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A feminist by any other word...?

I've been writing sporadically about my dawning realisation that patriarchy really is a thing and that we need to be intentional about resisting it. But there's a word I've been avoiding, a label that I duck away from like a conference-goer trying to dodge the smiley person with a roll of stickers:


So ... am I? Do I need/want that sticker?

I know I didn't used to be. I used to be, I'm sad to say, the archetype of an internalised misogynist. Women were tiresome; inequality hardly surprising given our inferiority; feminism just one big petulant fuss. I've written elsewhere about my serious re-think. Still got a lot to learn, of course (a lot). But I have very much come to recognise the strikingly sexist nature of human-on-human oppression. And I feel a growing burden to find ways to actively oppose that (starting with myself!)

That certainly sounds like what it means to be a feminist ... at least, as I understand it.

I have some reservations, though. Starting with a logical objection. I'm not convinced patriarchy is the root cause; it seems more like a symptom of a bigger problem which encompasses all human interactions. Something like what bell hooks calls 'dominator culture':
Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others. We are taught that this will to dominate is more biologically hardwired in males than in females. In actuality, dominator culture teaches us that we are all natural-born killers but that males are more able to realize the predator role. In the dominator model the pursuit of external power, the ability to manipulate and control others, is what matters most. When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power struggles. No matter how many modern-day seers assure us that power struggles are not an effective model for human relations, imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture continues to insist that domination must be the organizing principle of today's civilization. (bell hooks, The Will to Change, 2004, p115)
To me, it looks far more like patriarchy is a product of dominator culture than the other way around. Men and women alike are driven by a will to power (cf. Nietzsche, of course); men, having certain advantages of physical biology, win out more than they lose. Hence patriarchy. (Within which system, male 'advantages' are subsequently reinforced and exaggerated by environment and patriarchal conditioning).

If we're serious about opposing patriarchy, then, we need to go right to the heart of the problem and tackle dominator culture itself – dismantle the power dynamic. The danger in simply moving the power around – transferring it from men into the hands of women and 'other disenfranchised' – is that we just produce a new configuration of oppressed and oppressor groups within the same underlying system of control. Some feminisms give the impression that equality is all about 'getting even': women becoming as aggressive as men are perceived to be, or as promiscuous and heartless, or as detached from the responsibilities of community and family life. Maybe even making sure that men get their belated share of drudgery, deprived opportunity, humiliation (they've some catching up to do). 'Fair', I'll give you that; all well and good ... if you like your victories Pyrrhic.

I don't, then, want to see women 'win' ... I want to see the cycle broken. I favour the word (and the pursuit of) 'emancipation' over 'empowerment'. I want to see women liberated from (male and other) oppression so that they do not need to wield power in order to live expressive, rounded, influential, joyful lives. I want to see men equally liberated from the same power structures and from restrictive patriarchal models of masculinity so that they can live equally expressive, rounded, influential, joyful lives, in equal and respectful partnership with women.

My second hesitation is that, as a follower of Jesus, I don't believe I need the label 'feminist' to clarify that I'm opposed to patriarchy. At least, I shouldn't. If anyone challenges dominator culture at its core it's surely him ...
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. [...] When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. (John 13:3-5,12-14) 
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27)
All of heaven's power and glory, if you believe it ... surrendered in service and self-sacrifice. Culminating in the ultimate expression of relinquished supremacy: a king on a cross, forgiving those who nailed him there, reaching out in love to those suffering justly beside him, breaking the cycle of strife and victory and vengeance (Luke 23:32-43). A pattern for humankind, yes – one that, I believe, puts paid to patriarchy like nothing else if and when we actually start to live it out. But so much more – an act that makes it possible for us to live it out (albeit brokenly, imperfectly) by reconciling us in life-transforming relationship to the God who is love (1 John 4:16) and who institutes and illustrates the pattern to begin with.

Religion has been used to oppress; Jesus' name, even, has been invoked by those wishing to get an edge over others. That's way bigger a topic than I plan to get into now, but: "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."(John 10:10) "...and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) If the truth that you've been taught is not setting you and others free ... if the religion you've signed up to doesn't look much like life in abundance ... Well, there's sound scriptural basis for braving yourself to ask some difficult questions: I can't promise it's not gonna get messy, but there's also sound scriptural basis for hope as you seek out the answers.

So, am I a feminist? I'm not gonna dodge that sticker, if you're chasing me across the room with it. But I'm not about to make up my own special badge. If there's anything I want written all over my life, it's that I follow Jesus (or try to, or try to let him help me to, or whatever it is that's the approved way of stating my intent whilst recognising my dependence on grace). I know where I think that leaves me relative to patriarchy ... I can only hope I've explained myself well enough to convince you too!

