Ask a feminist...(response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Our interview series continues today with Dianna Anderson and “Ask a feminist...”  Dianna is the creative mind behind the Be The Change blog. Originally from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she has a BA in theology/philosophy from the University of Sioux Falls and a Master's in English Literature from Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. After bouncing around to Japan and back to Sioux Falls, Dianna now calls Chicago her home. She works for the Christian Reformed Church of North America in the media ministry branch, though she is not Reformed herself. Her day job is as a line producer for a radio program aimed at ESL listeners around the world. She blogs about feminism and theologyhere, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

Feminism can be a tricky topic, and you asked some tough questions, but Dianna has navigated her responses with insight and grace. (I can’t say that I’m surprised!) Please remember that the goal of our interview series is to listen and learn from others, not to argue, so keep the comments civil. 


Note from Dianna: I want to just put a general note of thanks here. I know Feminism is a really touchy topic, so I’m glad to see such an even-keeled discussion. That said, I do want to acknowledge that man and woman are categories that don’t necessarily correspond to biological sex. When I discuss “women” in, say, the abortion question, I also wish to include people with uteruses who do not identify as women. I’m aware that’s a point that many, many readers will not agree with, but Feminism is nothing if it is not intersectional.

From Trinity: I have many Christian female friends who either don't believe they are feminists, don't believe they should be feminists, and/or are afraid to describe themselves as such. How would you respond to them? In other words, how would you define the term "feminist," and what kind of value do you think this term might hold?

When I was a TA at Baylor, one of the papers the students had to write was defining an abstract term. As an exercise, I wrote the word “feminist” on the board and asked them to throw out the first few words that popped into their head when they thought of when they heard “feminist.” The first four responses were “angry, lesbian, bra-burning, outdated.” And this was a group composed of mostly 18-year-old women. So, there are a lot of stereotypes to fight when one decides to claim the name of “feminist,” and I understand the hesitancy to claim such a title, especially if you don’t share typical ideologies that many feminists share.

What I tell people, though, is that feminism is a big umbrella – there are pro-life feminists, there are feminists who are anti-porn, there are feminists who disagree with each other on any number of policy issues, but there’s one common thread: feminists believe that women are human beings and deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as men do. That, to me, is the only qualification it takes for someone to be a feminist. Now, if you’re going to be an activist feminist, there are a couple of extra things you probably need to support (like access to birth control and anti-poverty measures). But, pretty much no matter what you believe in terms of policy issues, you can find a cadre of feminists in your camp who claim the feminist label.

As far as the value the term holds, I think it’s valuable because of its historic significance. When I claim that label, I’m connecting not only with a number of active feminists who are working today to help women, but with an ongoing history of feminists who got women the vote, who made birth control happen, who got women into positions of power in the government, who worked to rectify racial inequality and fight against things like mandatory sterilization of welfare recipients. It, to me, is similar to claiming the name of Christ – no matter what it means to you as an individual, by claiming that name, you are connecting yourself to a massive, rich history of people who all have the name of Christ in common. That, alone, is valuable.

From Sarah: Since any strong willed woman tends to get the title "feminist," how do you find yourself embracing this label and its connotations in your faith and daily living? How do you explain your nuanced version of feminism, and who influenced it? Theorists, writers, etc.

I first started claiming the label my first year in graduate school (3/4 years ago) when I had to write a paper on Queer Theory and studied Adrienne Rich, who was a queer feminist poet in the late 80s/early 90s. In that class, we had to do a conference presentation on our assigned theories, analyzing a book or a piece of popular culture through the lens of the theory. I chose to discuss the queering of gender in Mulan, and it was in writing that paper that I realized the “feminist” label wasn’t really all that scary and I could start calling myself one. So my journey to calling myself a feminist and standing up for women is sort of roundabout – all of the reading of feminist theory came afterward, and I started in a kind of funky place (Adrienne Rich isn’t necessarily the best introduction). But, looking back, I was having feminist conversations long before I identified as feminist.

And I think that kind of answers your first question? For me, I didn’t identify as feminist until well into my 20s, but I acted like one long before then. My mom is a very strong-willed person and both of my parents worked outside the home. Growing up, I heard, “You’re smart, you can do anything,” more than I heard, “You’re a pretty girl,” so I was raised with feminist ideals, even though my conservative, Rush-Limbaugh-listening parents didn’t necessarily label themselves that way. It took me a long time to reconcile what I was – a strong-willed woman who wasn’t going to take crap from people who judge me because of my sex – with the label of “feminist.”

