Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a name that is currently dominating feminist Instagram. Despite her youth, gender, and ethnicity, she has just been elected to Congress in the mid-term elections. After she won the democratic primary in June, feminist influencers I follow on social media all paid homage to Ocasio-Cortez by posting photos of her mid-speech with an inspirational caption. There was one tribute in particular that struck me because it included Ocasio-Cortez’s definition of feminism:
“Ultimately feminism is about women choosing the destiny that they want for themselves.”
What can we agree upon?
Let me say at the first that feminism and Christianity can agree with each other at the level of genuine concern for women. It is not surprising that Christians would have an affinity for feminist content insofar as feminism seeks the good of women. If you did not have some level of empathy for the work of Malala Yousafzai, or take notice of the alarming statistics around domestic violence, I would be concerned. It’s difficult to separate advocacy for women’s rights from the feminist movement, and so there will be crossover between Christianity and feminism at points.
Yet, it’s worth asking whether these crossover points (i.e. shared concerns around domestic violence, objectification of women) ought to form the basis for ‘identifying as a feminist’. The Bible is the lens through which the Christian sees the world, and even though we interact with all manner of ideas and philosophies on a daily basis, we need to keep remembering that God’s word stands over them all. Because of its emphasis on personal experience, and conviction that its followers ‘internalise’ their beliefs, I think that the feminist ideology is one which Christians ought to be ready to scrutinise.
Can I be a Christian and a feminist?
I have been trying to answer this question for years, and particularly as someone who has a lot of sympathy for feminism. It seems to me that any educated woman worth her salt subscribes to feminism in some manner. It is not easy to voluntarily exclude myself from a group of women that I am inspired by and in many ways indebted to. But I do not think that recognition of the work of feminism requires me to endorse it wholeheartedly, or to call myself a feminist. I have encountered many people who have admonished me for rejecting the label because in their view, it displays a lack of gratitude for the ‘freedoms’ that have been won for me by feminists past. For my part, I am incredulous that these same people often have no trouble at all in brushing aside the Judeo-Christian heritage which has given them the vocabulary for human rights in the first place.
What do I mean by feminism, exactly?
In 2013 Emma Watson floored the internet with her #HeForShe launch speech. In her earnest and humble tone, decked out in a Dior suit, and against the backdrop of the United Nations, she proudly declared that she was a feminist. A feminist, she said, is someone who believes in the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. In her estimation, anybody who agrees with this definition is by default a feminist.
My first red flag with feminist ideology is that it often begins with this superficial definition. This definition is then put forward as the question that you cannot say no to. The litmus test for whether or not you are a feminist often goes like this:
“Do you believe that men and women are equal?”
“Then you’re a feminist.”
I consider this to be superficial because in today’s world it is clear that the proposition that men and women ought to be equal requires some working out. What is the definition of a man? What is the definition of a woman? What is meant by equality? And, crucially, who decides the answers to these questions? Christians must recognise that any attempt to provide answers which are shaped by the gospel will necessarily involve a clash with the feminist worldview.
It ought to be self-evident to anyone who is familiar with the definitions of Genesis 1-3 that our core Christian beliefs about what it means to be human are in direct opposition to the values espoused by modern feminism. The Christian conception of equality is qualified by the understanding that men and women are made equally in the image of God. To be made in the image of God assumes that men and women are of equal worth, yet they are indeed different, and that is the beauty of God’s good design. A feminist view of equality does not look to a creator to provide this missing piece of the equality puzzle. As such, feminists have mistakenly pursued sameness of the sexes, rather than equality. By following this logic through to its conclusion, the feminist movement now advocates for gender distinctions to be dismantled entirely.
Who has the right to name?
This is why Ocasio-Cortez’s definition struck me. It accurately encapsulates the spirit of contemporary feminism and sheds light on where its divergence with Christianity begins. A much more realistic definition of feminism is that it is the right to name oneself, the world, and ultimately God, according to women’s experience. In contrast, the evangelical Christian seeks to understand themselves, the world, and God by God’s self-revelation to us in his word. Our experiences as women are interpreted by Scripture, not the other way around.
The fact that feminism and Christianity are markedly opposed at such a fundamental level makes sense of the unease I feel, but which I have struggled to articulate, when I interact with feminist books, articles and talks as a Christian. It isn’t just that feminists are pro-choice and I am pro-life. It isn’t just that feminism seeks to deconstruct gender and I maintain that humanity is created as male and female. The real issue is that the final arbiter of authority underlying every feminist claim is one’s own experience as a woman.
This also explains why feminism is so varied in its definitions and expressions. If feminism is about the right to name, then it stands to reason that there will be innumerable feminisms: Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ feminism for the modern career woman, intersectional feminism for the minority woman, sex-positive feminism for the empowered woman, radical feminism for the strident woman, eco-feminism for the…
I expect that each person’s personal brand of feminism will borrow from all of these feminisms at one point or another, with the result that they are able to conveniently craft a worldview that suits whatever circumstances they may find themselves in. As a Christian, I know I am not immune to absorbing the ideas of my world. At some level, I probably am a feminist regardless of whether I want to call myself one or not. After all, feminism is in the air that we breathe, as Christian writers have been saying for years.
However, I do not want to uncritically absorb the world’s ideas, or assume that it’s wise to do so. As a follower of Christ, and especially as a teacher of God’s word, I cannot in good conscience endorse an ideology that celebrates self-determination. I have been saved by grace from the consequences of sinful rebellion. I have no intention of turning back, regardless of how charismatic and fierce the woman is who bids me to do so.