(Photo: REUTERS/Chris Keane)
A new kind of feminist is on the rise, one that embraces Christianity and a calling in politics, the boardroom or social causes. Led by women like Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann, these conservative Christians are taking a fresh approach to feminism.
“The term ‘feminism’ has been hijacked by the secular feminist movement,” says Betsy Hart, a syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and author of It Takes a Parent. “Many people – including Christians and a lot of young, secular women – associate traditional feminism with very angry, men-hating, strident, unattractive and unhappy women.”
But today, Christian women like Palin and Bachmann are redefining a feminist as a woman who is conservative and pro-life, who has a calling in the workplace, but who also embraces her role as a Christian wife and mother.
In a 2010 speech, Palin drew a connection between herself and feminists, but reconfigured the term to mean a self-sufficient, pro-life Christian who believes being a woman is a source of her success. Bachmann has said she went into politics partly because of her woman’s intuition.
This fledging movement has more and more Christian conservative women looking back to feminism’s early roots and finding a lot to admire and emulate.
“The very earliest feminists were women of faith, who were very godly and who said the Bible demanded that women be treated with the same equalities as men and have the same opportunities,” says Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D., director and senior fellow for The Beverly LaHaye Institute at Concerned Women for America in Washington, D.C.
“The feminist movement was established to address legal disparities that were really hurtful to women,” adds Hart.
From Abolition to Abortion
The feminist movement started in the 19th century with a focus on social causes and suffrage. These women, who included pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, fought for the abolition of slavery and women’s right to vote.
“For many years, both secular and religious feminists operated with the same definition of equality,” says Crouse. “Then somewhere in the last 30 years that changed. Feminism was taken over by lesbians, by those who wanted quotas and abortion on demand.”
The shift to an emphasis on abortion and workplace quotas drove many Christians out of the movement entirely. “Christian women shied away from feminism because they rejected its stridency and politicization of women,” says Hart.
But in a shift that began in the latter part of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, many secular feminists saw men as the enemy in a war between the sexes, adding yet another reason for Christian women to disassociate themselves from the movement.
“We love our husbands, we love our sons, we love our fathers. We appreciate them and value their contributions to our lives,” says Crouse. “We don’t view them as the enemy.”
Feminism in the Workplace
Ironically, it’s the workplace that has become part of the dispute between secular feminists and Christian women.
“Christian women do not like workplace quotas because Christian women don’t like the idea of being forced into the workplace – Christian women like choice, the option of going into the workplace or not,” says Crouse.
Part of the workplace tension between Christian women and secular feminists relates to how both groups define success. A Christian woman tends not to seek accolades or advancement solely in the workplace but instead views her work as part of her calling as a wife and mother.
“In general, Christian women are not in the workplace for power, they are there because they have some challenge, some very fulfilling responsibility,” adds Crouse. “Many Christian women choose to work part time, to bring in some extra income to help the family, but they don’t view their job as a career or they don’t see themselves as career women – they see themselves helping their husbands. It’s a completely different perspective from modern secular feminists, a fundamental disagreement and a different worldview about what it means to be a woman.”
Many Christian women also have found that they can easily fit working from home into their roles as wife and mother.
“With the advance of technology, so many more woman are simply able to do things at home that our own mothers could not have done,” says Hart. “With more possibilities, their values of that work and being rewarded for it has become more palpable and more Christian women are taking advantage of that and enjoying it.”
Reconciling Christianity and Feminism
Many Christian women are grateful for those early feminists who did pave the way for women to choose when and how they work, but while some Christian conservatives are returning to the ideals of early, religious feminists, the Christian community continues to fight against modern secular feminism – perhaps for far too long for the term to be rehabilitated today.
“Personally, the term ‘feminism’ has too much baggage that goes along with it, so that’s why I don’t use it. I don’t have a problem with Christian women using the term because I understand they’re using it in a different way,” says Crouse. “When a Christian woman uses the term ‘feminism,’ she’s not using it in the political sense that the term has come to mean.”
When talking about Christianity and feminism, it’s good to remember that Jesus taught us the value of men and women. “He violated social taboos, befriending and bringing good news to those who were marginalized racially, economically, morally and religiously,” says Mardi Keyes, who has written and lectured on Christianity and feminism.
“Jesus came into a world where in law and life, women were treated as inferior in virtually every way,” says Keyes. “By His teaching and behavior, He continually challenged the patriarchal norms of His culture. For example, Jesus rejected the practice of keeping women separate and silent by including them in His traveling band of disciples.”
One place to start reconciling Christianity and feminism is to recognize that both groups saw a problem and attempted to find solutions, sometimes together. Keyes points to alliances between Christians and secular feminists that fight pornography, rape, incest, domestic violence, working conditions and even abortion.
“Modern feminism has challenged the church to re-examine its life and theology of sex and gender,” says Keyes. “Christians should be deeply thankful for all the responsible biblical scholarship that has resulted – reaffirming that the Gospel Jesus brought to the poor, the lame, the blind, to prisoners and to all who are oppressed is indeed Good News for women, too.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Christian women should look to those early feminists who modeled how to impact their world while being wives and mothers. With the economy replacing brawn-based work that favored men with service-oriented work that favors women, women will have more opportunities than ever to make a difference in the world.
“I’m really excited to see what Christian women are doing today,” says Crouse. “When you look at a list of outstanding women today, you rarely see evangelical Christian women. And yet, if you want to find women who have really utilized their potential, there are hundreds of fully committed, evangelical women who are doing really exciting things and accomplishing so much.”