The gender conversation 3: What is feminism?

There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.

Click here for part 1, part 2,

P: So can you tell me a little more about feminism? 

I always direct people to the standard definition of it because there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually is in the first place. Wikipedia tells us:

“Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.”

P: I think the first thing from what you say is that feminism, like Christianity, is not monolithic and has lots of competing strands and groups that may have very different means and values while still claiming to have the same goal, So I’m thinking of say Dr Brooke Magnanti who argues that her choice to be an escort or call-girl is a logical result of feminism and that she is empowered by her choice. Is that a fair observation?

It is a fair observation that feminism has many different strands and schools of thought. You mention Dr Brooke Magnanti and of course the pro/anti sex work debate and whether or not it contributes to oppression or empowerment is one of the major debates within feminism. This has been the case for several decades now. Interestingly, Dr Magnanti decided to step away from the feminist label a few years ago, partly due to criticism she received from those who are anti-sex work, but also because she said she “doesn’t get” UK feminists – she has famously said that she doesn’t care about debates surrounding maternity leave, the workplace, and housework.

P: What does being a feminist mean in theory and in practice? Why is it important to you? Is it a cause for you (like say campaigning against cancer or people-traffiking) or is it a philosophy, a way of seeing and understanding the world, like socialism or atheism or christianity?

Feminism recognises the fact that as a group, women have been historically oppressed and remain so purely on the basis of their gender. Its aim is for women to be accorded the same rights, worth, treatment and respect as men – not, as many people sadly believe, for women to be given preferential treatment over men, for women to be seen as superior to men, or to render men obsolete. It’s a common misconception and stereotype. For me, that does not fit with what we’re told about why God created men and women. I treat it as a philosophy rather than “just a cause I believe in”. It intersects with my Christianity, has helped educate me about a lot of things, changed the way I think about myself about about the world, introduced me to some amazing people, and affects my relationships.

In theory, feminism means examining the ways women are oppressed, and women’s roles in spheres such as politics, economics, history, the law, relationships, and the family (to name just a few). It also means examining the ways the oppression of women intersects with other forms of oppression people face – such as that based on race, class, sexuality, or whether or not they are able-bodied. This is known as intersectionality, and is a pretty hot topic at the present time thanks to some conflicts that have been played out very publicly between journalists, writers and activists.

In practice, it means a myriad of things – from activism with the goal of achieving particular outcomes such as a change in the law or raising awareness of an issue, to organising women together and enabling them to share experiences, to setting up organisations that work for women and for equality. It also means living out your life in a way that promotes gender equality. For me, there are particular issues within feminism that I feel strongly about – violence against women and girls (which encompasses many issues in itself), maternal and reproductive health and the economic issues surrounding motherhood, the media’s relationship with women, and the intersection of feminism and religion.

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