“It’s not like she’s a radical feminist or anything.”
My back stiffened at the graduate student’s description of his wife, and my eyes darted to the other side of the classroom, where my friend Rachel looked as stunned as I felt. Amir had been co-teaching our gender communication class for almost three months, and had approached every issue with a skillful blend of authoritativeness and openness. To hear him nervously give in to the common cliché was jarring.
Only a few weeks before, we’d had a similar experience while sitting in a circle of lovely and wise women of valor, all sharing our stories. As more than one young woman in the circle hastily stressed that she was no “radical feminist,” I could see the passing look of frustration on Rachel’s face out of the corner of my eye.
It wasn’t that we didn’t understand their reluctance to tangle with that label. As first or second-year female students at a Christian college, it was remarkable that they had simply acknowledged that the model of soft patriarchy offered by mainstream evangelical Christianity was not enough for them. Rachel and I were juniors, the oldest students in the group, and both deep into our gender studies minors. We were used to polite, wary looks when we struggled to explain our reasons for choosing a field and label that many believe is obsolete. However, we had witnessed through our studies the worldwide need for feminism. Perhaps even more important was the contact with professors who had affirmed our interest in gender issues and exemplified a path of thoughtful and confident Christian feminism.
It’s true that, at 21 years old, I am simply too young or too sheltered to comprehend the full stigma associated with “radical feminism.” ‘Feminist’ wasn’t a bad word in my parent’s household—it wasn’t really addressed at all. I grew up in post-Title XI America—all doors were open to me (to my gender, anyway—my personal basketball skills never improved past the 3rd grade level.) I never realized how much women’s history I received from American Girl books instead of public school curriculums, or understood how to give voice to the vague creeped-out feeling I got whenever my youth group was lectured on modesty. I remember thinking how impractical it seemed that all of the elders and deacons in our small church were men. Yet, I didn’t give it that much thought until my freshmen year of college, reading a book by Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne. Their chapter on women in ministry suddenly pulled the ripcord on a place in my mind that had stayed silent, believing ‘this isn’t what Christians think.’ Campolo expressed sorrow that his mother—a gifted spiritual teacher—was never able to follow her calling into ministry and I felt a measure of heartache flavored with thankfulness.
The next year, Bethel introduced a brand new minor in gender studies. I was the first one to sign up.
It was amazing. I was impressed and thrilled by the breadth of subjects that were valid topics of discussion. Compiling and considering lists of gendered, derogatory words? Perfectly acceptable. Studying the efforts of women like Edna Adan Ismail in providing safe healthcare to Somali women and girls? Of course! Dissecting a young adult franchise to determine its hidden gender messages? Also important! I read theory that made me wonder if I’d ever understand another sentence—and wrote an academic paper about gender in The Hunger Games!
Possibly the most liberating thing about digging into gender studies at a Christian university is… that I don’t have to choose between faith and feminism. The radical way of Christ inspired me and strengthened me to pursue my questions about sexism, egalitarianism, patriarchy, and gender equality. Even as I spun in circles, staring at everything I believed and wondering if any of it was true, my God held the ground steady under my feet and caught me when I got too dizzy.
Being a radical Christian feminist is an exercise in vulnerability. Many Christians have thrown mud at feminism—and secular feminism has thrown it right back. Feminist critiques of organized religion are compelling, and not entirely unfounded. I’m sure many secular feminists look at Christian feminists like we’re crazy, committing to a religion that has consistently told women to ‘SHH!’ “Does she know?” They ask, convinced we’re sticking around in cheerful blindness.
On the other hand, more traditional Christians also give us skeptical looks. They wonder if we’ve been swept away in the excitement of a recent event—maybe a speech by Emma Watson or the discovery of a sex trafficking ring in a faraway country. “Do you know?” They ask, concerned that we’re unaware of the hurricane of gender issues around us—that we’re throwing in our lots without noticing the shattered windows next door.
These questions have the same answer: Of course we know. We know the verses that have made us wonder if we’re less than and we know that there is more to feminism than sharing an inspiring video. This course means holding on with both hands, and sometimes those hands get hurt—fingers bent backwards when a trusted feminist organization messes up and palms scratched when a respected Christian leader acts callously towards a sexual abuse issue. For me, it has meant rants scribbled on the margins of church bulletins and forcing myself to stop reading the blog posts and go to sleep. It means knowing the food is messy and the table is chipped and eating there anyway.
“Well, that’s fine, as long as you’re not one of those obnoxious, radical feminists.”
My little brother is fifteen. At least 60% of the things he says to his older siblings are motivated by the excitement of seeing us get riled up. I smile when I think about him saying this, and when I think of our other two siblings, the messiness of our family road trip arguments and sing-alongs, and the mixed-blessing madness of watching them meet the world.
“Yeah, kid, actually I am.”