I don’t think you can be a pro-life feminist and argue that women need to be condescended to and ‘informed of what they’re doing’ as though they don’t already know (cf. laws that institute mandatory waiting periods so they can "think it over," which puts an untenable burden on those who have to travel for abortion procedures and do not have the money to do so).
But, I understand the tension. It took me a very, very long time to admit that my political positions were pro-choice, and the journey toward that was separate from my journey into feminism, though they did intersect. I believe it is possible to be a feminist and pro-life, as long as that pro-life ethic does not come with rhetoric that shames, ignores, or vilifies women for the choices that they may make about a legal procedure. Don’t use your pro-life stance to treat women like morons. Don’t use it to shame women for their sexual choices, because, honestly, you don’t know what led to those choices. Instead, use your pro-life stance to attempt to make a difference in the lives of the women surrounding you by supporting them, by letting them know that you will be there for them if they do have an unwanted pregnancy (and then actually being there for them!), and by working to lower the occurrence of unwanted pregnancies in the first place – which means better sexual health education in schools, funding for birth control measures and education about using that birth control, promoting research into methods of safe male birth control, and creating an environment where the women in your life can come to you to discuss safe sexual choices.
I also have a personal connection to this topic in that I was almost aborted. My mother had a virus in the first trimester of the pregnancy that, at that time, was leaving children with massive birth defects. My parents already had a disabled child (my oldest brother has Down syndrome), and were given the option of terminating this pregnancy (their third). My parents say it was a tough decision, but they decided that if this third child was disabled, then she’d be disabled. Luckily, I came out just fine. For them, this cemented a pro-life position. For me, it has made me pro-choice, because I would never want people in that kind of situation to be without the option my parents had. It’s a hugely nuanced discussion, and you have to allow for the grey areas. (I got their permission to tell this story, by the by).
And, to clarify something that is surely going to surface in the comments: “pro-choice” does not mean “pro-abortion.” Being pro-choice does not mean that I think ever pregnancy should end in abortion, but rather that a woman should have control over her reproduction.
From Sophia: Do you feel the Catholic Church's lawsuit against the contraception portions of the Health Care Act constitutes an assault on women's rights? In general, when a Christian church uses the political arena to impose actions on women without corresponding actions on men, do you feel feminists need to respond as Christians, or as citizens?
In short, yes, it is a women’s rights issue. The Catholic Church endorses a very narrow view of birth control that 90% of women in American (and 89% of women who identify as Catholic, according to the latest Gallup poll) disagree with. And I believe that the ability to control one’s reproduction via birth control is something that a church institute should not have say over, especially if they are trying to do so for people who do not hold to their theology. I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, especially on this issue.
As for responding as a Christian or as a feminist, I personally don’t see a distinction between the categories. I’m a liberal leaning Christian feminist, so for me, the question of whether or not I respond as a Christian or a feminist is moot – I respond as a person whose passion for equality is informed by my Christian faith, and who believes that I do not possess the right to dictate the choices of others simply because I may believe something contrary to what they believe.
From Graeme Mark: Feminists have been good at pointing out male-leaning inequalities that run as deep in our consciousness as our language (one man, one vote etc.) Do you think there are any female-leaning inequalities where men are discriminated against? How do you react to these? Are you of the opinion that a man can describe himself as a feminist? If you were a man would you be one?
Oofta, that’s a lot. There are inequalities in which women are favored over men – custody battles, for example, still tend to favor mothers over fathers, and, in America, men are still required to register for the draft while women get to skate on by. Prison rape (which largely affects men) is at all time high in the US, but it is a sexual assault situation that is largely ignored and erased. But – and I’m going to use a scary word here! – all those inequalities can be traced back to patriarchal expectations of gender. Men don’t get children in custody cases because women are “naturally” better mothers. Men are required for the draft because men are “naturally” better soldiers. Prison rape isn’t considered an issue because “you can’t rape a man!” Etc, etc.
In this way, feminism benefits men, too, because it works to free them from those expectations that are foisted upon them due to their biological sex. Every man I’ve met who identifies as feminist is confident in breaking down gender barriers – they’re willing to cry and experience emotions, they’re sensitive to the issues of those around them, they are comfortable being stay at home dads, they’re okay with having partners who earn more than them – in short, because they are committed to equality, they are more comfortable being wholly themselves. I think a lot of men are afraid to identify as feminists because they think it’s a woman’s thing and that feminists are a scary bunch attempting to assert power over them, but, really, feminism is about the choice to be the you you feel called to be. In that way, feminism benefits both men and women.
If I was a man, I would hope I’d be a feminist, but I honestly don’t know because…I’m not a man, and cannot know what that experience would have been like or where my life would have led me.
