Erin Lane: Feminism is about men, too

And right now men may need to examine their own stake in gender equality.

Feminism does not support women. Feminism supports humanity. And humanity, rather obviously, includes men.

I've been lobbying for a feminist facelift for some time now. The word itself betrays the significance of its goal to celebrate all genders' full humanity. I've touted around the clunky "genderism" or the cloying "femenism" to illustrate its capacity to hold both women and men in its mission. My linguistic gymnastics have yet to cartwheel themselves into mainstream usage. Many Christians are thus left to take a simplistic approach to feminism as a "women's issue" that has waning utility in the mainline church where women now enjoy most of the same access as men.

A recent event at Duke University illustrates my point well. "Should I Love Feminism?" asked the clever advertisement for a panel on feminist theology. It was an intentional strategy on the part of the sponsoring Women's Center. Without the perspective of powerhouse academics, the panel could have easily been dismissed as the worn-out, haggardly arguments of a sub-field of academia becoming less popular with every click of the remote to watch the Bachelor or Bridalplasty. Feminism has been declared dead more than once in the last three decades.

Opening remarks from the public were littered with praise for the men who offered their support to women on campus. The implicit message was that this was the sideline role of men in the feminist movement: chivalrous cheerleaders. Applause is rightly given to those who make genuine moves toward reconciling gender disparity. Applause, however, is not incentive enough for leaders to charge brazenly into the future of feminist reformation. Something more intrinsic than one's affection for mothers, wives, and daughters must be named. Without a clear stake in one's sense of self or one's sense of the divine, leaders who are merely "in support" of women and "their issues" risk becoming the paternalistic figures of benevolence feminists have long critiqued.

Many Christian leaders whom I have encountered over the years are still operating on the assumption that the goal of feminism is women's equality. While this is indeed historically true -- the movement was first organized at the end of the 19th century to obtain women's right to vote and heightened during the civil rights era of the 1960's and 70's -- it is not the whole truth.

The whole truth is that the feminism is about recognizing the humanity of all gendered persons, women among them. The cultural context of the last twenty years has shifted western feminism's focus to a more nuanced, complex, and diverse approach to gender transformation. As with the "post-ing" of modernism, the post-feminist corpus has complicated the perceived solidarity of its predecessor. While this makes it harder to organize for social change, it does expand the subject for whom feminism is concerned to the overwhelming breadth of men, women, and those who eschew binary categorizations.

To me, it still feels as if Christian leaders are operating on the tired notion of feminism as a historically-specific secular movement rather than a theological lens of liberation.

It's safe to tout the arguably uncontestable idea that women should be honored in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the home. But I wish there could be a larger critique of the way that men's bodies have been regulated in the rhetoric of masculinity, how their socialization has inhibited their expression of vulnerability, how their full humanity has been distorted by the power regimes of which they are a part. I want to stand up, point my finger at Christian leaders, especially the men, and say, "This affects you, too." It affects us all. In much of the western world where women have gained the basic rights of citizenship, it is critical for leaders to recognize that in many ways it is now men who are failing to live up to their full humanity. Look at our soldiers, our prisoners, our politicians. What is the cost of their masculinity?

A Christian feminist theology reflects the heart of Jesus. It is undoubtedly a heart that gives special attention or "support" to society's marginalized. These are not only women. Feminism is not an additive to the Christian narrative. Christianity is inherently feminist in so much as it unequivocally affirms the humanity of both men and women in the image of God. As Christian leaders, our stake in feminism must be named as nothing less than the Cross, nothing less than abundant life.