An excerpt from Gender: Men, Women, Sex Feminism
Twice Liberated — A Personal Journey Through Feminism
by Frederica Mathewes-Green
When I joined the college newspaper as a shy freshman many years ago, the editor gave me my first assignment: “Find out what’s all this stuff about women’s lib.” I was baffled as to how to do that; reports of feminism (which was then usually called “women’s lib”) were just beginning to titillate the public, just beginning to show up in Johnny Carson jokes about “bra-burners.” Was it possible to dig up any local “libbers”? My editor had a suggestion: go to the Student Union and have them announce over the loudspeaker, “Anyone representing the women’s liberation movement, please come to the information desk.”
It is interesting to imagine what would happen if such a message were announced from that same desk today. But in September 1970, there was a slight pause before two women came steaming up, glowing with the zealot’s inner flame. Kathy and Rosa steered me into the student lounge, where they opened to me the hidden knowledge of women’s oppression through the ages. As they expounded this mystic wisdom, I began to nod. I liked what I was hearing.
I was ready to believe in something. I had spurned my Roman Catholic upbringing a few years before, and spent the high school years strumming anti-war songs at a hip Unitarian church. (Our elfin pastor was fond of repunctuating St. John: “God is. Love!”) It was deep, of course, but somehow it wasn’t enough, sharing superior smiles with the elbow-patch crowd and sneering at Nixon. We were pledged to reject any conviction more precise than that people are grand and everyone should be nicer to each other. I was seventeen, and I was looking for deeper convictions.
So when my first campus byline appeared a week later, it was over a story that cautiously endorsed the “libbers,” and I continued my catechesis under Kathy and Rosa. The prototype-version of women’s lib that they initiated me into was still searching for a focus. The movement understood itself as firmly underground, and was self-consciously counter-cultural, even deliberately crude. Wearing suits with little bow ties and carrying briefcases was the farthest thing from our minds. We ridiculed men who wore suits.
The movement was a spontaneous, uncoordinated explosion of energy and anger without a clear plan and, in our case, amply fertilized by ignorance. Childless, we talked about using communal baby-farms to free women from the awful burden of their own children. Sexual neophytes, we talked earnestly about the Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. Naive girls’ dorm dwellers, we sought out the town’s lesbian bar, where we were invited to dance by very serious older women with arms like sides of beef. In my own body I displayed the confused zeal of the time: I stopped shaving my legs but continued plucking my eyebrows.
However, in a phase of the movement’s life when it was associated with the term “man-haters,” we generally got along well with men. Most of us remained cheerfully heterosexual. We were in league with our brothers in the hippie counter-culture, and our enemies were not men, but straights (meaning, in those days, non-dope-smokers), Young Republicans, Jesus Freaks, and the Establishment. I snubbed would-be beaux who weren’t sufficiently enlightened. When Gary Mathewes told me on our first date that, if he ever got married, he’d want to hyphenate his name too, I thought, “This might just be the one.”
In my senior year a movement buddy stopped me in a hallway. She was ecstatic with the news: a woman had won a top executive job at AT & T, wasn’t it great? No, I said, surprised at her enthusiasm. What do we want executive jobs for? That’s just a way of being co-opted, getting sucked into the establishment. The women’s movement is not about trying to get a bigger piece of the pie, I insisted. We’re talking about a different kind of pie altogether.
Someone scheduled a debate for an empty classroom; I represented the counter-culture side. We’re selling out, I said. We didn’t start this revolution to end up with our representatives wearing tasteful jewelry and looking important on TV. Remember Joni Mitchell singing, “You could have been more than a name on the door on the 33rd floor in the air”? Remember Harry Chapin singing about the executive father too busy to see his son, and the son saying “I’m gonna be like you, Dad”? Didn’t we reject all that careerism and materialism as deadening to the soul? Why in the world would we want it now?
I don’t recall if I won the debate; my position certainly did not win the war. As Naomi Wolf explains in her book Fire with Fire, the movement came to split between Victim Feminism (self-defeating poutiness and man-blaming) and Power Feminism, which she champions. Wolf cites core principles for Power Feminism: Retaliation, Money and Worldly Power, and Victory.
