Although I haven’t read her book yet (it’s on our book club list and I’m waiting for the rest of the group!), I enjoyed hearing Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In, speak at BlogHer this year in Chicago. While she was speaking, I was watching the chatter on Twitter and I noticed a disturbing response from the “Christian” bloggers that I follow. It actually disturbed me so much that I feel like I need to respond with this post. I saw several women who either skipped the keynote altogether because “I’m not a feminist” or attended but were tweeting things that implied that this ridiculous talk about feminism did not apply to them. What bothered me the most about this viewpoint is that it is completely wrong for someone who says they follow the Jesus described in the Bible. You don’t have to “lean in” if you don’t want to, but if you say you follow Jesus, I have news for you: Jesus is a feminist.
First, let’s be clear on what a feminist is. Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster:
fem·i·nism: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
If you believe that men and women are equal, you are a feminist.
Let me put it another way.
Have you attended a school, college, trade school, or certificate program? Do you teach others in any capacity: have you trained a coworker at school, taught a workshop, led a Sunday school class or Young Life meeting? Ever spoken in front of an audience that included men? Do you own a car, a house, do you have a birth certificate, a driver’s license, a passport, a library card, a credit card? When the U.S. census comes around, do you count yourself as an individual human being, or do you skip yourself and only count the males in your household? In your day to day life, do you speak to males in public and expect them to speak back to you? The postman, the clerk at the store, your neighbor, the dads in your children’s class at school, your childrens’ teachers and principals?
If you said “yes” to any of these things, you are behaving as a feminist, and are relying on feminist tenets in your everyday life. You have an expectation that you will be (and you have been) allowed the same freedoms that a man has, in these particular areas.
You also have much more freedom than a woman would have had in Palestine during the time that Jesus was on the earth. It was a rough time to be a Jewish woman. Although Jewish Greek and Roman women had some degree of power and freedom , in reaction and opposition to these foreign societies, strict rabbinical law in Palestine during the time of Jesus took the opposite viewpoint and forbade all such liberty for women. When Jesus came onto the scene, He* challenged all of those norms.
An observant Jewish woman in Palestine during this time would have been barred by strict rabbinical law to be taught to read or to study the Torah. In the stricter households, she might even have been confined to her home. When she was allowed out of the house, it would be to worship in the synagogue, but even then she was separated from men. Men were educated in literacy and in religion, but women were not. If you were a very religious Jewish man of the time, you would not speak directly to a woman in public. Not even your own wife, daughter, or mother . She was both too inferior and too lavicious, merely by merit of her existence . That pretty much leaves out owning any kind of business or working full time. Maybe you don’t want to own a business, but what about being legally recognized as a person? Nope. In the Old Testament, women were not counted when there was a census. During the time of Christ, the testimony of a woman was not acceptable evidence in court . Josephus documents that women were actually deemed inferior by law .
In contrast, every reference in the Bible to the larger group of followers of Jesus (outside the immediate disciple group) specified that both men AND women followed Him.
The fact that the overwhelmingly negative attitude toward women in Palestine did not come through the primitive Christian communal lens by itself underscores the clearly great religious importance Jesus attached to his positive attitude–his feminist attitude–toward women: feminism, that is, personalism extended to women, is a constitutive part of the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus.”
Jesus Was A Feminist, thesis by Leonard Swidler, 1971
It’s interesting to note that Jesus frequently taught outdoors and in public places, rather than in the synagogue, which would have been the norm for a Jew trying to drum up a new movement. Why wouldn’t He be in the religious forum of the culture — a synagogue? Because if He were to teach in a synagogue, women would not be able to hear Him. Outdoors, anyone could attend, and did .
Jesus not only spoke to women, but He had a theological conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). He listened to her points and gave her thoughtful answers. Again, something that a religious leader of the time would never have done, in public or even, most likely, in private.
Multiple times when Jesus healed a woman, He touched her, which was scandalous (Mark 1:29-31, Matthew 8:14-15). He directly addressed the “female issue” of a woman with uterine bleeding by healing her without fear or shaming. He not only healed her but commended her faith in coming to Him with the problem (Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:43-48). Possibly most scandalous was His reaction to The Woman Caught In Adultery, who is only known in the bible in relation to her sin, not by her actual name — a commentary on how the writers of the gospel themselves felt about women. The religious leaders of the time used the woman only as an object to catch Jesus in political and religious trap, but Jesus saw her as a person just like any other person, and treated her as such (John 8:3-11). He stood up for a woman’s equality (feminism) by reminding the male religious leaders that sin is not inherently male or female, and neither is forgiveness and grace.
A key component of the gospel of Jesus was that He not only took on the sins of the world and died, but was resurrected, conquering the human fate of death and ascending victorious. Obviously, it is of crucial importance to His message that there is valid proof of His life after the crucifixion. So to whom did He choose to show Himself first after leaving His tomb? Three women (Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-11, John 20:11-18). Women whose testimony the modern society would not have recognized in court. If He wanted to make a big splash immediately, what He should have done is shown himself to a four Jewish men, the amount needed to legally corroborate any story. But instead, He cared enough about the women who stood by Him in His final hours to go them first, to comfort them in their grieving. I just love that gesture, because it proves that He cared about their feelings above any need to prove Himself (He has plenty of time to show Himself to groups of men later). Every action He took through His ministry recorded in the Bible proved to be a conscious choice to be inclusive and foster equality in gender as well as societal position and ethnicity.
I could go on and on with examples. If you are a reader, I encourage you to read the sources referenced at the bottom of this post — the fourth one, in particular, goes through the four gospels one at a time, citing every example of women and how Jesus treated and reacted to them.
Let me get back to my point. My hope is that women (bloggers or not) who call themselves followers of a faith originated by Jesus will stop bowing out of the feminism discussions by giving their faith as an excuse. Most likely, you are a feminist aside from your faith, even though you weren’t aware. But if you say that you follow Jesus, your faith should reinforce your feminism. I have not addressed the issues brought up later in the New Testament by Paul regarding the leadership of women in the church, but I think that Carolyn does an excellent job of analyzing the dangers of women letting submission be the guise under which we allow harassment in the church. Let’s be more aware of how we are treating women and men as a result of Jesus’ example. Let’s read the books and blog posts about feminism and join in the discussion. Let’s let this radical idea of equality permeate the way we treat our friends, how we judge (or choose not to judge) other women, how we make our political decisions, how we spend our money, and how we choose to consume media and entertainment. Everything we are doing impacts other women, and let’s all start being a little more conscientious. Dare I say… just like Jesus.
1. Jesus Was A Feminist, thesis by Leonard Swidler, Professor of Catholic Thought & Interreligious Dialogue, Religion Department, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. Article first appeared in Catholic World, January 1971.
2. Josephus, Contra Apion II, 201. Trans. by H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 373
3. “Rufina and Her Sisters: Jewish women in the Diaspora”, by Ross S. Kraemer. Reprinted on My Jewish Learning from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press. c. 1991 by Wayne State University Press.
4. Women and Ministry in the New Testament, by Elisabeth M. Tetlow, Paulist Press, 1980. reprinted on WomenPriests.org
* I am capitalizing this pronoun out of respect, because this is my blog and I can.