening the father’s role in the home at the expense of the marriage and the family. Feminine dominated homes are on the increase at an alarming rate, compounding the tragedies of marrige and the home.(4)

Feminists are also blamed for the widespread neglect of children: presumably because of ‘feminine dominated homes’: ‘The most tragic victims of the feminist movement are today’s children . . . the way many women treat their children [is] nice to have around but of secondary importance to their careers.’(5) And again: ‘It is all too easy to be subconsciously influenced by women’s lib and the current feminist drive into thinking that this role [of wife and mother] is somehow second-rate and scarcely worth the time and energy it requires.’(6) And yet again: ‘With their skilful propaganda . . . the women’s liberationists have managed to make the housewife’s role seem one of uninterrupted drudgery.’ But again a central feminist argument is that it is the low status, both economic and social, which is given in capitalist and patriarchal society to the role of homemaker and mother which downgrades it. They are in fact frequently challenging this belittlement of women’s work in the home. What is more, only feminists have ever seriously done studies on housewives and housework to understand how women themselves arrange work and what it means to them. Nor do feminists advocate the neglect of children or see them as secondary. Instead they offer a serious critique of contemporary ideas of mothering and suggest alternative models. We might not endorse all these models, but we need to consider them first.

Apparently feminists are also naive in their ambitions: ‘Another unfortunate by-product of feminism is the way in which a younger generation has gained the impression that they can simultaneously have a successful career and a happy marriage and children without losing out in any way.’(8) Yet much feminist literature is devoted to this very problem. Another allegation on this theme simply raises a smile: ‘The feminist movement is a strident declaration that women cannot and will not manage the home and family by themselves.’(9) Well, perhaps half-right. But the assumptions behind this comment are more important than the allegation itself. For who says women should ‘manage the home and family by themselves’? This underlies the feelings still popular in some Christian groupings that women alone have responsibilities for the care of the family and home. We shall return to this later.

Feminists are also accused of urging women to sexual freedom and promiscuity, although very few have ever advocated promiscuity as the way to liberation. They are caricatured as downgrading real ‘womanliness’-gentleness, patience and so on - although as we have seen, the women-centred feminist position highlights and fosters these qualities.

In the end cool reflection will show us that feminism is to blame for just about every social evil. ‘As a by-product of the women’s movement women are increasingly afflicted by ills previously mostly suffered by men. Lung cancer, heart diseases, alcoholism, and a decline in life expectancy . . . Suicide rates are up and women are also involved in crime.’(10)

We are left then with an utterly depressing picture of feminists as power-crazy, selfish, domineering career women, leaving devastation, misery and neglect in their wake. The astonishing factor is that they have persuaded other women to join them. Or have they? ‘Christian women need to rise up and unanimously declare that the radical feminist protestors represent only themselves.’(11) Before this uprising takes place, and too much is declared, perhaps the evidence should be examined more carefully.

Stereotypes of man-woman relationships

Large-scale inaccuracies on the level we have just documented mean that a large proportion of the Christian public does not get a chance to discover for itself what feminists are really saying. They simply manipulate those who read this invective into reacting negatively and stereotypically to all feminist positions and arguments. They also rule out the possibility of any ‘true’ Christian woman from espousing any form of feminism herself. They reinforce gender stereotypes, idealize traditional roles, and carefully avoid any discussion of patriarchy. Indeed, with little adjustments, they present Christianity as patriarchal, and those who challenge this identification as disobedient or non-Christian. It comes as no surprise then to see the very masculine-feminine generalizations which feminists challenge, heralded as the Christian Truth about Women: ‘What a real woman wants is a real man. What a real man wants is a real woman. It is masculinity that appeals to a woman. It is femininity that appeals to a man. The more womanly you are, the more manly your husband will be.’(12) If we need to know what this ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’ amounts to, we need look no further than the non-Christian stereotypes thrown up by secular (predominantly American) culture. Yet this is wiped with an attempted Christian gloss. Weakness, dependence and vulnerability-all apparent features of ‘femininity’ are a woman’s God-given characteristics: ‘A woman’s vulnerability . . . does not stop at the physical level. It includes also vulnerability at the emotional, psychological and spiritual level. Here too, she needs a husband’s authority and protection.’ She is so in need of protection as to be apparently incapable of exercising initiative or authority anywhere. ‘It is the husband, not the wife, who is primarily responsible for what goes on in the home, the community and the church. When he deserts this role, or when the wife usurps it, both the home and the community . . . suffer for it.’ What role has a woman then? The answer is simple: to submit to authority. ‘Upon man is laid the authority to rule . . . Submission to authority means that you put yourself wholly at the disposal of the person who is set over you.’(13) And there you have it: total control, over total dependence. In case the single woman may begin to feel relieved she is out of this package, this author is swift to remind her that even she has no independence, but must look for her authority to the male members of the Church.

