One of the most intriguing critiques of certain aspects of feminism—specifically, Christian feminism—that I’ve encountered comes from the feminist theologian Angela West, in her book, Deadly Innocence: Feminist Theology and the Mythology of Sin. She makes several provocative points. One has to do with original sin. She notes that feminists have rightly questioned this doctrine because of the way it has been historically used against women (Eve is the guilty one and bears the greater burden, women are more prone to temptation, etc.)
However, she also sees problems in losing touch with this doctrine. She raises the concern that in their escape from oppressive teachings, ones which cause guilt, feminists have sometimes created their own oppressive structure, which itself leads to guilt. And the problem with this latter guilt is that it is not accompanied by a narrative of redemption. The doctrine of original sin is tied to the doctrine of forgiveness. But unmoored from the dialectic of sin and grace, feminism runs the risk of asserting that we can try harder and achieve perfection; a kind of salvation by works, as it were. Unlike the judgment of God, West argues, the judgment of feminist ideology is not always liberating.
West is also skeptical of any narrative in which woman are naturally good, and that if we just strip away the patriarchy, we’ll achieve a feminist utopia. She criticizes any sentimentality about women that leads one to see them as less ensnared in sin than are men.
This very quick summary doesn’t do justice to the complexity of West’s discussion. But I wanted to pull out these ideas to think about them in an LDS context. We, of course, have our own take on the Eden story, though our view of Eve remains somewhat ambivalent: we say she made the right choice but also use the language of transgression, and do not remove the curse (i.e., that she is subject to her husband; we may have softened the language but we are still haunted by Genesis 3:16). Our story of the fall is thus both liberating and oppressive.
And in the context of attempting to escape original sin, I see in Mormon feminism at least two potentially troubling strains of thought. One sets up feminism as an escape from the patriarchy of the church. That in and of itself is not a problem. The problem, as West says, is when feminist ideology itself becomes an oppressive structure. Feminism can certainly create its own guilt (think of how many times you hear people say, “I’m a bad feminist”, or “I have to turn in my feminist card because of x.” ) This is a tricky thing, because I do think any movement, including feminism, has to have boundaries to maintain an identity. But where is the redemption from those who are plagued with feminist guilt? A response to “try harder” feeds perfectionism. For those who maintain the identities of both Christian and feminist, we need to find a way to speak of grace as part of our feminism.
The second problem is that of over-idealizing women. I find it quite intriguing that this can be found both in forms of radical feminism (which emphasize women’s unique gifts, in contrast to liberal feminism which emphasizes equality), and in more orthodox places (I doubt I need to remind you of the many comments by LDS leaders about the superior spirituality of women). This can be a terrible burden, and one that also is disconnected from redemption. What do women make of it when they cannot live up to these ideals? Perfectionism and guilt strike again. But like men, women’s hope of salvation must lie in the grace of God. A woman’s alleged innate goodness is not going to bring about salvation, and in fact the idea that women are innately good in a way that men are not may actually be a stumbling block.
I’m not raising these issues out of any kind of general opposition to feminism. But I do think it’s worth discussing some of its potential pitfalls. And for Christian feminists, including ones of the Mormon variety, I see a lot of value in thinking about not only what our feminism contributes to our faith, but also what our faith can contribute to our feminism.
- 23 November 2013