On equality and power: a post about a post

Thursday, 28 August 2014

This is a post about a post. It is unfortunate; as combative blogging is somewhat looked down upon by much of the Christian blogosphere these days. But if this post makes people disappointed, or saddened, so be it, because there are things that need to be said.

Alastair Roberts has been writing a lot about gender, power and equality recently. I respect Alastair and what he brings to the table, even though I don't agree with many of his conclusions on these particular subjects. He's absolutely right to point out that a narrow definition of feminism based on a shallow sort of 'equality' that favours the privileged - 'equality', for example, that cares a great deal about getting more women in boardrooms but little for women on the breadline. But in saying that "there is an implicit class opposition within equality feminism that is seldom adequately addressed", he is wrong. While it may be seldom addressed by the mainstream media, the examination of liberal feminism and what it offers (or doesn't offer) to the majority of women is a key topic of discussion within the movement and has been for years.

Movement women are very aware of the fact that the idea of "equality" has not so much advanced the lives of all women so much as the lives of a privileged few. At Greenbelt festival last weekend I spoke on feminist activism and made a point of talking about this very problem, highlighting it not as a reason for feminists to be discouraged and dismiss the idea that the movement could have something to offer all women, but as a reason to work for greater inclusion, giving space to the voices of the marginalised.

Yesterday, some of Alastair's comments on equality and power were reposted by Andrew Wilson at the Think Theology blog. The debate that ensued encouraged me to write this, because of how incredibly disappointing I found it that Alastair's words were posted with very little context in what looks very much like complementarian point-scoring to me. What can be taken from the post is a description of the feminist movement as focused on equality of outcome above all with value on the most the privileged, when society could do with more focus on, as described:

"...robust and accessible universal healthcare, better maternity leave and more provision and flexibility for part time workers, equitable wages, secure jobs for their husbands and partners, a strengthening of marriage culture, the deepening and enriching of local community life and its groups and institutions, a society that is more mother and child friendly, action and stigma against domestic abuse and such things as street harassment..."

I don't think that anyone could argue that society could benefit from increased focus on achieving these goals, which is why feminists have been working towards them for decades. And if these things could be more successfully achieved without the banner of feminism to hold them back, I'd be interested to know where the pushback, where the actual work on these issues is coming from outside the movement at present? Is the example being set by the complementarian gatekeepers? Walk the walk on gender issues if you believe it's important; without succumbing to benevolent sexism; without denying women the place to speak from their own experience.

I realise that might be difficult, if you're generally in agreement with statements such as:

"...the entrance of women into new spheres has often led to a weakening of the social power of those spheres, as women are often more vulnerable and easily exploited..." 


"In Scripture, this priestly role is often associated not merely with men, but with ‘alpha’ men. The Church is strengthened as a body when it is led by persons with steel backbones, principles, and nerves, persons that can withstand others in more confrontational situations." 

It helps no-one when men's reactions to the absolutely justified pushback against such statements is described as "emotive", "all the shouting", and "brouhaha". Egalitarian and feminist women and their allies as pawns while the gatekeepers believe they're above such displays of emotion and subjectivity. As I mentioned to someone on Twitter earlier today, I do not wish for the experiences of individuals to be paramount at all times and at all costs, but yesterday's post was a prime example of when the experiences and intepretations of individual women are important - women for whom this is not theoretical; women for whom this is their life, their calling, their gifting. While complementarian gatekeepers discuss their theories about what we're good for and what we're allowed to do in closed circles and echo chambers, women are representing more than half of the church, leading, pioneering, keeping on keeping on. And they're doing it regardless of whether these gatekeepers believe a church with women in leadership is an "increasingly impotent institution".

They're also well aware that the majority of Christian women don't aspire to be bishops. When I helped found the Christian Feminist Network, we agreed that one of our aims would be to take the conversation on Christianity and feminism beyond women in church leadership and women bishops, not because we believe it's not important but because we believe Christian feminism is for the mothers, the grandmothers, the CEOs and the entrepreneurs, the women on the breadline and the women who have been abused and the women who don't want to lead from the front but support from alongside. If people like Andrew Wilson were more willing to dialogue with us then they'd know that. But I'm not sure that the activities of grassroots women's groups figure much inside the echo chamber.

