"I’m Not A Feminist, But…"

I admit to having to resist the urge to snatch the mike from a woman and telling her to sit down when she starts a sentence with “I’m not a feminist, but…” It’s like saying “I don’t believe in equal pay for men and women, but…” or “I don’t believe that husbands should go to jail for murdering their wives, but…” And when church-going Christian women denounce feminism I catch myself chewing on my collar and counting to ten. They act as though women have always been bishops, priests, ministers, deacons, elders, trustees and have always held significant positions of power in the church. Conservative Christian women who scorn feminists and feminism as radical and worldly seem to have it in their heads that centuries of praying and fasting are what led to such things as women’s ministries in the church, Christian women mega-conferences and retreats, and clergy women gatherings. Women in the church have the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s to thank for many of the advances we’ve witnessed in recent years pertaining to women. It’s taken more than fasting and praying to get us to where we are.

There’s the well-behaved church woman who scoffs at the word “feminist.” And then there’s the young diva with the Ph.D. and the plunging neckline who has slept with multiple upon multiple partners (with a minimal damage to her reputation and health, thanks to feminism) who corners me in a meeting insisting that while she’s grateful for all the sacrifices feminists made in the past, the label “feminist” simply doesn’t suit her and her generation. Growl. “So, what word better describes for you and your generation your commitments?” I ask. Blank. Growl.

Let me pause here and make the colossal error of trying to define what a feminist is, knowing full well that there’s so much hypersensitivity to the term that the word starts fires whenever it’s brought up. Feminism is not about what you believe. Feminism is about what you do. Being a feminist is about being willing to suffer the consequences to speak out against the degradation of women, and being willing to fight for a woman’s right to autonomy and dignity. Feminism is a daily commitment to do your part to make the world a better place for women, and for the children and men they love.

We have the hell-raising antics of feminists to thank for the radical changes in laws and attitudes we’ve witnessed in the past 30 years in this country toward women. A woman’s right to her body, to decide whether and when she bears a child, a right to work, to fair wages or equal pay, to own property, to education, to serve in the military, to enter into legal contracts without a husband or father’s signature – women gained these rights in the last century as a result of the loud-mouth, militant, in-your-face, acting-out, strategizing, organizing, picketing, protesting, and lobbying efforts of feminists. Christianity has inspired lots of black men to become drum majors for social change (e.g., Absalom Jones, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Martin L. King, Jr. Al Sharpton), but Christianity has not done the same thing for black women. That’s probably because religion tames women, for the most part. It takes years of unlearning, and typically another kind of fire, for a church woman to be willing to turn over tables for what she believes.

I haven’t liked every feminist I’ve met, that’s for sure. I’m even prepared to admit that there are some consequences of the feminist movement that I and second wave feminists probably never foresaw (e.g., a draft that one day may involve my teenage daughter being hauled off to war, young black women’s choice to slither at the feet of gangsta rappers and shake their ample butts before the video camera as part of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy). And while I’m confessing, let me confess that I, along with lots of other black women, prefer the word “womanism” to feminism to describe black women’s activism because, as Alice Walker has pointed out, “womanist” derives out of black folk culture. Nevertheless, I am not willing to sit idly by and watch right wing conservatives in and out of the church turn “feminism” into a dirty word. I have to speak up for “feminism” because, to quote James Baldwin in his letter to Angela Davis in 1971 while she sat in prison awaiting the government’s trial against her, “If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own…. For if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

It’s crazy I know, but I’ve spent my life trying to reconcile these two great passions of mine, my religious faith and my feminist commitments. More often I’ve had to content myself with shuttling back and forth between the two, knowing full well that each one is jealous of the other. Christians want to know why I risk the church’s ire by identifying myself so passionately with women’s causes. My feminist friends want to know, given all that I know, why in the hell don’t I just walk away from Christianity? Both make good points.

Neither understands that I need the other to do what I do for it. It’s what the black church and Christian faith have taught me about justice, liberation, and freedom that fuels my feminism. And it’s my lifelong commitment to women and underdogs in general that keeps me pulling out my slingshot and aiming at the church as often as I can.

