Sunday, March 07, 2010


Last fall when I went back to school at a relatively large university, I re-encountered feminism for the first time in more than 15 years. I'd sort of forgotten about it. We live in the Northern Rockies-- meaning Idaho, Montana, Wyoming-- where feminists don't exactly abound, and where feminist ideology-- even the good stuff-- is made to seem like shrieking shrewishness.

So it was with exasperation, amusement and (not the least, by any means) relief that I found that on campus, feminism is still alive and well. In many ways, feminism is an old friend of mine. I said in my early posts in this blog that it was bumping up against the inconsistencies in fundamentalist theology that led to my departure from evangelicalism, and that is true. But it would be no less true to say that it was feminism that gave me the strength to actually depart. A long-smoldering anger at the limited role allowed women in right-wing churches was definitely a major player. Women are relegated to roles where their prodigious talents are used for things like planning potlucks and redecorating the church parlor. Then the (male) establishment rolls their eyes when women get petty and catty over the only things they are allowed to take an interest in. They believe that the pettiness and cattiness prove their point-- that women are unsuited for leadership roles-- instead of seeing that maybe they have the cause and effect reversed. Having subsequently been involved in a number of churches that have women actively involved in all levels of leadership, I think it is clear that in the absence of arbitrarily defined gender roles, pettiness is pretty equally distributed between men and women. I don't know of a church with women in leadership roles that hasn't benefited from their strong, vibrant presence.

BUT. (You knew there would be a "but.") On the other hand, feminism, at least the way I understand it now, has reached a point where it seems blatantly self-defeating. This post has been kicking around in my head for several months now and the reason I've been avoiding writing it is because I'm not sure I'm going to be able to explain this. I'm so out of the loop on academic-speak that I probably won't be able to say it in a way that says what I want it to say. But I'm going to give it a shot because I've been thinking about this a lot recently (in fact, this train of thought is what led to the previous post about being a follower). So here goes.

Here is how I am still a feminist. We live in a culture that values masculinity over femininity. I'm not talking about valuing men over women, I'm talking about valuing strength over vulnerability, individualism over community, leading over following, power over subtlety. I'm a feminist because I think we are in desperate need of a better balance between the two gender poles, both within ourselves and in our culture. It is almost a cliche' to say we each must find within ourselves the point of balance between our masculine and feminine selves, but it's true. Are you really a strong person if you're afraid to be vulnerable? Are you really a good leader if you don't occasionally know when to shut up and follow? And conversely, if you always just go along with what other people want, never standing up for yourself, are you anything but a victim? and will anyone ever know the real you?

For each of us, within our own unique selves, the balance between masculinity and femininity is different. and I'm convinced that if we were each to find that point of balance within ourselves, our culture would become more balanced as well. And in that sense, I am still very strongly feminist. I value feminine values. They are often what makes life sweet, what makes it bearable to be around other people--nurturing, connection, acquiescence, gentleness, kindness.

But here is why I am no longer a feminist: the so-called "feminists" seem to value femininity least of all. To listen to some of them, you would think their goal is for all women and minorities to become top-of-the-food-chain, powerful, wealthy, driven WASPs. Their critique of culture only makes sense if you adopt the very values that represent what they're critiquing: that political power and materialist wealth are the criteria for success. Maybe you've heard a feminist go on and on about the statistics of "women's oppression": that even 40 years after the women's movement of the 70s, women lag behind in income and political power. But in order for that to be a problem, you have to buy that income and political power are the defining characteristics of success. And I don't buy that. Are women more free to do what they want to do today than they were 40 years ago? I think so. And even more importantly: is that true for women and men? If that's true (and I hope it is), that would be a better measure of the success of feminism. We're not there yet, and sometimes it seems like we're moving backwards, but progress is being made.

I thought about calling this post "Why I am no longer a feminist," but I could just as easily have called it "Why I am still a feminist." Both would be accurate.


p.s. just for the record, I am still pro-choice. I've said that elsewhere in this blog but it seems worth repeating here.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

This reading from Henri Nouwen's Sabbatical Journey was part of the lenten service at our church tonight. Nowen took a sabbatical year to write and reflect, and Sabbatical Journey is the result. His unexpected death occurred shortly after the year was over.

