I vividly recall my high school graduation. It was held at a church, and I was graduating alongside a dozen or so fellow homeschoolers. The pastor of the church was doling out honorary awards to each graduate based on our “character qualities”.
When it was my turn to receive an award, the pastor announced I would be receiving the “Future Homemaker of the Year” award.
“Really?!” I thought to myself. “Is that really all anyone sees in me?!”
I was college-bound. Everyone knew that. I was planning to major in education and become a teacher; I most definitely wasn’t going to college to “shop” for a husband.
When I look back over my life so far, this moment of angst at being labeled “homemaker” and the subsequent feeling of invisibility I experienced demonstrated my early feminist leanings.
“Feminist,” of course, is merely a label. It can mean different things to different people, so for the sake of this article, I will begin by sharing my definition of feminism.
A few years ago, I began to think about what it meant for me to be a woman moving through this world. Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist was pivotal.
Indeed, I cried my way through the book.
I felt she was speaking words of hope into my ear while rubbing balm on a soul I hadn’t even realized was wounded.
Sarah Bessey defines feminism in this way: “At the core, feminism simply consists of the radical notion that women are people, too. Feminism only means we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance— no greater than, but certainly not less than— to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women" (Jesus Feminist).
Similar to Bessey's definition, for me, feminism means that:
I believe women should be given equal opportunities as men in every sector of life, whether religious, political or economic.
I believe women should be free to live their lives as they choose and should have power over their own bodies.
I believe women and men should be equal partners in marriage, submitting to one another.
Five years ago, if you would have asked me to read Bessey’s description of “feminism”, I would have told you I agreed with it. I would have said I believed women were equal to men, they just had different roles in marriage and in the church.
I would also have warned you the word “feminism” should not be used to describe an ideal of female/male equality because, in my imagination, a feminist was a man-hater who believed women should abort their babies; the feminist also hated those women who stayed home with their kids or homeschooled.
I see now that labeling “feminists” and “feminism” as dangerous was keeping me from exploring what feminism actually was. It was keeping me from asking hard questions about my life as a woman, my marriage and even whether or not I was understanding the Bible correctly.
As I mentioned earlier, when I finally opened myself up to exploring male/female equality, deep wounds and a great deal of withheld bitterness were revealed in my heart.
Before I get into my story, however, I’d like to take a few moments to “myth-bust” the idea that feminists are man-haters or that “feminism” means you can’t be what you want to be (even a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother).
Feminism includes a broad spectrum of viewpoints and ideas; you don’t have to espouse all the ideals of feminism in order to embrace gender-equality.
A brief history of feminism
Long before there were “waves” of feminism in our society, there were many people who had feminist ideals. Plato believed women had the same “natural capacities” as men. Throughout the years that followed, there were many female writers who espoused this belief.
It wasn’t until 1848 that feminism became an organized movement with a clear goal.
This era, from 1848 until 1920, has been labeled “first-wave” feminism.
The women who were involved in this movement were mostly white, middle-class women. Many of them were women of faith.
Incidentally, these early feminists worked side by side with Frederick Douglass and were outspoken against slavery.
First-wave feminists focused on women’s suffrage. They also called for women to be allowed an education and equal roles in the church. They pushed for women to be allowed to own property and keep their own paychecks.
One of the leaders of this movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, designed a "Declaration of Sentiments" expressing all the ways in which men were treating women unequally. I encourage you to read it here: https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/stantonsent.html.
When I learned about first-wave feminism, I was struck by a few things:
First, this was largely a faith movement.
Second, these women were fighting for equal rights for African Americans as well as women.
Thirdly, and finally, these women and their feminist movement are the reasons I have been able to vote and attend college.
Very few Christians would argue that these are evil objectives or that the result of these changes has somehow damaged women or the church.
First-wave feminism evolved into second-wave feminism during the 1960’s-80’s.
Whereas first-wave feminism had involved white middle-class women, second-wave feminism embraced the voices of African-American and Mexican-American women. Feminism also began spreading to other parts of the world.
