The Advent of Christian Feminism

Who is a feminist (search)? The answer is about to expand to include Christian feminists. Zealots who patrol the ideological walls of established feminism will not welcome the new arrivals at their gate.

Conservatives are not supposed to have a social conscience or be politically fashionable. But let me extend a warm welcome to the growing ranks of Christian feminism. The larger movement desperately needs an infusion of fresh perspective and I look forward to honest debate over our points of disagreement.

At this point, synapses may be colliding at the attempt to integrate the words "Christian" and "feminist" because the combination deviates from expected norms. Remember, however, that those norms were established over past decades by politically correct feminists (search), whose critiques of historic Christianity were specifically designed to discredit the church as anti-woman. Similar critiques were aimed at discrediting institutions such as the traditional family and the free market system. Just as PC feminists got it wrong in branding "men" a class enemy, they are wrong in dismissing the role of religion.

What is Christian feminism? It is a school within the broader feminist tradition that seeks to define woman's liberation and her equality with man through reference to the Christian religion. This sounds odd to modern ears. But it is no odder than trying to define liberation and equality with reference to post-Marxist theory, the well from which PC feminism draws. Or by referring to the classical liberal tradition as does the school I favor -- individualist feminism or ifeminism.

The dominant voice within the current movement is PC feminism. And one of the myths that such feminists have successfully sold is that any woman who disagrees with their approach on a wide range of issues -- from sexual harassment to child custody, from abortion to affirmative action -- is anti-feminist. Perhaps even anti-woman. That claim is absolutely false.

The truth is, there are now and there always have been many schools of thought within the feminist tradition: from socialist (search) to individualist (search), liberal to radical, Christian to Islamic. These schools offer conflicting views of what it means to be a woman on a personal level and in relationship to society. When you think about it, this diversity of opinion makes sense.

Feminism can be defined as the belief that women should be liberated as individuals and equal to men. It is only natural for there to be disagreement over what a personal ideal like "liberation" means and how a basic concept like "equality" should be defined. Indeed, it would be amazing if every woman who cared about liberation and equality came to exactly the same conclusions.

For example, what does equality (search) mean? Does it refer to "equality under just law" -- under laws that protect person and property? Is it "socio-economic equality" that requires legal privileges for the disadvantaged and government control of the marketplace? Perhaps it is the cultural equality in which attitudes and social expression need to be controlled and "politically corrected?"

Disagreement on complex political terms and social issues is not only inevitable, it is healthy because it fuels open, honest discussion.

Yet PC feminists insist: There is no room for discussion on issues like abortion, on promoting diversity or on how the Bible oppresses women. They proclaim a specific position to be "feminist" and, then, declare women who fall outside that position to be "non-" or "anti-feminists."

They know better. Concepts like equality and issues like abortion have been actively debated within feminism since the movement's inception. The most cursory review of "inconvenient" feminist history reveals:

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two of the Founding Mothers of feminism, strongly opposed abortion. Victoria Woodhull, the first female presidential candidate, shared their opposition.

Many 19th-century feminists did not advocate diversity but elitism and racism. Even Margaret Sanger, who is lauded for bringing birth control to immigrant women, argued that the world would be better off without "certain types" of children -- namely, those who were "less fit." Some prominent 19th-century suffragists advocated adopting educational or property qualifications for voting that would disqualify most black women.

Religion often constituted the backbone of belief for early feminists, many of whom were Quakers like Lucretia Mott who, along with Stanton, organized Seneca Falls -- the first woman's rights convention in America. When Stanton herself blasted the impact of religion on women through "The Woman's Bible," the National American Woman Suffrage Association denounced the work.

My purpose in pointing to inconvenient history is not to slur the feminist past or to champion one position over another. It is to confirm that there has always been a wide range of opinion on key issues such as the role of abortion and religion in women's lives. And there always should be.

Next spring, Vanguard University in California will open a Center for Women's Studies, thus becoming one more evangelical Christian college to invite feminists to walk on its campus. I argue from a different perspective than Christian feminism. But I invite and I look forward to the new definitions of liberation and equality that will flow from women such as the young feminists of Vanguard.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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