But if you’re looking for recommendations of where to start with reading, I wouldn’t recommend starting where I did. I would actually go back to the 19th century and read a bunch of the first wave feminists, especially those emerging from the Methodist church. Angelina and Sarah Grimke, issues of The Advocate of Moral Reform from the Moral Reform Societies in Boston and New York City, Sojourner Truth (her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech is amazing), and later suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, Ida Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc. And as a lit person, I have to recommend Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood. And in understanding modern day feminism, it’s important to read Jessica Valenti (her book, Full Frontal Feminism and the follow up, The Purity Myth, have been instrumental for me), Audre Lorde, and bell hooks. Lots of feminist websites have good lists of recommended writers – for example, this is an important list of Feminist Writers of Color, who discuss the intersecting issues of race, class, and womanhood in their feminist work.

From James: Thank you for doing this, Dianna.  My question is this: Do you believe that men and women are different on more than the biological level?  The reason I ask this is that I've read or heard different things by feminists.  Some seem to believe that there really is no difference.  Others, however, promote what they consider to be the feminine way of doing things-cooperation rather than competition and hierarchy, for example. 

Hi James! I’m glad to be helping Rachel out with this.

This is a tough question. On the one hand, it’s really hard for me to proclaim that there is a noticeable difference between the sexes that affects behavior. Almost any of those sorts of proclamations – that women are more nurturing, that men are naturally more confident, etc – is useless when it comes to an individual man or woman. The problem that I have when it comes to discussing the difference between the sexes is the prescription that tends to arise from that. Rather than a mere observation that feminine things are this and masculine things are that, people often leap from the description to the prescription – because you are “feminine,” you must be x, y, and z. And I think when people hear feminists rejecting the prescriptive part of gender divides, they hear that we’re rejecting a gender divide altogether.

I don’t necessarily reject gender differences, but I don’t see the differences as inherently tied to gender, if that makes sense. I think a lot of it is social conditioning. Men tend to be more aggressive on the whole because their aggression is rewarded as confidence by society. Women tend to be less inclined to speak up and argue because, when they do, they’re considered shrill or bitchy. So, in that case, the question is about how much of the gender difference is nature versus nurture, and I tend to fall on the side of nurture. There are, notably, famous feminists who think differently – Virginia Woolf, for example, was adamant that there was a “feminine” style of writing – but I don’t necessarily agree.

The only real consensus I see on this issue within the feminist community is that no matter what differences you see between the sexes, you absolutely should not tell an individual woman or man that they are failing to be a woman or a man based on these perceived differences. That is where the harm comes in – when we take a definitional difference (“men are, by and large, more likely to be physically stronger than women”) and make it prescriptive (“hey girl, let me carry that box for you because you’re a woman.”).

(Just a note: there’s a persistent myth that feminism is about turning women into men, and that, absolutely, is false.)

From Jared: Are there any common mistakes you've observed from men who want to be supportive of feminism? Or, put another way: What should men-supporting-feminism look like, and what should it not look like?

'Suffrage Hay wagon (LOC)' photo (c) 1910, The Library of Congress - license:

The biggest mistake is not recognizing one’s privilege in being a man. And I know “privilege” is a scary word because one’s individual experience as a man may differ from what the word “privilege” implies – your mileage may vary, so to speak. Blogger John Scalzi had a great explication of what this term means a couple of weeks ago – it’s worth a read, especially if you’re a gamer.

The basic concept is that “white, straight, male” in America is the lowest difficulty setting for playing the game of life. It means that you start off with more advantages than, say, a black female, and life is calibrated to be easier for you.

The example I use most often to highlight privilege is a simple exercise. Say it’s 11PM and you have to go through a parking garage to get to your car. What precautions do you take? Quite typically (and this does vary), the male response is “nothing.” Women have a laundry list of things that we do to protect ourselves – we find a security guard to escort us, we carry mace, we cinch our keys between our fingers to make any punch hurt more, we take routes that have more lights, we have our cell phones out with 911 typed in and our finger on the “send” key, etc. That’s your privilege, men – you can walk around safely in a situation where a woman wouldn’t dare. You can travel pretty much anywhere in the world without worry; you can walk into a job interview and expect to be taken on your merits, not as a representative of your gender. You don’t have to worry, necessarily, about being sexually assaulted by people who are in authority over you. You don’t have to cover your drink when you go out at night. And so on and so on.

Privilege, in of itself, is not a bad thing. A lot of people seem to respond to the implication of “you have privilege” like a cat that just discovered something it really doesn’t like. But, at its heart, recognizing privilege is simply recognizing that your life experience is NOT universal. Women – especially women of color and women who are not heterosexual – have an extremely different experience of the world than you, and recognizing that difference is the first step in becoming a good ally for feminism.

