The F word; or, I don’t have to be a feminist to object to sexism

by Anna Blanch on November 13, 2011

I’ve never described myself as a feminist. I do not ascribe to some of the combative views of second or even third wave feminism and I consider that many feminists are ignorant of the liberation I believe I have as a Christian woman. But, feminism is a massive spectrum like any -ism and there’s no one definition of what feminists think about a topic. In part, I make this apophatic declaration in order to ward off attacks from those who use the label derisively.

I have friends (men and women) who happily assume the label of feminist and I enjoy their company and points of view. In particular, this post from Vicky Beeching, from last night gives a persuasive apologetic for a Christian feminism.

Now, onto the meat:

My empathy has vastly increased recently toward those who feel strongly about the need for woman to stand up and say, “No” and to declare that “sexism” is wrong and that many men, including those who consider themselves enlightened and who love the women around them, are still quite oppressive in their views toward women. In the last week, I’ve been observing the way in which more often than not, in the comments on blog posts, it is women who are called out on “tone,” are accused of being bitter or who are told they are being “too sensitive,” or that they really should be more “gracious.” It is also women who are told that Christianity views women as subordinate (that was reported in a tweet from a Christian leader at a synod meeting by the way), and who it is assumed are attempting to be usurpers of man’s rightful role as dominator of all – god complex, much? [There is one God and one judge, and you my man, are neither!]

A recent commenter on my post Why it bugs me when the church tells me how to be a woman declared that i was “having [my] cake and eating it too” by suggesting that when i quote Galations 3:28 in saying that there is “neither jew, nor greek, neither male nor female”  I cannot also say that “there is a sense in which there’s great power in women being aware of her significance and singularity as a woman.”  Oh, as much I often enjoy satire, this piece is not satire. However, this response, to that which is not satire no matter how much it claims to be, is right on the money.

I cannot explain to you how bizarre it is to me, as someone who frankly has never had much interest in calling attention to the fact I’m a woman, that I’m feeling compelled to stand up and emphatically call out those who think that the world is enlightened and completely equitable (especially in the west), and declaring that those who believe that women, like men, are presently judged on the quality of their work and ideas separate from their gender are deluded. There is still a long way to go for equality within society and within the church to be a reality – that notwitshstanding, if God deems me equal to men, then who is anyone to declare otherwise?

As an aside, in a perfect storm, I read this piece from the guardian after I started writing this post: What should we do about sexist abuse online? ; along with this piece from Suzanne Moore; and this one from Jane Martinson.

To assuage yet another potential criticism, Equal does not mean that men and women are the same. You can be equals and be different, you know!

As a woman who has worked entirely in male dominated professions and workplaces I have come to realise that there is more overt sexism and denigration of women online (especially when controversial topics are being discussed) than I’ve experienced over the last decade and a half of working in potentially hostile environments (military, law and academia). Although to be honest, academia is still where I’ve seen, heard and experienced more condescension, glib backhanded compliments and inexcusable sexism out of the three professions in which I have worked.

I joked on twitter the other day, that I may start using a male nom de plume and see if it makes a difference. One fellow traveler (a gentleman) responded wryly saying “I’m sure it would.” For the record, this was his way of showing support for the reality that often women get given a hard time for being women online.

Seriously people, I’m not a polemicist at heart, I really dislike conflict (online or offline) but I’m starting to get really ticked off by comments that suggest that women are being over-sensitive when they suggest that there are not real inequalities that exist between men and women in the west – let’s not even talk about lack of pay parity and institutional discrimination – and the way in which It’s assumed that I’m not a fully formed adult woman because I’m not married or a mother.

I’m even more annoyed when I’m dismissed as exaggerating things when I start talking about the real discrimination and oppression of women and children in many parts of the women when it comes to access to education, especially in the majority world. And I’m not a raving ….[fill in your pejorative] if I declare that I am a [theologically trained] christian woman who does not agree with the church being oppressive and claiming that this oppression is biblical (and if this is from the pulpit, it doesn’t automatically mean it is ‘the offence of the gospel’). I’m not “over sensitive,” and I’m not a blithering idiot.

