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Shortest summary of feminism ever
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Shortest summary of feminism ever
I was preparing to speak with some ministry trainees a few weeks ago about men and women in ministry, 1 Timothy 2, and other simple subjects like that, when it occurred to me that we couldn’t really discuss these questions without dealing with …
Well, I was going to say ‘the elephant in the room’, but it’s more like the wallpaper, the carpet, the table, the chairs and the air conditioning in the room. It’s a set of settled and pervasive ideas that form the environment in which any discussion of men and women takes place these days—without us being really conscious of their existence.
I speak, of course, of the complex of ideas known as ‘feminism’.
Feminism is hard to identify and even harder to critique. It’s hard to identify not only because we barely even notice it any more (such is its social pervasiveness), but because everybody has their own version of feminism that are in favour of (at least in some way)—usually while having very little idea of what feminism has actually taught and done over the past 50+ years.
The variety of feminisms makes it a hard movement to understand and critique, but so does its status as one of the moral orthodoxies of our time. To resist genuflecting to feminism, or at least nodding appreciatively in its general direction, is to risk nutcase or pariah status in our culture. It’s like criticising air, or Jacinda Ardern.
So to help my trainees think about men and women, 1 Timothy 2 and complementarianism, I figured I had to make the core assumptions of feminism visible—or at least those key aspects of feminism that relate to the Bible’s view of men and women.
(Please note: this summary is not an attempt to evaluate the various effects of feminism as a social and political movement —there have been both positives and negatives, as with all social movements. The goal is to bring to light some of feminism’s pervasive core ideas and assumptions.)
And so to the shortest summary of feminism ever.
Lets start with the biblical worldview:
Men and women are equally created in the image of God, and yet are not uniform. The created differences between men and women are a reality and are good.
These differences are expressed in various spheres of life, including in complementary, ordered relationships between men and women in marriage and in church life. These ordered relationships are also a good created reality.
Sin and the fall make the conduct of these ordered relationships difficult, but men and women experience a satisfying, productive unity in their difference, as they pursue God’s purposes together in the world.
2nd Wave Feminism (the bra-burning, women’s lib feminism of Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, dominant from the 60s to the 80s):
There is (or should be) no material difference between men and women; we are all just people. Every woman can and should be able to do anything a man does; sex difference should be de-emphasized.
There is therefore no ordered relationship between men and women. Any attempt at ordered relationship is repressive, because it denies the total equality of persons (i.e. equality = sameness).
The goal is not unity (which implies difference) but uniformity—the dissolving of difference so that all individuals can pursue personal freedom and self-actualisation in the same way (a way, ironically defined in terms of the various things men do and achieve).
3rd/4th Wave feminism (a variegated set of movements from the 90s to now, partly a reaction against the failure of 2nd wave feminism to deliver the nirvana of equality it promised; encompassing various kinds of ‘difference feminism’, and the intersectional/identity politics feminism of the current moment; mostly dismissive or openly hostile towards 2nd wave feminists):
A renewed emphasis on the uniqueness or difference of women, whether in the feisty ‘grrrl power’ feminism of the 90s or the more recent emphasis on women as an oppressed identity group (a class identity you can choose to identify as, regardless of biological gender). In this view, men are different, but not in a good way. Masculine culture is mostly a threat to women, and leads to violence, rape and the oppression of women.
There is an ordered relationship between men and women—it is a power relation currently expressed in oppression and violence (in which men are the perpetrators and women the victims).
There can be no unity between men and women—only a social and political struggle in which the power and dominance of men is finally overthrown.
Now, many complexities are being overlooked or mashed together here, particularly the differences between 3rd and 4th wave feminism. But the point is to identify core, underlying ideas about the nature of men and women, and how they relate to the biblical worldview. In that sense, the various feminisms of the past 50 years have the following in common:
a rejection of any concept of good created difference between men and women (there is either no difference, or the difference is oppression);
is a corresponding rejection of the possibility of complementary ordered relations between men and women that are liberating and good (any ordered relation either denies equality or is oppression);
ongoing disunity between men and women—either because men chauvinistically resist the call to dissolve distinctions, or because men are an oppressive power group that needs to be cast down.
Feminism as it actually operates today rarely presents us with such a simple presentation of its ideas. In fact, the competing claims of 2nd and 3rd/4th wave feminism often result in confusing and contradictory cultural messages—for example, on the one hand that women are smart, strong, capable and powerful, and don’t need any man to explain to them, to protect them or provide for them (2nd wave assumptions); and on the other hand, that women are oppressed victims of the sexualised violence of men, constantly suffering micro-aggressions of language and attitude, and needing safe spaces to survive (4th wave identity politics feminism).
Even so, if my summary is even broadly correct, we need to break our polite silence about feminism. Like all rebellions against God and his good created order, feminism is a terrible idea. It denies reality, and can therefore be expected to lead to bad and dysfunctional consequences—as it arguably has for women themselves, for men, for marriages, for children, for our broader culture, and for our churches.
We need to understand feminism more clearly, and be unafraid to teach against its errors.
Hence my attempt at a nutshell. Can you help me improve it?
The simplest way to help me improve this summary is either to leave a comment on the website (if you’re reading this online), or to just hit ‘Reply’ if you’re reading this as an email. Either way, it would be great to hear from you.
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