“I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world,
and upon all oppression and shame…
I see the wife misused by her husband—
I see the treacherous seducer of young women…
All these—All the meanness and agony without end,
I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.”
(Walt Whitman, I Sit And Look Out)
You don’t have to be a radical feminist to be pro-women. But that’s exactly what a new generation of social activists would have women believe. More than any other time in the movement’s 100+ year-history, contemporary feminism has come to encompass whatever its individuals decide it should, even to point of self-contradiction. In September 1968, a group of self-ascribed feminists protested the Miss America pageant, calling it a “cattle auction.” In August 2014, self-ascribed feminists praised Beyoncé when she performed with the word, “FEMINIST” in the background, along with hyper-sexualized poses, stripper poles, and moves that one writer described as belonging to Penthouse. Feminism has come full circle and the irony is inescapable: Women can now objectify themselves and call it empowerment.
But another aspect of the social revolution has also come full circle. It is one that evangelicals must not ignore, one in which we must not be found silent. It is easy, perhaps even understandable, to dismiss an ideology because of its tenets and results. And when that happens, it is even easier not to acknowledge the validity of the observations that ideology has made. Unfortunately, I fear that we in the Church may be doing just that when it comes to contemporary social feminism. And unless we make a course correction, we will lose a generation of women.
Women like Emma Sulkowicz, a visual arts student at Columbia University. For her senior thesis, Emma opted to haul around her dorm mattress wherever she went. Forbidden to accept anyone’s help, the weight is hers and hers alone. But this is more than an avant-garde expression of modern art; Emma’s project is her protest. Two years earlier, Emma was raped by a fellow student on her dorm mattress. Even after reporting the incident, her attacker, who is accused by two other female students of sexual assault, remains on campus. Until he is expelled or leaves, Emma will bear the visual reminder of her trauma for all to see, expressing the unseen weight she must carry. The weight of the mattress, the weight of the passerby’s quizzical stare, and the weight of her emotional burden are hers to bear.
They are hers and hers alone. And she will not be silent.
Emma is not alone in her project of protest. Women are breaking their silence and taking to social media, finding solidarity in their common experiences and igniting their outrage toward social activism.
The organization, “Hollaback,” for example, is a platform for sharing experiences of sexual harassment and even battery. One young woman described how a man sexually assaulted her when she got up from her bus seat on her way to work, and how difficult it was to file a report with the police. A New York City artist began the “Stop Telling Women to Smile” project, revealing the subconscious sense of obligation for women to smile at men, on-demand, for fear of further harassment or even aggression. As one woman bitingly described, encountering an unfamiliar man on her way to work who says, You’d be prettier if you smiled, or What’s the matter, baby, why don’t you smile? feels, in her words, “rapey,” as she defensively smiles in hopes that she will be left alone. Women may be an equal presence in the workforce, but they still feel threatened on their way to work.
Within the multi-cultural blogosphere and Twitterverse, women are using the ubiquity of the Internet to express international solidarity. Across the globe, they joined women of Turkey, with the hashtag, direnkahkaha meaning, “Resist, Laugh.” The trend was in response the Turkish deputy prime minister’s statement that women should not laugh in public out of propriety. It sparked a protest of Turkish women tweeting laughter-filled selfies, attracting the participation of women around the world, including actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson. This summer, women lifted up a chorus of dissent against cultural misogyny and violence against women in the #YesAllWomen campaign in the wake of a deranged killer’s chilling words of hatred. Their outspoken complaints, through online communities and social media, have formed a collective protest. As Ealasaid Munro of the Political Studies Association observes, “The internet has created as ‘call out’ culture, in which sexism and misogyny can be ‘called out’ or challenged.” Just think of Robin Thicke’s publicity-stunt-gone-wrong, when the #AskThicke Twitter conversation turned into a public pushback for the singer-songwriter’s objectification of women and the hit song many describe as a “rape anthem.” No social issue is beyond the reach of the new “call out” culture. Pro-women individuals have banned together under the umbrella of social feminism, identifying any and all injustice against women as their cause to combat.
