We Need Feminism, But We Need It To Be Better

I recently wrote a blog entitled “Why We Need Feminism” for Simply Sisterhood. I believe in everything I wrote there, and I no longer feel afraid of identifying myself as a feminist. I encourage you to go back and read that blog, also, as I see both sides of this as vital. But I also recognize that the feminism we now have is not perfect. While it has served us well in some ways, it has caused harm in others.

When I shared my original blog on feminism, I got some push-back from some women. I expected this, especially since my sphere is largely evangelical. I want to address some of the concerns that were brought forward, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time here. It seems that when evangelicals hear the word “feminism,” they translate it as “people who want to kill their babies.” Let me say that although I am an advocate for reproductive rights, I am very strongly pro-life (although I believe that the issue of abortion and the choices surrounding it are far more nuanced than we are often willing to acknowledge). No movement is about one issue. We often oversimplify the beliefs and causes of others so it is easier for us to dismiss them. Let’s not do that. Another criticism I received was that to say we need feminism is not Christian because all we really need is Jesus. Of course I believe that Christ is sufficient for all our needs and worth. I also believe that the institutional church has historically devalued women. So a new Christian feminism might be a way to point the church to Jesus and who He really is, and what His heart truly is for all people, including women and others who are often disenfranchised. Please don’t read “we need feminism” as “we don’t need Jesus.” We need to actually listen to Jesus, and I believe in doing that we will see the ways in which we need to support each other better. That’s what feminism is to me. The other thing people tend to think of when they hear the word feminism is that we hate men. No. Feminism is for men, too. It’s about everyone having the freedom to be fully human and to escape the toxic masculinity of a patriarchal culture.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that over with…

I still strongly believe that we need feminism. But we need to make it better. And it might not be in the ways you think. Author and women’s health practitioner Kimberly Ann Johnson points out that because American feminism grew out of the American culture, it held onto the ideals of individuality, self-reliance, and independence. So when women decided to claim their value and power, they decided to do it by taking on the burden of doing it all and doing it all by ourselves. She also points out that feminism as a whole has neglected mothers and motherhood in their conversation. I think there are some feminists who have purposely rejected and belittled mothers and believe that part of feminism is about being free from the “institution” of motherhood. This is one of the reasons many discount feminism. And it is certainly a problem. But it isn’t what it’s about for me or for many women who identify as feminists. But this neglect of mothers is real and something that needs to be fixed.

The American ideals of individuality, independence, and self-reliance are not biblical ideals. The Bible does not teach independence. It teaches community. It teaches dependence — dependence on Christ first, and dependence on each other as agents of His love. It does not teach self-reliance. It teaches bearing one another’s burdens. It teaches weeping with those who weep; rejoicing with those who rejoice. We so often confuse our culture’s values with Christ’s values. They are rarely the same. When we as feminists take on these values of independence and self-reliance, we are saying that we can and ought to do everything ourselves. And we are becoming depleted and exhausted.

Over the last few decades the rates of autoimmune diseases in women have risen steadily. This is very likely due to a number of factors, including nutrition, toxins in our environment, our compartmentalized healthcare system, etc. But it’s worth considering that our “have it all, do it all” mindset has contributed to this. We have believed that our ability to push through is a reflection of our worth. We have equated busyness with worthiness. We’ve decided that our value is in what we do, not in who we are. I think we have been so set on proving that we can do anything that we have tried to do everything, and all at the same time. And this is neither possible nor healthy, for women or men. Feminism has in some ways taken on the toxic masculine idea that what we do and how much we do is the measure of what we’re worth. This is not true of any human. And this is also not biblical. Yes, the Bible warns against laziness and selfishness. But it also acknowledges the need for Sabbath. Not occasionally, but weekly. It says that God gives sleep to His beloved. Jesus didn’t “work” the whole time He was ministering. He ate and drank and rested. He didn’t love and value the lepers and the blind and the adulterous woman and the tax collectors because of what they contributed to society. He loved and valued them because they were human beings. And real Christian feminism should be about affirming our full humanity and our full worth.

