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October 17, 2005



I think big tent feminism, whether defined by dignity/respect or equal rights, is an important analytical first step toward understanding the importance of actual feminism. It logically follows that once we accept such premises, we have to start asking pointed questions about the inequalities that define women's lives and opportunities. More people are willing to embrace the natural inequality (Barbie says Math is Hard!) argument for women than they are for, say, African-Americans, unfortunately, but other than that excuse for not asking more questions (which most people can see is pretty silly when held up to the light of reason), the road to serious feminism almost necessarily must begin with big tent feminism.

I find this when I teach Mill's On the Subjection of Women which I'll be doing this week. Discussing it in the contemporary context, virtually all students embrace his progressive feminism. When I start talking about modern day applications, a number of students are quite startled by the implications of the theory they've embraced.

The Happy Feminist

I agree that feminism has to be defined in terms of "equality of rights and opportunities for women" rather than the mushier "dignity and respect" angle. A lot of very socially conservative Christians claim that DENYING women equality is the best way to preserve women's dignity and respect-- they assume that it is undignified for women to be out in the world jostling and getting jostled by men. I think it is crucial to identify this as clearly an ANTI-feminist view.

I also think it is crucial for non-feminist men and women to be accorded respect in classroom discussions and other fora (assuming of course that they act respectfully as well). A lot of people perceive feminism as a totalitarian movement that aims to force unwilling people to abandon a traditionalist lifestyle. Creating the impression that feminists are hostile or unwilling to discuss other points of view is a surefire way of alienating the public.


nice post, hugo. i blogged about something like this a few weeks ago in relation to that new book "Female Chauvinist Pigs" and the heated debates it generated. while i won't go into whether i agree or disagree with the book's premise, i do think that it's fairly clear that feminism's dominant language of "choice" instead of "rights" has contributed to a lot of the confusion about what "being a feminist" entails. when you advocate for "choice," well then eventually you have women choosing breast implants or a spot on Girls Gone Wild and labeling it feminist because, well, "it was my choice."

in my opinion, when we move away from the language of womens' rights, we move away from the foundations of all "feminisms."


And I'm also aware that for any number of reasons, it's easier to get away with teaching a women's history course from an avowedly feminist perspective than it is to teach a Western Civ course from a Christian one! Yet is there really a difference?

Yes, there is a difference between encouraging students to think that men and women are equal and trying to impose a specific religious belief system on them.


Well, sparklegirl, of course there's a difference between encouraging and imposing. But what if I reword your statement:

"Yes, there is a difference between imposing upon students the view that men and women are equal and trying to encourage a commitment to a specific religious belief system."

The problem lies not in the difference between faith and feminism but in the verbs.

I'm against imposing anything on my students, other than deadlines! I'm all for good teaching that advocates and encourages certain positions, as long as those who don't hold such positions are respected.


Ok, you got me on the verb choice--as an English major, I should have known better! :-) I've been reading your blog for a while and you seem like a pretty thoughtful guy who would not impose anything on anyone.

I guess what I was trying to say is that I think, ideally, everyone should hold the view that men and women are equal--just as they should hold the view that people of all races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations are equal. Regardless of what one's background, creed, or religion is, equality is an important part of creating a just society.

In contrast, I don't think one religion is right for everyone. Different people have different paths to spiritual truth, often influenced by their family upbringing and tradition, and I don't see a reason why one path should be more right than another. For example, I'm Jewish, but I wouldn't want the rest of the world to suddenly become Jewish. It happens to be right for me, but I know that other religions are right for other people, and I have no desire to try to convince others of the rightness of mine. I feel that people should be a part of whatever religion they identify with, as long as they aren't causing harm to anyone else (the definition of which is another discussion in itself, but I'll leave that alone for now), and leave their personal religious/spiritual beliefs out when discussing a subject such as history from a position of authority.

Therefore, I see it as a teacher's place to advocate equality for all--especially in a class about a movement for equality--whereas religious beliefs are something that should remain private except within the religious sphere (for example, your job as the Christian advisor on campus, where it is appropriate to promote your religion to the students who seek you out).


Sparklegirl, the problem is that the notion that all sexual orientations are equal is, of course, a matter of opinion. It's not a universally held position; indeed, it's a relatively recently held one. It's one I happen to share, of course. It's also deeply offensive to many religious folks.

How do I justify, in your opinion, advocating for equality for gays and lesbians (a controversial political position), but NOT sharing my Christian faith. What "privileges" beliefs about homosexuality over religious faith?


