Friday, June 24, 2011

the F word on Christian campuses

I think I've blogged about this before. I like the F word. I wear it on a t-shirt. I say it a lot. Freely. Gratuitously. Egregiously. With feeling. In appropriate and inappropriate contexts. Like this:

Feminist, feminist, feminist, FEMINIST!

So, I'm musing about this again because of a comment at a session I attended at the CSC last week. It was the first response to a question about what we can do on Christian higher ed campuses to support and promote scholarship among aspiring female academics, both students and faculty. And this responder made the case that we need to hear from women who don't identify as feminists if we want to make progress on this.

It was an odd and unexpected sentiment to hear--at least from my perspective--after the full-throated fem roar of the presentation itself, which did not shy away from the abysmal stats regarding female presence in the academy and the even worse data on female presence in Christian higher ed. Simply to state these things is a feminist act--so why is it that the solution is somehow to hide our feminism? How would you even do this? Are we supposed to privately encourage our female students, but not do anything to rock the boat because that would be "counterproductive?" Covert support like that is not exactly real supportive: it simply encourages more women to throw themselves into a hostile environment, without challenging the expressions of hostility. Here ladies, gird up your loins for battle--you're strong and smart, you'll survuve it. And hey, here are my battle-scars--pretty soon you'll have some great ones yourself. Come back in a few years and we'll compare. Good luck!

Okay, I'm being unfair. No doubt this was not the intended message. Though I'm pretty sure that, regardless of intent, this is what shying away from feminism gets us.

More than likely, the intended message was more something along these lines: "find something you want to do, and go be great at it." Ditch the feminist whining and just do your thing. Feminist whining will hold you back, distract you, brand you as troublemaker, make you depressed and angry... So don't bother with being "feminist," just go be what you want.

And "go be what you want" is a great message--one which I try every day to hand to my precocious 5-year-old (baby Z is a little young for indoctrination, though I do my best not to gender-code her onesies. It's the least I can do). But it misses something important. And that is, it's f-word hard to "do what you do" when what you do is something that, wittingly and unwittingly, you keep getting stopped from doing because you're a girl. Whether you're in that male-dominated math-and-science world, or getting an MDiv within a tradition that doesn't ordain women, this is what you face: a culture which has for so long assumed that a girl can't, shouldn't, and really deep down doesn't want to, do these things means that simply trying to "do what you do" makes you a walking-around in-your-face F-word. You can try to mitigate that by not labeling yourself with that offensive word...but I don't see how that helps you navigate reality. Instead, you've taken on the additional burden of resolutely not naming the problem you navigate. And if you can't name it, the boys can't either. And it will persist.

So I use the F word. Lots. And I think you should too. Until we get over that ridiculous Rush-Limbaugh-femi-Nazi caricature we've been indoctrinated with, and realize that feminism is, simply, about supporting women who are trying to "do what they do." We absolutely don't need women who don't identify as feminists. We need men and women who do.


Brad East said...

Thanks for this post. A couple follow-up questions:

1) The way you report the person's comment, it doesn't sound like "we shouldn't encourage feminism" or "we shouldn't openly admit our feminism," but rather, "if we are going to be inclusive as well as successful, we have to listen to those (men and women) who do not and will not self-identify as feminist." Is that a correct assessment? If so, what are your thoughts on that?

2) It seems to me, as a fellow CoC-er with experience on a CoC campus (ACU), that we can't assume that we can define terms with a history and baggage. Your definition of feminism is delightful, but it isn't "the" definition of feminism, but one of many feminisms on offer. Many Christians, rightly or wrongly, and both male and female, associate the word with one particular strand of thought/activism that they will forever reject and dislike. Should the goal be to redefine and work to help them accept the term, or to come together to work for the goals which the word (for you or me) signifies?

I mean this latter question as a sincere one, not as a leading one. I'm interested to know your thoughts.

JJT said...

Brad, thanks for commenting!

At the moment I'm in another conversation on FB about the baggage of certain religious terms and whether or not they can/should be retained and redefined, or's an interesting parallel to your questions here, to say the least! ;)

In the moment, my interpretation of the comment was that folks who don't identify as feminist are the only ones who are going to be successful, because "feminism" is problematic. I also got the impression that feminism was considered problematic not just because there's a rhetorical issue but because feminism is itself problematic. I could be wrong about all of that; I don't know the commenter personally.

My preference would be to lighten the heavy baggage the f word carries by pointing out that it is a contested term with many definitions. There's no default definition in control, so constructing a definition of feminism we can agree with is the same exact work as defining the goals we can work towards without using the word! If we abandon it, though, we can't challenge the wrongheaded singular femi-Nazi definition that a lot of us (me included) grew up assuming. And while it's certainly not impossible to identify the pragmatic goals we want to achieve without using the word feminist to describe them, often (at least for me) these goals are feminist (just not that wrongheadedly defined version); I don't mind using this coy strategy as a way to defeat initial prejudices regarding language, but beyond that first step I think it probably hampers progress. Finally, I think beyond simply achieving whatever goals for women/men we identify in our own communities (churches, universities etc), we also ought to be working toward connecting our goals with larger societal issues, and this means eventually needing to identify what we're doing as feminist in order to have a common language with other communities. I'm thinking here of things like the sexualization of early childhood in media, natural childbirth/breastfeeding activism, equal pay initiatives, sexual abuse--all of these things are issues insider and *outside* of our churches/institutions, and labeled as feminist concerns. If they're feminist *outside* the church then addressing them inside inevitably means having to deal with that label there.

Unknown said...

I have often found that when I express the simple definition of feminism--economic, political, legal and social equality--almost no one argues with it. I understand that there are feminists add additional requirements to feminism, but they are not the basis of feminism. When confronted by this definition, anyone who cannot agree with it immediately fails to gain my respect.

I admire the fact that you and others choose to work for change from within patriarchal structures. The world needs people like you.