The second, and almost equally important, is to know when to step back from the fight. In social justice, there’s this absurd meme (that I’ve been guilty of myself) is that we are the “voice for the voiceless,” but that’s not right. The oppressed are not voiceless – they’re just not being listened to. So, rather than talking over women and presuming to know how to speak for and understand a woman’s issue, it is extremely important to listen. Let us speak for ourselves; don’t try to hog the spotlight. For men who are used to being listened to, it can be really hard to switch roles and start listening, but it is one of the things that allies need to understand. For example, as a straight ally for my LGBT friends, I’m careful to check with them when I write about LGBT issues, to see they feel I’ve crossed a line or said something off base. It is important in advocacy not to erase those for whom you are advocating – this is as important in feminism as it is in racial injustice, LGBT issues, and other things that, more often than not, intersect with feminist issues.

From Heretic Husband: I'm interested in your thoughts on how women are portrayed on TV and in movies.  Who do you think is the best example of a well written strong female character in TV and movies you've seen in the last few years?   Are there any attempts at such characters that you feel didn't work well? Also, what did you think of the re-imagined Irene Adler from Sherlock?

YAY! I’m so glad this one got chosen. Feminist media criticism was really how I got involved with labeling myself a feminist and with the feminist movement in general.

There’s a great quote from Joss Whedon wherein an interviewer asks him, “Why do you feel the need to write such strong female characters?” and Whedon responds, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

It is extremely important for young women to have positive portrayals of themselves because entertainment shapes our thinking, no matter how much we deny it. This was confirmed for me last year when I had a conversation about Disney princesses with a friend who is a woman of color – growing up, all the Disney princesses were white, so she never felt like she could be like those ladies, because none of them looked like her. That’s why it’s a big deal that we have a black man as President. That’s why it’s important for casts in movies to feature more realistic women (and people of color, as well as LGBT folks!). When people see themselves represented in media in a realistic manner, it affirms their own identities. And that’s ultimately a good thing.

As far as examples of strong women in media, I can only cite the ones that I’ve appreciated – Buffy and Willow from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Zoe, Inara, and Kaylee from Firefly, and Joan and Peggy from Mad Men (I love Peggy so much), Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (the books, as I haven’t seen the movie). All of these women are strong, are in control of their own sexuality and lives, and do a lot to speak truth to power.

As far as characters that don’t work well, there are TONS of examples of that. It seems that a lot of the entertainment industry thinks “strong woman” means “beats people up and kicks ass,” but that’s not always the case. You’ll see a lot of action movies where they’ll have a supposedly awesome female lead, but it’s still a lead who is broken, has “daddy issues,” or is crippled in some form. For example, the character of Deb on Dexter irks me to no end because the writers seem hellbent on crippling her with the inability to relate to others in a human way, and giving her constant romantic complexes, which unnecessarily complicate what could have been a strong, realistic character (I mean, her healthiest relationship to date was with a man who reminded her of her father…how messed up is that?).

And you actually highlighted one of the most recent disappointments on the “strong female” front – the recent portrayal of Irene Adler in Sherlock is a prime example of a faux-strong female character, whom, in the end (sorry for the spoilers!), has to be rescued by the male hero. In the books, she’s the only one who can beat Sherlock, and that’s what makes her attractive, but in Moffat’s version (which, for the record, is the best Sherlock I’ve ever seen), she nearly bests him, but then gets turned into the damsel in distress unnecessarily, weakening her character.

Once you start noticing these types of portrayals of women, it will forever change how you watch TV. I’ve had to give up on a few television shows simply because the portrayal of women simply did not work and irked me to the point that I had to stop watching. But this sort of intense criticism and examination is useful, because it can help get more realistic portrayals of women into the media we consume.

Several readers asked if you could comment on why the feminist movement is so heavily intertwined with the pro-choice movement. Can you be a feminist without being pro-choice? 

I knew this question was going to come up when I agreed to do this, so I’ve been thinking about this answer for quite a while. For me, the answer is a hesitant and qualified yes. I believe that feminists who identify as pro-life need to be careful to qualify how they discuss the abortion issue and the reasoning behind the stance

I don’t think you can be a pro-life feminist, and argue that abortion needs to be illegal because “those sluts need to learn to keep their legs closed.” (2/3rds of the women who get abortions are in monogamous, long term relationships, and 1/3rd of them are already mothers).

I don’t think you can be a pro-life feminist and argue against access to birth control.

I don’t think you can be a pro-life feminist and yet acknowledge exceptions for rape and incest (if every life is valuable, are those that are the products of rape and incest somehow less valuable?).

'Abortion.MFL32.WDC.24jan05' photo (c) 2006, Elvert Barnes - license:

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.

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