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.