I’ve happily existed within male dominated professions without the need to call attention to the fact I’m a woman but I i’m really starting to get the sense that there are some systemically sexist attitudes that need to be called out. (for more on just how pervasive this is, read Eve Ensler’s Huffington Post piece from last week, Over It). And when and if they are, if you put it down to a woman being over-sensitive, just know that i’ll probably move from being mildly ticked off to pretty darn irritated.

It makes me sad that I felt so compelled to write this.

Let me do away with my anger, to say this:

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,”

This is my prayer for all those who read this. I seek Truth, not to be right, but to honor my creator and my Lord. I am a woman. I am glad.

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  • Bryony (@vahva)

    Thanks for writing this Anna. I've read quite a lot about feminism online recently – it's funny how these topics do the rounds! I was wondering whether to add my own thoughts over on my blog but actually you've expressed really well what I think too – and far more eloquently than I could have done.

  • James Prescott

    Great post Anna. I commented on Vicky’s post that most of my experience of the term feminist was in its negative context, I hadn’t been aware there was a positive one. To be clear, I am pro-women & pro-equality. It is upsetting to see women treated as second class or persecuted simply for rightly expressing their voice. My worry as a man is that men, in the process of women rightly finding their voice, have become targets for mockery by the media and we are losing what it really means to be a man. I believe in equality – which has to work both ways. You see even saying this I am very conscious that I could be offensive or upsetting, and I do not wish to be. I know a lot of men who are pro-equality but are frustrated as its becoming acceptable to put down and mock men, and men losing their masculinity. We need more teaching for men on how to be men, and to be honest more education for men on femininity. In terms of faith it can be hard in a male dominated church too where some Christian men seem to use the Bible to justify prejudice, which is awful. I am egalitarian, and believe the Bible justifies this and is pro-women finding their voice and participating equally with men in church, marriage and society. My biggest passion is all people being who they were made to be, male or female, and equality and freedom of opportunity for all, no matter what their gender. If you want to call it feminism or whatever label, that’s fine. But the point isn’t the label but what it means, the equality for all. My blog post on the tile of women in church is here:

    • Natalie

      Hi James,

      Have you seen the work of Restored and our campaign First Man Standing? It is about men standing against abuse of women and being part of the solution. You can find out more here:

    • @tim_hutchings

      Men have always been mocked by the media. The old joke is that men are childish and irresponsible, and they need a woman (wife/mother) to look after them. This is still the same joke we see in advertising today, and it's incredibly sexist – because the whole point of the joke is to legitimise old gender roles. Women do housework and childcare, and men drink/fight/play video games. What else could we men do? We are just children, after all! Now, fetch me my tea, little woman, and be quick about it.

      I agree with most of what you're saying here – just suggesting a different way to look at humour.

  • Jo Royal

    Hi Anna, thanks for sharing your thoughts (mild irritation!) on the subject of the F word! I have been enjoying (actually, am not sure 'enjoying' is the right word) the thread on twitter and various blogs on the subject of Feminism – especially from a Christian perspective. It is good to share in the thoughts of others, as it confirms my own, giving me that little bit more patience and endurance to continue that which i believe I have been called to do. I love your two closing sentences – it is what it is all about! Truth.

    • Wiseman

      I’m not worthy to be in the same forum. ROTFL

  • Hannah Mudge

    "I’m starting to get really ticked off by comments that suggest that women are being over-sensitive when they suggest that there are not real inequalities that exist between men and women in the west…"

    Agreed! It is something we absolutely cannot ignore. I think there needs to be a greater understanding from both sides – from feminists, of how faith and feminism can intersect, and that we must separate anti-woman church teachings and practices over the centuries from the message of Jesus, and from Christians, of the fact that negative media stereotypes of feminism are NOT the real feminism, of the fact feminism is a very valid movement and that wanting an end to the injustices perpetuated against women worldwide is not "going too far" or "extreme", it's something worth fighting for.

