“We’re honestly both really offended by this because God created men and women to be equally valuable but purposely different,” says Kristen Clark while her sister Bethany Beal nods in agreement. This is 8 Reasons I’m not a Feminist, one of the pair’s many videos on their Youtube channel, Girl Defined, which seeks to enlighten their 155k subscribers on the topics of marriage, purity, and faith.
Girl Defined is not alone in this cyberspace. Other Christian women such as Emily Wilson (115k subscribers) and Morgan of the Paul & Morgan show (132k subscribers) have used the platform to post The INSANITY of the WOMEN’S MARCH and What it Looks like For A Wife To Submit And A Husband To Lead, which detail their qualms with the modern feminist movement.
Christian women taking up arms for anti-feminism is not something new. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly, Radcliffe College alumna and J.D. from WashULaw, was instrumental in turning the tide against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Schlafly wrote books, gave speeches on the national circuit and organised rallies, eventually causing 5 states to rescind their support. With the ERA still unratified, her legacy lives on.
For women who wield such immense power in the sphere of public discourse, opposing feminism may seem untenable, but the word “feminism” is used on a spectrum of different meanings, from suffrage all the way to frenzied visions of #freethenipple, bra-burning anarchy. One of the biggest hang-ups on a term meant to be about equality is that it centers on the root “fem.” However, even if it were possible to make a distinction between the semantics of feminism, and feminism’s core beliefs, these Christian voices deny both.
From the ages of 11-18 I attended an all-girls school in the middle of London’s business district. We topped national standard exams, won maths competitions and secured solos in orchestras. Beyond the derogatory remarks from boys whenever we beat them, or the men who would spy on us from the surrounding bushes during our sports lessons, being female never really got in the way of our flourishing. Every Monday and Friday morning, all 700 students would gather for assembly where we would listen to the Headmistress speak. She spoke on a multitude of topics but somewhere around the 9-minute mark, always managed to bring it back to the F word.
Meanwhile, I was attending a thriving youth group at Church and growing into my identity as a Christian. I taped declarations from the Psalms on my mirror to remind me of who I was in relation to how God saw me: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” “I will never be shaken,” “God delights in me.” With such importance placed on the words of God, it started to feel inconsistent to carry any title other than Christian. I still supported the feminist cause, but I no longer wanted to be called a feminist.
The first issue feminism poses to Christianity, is that it is an “ism,” a named ideology. In one video, Girl Defined even goes so far as to call feminism a “religion” where “you become your own God” because it redefines womanhood according to human terms, not the Bible’s. If being alive in Christ is synonymous with being dead to everything else, operating in any part under another belief system would necessarily compromise one’s Christianity. As Girl Defined’s reasoning (devoid of the concept of pluralism) goes, anyone who would call themselves a feminist can’t possibly be a Christian.
However, Christianity’s issues with feminism go down to the spirit and not just the letter. The seven other reasons Girl Defined give for not being feminists are because they disagree with “sexual liberation of women, abortion, distaste of male leadership, the belief that women are better than men, female success found not in the home but in the marketplace, erased gender roles and victim mentality.” This is not a mismatch over definitions, it’s a whole-hearted rejection.
When I came across the Christians Ethics corner of Youtube as a teenager, the words “equally valuable, purposely different” made me wonder if the realization of God’s glory in my life looked different to that for Christian men. As I saw the ambition of my classmates secure them places of power in the world, I wondered if feminism had missed the point. Perhaps my role in this earthly body was meant to be a nurturing, tranquil strength in complement to masculine action.
The theory of complementarian theology, the belief that genders are equal but different, even infiltrated my youth group. “I don’t think women should be vicars,” my friend said on the train ride back from Church, “but I think I’d make a good vicar’s wife.” As for me, I was dating a boy who hoped to be ordained and I loved our discussions about divinity but it never occurred to me that there might be a part of me that could see myself filling a minister role myself.
Framing gender inequality as justified, and even beneficial for women, has been a practical platitude for Christians ever since The Fall. In a famous televised debate on Good Morning America, Schlafly argued “when you make laws apply equally to men and women you take away many of the rights that women now have.” Her opponent, leading feminist Betty Friedan replied, “That’s what I can’t stand, the hypocrisy of someone who takes advantage of rights and opportunities and is enjoying equality and then uses the very advantages to argue against it.”
Schlafly’s cognitive dissonance, or as Friedan would say, hypocrisy, is only possible to maintain with a division between the public and the private realms of discourse. The public realm is the arena of televised debate, letters to the editor and of course, Youtube. Citizens are invited to share what will contribute to the good of their democratic society. In the private sphere, you are not a citizen, but filling the role of the card you are dealt. You must unquestionably uphold your duty in the guise of a soldier, clergyman, or wife, else chaos ensues.
We end up with a situation in which Christian women are allowed to speak, but only so long as they are advocating against their own power. Schlafly can run for office three times, if she thanks her husband at the beginning of every speech for giving her permission to attend. Girl Defined can write books and create a Youtube channel, as long as they stick to the topics of gender and sexuality.
When it comes to sections of the Church outside the cordoned off female realm, there is a dearth of female leadership. Among the denominations that allow female clergy, representation is patchy at best. Other denominations don’t allow female clergy at all.
In the academic year of 2019-2020, Stephanie Paulsell became the first woman to be appointed as minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church. When I attended her inaugural service, the words of the doxology had changed from the last time I worshipped there before the summer:
|Then:Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise Him all creatures here below,Praise Him above ye Heavenly hosts,Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.||Now:Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise God all creatures here below,Praise God above ye Heavenly hosts, Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost.|
As I sang, the change in words meant more than I could have guessed. Yes, I’m told Him and Father is just a placeholder describing the character of God. Yes, I’m told Man refers to Mankind, i.e. all humans, but this gender-neutral language showed me afresh the mysterious, awe-inspiring God I worship. The God who made me in his image, not just some of me, but all of my parts, especially the parts that I am told to guard the most. And if God is a He, how could that be true. God saw every part of my unformed body before one of my days came to be and it was called: very good. This doxology was only a couple of letters different, but I felt held, and I felt seen.
God is bigger than gender, but this isn’t licence for us to gloss over the words that shut worshippers out from the presence of the living God. If you are not represented in the words of the liturgy, it matters. I have seen other Churches address this issue by using she/her/hers pronouns for the Holy Spirit. It matters when complementarian definitions tell women that they can lead children’s faith education, but bar them from the clergy. Christianity’s semantic spats with feminism matter because they serve as evidence and reinforcement of millennia of misogyny.
At the end of the day, I call myself a Feminist. Against Girl Defined’s advice, I have asked boys out on dates and worn bikinis to the beach. I am grateful for the uplifting Youtube videos made by Christian women such as God is Grey that affirm God’s vision of equality in deed and in name. As long as this vestige of anti-feminism festers in the dark corners of Youtube, I pray that no other girl stumbling upon it descends into a world unknown, but behind the ardent anti-feminists stands a multitude unyielding to the cries of reform in favour of maintaining the status quo. Christians, we can do better.
Angela Eichhorst ’22 is a joint Classics and Comparative Religion Concentrator in Dunster House