Second-wave feminism included the ideals of radical feminism, which called for a restructuring of society in order to eliminate male supremacy.
New ideas and rationalizations for equality also came to the fore during this time. A few notions which came out of second-wave feminism were that women shouldn’t consider “male” characteristics to be an ideal and that women shouldn’t believe they could only find fulfillment through child-rearing and homemaking.
I wonder if some of these notions felt threatening to Christians since they believed that in marriage, women ought to be submissive to their husbands.
As a young woman, I heard sermons purporting that when Paul said “women will be saved through childbearing”, he was lifting up being a married mother as the highest ideal. It was pervasive in my Christian culture that girls ought to want to be married and have children.
These “Christian” ways of thinking damaged me in many ways, which I will expound upon later.
I wonder if in our embracing of a “Christian” subculture, a “Christian” way of doing womanhood, we have forgotten the stories of women in the Bible like Deborah, Rahab and Lydia who did much good in this world quite apart from childbearing or marriage.
Beginning in the 1990’s, a new wave of feminism evolved, known as “third-wave” feminism. This third-wave focused on getting rid of stereotypes based on gender-roles and including all classes, cultures and races of women.
Again, I can see where some Christians have felt threatened by this third-wave. If you believe God created certain roles for men and other roles for women, then the desire to eliminate gender-roles will fly in the face of what you believe is right and God-ordered.
I have often heard it said that men and women are equal yet different, meaning they have different jobs and duties. I used to embrace this view.
Unfortunately, the "equal yet different" view was deeply damaging to my marriage (more on that later).
One question I have for those who hold this view is how can you say roles are equal if those roles are hierarchical in nature? Perhaps “separate but equal” is not the best label for this point of view.
There are a myriad of sub-types of feminism. I would encourage you to study them. Even if you don’t agree, leaning into views you have never heard is like allowing a doctor to take an x-ray; it can help you see things more clearly and notice areas of need.
A few of these sub-types are "anarcha", "radical", "liberal", "postcolonial and third-world" and "multiracial".
Here are three websites you can dig into to learn more about feminism:
My dad used to tell me I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, so I suppose it’s his fault my wrestling with what-it-means-to-be-a-woman would lead me to unabashedly call myself a “feminist”.
He used to tell me a woman could be president if she wanted to, of course she could, and encouraged me to dream big about my future.
At the same time, calling myself a “feminist” would have been frowned upon in the church I grew up in.
Though I was born in the United States, I spent most of my childhood in the Amazon Rainforest in Venezuela. My parents were missionaries to an indigenous people group known as the Yanomamo.
I spent much of my early childhood devouring books and playing outside, daydreaming I would be someone great one day.
I think my earliest dream-of-greatness was to be a pastor, but I had no vocabulary for that.
Acting on instinct alone, I would gather indigenous children, sit them down and teach them to sing “Jesus Loves Me” (in English; yes, I’m blushing).
I also used to boss my little brother around, setting him on one step of the steep stairs in my family home, and then standing at the top to deliver a sermon and lead him in worship.
As I grew older, I tried on many different “hats”, focusing on jobs which were acceptable for women in my social circle.
For a while, I wanted to be a nurse, until I shadowed my aunt, who was a nurse, and almost fainted at the sight of pus and blood when she lanced a boil.
I attended boarding school for a while, wrote for my school newspaper, and decided I wanted to be a journalist.
I took piano and imagined myself becoming a great pianist; I also landed the lead role in a school play and daydreamed about becoming a famous actress.
When I hit my teenage years, my parents moved to a small Venezuelan neighborhood and we experienced small-town Venezuela life.
I noticed the children in my neighborhood were bored after school, and I started a little backyard VBS for them. I loved teaching these children, and decided I wanted to be a teacher.
After graduating from high school, I attended a private Christian college.
During teacher training, I dreamed about teaching children overseas, or in low-income neighborhoods. I wanted to lead and inspire my students.
