Since I was fourteen, I’ve spent the greater part of each year immersed in secular, liberal, cerebral New England. In many ways, this has been a blessing; among other things, I bet there are few places in America that talk as much about, and make as much space for, the “liberated feminist.” I was told constantly that this was no place for uptalk, no place for hesitant qualifications, no place for deferring to others about choices regarding my body and my life.
There is an attractive logic to the statement that my body is wholly and completely my own, and I signed on eagerly. As the list above indicates, however, the behaviors I learned were essentially reactions to socially imposed restrictions that had long chafed my mentors. I learned feminism not as a philosophy, but as a practice, a list of social constructs that I should not buy in to, because they keep me from power and self-ownership. I spent four years in high school making a discipline of seeing the spaces where I wasn’t allowed agency in my life and taking it anyway: my right as a woman.
After high school, I became Christian and joined a fellowship, where one of the first messages I heard was that our bodies and our lives are, in fact, fundamentally not our own. They belong to Christ, as everything else, and like any other gift we receive, we are meant to use them to serve. This left me in a bit of a dilemma: if the premise of my feminism was at odds with what the wiser, older women in my fellowship told me, what did that mean for the consequent actions?
To keep a long story short, I threw a lot of my feminism out, and I have only recently started examining what I lost. The problem was not that either the Christian message or the feminist stance was wrong. It would be a lie to say that I was told Christian womanhood is a negation of modern feminism (though it must be admitted that in some areas (like modesty), Christian femininity was defined for me precisely in opposition to what “everyone else” thinks). For me, the tension lay in the fact that being empowered was framed as seizing my power from those who would take it away, with very practical steps for execution; by contrast, being Christian is framed as giving the power away to God, for His people, with rather fuzzy outlines of what this means in daily life. Feminism declared to me that if I want to preach or teach, I should do exactly that; women in my college fellowship, whom I respected, reminded me to think about what it means for people at church to hear me speak, and what is God saying about it, anyway? Especially when I was a young Christian anxious to learn “the rules,” in moments like this when I wasn’t really sure and everyone else seemed to have a lot more experience with the issue, it seemed a safe bet to avoid entirely the practices I’d adopted in the feminist mindset.
I don’t regret the choice I made then. I believe it was part of a sincere effort to be Christian in a particular moment of my life. Three years later, though, I know that the “safe bet” is not safe; in fact, in the long run, it is mental sloth. Feminism, after all, is not fighting shadows; it is responding to real pain and injustice that exists even now, even in the Ivory Tower. In my eagerness to forget myself, I had forgotten the women who are unquestionably some of the poor, overlooked and victimized for their gender. Insofar as it protects women and equips them to work well, feminism is deeply good, even if its rationale for doing so does not accord with what I believe. As I try to position my Christianity between the binary female conditions I’ve learned–either entirely self-empowered or entirely socially subjugated–what helps is understanding what the full range of choices may be. My fellowship was quite small when I joined, and the dominant voices were of a particular sort; its growth has given me room to breathe and look around. My wonderful Christian roommates have been invaluable as sounding boards and, when necessary, sources of encouragement and rebuke. Ultimately, it seems each situation might call for a different response, and it may be that I’ll have to find satisfaction in consistency, not necessarily within the feminist/non-feminist spectrum, but as a Christian.
Ye Dam Lee ’15 (two first names) lives in Quincy House and is studying what she needs to know to teach math in high school.