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April 1974    Vol. 3 No. 1    pp. 167–72 

A Christian Response to the Women's Liberation Movement

Luetta Reimer

The Women’s Liberation Movement is possibly the most misunderstood of all the current issues facing the Christian today. And it’s no wonder. Most of what the average person hears about the movement is either extremely radical or downright ridiculous. The news media has capitalized on the shock value of bra-burnings and female sewer-diggers so long that most people have decided the issue is not worth serious consideration.

BUT HOW SHOULD A CHRISTIAN RESPOND?

Somehow, ignoring current issues doesn’t coincide with my view of the ideal Christian—a person who is aware of what is happening in the world and who tries to understand what is happening with the help of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. The ideal Christian wants to influence the world for Jesus Christ, but he is doomed to be ineffectual if he is ignorant. I assume at the start, then, that the subject is worth discussing and understanding.

One of the most difficult and most important lessons for the Christian to learn is the art of discrimination, or discernment. This ability to sort out experience and choose priorities never comes easily. Perhaps this is why churchmen often choose to avoid certain issues.

The Mennonite Brethren traditionally took a firm stand against movies and the theater. “Yes,” the elders would say, “there are a few good ones like The Robe or The Ten Commandments, but once you go to one you’ll want to go to the others,” or “Those good films won’t hurt you, but the preview of next week’s showing might, so it’s better not to go at all.” I’m not sure this stance was better, but it definitely was easier. There were no decisions to make about whether a certain movie was fit for a Christian to see. We simply didn’t go.

A similar pattern has emerged in other areas. Many Christians feel that the church is the last place controversial issues should be discussed. The Herald and the Leader, they say, should not carry articles on capital punishment or abortion. Politics and racial discrimination should not be mentioned in the Sunday services. Such topics are considered irrelevant to the work of the church. But it may be that we avoid these subjects because they raise questions without answers. Perhaps a serious study of these problems would reveal a need for change in our personal lives or in the life of the church. And change is often frightening and painful.

It has been especially easy for the church to ignore the Women’s Liberation Movement. What we’ve seen on television and in the papers has confirmed our notion that the whole thing is a crazy obsession thought {168} up and kept alive by a few sexually-frustrated or psychologically-disturbed females. Beneath all this, however, there are some basic principles which merit the attention of conscientious Christians. The chief tool the Christian needs to bring with him is discrimination—the ability to sort out that which has value and relevance to his life and his role in the world as a disciple of Christ.

A Christian response to the Women’s Liberation Movement, then, begins with a willingness to be open to whatever good may come out of the movement rather than prejudging or rejecting the whole.

FEMINISTS AND THE FREEDOM TO BE FEMININE

Women working for freedom is nothing new in America, but the current movement gathered impetus from Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1966. In her book, Ms. Friedan exposed the disillusionment and emptiness in the life of the typical middleclass housewife. As women across the nation read this book they responded enthusiastically with “She’s right! That’s just how I’ve been feeling!”

Since then, various organizations have been formed and countless books and articles written to help promote the recognition of the fact that women are human beings and that their needs and potential are equal to those of men. This is the basic message of the movement. Women are just as valuable as men—not always in the same way—but of equal importance and worth. One of the largest and most influential groups is called NOW, the National Organization for Women. While NOW is interested in the general welfare of women, it has historically been most active in helping to eliminate employment and wage discrimination against women. Many NOW members are men.

The more radical groups, usually called “feminists,” believe that women will never achieve recognition and freedom unless they stage a confrontation with men. They feel that men have demeaned and suppressed women. Some feminist groups advocate separation from men, while others teach superiority over men. One such group is called SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. Another is WITCH, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. Other segments advocate a unisex society as the path to equality and freedom. They believe that the elimination of apparent differences between men and women would eradicate sexual discrimination. They favor one clothing style and shaved heads.

The feminist groups are the most vocal champions of women’s liberation. They stage raids on all-male bars, file suits against football teams, and carry placards reading “God is not dead; I talked to Her today.” Naturally, newspapers and magazines sell faster with a feature on feminist activities and opinions than they would with a story about women working quietly for legislation, such as a provision to allow working mothers to deduct child-care costs as a business expense. The evening news is more likely to include a film of extremists hurling tomatoes at Miss America contestants than a group of parents trying to combat sexual stereotypes in their children’s textbooks. Consequently, the public often sees only the most radical segments of the movement and hears primarily of extremist objectives.