"Whereas for a long time the Spirit acted so clearly through my flesh, now I feel nothing. I have lived with the expectation that prayer would become easier as I grow older and closer to death. But the opposite seems to be happening. The words “darkness” and “dryness” seem to best describe my prayer today.

Maybe part of this darkness and dryness is the result of my overactivity. As I grow older I become busier and spend less and less time in prayer. But I probably should not blame myself in that way. The real questions are, “What are the darkness and the dryness about? What do they call me to?”…

Are the darkness and dryness of my prayer signs of God’s absence, or are they signs of a presence deeper and wider than my senses can contain? Is the death of my prayer the end of my intimacy with God or the beginning of a new communion, beyond words, emotions, and bodily sensations?…

The year ahead of me must be a year of prayer, even though I say that my prayer is as dead as a rock. My prayer surely is, but not necessarily the Spirit’s prayer in me. Maybe the time has come to let go of “my” prayer, “my” effort to be close to God, “my” way of being in communion with the Divine, and to allow the Spirit of God to blow freely in me."
--Henri Nouwen

Monday, March 01, 2010

reading report - Feb 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson. It took me a long time to get past the first 50 pages of this book. There is a lot of setup, and a lot of the setup is boring. One wishes his editor had been a little more proactive. But once the story gets going, this is a fascinating book. There are really two entirely separate plots--one, the story of the protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who is convicted of libel as the novel opens; and two, the story of the Vanger family and the mysterious disappearance of young Harriet Vanger forty years earlier. The only connection between the two is that Blomkvist has been hired to write a history of the Vanger family in exchange for information that will help him clear his name in the libel suit. The second plot, the Vanger mystery, is handled brilliantly. At the beginning, it is unclear whether she has even been murdered--maybe she just ran away from her unbearable family. But as Blomkvist slowly unearths ancient clues, it becomes apparent that the truth is far more grisly than anyone's worst imaginings. The first plot-- why (or if) Blomkvist committed libel and how he makes things right-- is far less interesting. Possibly because you can't help but compare it with the more titillating second plot, which is really a murder mystery. But I still found this book well worth reading, and I'm looking forward to the sequel. The language is really awkward in places, but since it's a translation, it's difficult to tell if it's intentional on the part of the author, or if it's just difficulties in the translation.

Little Ray of Sunshine by Lani Diane Rich. I picked this up because I wanted a quick, easy read for a road trip. The "quick" part turned out to be accurate-- I read it in an afternoon and evening. The "easy" part was somewhat less true. It's the story of Emmy James, who left home in the middle of the night six years before, abandoning her boyfriend Luke and his family, to get away from her nightmare of a mother and her painful past. When she finally returns, she finds that her mother has been in therapy and turned herself around, and the witch she remembers no longer exists. This is the first novel I've read by Rich, and I was impressed with her skillful handling of the mother-daughter relationship. She gets it right. And although she manages to get them to a truce in the end, no punches are pulled. It was at times a difficult, emotionally wrenching read. Far less convincing was the way EJ repairs her relationship with Luke. So much attention is paid to EJ's mom that Luke never really comes off the page. But you don't really care, because Little Ray of Sunshine is far more the story of the reconciliation between a mother and daughter than it is a romance.

I'd recommend both of these. For some reason I'm having a hard time giving them a "grade" like I usually do. I have read quite a bit besides these two-- in fact, I had finished both of these by mid-month and I had to pull them back out to remember names. But I have three I'm reading right now and haven't finished them yet, so they'll have to wait for next month.
Going back to this post, here is a quote from Jennifer Crusie's blog (one of my favorite authors), from her New Year's Resolutions for 2009:

"I resolve . . . not to be negative. It isn’t so much that the glass is half full or half empty as it is that I’m just grateful I have a damn glass."