For a good portion of my life, I put feminism, which I considered mostly embarrassing, in the category of toxic.
I grew up in conservative Christianity, which 9 out of 10 times means we voted Republican. My parents weren’t particularly political, but we believed that it was a sin to kill babies, and that mattered more than anything else. Since killing babies was evil, obviously the people championing infanticide were also evil. The people championing that were feminists, so that means feminism was evil. That was it. That was the depth of the analysis.
Feminism and baby killing were basically synonymous.
Therefore, it didn’t bother me all that much when people around me made inflammatory comments about feminism being “cancer.” Cancer was bad, and baby killing was bad. Both needed to be stopped. It was that simple and shallow.
Yet when I learned about “radical feminism,” as opposed to liberal feminism, which is truly a disaster, things began to change. As it turns out, despite their ardent support of abortion, radical feminists vocally oppose a number of the same things I do as a conservative Christian: pornography, surrogacy, prostitution, and the erasure of women due to transgender ideology. The more I worked alongside some of these women, the more I realized that the language they were speaking was actually my native tongue.
These women cared about all the things I had silently suffered from as a female: sexual abuse, domestic violence, and rigid gender roles that forced women to shrink into boxes that do not jive with their personalities. Thus began my deep dive into the history of feminism and my awareness that the movement as a whole is about a lot more than abortion. Many continue to be unaware of how hellacious life was for so many women before feminism entered the picture.
But the point that needs to be made here is this: Regardless of how badly astray the movement has gone in recent years, and it has indeed gone astray, the original, early feminism was largely a necessary response to men behaving badly and abusing their power.
Before feminism, battered women had no means of escaping their abusers. We couldn’t pursue higher education, vote on the laws that govern us, wear pants or pursue healing in a rape crisis shelter. Why? Because of a hot-button word that makes many conservatives stop listening and shut down the second they encounter it: patriarchy. Men had decided from on high that God had given all the power and all the valid opinions exclusively to them to be exercised on behalf of womankind without our input or consent.
And it was not going well. An increase in alcohol consumption during this time in history yielded a sharp increase in the volume of domestic violence, from which women had very little recourse. Such women were literally trapped in homes at the mercy of violent, drunken monsters. They were not legally recognized as citizens. Early feminism was necessary!
Yet if you listen to any number of popular conservative or Christian influencers, all the world’s ills, from abortion to transgenderism, can be traced directly back to first-wave feminism as if that’s the entirety of the conversation and as though feminism were the root of the problem rather than a response to abusive men.
From Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire to Joel Berry to even writer Samuel Sey, the mantra is essentially the same: Feminism is cancer, all of it, from inception, even the suffrage part. Their wholesale rejection of and disdain for feminism has rendered them incapable of acknowledging the brave and tireless efforts of many of the radical feminists who've labored long, hard, and at great personal cost toward similar goals in the trans wars. Rather than applauding the moral courage required for these women to stand against their own tribe, these men insist on using their positions of influence to tear these women down, demanding compliance with the chauvinistic ideology that contributed to the mess in the first place.
Amid the insanity of the trans contagion, right-wingers seem tempted to lay blame at the feet of feminism without unpacking just what it is and what it means. Walsh and others are clearly operating from a different premise here, but it's a mistake to paint feminism with as broad a brush as they are, given some of the important gains it accomplished.
Feminism, by definition, is advocacy for the fair treatment of women, no more, no less. I am no more willing to cede the definition of this word to the extremists who abuse it than I am to cede the definition of the word “woman” to men in dresses.
Words must continue to mean things, and if we throw out this baby with its corresponding bathwater in favor of the rigid gender cages Walsh and company prescribe as the solutions, we are only recycling the very formula that initially created the mess.
Last week, The Blaze’s Jason Whitlock wrote a dreadful response to the Barbie movie with a thesis that echoed the sentiments of many of these men: The solution to the mess of feminism is the heavy hand of the patriarchy.
Such views are rather blame-shifty a la Genesis 3:12: “The woman you gave me did give me the fruit, and I did eat.” Notice the complete absence of awareness of the centuries-long abuses of women: the diminishing of our voices, the sidelining of our gifts, the objectification of our bodies, the commodification of our wombs, and the chronic contempt for our strength.
To be fair, substantive arguments do exist about how second-wave feminism contributed to an unfortunate breakdown in how we understand human beings as male and female and the eventual large-scale embrace of trans ideology, and they are worth considering. Those who argue along those lines have a serious point when they note how feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was famous for her defense of women "on the basis of sex," wound up in one of the final moves of her career diminishing the female sex by voting in favor of enshrining “transgender status” into civil rights law in the Bostock v. Clayton County decision at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020. Maybe there was indeed a toxic root and trajectory there.
To go back even further in history, it’s also fair to ask whether or not the existentialist philosophy of John Paul Sartre, of whom another feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir was a contemporary, ultimately damaged women as a class. In a December 2012 address, right before transgenderism saturated seemingly every square inch of the Western world, Pope Benedict XVI addressed many social ills as he honed in on what being human really means, citing de Beauvoir’s famous line “one is not a woman, but becomes so” as the source of “gender” as a new, destructive philosophy of sexuality. Knowing many feminists, they would probably reply that de Beauvoir was speaking of the process of female socialization, not their ontological existence as a sex.
All this is to say, we could be having a genuinely interesting and intelligent discussion about these issues but the rightwing male talking heads now bashing feminism all day long are not the slightest bit interested in sifting through those substantive nuances; they are battering rams against the shout-your-abortion feminists, who they see as one and the same as all feminists. It’s such lazy thinking and it's wrong.
And where does Jesus factor into any of this? I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again from my my staunchly pro-life position: Abortion either breaks a woman’s heart or hardens it. It is my sincere and deeply held belief that women will never be truly liberated until we are free from the scourge of abortion. But the shout-your-abortion feminists Walsh likes to loathe are still created in the Imago Dei. They still deserve to be treated with the love of Christ even as we resist their advocacy of death. As Christians, we must insist upon doing both, and I don’t see near enough of that godly ethos from Christian men who are fortunate enough to have large platforms.
We can’t end the abortion scourge by taking potshots at feminism. You solve the problem of abortion by learning to value women as much as you value babies. The answer to feminist overreach is not patriarchal oppression. The answer to both extremes is the freedom that is found in Christ. There was no gender hierarchy in Eden, and there will be no gender hierarchy in Heaven. The curse of the Fall is not meant to be worn as some sort of badge of holiness or prescription for created order.
Men and women, patriarchy and feminism, both spawned the culture war beast. Men and women must work together as equals to repair this breach. The real cancer in this equation is the enmity between the sexes that is used to keep us slinging mud at each other instead of working together to stomp on the devil’s ugly head.
Kaeley Harms, co-founder of Hands Across the Aisle Women’s Coalition, is a Christian feminist who rarely fits into boxes. She is a truth teller, envelope pusher, Jesus follower, abuse survivor, writer, wife, mom, and lover of words aptly spoken.