The Christian response to extremist feminism is unmistakable and uncomplicated. The Bible says that God created male and female, and it is clear He wanted them to stay that way. There is value in the individual {169} sexes, yet each needs the other for completion and wholeness. But not all women for liberation are “un-Christian.” The feminists constitute only a small minority of the persons who are conscientiously working for women’s rights.

While some women are out demonstrating or trying to prove that their physical strength is equal to men’s, the large majority of persons for liberation simply want to promote a new awareness of the value of all human life and a realization that female life is just as valuable as male. Most women don’t feel compelled to protest against toothpaste advertisements, but they are convinced that women do need to be more than sex symbols in our society. While few women would stage a television boycott, they are right in objecting to the portrayal of women on television as either empty-headed beauties or domineering old biddies.

Certain groups within the larger movement have chosen their own “cause,” whether it be equal employment, liberalized abortion laws, or important positions in politics and the church. The large majority, however, is united on one basic stance: every woman has the right to become the best person she can be. They believe that every woman (and every man, for you can’t have true women’s liberation without freeing men too) should have the right to choose how she wants to live her life, how she can best find fulfillment and use her talents and abilities. Women, they say, should be freed from the stereotype that says each and every one of them belongs in the home. And the women who choose to stay home need to be freed from the degrading stereotype that suggests homemaking doesn’t require intelligence or skill.

Some of the strongest opponents of liberation are women who have fixated on only one aspect of the movement. Their response is “Why change? I appreciate having a man open doors for me!” or “I think a woman belongs with her family at home,” as if the movement meant to outlaw courtesy and motherhood.

Almost every day there is an article in the local paper about some woman who has crashed the sex barrier into a formerly all-male occupation or sport. The photos often shown a woman in man’s clothes, and the caption is frequently worded to show the futility of her feat. Comedians and cartoon writers have drawn inspiration from this aspect of the movement. Of course it is ridiculous when a woman tries to be a man, or a man tries to be a woman. We found that out when we started playing “dress-up” as pre-schoolers. Later, in the 6th grade, it was a sure way to get laughs at the talent show. And now, because this aspect is mostly what we see, the whole issue of female equality has been subjected to sarcasm, ridicule, and scorn.

Some women campaigning for liberation have been misdirected by the false assumption that men are liberated. Men are free and they go to work; therefore, to be free we women must go where the men are to work. The conclusion that women’s liberation means having a career outside the home is then logical, but untrue. Realistically, men are not all enthused about a “freedom” which ties most of them down all year except for two weeks of vacation.

The woman who competes for masculine jobs, then, is going one step further by suggesting that the man is the norm for being human, that women would really be successful if they could be like men. True women’s liberation will never create a loss of femininity; rather, it will free women to be truly feminine. True liberation will free women from {170} the popular notion that femininity is a synonym for weakness and inferiority. While it should not eliminate the differences between man and woman, it should remove sex as a criterion on the scale of human worth.

Most women have a career whether they call it that or not. A career as wife and mother is one of the highest callings for a woman. It is a demanding and challenging career and should not be underrated. Women who say “I’m just a housewife,” need to be reminded that their role is crucial. They should be just as determined to succeed in their career as any junior executive. The idea that managing a home and raising a family requires only a minimum of skill and intelligence is heresy. The father who feels the money spent on his daughter’s education is wasted because she marries and begins a family right after graduation from college is sadly misled.

At the same time we need to be more tolerant of the woman who says “It’s not for me!” Many women feel a genuine need to exercise their abilities in some additional ways, and many feel that they are honestly needed in their chosen profession. These women have often had to suffer the scorn of those who insist categorically that a woman’s place is in the home. In Christian circles, such criticism has sometimes been harsh and self-righteous. Just as we cannot judge each other’s souls, we also cannot dictate the will of God for every woman.

The woman who pursues a career outside her home is likely to confront a great deal of prejudice if she chooses a field traditionally reserved for men. Elementary school teachers never face this problem, but woman principals do. Nurses are expected to be female, but woman doctors are rare.

Until recently, the hiring and salary scales for women in the business world were obviously discriminatory. The Women’s Liberation Movement has been very influential in securing rights for women in almost every job and professional field. During the last ten or fifteen years, virtually every possibility has opened up to women. Even now, however, there are few women holding top positions in medicine, law, business, or education. The primary reason is not discrimination, but a general lack of self-confidence among women. Many women who have the capacity to excel in a profession never even try because they have been conditioned to feel inadequate or that it wouldn’t be “feminine.”

