On equality and power: a post about a post

Thursday, 28 August 2014

This is a post about a post. It is unfortunate; as combative blogging is somewhat looked down upon by much of the Christian blogosphere these days. But if this post makes people disappointed, or saddened, so be it, because there are things that need to be said.

Alastair Roberts has been writing a lot about gender, power and equality recently. I respect Alastair and what he brings to the table, even though I don't agree with many of his conclusions on these particular subjects. He's absolutely right to point out that a narrow definition of feminism based on a shallow sort of 'equality' that favours the privileged - 'equality', for example, that cares a great deal about getting more women in boardrooms but little for women on the breadline. But in saying that "there is an implicit class opposition within equality feminism that is seldom adequately addressed", he is wrong. While it may be seldom addressed by the mainstream media, the examination of liberal feminism and what it offers (or doesn't offer) to the majority of women is a key topic of discussion within the movement and has been for years.

Movement women are very aware of the fact that the idea of "equality" has not so much advanced the lives of all women so much as the lives of a privileged few. At Greenbelt festival last weekend I spoke on feminist activism and made a point of talking about this very problem, highlighting it not as a reason for feminists to be discouraged and dismiss the idea that the movement could have something to offer all women, but as a reason to work for greater inclusion, giving space to the voices of the marginalised.

Yesterday, some of Alastair's comments on equality and power were reposted by Andrew Wilson at the Think Theology blog. The debate that ensued encouraged me to write this, because of how incredibly disappointing I found it that Alastair's words were posted with very little context in what looks very much like complementarian point-scoring to me. What can be taken from the post is a description of the feminist movement as focused on equality of outcome above all with value on the most the privileged, when society could do with more focus on, as described:

"...robust and accessible universal healthcare, better maternity leave and more provision and flexibility for part time workers, equitable wages, secure jobs for their husbands and partners, a strengthening of marriage culture, the deepening and enriching of local community life and its groups and institutions, a society that is more mother and child friendly, action and stigma against domestic abuse and such things as street harassment..."

I don't think that anyone could argue that society could benefit from increased focus on achieving these goals, which is why feminists have been working towards them for decades. And if these things could be more successfully achieved without the banner of feminism to hold them back, I'd be interested to know where the pushback, where the actual work on these issues is coming from outside the movement at present? Is the example being set by the complementarian gatekeepers? Walk the walk on gender issues if you believe it's important; without succumbing to benevolent sexism; without denying women the place to speak from their own experience.

I realise that might be difficult, if you're generally in agreement with statements such as:

"...the entrance of women into new spheres has often led to a weakening of the social power of those spheres, as women are often more vulnerable and easily exploited..." 


"In Scripture, this priestly role is often associated not merely with men, but with ‘alpha’ men. The Church is strengthened as a body when it is led by persons with steel backbones, principles, and nerves, persons that can withstand others in more confrontational situations." 

It helps no-one when men's reactions to the absolutely justified pushback against such statements is described as "emotive", "all the shouting", and "brouhaha". Egalitarian and feminist women and their allies as pawns while the gatekeepers believe they're above such displays of emotion and subjectivity. As I mentioned to someone on Twitter earlier today, I do not wish for the experiences of individuals to be paramount at all times and at all costs, but yesterday's post was a prime example of when the experiences and intepretations of individual women are important - women for whom this is not theoretical; women for whom this is their life, their calling, their gifting. While complementarian gatekeepers discuss their theories about what we're good for and what we're allowed to do in closed circles and echo chambers, women are representing more than half of the church, leading, pioneering, keeping on keeping on. And they're doing it regardless of whether these gatekeepers believe a church with women in leadership is an "increasingly impotent institution".

They're also well aware that the majority of Christian women don't aspire to be bishops. When I helped found the Christian Feminist Network, we agreed that one of our aims would be to take the conversation on Christianity and feminism beyond women in church leadership and women bishops, not because we believe it's not important but because we believe Christian feminism is for the mothers, the grandmothers, the CEOs and the entrepreneurs, the women on the breadline and the women who have been abused and the women who don't want to lead from the front but support from alongside. If people like Andrew Wilson were more willing to dialogue with us then they'd know that. But I'm not sure that the activities of grassroots women's groups figure much inside the echo chamber.

Yesterday's post, with its out-of-context remarks on caring more about the marginalised, "alpha male" leadership and the reasons why women are supposedly unsuited for certain roles was published at an inappropriate time, with the scandal of child abuse in Rotherham making headlines. The scandal of child abuse - an appalling misuse of power carried out on vulnerable young people and ignored by powerful men. An inappropriate time, too, as the saga of noted alpha male Mark Driscoll continues and the sagas of abuse of power by patriarchal church leaders - Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, pastors involved with Sovereign Grace Ministries - continue to make headlines in the USA. Those who want to uphold the dignity and equality of women without the banner of feminism would do well to walk the walk regarding these incidents. And yet, so often, what we see instead are calls for "grace", or indeed, complete silence, as the echo chamber of privileged and powerful men with little personal interest in those they so enjoy theorising about  - remains immutable.

Talk to us. Listen to us. It's a year now since I made the decision to stop justifying myself to anyone in the name of egalitarianism and feminism, so if that's what you want, look elsewhere. But don't attempt to portray a political movement as irredeemably blinkered to suit your own ends, then act surprised when people aren't happy.

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