AltFem: Reconciling Faith and Feminism

Last Wednesday, a new online magazine that seeks to reconcile religious faith with feminism had its launch party, featuring three eclectic panels of speakers who offered their own thoughts on the subject. The discussions were fascinating and showed the value of the periodical if it can live up to the potential displayed at the event.

The aim of the magazine, altFem, is to foster a more inclusive feminism that is open to the contributions of women of faith. The launch event featured co-founders Asma Uddin and Ashley McGuire, along with a diverse set of speakers. The discussions were too wide-ranging for me to touch upon everything that was covered. Instead, I will focus on some of the highlights and most interesting points from my own perspective, as a devout Catholic who identifies as a feminist and is deeply interested in the subject.

One of the most interesting points of discussion centered on the idea of empowerment. Author and blogger Eve Tushnet argued that worldly power is problematic for Christians and called for positive conceptions of submission and obedience. She argued that the problem might be not that women lack power but that men lack humility.

Many men do lack humility, but many women are also powerless to use the gifts God has given them to reach their potentials as persons—something that is both unjust and that undermines efforts to promote the common good. This is particularly true of women in countries where girls and women lack access to education and basic legal rights. Feminism necessarily must be about giving these girls and women greater power—in the sense of more control over their lives and their societies, greater economic opportunity and access to education, and, overall, greater support for their basic rights as persons.

In advanced liberal democracies like the United States, there are reasons to be skeptical of an approach to feminism that focuses excessively on power rather than human flourishing, for instance. The first panel was asked if the feminist focus on empowerment is buying into a patriarchal norm. If patriarchy has fostered the radical individualism that prioritizes autonomy, control, consumeristic desires, momentary pleasure, and superficial standards of success over virtue, solidarity, joy, and the common good, then feminists whose views are shaped by radical individualism are perpetuating negative aspects of patriarchy. As someone who sees these bourgeois values as ultimately leading to a vapid, meaningless existence that cannot possibly satisfy the deepest aspirations of men or women, I see far greater value in an alternative or radical feminist approach rather than a liberal one of this nature.

But it seems clear that many women in the United States still would benefit from what we can legitimately call empowerment. This is particularly true of poor and working class women, but it doesn’t end with them. There are still glass ceilings. Women are still underrepresented in positions of power. Too many women are still underpaid for the work they do. From sexual violence to the objectification of women to countless other issues, conditions exist that do not reflect the inherent dignity of women and the fundamental equality of men and women. Part of the solution is certainly to find ways to make men more virtuous and just in their actions. But empowerment remains essential, as it is necessary for greater justice, not simply to satisfy the bourgeois desires of radical individualists.

I must say that I was left deeply uncomfortable with the idea of seeing “submission and obedience” to one’s spouse in a positive light, particularly when talking about wives submitting to their husbands. In some sense, I can understand talk about mutual submission if it is about mutual sacrifice and the sharing of responsibilities (with one spouse deferring to the other on certain matters), but overall I believe the term is too interconnected to unjust gender relations to justify its rehabilitation. If it doesn’t rely on hierarchical notions that (I believe) are incompatible with the fundamental equality of men and women, it can be conveyed using terminology that offers greater clarity. I agreed with Christy Vines and Salma Abugideiri, who described marriage as a partnership. Abugideiri explained that marriage is a mutually loving relationship, with our primary submission being to God.

An important point of discussion was the reality that men and women are delaying marriage. There can be material benefits connected to this, but it also creates challenges for people of faith. One of these challenges is the matter of premarital sex, given the growing distance between puberty and marriage in our society. On this question, Salma Abugideiri, columnist and founding board member of the Peaceful Families Project, framed her response by noting that as people of faith, we teach beliefs that contradict mainstream culture, where instant gratification and self-indulgence are viewed differently. For Muslims, she noted, sex is just one part of the equation, along with other things like praying 5 times a day and avoiding alcohol. She noted that these are challenging norms to pass on, but stressed that it is essential to find ways to navigate these challenges. One thing that helps is to have friends who share those values.

An interesting topic that came up in the second panel, which was moderated by Crystal Corman of World Faiths Development Dialogue, was the inadequacies of faith communities when it comes to speaking to single women. This is a concern that I have seen expressed on a number of occasions by young Catholic women on social media and blogs. Author Susan Katz Miller argued that marriage is neither necessary nor inevitable. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, senior editor at the Federalist, argued that there is a tendency to denigrate the work of single people. Salma Abugideiri spoke about the need for values that show respect for people whether they are married or not and to ensure that people are not alienated either way.

One of my favorite parts of the event was hearing the speakers highlight the importance of women in their respective faith traditions. Christy Vines talked about how important it was for her to hear about the profoundly powerful women at the formation of the Church. Shahed Amanullah, CEO and co-founder of LaunchPosse and former state department senior advisor, talked about Mohammed’s first wife, noting that he worked for her and didn’t have a problem with it. Neylan McBaine, Founder of the Women Project, cited the witness of Mary Magdalene to the resurrection, seeing it as an example of Jesus’ trust in women. Eve Tushnet, meanwhile, cited the Magnificat.

The speakers also highlighted numerous scriptural references that show the compatibility of faith and feminism. Aisha Rahman, executive director of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, noted the Koranic passage that says that God has given dignity to all the children of Adam. Christy Vines, Executive Director of the Center for Women, Faith, and Leadership with the Institute for Global Engagement, cited St. Paul calling women co-heirs and co-laborers, noting that we all share equally in the rights and benefits of this. She also cited the important passage from St. Paul that defines the universalism at the heart of Christianity: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The final panel, which was moderated by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, focused on motherhood. Scholar Jamillah Karim stated that in our society, motherhood is not given the respect it should be, while in her faith it is. Writer Melissa Langsam Braunstein also noted that Judaism makes motherhood central, citing the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, rightly noted that feminism should not be framed in terms of man vs. woman or woman vs. child. There was also a critique of consumerism and similar mentalities that can cause parents to value work outside the home and career advancement over parenting.

While I share those concerns about consumerism, the truth is that choosing to place motherhood ahead of career goals is often a luxury that belongs to the wealthy or upper middle class, an angle that I thought merited greater attention (and was raised by a question from the audience). If you are highly intelligent and well-educated, it is easier to “lean in” and “lean out” at different stages than it is for working class parents who want to spend more time with their kids but can’t. Seriously addressing this means supporting government policies that will strengthen families and give parents more flexibility and time with their kids. This means fighting for a living wage; access to quality, affordable childcare; paid leave; and other pro-family policies. Faithful feminists, who are particularly concerned about family life, should be the ones most forcefully pushing for such changes.

The questions from the audience were truly outstanding throughout the event, which I think shows how interested people are in talking about this subject. One of the best asked about feeling a sense of tension between being a good mom and pursuing career goals. The demands and pressures on working mothers are intense and many feel pulled in too many directions. The blurring of lines between the office and home with the internet and smart phones can make working from home easier, but also can create guilt, as working parents often feel like they should be focusing on their children when they are working and vice versa. Some of these dilemmas may be inevitable given the modern economy and contemporary technology, but greater support for parents can help. And men stepping up as real partners in the home would also make a big difference. My impression is that more men are thinking about how to reconcile career goals with the desire to be good dads. This is good and necessary. Millennials seem to have a healthier, less materialistic understanding of work. Perhaps this will translate into marriages that are real partnerships, with dads playing a bigger role as caretakers, something that would advance the feminist cause and strengthen the common good.