Faith & Feminism: God, hear me rage

This courageous guest post from Cedarville University student, Sarah Jones, continues our Feminism & Faith series. See Sarah’s full bio after the jump, and be in touch with Courtney_at_feministing.com if you’d like to contribute a future column.

When I was seven years old, I asked my mother why our church made girls wear skirts. Her answer was simple: “I don’t know, honey, that’s just what we do.” Even at the age of seven, I wondered at that. My mother is college-educated and bright. I owe my love of books to her. But for my mother, and for millions of other American Christian women, doctrine rules all aspects of life.

I say doctrine, and not God, because the two don’t necessarily agree. And never is that discrepancy clearer than in the acceptance of religious enforced inferiority that marks the daily lives of the women in the Biblical patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. Recent articles in Bitch magazine have illuminated these trends somewhat, but feminism still appears to lack a basic understanding of the daily lives of thousands of American women.

Christianity and feminism are not inherently incompatible.  An egalitarian interpretation of the Bible acknowledges the true equality of the sexes. Complementarianism, however, rejects that. It dictates that the role of a woman is to be a submissive helpmate to her husband. It is based on the conviction that men are divinely ordained to lead, and women are to follow them. There is no room for autonomy in this movement, as its adherents will proudly tell you and gender roles are strictly defined. They’re led by men like Doug Phillips, a Biblical “patriarch” who has called feminists “child catchers” a la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and writes that women should not hold political office. But despite these extreme beliefs, numbers have risen dramatically in these sects, likely due to high birth rates and a backlash against perceived social immorality.

Biblical patriarchy currently remains a minority movement.  But as a girl homeschooled by conservative Christians, a less vitriolic version of it dictated my existence. I’m relatively lucky; despite their strict beliefs my parents always encouraged my academic goals.  But the doctrine of submission shadowed every achievement and ambition. It chafed and burned and it swallowed my voice until I was convinced that not even God could hear me rage. The principle of separate but equal is as unjust when applied to sex as it is to race, and I’ve known it since I was seven years old.

Feminism gave me my voice back.  And the combination of faith and feminism gave me the strength to endure the derision I often faced as an egalitarian Christian at a Baptist university. Hate mail and insults like “she-man” were common. My dorm mates even scrawled “babykiller” on my dorm room door. And though, after years of personal struggle, I no longer consider myself a Christian, I urge secular feminists to respect the bitter fight that Christian feminists currently wage. Don’t try to define their religion for them. Their faith does not preclude them from feminism, and they deserve a space to speak as they resist the pressure to submit and conform to a doctrine that seeks to silence them.

Sarah Jones is a senior International Studies major at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, and identified as a feminist Christian before she left the church last year. Her undergraduate research examined the role of new media as a tool for social change in Iran, and she is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in the Huffington Post, the Bristol Herald Courier and the North Wales Chronicle in Bangor, Wales. She currently resides in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and has recently begun blogging at anthonybsusan.wordpress.com.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted December 16, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    As a former Christian feminist who fought the same fight within my own family, I found this post to be truly insightful. My mother wasn’t a Quiverfull woman or a member of some movement, she was just yet another young woman who had been told all her life what her ‘role’ was. All of her accomplishments and potential– which honestly outnumber my father’s– were diminished by the restrictive roles she tried to adhere to. Watching her rise above that role by providing for our family when my father couldn’t or didn’t while still maintaining internalized sexism is was made me become a feminist.

  2. Posted December 16, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Great post. I’m sorry you had to endure so much at your Baptist university, but I’m impressed at your obvious strength to have made it through.

    Your post vividly illustrates the thorny dilemma here: many of the most powerful religious sects that have the most direct influence on people’s lives in my society are virulently anti-feminist, but there are wonderful moral people who want to be able to smelt their religion and refine the positive core out from the harmful accumulated doctrines.

    We need to be able to simultaneously embrace those religious people with the same moral beliefs as us, who should be our friends, and fight hard against the patriarchal religious sects that are our enemies. It’s not simple, but either one of the two is insufficient.

  3. Posted December 16, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    “Don’t try to define their religion for them.”

    I’ve had a discussion on this issue on the previous feminism and faith thread and I still don’t understand what this means.

    As an atheist, surely I’m the last person defining the religion. A religion is defined by it’s leaders, theocrats, clergy, members, etc. As a non-adherent, surely I’m looking to them to define the religion through their actions, doctrine, etc. Are you saying that what the church in question lays out as doctrine isn’t the definition of the religion? Because, if that’s the case, what is the definition of the religion then? What do adherents means when they say they belong to a particular faith group?

    I mean, feminism is a bit looser and we often have conflicting interpretations of what it means to “be a feminist” which doesn’t lessen the claims of most self-described feminists. But, clearly, feminism doesn’t have a Pope or a Revelator creating and reaffirming the doctrine of feminism (not that I’m advocating for one!).

    I guess what I don’t understand is how much do you have to disagree with your church before you stop being an adherent to that church?

    • Posted December 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      SamBarge, I actually agree with the point you are trying to make.

      But I think that what Sarah is saying is more along the lines of, don’t stereotype people just because they self-identify with a particular religion that you might think is harmful. Get to know them as individuals, don’t just dismiss them because they identify as a (Christian, Evangelical, Baptist, etc.)

