What feminism is, and is not

Given the descriptions of feminism penned by the likes of Douglas Wilson and the Baylys, I think it’s time to discuss what feminism is, and what it is not. Before I do, I’d like to publicly ask Wilson and the Baylys which feminist theorists they’ve studied to arrive at their particular perspectives on such a massive subject. Have you read Simone de Beauvoir? Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble? What about bell hooks’ writings on intersectionality? I mentioned Gayatri Spivak in one of my previous posts, she also has some interesting things to say about postcolonial feminism. Do you know what womanism is, Mr. Wilson? Any of the Baylys? Do you understand why it branched off from mainstream feminism? Do you know the difference between radical feminism and sex-positive feminism? Do you know why feminists make a distinction between gender and biological sex? 

I ask only because your writings reflect a clear ignorance about what feminism is, and what it is not. 

Feminism is not code for “female supremacy.” Feminists can be straight, and feminists can be queer. But a philosophy based on the idea of gender equality does not have room for the demonization of one gender to elevate another. You don’t seem to understand that, I’m afraid.
Feminism is not intended to denigrate stay at home mothers. Instead, feminism advocates the presence of a choice: that women deserve the ability to choose whether or not their skills and talents are bested suited to the home, and that a woman who chooses to work receives respect equal to a woman who has chosen to stay at home. 
Feminism is not about false rape claims, or whatever else it is you’ve heard from the men’s rights movement. Instead, feminism is about the right of survivors to be heard, and respected; to tell their stories free of shame and stigma. And this includes male survivors, too. 
Feminism is not about hate. Feminists, as we’ve already covered, do not hate men. Feminists don’t hate stay at home mothers. Real feminists (and here I depart from many of my friends in the movement) don’t hate religion either, because to do so invalidates the choices of religious women. 

Feminism is, however, most certainly about choice. Choice is inextricably linked to independent agency. Women possess the capacity to determine their appropriate roles for themselves. For some women, this means they choose to be religious. It may even mean that they choose to be conservative and religious. And that choice is as valid as mine, to choose to be agnostic, as long as neither of us attempt to force the other to adapt to our way of life. But feminists acknowledge that we do not make these choices in a void, and therefore, our choices merit critical examination. I cannot say that I have seen the same tendency reflected on your websites: there is merely a refusal to accept criticism from anyone you deem to be “out of fellowship.” That’s a convenient excuse, and a cowardly one. It allows you to ignore the very reasons that blogs like Rachel Held Evans’ have become so popular with women. It’s because that women (including me, before I left the church) far too often experience decades of attacks on their gender identity at the hands of those who claim to serve the church. If you actually read the comments on that blog, you’d read story after story of abuse, of complementarianism taken to its furthest extremes. You’ll read why women have become alienated from the church, and why so many of us have chosen to take shelter outside it. 

But it certainly is easier to mock, and to ignore. It’s easier to brand someone a heretic than actually listen to anything they might have to say. It’s truly pathetic to watch, and it is a testament to the fallibility of the worldview you’ve so carefully constructed to insulate yourselves from the world. At least do some research. In fact, here’s a challenge: Douglas Wilson and the Bayly family have stated that they refuse to interact with Christians like Rachel Held Evans because she’s perverting the gospel. They express less concern over interacting with regular “pagans.” So let’s read some pagan books, gentlemen. Let’s try actually reading some feminist theory. Then you may attempt to convince us you actually know anything at all about feminism, and what it is and is not, and why so many of us have flocked to it when we were failed by doctrines like yours. 

Douglas Wilson on Slavery: The Evangelical White Man’s Burden

In a follow up to my last post, I’d like to direct some attention toward Douglas Wilson’s opinions on slavery. There’s already been some excellent coverage of his views (Wartburg Watch has a particularly good post), but to those of us who have been following Wilson’s writing for years, there really can’t be enough exposure. So here’s my contribution, and a caveat: I’m writing about this subject as the descendant of a Southern slave-owning family. My family’s papers are owned by the University of North Carolina, and many of the records from their plantations and political activities are available for online reading. None of this is shared as a boast. I’m deeply ashamed of my family’s involvement with slavery. It tarnishes any pride I might otherwise feel about my heritage, and I am acutely aware that even though I did not grow up in wealth, I benefit from an upper class tradition of education that was literally built on the backs of slaves. This is my white privilege. I do not forget for a moment.

Neither does Doug Wilson. But Wilson feels no shame about this or the legacy of slavery; quite the contrary. According to Wilson: “Our central interest was in defending the integrity and applicability of the Scriptures to our current cultural controversies, and we affirmed that Christians who apologize for slavery will soon be apologizing for what it teaches on marriage.” Black and Tan, pg. 14.

The “we” in this sentence refers to Steve Wilkins, formerly a board member of the League for the South. If “the League for the South” sounds a bit like something out of the late 19th Century, that’s because it kind of is: they advocate the establishment of a free and independent Southern republic. They’ve also been labelled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. So let’s recap: we have one Calvinist preacher and a neo-Confederate, and they agree on two things: slavery and the evils of same-sex marriage. At no point does Wilson acknowledge or condemn the League of South’s extremist leanings. He can’t, really. Wilkins is a necessary ally in the culture war.

Wilson goes to explain that he is not racist; in fact, he identifies racism as the South’s great sin. I think he sincerely believes this. He also sincerely believes that African culture during the antebellum was “inferior” to white Southern culture (pg. 17), and attributes this inferiority to a lack of the gospel. In saying this, Wilson is locating himself within the same Protestant tradition that motivated the first English missionaries to leave for Africa. It’s the White Man’s Burden with an evangelical spin. Colonialism (and slavery) is viewed through a humanitarian lens. Christianity is visualized a civilizing influence. It’s why, in 1820s England, missionary supporter Hannah Kilham wrote “As superintendents and directors, we should ever bear in mind that we are fellow-probationers with the dear children…all other distinctions seem lost in the contemplation of this.” Victorian Testaments, Sue Zemka.

