Thinking Out Loud About Feminism

Kate M. Ott

Each of you is here because you have been formative in my understanding of feminism and commitment to feminist ideals. I want to honor your spirit, hear your voices again, check in, take stock, get clarity. As many of you know, I grew up Roman Catholic, have studied ethics, feminist and liberation theologies, and worked as an activist for sexuality education, LGBT inclusion, and reproductive rights. I’m a wife and a mother. You know me from the classroom, social service programs, or from my church communities.

What I’d like to hear from you tonight are your latest thoughts on our subject. Do you call yourself a feminist? What does that mean to you? How do you see yourself and your work related to feminism today?

“Well, I’m probably the oldest person at this table, so I’ll begin,” says B. “Yes, I proudly call my- self a feminist and have so for over forty years. The consciousness-raising groups that were important to me in the 1970s helped me see I wasn’t the only woman who felt like my college education wasn’t supposed to go to waste just because I got married. I knew I could do all the things men were doing and probably better. From that point on, I have dedicated myself to working for girls’ education so they could join whatever profession they wanted – wear pants, play sports, run a board meeting, start a business – you know what I mean – and to always make sure they are giving back to feminism’s best hopes by making it possible for other girls and women to do this too.”

Waiting politely, but clearly looking for the perfect break in conversation to speak, D responds, “I guess I see things a bit differently. I’m not that much younger than you are, and we have both been professionals in a man’s world, though I am in the academy, not a business office. My feminist and educational journeys coincided. I guess I started out wanting to have all the things men have. But I realized, rather painfully at times, that ‘equal’ doesn’t have to mean ‘the same.’ I have focused my efforts more on deconstructing gender in order to free women from the oppression they suffer. If we could just get to a place where gender didn’t mat- ter – and race too – then we could imagine a world where justice is possible. We would see each other as God intended – human beings, equally created in God’s image.”

“Why are we always defining ourselves in comparison to men, and which men are we talking about?” says T, setting down her fork. “Men don’t sit around wondering how they aren’t like women or don’t have women’s rights. And the men I know aren’t all that privileged. As a Womanist, I want feminism to mean more than just ‘being like a white man.’ My Womanist vision for feminists is one that helps all men and boys see how sexism hurts them too. It should commit us, in the face of poverty and racism, to do God’s work by standing against oppression in all its forms.”

With a sigh, L admits, “I have to say, Kate, I’m not sure why you invited me. You know I think feminism is pointless. It’s based on this narrow idea of what a woman is or wants. I just got married and I want to be a stay-at-home mom. I don’t want men to become something different. What’s wrong with gender roles if you freely choose them? In our house, my husband makes the money, mows the lawn, and fixes things. That’s what my husband wants to do, and I want to focus on the kids and the house. Somehow that makes me a failure in the eyes of ‘real’ feminists. But it’s not like anyone is forcing me into this choice. Wasn’t feminism supposed to give women more choices and free them to decide for themselves?” says L, reaching for the broken loaf of bread resting in a basket at the middle of the table.

“Ugh, I’m honestly tired of these conversations,” retorts M, setting her glass down. “Women who have racial, economic, and educational privilege still haven’t figured out that their brand of feminism isn’t relevant to most women in the world. Let’s be realistic. Women achieving access and equality with men means only predominately white, First World women getting more education and better jobs, while blacks, Asians, and Latinas are paid to do the household labor, low-paying service jobs, and childcare in the U.S. The global picture is even worse. Those of you who have spoken so far might say, ‘That’s not what I meant or intended.’ But look at the reality. Feminism can’t just be about getting more or erasing who we are as women. It has to be about some of us getting less and seeing our racial, geographic, economic, and political differences clearly.

She continues: “My expression of feminism reflects how my experience of race, culture, citizenship, and economic standing jars white, First World feminism out of a one-size-fits-all model. I am broadening and reclaiming the use of the term feminist, without modifiers, to describe my work. Even though, I get lumped into a term like ‘global south’ or a continental category of African feminist, as if all Africans are the same, or Asians or South Americans for that matter. We come from specific countries with regional and religious differences that are extremely important to shaping our understanding of feminism. I’m going to concentrate on acting for justice and that’s feminism to me.”

