In the bloggernacle, one of the statements that I hear over and over again from non-feminists is: “I don’t support feminism because I don’t think that women should be the exact same as men” (or as a recent blogger put it at the Blogger of Jared [it’s in the comments], we shouldn’t be “trying to make women ‘man-like'”). Now, while I admit that feminists are much more likely than the average person to be skeptical that various gender differences are inherent or natural, throughout feminist history there has been a large amount of tension around “equality” and “difference” and what those ideas mean for the feminist movement.
My junior year of college, I took a postmodernism class with Michael Berube, and partway through the semester, we read the article “A Gender Diary” by Ann Snitow (follow the link to read a handful of quotes from the article). Snitow writes about her experiences with the growing feminist movement around the 1970s, and she describes the movement through the lens of divisions within feminism, primarily the division between 1) women who want access to the same rights and privileges that were available to men and 2) women who want to use feminism to celebrate the unique nature of women. Snitow classifies this divide as the “difference” (women are unique and special) vs. “equality” (women should be equal to men) divide.
When it comes to this divide, the church tends to come down on the side of “difference” and the feminists on the side of “equality,” though there are certainly many exceptions and complications. Perhaps the most well-known strand of feminism–and one that motivated a lot of second wave feminists–is liberal feminism. Liberal feminism argues that women should have legal and institutional equality to men. In Womens Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey give the following definition for liberal feminism: “Liberal feminists explain the oppression of women in terms of unequal access to existing political, economic, and social institutions. They are concerned with womens rights being equal to those of men and that women have equal access to opportunities within existing economic and social structures.”
Now some of the liberal feminists in the 70’s did take take things to an extreme, which is where you get a lot of the circulating ideas that feminists hate motherhood and babies. But, as Snitow observes, there were also “difference” feminists, who wanted to celebrate the uniqueness of womanhood. And don’t forget about the separatists, who decided to give up on the male sex altogether. Additionally, since the early years of second-wave feminism, the extremity of the liberal feminists has been mitigated, and most women who currently identify as liberal feminists celebrate motherhood (and babies). Rather than denigrate the choices of women who choose to have children and stay at home and raise them, these feminists are still fighting for equal pay in the workforce, and they are trying to eliminate things like the “second shift” and the societal pressure on women that says their only choice in life is to be a mother and raise children.
On one hand, I can understand suspicion of liberal feminism within the church. Liberal feminists argue for institutional equality, and directly translating that onto our church means that women should have the priesthood, be able to serve as bishops (or even the prophet), etc. On the other hand, I don’t understand the link that is often made between societal/institutional equality and an erosion of the natural (i.e. divine) divide between the sexes. In the eyes of many church members, if men and women have equal access to institutions, what will result is that women will become exactly like men; in effect, there will be no difference between men and women. In church discourse, the language of “equality” from liberal feminism, has been translated into the language of “sameness.”
But, as I observed earlier, if you look at history of feminism, the majority of feminists, even liberal feminists, aren’t pushing for “sameness.” For example, feminists argue that women needed to be treated differently in doctor’s offices and studied differently in the medical world because their bodies are biologically different. Feminists also don’t want to make women man-like. We acknowledge that because it’s a male-dominated world, women often have to acquire masculine traits to succeed in the workforce (see the recent discussions on Hilary Clinton over at FMH). But most feminists don’t necessarily see this as a good thing. Feminists argue that undervalued feminine traits, such as nurturing and emotional empathy, need to be more highly valued in society (and need to be traits that we develop and accept in both boys and girls).
So, to summarize: the idea that “feminists want women to be the exact same as men,” is a misunderstanding of liberal feminism, which isn’t even the only strand of feminism. Coming up: a follow-up post on what it means to have a “separate but equal” gender policy within the church.