Evangelical Women Revisit Feminism and Faith

By Katie Gaddini | May 31, 2022

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In the early 1970s, the radical feminist theologian Mary Daly made some startling pronouncements. First, she called herself “postchristian,” and declared that all religions “are infrastructures of the edifice of patriarchy.” Then, she called for “the castration of sexist religion,” and demanded “the death of God the Father.” Daly, who held two doctorates—in religious studies and theology—worked as a professor at Boston College. She had previously identified as a reformist Christian working within the Catholic tradition and had endeavored to make religion a more welcoming space for women. In fact, her earlier book, The Church and Second Sex, was a feminist critique of Christianity in which Daly exposed the anti-woman elements of the faith and promoted a feminist Christian theology. But Beyond God the Father, Daly’s second book, written just a few years later, represented a dramatic break with her previous work. There Daly distanced herself from The Church and Second Sex, calling its author a “foresister” with whom she sharply disagrees.

Although Daly’s newer ideas scandalized religious communities, she certainly was not the only feminist who considered faith and feminism irreconcilable at the time. Other second-wave feminists in the U.S., such as Andrea Dworkin and Leah Fritz, also focused their critical lens on the inherent anti-feminist nature of Christianity. In Thinking Like a Woman, Fritz wrote that Christian women in the west are “unloved, unrespected, unnoticed by the Heavenly Father, condescended to by the Son, and fucked by the Holy Ghost.” Forty years later, the question of whether and how Christianity and feminism go together remains unanswered. Do Daly’s and Fritz’s assertions remain relevant today? Or have the intervening decades created a friendlier relationship between Christian faith and feminism?

The bad feelings between Christianity and feminism have a long history and run both ways, especially when it comes to white evangelicalism, a conservative form of Christianity that often promotes female submission to male authority in the church and home. Prominent white evangelical leaders, from Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family have derided what Dobson called the “destructive repercussions” of feminism in U.S. society. The uneasy relationship between faith and feminism also plays out across empirical research findings. In the mid-‘80s, a study by Jerome L. Himmelstein reported that conservative “fundamentalist” Protestant women with more frequent church attendance—or what he termed a higher “degree of religious involvement”—were associated with stronger antifeminist views such as opposing abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. More recently, in 2010, a study by Kristin Aune and Catherine Redfern revealed that feminists in the U.K. were much less likely to identify as religious. And in 2019, research in Political Research Quarterly showed that two-thirds of American evangelicals consider feminism to be antagonistic toward Christian values.

Despite the fierce and long-standing feud between white evangelicalism and feminism, a group of pioneering women over the past decade have challenged the idea that the two belief systems are mutually exclusive. Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminism became a bestseller and a key text for young evangelical feminists I met during four years of in-depth research with single Christian women in both the U.S. and the U.K. The Junia Project, co-founded by pastor and self-professed feminist Kate Wallace Nunneley, also advocates for women’s equality in the church, and is a mainstay website for many evangelical women seeking a biblical approach to gender parity. Other prominent Christian feminist figures, from the late Rachel Held Evans to Nadia Bolz-Weber, cross denominational boundaries and have advocated for the fusion of faith and feminism through their countless speaking events, books, interviews, and sermons. Interestingly, their argument is not that Christian teachings and feminist beliefs can or should be reconciled, but that one naturally springs from the other. The two belief systems are mutually constitutive, according to this line of thinking. The ordering, however, is key. “I didn’t learn to be a feminist from Margaret Atwood or Simone de Beauvoir. I learned to be a feminist from Jesus,” Held Evans wrote in 2012. “This is my story, and I’m sticking to it. I am a follower of Jesus first and a feminist second.”

Nearly all the evangelical women I interviewed for my research wanted some form of gender equality within the church, whether that meant simply allowing women to preach on occasion or endorsing women for full-time church leadership. Some self-identified as feminists, and when they did, like Held Evans, they relied on feminism not in spite of their Christian beliefs but because of them. The evangelical feminists I met were clear that their feminism evolved from their Christian faith, that their interpretation of the bible and Jesus led them onto the feminist path, not the other way around. One woman named Liv said: “I think Jesus was the first feminist, if I’m honest.” She understood Jesus to be a dissenter, a renegade, a rebellious figure who championed equality including women’s equality. Other evangelical feminists coupled their fight for gender equality with race and class equality. As part of majority-white churches, including some evangelical mega-churches, women of color and working-class women noted that even as the church body grew more diverse the white, middle/upper-class male leadership remained unchanged. These women espoused an intersectional feminism, drawn from their lived experiences of marginalization within their evangelical communities.

Evangelical women pointed toward the long lineage of Christian feminists throughout history as proof that the two belief systems are intertwined. Indeed, a careful historical examination reveals an overlapping relationship between Christianity and feminism, one that seems to contest second-wave radical feminists’ contentions that the two are antithetical. History is littered with proto-feminist religious figures, such as the French-Italian writer Christine de Pizan, who wrote The Book of the City of Ladies in the 13th century. De Pizan’s book is a fanciful tale that imagines a city filled entirely with female scholars, artists, and warriors; it extolls the skills of women, their importance to society, and argues that women are made in the image of God. One painting from that period features de Pizan seated, lecturing a group of scholarly men, who stand around her. Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, American women, such as the abolitionist Sarah Moore Grimké, traveled the country promoting an egalitarian interpretation of the bible. Additionally, figures such as Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty within 20th-century progressive evangelicalism have championed Christian feminism.

