I’ve loved reading Sarah Bessey’s just-released Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women this week. I am a loyal, quiet reader of Sarah’s blog—always one to read each word carefully but never one to comment. So I’m doing a brave thing today by joining her synchroblog to celebrate the release of Jesus Feminist. (Confession: I learned what “synchroblog” meant just this week.)
Jesus Feminist is a beautiful, important book. It’s a vision-casting little tome, one that will help so many women (and men) harnessed by the chains of patriarchy see Christ’s dream for both sexes. When you read this book, you feel swept up in the homiletic beauty of a love-letter to the church, to women, to Jesus, and (gasp) to Paul. Listen to her wisdom here, for example, when she speaks about the need for the church to help women realize the fullness of their God-given gifts:
“If a woman is held back, minimized, pushed down, or downplayed, she is not walking in the fullness God intended for her as his image bearer, as his ezer warrior. If we minimize our gifts, hush our voice, and stay small in a misguided attempt to fit a weak and culturally conditioned standard of femininity, we cannot give our brothers the partner they require in God’s mission for the world.” (Bessey 80)
If you’re not reading this book with a glass of wine and the freedom to shout “Amen!” when the cadence strikes you, you’re doing it wrong.
But when I finished reading Jesus Feminist, I immediately picked up Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and re-read the last chapter—my favorite chapter of Friedan’s book. And I remembered why this particular refrain in Jesus Feminist felt so familiar: because redemption-seeking women of the Feminist Movement have been preaching this truth for years.
At the conclusion of The Feminine Mystique, a book that celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, Friedan writes,
“It is not enough for an individual to be loved and accepted by others, to be ‘adjusted’ to his culture. He must take his existence seriously enough to make his own commitment to life, and to the future; he forfeits his existence by failing to fulfill his entire being.” (Friedan 374)
“For the problem that has no name, from which so many women in America suffer today, is caused by adjustment to an image that does not permit them to become what they now can be. It is the growing despair of women who have forfeited their own existence, although by so doing they may also have evaded that lonely, frightened feeling that always comes with freedom.” (Friedan 376)
The “biblical womanhood” and “true womanhood” movements of so many mainstream Christian churches do “not permit [women] to become what they now can be,” as Friedan reminds us with a voice now 50 years old. We must “take [our] own existence seriously enough to make [our] own commitment to life, and to the future.” For the Kingdom of God, this means we must take our identity as a Child of God seriously enough to consider how our individual callings—not “callings” attributed wholesale to a single gender—stir up all the particular gifts and talents weaved into our individual beings. This desire for redemption, for a fullness of being for women and men, is at the heart of so many of the significant texts of feminism’s history.
I am a Jesus Feminist not only because of Jesus, but also because I believe the seminal texts of the Women’s Movement have redemption written all over them—and I think Jesus would approve. Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone—they all craved shalom. Their desire was for creation to be redeemed, to return a divided world to wholeness. Shalom has always been the goal, whether we use that particular diction or not.
Surely we haven’t become so embittered by the word “feminism” that we completely brush aside the redemption-craving texts of the Feminist Movement. Or am I wrong? Maybe we have forgotten. Maybe we need to be reminded, to go back to library and check out the books we’ve been (too) long-afraid to read.
Because when we claim Christian Feminism for ourselves, we claim the history of feminism as well. We can’t skip over certain centuries or decades that make us uncomfortable. We can’t forget the fact that we’ve long been on a quest for shalom. My dear friend Rachel Pietka and I have been working hard to articulate how we might define Christian Feminism, and reading Jesus Feminist alongside The Feminine Mystique this week reminded me of one of the most important characteristics of Christian Feminism as we see it:
Christian Feminism embraces the history of feminism as a movement and takes into account all of the diverse voices that have contributed to empowering women to pursue their callings. Feminism has a beautiful, complex history that we cannot ignore. We cannot separate the word from the movement.
So why doesn’t the church dig into the richness of a text like The Feminine Mystique? Why are we so afraid? Perhaps because of the circles I run in, I forget too often how distant and unapproachable some of these texts may seem. But I want to believe that the church is strong enough and brave enough to address scary, scholarly things.
It is so easy for us to dismiss the writing of a powerhouse reformer like Betty Friedan because she does not explicitly write from a “Christian perspective.” But I think it’s time for women and men won by the spirit of the Jesus Feminist movement to embrace the redemptive power of the secular texts that make up feminism’s rich history. The women writers and reformers of the Women’s Movement can be spiritual midwives, too. And we do such a disservice to our sons and daughters who may one day call themselves “Christian Feminists” if we never tell them the stories of the mothers and grandmothers who wrote hard words in pursuit of redemption.
I am a Jesus Feminist for the sake of shalom, and I refuse to let the shalom-craving words of the women reformers who came before me fade away into the fog.