The Big Idea: What The Feminist Mistake is all about
Mary Kassian arranges her book around her big idea: that feminism has emerged as feminists have demanded the right to name first themselves, then their world and finally, God.
On the surface this looks fairly innocuous. Calling things by names doesn’t usually seem to us to be that significant: here in England I am obliged to call eggplants ‘aubergines’. It is still the same vegetable despite its more elaborate name. Does it really matter that feminists want to rename themselves, their world and God?
Yes. As Mary shows, naming is more than just changing the label on something. Naming involves identifying the essence of the thing and defining who or what it is. We only have to look to the debates over ‘sex worker’ versus ‘prostitute’ or ‘asylum seeker’ versus ‘refugee’ to see this. Names matter. Feminism looks at women and names them and by naming women feminism defines who we are. It then turns to do this with the world and with God. In the process of doing this feminism rejects what it considers to be patriarchal society’s definition of women, the world and God. This is a massive shift in thinking and it happened over only a few decades.
Mary shows how this thinking evolved:
1960-1970 – Naming the Self (Chapters 1-6)
Here feminists sought to redefine women. Feminists argued that women had been wrongly named by men and patriarchal society as second class people as lesser than men, or even as deformed males. For feminists, the clear biological differences between men and women had led to the subjugation and demeaning of women, identified by various feminists as a kind of ‘rape’ by patriarchal society. Feminists attacked these ways of thinking about women, and called for the right of women to create their own identities and ways of thinking about themselves, or naming themselves.
1970-1980 – Naming the World (Chapter 7-11)
This part of the project was to understand and redefine the world through women’s eyes. Patriarchal society had wrongly defined women and so tried to force women to act and live in certain ways. Feminism rejected this definition of women. This meant that they rejected the society that they thought had imposed this definition. And so they turned their redefining tools onto society and started to think, “What is a feminist’s perspective on this society and how should it be changed to accommodate feminists?”. Things are re-examined on this basis. Things like language, literature, history, sociology and so on. Unsurprisingly, such things are seen as constructed by men to exclude women or to reinforce the demeaning view of women held by men. In response, new perspectives are given specifically from a woman’s viewpoint and history is re-examined for ‘lost’ women who were suppressed and silenced by patriarchy.
It may seem that this is all so far in the clouds that it doesn’t matter much to people in the real world. But by changing language, literature, history and the like, feminism seeks to change society and people at levels more fundamental than most of us are even conscious of.
In this phase, feminists redefine their world, so much so that there is no longer a common starting place between feminists and others. The decision whether you are feminist or not creates a fundamental gulf between people that prevents rational discussion across the divide. Important in this part of the movement is that absolutes are overturned and questioned. The only ‘absolutes’ that are allowed are the values that support feminism and its recreation of the world.
1980-1990 – Naming God (Chapter 12-17)
Feminism then turned to naming or creating God. Mary helpfully shows that this was the logical conclusion for much of feminist thinking. Having set up women’s experience and feminist theory as the criteria for judging society, feminists turned to use this criteria for understanding God. Both within and outside the church, Mary shows how feminists reject the authority of Scripture, the one-ness of God and Christianity as it stands. Feminists asked how to construct God and the church on feminist values and then proceeded to do just that. The Christian God revealed by Jesus Christ is replaced by a mutated, feminised version of the Christian God understood as ‘God/dess’ or a nameless force or ‘Be-ing’. Behind this however, lies the feminist view of god. Ultimately, for feminists, ‘god’ is oneself, and Mary shows how this is present in all sorts of ways in secular and in religious feminism.
I have not attempted to summarise the political dimension of the debate, which, as Mary shows, is important for a thorough understanding. All through these decades the feminist movement poured energy into recruiting and consciousness-raising in various ways in order to fulfil the dream of feminism to transform society. Instead of following this line of Mary’s argument, I have tried to pull out the main ideas which continue to grow and development throughout the movement, and which are important to understand the ideas of the movement.
It’s a lot of stuff to take in, but I think there is one conclusion we can draw from Mary’s study which is worth realising.
Feminists are not woman-centred, they are feminist-centred. That is, they are concerned to pursue the goals of feminism. They claim to be for women, and this gives them a lot of their rhetorical power – to be anti-feminist is to be anti-women. But in reality that are only for a particular kind of woman – the woman who embraces feminism. In naming women, they have defined their ideal woman and they do not support and even actively attack women who deviate from and question that definition. If, as women, we disagree with their directions or goals we are “betraying the sisterhood”, we are unenlightened and we are rejected by the movement. I stumbled across an excellent example of this last week in an article about the Republican nominee for Vice President in the United States, Sarah Palin, which argued that she was not a woman (click here). Not that she was a bad example of a woman, or that she had not reached her potential as a woman, but that she was not a woman. The reason was that, as a conservative, she wasn’t a feminist. This is a useful thing to realise. When feminists name women, they exclude everyone who does not fit that definition, regardless of their gender.
This is a negative kind of point, but the positive practical point is that we can raise this with people who like to see themselves as feminist. We can ask them whether feminism has anything to offer non-feminist women (other than the chance to become feminists) and point out that feminism only serves the interests of a very narrow group of women in the world. We can then contrast that with Christ who is for women of every tribe and language and tongue.
Feminism is about feminists, not women. Christ embraces all who come to him in faith (Matthew 11:28).