And the first thing that feminism has contributed to modern Christianity is an increasing awareness that issues of sex and gender are issues at all. In particular, feminism has hoped to make people realize how much our cultural assumptions about what it is to be human have been based on what it is to be a particular type of adult man.
In the early days of feminism this needed saying again and again and again. Feminists have sometimes have been accused of being ‘strident’, and we’ve all had the experience of raising a point about gender in a meeting and seeing everyones eyes roll – there she goes again! But sometimes, when one is saying something that a culture doesn’t want to hear, you have to shout repeatedly to be heard at all.
Feminism is first and foremost about raising awareness of issues of sex and gender.
The two terms 'sex' and 'gender' are often used interchangeably, but they represent slightly different aspects of the issues. In broad terms, ‘sex’ is a matter of biological reproductive fact. It concerns the variety of sexual and reproductive differentiation in both plants and animals. So when we speak of issues of sex we are properly speaking referring to issues regarding the spectrum of physical and biological differences between the male and female of the species.
‘Gender’, on the other hand, refers to a much wider variety of culturally determined understandings of what it is to be male or female. Sex, we might say, is a given; gender is performed. And there are a wide variety of gender identities, which often change over time: simple examples are girl/woman/mother/grandmother, or boy/man/father/grandfather. Each word encapsulates a distinct set of cultural expectations as to how that gendered role will be performed, and what it is to be a good boy, woman, father, grandmother. Once we grasp the idea of gender as performance and as a cluster of cultural expectations, we can see clearly just how much variety there is and has been historically.
In the past, the category of eunuch was a distinct male gender identity (there is a fascinating chapter on eunuchs in Teresa Berger's excellent book Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History). Nowadays, the category of gay man is clearly differentiated from the category of heterosexual adult male, or ‘family man’. In our culture, too, heterosexual adults who remain childless often find that they are problematised by society as not fitting neatly into any of our main cultural gender stereotypes.
In the early days of feminism this emphasis on raising awareness of sex and gender was heard as being about ‘women’s issues. But maleness is, of course, as gendered a concept as femaleness. I say ‘of course’, but in fact this is one of those seemingly obvious statements that people seem to find it very hard to fully accept.
Feminism has done quite well at this core task of awareness raising, though the task is by no means over. But the very fact that we are having arguments about women bishops, and that in those arguments nobody is suggesting that the women we have in senior roles now wouldn’t make excellent bishops, shows how far we have come.
Writing in the Church Times in the autumn, Rowan Williams argued that our current position in having women priests but not bishops is anomalous, and doesn’t reflect a proper theology of the priesthood of all believers. And he acknowledged the debt that Christian theology owes to this awareness raising task of feminism. He said: whilst ‘Wanting to move beyond this anomaly is not a sign of giving in to secular egalitarianism… we must be honest, and admit that, without secular feminism, we might never have seen the urgency of this, or the inconsistency of our previous position.’