Although I did not go to college hoping to get married, upon arriving and making friends, I couldn’t help but notice how guy-focused many girls were; and yes, I’ll admit, quite a bit of that pixie dust fell on me.
We young women were training for various careers, but when I look into the past, I see that for many (though certainly not all) of us, catching a guy and getting married was of primary importance.
I can’t help but wonder how we might have been different had we been more concerned with what type of people we were trying to become than about which guys liked us. If I’m honest, we gave those young male friends of ours too much power by being so hyper-focused on marriage.
My senior year in college, I fell in love with a sweet guy who had become my best friend.
Then, I spent a summer crying over the fact.
Subconsciously, I faced a choice: career or marriage and kids.
I did not know at the time that this is what I was struggling with; now I do.
I wish I could go back to that young woman and tell her she didn’t have to make an either/or choice, that she could love with her whole heart, love well in fact, without losing herself.
Deciding to marry Ryan, though, was the best decision I ever made.
Yes, I wish I would have entered marriage with a feminist paradigm; it would have saved me a lot of heartache. Yet perhaps the best lessons are the ones learned experientially.
After we were married, Ryan and I moved near my parents and their church. It was our hope to eventually “do ministry” full-time.
Ryan had majored in theology, and when we married, it was with the understanding we both wanted to use our degrees to help people.
My dream of helping low-income students came true with a job teaching fifth grade in a low-income neighborhood. I taught for four years, until my oldest child, a son, was born.
Up until the birth of my son, I had been the primary wage earner for my family (my husband’s theology degree hadn’t helped him find work). But right when our son was born, my husband completed his nursing degree and landed a job.
Being immersed in a church culture which said the man must be the primary provider for his family, my husband had struggled with feelings of failure up until this point. I was so busy working, I didn’t feel any judgment, though folks were constantly asking us when we’d have kids.
It was a given for us, however, that when we had kids, I would become a stay-at-home mom. The reasons for this were complex.
Yes, some of the beliefs I began to embrace upon becoming a stay-at-home mom, which were rooted in my traditional Christianity, were deeply harmful to myself, my husband and my children.
Other reasons I had for staying home were quite progressive and feminist:
I chose to stay home so I could nurse my babies and practice attachment parenting.
I chose to stay home so I could be free from an employer and the terrible disillusionment and stress which had accompanied teaching (though I didn’t tell anyone this).
Throughout my years of staying home I also experimented with a variety of businesses and endeavors; I read all the time; I kept my own mind and opinions. I refused to let anyone dictate to me how to parent.
I realize now that even dreaming of being able to stay home with my kids was a symptom of white middle-class privilege: My husband and I both were able to earn college degrees. We had grown up in middle class families. We were able to work hard after school to pay off school loans, and by the time we had our first child, we owned a house and a car and were debt free.
Now, back to what I stated earlier about my traditional beliefs being harmful to myself, my marriage and my family.
One of the primary toxic beliefs I embraced at this point in our marriage was that my husband was the head of our household and it was my job to submit to him.
The fact that my husband earned our family’s only paycheck elevated him (in my mind) to a higher and more worthy status. I was just the “grateful”, “taken-care-of” wife.
I would like to point out here that my husband never liked the idea of being the “leader” or “head” of our home. He wanted us to make decisions together, as equal partners. Yet, over and over again, I took a backseat in decision-making and would not express all of my opinions.
In all honesty, I was being lazy. It was nice not to have to worry. My motto has always been, “don’t worry, be happy”.
Not only did I force my husband to make decisions by refusing to speak my mind, but I also embraced a damaging notion that my husband had sexual needs I was supposed to satisfy. I buried feelings of resentment, anger and hurt deep within, and lost all desire for intimacy.
My husband sensed this, and a cold rift began to grow between us.
I fell into a sort of slumber, a deadness to myself. For so many reasons, from my religious beliefs about submission to my own insecurities, I had decided I was “less" than my husband.
