The Changing Fortunes of Feminism

 By Mary E. Hunt

Originally posted in Feminist Studies in Religion

I appreciate the steadfastness of colleagues in religion who have maintained our feminist/womanist/mujerista commitments despite the changing fortunes of feminism in the public arena. I was heartened to read Alexandra Petri’s piece “Disentangling feminism from the fad of feminism” (Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2015.) in which she assured readers that “we should not be relying on” definitions given by celebrities, many of whom now claim to be feminists. Good thing, as I wouldn’t recognize many of these famous feminists if they came for tea.

My relief is born of three recent counter examples that illustrate the continued need to make our various feminist/womanist/mujerista and other women-connected commitments clear.

The first was Time Magazine’s nasty trick in November 2014. For TIME’s fourth annual word banishment poll, the word “feminist” appeared amidst options to “vote…off the island, following previous castoffs OMG, YOLO and twerk.” The folks at Time wrote: “feminist: You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.”

TIME got a lot of pressure and pulled back with a statement: “TIME apologizes for the execution of this poll; the word ‘feminist’ should not have been included in a list of words to ban. While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice.” Nonetheless, the damage was done as ‘feminist’ ran wildly ahead of the other words like ‘kale’ and ‘basic.’ I fail to grasp the logic, much less the charm, in all of this, but I know that feminism did not win.

A second jarring incident took place at a recent conference at Yale Divinity School on the work of geologian Thomas Berry. I had the privilege to be on an ecofeminism panel with Rosemary Radford Ruether and Chung Hyun Kyung, both world-renowned feminists. When we finished presenting our papers, a man in the front row asked without a drop of shame how feminism could possibly have anything to contribute to the conversation. After all, he said, feminism is about gender, and the real issue now is species.

Rosemary offered a swift and brilliant rebuttal, correcting his outmoded notion of feminism and leaving no doubt that feminism does indeed have a deep connection with ecological concerns. I added that given certain people’s abysmal track records on race, gender, class, ability, and the like there is no reason to think they will do any better on species. Hyun Kyung went smoothly on to more salient issues. But the utter guile with which the man attempted to dismiss us, and the fact that no one in the audience peeped, left me cold.

A third event that raised questions about the content of feminism was a conference held at Georgetown University in the fall of 2014 entitled “Faith and Feminism: A Critical Conversation.” According to its promotion, it was “co-sponsored by the new web magazine altFem (from the founders and, the Berkley Center’s Project on Women, Religion, and the Family, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.” It was intended to be “an examination and reframing of feminism to accommodate religious traditions; gender norms in religious dating and marriage; and achieving work-life balance among working mothers.” Reframing feminism to accommodate whose traditions rather than reframing religion to deal with feminist concerns? What gender norms are we talking about? Which working mothers have the luxury of attending to life-work balance?

The conference was led by women who work in conservative organizations like the Becket Fund, the public-interest law firm that successfully represented Hobby Lobby in the recent Supreme Court case. Recall that the Court found that private companies could refuse to offer reproductive health care coverage to their employees because of the owners’ religious scruples. That’s the crowd that sponsored this conference.

Questions on the table at the conference ran along the lines “Can you be a submissive feminist? Does being a hard-charging career woman make men think you don’t want to get married? And what if it doesn’t bother you at all if only men can be clergy?” (Washington Post Oct. 4, 2014, B2) Apparently some would-be feminists think you can be a submissive feminist, that men might not want to date career women, and some women think it is okay that only men can be ordained in some denominations. None of this is surprising and everyone has a right to her or his opinion. But I question whether it is fair or useful to label this “feminism.” In my view, this is cooptation of the first order.

In all three of these cases, what colleagues in religion generally mean by feminism is either derided, denied, or degraded depending on which of my examples you choose. I take from this that feminism is now sufficiently obvious and powerful to be the object of deliberate deconstruction. Feminism is contested territory that we in religion have staked out for decades. This backlash points to the power and impact of our collective efforts. It signals the importance of extending our feminist commitments to include a wide-ranging justice agenda, beginning with those who are most marginalized. Then celebrities and the rest of us can affirm that feminism means justice for all and everything, no exceptions.

Originally posted in Feminist Studies in Religion