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As someone growing up next to the United States, who got their first taste of religion via Dawkins and co, I was given a fairly clear picture of the relationship between feminism and religion: they have always been bitter opponents. This became especially heated during the early 1980’s when far-right Conservatives, desperate for a new voting base, forged an alliance with religious leaders who were freaking out over the social changes they saw around them.

When I recently got curious about the history of anti-feminist movements, I decided it was time to double-check that assumption. Just in case.

Damn, was that a smart move.

Contemporary Christian Attitudes to Feminism: Generally Supportive

It’s a common belief that most Christians oppose abortion, but in fact that’s not true. It’s a dirty secret of anti-choice groups that they spend a fair bit of time campaigning against their fellow believers.

Likewise, opinions on feminism are actually quite varied across denominations in the USA.[1]

Is Feminism Hostile to your Moral and Spiritual Values?
Identification Said Yes n
Evangelical 64.8 179
Fundamentalist 54.2 166
Mainline Protestant 37.3 233
Nonreligious 36.7 210
Churchgoing Catholic 33.2 401
Irregular attending/nominal Protestant 28.8 555
Theologically liberal Protestant 24.1 174
Non-Christian religious 24 341
Nominal Catholic 21.7 226

“Nonreligious” should be treated with care, as it probably includes people who don’t identify with a religion but do believe in a god. Still, you’d expect it to be the most theologically liberal category in the above, and yet it’s surprisingly hostile to feminism. Even churchgoing Catholics think feminism conflicts less with their values! On the flip side, while it’s true that most Evangelicals and Fundamentalists see a conflict, it’s also clear this isn’t universal.

This study went beyond simple surveys, though, and asked Evangelicals and Fundamentalists what they thought of feminism in person-to-person interviews.

In the face-to-face interviews, many of those who identified themselves as fundamentalists talked about feminism as initially supporting women’s rights and correcting unfair social inequalities. They then went on to note that more recent iterations of feminism seem to have abandoned those reasonable goals and become much more extreme-focusing on sexual politics, gay rights, and “male bashing.” To fundamentalists, these elements of a “radical feminist agenda” are not only unreasonable but so far removed from day-to-day experience that feminism overall is not a threat.[2]

That’s eerily familiar, isn’t it?

For evangelicals, on the other hand, feminism was more readily identified as personally relevant in its hostility to evangelical spiritual and moral values. While, as we will see, few evangelicals describe themselves as hostile toward feminism,
the majority believe that feminism is hostile toward them. Part of this difference in perceived hostility stems from subcultural differences between these two strands of conservative Protestantism. Evangelicalism is a culturally activist and engaged faith. Whereas fundamentalists may see themselves as the bearers of orthodox truth, evangelicals see themselves as not only orthodox but mandated to persuasively present and convincingly articulate that orthodoxy to the broader culture. In their effort to be culturally engaged, evangelicals are more likely to see feminism as presenting a coherent and competing set of values from their own. Fundamentalists may dismiss feminism. Evangelicals are compelled to articulate why feminism is wrong.[3]

Notice the spin that both groups put on this: they have no problem with women’s equality per se, it’s the movement itself that’s the problem.

Although most evangelical Protestants think feminism is opposed to their own moral and spiritual values, data from open-ended personal interviews suggest that only a small minority are actively engaged in any sort of culture war with feminism. Only about 15 percent of self-identified evangelicals reported being involved in any sort of public protest or demonstration in the past year-about the same as among theologically liberal Protestants, churchgoing Catholics, and non-Christian religious Americans […]

We find that rather than being committed cultural warriors, ordinary evangelicals express a wide range of perspectives on feminist issues and organizations within American culture. Approximately two-thirds of those we interviewed were cautiously appreciative of feminism, pointing to significant gains in women’s rights and opportunities brought about through the liberal feminism of the 1970s. … Over and over again, both women and men framed their comments on feminism with a mixture of appreciation and caution, saying, for example, “Well, feminism may be kind of radical now, but they did some really important things” and “They made society aware of a lot of things that needed to be changed” and then saying, “But they’ve kind of gotten off track and extreme.”[4]

And these Christians are the ones with the least positive attitudes towards feminism! Christians in general are in favor of equality, and hold similar values to non-believers.

Historic Christian Activism Against Feminism: Looks Religious, Buuuut….

What really made me write this blog post, though, was this quote.

We predicted that orthodox religious institutions, through their clergy, would play a visible and active role in antifeminist activism.
The evidence in support of this prediction is considerable, although not total. […]

The large and well-organized antisuffrage movements in Great Britain and the United States constitute apparent exceptions to the
usually active and visible role of clergy, casting doubt on the extent to which this characteristic is generalizable.[5]

Ok, I can easily buy that it’s possible to oppose feminism without having to call up religion. But how on Earth could you get to the point of organizing and activism from the secular point of view?!

The answer was obvious, in hindsight.

