Sunday, 2 December 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 2: Raising Awareness

The first key task of feminism is awareness raising.

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.’


  1. I agree. The difference between gender and sex is something that I was taught in first year anthropology.

    Being single, unattached and childless at age 42 does make it difficult for people to put me into a neat category.

  2. I don't understand why egalitarianism, secular or otherwise, is something to be resisted. ++Rowan implies it should not 'given in to', as though it is a threat rather than an affirmation of our common humanity, something which Christians, surely, should embrace? Some church leaders seem to want to distance themselves from this aspect of human rights as much as possible, even progressive church leaders.

  3. I think it depends on what you mean by egalitarianism.

    Wikipedia shows that it can mean quite different things to different people.

    For example I would probably not support a version of egalitarianism that emphasised an equality of outcome. That embodies the assumption that we are all have the same abilities, gifts, and so all of us should be 'winners' and no one should be a 'looser'. Taken to its logical conclusion it means that we don't have competitive exams, sports days, or the olympic games. Everyone should be given a PhD if that is what they want.

    I would suggest that the Christian idea is a body made up of different parts: some strong, and some weak, with different roles, but all in communion with each other. We are all deeply loved by God.

  4. I’m nearly 60, and awareness of gender perception has been worked towards all my adult life, yet often people who don’t conform to a particular stereotype are still not encouraged and empowered to fulfil their potential, probably because this would require effort to question pre-conceived expectations. So many influential people are too arrogant, lazy or even frightened to do that – and they have the loudest voices. It has taken equality legislation to make them pay some attention to egalitarianism, but there is still not a level playing field - for example, see

    The gospels tell us that Jesus was constantly teaching us to be open to all and have the highest expectations of them. Rowan Williams seems to be saying that the Holy Spirit is being listened to more in secular society than in the synod of the Church of England. Perhaps equality legislation, although not perfect, is divinely inspired and should apply to every institution.