From Preston: I already have a bit of the answer to this, but maybe you can flesh it out: how do you read the Bible and where do you look in constructing your narrative of equality? That is, I know you're not leaving things out, but do you tie inequality to a consequence of the Fall, or perhaps you read Paul as responding to cultural norms, or do you focus a lot on the exceptional role of women in the Old Testament and New? That is, you're using the whole of Scripture and you have passages that are "proofs," but you also have passages that are more about what it means to be made in the image of God and, also, a woman. What passages are those? How do you see that part of the story unfolding?
Yay, I’m glad this one got picked! Hi Preston!
For me, everything comes back to the vision of the Resurrection. When Jesus first appeared, he appeared to two women, during a time when female testimony was illegitimate, and he asked them to testify to his return. That’s huge – the biggest news in the universe, and two women, whose word was not considered trustworthy, were instructed to carry the news. That, to me, is the most important vision of equality that Christians can have – that is the affirmation that women are equals, that we are valued in the eyes of Christ, that we are necessary to the Gospel story. And that is the lens through which I interpret everything else, as that is the eschatological tale I believe God is weaving.
As a result, I read Paul as responding to cultural norms of the day. It’s also important to me that the gender roles so many complementarians cite appear after the Fall of mankind. I’ve written more about this issuehere, so I’m not going to bog down this already long explanation with more. Suffice it to say, I believe that everything must be viewed through Jesus’ actions on earth before and after his death and resurrection – and his actions value women and place them on equal footing with men.
From Ashleigh: From the pulpit, it seems we talk about the same topics relating to women (preaching, wife-ing, mothering, covering). From a feminist perspective, what are topics you would like to see addressed and how? (Knowing that there are many, many different types of churches and Feminisms) How can the church benefit from Feminism?
Oh, for the love of all that is good in the world, I would love it if preachers didn’t equate “woman” with “wife,” and would stop defining us in relationship to the men in our lives. I’m 26, I’ve never been married, and have only had one relationship. But the vast majority of sermons dealing on women, or women’s conferences focused on female spirituality, deal with women as wives and mothers. That leaves us single women out in the cold.
I’d like to see more social justice issues covered: we need to be having conversations about modern day slavery and sex trafficking. We need to be talking about how single mothers are disproportionately more likely to be below the poverty line. We need to be talking about how we can work to remove barriers to education for women around the world. And, for goodness’ sake, we need to have a conversation about female sexuality that doesn’t shame women for having a sex drive!
On that note, I know there was another question about the purity movement/premarital sex within the church, so I’d like to take a small tangent (if I may), and offer a couple of feminist recommendations for the conversation on premarital sex within the church.
We all know that our “don’t do it” conversations are failing. 80% of people who self-identify as evangelical have engaged in premarital sex. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy is highest in areas that have abstinence only education. I’ve had conversation after conversation after conversation with women who struggled with their sexuality even after getting married – even though the marital bed was sanctioned and holy and they were with a good man, many women I know struggled with wanting sex, struggled with not feeling dirty for wanting it, struggled with being able to have a healthy sexuality within marriage. Many Christian women I know are seeking counseling to remedy sexual dysfunction within their marriages – dysfunction that relates back to an oppressive culture that refuses to acknowledge female sexuality and which blames women for perversions of male sexuality.
We need to have a better conversation about this topic. We need to affirm that women are sexual beings with drives that match or are sometimes higher than men (and that these sex drives vary from person to person and some people may have no sex drive at all). We need to make people responsible for their own sexual decisions (that means not telling women that they need to dress modestly so men don’t “stumble”). We need to reconstitute the conversation on premarital sex so that we’re not setting up a false dichotomy – most of the conversations center around objecting to a “hook-up” culture of anonymous one night stand, which is, by and large, not the experience of those who have engaged in premarital sex. And we need to stop the double standard that says “boys will be boys” but “girls are sluts,” which is commonly propagated by the church. And we need to stop thinking that if a woman chooses to have sex before marriage that she has somehow completely and totally damaged her worth as a human being, while men get a free pass and a shrug.
In short, we need to have better, more expansive conversations about sexuality within the church that are not extending from shame-based patriarchal narratives about sex and instead seek to affirm healthy sexuality and healthy sexual drives in both men and women.
Well, that’s it for me, folks. Thanks for taking the time to read all of this and to ask me some very interesting and thoughtful questions! I appreciate the conversation, and look forward to continuing it in the comments.
You can check out the rest of our interview series, which includes an atheist, a pagan, a nun, a Mormon, a Mennonite, a Calvinist, anevolutionary creationist, a humanitarian, an environmentalist, a gay Christian, a Unitarian Universalist, an Orthodox Christian, a Pentecostal, many more here.