To which J nods and agrees, “Talk about one-size- fits-all. I guess I would say I’m a feminist, but I’d add queer – queer feminist. Seriously, we need to get rid of the categories of women and men altogether: gender is a performance, and sex has more than two categories. Plus, you can alter them, change them, if they don’t fit who you really are. It has been feminist and queer mentors during seminary and in my religious tradition who have taught me to define who I am on my own terms.” Taking a bite, chewing slowly, J concludes, “God made us, but we have to figure out what that means to us individually. For me to express who I know God made me to be, I have to change my appearance, and maybe even my body, to make others see what I feel. I don’t think most feminists have thought enough about what to do if ‘women’ and ‘women’s bodies’ aren’t the tie that binds the movement. I’m here to make sure we do ask that question and work together to find an answer.”

As the quietest one at the table thus far, not a usual situation for me, I guess it is my turn to speak. As you know, I proudly name myself a feminist. I have not always fit neatly into the images created by feminist theories or feminist advocates. Like some of you, as a U.S., white, educated, upper-class woman, I have received privileges from feminist struggles fought before me. As a Christian committed to Jesus’ call to social justice, I am constantly challenged by the failures of past and present feminist movements especially as they pertain to racism, colonialism, heterosexism, and poverty. Modifiers to the word feminism help remind us that we have different vantage points that lead to different experiences. I do believe that language and naming matter. If I say I am a white feminist, it reminds me that my experience of race affects how I experience injustice and inequality. It suggests I have a particular entry point out of which my advocacy for justice begins. 

How each of you regards feminism influences what feminism means to me. Your witness challenges me to keep asking questions about the future of feminist movements and theory. In my experience, feminism is a justice-seeking praxis – action and reflection, theory and movements, mutually informing each other. Feminism most often starts with the real-life experience of women, oppressed because an individual, group, or society views them as inferior and then seeks to enforce its ferocity by objectification, control, and domination. We know sexism can take relatively subtle forms, such as lower salaries for women than men. Or it erupts as domestic and sexual violence in our bedrooms, homes, and churches. Or it persists ruthlessly in a world of poverty, where a woman dies every minute in childbirth because of a lack of health services.

The church is no stranger to gendered and sexual oppression. One of my first moments of feminist awakening was in relation to my faith and church. As a young Roman Catholic school girl, I proudly told my grandmother that this was the year I got to be an altar girl. To which she replied: it’s a shame what’s become of the church. My joy was, to her, dreaded confirmation that the patriarchal sanctity of the church was slowly crumbling. I’m waiting for further decay. Theological truth, ethical analysis, and experiential evidence have yet to convince the Roman Catholic hierarchy that women can be priests as well as altar girls! This is only a minor incident in a long line of theologically justified sexism that keeps our churches from living into the fullness of God’s calling.

Feminism recognizes sexism as an entry point for understanding how oppression and injustice operate. But feminism must go beyond models of equality that value sameness between the sexes above all, especially when the sameness means aiming to be like white, First World, educated men. My hope for feminism, particularly in our churches and denominations, is not that we reach a point where gender, sex, race, religion, and culture no longer matter. They do matter. My hope is that we reach a point where who we are in our unique individual and collective identities matters so fervently that we seek justice because of our differences, not in spite of them or in order to move beyond them.

If feminist movements and theories are to make a lasting contribution to that conversation and vision, then feminism will need each of us around this table to be willing to share a meal, see each other, disagree, and stay a while.

I hope you will come to dinner next week. There are extra chairs. Please feel free to bring someone who is not here. 

Kate Ott ’00 M.A.R. is deputy director of the Religious Institute in Westport, CT, an organization that promotes a progressive religious vision of sexual morality, justice, and healing in congregational and public life. A lecturer at YDS and at Drew Theological Seminary, she is co-editor of Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference (Westminster John Knox, 2009). She is also author of Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice (2009, Religious Institute) and co-editor of the forthcoming Keeping the Light: Scholarship, Activism, and the Next Generation (2011, Palgrave).