Yesterday's post, with its out-of-context remarks on caring more about the marginalised, "alpha male" leadership and the reasons why women are supposedly unsuited for certain roles was published at an inappropriate time, with the scandal of child abuse in Rotherham making headlines. The scandal of child abuse - an appalling misuse of power carried out on vulnerable young people and ignored by powerful men. An inappropriate time, too, as the saga of noted alpha male Mark Driscoll continues and the sagas of abuse of power by patriarchal church leaders - Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, pastors involved with Sovereign Grace Ministries - continue to make headlines in the USA. Those who want to uphold the dignity and equality of women without the banner of feminism would do well to walk the walk regarding these incidents. And yet, so often, what we see instead are calls for "grace", or indeed, complete silence, as the echo chamber of privileged and powerful men with little personal interest in those they so enjoy theorising about  - remains immutable.

Talk to us. Listen to us. It's a year now since I made the decision to stop justifying myself to anyone in the name of egalitarianism and feminism, so if that's what you want, look elsewhere. But don't attempt to portray a political movement as irredeemably blinkered to suit your own ends, then act surprised when people aren't happy.

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Vicky Walker said...

It was interesting to note in a twitter exchange between you and Alistair recently on the topic of how women were often excluded from conversation by men's socially- approved dominant style - willingness in interrupt / speak over, etc - his reference to women's communication style being oppressive and not allowing men space! I'm sure I'm paraphrasing slightly, but according to him women being emotional (ahem), supportive and unchallenging was cloying and difficult for him as he wanted robust challenge and only a focus on facts and theories. It feels like an impossible situation to debate when being female means being automatically seen as a set of negative characteristics, and to behave differently to those characteristics is seen as a betrayal of the true self or true womanhood. As I've said before, I can't imagine the world Alistair and co want to see come into existence. It seems to be based on no such society ever in the history of the world, and one only possible if men get to decide everything and women play along.

Al said...

Thanks for the charitable interaction, Hannah.

Some points and clarifications:

1. The context of the original discussion (from about a month ago!) has been missed by many, yet is important to understanding where I am coming from here. I wrote the following in my response to Steve Holmes' comments:

It actually started with a Twitter discussion with the author, within which the ‘equality’ framing was more central: that is why I focused on the term. The following statement in Hannah’s first response to me makes clearer the sort of position that I was engaging with: ‘I (and many other feminists) wish to argue that [feminism] is not a position meaning anything beyond ‘equality’ for men and women.’ It is within Hannah’s argument—that complementarians can be feminists—that a nominal affirmation of ‘equality’ starts to become central for our definition of feminism.

As you recognize, I am well aware that feminism isn’t all about ‘equality’. In my discussion with Hannah on Twitter, we actually had a very lengthy exchange about the definition of feminism. I argued that saying that complementarians could be feminists, on the basis of their concern for women’s well-being and a vague affirmation of ‘equality’, risked emptying the term ‘feminist’ of meaning. Feminism, I maintained, is a movement with a particular set of histories, forms, thinkers, activists, movements, waves, and schools and identifying as a feminist should involve some sort of alignment with and situation within those, rather than just a bare formal affirmation that could be spun in a host of different ways (@God_loves_women was part of the conversation too and we were both arguing this same position against Hannah from our rather different starting points).

2. The definition of feminism in terms of 'equality' was Hannah Malcolm's stipulated definition. You debate with the person in front of you. My point was to demonstrate the problematic vagueness of the term that makes it a convenient vehicle for smuggling assumptions into the debate, to show that, by many definitions (e.g. equality of outcome and equality of opportunity), it breaks down, and that, affirmed in a purely nominal sense, it says hardly anything at all. I quoted at least one feminist against the equality line in the course of making this argument, so I clearly wasn't just granting her definition.

3. One of the points that I made was that most women in the UK (over two thirds) don't identify themselves as feminists. However, the significant majority of non-feminist women shouldn't just be presumed to be social and political quietists or disinterested in securing the well-being of women in society. Nor should the men who don't identify with feminism. The fact that they may pursue these things without a broader ideological and theoretical package doesn't mean that they don't care about them. One can take strong issue with feminism's various ideological packages while having strong common cause with many of its particular concerns.

4. Given the choice between ideological preconceptions of the shape that justice should take and particular and prudential actions that seek justice in a less absolute, yet attentive and contextually responsive situational manner, I support the latter approach. However, feminism is often characterized by the former. My point was not to deny that feminists seeks universal healthcare, flexible jobs, etc.—I apologize if I didn't make this clear enough—but to point out that women are probably better off if these ends are pursued in detachment from an absolute ideological crusade for equality.

Al said...


5. In talking about the class opposition, I didn't claim that it wasn't extensively discussed, but that it wasn't 'adequately addressed', in the sense of providing a satisfactory response to the issue.

6. I don't identify with the complementarian movement in its current form (Piper, Grudem, etc.). I've written and spoken critically about Driscoll and his macho style of leadership. This is definitely not what I am advocating. People have presumed this without asking questions.