If our current feminism hasn’t completely forgotten mothers, it has certainly not given women the space and permission to take on motherhood in a truly feminine way. When I say feminine I don’t mean girly. I mean encompassing all that it means to be a woman, biologically, emotionally, and spiritually. In all our effort to claim our equality with men, we have begun to believe that we are the same. This might seem like an anti-feminist thing to say, but this is simply not true. Patriarchy seeks to use our biological differences to oppress and objectify us. So we’ve spent a lot of time trying to deny that these differences carry any weight in how we live our lives. This denial has not only blinded us to some of the unique richness of what it means to be female and taken away our ability to step into our unique power, but it has also worn us down. We have said we can be mothers and also have careers and one will not take from the other. I’m not saying that mothers can’t have other callings. I am a wife and mother, a doula, a dancer, a teacher, and a writer. But rarely am I able to fully show up in all of those roles in the same day, or even the same season. I am saying that no matter how supportive and helpful our spouses or families or communities are, we cannot get away from the fact that, biologically, we are the ones who are sustaining and nurturing our children the most, especially for the first two years. We’re the ones with the wombs and the breasts and the hormones designed to be most in tune with our babies’ needs. And yes I realize you can feed a baby without breasts, and you can have a child without having grown him in your uterus. But that doesn’t negate my point. Adoptive mothers and bottle feeding mothers also are under undue pressure, and also need the supportive permission to slow down. Kimberly Ann Johnson also points out that a new mother needs the same things from the people surrounding her that she is giving to her child — loving touch, nourishment, and affirming words. So often we forget to nurture the mothers in our communities this way. Probably because we are too busy and overwhelmed ourselves. So we need to acknowledge that there are times and seasons and that, yes, we can do anything, but we cannot do everything all the time.

If you have a career or job that you are not willing or able to step back from or put on hold, I see that as a valid and important choice. This is not about saying that one choice is better or worse than another. This is about saying that those of us who are able to need to rally around our sisters who are in transformative periods and help them. We need to bear their burdens and be a safe space for them to express their worry, exhaustion, overwhelm, etc. And we need to be able to give ourselves the grace when we’re in our own transformative seasons to let a few things go. Even if that just means we don’t see our vacuum cleaner for weeks at a time.

Our culture says to “push through” and “bounce back.” But the Bible says, “to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” In our industrialized world we are so separated from nature that we forget that we are part of nature. We are created beings, and just as the natural world has cycles — times of fruitfulness and plenty and production, and times of dormancy and sparseness and rest — we also are cyclical beings. Our electric lights and trucks that bring us strawberries in December make us forget that it wasn’t always this way. We didn’t always work late into the night and rise before the sun. We are trying to make every season one of harvest, when some should be seasons of planting and cultivating and watching and waiting. As women, we’ve been taught to deny our own obvious cyclical natures. We do our best to hide our menstruation and go on as if nothing were happening. When our bodies are telling us to slow down and think and wonder and pay attention. And so when we have our babies we see birth as merely a physical event that takes a day or so and then we move on, instead of taking the time to slow down and think and wonder and pay attention to who we are becoming.

Even within a movement that is truly seeking to affirm and uplift women, self-care can be seen as a radical act. Saying no to added responsibilities or even opportunities can be seen as selfish and weak. If we truly want to be radical; if we truly want to defy the patriarchal standards of our culture, let’s acknowledge our humanity and our dependence on each other and on God. Let’s admit when we are tired and overwhelmed and in need of help and encouragement. Let’s say no to things that don’t serve us or our families well. This doesn’t mean we don’t sacrifice and serve in our communities. But it does mean we let go of more things. Sometimes it means we let go of things we want to do for the sake of our mental or physical health. Sometimes it means we say, “Not now. Not in this season, but maybe later.” It means we realize that we just can’t hold everything by ourselves all the time without something, usually our own health and well-being, crashing to the ground.

We like to think of motherhood, and every big shift in our lives, as adding building blocks to the towers of our identities. We think we have the foundational building block of our personalities, then we add relationships, faith, education, marriage, career, motherhood. And we just become taller towers — taller versions of ourselves. But we aren’t building blocks. We are clay. And each new stage and experience and rite of passage shapes and molds us into something different. We become more complex, stronger, more beautiful. We are still ourselves, but we are transformed.

Since we aren’t given permission to slow down, and transform, and be vulnerable, is it any wonder that 1 in 7 mothers report suffering from some degree of postpartum depression? When we are being told that we should bounce back and get back to normal as soon as possible? When we are expected to be back at work before we are even done with postpartum bleeding? When women feel they have to “earn” their maternity leave by keeping an immaculate house instead of resting and enjoying their baby? When we are denied the chance and permission to truly embody the transformation in identity that has just taken place?

So a new feminism — a feminism that takes into account who we are as created beings, as unique people created in the image of God — ought to be one that admits that equality is not sameness. It ought to be one that acknowledges our need for community and support and help — that recognizes that what we do is not what we’re worth, and that independence is not a fruit of the Spirit. We need a feminism that recognizes the cyclical nature or our world and our bodies and our lives. And we need a feminism that encourages us to come together in support of our brothers and sisters and supports them in their slowing down, in their saying no, and in their transformation.