    A friend is putting on a new feminist conference next year and I am going to be helping her in putting together a session there on faith and feminism, which I am SO excited about. After Fem 11 yesterday, a few women said they would really like the opportunity to discuss this so I think it's going to be a hit 🙂

    I really identify with something you tweeted earlier today, that often the church is very keen to declare the equality of men and women, but only if you're a certain sort of woman. And if you're not that certain sort of woman, you're considered a free-for-all in the disdain and derision stakes. This is what I want to see an end to in the church.

    • Goannatree

      Hannah, thanks so much for your comment! i'd be willing to participate in a discussion on faith and feminism from the point of view of not wanting to assume the label feminist, but respecting those who do, and saying why from a faith point of view!

  • Ruth Roberts

    Great post..The feminist debate is interesting – I've recently read Caitlin Moran's 'How To Be A Woman', and she has this to say: "In the most ironic twist of all, feminism is often used as the stick…to stop women behaving as freely, normally and unselfconsciously as men."
    That for me is the crux of the matter – freedom. I want to be a free woman in Christ – free from subtle sexism, free from overt abuse against women (God_loves_Women on twitter has much to say on that). We should be able to debate freely without being labelled "sensitive" or "difficult".
    Your recent posts have got me thinking more about how women are seen by the church, not just in the context of the leadership debate, but what we expect women to do, and how to be. What is the 'certain type of woman' that you and Hannah, above, refer to? It's not as simple as liking baking and being somehow 'demure'.
    Like Caitlin Moran I want to behave freely and unselfconsciously without being 'put down'. That's what feminism means to me, whether I use that label or not.

    • Hannah

      For me, the ‘certain type of woman’ is usually married, with children (or working towards this). She embodies contemporary femininity in terms of appearance and clothing but remains ‘modest’ in this respect. She does not have ‘a past’. She is quiet and defers to men in the church and in the home. She does not express strong opinions on controversial issues. She keeps to her special ‘sphere’. She is not a ‘career woman’, although she may have a job. When she deviates from this, she is derided and treated as somehow exempt from the respect and high esteem that we deserve, especially if she has aspirations to leadership and positions of influence. I have seen this numerous times and it’s very telling.d

  • @drgeorgemorley

    Great post, Anna. Yes, sadly it does need saying again…and again…and again… Probably in each 'generation' and their different climates – the context of my generation in the 80s/90s was very different to the current one, but the same attitudes rumble on.

    I have generally tried to avoid owning the F word because of its shouty connotations and because it often frightens people in a way that closes down useful conversation. As an Anglican priest I am almost numb with the effort of living with an institution which openly enshrines sexism. As a theologian I have been more fortunate and encountered less sexism – (though did notably have a student who sat through 40 hours of systematics lectures in the front row obviously NOT being taught by me!), and I have found that having a PhD does wonders for the 'don't bother your pretty head' type of sexism… which is fine if you have one, but doesn't change the status quo for everyone else.
    Typing this reminds me why I have taken to avoiding public discussion of feminism/sexism/inequality – the sheer misery it induces in me!

  • @mvahowe

    I struggle with the notion of an "inclusive feminist" agenda. The clue is surely in the words. It's going to work about as well as a former colleague's declaration that all women in his presence can be "honorary chaps". If "neither male nor female" is what we're aiming for, feminism is a very odd place to start. Feminism may well have insights to lend to that agenda, but the agenda needs to come from somewhere that offers everyone a place to stand.

    And if part of the agenda is telling people not to laugh at things they find funny, I think the cause is lost in advance. Especially as it seems perfectly ok to laugh at male stereotypes on #machoworshipsongs, and to make jokes about "man flu" despite the objective fact that men die younger than women yet receive less healthcare funding per capita.

    (Disclaimer: I'm in leadership in a parish and an online church. The online church leadership is majority-female, and at the parish AGM I was literally announced as the token male candidate. Maybe this shows how hard I am trying to hide my deep-seated issues with women that invalidate every statement I make on that topic.)

