Is feminist a Baptist word?

Baptist identity over the past several decades cannot be understood without paying attention to the rise of women in leadership and ministry.

By Molly T. Marshall

An online firestorm has erupted following the Isla Vista killings. This past Friday night a 22-year-old man enacted his “Day of Retribution” by killing six and leaving seven injured. He intentionally targeted women. His express reason for the massacre was to prove himself an “alpha male” and take revenge on all the “sluts” who had rejected his sexual advances.

This is far from the first example of a young man claiming sexual frustration as justification for violence against women. Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, an online commentary site, notes several other examples of what she calls “misogynist extremism” — men killing women because their sense of entitlement as to what women “owe” them has not been satisfied.

Feminism is blamed by many of these raging men, and they commend one another for their violent actions. Feminism is caricatured as “men-hating,” and thus one of these disturbed men can write:

All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back, Their behavior toward me has only earned my hatred and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy. … I didn’t start this war.

Feminism does challenge the conviction some men hold of their “birthright of easy power,” as Penny puts it.

Many younger women distance themselves from the word, fearing that embracing the loaded term would diminish either their femininity or prospects for marriage or employment. They perceive feminist concerns as a zero sum game: if women are empowered, then men are disempowered. In a recent interview with Time magazine, actress Shailene Woodley (22) was asked if she considered herself a feminist. “No, because I love men, and I think the idea of “raise women to power, take the men away from the power ….”

Obviously the term has gone through generational permutations, but the central focus of feminism remains equal dignity, opportunity and human rights for women. Around the world we hear that granting educational access to women is the best thing for the larger community. Educating girls has significant economic and social consequences — for the good.

A gathering of Baptist professors at Mercer this past week used the lens of gender and feminism to assess what is going on in theological education and congregational life. While we celebrated gains in the employment of women in seminaries and as pastors, we acknowledge significant work yet to be done to accomplish full inclusion of women in our schools and the subsequent employment of female graduates.

Having been around for a while in this fray, I marveled at having a session devoted to these concerns. I also felt chagrin, realizing that moderate/progressive schools think that the contested issue of women in ministry has been resolved.

Women as subjects of theological education have made remarkable strides since the early ’70s — both as students and then scholars — yet this has been more prevalent in mainline Protestantism than among Baptists. I find this ironic since our theology of the priesthood of believers and local church autonomy provides the logical context to call women to leadership.

Feminism has not been a popular word among Baptists! I remember a student asking me, after a year of theology courses at Southern, “Are you a Christian first or a feminist first?” I was tempted to use the language of Jesus, but thought it irreverent. “Have I been so long with you and you do not know me?”

I became a feminist not by reading Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem but by reading the Apostle Paul, who offered the magna carta of Christian freedom: “… there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). He did not mean, obviously, that we cease to be gendered humans; rather, he meant that religious privilege in patriarchal structures was coming to an end.

We cannot understand Baptist identity over the past several decades without paying attention to “women’s entry into leadership and ministry,” as Dr. Eileen Campbell-Reed has contended. I believe that the fear of women’s leadership was a galvanizing element in the conservative resurgence, and it prompted a highly selective reading of the “inerrant” Bible.

Feminism is still perceived as threatening and remains on the margins of most curricula, yet clearly the analysis this perspective provides can reveal how fundamentalist rhetoric on the role of women is chaotic and determined by a hermeneutics of convenience and protracted control. Keeping silent about this makes us complicit in oppression.

Thankfully, there are men who gladly bear the title of feminist. Glad to share power with women, they have the privilege and responsibility of being advocates and, in many instances, gatekeepers of access, for which I am grateful.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.