My search for something deeper was not going to be satisfied by a women’s movement that lusted after worldly power; I was truly looking for a counter-culture. If I could have listened to my heart more carefully, I would have identified some of those revolutionary values as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the rest of the Galatians 5 list. I searched in “new age” and age-old Eastern religions, but nothing really rang true to me, and the blue gods were never more than amusing.
A month after graduation our hitch-hiking honeymoon brought me and Gary to Dublin. The late afternoon light was glaring as we stepped inside a dusty church and stood there blinking. I walked over to examine a white marble statue in the back: Jesus pointing to his Sacred Heart, which was twined with thorns and springing with flames. I remembered the words from Sunday School: “Behold the heart that has so loved mankind.” A few minutes later I realized I was on my knees. When I stood up, I was a Christian.
In the following decades my relationship with feminism changed even as the movement itself changed. It took me several more years to question abortion, and longer than that to question the denial of gender differences. Gary and I attended Episcopal seminary and hoped to share a priestly ministry, although being a female priest was a difficult goal at that time; it ceased being my goal at all after Gary had been ordained a few years and I saw how hard the job is. (Later still, in 1993, we became Eastern Orthodox, and Gary became “Father Gregory.”) We still clung to the labels “feminist” and “liberal,” though those identities were being gradually hollowed out and replaced. When Gary was finally compelled by pro-life convictions to vote for a Republican presidential candidate, he took along one of our young sons to actually pull the lever. He declared when he came home, “These hands are still unsullied.”
I had come around to a pro-life position too, but didn’t feel comfortable with the movement’s “right-wing” image. When I heard of a group called “Feminists for Life” I joined immediately, and when they needed a newsletter editor a few years later I volunteered. At my first board meeting I received some surprising news: the editorship made me automatically a Vice President. What’s more, this was the first time the tiny organization had ever had an officer living near Washington DC. I was deputized to try to get some media attention for the organization. I was as perplexed about how to do this as I’d been years before, when commissioned to interview women’s libbers. The other members of the board suggested that when something newsworthy happened, like a Supreme Court decision, I should go hang around and try to get on TV.
It was July 1989. When I heard on the morning news that the Supreme Court’s Webster decision had been released, I put on my “Feminists for Life” sweatshirt—the only pro-life garment I owned—and we drove into D. C. carrying stacks of anti-abortion statements by Susan B. Anthony and other 19th century feminist leaders. Clustered all over the marble steps and landings were knots of movement leaders, surrounded by knots of media people, and mobile TV transmitters towered high overhead. I gave a copy of my flyer to Molly Yard, who scowled at me, and one to Bella Abzug, who lectured me. Movement leaders had lined up, politely alternating pro-choice and pro-life, to give their thirty-second bites for a network camera, and I tried to gather the courage to join them. It was very hot. Gary observed, “Your sweatshirt is working.”
After that things snowballed. I was invited to appear on a C-SPAN call-in show, the first time I’d spoken in public about abortion. A month after that I flew to New York to be on a brand-new show called “PrimeTime Live.” I wrote opinion pieces and flew to speaking engagements and stood behind the podium at press conferences. Before long I’d assembled a video scrapbook: me wearing tasteful jewelry and looking important on TV.
But as the years passed the old “feminist” identity began to rankle. I could wear the label by applying a vague definition that it meant merely the full human equality of women and men. Still, I was uncomfortably aware that the average person gave the term many more connotations. As my vocation had gradually become that of writer, I’d become more respectful of the power of words, and more committed to using them accurately. If I used the word “feminist” to mean something most people didn’t understand, I wasn’t communicating. It was dishonest. My work depended on using tools precisely, and employing an esoteric, private definition for any word amounted to damaging my tools. I was having trouble with the concept, not just the label. The presuppositions of feminism seemed to divide, implying that issues pertaining to women could be separated from, were more important than, other issues. My view of the human condition and the pervasiveness of sin had broadened, leading to me to the conviction that women could not ultimately win a better lot from any human agency, nor could their situation be improved without helping men and children as well. We are all together in this stewpot, and we all need the same Savior; he makes no distinctions between male and female. I even began to think that the whole theory was erroneous—that in western cultures men and women rise and fall together, their situation affected by race or class, seldom gender. An American housemaid has more in common with her short-order cook husband and her bricklayer brother than with the wealthy female lawyer whose toilet she cleans. Of all the ways that genuine injustice can be discerned, gender came to seem increasingly inaccurate.
