To me, the initial burst of feminism, which focused on women's rights to vote, to own property in their own names, and to be treated legally and otherwise as fully human beings in their own right, is perfectly compatible with the Christian understanding of womanhood. In Genesis, after all, the word used to describe what Eve is to be to Adam is often translated "helpmeet." Scholars disagree (as biblical scholars usually do) about exactly what the original Hebrew words are supposed to mean, but they do know that it conveys a couple of ideas: Eve is an opposite to Adam, but she helps him; her role is to help him. Not wait on him slavishly or put up with abuse or bad treatment; not act like a queen and expect him to rush around and wait on her and fulfill her most outlandish whims: help him.
It is unfortunate that this idea of woman was ever twisted in such a way as to create a reality in which women were seen as secondary, second-class, or second-rate. But it was. It is one thing to say that women and men are supposed to be helping each other according to their unique gifts and abilities in the primary duty of all human beings, namely, to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next, and quite another turn it into a mandate requiring women not only to accept that men see them as inferior beings, but even to think of themselves that way, and to insist that a true understanding of God and His plan for women really does mean that women are and must be inferior to men, as too many Christian churches tell their female adherents in word and deed even today, and as society in general told women for generations.
If we don't understand that feminism began as a reaction against such an un-Christian idea of women as a sort of unhappy afterthought of God's which made it the duty of men to keep them in their place, we will never understand why we are where we are today.
But the Christian feminist can't just stop there. She can't point to the many real ills of the past, and, indeed, in some societies, of the present, and use these as a justification to attack her own female nature, to hate men, to kill unborn children or agitate for their killing, or in other ways to create an even greater rift between men and women than there was before.
The goal of Christian feminism should be a return to the idea of balance, of men and women as equal partners and helpmeets to each other in this work of knowing, loving, and serving God, in a relationship in which neither is exploited, hated, or dismissed, and neither is a tyrant or a despot, but both are respected and loved for their whole selves, including their masculinity or femininity.
I use this as the starting point for this post for a reason: I've been thinking a lot about a true vision of Christian feminism lately, and how, properly understood and employed, such a vision might really benefit Christian women and help them to recapture the notion of true womanhood, which is neither a vision of vintage femininity locked in a particular era nor a perpetual battle waged against men (or, even sillier, against male pronouns).
What prompted this line of thought of mine? Well, lots of things, but today specifically I've seen two opposite cases where a proper philosophy of Christian feminism (and given the negative connotations of the word "feminism" I wish there were a better term, but haven't seen one used yet) might help people come to terms with certain realities that are being discussed.
The first thing is a discussion, taking place over at Rod Dreher's blog, about whether or not legalizing prostitution has been a good thing. As anyone familiar with Rod's comment boxes can guess, the pro-prostitution people are outnumbering us anti-prostitution folks by a significant majority. Trying to argue that prostitution is intrinsically evil over there is pretty much an exercise in futility, but that doesn't stop me from trying. But I also try to frame the issue in terms of the exploitation of women (and, indeed, of the vulnerable men who end up in the sex industry too) because it seems to me to be a position consistent with ordinary secular feminism as well as Christian feminism to say that prostitution is inherently exploitative, ugly, and harmful to those engaged in it. Surprisingly enough the secular feminists seem to be more divided on the issue than I might have thought, and I realize that for many feminists, prostitution is just another form of "empowering" consensual sex, even though what is being consented about has more to do with a desire for money driven by absolute desperation than anything else. It may be left, ultimately, to Christian women to articulate that what is gravely wrong with prostitution is that it reduces human persons to objects, just like torture or abortion reduces human persons to objects, and that in particular the women who make up the vast majority of sex workers worldwide are not only at risk morally but also substantially at risk of physical and mental harm, exploitation, and slavery from the "work" they are doing.
The second thing I saw today that made me think of Christian feminism is this article about the Irish Prime Minister apologizing concerning the infamous Magdalen laundries:
The Irish State has finally said sorry to 10,000 women and girls incarcerated in Catholic Church-run laundries where they were treated as virtual slaves.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny was forced into issuing a fulsome apology on Tuesday evening to those held in the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland.
The apology in the Dáil (Irish parliament) came about two weeks after a damning 1,000-plus page report was released detailing the way women and girls were maltreated inside the nun-controlled laundries.
Survivors groups were enfuriated when the Irish premier initially declined a fortnight ago to explicitly apologise for the state's role in sending women and girls into the Magdalene Laundries, sometimes simply for coming from broken homes or being unmarried mothers. [...]
The Taoiseach said what happened to the Magdalene women had "cast a long shadow over Irish life, over our sense of who we are".
He said he "deeply regretted and apologised" for the hurt and trauma inflicted upon those sent to the Magdalene Laundries.
Apologising to the women and girls of the Magdalene Laundries, he told parliament that they deserved "the compassion and recognision for which they have fought for so long, deservedly so deeply."
He said he hoped "it would help us make amends in the state's role in the hurt of these extraordinary women."
Believe it or not, I've heard the Magdalene laundries mentioned in positive ways in some places and among some people--people who think that the right sort of thing to do with an unwed mother is to incarcerate her in a convent, for instance, for an unspecified amount of time, and make her work for no pay and with no promise of release, just as happened in the Magdalene Laundries. Unfortunately these people are not the secularists at Rod Dreher's blog, but some of my fellow Catholics, who think that all sexual immorality is really the fault of women, and that if women would just go back to being virtuous and chaste men necessarily would also, so it's really the fault of feminist and liberated women that men ever sin.
Again, I think the voices of Christian women, perhaps Christian feminists, are needed to counter these kinds of ideas. Incarcerating these young women in convents, some of them not even guilty of sexual sin and deeply sad and puzzled about why they were sent away from their homes, was never a good idea. In ages past when feminism wasn't even on the horizons plenty of men coerced or tricked or manipulated or forced women to be their partners in sin, and there were even outwardly "virtuous" women who secretly engaged with full agreement in sinful activities. But to see sexual sin as always being women's fault is to cultivate a belief that women are somehow more fallen, more flawed, and more responsible for sin, when in fact a woman in the Middle Ages who sold herself for bread for her starving children was a lot less guilty than the man who bought her services.
There are people who think that women who engage in prostitution are always the really guilty parties, while the men who pay them are more easily forgiven. I see women caught up in prostitution as vulnerable and often as exploited victims, since few women ever choose such a life with full freedom. And I remember a certain life experience of a late Franciscan priest, who recounted that as a solider in World War II he would give his pay to the girls seeking to prostitute themselves to servicemen on the condition that the girls would go home (which they gladly did). This did not make the good priest beloved by his fellow soldiers; in fact, it made them angry that this fellow soldier/future priest was spoiling their fun. But he was trying to save the girls and was trying to save them, too, if they ever had the grace to realize it.
The Christian feminist will not excuse completely a woman who freely engages in prostitution, but neither will the Christian feminist say that a woman can easily choose for herself or her family to starve instead, or that it is easy to escape one's pimp or kick one's drug habit or overcome the other pathologies that lead to prostitution in the first place. On the other hand, the Christian feminist will not excuse a man's sin in visiting a prostitute on the grounds that it's really the woman's fault for making herself available, but she will not ignore the reality that men and women both need each other's help and cooperation to overcome all sins, including the sins of the flesh. As I said when I first wrote on this topic, men and women are supposed to work together as equal partners and helpmeets, and if we could strive for that, we might see a world where prostitution was seen as unthinkably degrading to men and women alike.