One thing is for sure, as the saying goes, well-behaved women do not change history.

19 Responses to “"I’m Not A Feminist, But…"”

  1. thejunkyswife Says:

    I think I love you. You just expressed something so clearly I was going crazy over last week.

  2. longvowels Says:

    I just read Baldwin with my class and that quote is probably the most perfect set of words I’ve ever seen.
    Beautiful post.

  3. Jason Evans Says:

    Dr. Weems, I applaud your passion and honesty. For the record, I am not a feminist or a womanist. I am one of those conservative evangelical Christians who do not believe that patriarchy/male domination in home, church, or society is the Christian God’s original intent. I believe that women’s equality with their brothers is because of what Holy Scriptures proclaim, not in spite of it. I do not have an aversion to the teachings of the apostle Paul(whether or not he really wrote Ephesians, Colossians, or whatever some scholars call “deutero-Pauline”), because I believe his teachings concerning “women’s restrictions in the church” must be read in their linguistic-literary-historical context. Although I believe that GBLT people are entitled to whatever rights in the United States, I do not see a support from Holy Scripture for the Church to bless same-sex unions no matter how loving and meaningful they maybe. I dare not be another Balaam. I have read quite a few scholarly articles and books from queer theologians and scholars and I see a lot of hermeneutical bungee-jumping and illogical arguments in their work. A lot of their work reminds me of Greek mythology not Christian theology. Zeus and Ganymede would be their great examples, not David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, or Jesus and John. And enough about Paul being a closet homosexual!

    However, I do believe there are some positive contributions made by the woman’s rights movement. It would be foolish of me not see the advances in education, politics, science, medicine and religion if women didn’t fight for their position. May I remind you of the women in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition who fought for the right to preach the Gospel. (Jarena Foote, Phoebe Palmer, Catherine Booth). Of course they wouldn’t be called “feminists” in their own right. Would they affirm pro-choice causes? Would they be for same-sex marriage in the churches and society? We won’t know, will we?

    I do see a common thread between liberal and conservative ideologies/theologies. This rugged individualism, self-determinism that both pro-choice feminism (women’s right to terminate pregnancy or terminate life)and conservatism/male domination proponents (Reason, economic upward mobility, pursuit of happiness, traditional family values)all find roots in Enlightenment philosophy.

    I am not impressed by either liberal/progressives proof-text poker in the media of the so-called justice passages in Scripture as well as conservative/fundamentalists proof-texts for so-called moral purity. Both parties are guilty of doing violence to the text. The Torah is filled with justice and personal holiness texts. Israel didn’t split up the law like conservatives and liberal/progressives do. The law was one big whole pie. To break one was to break them all. Didn’t Jesus say he came not to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill them?

    If women are going to be thinking women of faith, one must concede that there will be disagreement between women. Isn’t that the cost of having the right to thinking for themselves? “Thinking women of faith” is not synonymous to “liberal/progressive women of faith”. Many American women choose to live within a patriarchal structure whether you and I like it or not. Many “conservative” evangelical Christian women are opposed to patriarchy in church,home, and society but continue to work within their spheres for change. Many women are against legal abortion, same-sex marriage. And they really have a problem with a lot of feminists just like you have a lot of problems with them. And skin color doesn’t matter. Conviction will divide people and unite people.

    As much as I do not believe abortion is immoral, I do see why many women get them, (rape, incest, systemic poverty). I do not believe that outlawing abortion in America will alleviate any of these problems. There should be policy changes in our government to support poor families headed by women.

    I cannot even fathom the gravity of social and economic oppression of women (men, and children) around the world. I do respect strong women. Hell, I was raised by one!

    So whose side am I on? I believe I cannot be on no one’s side but Christ’s. To confess Jesus as Lord is to give up my rights. I am proud to call myself evangelical and Pentecostal, but I’m not bought by conservatism or liberalism/progressivism. I was bought with the price of Immanuel’s blood and I serve Him alone. There is no democracy, individualism, and self-determination in the Kingdom of Christ.