Over the course of my research, I noticed that the word “feminism” had gained entry into more evangelical spaces where it was previously barred. For example, one large majority-white evangelical church in the U.S. hosted an event on faith and feminism at their yearly church retreat, a big gathering which drew evangelicals from across the country. Rather that warn of the perils of feminism, as Christian leaders such as Dobson have done for decades, the event, hosted by two women and one male pastor who were all self-proclaimed feminists, considered how Jesus embodied feminist ideals. At another prominent church, a group of women fed up with what they called the “boys club” of evangelical culture started a feminist group called Women Rise. The group were clear about their aim: to encourage more women to take up leadership roles in and out of the church.

These local occurrences have been part of a much bigger sea change. Since 2017, movements around gender equality in Christianity, such as #ChurchToo, which called out sexual misconduct in Christian communities, combined with events such as Beth Moore’s famous withdrawal from the Southern Baptist Convention on account of their complementarian theology, have coalesced to bring the treatment of women in Christianity more intense scrutiny. This movement has even spilled into conservative white evangelical circles and many women, including the ones in my study, have turned to feminism as a means to redress ongoing sexism and sexual misconduct in Christian churches and organizations. They understand that feminism, as a social movement and a set of convictions, can provide a language and political history with which to rectify gender inequality in the church.

These women pointed toward this sea change as a sign that evangelical churches were becoming more welcoming towards feminism and inclusive of women in general. They sent me screenshots of Bolz-Weber’s Instagram posts, excerpts from Christian feminist books, and news announcements of women taking up church leadership roles. They devoured books like Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne and Chine McDonald’s God is Not a White Man. As a minority faction within mainstream evangelicalism, such books, events, and feminist figures struck a chord with these women. In fact, it was their minority position that increased their fervor, their sense that there was a battle to be won and they, the few but mighty, were the ones to fight it.

Simultaneously, these movements have provoked a heated backlash. Feminism is still seen as threatening to many white evangelical leaders, just as it is to Dobson and Mohler, and a fierce resistance to feminism within white evangelicalism continues perhaps upholding Mary Daly’s pessimistic outlook. Daly doubted that identifying Jesus with feminism could subvert Christianity’s patriarchal nature. “Jesus was a feminist, but so what?” she wrote in her book Beyond God the Father.

Kat Harris, author of Sexless in the City: A Sometimes Sassy, Sometimes Painful, Always Honest Look at Dating, Desire and Sex, admits that her approach to dating and sex is considered provocative in some conservative evangelical circles. As documented in my book, it’s her identification with feminism that has been considered most problematic. “I’ve been called a ‘man-hater’ by evangelical men,” Harris reported. “By the seemingly ‘open’ ones, who are considered ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ in evangelical circles.” Even Women Rise, which started with such eagerness and purpose, eventually collapsed; multiple reasons were given, but at least one woman interpreted the ending as a result of the church’s ongoing opposition to feminism.

These setbacks are not a death knell for evangelical feminists. “Strong, feminist women don’t get beat down by the system. We rise,” Liv told me during our last interview. A new generation of evangelical feminists will undoubtedly push forward—they already are doing so. Like a set of waves that crest and fall on the back of one another, today’s Christian feminists draw from the rich lineage of women who came before them. Women such as Sarah Grimké and Letha Scanzoni as well as more modern examples such as Kate Wallace Nunneley and Beth Allison Barr paved the way for other feminists, like the ones leading Women Rise, to carve out more space within even the most conservative, patriarchal forms of Christianity. The fact that an outright feminist group could even exist at a large majority-white, conservative evangelical church would have been unheard of twenty years ago.

Feminism itself is a container that fills, empties, and refills with different meanings over time and across geographical contexts. Its meaning is not fixed, and the malleability with which feminism can be reformulated is both its greatest strength and weakness. Such malleability allows some forms of feminism to exclude and oppress, while other forms can be incredibly emancipatory and improve women’s livelihoods. It’s never been “feminism,” as a word or a concept, that threatens Christianity. Instead, backlashes and hostility toward feminism arise because of what it stands for in that context and how that meaning threatens the established gender hierarchy.

The rocky relationship between Christian faith and feminism continues, and Mary Daly’s prognosis fifty years ago that Christianity and feminism are irreconcilable remains a contested opinion. Many Christians and many feminists today would agree that they pursue decidedly different aims. At the same time, evangelical feminists, who pursue gender equality within majority-white conservative churches, forge ahead with the conviction to change the church’s treatment of women, bolstered by both their evangelical faith and their feminism.

 

Katie Gaddini is a sociologist and writer at University College London. She is the author of The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church.

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