Our 21-year-old daughter called my husband’s cell phone one evening last week.
“Dad, I’m on a quick break during class but I wanted to ask you: do you self-identify as a feminist?”
“Well, yes, I would say that I do,” he said.
“What do you think that means?” she countered.
“I believe that women should have equal opportunities and get equal pay for equal work. Why?”
In a comparative politics class at her Christian university, the male professor had asked the students the same question. About 75 percent of the female students raised their hands, and about a third of the male students. The professor asked the class what that meant to each of them, and why they did or did not identified as such. One of the guys who said they were feminists simply explained, “I think girls are great.” I could almost see my daughter’s eyes rolling.
My daughter didn’t even wait for class to end to ask a few of the important men in her life—including her dad and her brother—how they labeled themselves, and whether they even understood what the word meant.
My daughter is saddened and shocked that many women at her college do not identify as feminists. When I asked her what reason they give for their position, she sighs, “It’s ‘biblical.’ Well, not really, but they think it is. I think a lot of women are just passive and complacent, even if it mildly contributes to their oppression.”
I tell her I’m so proud that she is a feminist. “Well, what else would I be? You raised me.”
I was never really on a soap box about being a Jesus Feminist (as Sarah Bessey so aptly labels us). She grew up in a home and a church where she saw women leading, teaching, serving in every capacity without limits based on gender, and assumed that was normal. She saw parents who tried to practice mutual submission. Who argued, yes, who worked through things and prayed through things, but never played the “I’m the boss because of my gender” card.
“I didn’t really know issues like this existed much until after I came to college, because all I ever knew until then (in our family and our church) was egalitarianism,” she told me.
“I guess I just absorbed it,” she said. “Thank you for raising me to be a feminist.”
Thank you for becoming one, and such an articulate one at that, I thought.
In a subsequent conversation, I told my daughter that a decade ago, even though he believed in women’s right to work and have equal opportunities, her dad would probably not have embraced the label “feminist.” My husband’s mother was a working mom in the seventies, which shaped him. But his father’s dedication to listening to (and parroting) Rush Limbaugh did as well.
However, raising a strong, capable daughter with leadership gifts provides a clinic in all that’s good and right about feminism. He would never want to squelch her opportunities in any way, and he admires her tenacity, character and intelligence.
In other words, he wants the best for his daughter, in a completely non-patriarchical way. Together, we’d had a conversation for two decades or so in our family that helped all of us understand the value of everyone.
Here is the thing: Girls need dads who self-identify as feminists. Fathers who treat their daughters with honor, who champion their right not only to be respected, but their ability to achieve. Dads who never say “don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” but instead believe in their intelligence, encourage them to develop their gifts. Dads who let their kids know that they believe in them, and in their ability to problem solve and succeed.
Girls and women also need churches who self-identify as feminist. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, to be feminist is not to be against men, or to be angry or militant or think that there is no difference at all between genders. Rather, it means, as my husband told our daughter, that you believe that women and men have equal value, should have equal opportunities, and should not be discriminated against—in society, the workplace or the church.
Churches that self-identify as feminist will thrive, because everyone in that church will discover and deploy their gifts. Women won’t feel frustrated at being told they can only take on certain roles, that they are disqualified for certain other roles solely because of their gender. Feminism is never against men, it’s in living out the biblical truth that the community of the church is one where distinctions of gender, socio-economic status, race are subsumed by unity. Galatians 3:28 says: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is how the church, the new community, is supposed to function. But sometimes, it doesn’t.
“I’ve been so discouraged by the church,” my daughter said, adding that this disappointment started after she left our strongly egalitarian church to go to college. She was rather stunned to find out that other churches within the same [evangelical] tradition seem to often move in the opposite direction of her admittedly liberal views, not just on women but on many issues of justice and equality. She was stunned by the stories of her friends who grew up in churches that denied women the opportunity to do certain things because of their gender.
I want my daughter to bring her intelligence and strengths to the church. I want to remind her that there are other churches out there like the one we raised her in, where women’s gifts and abilities are celebrated, welcomed and utilized.
I also want churches to wake up and realize that if they continue to cling to patriarchy, they will lose a generation of capable and wise young women, and will be bereft as a result.