Caught between a rock and a hard place: The Christian feminist’s dilemma

Two years ago, soon after our second wedding anniversary, my husband Andrew and I stood in the church sanctuary taking to friends after the service about our anniversary plans.

“So, when are you going to have kids?” a friend asked me.

I stood there dumbfounded wondering why everyone kept asking me this question. Both Andrew and I were finishing our masters degrees with plans to pursue doctorate degrees in the next year.

“Um, not anytime soon,” I replied.

Yet, even after answering the family planning question two years ago. I am repeatedly asked every year, around our anniversary, when we are going to children. The answer remains the same, but the pressure to conform to the typical evangelical role of mother first and career second continues to increase. Last year rumors began that I was pregnant because I had missed church for a month due to my job at the local grocery store. I was horrified to return to church only to find out, that according to the church gossip mill, I was about three months pregnant. Later that spring when I announced at church that I was going to spend another four years of my life in school getting a doctorate degree, the women at church gave me weird looks. I could see their mind working “What is she going to do with a doctorate degree? When is she going to have kids?” To be clear – I want to have kids. However, the financial hardships of graduate school make it extremely difficult to be able to afford the costs of delivery and childcare.

Yet, while I know my husband I are making the right decision to wait a few more years for children, the pressure to conform to the norms of Christian culture are incredibly intense.  It’s prevalent in evangelical culture for couples to start families in their early twenties. Walk into any Christian bookstore and the women’s book section is filled with self-help books on how to be a loving wife and mother; how to put family ahead of career; and how to honor your husband as the patriarch of the family. Yet as monolithic as male-headship seems in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian society, there is diversity of opinion on this issue. I come from a Wesleyan tradition which believes that gender equality is Biblical. Women are equal to men and capable of both spiritual and professional equality. Yet, even at my Wesleyan church many people are unaware that there is a Biblical alternative to male headship.  The very vocal opinions of prominent Christian writers stifles the notion of gender equality. The lack of evangelical scholarship countering the position of the populist writers only allows the subjection of women to continue. Thus, the need for feminist communication scholarship is crucial.

From a rhetorical standpoint there is a need to first define the persuasive techniques used by evangelical writers to support male-headship. The study of Christian gender ideology has been explored by sociologists, political scientists, and religious scholars but not by communication scholars. As Wesleyan feminist scholar Rebecca Chop (1989) notes in her book The Power to Speak:

There is a dialectical relationship between language and the socio-symbolic order. Since language has both reflexive and constitutive capacities, the proclamation of scripture creates realties for women within and without the Christian community.  This dynamic however becomes problematic when women are denied access to language, in this case, the Word. Likewise, it becomes doubly complicated when language creates ‘women through character of division, a division of creating and re-creating the basic division of male and female ordered always on the invocation of God, as the primal signifier as the Word from which all words take order and meaning’ (p.25)

This manipulation of religion through words and the restriction of access to alternative interpretations of the Bible are central to survival of the Christian patriarchy.  As a feminist rhetorician the use of language to suppress a group of people is of particular concern.  The use of feminist theory and methods to study issues related to evangelical culture is necessary for the enlightenment of scholars on the issue and as a way to provide practical solutions to the evangelical community. By combing theological understanding and religious terms to the feminist studies of sexuality, socialization and reproduction, a Christian perspective can provide additional depth to the research (Young, 1990).

Yet the very notion of combining feminist scholarship with Christian discourse is unimaginable to some feminist scholars who argue that religion is too patriarchal and to be a feminist scholar means to practice religion beyond the boundaries of organized faith. Allyson Jule and Bettina Pedersen address this opposition in their book Being Feminist, Being Christian as they note:

Like others of our time, we grew up surrounded by a stubborn myth at work in Western society; that one’s faith undermines one’s thought and scholastics, that one cannot believe and think. If one is a “Christian,” then one must adhere to certain performances of that identity; if one is a “feminist,” then one cannot have a dynamic religious faith because religious faith is too patriarchal and demeaning to women. To be a woman inside Christianity necessitates the role of submitting while to be a woman committed to feminist ideas necessitates a role of assertiveness or aggression. Perhaps 9/11 served as a painful catalyst in the wider secular society for further and deeper recognition of the power of religious belief, but offered no new information to the thousands of women who have lived and continue to live with the material realties of religious ideologies that delimit, constrict, and paralyze their lives and their expression. (p.5)

To deny the necessity of Christian scholars taking a feminist research approach to address oppressive communication practices in their own faith is to deny that the issue of gender oppression in Christianity is a relevant research agenda. There must be scholars who understand communication theory and who are sensitive and understanding to the faith being researched. To challenge gender ideology in the Christian faith is not to deny the legitimacy of Christianity but to deny the legitimacy of social practices that have arisen for logically fallible Biblical interpretations. Therefore, it is not only necessary to recognize Christian feminist scholarship as a legitimate form of research, but to also recognize the legitimacy of researching communication phenomena from a Christian perspective.

I often feel caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side I have secular feminist scholars dening the legitimacy of my research. To some feminists there is no room for organized religion, especially a religion that seems highly patriarchal, in feminist studies. On the other side, I have Christians who view egalitarian principles and women in ministry as foreign concepts that do not belong in a true Bible believing church. So, I am caught between the radical liberals and the radical conservatives. Over the next few posts I’ll explore in more detail some of the struggles in researching as a Christian feminist. I hope that through dialogue both sides can begin to see that taking the middle ground is often the only way to fully understand an problem.

3 thoughts on “Caught between a rock and a hard place: The Christian feminist’s dilemma

  1. I did not know if you would be interested but, there was a conference held on July 24th, in Orlando. Some speakers at this conference have demanded an apology from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood concerning thier patriarchal teachings.

Leave a Reply