I also became so caught up in being supportive of my husband and “his” ministry, I did not seek out friendships for myself.
Life went on. We had two more beautiful children. We moved around, across the states and even overseas, to Bolivia. For a while, we were engaged in full-time “ministry” with a non-profit, which had always been a dream of ours.
Meanwhile, I decided to homeschool our children. Though there was pressure from my Christian subculture to protect my children from the “world”, I can say honestly I chose to homeschool for other reasons.
Like I said, strong opinions...
The chief reason I chose to homeschool was that I loved the art and science of learning and because I felt I could best nurture a love of learning in my children by keeping them out of the “school system”.
As a teacher, I had witnessed children who were “different” being bullied and lost in the system, which had bigger things to worry about (like getting “able” students to pass state tests so as not to lose funding).
Now looking back, I see that in so many ways I held on to my own opinions in spite of my beliefs about submission. I “steered the ship” in matters related to child rearing and homeschooling.
At the same time, I built walls around myself, strictly defining and carefully protecting my “role” as manager of our household. My husband was not welcome to take part in housecleaning, cooking, or even comforting the sorrowing toddler.
Deep down, I felt trapped. I longed to pursue my own interests and ministry opportunities. Every time another woman said “I could never stay home like you do” I was filled with anger.
I viewed staying home as a necessary duty: I was doing what was best for my children.
At heart, I am a passionate go-getter. I long to make a difference in this world. Furthermore, I had no plans of being a stay-at-home mom forever. Once my kids reached high school age, I planned to get back into the “work” world.
Can you see the tension I was struggling with here?
At heart, I believed women could be anything, do anything. Yet, I couldn’t let go of the notion I was supposed to be submissive to and supportive of a husband.
I was supposed to be a “helpmeet”, which meant enabling my husband to be everything God had called him to be.
I couldn’t help but think for myself, yet I was so wrapped up in my “role”, I often chose to bury my own desires.
As the years rolled along, I became an expert on all aspects of my “domain”, but I could not justify pursuing any other realm for myself: friendship, career, etc.
And sometimes it’s easier to hide behind “submission” than to face the hard decisions and dilemmas this life throws at us.
I’ll be honest and say I had grown lazy, though being a stay-at-home mom is no cushy life of ease, especially if you struggle with guilt for not earning a paycheck, as I did, and don’t allow your husband to help with any “mom” tasks.
Deep down, I was empty, lonely, sad and trapped. I was growing angry and bitter. I did not enjoy life as I had when I was young. I was losing myself.
A few things woke me up and made me start to question my beliefs.
One was looking at myself through my children’s eyes.
What message was I giving them about womanhood? If I, like my dad before me, encouraged my daughters they could be anything they wanted, but then I myself wasn’t pursuing anything, what was I really teaching them?
Another thing that made me open up and start thinking about what it means to be a woman was choosing not to spank my children.
If I had come to believe the Bible did not actually tell me to spank, but instead pointed towards a redemptive form of parenting that involved love and grace and relationship, then could I be reading other things wrong? Was that why I was so miserable?
Finally, my lack of sexual desire, in fact, my anger and resentment towards my husband, scared me.
I picked up Sarah Bessey’s book and read it. I bought secular books about sex and desire, books which had a feminist bent. I pondered the way I had always thought about the Bible.
My who-a-woman-should-be paradigm was beginning to shift. It was uncomfortable, it was scary, but I was cracking the world-of-womanhood open like an egg. Suddenly, there was this succulent, runny, wet and wild goo of possibility, and I was swimming in it.
How about you, friend? Whether you are a man or a woman, have you experienced a paradigm shift such as the one I have been describing? If so, what were your feelings and how were you set free?
I'm not done yet!
Come back next week for Part 2, where I will be exploring sexual freedom, patriarchy in the Bible, a new way of looking at the term "helpmeet" and why it is important for women to be allowed equal leadership opportunities in the church.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.