But most important, I began to see that feminism was bad for me. It inculcated feelings of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. It filled me with self-perpetuating anger. It blinded me to the good that men do, and the bad that women do. It made me think that men and women were enemies, when we actually have a mutual Enemy, who delights in any human discord.
I began to suspect the whole thing was a self-serving sham. It was that we wanted to be victims too; in our culture, victims have power. Feminism allowed half the human race to claim instant victim status, no matter how much material comfort we enjoyed. It was powerfully seductive, and I was starting to think, it was a lie.
After a few years of representing Feminists for Life, I was having doubts increasing doubts about the first part of that label. When Christianity Today asked me for an essay presenting pro-life feminism I complied, but wondered if I was doing the right thing. When the editor requested changes making the feminist angle more prominent, I felt the screws tightening. I rewrote the piece, and as soon as I’d submitted it I phoned the Feminists for Life office and said I needed to resign. I could no longer call myself a feminist. The journey that had begun that day in the student lounge, as Kathy and Rosa eagerly expounded the faith, had come to an end.
* * *
Sometimes I’m asked, “How could you leave a progressive mainline church for the Orthodox Church, which is so patriarchal and oppressive?” My experience has been the opposite; the Orthodox Church has been much more welcoming of my gifts than the Episcopal church ever was. I have been invited to write, speak, and preach in countless Orthodox venues, and never had such invitations in my previous denomination.
What seems to confuse outsiders is the issue of women’s ordination. Yet that can’t be an accurate guide to respect for women, as my experience proves. Even though Orthodoxy does not ordain women, it continues the historic pattern of honoring women saints, and these women did most of the things associated with a Protestant pastor. Women teachers, preachers, and theologians ministered to men and women alike: some went as lone evangelists to foreign lands, some ruled over entire nations, some were sought by both men and women as spiritual mothers. Historic Christianity has always recognized women’s gifts, and recognized them in a natural, easy-going way, without making a big deal about it. Women saints are just saints, neither more nor less than men saints. Harping on that double X chromosome would seem to Christians of earlier centuries both obsessive and bizarre.
I’m also asked, “Is there anything that you gained from feminism that is worth retaining?” There are at least three “women’s rights” for which I will continue to fight.
1. The right to be at home in our bodies. This means the right to have our bodies left whole and healthy, unaltered for any goal of social engineering or impossible ideal of beauty. Included under this heading would be the right to reject the killing of our unborn children as a ghastly false offer of freedom; as professor Sidney Callahan says, we will never climb to equality over the dead bodies of our own children.
Included, as well, would be chemical tampering with women’s hormones-pills, shots, implants—to fit her for sexual use without commitment. While my church accepts non-abortifacient, non-surgical methods of birth control, there is a possibility that these methods cause miscarriage rather than truly prevent contraception. Even without that concern, these methods should be questioned. The lumps of Norplant rods, palpable under the skin of the upper arm, are as degrading at the metal tag in a cow’s ear. There is also the unknown impact that the daily ingestion of artificial hormones can have on a woman’s hormonally-influenced emotions. My friend Julianne Wiley asks, “Why should I put chemicals in my mouth that I wouldn’t put in my compost heap?”
I reject overly-medicalized childbirth for much the same reason I do abortion and chemical contraception. I taught prepared childbirth for years and had three unmedicated births, the last at home, and experience taught me that birth is as natural a process as breathing or digesting food. When the body is functioning as is designed to do, there’s no need to intervene in the name of speedy efficiency. The birth attendant’s role should be like that of a lifeguard, who watches out for trouble but does not jump in the water and pump swimmers’ arms for them. Not every woman will choose an unmedicated birth, but every woman should be allowed an un-meddled-with birth.
