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Can Christianity and Feminism kiss and make up?

The feminists are in town, and they are not happy.

Last weekend, Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf, cream of the feminist crop, spoke about the future of feminism to a sold-out crowd at the Sydney Opera House.

Wolf, whose book The Beauty Myth (1990) is credited with kick-starting the third wave of feminism, said: “Young women today see feminism as a relic of their mothers’ generation – humourless, sexless and hostile to men.”

As we mark International Women’s Day, I wonder whether Christians are similarly concerned that feminism might be on the wane. Or are they dancing gleefully around its deathbed?

This rather absurd image is not so difficult to imagine. The church has frequently and vocally opposed feminism, and in some quarters still does so. One immensely popular and much downloaded male preacher recently wrote a book on gender roles (words that raise the hackles of a modern feminist). Its preface begins “For years I have noted, with growing disquiet, the pollution of many Christians' minds by the doctrine of feminism.”

While many Christian women (and men) would at this point protest that you can be a Christian feminist, even for the feminist-positive among Christians, the terrain is still difficult to navigate.

Many people who identify themselves as ‘biblical feminists’, such as Canadian author and lecturer Maxine Hancock, say how pinning both “Christian” and “feminist” buttons onto your lapel means that neither side really wants you. On Sunday, Wolf identified this as one of the failings of contemporary feminism – that it “shut out of the sisterhood” women who had different views, particularly conservative and pro-life women.

This was the experience of Canberra-based writer Melinda Tankard-Reist who recently claimed to be a feminist as well as a pro-life campaigner. The media had a fit. An article on her in Sunday Life quoted When Harry Met Sally screenwriter Nora Ephron: ”You can't call yourself a feminist if you don't believe in the right to abortion.” And when parts of the interview were reprinted on Mia Freedman’s blog, the article began with the line: “Here’s a possible paradox. Can you be pro-life and call yourself a feminist?”

I recall my first gender studies tutorial at university, in which we went around the room introducing ourselves and how we were feeling about taking the subject. Most people were excited, for the issues that we’d be exploring—gendered identity, sexuality, community—were ones about which we felt deeply.

It came time for my friend Amy to speak. “Well,” she began, “Kate and I are really excited about this subject, although also a little apprehensive because we’re both Christians and we’re interested to see how our faith and our study of these issues intersect.”

There was utter silence. The girl in the row in front of us, who later became a friend, but who at that point we only knew as a “militant, lesbian feminist” from her introduction turned and glared. We shrunk a little in our seats. It was like we’d walked into a Jewish studies class wearing swastikas.

Our tutor coughed politely and told us how fascinating we’d find the course, because we were attempting to reconcile “two very divergent discourses.”

And “divergence” is to be expected. It should be no surprise that Christianity differs from all worldviews on some points. Christianity is not humanism, nor is it capitalism, environmentalism, socialism, liberalism or any other “ism”. It is, first and foremost, a faith, not a social movement.

But Christianity recognises the strengths of each of these ideologies, and indeed has much overlap with many of them. Consequently, with many of these systems of thought Christianity has often assumed the posture of a critical friend. How did it transpire then that Christianity can be critical friends with all of these ideologies (and not such a critical one when it comes to some of them), but cannot sit down to the table with feminism—indeed, cannot even bear to be in the same room as her?

When it comes to feminism, it would seem that many Christians have not simply offered a critique, but have pitted themselves as fierce enemies against it. The fears of some Christians has led them to throw out both baby and bathwater and in doing so they have missed the point of feminism: to give voice to a group that has, for most of history and in most cultures, been voiceless, and that still remains more vulnerable and oppressed than any other group in the world. It is my sad suspicion that in their shouting matches, some Christians have failed to listen to the genuine concerns of women to which feminism gives voice.

There is a great irony here as well, given that the rapid growth of Christianity from the 1st Century onwards can in large part be attributed to how appealing it was to women. The equality and status that early Christianity afforded women was unprecedented and revolutionary.

In light of this, it is worth asking whether Christianity might change its tone towards feminism. Is it possible that Christians of various ideological hues (and there are many sitting in pews who regard themselves as feminists) and feminists of various stripes, might be able to sit down to table together and engage in  critical, friendly discussion?

Because if Christians refuse to engage with feminism at all, there is a great danger that they ignore not only ideological rhetoric, but also the cries of the oppressed, and in doing so, miss the obligation to ask the question that Jesus asked Mary Magdalene in the garden, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Kate Wilcox is studying Arts/Media Communications at Sydney University and is an intern at the Centre for Public Christianity