Submitted by Dr. Corrie Merricks and Lisa Weaver Swartz
We were glad to see Robin Gericke’s editorial on “Why I Will Not Call Myself a Feminist” and Kayla Lutes’ subsequent piece on “Women in Leadership.” Together these pieces demonstrate our community’s need for healthy dialogue on controversial issues, and we applaud these two women for using their voices toward this end. In the spirit of healthy dialogue, we want to respond to Gericke’s piece by complicating the word “feminist” with some historical nuance. We submit that pro-life, Christ-centered, biblical feminism does exist and actually is deeply connected with the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition.
Many Asbury students may be surprised to learn that the feminist movement is rooted in evangelical Christianity. The movement began in Seneca Falls Methodist (Wesleyan) church in 1848, organized in part by Lucrecia Mott, a Quaker minister and abolitionist. Dr. Katherine Bushnell followed her lead and became an early leader in the feminist movement. Bushnell, a Methodist doctor and medical missionary, worked to dismantle the sex industry and help women become better mothers, individuals, and citizens.
In an article outlining the history of Christian egalitarianism, Mimi Haddad paraphrases Bushnell’s argument. “[Patriarchy] is part of the chaos and domination resulting from sin, which Christians must dismantle and oppose.” Bushnell argued that “Just so long as [Christians]…believe that the ‘he will rule over you’ of Genesis 3:16 is [prescriptive] …the destruction of young women into a prostitute class will continue.”
The feminist movement and the church have not maintained the close relationship begun at Seneca Falls. As Gericke points out, some feminist groups have adopted methods and platforms that do not align with biblical calls to humility, empathy and the sanctity of life. This divide too has a history. In the 1970s and 1980s some feminist groups added reproductive rights to their platform, alienating Christians. In response, many Christians have completely rejected the movement — not just its pro-choice stance — and have assumed a posture of animosity toward feminism as a whole.
There is, however, more than one kind of feminism. Not all are “radical.” Not all are angry. And not all want to de-emphasize difference between men and women. Today, the dictionary definition of feminism is simply “the belief that women and men should have equal opportunities.” Many contemporary feminists would argue, along with both Gericke and Lutes, that women’s perspectives and voices are valuable not because women are interchangeable with men but because they are different from men.
From this perspective, many contemporary feminists champion causes that are far from the aggressive, self-interested caricature that Christians often paint. Martha Nussbaum, for example, argues for the human rights and dignity of all people, highlighting the experiences of women in the developing world where extreme poverty, rape and female genital mutilation are everyday realities. belle hooks calls for an ethic of love in the public sphere. Perhaps most importantly, feminist theory also prioritizes the marginalized and vulnerable, helpfully drawing attention to Western society’s failures to advocate for the poor and deal with racial injustices. To be sure, not all feminists begin or end with Christian assumptions about the authority of the Bible and the primacy of Christ. But many feminist goals do align with the call of Jesus to serve the poor and marginalized and His example in recognizing the full humanity of women. Perhaps remnants of feminism’s evangelical roots remain.
Gericke ends her article by calling Christians to “consider what they are fighting for when they call themselves feminists.” We agree! We know many Christian women and men who call themselves feminists precisely because the Gospel compels them to be attentive to the needs of the marginalized, seek justice, love mercy and fight for the dignity of all life. There are, of course, many tools for that fight, but feminism is one of them. We would also argue that Christians are obligated to extend empathy and charitable understanding to those they choose to fight against.