    I as a young African American evangelical/Pentecostal will continue to call the Church to the light of the Word to see the injustices in our churches and the world and labor in the Gospel (not just preaching/teaching) until the Savior returns. This will include help fight domestic violence against women, help innocent brothers get out of jail, help our kids stay in school, above all being a witness for Jesus so souls may be saved.
    This may sound “otherwordly” to you, Dr. Weems, but, hey, I believe it and I practice it. I may not be able to consciously stand along side bell hooks, Renita Weems, Angela Davis, Kelly Brown Douglas, Michael Eric Dyson, or Cornel West. But I can live with that. Blessings to you and your family.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I am a womanist. I think that somehow that word feminism discounts men and that concerns me. See, I am also an Aunt of 2 wonderful African American men, so I cannot discount them. My dad and brother are great guys as well as my male friends and acquaintances. I am a womanist, which means that I am interested in women having the right to breathe and be on their own terms and not being punished for it. I am a womanist because I want the guy that wants to dance a chance to do him too and not be automatically labeled as gay. Get me? Now, do I stand up and ask the hard questions? As I get older I do, and I make quite a few folk uncomfortable. Oh well. I speak loudly on what I beleive, ask any man that knows me. I am not put off by a woman who chooses to raise her kids and not work or one who raises her kids and does. Whatever works for your LIFE. I do not agree with abuse of any kind from both sexes. I know that men are stuck (often) in a patriarchal paradigm that does not consider women. Which is funny because they ask for feminity without understanding that to have that women must feel safe, appreciated, and open to be themselves without regard to their feelings about what our “place” should be.

    I am a womanist.

    Nikita

  5. jbd Says:

    To Jason Evans:

    I find that you are quite presumptuous in your ideas concerning Biblical interpretation and in your claims about feminism.

    You claim that you aren’t “bought” by conservative or liberal readings of the Biblical texts, but by the blood of Jesus…as though you hold an unadulterated, uninfluenced, objective reading of the text. Yet, the Bible (like every other text or activity that we engage) can never be read or interpreted in a vacuum. Each of us interprets the text through the lens of own social location, our own ideas, values, experiences and contexts…including you. While you may argue that the work of queer scholars is more akin to “Greek mythology than Christian theology,” I would argue that the Biblical interpretations held by many conservative evangelical Christians is more influenced by the Greek writings of Plato than the teachings of Jesus; reminds me more of St. Augustine’s The City of God than Jesus’ sermon on the mount. My point is that neither you, me, nor any of the scholars we read or preachers we listen to hold THE unadulterated interpretation of the Biblical text. Even those who begin their reading of the text from its linguistic-literary-historical context interpret the MEANING of that context from their own perspective.

    While I don’t know if Jarena LEE or JULIA Foote would self identify as “feminists,” I, for one, can say that it is through their model that I do my own feminist work. This brings me to my thoughts about your comments on feminism. Like so many others, you make the error of suggesting that feminism is synonymous with “rugged individualism.” In my understanding (which is amongst many others), feminism has little to do individualism and everything to do with self actualization. Individualism is caring and doing only for self without considering the plight of others or how your personal decisions may affect others. Self actualization is caring for and affirming self not only for one’s own wholeness, but ALSO so that one can contribute their entire self, gifts, abilities for the benefit of community. Feminism creates a pathway and an arena for women AND MEN to do this. Feminism and a sense of community are not mutually exclusive ideas. As bell hooks notes, “Feminism is for EVERYBODY.”

  6. RevMamaAfrika Says:

    Sis. Rev. Weems,

    Did you break into my house, go into my kitchen cabinet, reach behind to the one pound bag of brown rice, find and then read my diary? In a few minutes you accurately described the many things I have been thinking, feeling and praying about for so many years!

    I’m at work, trying to act “professional” and not scream, holler and laugh on the floor like I really want to, need to.
    BLESS YOU FOR WRITING THIS!