7. I don't believe that I brought emotion and subjectivity into this at all. Most of the shouting and brouhaha that I encountered came from men. In referring to the brouhaha, all I was doing was referencing the obvious fact that the remarks had caused considerable outrage. I wasn't making an evaluative judgment upon them.

8. One of my points is that any form of feminism needs to reckon with the reality that there are ineliminable differences between men and women on various levels—in the dynamics of homosocial groups, as typical individuals, and as sexed beings (and, to make things very clear: my point has never been that women are less than men, just that we are irreducibly and inescapably different and that these differences have farther reaching implications than most recognize or grant). Power isn't something that is naturally occurring that only needs to be divided out. Rather, power is generated, preserved, and extended through certain modes of agency and group dynamics. When we understand the mechanisms of power generation in general, we should see that power and power structures will always be predominately established and exercised by men. This claim is not about the way that things ought to be, but about the way that things inescapable are. The point of this claim is not to deny the importance of pushing for the empowerment of women, but to understand the logic and means by which this end should best be achieved. One of the important distinctions that needs to be understood in my points is that between power and empowerment.

9. I firmly believe that we need to give women a greater voice and place in the life of the Church. I have criticized the complementarian position on precisely this point on many occasions. I believe that this is a non-negotiable duty that we have as Christians. However—and this is key—the office of the priesthood has a unique character that excludes women from it. Because we have generally forgotten and neglected this unique character and developed a clergy-focused Church, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood (and consecration to episcopal office) has come to stand for the dilemma of either affirming or silencing the voices of women in the Church. And this is where much of the problem lies, because, in reality, the priesthood has a fairly particular character and responsibility and, paradoxically, part of the means by which we must move towards securing the influence and valuing of women within the life of the Church is by establishing a male-only priesthood.

10. I've written a follow-up post here, which highlights some of the things that I believe are at stake in these discussions. I'm going to have to make this my only response—I really didn't have time for this whole controversy, but once it blew up, it was unfair to leave Andrew in the lurch or leave questions unanswered.

Thanks again for the interaction, Hannah. I know that we will probably never see eye to eye on this, but I appreciate the thoughtful push-back and the generous tone. Blessings.

Unknown said...

I'm a woman, I'm a priest - Jesus made us *all* priests. I'm totally bemused by this debate. Jesus is sat here with me. He affirms I'm particularly called to be a priest. You may as wrll be saying Im not human because im a woman! He made women judges, teachers, the first evangelists... Women went to the tomb whilst the men hid. Where are men evangelising men today? Where are the men in church *at all*? Jesus LOVES the women serving & sacrificing their lives in His church ... I really think maybe if men stopped debating what women should be doing and suppirting and recognising them we'd all be a lot better off. Please don't exclude half the body of Christ from blessing God and blessing others !
.. Every blessing! Lizzy

Pam Smith said...

Amen, Lizzy.

Hannah Mudge said...

"It feels like an impossible situation to debate when being female means being automatically seen as a set of negative characteristics, and to behave differently to those characteristics is seen as a betrayal of the true self or true womanhood."

Absolutely, Vicky!

Alastair, I feel there is a similar 'impossible situation' for women to contend with re: your comments on 'male egalitarians rushing to the defence of women'. While you may see it that way, I'm fairly confident that egalitarian/feminist women and their allies don't. I believe that the men I know who participate in such debates on the egalitarian side of things do so because of their strong conviction and also because they have seen the fruit of women in ministry in their lives. I very much doubt that they see themselves as my 'protectors'. If I'm not engaging in such debates, it is, genuinely, because I can't be bothered (no offence; you'll notice I AM engaging with you here!). Last year I made the decision to stop engaging in such debates with people who will never agree with me. They're futile and a waste of my time.

But here's the thing: in these debates, women are routinely ignored. I've seen it happen - men and women posting comments in response to a piece on gender and the church. The complementarian men will respond to the comments from other men. The women's comments are largely ignored. Women's writings on gender issues are often ignored in the Christian blogosphere. But when a man writes an egalitarian post that goes big, he's hailed as a hero. Not going to lie, that's kind of tedious. But it's interesting that it often takes a man's voice to speak up for people to start listening re: egalitarianism/feminism, yet for you, when men do this, it's a sign of them seeing themselves as our protectors and something that's bad. As far as I'm concerned, egalitarianism should include mutuality. We stand alongside each other.

All other points taken. As you can imagine, I really do agree on the pitfalls of seeing the ordination of women as the key issue concerning women's 'silencing' in the church, but not for the same reasons as you!

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