On the “f” word

November 30, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Okay, so now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about the “f” word: feminism. (What did you think I was going to say?!) Feminist theology is part of what I’m studying and I sometimes get some pretty strange reactions when I tell people that fact. I’ve even had someone refuse to include that tidbit about me when introducing me to a congregation, in case it was offensive to someone! It seems there are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about feminism out there, so I thought I’d briefly explain how I understand feminism and why it’s important to me. (And if you’re interested in watching a good overview, I’d recommend having a look at this CBC DocZone documentary as well, which helped me out with my title.)

How I define feminism:

I understand feminism as a liberative movement which gives priority to the experiences and perspectives of women on the basis that women’s voices have been marginalized in Western societies. In the contexts of home/family, society, and church, women have been relegated to secondary status, have been socialized to be submissive, have been objectified and sexualized, and have been excluded from positions of power; this is commonly known as patriarchy, or the ‘rule of the father.’ Feminists work against patriarchy to empower women, establish equality and mutuality between women and men, and to end interrelated forms of oppression, including sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and eco-cide.

Why I study feminist theology:

As a Mennonite church, we’ve embraced some feminist practices, such as recognizing the pastoral and leadership gifts of women and (to some extent) using gender-inclusive language in worship, yet I would venture to say that not a lot of us are familiar with feminist theology. It certainly isn’t front-and-centre at our theological colleges and universities. Though Mennonites and feminists have a lot in common in terms of being radical, egalitarian movements which focus on community, most of us haven’t taken seriously feminist critiques of the supposed maleness of God or sufficiently explored what Jesus’ maleness means for discipleship and how feminism can shed light on the gendered power dynamics within our own tradition and communities.

Why I call myself a feminist:

I choose to call myself a feminist even though feminism is an easily misinterpreted and often misunderstood term. Basically, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t passionate about gender equality. But I also think the term has to be qualified, because there are so many different kinds of feminists. For instance, I’m not a separatist feminist – I think that women, men, and others need to work together for gender justice for all. I’m also (obviously) not a post-Christian or secular feminist – I don’t think that patriarchy stems from Christianity or religion generally, but that feminism arose from aspects of the Christian and Jewish traditions. Because I belong to the Mennonite church, and want to retain its emphasis on peace, I usually call myself a Mennonite feminist, or speak of my work as feminist-Mennonite theology. Of course, even better than calling myself a feminist is being called one by others! This has happened to me a couple of times, and I consider it the highest compliment.

How Jesus’ maleness affects my understanding of Christian feminism:

I wrote my Master’s thesis on this topic, so I could probably go on and on about this one! My short answer is that it doesn’t pose a problem because of what kind of male he was. He wasn’t just abstractly or essentially male. Historically, in his context, he treated women as equals: spoke with them in public (broke that taboo), befriended them, taught them (the role of student was usually reserved for men), challenged and was challenged by them.

Also, if Jesus reveals the divine (however you want to define that), then he is beyond gender as well. My thesis was on the tradition of wisdom Christology, which connects the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures figure of divine Wisdom, depicted as a woman, with Jesus and his ministry – she serves bread and wine to her followers, she preaches in the streets, she’s God’s first-born child, etc. This means that Jesus is the embodiment of a female divine figure – which I think has fascinating implications for how Jesus transgresses gender norms and symbolism.

In Christianity, there’s a long history of seeing Jesus as female and vice versa – from seeing female early Christian martyrs as images of Christ, to the mystic Julian of Norwich’s image of Jesus as a nursing mother, to present-day feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether calling Jesus “our sister” in her famous essay, “Can a Male Savior Save Women?”

Why feminism is relevant today:

Though there are some who argue that feminism is no longer relevant, I think that “post-feminism” is a fiction! There have been a few signs of progress in our context – women can vote, are considered persons under the law, are free to work in many professions previously closed to women, have access to contraception. But so much remains problematic – women are still the ones doing most domestic work and childcare, whether or not they have jobs outside the home, gender stereotyping is rampant, and has gotten worse in the sexual objectification of women and increasingly young girls in the media, violence against women shows no signs of declining (and neither does victim-blaming).

I do think that feminism needs rethinking, renewing, and reorienting in terms of recovering its religious roots and integrating the perspectives of non-white, non-elite women. The progress of feminism is too often measured by the gains of the elite, which mean nothing for most women. In my studies, I’ve discovered womanist theology (African-American, woman-centred theology), which has been a true revelation. There is such wisdom there (such as the work of Delores S. Williams and JoAnne Marie Terrell) that too often gets sidelined.

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