Side point...

"I assured her that "raising up young feminists" and their male pro-feminist allies) was very much part and parcel of my pedagogy."

Why is conversion to a set of beliefs part of the teaching (in college/uni) process? Of course it would be nice if they agreed with the teacher's view, isn't teaching at this level about giving students the tools to enable them to make up their own minds? How does the role of 'progressive evangelical' fit with 'raising up young feminists'? Seems slightly at odds with the idea of 'without imposing on them the necessity of becoming like us.' (TCPC Pont 4) doesn't it?

(You seem to have partly answered this in reply to sparklegirl)

Main issue...

What are you trying to achieve?

Some say, the church doesn’t appeal, so let's rebrand. They argue, if numbers in the church decline then why not give a free gift, pander to 21st century values?

Others may say, it's not the church its organized 'religion' that is the problem. If this is so, then of course, let us redefine the teachings, modernize the language, introduce new
'meaningful' ideas?

If taken to extreme then these ideas become somewhat like the Sacred Calf (Exodus 32).

On the other hand many disagree on interpretation (still haven't tracked down FF Bruce), have different understanding and talk past each other. Does this matter though?

As long as the disagreement is among persons of good conscience, with the hope of improving understanding by all then no. Once sacred calves are created then there is a problem.

Feminism may well have a parallel argument, as you suggest. A more fundamental question might be, where does feminism fit in with all this? Perhaps Galatians 3, esp 3:28 provides some provocative ideas.

' I'm just not sure that the fact that I change sides with seasonal regularity (but no dampening of conviction) is necessarily a virtue'

If it does not take to you to extremes, it probably is.

be well,



Hugo, you could justify it by saying that people of different sexual orientations should be treated equally, just as people of different religions should be treated equally. That way, you would be consistently promoting equality, which is different from promoting a particular spiritual or religious belief.

It's true that the idea of equality for gays and lesbians is offensive to many people today, but 50+ years ago, equality for African-Americans was just as offensive to many people. I am absolutely positive (and there are very few things I would say that about) that in another 50 years or so, our society will treat sexual orientation the same way it treats race. (Which is not to deny that there is, unfortunately, a great deal of racial prejudice even today, but I'm just referring to the progress in civil rights that has been made in the past few decades.) Religion isn't an excuse for intolerance. Many people's religious beliefs also tell them that women are inferior to men, but would you want them promoting those beliefs in a gender studies class?

But in any case, I wasn't saying that you should necessarily go out and tell all your students to be tolerant of gays and lesbians--I was just using it as another example of innate categories, such as race and gender, that people should treat as equal. If I had left out that particular example, would you still feel the same way about the gist of my comment?


I think there's a few important considerations here:

(1) How does your viewpoint tie into the subject matter? I think it's more expected that students in a women's studies class will have a particular interest in feminism (but see point (3) below) than a Western Civilization class will have a particular interest in Christianity.

(2) What kinds of opportunities do your students have to learn about the subject matter outside of your classroom? I'd be surprised if any of your students hadn't already had a large degree of exposure to Christianity, or didn't know where they could go to learn more. Feminist resources are markedly more scarce.

(3) What is the effect of your advocacy on those students who don't share the ideology? While students in any class tend to blame poor grades on ideological difference when they can, I think that there's a difference between feeling at odds with the class when you can leave and be in the majority once again, and feeling at odds with the class and also with society in general.

(4) Are students required to take women's studies or Western Civ courses to meet "core" requirements? I think professors need to be more careful about preaching when they have a "captive audience" of people who may not have chosen to be there because of a particular interest in the subject matter.


Jeff, all of our courses meet core requirements; Western Civ courses meet more than women's studies courses do. While it's true that students can learn about Christianity elsewhere, it's not true that the other sources are necessarily good substitutes for what they can get in the classroom.

Mind you, folks, I don't proselytize from the lectern. Sometimes, I don't even mention that I am a Christian. But while I consider it my job to be scrupulously objective when it comes to grading and evaluating student work, all good teaching "slants" one way or another. Slants don't just come in terms of rhetoric; our personal biases show up in the material we choose to use -- or not use. In the tightly confined time limits we have, every decision we make reflects either conscious or unconscious biases.

Mine happen to be the sort of biases that might be expected of a profeminist evangelical Christian. Bonus points if you can figure out what those look like!