On a less serious note, being at home in our bodies means accepting our natural body shapes, colors, and textures, and rejecting pathetic attempts to alter them to fit an impossible ideal. Cosmetic breast, belly, and facelift surgery is sad, and futile rebellion against God’s good design. I frequently see women self-subjected to illogical, uncomfortable standards of appearance. Is it my old feminist roots that makes me want to give them this advice?
Do not spend large amounts of money fighting wrinkles, or large amounts of time fighting your hair. Even if you just kept your hair clean and brushed and otherwise let it do what it wants, you will still be allowed to vote and own property. Wrinkles tell the story of your life. Don’t try to falsify the story; instead, write the story you would want others to see.
If there is a big difference between how you look before and after you put on makeup, you’re wearing too much makeup. Your goal is to like your face just as it is right out of the shower. A smile is your best ornament, with more impact than anything you could spend on jewelry, makeup, hairstyle, or clothing. The best way to make your eyes more beautiful is to spend more time in prayer. Do not spend time strangling in pantyhose, teetering on heels, or otherwise distorting your body without asking yourself, “Is there an easier way of dressing that will be equally acceptable in this situation?”
Go ahead and buy larger clothes. Imagine a composite of all the women all over the world who share your age and childbearing history. Apparently that’s what God has in mind. It’s okay to look like that. Think about the distinction between “beautiful” and “attractive.” Attractive people are the ones you are drawn toward; they attract in the sense that magnets do. Many components go into attractiveness, but beauty is not necessarily one of them; some beautiful women are cold and bitter and actively repel. Beauty inevitably fades, but true attractiveness can be forever. So cultivate attributes that you find attractive, which as St. Peter tells us have to do with the “hidden person of the heart” (I Peter 3:4). 2. The right to be different from men. Early feminism insisted that men and women were just alike. Later a strain arose that insisted that they were different: women were perfect and men were bums. Neither position is helpful.
It seems to me that men and women are alike in the overwhelming majority of categories (think of the number of body parts, internal and external, that the sexes have in common). The differences seem more noticeable because we are used to comparing ourselves with each other, not with other creatures. We ignore what’s alike and accentuate the differences.
Some feminists would assume that where the genders differ they are in conflict. It seems more likely that gender differences are meant to fit together. This is demonstrably true in the physical realm, and emotional and temperamental differences as well may be designed by God so that in coming together they balance each other and create a harmonious society.
For example, a popular theory holds that men and women differ in their approach to moral questions. Women, it is said, begin with the human context, asking who will be harmed and who helped, and seek to improve the home community. Men, instead, begin with principles of justice, and seek to conform the situation to those ideals. (Of course any individual man or woman will exhibit a mix of these approaches, but in theory most people favor their gender’s end of the scale.)
It is tempting to consider man the norm and woman a variation, but we are more interdependent than that. Neither end of the pole should outweigh the other. When a society is overly ruled by masculine, principled justice it loses touch with mercy, and an iron code is applied to the warm flesh of human relationships. The ideal good becomes a Procrustean bed on which hapless limbs are stretched or sawed to fit. This is exemplified by Javert’s obsessive pursuit of Valjean in Les Miserables, and culminates in the miserable excuses at Nuremberg.
We have no trouble recognizes the dangers of “masculine” moral excess, but are not as quick to perceive the “feminine” extreme. When principles shred away and leave a feelings-driven ethic of situational response, we quickly discover that the unconverted human heart is a ruthless place, increasingly eager to rationalize and kill in the name of compassion.
How can this be? It follows a subtle evolution: what begins as suspending the rules so that everyone can be happy becomes (in the face of that impossibility) disregarding the rules so that me and mine can be happy. That possessive is appropriate: the protective tigress draws the circle ever smaller, until finally the woman regards herself alone as the just beneficiary of any choice she makes. In her classic In a Different Voice Carol Gilligan described the process in tones of admiration: a woman’s moral development begins with self-interest, then opens to include other’s concerns, then ultimately matures, Gilligan said, to include once more her own best interest. As I read the case studies she supplied, it seemed to me that the last level of maturity looked nearly identical to the selfish first.