    You have just explained to me, better than I can say, why Jesus Christ is my favorite feminist! To be a feminist is less about having breasts and a vagina, and more about how a woman (or man) thinks and feels about issues of justice; a woman’s (or man’s) ideas, dreams, behavior and actions are of much critical importance. A person’s ideology (and theology) determines whether or not they are feminist, progressive, etc.

    Thanks again for encouraging critical thinking, opening up our hearts, minds and spirits!

    BLESS YA!!

  7. Jason Evans Says:

    jbd said…

    “You claim that you aren’t “bought” by conservative or liberal readings of the Biblical texts, but by the blood of Jesus…as though you hold an unadulterated, uninfluenced, objective reading of the text. Yet, the Bible (like every other text or activity that we engage) can never be read or interpreted in a vacuum. Each of us interprets the text through the lens of own social location, our own ideas, values, experiences and contexts…including you.”

    Thank you for correcting me in that respect. Indeed interpretations are not held within a vacuum. I would also contend that biblical interpretation should happen within the context of the Church.

    You also said…

    “I would argue that the Biblical interpretations held by many conservative evangelical Christians is more influenced by the Greek writings of Plato than the teachings of Jesus; reminds me more of St. Augustine’s The City of God than Jesus’ sermon on the mount.”

    Didn’t Jesus preach that in his sermon, “Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”Matthew 5:17 ESV? Jesus did preach a lot of things however, including that was I do get your point, although I hardly read anything on Plato or Platonism and never read St. Augustine.

    You also said..

    “While I don’t know if Jarena LEE or JULIA Foote would self identify as “feminists,” I, for one, can say that it is through their model that I do my own feminist work. This brings me to my thoughts about your comments on feminism. Like so many others, you make the error of suggesting that feminism is synonymous with “rugged individualism.” In my understanding (which is amongst many others), feminism has little to do individualism and everything to do with self actualization.”

    Thank you for correcting me. Questions: What is SELF? By whom is SELF affirmed?

    “Self actualization is caring for and affirming self not only for one’s own wholeness, but ALSO so that one can contribute their entire self, gifts, abilities for the benefit of community. Feminism creates a pathway and an arena for women AND MEN to do this.”

    Maybe you can enlighten me more, what is at the philosophical root of feminism? Is there more than one?

    I guess I bought a my ticket at the evangelical hermeneutical booth.

  8. Jason Evans Says:

    Jbd:

    Thanks for “schooling” me. I did learn a lot in a few short minutes. I have lot to learn as well. It’s kinda like I’m like this zealous yet ignorant young man sitting in the counsel of church mothers and getting taught in their ways of wisdom. I won’t necessarily agree with the methods and ideologies, but I cannot agree or disagree with anything I haven’t learned. Peace!

  9. Georgia's Angels Says:

    Dr. Weems;
    Thank you again for your words of wisdom. I would like to quote your blog dated September 18, 2007, entitled Women Be Silent. Maybe Jason Evans missed it. “Obviously we see the world differently,sir. But thank you for your comments, next.”

  10. Jason Evans Says:

    Georgia’s angels said…

    “Dr. Weems;
    Thank you again for your words of wisdom. I would like to quote your blog dated September 18, 2007, entitled Women Be Silent. Maybe Jason Evans missed it. “Obviously we see the world differently,sir. But thank you for your comments, next.”

    Actually, Georgia’s angels, I did read it. I read this post to keep an open mind. Learn things from a worldview different (or may not so different) from my own.

