Folks are always surprised to learn that I am not a feminist. After all, an A.B. from Smith College is usually, in the eyes of U.S. academic theologians, a dead giveaway for a thoroughgoing, Gloria-Steinem loving, Vagina-Monologues-performing feminist (I did read in the Vagina Monologues, but I still don’t call myself a feminist). My experiences at Smith College do not represent the experience of every woman of color who has attended the institution. Also, I do not wish to make any claims about how Smith College as an institution fosters any particular dynamic, but only to recount, from a distance, some of my personal classroom and social experiences with white feminism and how this influences my decision not to identify with this movement. Indeed, feminist thought and theory is the zeitgeist at Smith, an almost mythical land where women and women’s issue form the core of the curriculum in every major. While male students are allowed to take credit courses at Smith, the institution stands strong in its commitment to fostering women’s voices and leadership. Smith, like many other outstanding women’s schools, thus presents a tremendous opportunity for its students to piece together their voices, weaving colorful canvases of beliefs and ideas held together with the firm conviction of the fundamental dignity and equality of all people. Other institutions can learn much from Smith, and her many sisters, about the necessity of accounting for women’s experiences in any serious contemporary scholarship. Overall, I must admit, Smith was pretty awesome.
But my time at Smith was not perfect. Being a racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and religious minority at Smith wasn’t easy. My studies were unfettered by gender inequality in the classroom, but the subtle, and sometimes overt, discrimination of more-privileged women who identified themselves as feminist filled this ideological and power vacuum. Overt instances of discrimination, ranging from derogatory statements about being a “dirty little Mexican,” to scoffing at my inner-city, public school education as adequate preparation for a “Seven Sister” school, to openly declaring that I only got into Smith because of affirmative action, are worth mentioning as a witness to the blatant presence of racism and racist sentiment even in a community noted for being “liberal,” “progressive,” or even “radical.” Beyond this, however, I encountered more notable and pernicious forms of discrimination in the classroom, where the concerns of middle-to-upper class white feminists reigned as the hegemonic academic voice. Even classes specifically designated for the exploration of the thought of women of color were often co-opted by the agenda of women with the power, through sheer numbers and a sort of home field advantage, to direct the conversation towards their interests. Conversations intended to focus on racial inequality had a funny way of ending up focused on gender inequality, which is related to – but ought not be conflated with – racial injustice. My classmates often treated my comments as the token “woman of color perspective” and were frequently framed as an “interesting alternative perspective.” At the same time, I was occasionally accused of conservatism or closed-mindedness for questioning the centrality of individual autonomy in making moral or political decisions – excessive emphasis on the individual, I think, hinders the pursuit of justice and equality by denying our essentially social nature and the implications others should have on our moral decision-making. Of course, the importance of community is no excuse for the subordination of some members (women, racialized people, poor people) to others, but does not negate the reality of community as the context for morality. This denial of the dominance of the autonomous self over and against community was often seen as a danger to the particular brand of feminism represented in my classes. My critiques were often brushed aside or flat-out ignored by my classmates. The paradox of elevated token and dangerous other made finding serious academic interlocutors for my political, moral, and theological questions quite challenging.
A similar dynamic materialized in the campus social and political scene, where student organizations concerned with women’s flourishing were often led by white women with the leisure to assume such a role (meaning, women not spending their non-studying time in work study jobs) and with the political weight over and against women who opposed their interests. For example, during my service as the diversity chair on my house council (our equivalent of a dorm council), most of the other women treated my concerns about social inclusion of non-white and non-wealthy women, and even women with physical disabilities (!), as afterthoughts and coined my attempt to defend community members with less power as an affront to building community. Even women with essentially benign intent, furthermore, frequently felt free to claim any voice that asserted the radical equality of women as a feminist voice; naming others into their movement without respecting the agency of those whom they felt free to name – this seems to be a fundamental contradiction to the agency feminists seek to protect.
These experiences were a real eye-opener to the dynamics of feminism that can be seen in the larger society. Any ideology, even one with a fundamentally benign intent, is dangerous when it is framed as the only viable option for morality, politics, or academic discourse. Ideologies of all kinds have the potential to drown out their competition, given enough power and opportunity. Once an agenda becomes hegemonic, it can easily wander into exclusionary tendencies that do not honor the deep and true equality of all humankind.
So, what is the alternative?
