Can feminism and Christianity be friends?

CHRISTIAN LIVING  | Sophia Russell 

Monday 3 August 2015

Tamie Davis was faced with a dilemma when she walked into her history lectures as a young university student.

Although she considered herself both a Christian and a strong woman, Davis’ feminist lecturers were adamant Christianity was partly to blame for the oppression of women throughout history. On the other side of the campus, her student Bible study group disagreed. It was 2001: one year after Christian author Dr Kirsten Birkett published her critique of feminist ideology. The Essence of Feminism – popular reading amongst Gen Y Christians grappling with the gender pay gap and the likes of Beyoncé – described the Bible as pro-women yet “simply un-feminist”, expressing the common perception that feminism and Christianity are incompatible. The consensus amongst many Christian students in the early 2000s was that feminism was a worldly ideology they needed to stand against. It’s a stance that Davis – now a missionary in Tanzania with her husband and toddler – has been wrestling with since her student days. “I found it really hard to deal with as a Christian because so much of the feminist thinking explained how I saw the world,” she says.

“The consensus amongst many Christian students in the early 2000s was that feminism was a worldly ideology they needed to stand against.”

Today, a growing number of Christian women are also grappling with the perceived divide between feminism and Christianity. Some write about their experiences online. Others volunteer for women advocacy groups. Perhaps surprisingly, a number of them have no issues with male headship and uphold Scripture – not feminism – as their authority on gender issues.

One such Christian is university student Alison Benge, who moved to New Zealand after completing a diploma at Moore Theological College in Sydney three years ago. When Benge become a Christian, she was struck by the way Jesus honoured women compared to her experience of being female in the 21st century. “Jesus treated women just like he treated men. He praised Mary in front of his disciples when she poured perfume on his feet. He stopped the adulterous woman from being stoned.” In contrast, she adds: “I also know that today, by virtue of being female, I should expect certain types of mistreatment. Things like getting hollered at while walking down the street. I have a rape whistle on my key-ring; in the Australian army [where Benge served for three years] I slept with a crowbar near my bed.”

Benge was staunchly against feminism when she first encountered the movement on social media site Tumblr four years ago. Although she found some of the articles were fueled by rage, she committed to engaging with them through the lens of Christianity. “I spent two years trying to sort through it myself: working out how much I agree with, how much aligns with my faith,” she says. One source of confusion she discovered was the definition of the word “feminism”. While some accuse feminists of trying to control men, most of the online chatter about feminism focuses on creating equal structures of power. In her infamous speech at the United Nations headquarters last year, UK actress and Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women Emma Watson bemoaned the barb “man-hating” as contrary to the dictionary definition of feminism, which is equal rights for men and women. Davis agrees. “While there may be a small subsection of feminists that have, in the past, argued any interaction with men is inherently oppressive to women, the majority of feminists, both in the past and today, have argued for equality: men and women being and working together,” she says.

“While some accuse feminists of trying to control men, most of the online chatter about feminism focuses on creating equal structures of power.”

Benge believes this definition means Christians can uphold male headship while fighting feminist causes, especially if the notion of headship is tied to the Bible’s claim that men and women are equally created in God’s image. “When I was in the army, I wanted to be as strong as a man, but I can’t carry 80kg on my own. That’s just fact. So I interpret feminism as equal standing, but we are different,” says Benge. “I don’t believe that gender roles or complementarianism is oppressive. They’re harmonious ways of loving and serving each other – when done right.”

Complementarianism or traditional gender roles may not fit with society’s perception of what a feminist is, i.e., a woman who eschews dresses, marriage and the traditional family unit. But over the last decade, feminists have challenged this perception, acknowledging not all women within the movement think alike. This shift arose when feminism took up the theory of intersectionality. Coined by academic Kimberley Crenshaw in the late 1980s, the term claims people have multiple aspects to their identity that impact the way they experience oppression. “You are not ‘just’ a feminist; you might be an indigenous Australian, or working class, or a Christian,” says Davis. “Those other parts of your life will interact with your feminism because they’re all part of who you are.”

In recent times, this recognition has opened feminism up to become a broader church. “Take reproductive rights,” says Davis. “Many people might think that feminism is by definition pro-abortion, but there’s a subsection of feminists who advocate that abortion is bad for women, so we ought to do everything we can to avoid that outcome.” One example is US advocacy group Feminists for Life, whose mission statement is to “systemically eliminate the root causes that drive women to abortion – primarily lack of practical resources and support.” Although they represent only a fraction of the movement, it’s clear feminism has space for different opinions on an issue as contentious as abortion rights.

For Christians, this means it’s possible to agree with secular feminists on some stances, while challenging others – not as a combatant, but as a participant in the movement. Davis likens it to building bridges instead of fortresses. “In the former, you’re conciliatory,” explains Davis. “I’m not coming from a humanist philosophy; I’m coming from a Christian worldview. We come from two different places, but it doesn’t mean I can’t come over and try to understand your world.”

In contrast, “when building fortresses, you might feel you have something to offer [feminism], but you’re doing it from within your own comfort zone. You limit your opportunities to learn from or genuinely interact with others, so you often limit the effectiveness of your own voice,” says Davis. I prefer the building bridges approach and feminism is broad enough to have a place for me.”

Nicole Jameson knows a thing or two about building bridges. The Adelaide mother-of-three sees fighting against sexism as a social justice issue for feminists and Christians alike. “God hates injustice,” she says. “He hates when the vulnerable are exploited and oppressed. In every culture, women and girls are daily harmed and held back for no reason other than because they are female.”

Jameson sees this oppression occurring in Western media, specifically the sexualisation of girls in advertising. Both feminists and Christians are naturally aligned on this issue, with both groups signing petitions and voicing their objections online. Is it possible a bridge already exists between the two camps? If so, Jameson is walking across it. She is the South Australian representative for Collective Shout – a feminist grassroots campaigning movement against the sexualisation of girls in popular culture. “My work with them has included online activism, campaigning … presenting at workshops and seminars, running sessions for high schoolers, writing parliamentary submissions and engaging with corporations,” says Jameson. Although there have been times Jameson’s religion has led her to being attacked as a moral crusader, she is open about her faith as a Christian while campaigning. “I don’t hide the fact that I am a believer. I attempt to engage in my work and with others with Christian integrity, and I find that most people I encounter in my feminist work seem to respect that,” she says.

“I’m only a feminist where I see God’s plan for women not being met, and gender roles being abused. It’s always feminism that bends the knee, and I’m very careful not to change my interpretation of the Word to fit feminist ideals.”

Such bridges may create opportunities for Christians to be a witness amongst secularist feminists, but it can create tensions. None of the women interviewed for this story could name a point where feminism has come into conflict with their beliefs as a Christian, possibly because the movement is currently so broad there is room to agree to disagree.

Benge, however, is cautions that feminism alone doesn’t have adequate answers to oppression. “We live in a system of male white privilege, but we acknowledge the far greater problem of sin … the way we discriminate against each other highlights how entangled our society is in sin.” For Christians, she says, “filtering feminism through a biblical sieve” is important. “I’m only a feminist where I see God’s plan for women not being met, and gender roles being abused. It’s always feminism that bends the knee, and I’m very careful not to change my interpretation of the Word to fit feminist ideals.”

As for Davis’ struggles on campus, she has since realised the potential threat of feminism was actually an opportunity to build a bridge. “Any conversation that happens in the university is a conversation that happens in God’s world, so I actually don’t need to be afraid of that conversation,” she says. “I actually can engage in feminism. I don’t have to see it as something to stand against.”

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