I'm exhausted this morning. As most folks around Southern California can tell you, we had a heck of a thunderstorm early this morning. The thunder, lightning, and hail woke me up at 12:45AM; I didn't fall back asleep until after 4:00. Other parts of the USA get more frequent thunderstorms, but while ours come rarely, they frequently last for three or four hours straight, which is more than a little frustrating when one is trying to sleep.
Still, even sleepy, I'll muddle on. I'm on campus all day today (I have four classes to teach, including one that starts at 6:00PM), and shall keep myself well-caffeinated.
I'm quite happy with the thoughtful discussion beneath last Thursday's post on why some young women shy away from the label "feminist." I've been thinking about the various ways I've tried, over the years, to "win" both young men and women over to the feminist cause.
At times, I confess I've used the ultimately unsatisfactory strategy of broadening the definition of the feminism to the point of near-meaninglessness. It's relatively simple, and temporarily satisfying, to say that feminism is simply the belief that women are entitled to dignity and respect in both their public and private affairs. With that definition, virtually everyone can come into the feminist camp, regardless of their views on women's political, social, economic, and sexual equality! On more than one occasion in the past, I used the language of "respect and dignity" rather than "rights and equality" in order to bring my most socially conservative students in under the banner of feminism. I've come to believe that a "big tent definition" inevitably "dumbs down" feminism, but it has the pleasant result of enabling the prof to say that he has an entire classroom full of feminists!
I often think of my role as a pro-feminist professor as analogous to my role as a progressive evangelical. In both my political and religious commitments, I do sometimes feel an urge, even a duty, to proselytize. I'm careful, of course, not to do so obviously from the front of a classroom. 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?
When I was first teaching my women's history course at PCC, now over a decade ago (Jeepers, time flies), one of my senior colleagues expressed some concern about a man teaching a class she had helped develop years earlier. "Hugo", she told me, "when you teach women's history, remember that you aren't just teaching a course -- you're raising up young feminists. That's the vital part of the job." I assured her that that "raising up young feminists" (and their male pro-feminist allies) was very much part and parcel of my pedagogy. In what I hoped would be an intellectually and emotionally appealing narrative, I did my best to construct a history of American society that would arouse the passions of my students. I wanted to make them angry, I wanted to make them proud, I wanted to make them grateful, and above all else, I wanted to inspire them to devote at least part of their abundant free time (hah!) to doing feminist work.
I am very clear about this goal. I don't hide my pro-feminist leanings from my students. At the same time, I often reassure them that there are many "feminisms." Pro-life Christianity and feminism are not, I proclaim,inherently irreconcilable; neither is feminism incompatible with the personal desire to be a stay-at-home mom. Virtually no future aspiration or set of theological positions thus precludes a student from labeling himself or herself a feminist.
But sometimes, I wonder if this "big tent" feminism is healthy for the broader movement. And thus, more recently, I've been offering up a more challenging view of what it means to be a feminist, recognizing that I will alienate some students as I do so. Perhaps, I wonder, it's better to emphasize the more openly activist elements of what it means to be a feminist, as well as to stress that the belief in women's physical, spiritual, intellectual and sexual autonomy is an essential tenet of feminism that ought never, ever, be ignored simply for the sake of avoiding a quarrel! So some semesters I do push a loftier, narrower definition of the term. When I do this, I'm always careful to create safe space for those students whose beliefs will not allow them to embrace feminism; indeed, I'm eager to give them opportunities to offer counter-arguments. Sometimes, having honest discussion about our disagreements is infinitely more satisfying than painting a winsome, but ultimately insubstantial vision of unity.
This whole debate parallels a debate I hear in churches all the time: do we want to emphasize quality or quantity? Some churches are eager to bring in as many folks as possible, and as part of working towards that ultimate goal of growth, cheerfully eliminate teachings that might alienate prospective believers. (Both left and right wing churches do this. Liberal churches often are reluctant to challenge people's private sexual arrangements, conservative churches are often equally reluctant to challenge consumerism and knee-jerk patriotism.) Other churches would rather remain small, and perhaps even shrink, if seeking growth means compromising indispensable theological truths. These "faithful remnant" Christians often make an idol out of theological purity, and some (I've seen this more than once) even take pride in the diminishing number of folks in the pews. They take their own unpopularity as evidence of the brokenness of the world, and sometimes are smugly satisfied to remain among the few "true believers." Feminist groups do it too. There's something almost delicious, isn't there, about feeling like a member of a misunderstood, shrinking and persecuted minority that nonetheless has a special and unique insight on the truth? Heck, I've seen some small churches, and some feminist outfits, come close to revelling in their own unpopularity!
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? I know this will shock regular readers who admire me for my consistency (!), but I've argued both sides of that debate in both spiritual and political settings many times. Indeed, I always try and bring up the debate in class. Whether I'm lecturing about the "Constantinian compromise" of fourth-century Christianity, or whether someone can be both anti-abortion and a feminist, I do enjoy asking my students to wrestle with the age-old argument that goes on between purists and popularizers.
I think it's healthy for Christians and feminists alike to have that argument, over and over again. I'm just not sure that the fact that I change sides with seasonal regularity (but no dampening of conviction) is necessarily a virtue. Oh well, at least it makes for entertaining teaching!