As much as I encountered the dangers of ideological domination, I also found great hope for something different in many facets of community life at my wonderful alma mater. Whether it was a good dinner conversations between friends characterized by humility and willingness to learn or professors enthusiastically encouraging students to think outside the box about the relationship between race, gender, and class oppression, pluralism was certainly not defeated in this community. Interestingly enough (especially to my non-Catholic friends), I found Smith College Catholic Chaplaincy to be refreshingly open to plurality among the diverse student population, fostering genuine conversation, shared leadership, and supportive community across our vast racial, social, and political representation. At the time, Chaplain Dr. Elizabeth Carr and her colleagues committed many resources to fostering a plurality of voices, even sponsoring both the Newman Association (of which I was a member) and the radical catholic feminist (a group formed with a predominantly Christian feminist agenda), thus affirming the ongoing necessity of radical feminist resistance in the Church, but also engendering space for difference. Above all, the Catholic Chaplaincy maintained the integral communion between our groups that is central to Catholic ecclesiology by incorporating the members of both groups into visible leadership roles in liturgy and broad-based programming that fostered community and conversation among students from different backgrounds. In this sense, the Church served as a radical response to the power dynamics present on campus and bore witness to the possibility of a truly equitable model of community among women.
Feminism isn’t the only game in town. In theology, womanist, Chicanafeminist, mujerista, and Asian feminist theology emerging from minjung theology have changed the landscape of the conversation, de-centering white feminism as the authority in defining equality, flourishing and well being for women. I am most inspired by womanist theology, which has developed a strong, distinct, and faithful voice that strives to be faithful to the experiences of black women, above all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Drawing on literature and poetry as much as a rich theological and homiletic tradition, womanists have made prophetic strides in relating the Gospel to some of the worst suffering and sin of our time – the violence and subordination of black bodies. While womanism stands out as an especially well-developed discourse, these conversations rooted in the experiences of Christian women throughout the world promise to enrich theology for the Church universal through a thoroughgoing commitment to “chastity of the intellect,” vibrant and critical engagement with neglected experiences of revelation and divine presence, and gut-wrenching truth-telling about the devastation of ideologies that have failed to engender the human equality and progress that they promise (we can all think of several). I certainly hope to participate in many of these conversations with humility and openness to learning much from the women who dedicate their voices to these agendas.
Still, these movements, if elevated to the level of absolute ideology, carry the same risk for abuse as feminism as I observed at Smith, or other ideologies dominant in particular contexts. Indeed, any theological conversation framed in exclusive terms, even if our goal is to rectify inequality, can be taken too far. Exclusion as correction to marginalization is only a temporary, terrestrial strategy that may be required for the foreseeable future, but is not the vision that Jesus sets before us of an absolutely, radically inclusive community. The best image I have found to describe this vision is derived from feminist theologian Letty Russell, who describes the household of God as an “infinitely round table” where Christ is the center and where we are all equals at the tables (see Russell’s Church in the Round). Anything short of radical inclusion of all, even those we might consider opponents or enemies, falls short of this vision. Theologies asserting women’s voices at the exclusion of others are required for justice – setting right what is painfully wrong – but are not our end.
Given the risks of ideology and power, I cannot identify with any of these agendas in an absolute way. My reticence is not out of a squeamishness to commit to a movement for women’s equality (although I am open to critiques from feminist friends who may see it another way), but out of my conscientious discernment that I cannot genuinely commit to an ideological framework beyond my belief in Jesus Christ. I recognize many of the problems of gender inequality in church and society – insidious sexism in the public sphere; the stigmitization and hyper-exotification of black and brown female bodies; sexualized violence against a disgustingly high percentage of women around the world; the spread of preventable illnesses due to lack of access to affordable, culturally and religiously appropriate treatments; lack of economically sustainable and morally feasible employment options; immigration policies that dismember families and make migrant women vulnerable to unimaginable violence; the responsibility of leading the Church without the recognition of the sacramental vocations of deacon or priest, etc. Along with women throughout the world, I enthusiastically affirm a commitment to rectify these and continue to unearth other deep sources of unjust social stratification. But, at the end of the day, these concerns for women’s equality and flourishing cannot be comprehended by any identifiable ideology. They can only be grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our faith and hope, I believe, seeks ever-greater commitment to the radical, temple-clearing, table-turning, outcast-loving, neither-male-nor-female, neither-slave-nor-free good news of Jesus. This gospel has been co-opted and miscommunicated throughout history by tainted ideologies. But its fundamental claim, and thus our call as a Church, is to transcend ideology. Theological critiques and correctives are warranted, but should never usurp the primacy of the gospel or become competing gospels, which is what happens when they are absolutized in ways that silence others. The gospel message, if it is true, is itself radically subversive and resistant of the social structures that perpetuate human inequality, promising reconstitution of human community beginning aqui y ahora (here and now) and eagerly anticipating “a new heavens and a new earth.” (Isa 65:17)
gracia y paz,