Just when the secular press declared the funeral of the contemporary women’s movement, two secular feminist books appeared: Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and Gloria Steinem’s Revolution From Within: A Book Of Self-Esteem. Both books were on best-seller lists for many weeks. In particular, Faludi’s provocative, award-winning work generated such press coverage during that time that she had to quit her staff-reporter position at The Wall Street Journal in order to handle a surprising multitude of speaking engagements. Faludi is currently working on a book about men and masculinity which, because of the success of Backlash will undoubtedly generate even more waves of publicity for the controversial author.
In contrast, Steinem’s Revolution From Within received only lukewarm reviews but intensified her celebrity status. Even in conservative Dallas, Steinem was besieged by crowds of admirers.
Undeniably, these two best-sellers helped turn many apolitical women into activists, and contributed to recent impressive female gains in both the United Stales Senate and the House of Representatives.
My question is: How should biblical egalitarians respond to these two works? Answers may not be as obvious as some think.
Because feminism has gotten such an undeservedly bad “rap” from both the evangelical and secular press, even some CBE types will defensively say, “I’m not a feminist,” or “I don’t like the women’s movement” or “I’m not a women’s libber, but...” However, it is irresponsible for Christians to judge all of feminism, by biased reports of the news media (especially when that same media often shows a similar bias against the church) or to condemn all feminist aspirations on account of some radical tactics of the National Organization of Women, After all, we don’t judge Christianity by the shenanigans of a discredited televangelist, or deny sympathy to civil rights movements because of the Los Angeles riots.
As Elaine Slorkey demonstrated in What's Right With Feminism the women’s movement is very complex. We can forget that it was the secular feminists who fought so selflessly for the vote, for the civil rights acts, the equal pay act, laws against sexual harassment, for equal credit rights and for equality in higher education, and who continuously add to our reservoir of knowledge about gender relations.
And while it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to read “radical” secular books on economics, politics, and even sex (most Christian sex manuals acquired their information from secular sexologists such as Masters and Johnson!), the evangelical egalitarian who reads works by secular feminists can be viewed as a defector from the faith. Indeed, the conservative Christian who reads Marx’ Das Kapital is considered a broad-minded scholar, while one who reads Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is dismissed as a heretic.
From my point of view, evangelical feminists can benefit from reading Faludi’s documentation of retaliation against gender justice within America’s major institutions. Her excellent interviews with Connie Marschner and Beverly LaHaye (both on the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and some lobbyists with Concerned women for America are “must-read” material. Faludi is a secular reporter who knows the fundamentalist mind-set very well! I only wish she had written a chapter on the backlash among Christian “progressives”—main-line denominations that ordain women but marginalize them into poor-paying rural parishes, “hip” Catholic priests who pray to “God Our Mother” while writing pulp “theological” novels which subtly degrade women, and “enlightened” evangelical pastors who ordain women elders while focusing all their ministry on affluent white males.
When reading Faludi, of course one does not have to agree with her every assertion or adhere to her basic world view. Several reviewers, including some prominent feminists, have taken issue with her statistics and I too agree that she should have used a more nuanced approach. She is also “pro-choice” and devotes an entire chapter to opposition to “reproductive rights.” But, again from my point of view, her documentation of the abortion wars simply confirms the urgent need for a movement transcending both the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” clinches, a movement which respects the rights both of the life in the womb and of the woman, and where, regardless of legislation, males are willing to take equal responsibility for conception, contraception, and child care.
Far from being an angry, irrational diatribe against men, or a critique of women’s weakness, Backlash struck me as a witty, well-crafted book. I suggest that biblical feminists who ignore Faludi are not doing themselves a favor. In her extensive documentation of secular and religious anti-feminist retaliation, Faludi proves that those who believe in equal rights for women but refuse to call themselves feminists are unwittingly preparing to be the next victims of the backlash brigade!
In contrast, Steinem’s Revolution From Within reminds me of a series of conversations on a week-long cruise with an acquaintance. Like all conversations with intelligent people who have “lived a bit,” her book has numerous flashes of brilliance juxtaposed with more than a few moments of tedium. Still, I enjoyed her work and was especially grateful for her excellent comparisons between romance and love (especially in relation to patriarchal society), her comments on politics, culture, and self-esteem, her analysis of the two Bronte classics, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and her pithy comments on eating disorders, menstruation (including some evidence that men have emotional “cycles”), menopause, and sexual abuse of children. She also shows much compassion for self-esteem problems faced by men. It was refreshing to hear her discuss, without bitterness, the painful moments in her childhood and her romantic relationships with men. To me, her book proves that, overall, feminists are not anti-children, anti-family, anti-men, or anti-femininity.
However, as a Christian I vehemently disagreed with some assertions in Steinem’s work. She is strongly attracted to a feminist version of New Age spirituality. I was also dismayed at her advocacy of lesbianism and sex outside of marriage, and I found her view of self-esteem very troubling. Her stance on this subject is not much different from many secular and religious psychologists in the nineties, but she still misses the mark. Self-esteem is a gift of grace. Paradoxically, we will never “feel good about ourselves” until we realize that only Christ can release us from our sins. It’s that simple — and that difficult.
How do we show this grace to the secular feminist community? The Gospel must be proclaimed to all people, and Steinem unwittingly shows that secular feminists also yearn to experience the love of Christ. But that means that we Christians must not only talk about the Gospel, we must live it. In the Winter 1991 issue of Priscilla Papers, David Spencer gave women some advice on responding to oppression from egalitarian men. Do we need any more proof of the need to practice what we preach, beginning among Christian feminists, both male and female?
Both Faludi and Steinem realize that ultimately laws and consciousness-raising will not be enough to overcome sexism. Faludi points out that because there is no “Central Backlash Committee” the oppression of women is all the more difficult to overcome. Steinem is on a search for spirituality and writes that while she was in high school she attended a fundamentalist church for a short time. She also admires women who are working for change within the established churches, giving further proof that even secular feminists who believe that Christianity is inherently patriarchal are on that subconscious search for God’s grace.
Christian egalitarians know why sexism exists and are not afraid to label it as sin, but the secular feminists are generally superior at chronicling the symptoms of that personal and societal evil. Thus these two secular books raise sobering questions: Why haven’t we biblical egalitarians written more about inclusive language, stay-at-home fathers, workplace reform, demeaning stereotypes about male and female sexuality, oppressive and artificial standards of feminine beauty, domestic exploitation of women, and other issues so well covered by secular writers? We certainly could supply a much-needed biblical perspective.
Why aren’t we Christians pressing our legislators for stronger anti-discrimination laws, a more family-friendly workplace, and parental leave policies? I believe we must do much more than an exegesis of the “hard passages.”
In working for gender justice we need not make dangerous alliances with groups advocating immoral lifestyles. But we must show Christ-like concern for the secular feminist community, including reading its position papers and literary and journalistic works.
Backlash and Revolution From Within are useful resources for biblical feminists. Each reassures us that the women’s movement is far from dead, reminds us that the journey is hardly complete, and unwillingly commands us to “put on the whole armor of God.” I would urge you to read these books and respond to their multitude of challenges. As Faludi said so well, regardless of what setbacks Corinthians face in the future, nobody can take away the justness of our cause. I pray that she and other secular feminists will some day realize why.