  11. Deborah Says:

    “We have the hell-raising antics of feminists to thank for the radical changes in laws and attitudes we’ve witnessed in the last 30 years in this country toward women.”
    I think we need to really think about what that really means. From where I sit, it means it now takes two incomes to make a living, employers now take for granted that both husband and wife works. Now if both husband and wife works, insurance companies now try to force both to sign-up for their own insurance through their employer before using the spouses benefits even if this is more costly to the couple. Now, in the case of a divorce, it’s assumed that the wife will work and alimony duration is reduced where before it was based on the assumption that the husband/wife who was the primary wage earner was to pay for many years. Thanks women’s movement! Now it’s even up to question as to who is given custody of children. Before it was almost always the mother, unless she was shown to be unfit. Not true anymore. Please save me from more of this junk. My bible states that God of his own will made Adam, then Eve as a helpmate. We have a definite role but not as the forerunner unless the men do not step up to the plate (Deborah). We can do outreach ministries and we can definitely preach and minister but we All christians are called to minister. It’s not about men vs. women, we are all to be about our Father’s business. The church is not supressing women, in my opinion but we do have to respect the role laid out in the Word of God. Many women are not conservative, and nobody wants women to be abused either physically or mentally, but let’s be realistic. From where I sit, I still want men to open doors for me, pay for my dinner, stroke my hair, and I am not looking to take away their role and make mine equal. God didn’t make me equal and he did it according to HIS will, regardless of our will. I sit in church and I minister to just about anyone God sends across my path outside of church but PLEASE..save me from the women trying to help me. They have not made my life as good as they would like to think. I like being a stay-at-home mom. I like baking cookies, I like being a helper. I WILL lead and be outspoken BUT…God didn’t make me first, and I accept that and Glory in his will. I can live without the antics!

  12. Anonymous Says:

    I am truly disturbed when people say “the bible said it and it is so”. Now please do not misunderstand, I am not questioning the validity of scripture but, man made law more or less. Time and time again I have to remind myself that men (and women although not directly documented as interpreters)interpreted what God said to them. I interpret what my favorite authors say either through thought process or written critical analysis. If three or thirty other people read the same book as I did and we discuss or write a review, there may be some concurrent themes in our interpretation but certainly, there will be differences.
    Slaveholders used certain portions of scripture to justify their wrongdoings and uphold an institution. Many people knew at the core of their being that this interpretation was wrong and that slavery was not a valid institute. Oppression of people is not valid. The oppression of women is not valid. Jesus was a liberator and it is not just the word of Jesus that stirs our hearts and minds. It was what he did. It was how he took what he knew within and manifested it in life, he was a living demonstration of love. Thank God for the book to share the story but, the story is only a part of it. How will we use the story? If we are only hearing or feeling God through pages of a book, we are saying that God is limited. If we do that we are saying God is limited to the last page of Revelations or, the last whatever. God does not just live in the context we interpret. God is unlimited. So I love to hear God inspired feminists, womanists, people, saying we feel stuck and we need to get unstuck..they understand they are not limited and God is not limited..to roles or the ideal that what was yesterday should be today..just because it is.
    If God is revealed to you in the baking of cookies please, bake those cookies with your whole heart and soul..bless and sanctify them..but if God is telling you to get up and move a mountain..and not to stand still anymore because you should not be standing still or sitting in a presumed place, I am certain that you would only be following in the footsteps of a revolutionary master such as Jesus Christ.

  13. HP Says:

    Thank you so much for this blog!! It is exactly the balm I need.

    As a pastor and doctoral student in a mainline denomination, I hear these sentiments repeatedly in response to my work and they make me equally insane.

    I’ve read much of your work and am thrilled to find an academic who has time to blog!

  14. Anonymous Says:

    dr. weems:

    i consider myself a feminist and a womanist, although i am not as much of an activist as i used to be at one point in my life. i used to be a serious revolutionary i guess. i was always trying to organize and speak on behalf of the voiceless… then i got burned out i think and i had to sit and think about how to reshape the way i participate in changing the things that disturb me the most. i have worked and volunteered for non -profit organizations that do great work in the community particularly as it regards to women and children. i still contribute to those organizations from a distance. i guess i was so saddened at time as i saw wonderful woman leaders, women for whom i have a lot of respect and love sacrificing everything for their cause. i have seen many of them going through health issues. i know that many of them do not get enough sleep at night and have to beg the government or foundations to keep the doors of their much-needed community-organizations open. for some reasons as much as i admire those women and always make myself available to them when they need my help, i also resent the kind of life they live. i do not want to live that way. i am trying to find the just middle.