      I guess the flip side of this would be, just because someone disagrees with their church and agrees with you on some issues, doesn’t mean they agree with you on everything. This would seem to be common sense, but it’s easy to forget sometimes.

    • Posted December 16, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      I think some of the confusion may come from the definition of church. There are so many denominations, for instance, of Christianity. So, a Southern Baptist and a Reconciling Methodist and a Catholic and a Greek Orthodox are all under the umbrella of Christianity, though all probably have different doctrines. There are still conflicting interpretations.
      I know for me, as a woman of faith, there can be people who are simply ignorant of the different doctrines and denominations, so they assume I believe something I don’t: that women should not speak in church, for instance. And I know I’ve certainly done the same thing, with other religions, though I’m not proud of it, and work to think before I assume.
      I think what feminists who believe in religion can do is work to change misogynistic, racist, and hateful doctrines. Joining churches that put forth love and compassion instead of hate. Having meaningful conversations (not fights) with those who don’t agree. As a Christian, if I grow frustrated with my denomination, I look for a new one. It doesn’t change my belief in Christ, just in what some do in Christ’s name. And that I think is what becomes frustrating.. There are many people who believe in something, but religion prevents them from exploring this belief.
      I’m sorry I’ve rambled, but I hope this sheds some light onto this.

  4. Posted December 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m a Christian Feminist Quaker, though I think I may use the phrase “egalitarian Christian” more often having read this post. While growing up, I have to say that my parents were good to steer me away from more reactionary versions of Christianity, and my mother was enough of a strong-willed feminist to ever agree to be submissive to anyone.

    I fortunately kept my distance from the few people I knew at school who believed in such a regressive conception of the faith. The worst sorts I ever encountered were those people who were less inclined to attend the church of which I was a member because the minister happened to be female. More extreme elements were, as the author writes, a decided minority view within Christendom.

    I do agree with the conclusion Ms. Jones has drawn here, and I add that it makes me sad that her experience has led her to cut ties with the faith altogether. I knew lots of people who made the same decision and even I myself spent a long time healing before I was ready to return. This time, however, I came back on my own terms, and as part of a tradition which respected gender equality. I wish her continued strength.

  5. Posted December 16, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic Post! Sarah, you write so well, and I’m really excited to read the rest of the series.
    Quiverfull is full of absolute nonsense. The leaders of the movement actually tell couples NOT to have sex during a woman’s unfertile period, (as in to abstain for approx 25 days out of 28), which has absolutely no scriptural basis, means that sex is viewed solely for procreation, and I would suggest, is second guessing God, who presumably knew what he was doing when he created the female reproductive system. The explicitly stated purpose of the movement is to create a birth rate explosion among the conservative Christian right, so their “Army of God” can rise up and “Take Back America”. Scaaaaaary.

    Also, you literally only have to read the first few pages of the Bible for it to be clear that complementarianism is bull as well. There are two conflicting allegories of the creation of human beings, which come from entirely separate sources, which were retained because they both explained something different about men, women and their relationship to God. The first account has God creating the two sexes simultaneously, “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The story with Eve created out of Adam’s spare rib is much more recent, and comes afterwards, when Goad has created all the animals, and Adam has named them “…for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:25-27). Each story has a different message, very simplistically, the first shows God’s relationship with humans, each human being is set apart from all the rest of the animals, because only humans (and all humans) have been equally created in the image and likeness of God, and called “good”. The second story is about people’s relationships to each other; about how men and women both need each other, and indirectly, as this is a reference to marriage which is the beginning of family which is the first unit of society, it’s about the co-operation in the whole of society. An interpretation that sees women as having been solely created to iron men’s socks shows a shocking level of Biblical illiteracy, and a regulation of half the human population (created in God’s image and likeness, remember?) to something roughly equivalent to a docile pet.

    I’m sure this was the last place you ever expected to find a Bible Study, so sorry if I’ve bored anyone (and I’d be reeaallly interested to hear a transperson’s opinion on gender identity in this passage), but I just wanted to add one more thing:

    The classic Evangelical description of a perfect wife comes from Proverbs 31 (“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies…” unfortunately they start memorising at verse 10, missing out verses 8 and 9: “ 8 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” but even the classic extract speaks of a woman who planted a vineyard with her own earnings, she sounds like a pretty cool Bronze Age feminist to me!

    • Posted December 18, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      I’m not going to continue the Bible study but, suffice it to say, there are ample contradictions in the Old and New Testaments on this and other issues. If they were God’s attempt to explain how we should live and what he expects from us, then they are a very bad attempt. You can see where people can and will misinterpret the scriptures to justify their own actions/beliefs. It seems to me, that giving conflicting messages to a number of barely-literate, Bronze Age goatherders is not the most effective way of founding a faith based in sexual (and racial, etc) equality.

      That leaves us wondering why God, who is omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent, continues to allow faiths around the world to subjugate women in his name? Surely God could make his feelings on the issue known. Why allow the continued suffering of countless women and girls when he can stop it by letting all religious leaders know exactly what he thinks on the issue?

      I mean, let’s be clear, those people who are preaching the subjugation of women (in all it’s forms) also believe they understand God’s will. Right? The fact that God’s will happens to coincide with their own misogyny is no more surprising than God’s will coinciding with a feminist’s vision of equality. God is all things to all people, it seems.

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