We predicted that economic vested-interest groups that perceived threats from women’s movements would support antifeminist activism, but often covertly. Perhaps the best-documented example of an economic interest group actively involved in fighting first-wave women’s movements, specifically the demand for women’s suffrage, were the liquor interests. Temperance was a major demand of first wave women’s movements in at least 16 countries, including all of the Anglo-Saxon societies, where the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was especially strong (Chafetz and Dworkin 1986, chapters 1
and 4). Those who brewed or sold alcoholic beverages feared that votes for women meant the legalization of prohibition. A brewer’s lobby worked against suffrage in New Zealand in the 1890s (Evans 1977, p. 217). According to Grimshaw (1972, p. 57), “the drink trade”
constituted the only organized group to oppose women’s suffrage in that society. It organized and financed antisuffrage petitions, hired people to canvass for signatures (they received 5,000), worked covertly to influence government officials, spread rumors to raise fears about the consequences of votes for women, and even disrupted suffrage meetings (Grimshaw 1972, pp. 57, 67, 90).[6]

Suppose we divide society into two groups, A and B, where B is discriminated against in some material way. In order to remove that discrimination, we need to redistribute that material; since we’re talking on a societal level, this is effectively zero-sum. Even something like handing over cash would increase the amount of money circulating and decrease its value, still causing group A to suffer a loss. No matter what we do, group A is going to lose out.

But group A has more material than B. They can use that to their advantage, buying speech and lobbying against any change.

The railroad, oil, meat-packing, cement, ranching, banking, and general manufacturing interests in the United States also supported the antisuffrage movement, mostly covertly, with funds and through lobbying (Flexner 1975, pp. 309-11). Business interest opposition to suffrage reflected fear of reforms that would entail their loss of special privileges, such as favorable tariffs. They also feared that women would vote to outlaw child labor and to improve conditions for employed women (Flexner 1975, pp. 312-13).[7]

While purely secular sponsors were in the minority, a closer look at the religious opposition finds the economic argument was a major factor, if not the primary one.

These groups were either organizations of workingmen-as for instance, in Germany-fighting incursions of female labor, or men who were wealthy, influential, often aristocratic. In New Zealand, according to Evans, the main opposition to feminism came from agrarian and aristocratic groups (1977, p. 234). The League for the Prevention of the Emancipation of Women in Germany consisted of professors, military leaders, politicians, and professional men (Evans 1976, p. 176). […]

The contemporary American antifeminist movement consists primarily of white, middle- to upper-middle class and middle-aged housewives, and, with some exceptions such as Schlafly, is led by men who are upper-middle class professionals. Activists are generally well educated, religious, and politically conservative (Arrington and
Kyle 1978; Brady and Tedin 1976; Ehrenreich 1982; Gelb and Palley 1982, p. 145; Mueller and Dimieri 1982; Petchesky 1981, pp. 232, 237;
Tedin et al. 1977). Ehrenreich argues that the right in the United States has always appealed to the economic interests of affluent men. Countermovement men in other countries have also predominantly been drawn from the privileged strata of their societies.[8]

While not quite as dramatic as above, both Christians and non-believers still rely heavily on secular economic arguments. It’s a stretch to say this brands Christianity as especially anti-feminist.

But What About the Bible?!

At this point you’re probably wondering about passages such as this:

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”

or this:

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.

The Bible says, straight up, that it’s opposed to women. Shouldn’t that be enough to say Christianity is also opposed to feminism on principle? No, because this line of argument makes two fundamental errors: it assumes Christians consider the Bible the last word on everything, and that Christians all agree on interpretation. They clearly don’t, on both counts.

There’s good reason for that. Revelation is a type of miracle, and thus either impossible to prove or a category error. This makes all religion, and Christianity by extension, nothing but pure cultural relativism; all of their moral codes derive from what the most charismatic or powerful individual says, tempered by tradition and what the community finds acceptable. Christianity is only anti-feminist to the extent that Christians are anti-feminist, and being material creatures who absorb culture their primary influences are economic and rational. The Bible and tradition only come in as post-hoc rationalizations. Similar arguments might apply to other religions.

Conclusion

This has fairly large implications for the atheist and skeptic community. The blanket claim that religion harms women is commonplace, to the point that the focus can shift away from feminism to combating religion. The claim that religion and feminism are incompatible is another variation on that theme. These are all vast simplifications of a very complex topic, and can lull us into making the dangerous assumption that all opposition to feminism is religious. Not only is that not true, it’s increasingly less true as religion’s power wanes.

Fighting religion is no excuse to skimp on the feminism, and viewing the opposition to feminism entirely through the lens of religion will give you a warped view.

 

Footnotes

  1. Gallagher, Sally K. “Where Are the Antifeminist Evangelicals?: Evangelical Identity, Subcultural Location, and Attitudes toward Feminism.” Gender & Society 18, no. 4 (August 1, 2004): 451–72. doi:10.1177/0891243204266157. Table 1.
  2. Ibid. pg. 457.
  3. Ibid. pg. 458.
  4. Ibid. pg. 460.
  5. Chafetz, Janet Saltzman, and Anthony Gary Dworkin. “In the Face of Threat: Organized Antifeminism in Comparative Perspective.” Gender & Society 1, no. 1 (1987). pg. 44.
  6. Ibid. pg. 46.
  7. Ibid. pg. 47.
  8. Ibid. pg. 54-55.
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