    i can say honestly that i use to be angry at certain things and the church was included in it. i am not angry anymore, but i still get upset with the church and the community at time. you talk about people asking you how come you are a feminist or how come you stay in the church and i have had to answer to the same questions. actually a few days ago, i was talking to a friend in the clinic about something that irritated me and it prompted her to ask me what exactly was my religious beliefs. sometimes, dr. weems, i just do not know. i believe in what i think is right. i believe in equity, justice, integrity, and freedom. i guess that is the main reason i call myself a christian as i strongly believe that jesus is one of the biggest activists that walked this earth. i just wonder where he got the sustained energy to do all that he did in such a short life. i get tired! and i just want to hide in a cave and not know anything. sometimes i wish i could be like some people who do not seem bothered by what they see out there.

    i admire your courage and i thank you for speaking up.

    nir.

  15. Dr. Margaret Says:

    As usual you knock me sideways. But you leave me wondering–again–whether or not womanist is too restrictive of a term for me to use. It comes out of a folk culture that looks like mine but is not mine (Surely, the BWI version would be “‘Oomanist”). For me, I see both not ontologically but strategically. They are stances that argue for the full personhood of women as well as the others they love. And womanism is a strategy that argues for the real presence and necessity to dismantle structural, intersecting forms of human oppression that affect not just women, but all of the community.

    Still, posted a link to your blog again this week.

    Way to go. I hope a book comes out of all of this blogging.

  16. Jocelyn Says:

    OK- right now I just consider myself schooled LOL… I preferred the Black liberation theology lecture in class to the Woman’s liberation theology. I am going back to read that lesson again!

  17. wisdom teaches me Says:

    Jason, you asked ‘Georgia’s angels’,

    ” Maybe you can enlighten me more, what is at the philosophical root of feminism? Is there more than one? “

    After reading the posts, if i may offer this,
    the way i understand it, the answer is LOVE.

    It is what it Is and there are questions that are used like mazes-to keep a person busy and off the point. questions that have answers that aren’t for us to know right now.

    Love,,,that’s it.

    All that stuff you are learning will not answer many of your questions or fill the void in you–nothing but the love of God can fill it- this gives a person self-love that is unconditional-

    One of the greatest gifts is forgiveness, It comes with God’s love for us–for us to take from God and to give to ourselves and then to others.

    What to call A grouping of women and men with like thoughts, goals, and visions, that are working for the learning, the upgrading, the growth of a community- call them womenist, call them feminists,

    I call them LOVE !

    be well,

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Actually the woman’s movement is what made alimony and the mother getting children almost a certainty. Prior it wasn’t that unusual for men to get the children and all household money at divorce time. Besides, i don’t know that many black women who got alimony or hell, child support.

    As far as men opening doors, men still do that and any person using the women’s movement as an excuse not to open doors or stroking your hair is ignorant and wouldn’t have don it anyways.

    I for one wish black people would stop acting like the 50s and 60s were some heyday of good treatment that us poor younger negros and women have forsaken in our newfangled ides and youthful audacity. Black women have always had it hard in this country from within and without.

    TBQH, i think all the haggling over a name and all the accusations over what we are called or call ourselves just diminishes the work we could do. Imagine what could be done if we had focused on our goals whatever they may be rather than coming up with new names or defending our choices. Besides, any movement that starts from a point of concession, particularly when it comes to defining it’s goals and mking a name for itself, is doomed to failure.

  19. Lily Says:

    I became a feminist before I knew the word or even realized just how long and hard women had fought for women’s rights. As a teenager, I kept hearing about men dumping their wives of 25 or 30 years for some young thing. I also noticed that men basically did not open doors or do much for women. In other words, men were not keeping their part of the bargain. Yet women were putting their entire lives into the hands of these all-powerful men.

    When the feminist movement started up noisily in the 1970s, I realized I already believed in what it was trying to accomplish, which I define as simple fairness for both sexes. As the years went by, I heard so many women apologize for other women or deny that they were feminists–yet, these women who did not want to be seen as “those women’s libbers” actually wanted the same thing the feminists wanted.

    It’s more than time to tell women to stop apologizing.

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