Then there is this whole question of androgyny-the ‘equality’ and reversibility of gender roles. What about the husband for example helping a little with the children - changing nappies perhaps, feeding the toddlers? Our enquiries are dealt with crisply: ‘Foolish advice. Male physiology and psychology aren’t geared to it. A father’s relationship with his children can’t be built mainly around child-caring experiences.’ In fact it would be very dangerous to suggest otherwise. ‘This blurring of mother-father roles can have harmful effects on children. Because many fathers now wash dishes, bath the baby and perform other traditional female tasks, their sons often don’t know what it means to be a man.’ The suspicion one gets that this man does not like housework is reinforced in another passage: ‘A wife who shifts her unpleasant household chores to her husband is downgrading her own activities in her children’s eyes.’(14)

Quite apart from the tortuous logic employed and references made to male physiology and psychology, these passages are packed with unexamined assumptions which are quite unsupportable on biological, psychological or theological grounds. They would never convince a woman with even the mildest feminist leanings that they were not the pennings of a male manipulator anxious, for his own benefit and selfinterest, to gain total domination over at least one woman (his wife) and hopefully over a few more besides (the single women in the Church). No doubt this author does exercise his domination in a ‘loving’ way, yet women married to other men might not be so fortunate, and might find themselves (as many do) submitting to wife-battering, or sexual abuse.(15)

Women, then, are presented in certain fixed and stereotypic terms. They are divided into the good and the bad. The good ones are those who know their place, the ones who accept leadership and male decisions without question. The bad ones are the feminists. The totality of a woman’s life and roles, the variety of experiences she undergoes and tasks she performs, the breadth of her insights and understanding on so many issues are all shrunk into this narrow vision of what it is to be a woman. The frightening thing is that this distorted picture of Christian womanhood, and the unquestioned ‘rightness’ of traditional roles, has many women in its grip, and prevents them from getting within a mile of growing into maturity and knowing real freedom in Christ.

Notes

1. Sarah Warren, ‘Femininity or Feminism’ (Christian Woman November 1983), p. 16.

2. Roger F. Hurding, Restoring the Image (Paternoster Press 1980), p. 83. A useful book in other ways.

3. Larry Christenson, The Christian Couple (Kingsway Publications 1978), pp. 46, 141.

4. T. and B. La Haye, Spirit Controlled Family (Kingsway Publications 1980), p. 29.

5. ‘Femininity or Feminism’, p. 6.

6. Ann Warren, Marriage in the Balance (Kingsway Publications 1981), p. 44.

7. James Robinson, Attack on the Family (Tyndale House Publishers 1980), p. 36.

8. Ann Warren, Today’s Christian Woman (Kingsway Publications 1984), p. 15.

9. The Christian Couple, p. 47.

10. Gloria Hope Hawley, Frankly Feminine: God’s Idea of Womanhood. (Standard Publications 1981).

11. Spirit Controlled Family, p. 72.

12. Elizabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman (Hodder and Stoughton 1979), p. 158.

13. Larry Christenson, The Christian Family (Kingsway Publications 1978), pp. 35, 37, 40.

14. ibid., pp. 44-5.

15. See E. Storkey, ‘Wife Abuse’, a survey in Family, April 1985.


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