    • @tim_hutchings

      "Neither male nor female" is an excellent goal, but not a great place to start. If we live in a society that is built on obvious and hidden sexism, we need to address that directly. Being "gender-blind" is a great way to comfortably overlook the ways in which people in society can be advantaged or disadvantaged precisely because others judge by gender.

  • @Audiogeist

    Interesting post Anna!

    The 'F word' is highly emotive – and not helped by the derogation stereotype that modern culture has 'glued' to the term. However, this seems to suit some – in that it's easier to think of the parody of bolshy women with hairy armpit burning their bras rather than the truth, as you put it quite eloquently.

    How then do we do as Jesus did? He highlighted women's social rights/equal opportunities – balking the current cultural attitude toward women. (admittedly – he didn't have Jo Brand to contend with)

    The problem is, the more we talk about it, the more we seem like we're 'ranting' – but staying quiet (and looking at the floor) just helps perpetuate the issue?

    Jesus was all about action – he met women where they were, which in itself was an overt 'political' stand. I've recently been meeting more women academics than ever. Beautiful, intelligent, theologically trained women who live and work according to their Faith.

    Now that's an overt statement if ever i saw one!

  • AndrewFinden

    Interesting post. I think what you've written is very wise. I see the idea behind wanting to claim back labels, but I think it's practically speaking, very difficult to actually get rid of the baggage that it might carry. Is the lable itself worth so much that a battle against the baggage is worth fighting? Perhaps sometimes it is (e.g. the label 'Christian' which has managed to pick up certain cultural baggage in places). I'm not a woman, so it's not really for me to say in this case though 😉

    Equal does not mean that men and women are the same. You can be equals and be different, you know!

    Right! Too often I see 'equal' used as a synonym of 'interchangeable'. I'd also be wary of linking authority with equality – a police officer or a judge might have more particular authority than me, and thus, the right to do certain things I can't, but that doesn't mean there's inequality between us.

    Without defending those who suggest that complaints of inequality are exaggerated, I can kind of empathise with why they might assume it – as someone who is part of the generation that is largely "post-feminist" in the sense of reaping the benefits of the C20th womens-lib movement, it is easy to assume that things like wages would be equal. I find it a little surprising that it isn't (though I don't work in the corporate sector, but the performing arts which I suppose is inherently more egalitarian… well, conductors aside). To be clear, I'm not saying it's ok to dismiss the objection as exaggerating, just saying why some might assume all is on an even keel.

    Anyhow, good to get us thinking about this stuff.

  • God Loves Women

    Hi! Thank so much for this blog! I find it really interesting that you feel unable to call yourself a feminist, when that is exactly the conclusion I would make about you based on your post 🙂 I guess for me I see the term "feminist" as someone who:

    a) believes in equality for women
    b) is aware of the reality that this is not the case
    c) is passionate about changing this inequality

    I understand people's reticence with the term feminist, as I know for some people it means really negative stuff. I have personal experience working in a feminist organisation who did anything but validate who I was as a woman. However just because the term feminist is perceived by many as some of the below (not that I'm saying they are all necessarily wrong from my perspective):

    a) shouty and rude
    b) pro-choice/pro-abortion
    c) man hating
    d) bra burning, hairy armpitted
    e) lesbian
    f) anti-God

    This is no way convinces me that I should apologise for being a feminist. In the same way that for some the term Christian has come to mean some of the below:

    a) ignorant
    b) anti-semitic
    c) anti-women
    d) rich/middle class
    e) homophobic
    f) racist
    g) inward looking
    h) religiously arrogance/judgemental
    i) wierd and irrelevant
    j) holier than thou

    I will not change my choice to be identified as a Christian (although at times I have considered it…) because it is the values and truth that underpin the descriptions "Christian" and "feminist" which matter.

    Having said that I think we must be careful to engage with people from their understanding of the terms feminist/Christian, and aim to bring them to a place where they can understand the truth and values behind these terms and view them positively even if they don't always agree with us.

  • Pingback: The masculine / feminine balance | James Prescott()

  • Joe Mama

    Geez! Settle down, Anna. 😉

  • Sharlene Cutillo

    It is a lot more useful compared with other things I’ve viewed.

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