Thus, we hear some on the fringe of the pro-choice camp admitting that of course abortion kills a baby, why shouldn’t women make life and death decisions? When a woman is charged with killing her own children, we can count on some feminists to say that this is proof of the stress of motherhood and oppression of women’s roles. Without objective standards to measure against, acts of horror can be romanticized into proof of female suffering and nobility. This is the inevitable culmination of feelings-based morality untempered by masculine justice. It ends with Emma Bovary destroying those who love her in her craving for a dramatic life; it ends with Scarlett O’Hara trampling over those who love her in her craving for money. It ends with a prostitute standing before a judging king and saying to a desperate mother, “Neither you nor I shall have him. Cut him in two!”
Unrestricted abortion on demand is the clearest example of where a sentimental, me-first moral order goes when it is not balanced by masculine-flavored insistence on principle. Both ends of the pole are necessary. When women are restricted from contributing their balance of mercy, a thousand slaves are crucified on the road leading to Rome. When men are restricted from contributing their balance of justice, women tenderly, privately kill their own children.
3. The right to go to hell. A corollary of the above morality is that a woman can’t be really, really bad; if she did something bad, it’s someone else’s fault, and proof, in fact, of her oppression. “Victim Feminism” has embraced the not-quite-logical but extremely useful notion that a victim is always sinless. This constitutes a “Get out of jail free” card, sometimes literally.
However, a saying from my earlier feminist days would contradict this view: “The pedestal is a prison.” When we treat women with extra indulgence, we actually demean them. We pretend that they are not really as strong or competent as men. They are slipped into a lower moral class, like that of minor children, and presumed non-culpable because they didn’t know what they were doing, or were so emotionally overwhelmed they couldn’t help it. This treatment ultimately trivializes them. Women are just as much in need of salvation as men are. While women and men have many delightful differences, there is one item we indisputably share. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” When we hear the term “lost sinner” we seldom imagine the face of a woman, and when a lovely young thing sings “Amazing Grace”, we may have to squint a bit to recall that she is still “a wretch like me.” We aren’t used to imagining John the Baptist leveling his “brood of vipers” speech at a group of women, or of visualizing female adherents of the Pharisee party condemned by Jesus as “whitewashed sepulchers.”
Yet women are just as worthy, and as in need of, such rebukes as men. Just as women can share in nearly every physical affliction that affects men—God does not reserve for them only the dainty diseases—so also they are as susceptible to the gravest spiritual diseases and sin. Certain patterns of sin may appeal more to one gender than another, but for every sin the wages is death. Women bear the same moral responsibility men do, face the same temptations, and, if they die outside the grace of Jesus Christ, go to the same hell. Real feminists hate all -male clubs.
* * *
As a child, I was a Christian, and as an adult I’m a Christian again. But in the middle I was something else: a feminist. Some would say there’s no contradiction, that Christians can be feminists, since Jesus came for men and women equally.
That’s not where I disagree. In the old pre-feminist jokes, women would frustrate men in argument by saying, “It’s not what you said. It’s the way you said it.” I could use that line here. It’s not so much what feminists say (well, with secular feminists, sometimes it is what they say), but how they say it. It’s that attitude of self-righteousness. A tendency to pull rank as a “victim.” A lack of humility. A blindness to the fact that women, just as talented as men, are just as sinful, too. Smugness, touchiness, judgmentalism; and toward men, even darker notes of condescension, ridicule, and anger. Pretty much the opposite of every line in I Corinthians 13. My brothers and sisters, you did not so learn Christ. This, finally, constitutes the most serious of my reasons for renouncing feminism. It’s not what you say, as long as what you’re saying is that men and women stand on level ground at the foot of the Cross. It’s how you say it-that superciliousness, that snide twist. That attitude is a grievous spiritual disease, and it will block the healing and transformation that is ours in Christ. Women captured by this attitude may well succeed, acquire money and power, and win the whole world—at the cost of something far more dear.
This article first appeared in Touchstone magazine, Summer 1994. « back to ‘books’