Hugo, how can you say that you don't proselytize when you have explicitly stated your goal to be "raising up young feminists"? If other professors taught courses with the stated goal of producing more MRAs, would that go over well with you? Have you not crossed over the line between educating and indoctrinating, with such a goal?

Mr. Bad

stanton stated something that I also perceived, that being the fine line/slippery slope you're negotiating vis-a-vis objective teaching and proselytizing, and IMO legal issues re. separation of Church and State are germane here (I've alread discussed the logic comparing feminism to a secular religion here, so I won't repeat myself unless forced to). And even throwing out the secular/sacred argument, you still state (once again) that your goal is to indoctrinate students into a specific political philosophy. Can't you see how this clashes with the mission of the academy?

Once again, this is my major problem with women's studies departments and why I think that they should be dismantled. However, to your great credit, at least you have the honesty to admit your goals in the public arena, and for that I commend you.


Let me add that if honesty requires this goal be explicitly stated in the course description. Would you have a problem with this?

The Gonzman

Over the years of my coursework on my degrees I ran across many instructors where it became apparent sooner or later that they had a particular axe to grind. In some cases, I could dropadd and seek a different section. When I couldn't, I tended to get what I could from the material outside the propaganda, regurgitated the propaganda I thought they wanted to hear, Collected my B+, A-, A, even a couple A+'s - and moved on. If I felt lacking in the material, I often sought classes elsewhere to fill the gap.

I learned early that bucking the system against an entrenched bureaucracy and a tenured professor with a lot of political clout at the university was a losing battle, fortunately I had examples from other people to learn from. And it never amazed me, I must say, how parroting agreement always earned me points for being "thoughtful" and "reflective." Couple of times it pushed that B+ to an A-, and that A- to a full A.


Gonz, I'm sure you're right. I can also assure you that in my case, the more you (or any student) disagrees with me (civilly), the more I appreciate your candor. It really is possible to separate teaching from grading in that sense.

The Gonzman

The point is, though, by teaching with a bias, you gotta ask - how many students DON'T speak up, and just go along to get along, in order to avoid recieving a bad grade? Far, far too many teachers can't keep that Chinese wall between their politics and their subject matter solid; it's good odds to play the "Puke back what they wanna hear and shut your mind otherwise" strategy. And easier to do when they make those politics known. It also has the tendency to cement opposition that is present, whether you intend to be manipulative or not isn't the issue, most people will percieve it as manipulation, and resent, resist, and dig their feet in.

Unintended consequences, Doc S. It's always a risk when you work with an agenda.


Gonz, I've spent my entire adult life in higher ed. (Heck, as the son of two profs, I've spent ALL my life in higher ed.) There are two kinds of profs, and only two, I've ever met:

1. Those who acknowledge their own personal agenda
2. Those who deny (sometimes to themselves!) that they have one

There are no other options.


I've spent years and years with secular feminist organizations, and years and years around both liberal and conservative Christian churches. Both groups have the same debate over and over again: should we seek to expand our influence, and possibly compromise our commitments., or should we remain pure (or "radical"), and risk ever-diminishing relevance?

Hugo, the Mennonite church in general is going through this phase again. In the very little studying I've done of church and of Mennonite history (the 15yo studying it now is helping that deficit), I've seen that periodically every walk of faith goes through a time of weighing what tenents of the faith should be kept in focus and what, perhaps, shoudn't be there.

In this time of "knee-jerk patriotism," society has gotten to *some* Mennonite churches. There are some that are dropping "Mennonite" from their church name, going instead to "Community" or "Bible." More often than not, the reason is that the members of those particular churches are having problems with socially-ingrained patriotism and the Mennonite stance on pacifism.

The Mennonite church that we attend is different than a lot of the "traditional" Mennonite churches. We have a significant number of our congregation (including my family) who are not "ethnic Mennonites," as is true with most of the Mennonite congregations I know of in Texas. Those of us who are not "ethnic Mennonite" have come to the church *because of* the stance on pacifism, among other things.

For us, it has been a conscious rejection of things we have experienced, and are experiencing, in society in general. Many of those who are dropping "Mennonite" from their church names are "ethnic Mennonites" who didn't grow up outside the Mennonite culture. There is something in popular society that is drawing them out from that in which they were raised.

As someone who left my home community (at the age of 30!) to go out into the "big, wide world," I can understand that drawing out. But it saddens me that it is what I see as the worst parts of popular society that is drawing them out to experience something new.

Not sure where I was going with this now, so I'll stop.

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