P.S. I am serious about that 'learning' thing, by the way. So if you're irked by my piecemeal understanding – of feminism, or of following Jesus – why not challenge me on it? Tell me what you think I should be reading; who I should be listening to. Help me extricate an eye-plank or three ...

Edited to add (20/12/15):

So, I posted the above on Facebook. And a wise and lovely feminist friend (let's call her Maz for now [1]) gave some fantastic constructive feedback that I'd like to share here:

Maz: Thoughtful post and I'm interested in your misgivings about labelling yourself a feminist. I personally do think of myself as a feminist. I believe that the word and ethos has been purposefully twisted over the years by various factions in the media and by misogynists to be portrayed as 'women getting even with men' and 'wrenching the power back'. I think only a very tiny proportion of feminists actually think that, and they are missing the point entirely. Unfortunately this myth is perpetuated to discredit feminism. (This could almost be comparable with the worst kind of right wing extremist Christian groups – Westboro Baptist Church, for example – being thought of as a reflection of Christianity...?) I agree that labels are often not helpful and can be too 'neat', especially when tackling such an enormous and complex issue. However, feminism for me is a powerful social movement to end patriarchy, in all its forms. The fact that one half of the population in the 21st century is largely so controlled and dominated by the other is astonishing. Feminism encompasses opposition to, and activism against, the vast number of female casualties of war, domestic violence, political, social and financial inequality and more insidious casual everyday sexism, to name but a few examples. It also means education for girls and boys and providing role models. Lots more I could say but I'm on the Tube and typing one handed; thanks for posting such an interesting blog once again!

Me: I love this reply – I'm at work so must resist the distraction of giving a 'proper' response for now. Totally with you on "...only a very tiny proportion of feminists actually think that, and they are missing the point entirely. Unfortunately this myth is perpetuated to discredit feminism" – sorry if that didn't quite come across in what I wrote. And I really do want to get behind and engage actively in the good and important stuff that I agree is being done 'in the name of' feminism. Do I need the label to do that? I'm saying "no, I don't think so", but, well, I do know I might be wrong. E.g. it might help me communicate to you and other feminists that I care about the same things. On the other hand, does it not risk closing down fruitful dialogue with people who have decided that they know what feminism is and don't like it? Sometimes re-naming or de-naming things helps people see them for what they really are ... (maybe?)

Maz: Hello, back on the Tube!  No, I definitely don't think you need the label to actively engage. What I do find sad in the broader context is that some people don't like using the word feminism because they think they might not be taken seriously. Because they don't want to be that woman who is seen as putting men down and burning their bras outside Westminster. Because they 'can't take a joke, love'. And I realise that's not what you're saying about yourself here wink emoticon I suppose what I'm trying to say is that sometimes taking back control of the name of the thing can be just as meaningful and helps people become not afraid of it. I wish we lived closer. Then we could have wine and chat IRL! 🍷

Me: *Sigh* “…some people don't like using the word feminism because they think they might not be taken seriously” … Yes, that troubles me too, and I do worry that my ‘stance’ might be perceived as a betrayal on that front. Aargh, I’m really not “not a feminist” — I hope what I wrote doesn’t come across as an attempt to distance myself. And I respect the desire to reclaim the name … though I confess my cynicism makes me question the degree to which that’s possible: people close their ears to a word, and that’s it. They won’t hear out the concept it represents, even if it’s one that they would be all for getting behind if they grasped it. Actually, I’ve acquired something of a habit of re-wording things. E.g. I feel sad about many of the associations ‘Christian’ carries, so I more often say ‘follower of Jesus’ in the hope of encouraging people to re-think what that might or should look like (not that my life matches up to the claim, but that’s another problem). But I do recognise that this approach to language has its own drawbacks: in both cases (feminism and Christianity) I risk seeming to set myself up as special, ‘apart’. That’s more than a bit rubbish. Hmm. Much grateful for your wise input as I muddle through this stuff; but oh, it *would* be super-lovely IRL with wine!

As you can see, the exchange confirmed my suspicions that I've still got lots to think about. I'm already mentally revising what I wrote initially. I'm glad I wrote it, and I stand by it in that I don't want to be defined by anything other than my intent to follow Jesus. But, on reflection, there's a difference between a definition and a description. The description 'feminist', as Maz understands it, is one to aspire to, not accept reluctantly – and it's one which, applied more readily to my own outlook and hopes, would probably be useful in communicating those in an already understood shorthand. Reluctant as I am to boast a similarity to Paul, it feels perhaps a little bit like what he's getting at here:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

[1] Maz is the profoundly perspicacious Yoda-reminiscent character who counsels Rey about her role in resisting the First Order in the superb (IMO) feminist allegory that is Star Wars: The Force Awakens (more to follow on that, almost certainly). N.B. the comparison very much does not extend to the physical appearance of my friend, nor (sadly) to me being anything like Rey!

[Thumbnail image cc from DBduo photography on Flickr].


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