Kilham’s choice of words is deliberate. She is not referring to African children in this passage, but rather African adults encountered by British missionaries. All Africans qualified as children. They were culturally inferior, but Christianity could improve their condition. When contemporary anthropologist Talal Asad writes of “cultural hierarchies,” this is what he means. And Wilson’s work reflects these an adherence to the same hierarchies revealed by Hannah Kilham centuries earlier. Wilson describes the gospel as “a gift,” (pg. 17). This is not necessarily a problematic attitude itself, but in Wilson’s paradigm, it’s a gift received only by Europeans. Hello, colonialism. I see you hiding there under that Calvinist rock.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if Wilson considers himself a racist. He explicitly locates non-white cultures as inferior. That is itself racist. The belief that others must be civilized, and taught to assimilate into Western cultural mores, is racist.  Racism isn’t just an irrational hatred for other ethnic groups. If it were, the degree of entrenched racism revealed year after year to still be present and relevant in the United States would reflect the size and influence of the white power movement. It would certainly not be so pervasive. But it is, and so racism’s definition has to be expanded. It’s more than hatred; it is an attitude of cultural superiority and the characterization of the American black as something Other. And by this standard, Douglas Wilson is a racist.

Wilson also believes that the Bible supports slavery, that Robert E. Lee was a “gracious Christian gentleman, a brother in Christ, and an honorable man.” My ancestors also owned slaves. To their peers, they were no doubt gracious Christian men and women. But they were not honorable, because it is not honorable to own another human being like chattel. Even our most celebrated patriarch seemed to acknowledge this in an indirect way when he referred to slavery as “a curse” upon the South. And if I can detach myself from my personal history to acknowledge this, what is Wilson’s excuse? What reason is there for his fetishization of a South that only ever existed for a privileged few?

The answer again is this cultural hierarchy. White slave owners existed at the top of this hierarchy because God commanded it and left evidence for its structure in the Bible. It is a source of authority and power to organizations like the League of the South, and to Wilson himself. It’s the reason why Wilson can characterize men as the “colonizers” of women and truly believe that this colonization benefits women. Wilson’s doing us a favor, the same sort of favor my ancestors did for their slaves. It’s the civilizing mission at work.

Thanks to the work of historians Alison Twells, Sue Zemka and Richard Price, whose research on missionaries and the colonial encounter spawned this blog post (and my dissertation). 

Douglas Wilson: Colonial Hero

Trigger warning for references to rape and abuse

Lately, it’s been easier for me to convince myself that I have found something resembling peace, or at least some sort of ambivalence, about my Evangelical background.This is because I’ve realized how utterly impossible it is to remove myself entirely from this past. It’s the ghost in my personal machine, the reason and rationale for decisions poor and positive alike. If it won’t be exorcised, then let me make my peace with it. And that works most of the time. Until I read something like this post from Jared Wilson of the Gospel Coalition, and I remember the rage and the pain and futility of wearing someone else’s identity; it’s exactly as pleasant as wearing someone’s skin. I remember what it is like to be undervalued and erased. But mainly, passages like this help me remember why I decided to get a master’s degree in postcolonial studies. 

In his post, Wilson quotes Douglas Wilson of Credenda Agenda Magazine (no relation). Wilson, who routinely expresses views on gender that are among the most extreme in American Christianity, wrote in his book Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man that:

“When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed….Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine.”

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to acknowledge and then move on from Wilson’s heteronormativity. The complementarian perspective on gender has to render queer sexuality invisible, or its entire premise collapses.  Similarly, female desire is also erased as it is intrinsically linked to female agency, and there is no room for female agency in the act described by Douglas Wilson and enthusiastically promoted by Jared Wilson. There is a clear hierarchy reflected in this version of human sexuality, and that’s exactly what makes Wilson the Elder’s reference to colonialism so interesting: he’s right. What he describes in this passage is a colonial encounter.

The colonial encounter cannot occur between equals.
It is brought to the subject by the coloniser; it does not arise from the subject herself, nor can she initiate it.
It follows natural law, and is therefore universal. 

The consequences of the colonial encounter form the basis on an entire academic subfield. It also happens to my subfield, and although I don’t feel like summarizing the content of everything I’ve read for my master’s degree, I would advise Douglas Wilson to take his own daughter’s advice and read some books. The same directive applies to Jared Wilson, who, judging by his comments on his own piece and his reactions to critical responses by Rachel Held Evans and Scot McKnight, legitimately fails to understand the implications of the rhetoric employed by his hero. So allow me to paraphrase Franz Fanon: exploitation is something that is done to other people. The act described by Douglas Wilson is most definitely a thing that is done to another person. It is not mutual; it is inherently exploitive. It assumes acceptance and presumes submission, it locates woman as the subaltern (see Gayatri Spivak). Soil does not rebel, after all. It is incapable of it. 

It is ironic to see such a perspective on sexuality hosted by a group that refers to itself as “The Gospel Coalition.” Permit this agnostic to recall the words of the Gospel’s original author: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” There is no humility visible in Douglas Wilson’s work, nor in Jared Wilson’s response to criticisms of it. And that too is a trait of the colonizer. One does not apologize for assuming authority over an inferior subject. 

For this reason, I echo Scot McKnight’s request for the Gospel Coalition to remove Jared Wilson’s post. I urge followers of the Gospel Coalition to withdraw their support for Jared Wilson until he shows evidence of giving a serious and empathetic response to the criticism he has received. This means listening to survivors whose traumatic memories have been triggered by his language and yes, reading some books. 

On that note, I’m going back to work on my dissertation.