FemFest: What Feminism Means to Me

This post is part of the #FemFest, a blog link-up on the topic of feminism.  Today, I’m answering the question “What is your experience with feminism?”  Pop over to loveiswhatyoudo.com for more great blog posts.  The series continues tomorrow and Thursday.

When I was young, I never thought much about feminism–that is, until I was few months shy of fourteen.

It was June, 1989.  I was in eighth grade.  I kept my radio tuned to local popular music station 98PXY, where I could enjoy my fix of Phil Collins and REM.  My dad took us to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was a treat because we rarely went to movies as a family.  George HW Bush was president, much to most of my family’s dismay.  I was the proud owner of an Apple IIGS computer.  That summer, I was on the verge of my own womanhood, and I was ready to shed the “goody two-shoes” image I’d lived for the previous thirteen years.

And then feminism came crashing through my world.

More specifically, my sister, older by seven years, was part of a group of ten women arrested in a local park for taking off their shirts.  (This was just three years after the original Top Free Seven made headlines.)  I was literally face-to-face with someone who was part of a women’s equality movement.

I didn’t have any idea what to do with that.

Aside from the confusion of the arrest and the several months’ worth of hang-up calls and the taunting of some of my peers, I just didn’t know what it meant.  I had no idea what these women were fighting for.  After all, I had no desire to take off my shirt in public.  Why would anyone else?  In fairness to my sister, I’m sure she tried to explain it to me.  She’s an excellent teacher when it comes to these things, and she’s been very patient with me over the years.  I was either just that clueless or being intentionally dense.  That, or I was too busy being hormone-addled.  Thirteen is such a magical age.

Given more time, I think I would have understood.  But a mere three months later, I was already becoming deeply invested in church culture.  Not having grown up in a religious household (my mother had left a fundamentalist church, and my father is Jewish but not observant), I was enthralled by these people.  It was there that I learned to distrust anything labeled “feminism.”  Feminism was a derogatory term reserved for people perceived as man-hating lesbians who wanted to wipe out the male population and figure out a way to make babies without them–or possibly not make babies at all and wipe out the human race.  (Your guess is as good as mine regarding the logic there.)  The term “feminiazi” was commonplace, and I learned that women who were pastors were leading their congregations astray with goddess worship.

I soaked in these messages so thoroughly that when I went to college, I never questioned them.  I believed that women should not be pastors and didn’t flinch when one friend mocked a woman who came to speak about feminism at a chapel service.  I didn’t even notice the subtle ways that male privilege dominates Christian culture.  Even when it was pointed out to me in bold, I didn’t want to believe it.

Somewhere along the line, something changed.  Perhaps the beginning was when I refused to use the word “obey” in my wedding vows; I don’t know.  For the first eight years of our marriage, I coasted.  There weren’t strict rules for men and women at that church, and in that denomination women are often elders and pastors.  I let go of some of the notions I’d previously held, but there was otherwise no real need to think about feminism.

And then.

We spent seven years in a different denomination.  I learned just how steeped in patriarchy the conservative evangelical church (not just that one, I mean as a whole) is.  I learned about victim-blaming, slut-shaming, misogyny, and the ways in which women are dominated.  I learned that some men think they can say, “I love women! Women are wonderful!” and “Women are not equal to men!” in the same breath and have it be okay because that attitude is just accepted.  I learned that women who are victimized should not ever seek help from the church.  I learned that the roles of women are Commandments, and as such, can be adhered to in a legalistic way.

At a very low point (shortly before the stories of abuse were coming out of Mark Driscoll’s church), I knew that neither my daughter nor I–and, I have since learned, my son–would survive in that environment without help.  By that point, my faith was hanging on by a thread.  I turned back to feminism, hoping to find some answers among strong women of faith.

There was so much more out there than I expected.

I discovered many women (and some men)–both Christian and not–who were leading lives of integrity and standing up together against patriarchy and misogyny.  I learned that when we fight these institutions, men benefit too.  I found the courage to admit to my husband that I simply couldn’t be part of a religious community that relied on patriarchal suppositions.  I made new friends and had the privilege of working on projects with some wonderful people.  I began to read and write with my eyes wide open to how women are perceived in our stories.

The last year and a half or so has been a learning experience.  The voices and faces of feminism are beautifully varied, and I value each person’s contribution to this tapestry we’re weaving.  I have been privileged to interact with some of the most interesting, intelligent, witty, grace-filled people I’ve ever met.  The best part is knowing that we are working together to create a better world for future generations.

What has feminism meant for you?  What are your experiences?


13 thoughts on “FemFest: What Feminism Means to Me

  1. I’m so glad you found a community of feminist Jesus people in the end…!
    My story is quite different from yours – it’s fun seeing all the different takes on it…

  2. It’s the casual way people use language to decry women that pisses me off.

    That, coupled with the normalcy of sexist (nay misogynist) language in day to day situations.

    Sometimes I REALLY think I need a sub-machine gun and the chance to ‘Run Amok’.

    • I read a great post (by a man!) on that. He said if men don’t get their shit together, women will just write them off–and they will have deserved it, even the “nice” ones (for not doing something about it). Kinda how I feel about religious people, too. When the rest of the world decides they’re done with us, I won’t argue because I will know we largely deserved it.

      I had a newish acquaintance point out a troubling aspect of rape culture, in which the violation of women’s bodies is played for laughs and seen as “normal.” Honestly, I had never noticed it, because I was too focused on the more obvious gender bias and gender essentialist stuff. Now I see that kind of thing everywhere.

  3. I loved reading this. So many of these posts are from women who are or have been part of American evangelical churches and it’s very different from my experience. Is it not wonderful though that for many the strength of their faith in Christ led them to reject patriarchal churches but insist on their identity as Christians.

    • American evangelicalism certainly is its own breed. 🙂 I’ve been a member of 3 different churches. All of them considered themselves “evangelical” in some way. My first two were technically mainline churches–Presbyterian, to be exact. And even they were very different from each other!

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