Frequently, persons working for liberation will cite childhood conditioning as the culprit in women’s feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. Little boys are encouraged to think of what they want to be when they grow up, and are given chemistry sets and telescopes to stimulate their intellectual development. Little girls are encouraged to “play house” and be “Mommy” to their dolls.

Soon after this, the girls discover that it is very important to be liked by boys. The most important thing is to please, attract, and ultimately catch a man. Later, the chief way a woman can identify herself is with her husband’s name.

Somewhere in this process girls have started believing that if they are too smart or too competent or too strong, the men won’t like them. Consequently, many girls deliberately underachieve. In school they don’t study as hard as they should, and in sports they don’t play as hard as they could. They learn that the way to win a man is by reinforcing his ego, even if that means feigning ignorance and frailty. {171}

SHOULD NOT THE CHURCH RESPOND CHRISTIANLY?

Such role-playing is contrary to Christian principles. In Jesus’ parable of the talents, the man who failed to develop his talent was unsparingly condemned. Because it is sin to fail to become what we potentially could be and to fail to be good stewards of the gifts of God, we must respond by encouraging each other and our children to become the best persons we can be.

The church should take the initiative in teaching children healthy attitudes towards their own sex and towards the other. We must assure young people that true satisfaction will come as a result of understanding and following God’s plan for their lives, rather than in yielding to society’s pressures and patterns for success. We must convince them of a spiritual responsibility to become all that God wants them to be. And we must be good examples.

Opponents of women’s liberation often quote St. Paul as evidence that non-liberation is biblical. Although scholars and theologians differ on the application of Paul’s teachings, there is general agreement that Paul is speaking to the structure and form of the marriage relationship. The fact that the husband is the “head” of the wife does not mean he has all the brains or does all the thinking for the two of them. When Paul says that wives should submit themselves to their husbands, it is because God knows that’s the way it will work best. If we interpret him to mean that men are smarter, stronger, or more spiritual than women, we’re reading between the lines and in the margins.

No reputable Bible scholar argues with the truth that, while we may have different roles and natures, we are of equal importance in God’s sight and in the work of the church. “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)

Christ’s teaching and ministry raised women to a new level of human worth. His interaction with women reveals a genuine respect for their capacity to contribute to the building of His kingdom. It is interesting to note that he entrusted the crucial news of His resurrection to women, even though the testimony of a woman was at that time not valid in the courts. And even Paul, who is often labelled a “male chauvinist,” found meaningful roles for women in his ministry to the churches.

Many churches are responding whole-heartedly to the movement to liberate women. Some have issued bold statements declaring their affirmation of the equality of women. Some have allocated funds to the advancement of women. Some have gone so far as to ordain woman ministers. But most are more timidly beginning to elect women as delegates to conferences and occasionally asking them to help pick up the offering.

In most evangelical churches, the women are still the Sunday School teachers, the potluck organizers, and the sopranos and altos in the choir. Our churches are neglecting and certainly not encouraging much of the talent in their women. Not all women have the same gifts—they aren’t all adept at decorating the church nursery or planning dinners. Some are efficient administrators and experienced businesswomen. But women are seldom elected to local church boards or committees and almost never at the conference level. There is an implication that men have the monopoly on certain gifts, while in reality some women could do the job better. {172} At the same time, they could gain the satisfaction of knowing that their God-given abilities have not been rejected by the church. It seems that many men would be happy to be relieved of a committee assignment here and there, but the men admit that they still have an underlying fear that the women might “take-over.”

The mission of the church is so great that it deserves all the energy and time and talent we have. Each of us should be able to develop and use our knowledge and our spiritual gifts in the work of the church. Something is wrong when talents and potential lie buried in half of the congregation.

The role of women in the church is undergoing crucial and difficult changes today. But the woman who feels a genuine call of God to minister in the church will still be faced with tremendous obstacles. She will be misunderstood by both men and women. Some will be suspicious of her motives. She will labor under tremendous pressure to succeed. If she fails, her church may say, “Well, we tried a woman, but she couldn’t do it. I guess it’s a man’s job after all.” But if her male counterpart is found unsuited for his job or ineffective in his ministry, the church will simply look for another man.

The Women’s Liberation Movement is trying to free all of us from the danger of such faulty generalizations. We should respond with a willingness to re-think our individual and group attitudes. The general spirit of equality, justice, and personal dignity promoted by the movement is clearly compatible with Christ’s teachings on human relationships. Our response should be to look beyond unfounded stereotypes and develop a new awareness of the God-given potential in each human being. Male and female created He them.

Luetta Reimer is a homemaker, mother, and Assistant Professor of English at Pacific College, Fresno, California.

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