It is theirs and theirs alone. And they will not be silent.
Today’s female college freshmen have never have so many advantages, largely thanks to their feminist foremothers. They are the recipients of unparalleled opportunities in education and the workplace, opportunities that would have been denied them 50 years ago. As a female theology student, I’m well aware of the irony that women in my discipline were practically unheard of before the very social movement with which I disagree. But there’s an even greater irony, one shared by every woman regardless of her self-ascribed titles: No matter how many glass ceilings women break through, their social status remains fragile.
For all its social advances, humanity’s core still remains unchanged. For all its social activism, “rape culture,” street harassment, and misogyny still has not been “educated out” of society. For all its social initiatives, women still face oppression and abuse, worldwide. And it is here that today’s young women find themselves at a serious disadvantage: The belief that true transformation is still just a social change away. That women have achieved unparalleled independence yet still contend for basic safety and public value is a sobering cultural commentary.
But not an unfamiliar one.
Throughout the book of Judges, among the newly formed nation of Israel, the status of women took an all-too-familiar decline. The strength and dignity of a Deborah, the prophetess sought out for her wisdom and valor, digressed to a nameless, degraded concubine, thrust before violent men in her weakness. The narrative of violence against women revealed that the nation had spiraled into chaos, becoming a society in which a woman could find no refuge. She was safe neither outside her home, nor inside her home.
For the biblical narrator, the progressive abandonment of women in Israel reflected the nation’s progressive abandonment of God. Princeton Theological Seminary’s Jacqueline Lapsley explains: “It implies an integral relation between violence against women and more general violence…The state and treatment of women in Judges indexes the health of Israel’s social and religious life in the same book.” The more the country denigrated into chaos, the more women found themselves in vulnerable situations (Judges 5:17-21, 9:53, 11:29-40). As the nation plummeted into spiritual decline, so did the presence of godly leadership among its men. And in the absence of godly men, women were left unprotected. To communicate the increasing peril women faced, the writer of Judges decreasingly identified them. Far from indifference, the narrator is highlighting the horrors of the nation’s sin. He presents the unnamed, unidentified concubine as a dehumanized object. She was anonymous, as anonymous as a young woman on a bus on her way to work. This act of violence against a woman was an indictment on the nation. The degree to which the nation followed the Lord directly indicated the degree to which they protected and valued women.
The rape of the concubine remains one of the most difficult passages in Scripture to stomach. But it is also remains one of the most instructive cultural diagnoses. This gruesome act of violence was a direct reflection of a nation’s overall condition. That women in our cities are threatened on a public sidewalk, is a direct reflection of ours.
For this generation of women, we must not be found sitting, seeing, but silent. As long as young women continue to find recognition of their value – and a chance to have a voice – through the suggestion of social feminism, they will continue to be attracted to, and influenced by, the solutions it proposes. We have been faithful to speak out against the results of these solutions. We have been bold to defend the gospel-portraying paradigm of biblical marriage and gender identity, as well as the sacredness of all human life.
But we must speak out against devaluation of women with the same urgency. We must take up the indignation of the single woman assaulted on a public bus and the outrage over a college student whose attacker still roams her campus. We must care enough to speak up on their behalf and no longer be silent.
We stand on the precipice of an opportunity to speak out for women on the very issues that have led so many to identify with a secular worldview. But if we fail to speak on their behalf, we will not only fail to reflect the God in whose estimation they are of consummate worth, but we will fail to reach young women who will find solidarity among those who do. You don’t have to be a radical feminist to be pro-women. You just have to see, hear, and refuse to be silent.
Unless we, as the Church, add our voices to the chorus of dissent, the tenants of secular movements like social feminism will continue to thrive. Unless we consider every woman’s value our duty to defend, yet another generation of women will advocate social solutions for spiritual problems. But this need not be our cultural trajectory. We have the God who ascribed to women unsurpassed worth, the God whose Law is full of protective measures ensuring their security, the God whose image they bear (Gen 1:27-29, Num 5:11-31, Num 27, Deut 21:10-14, Deut 22:25-29).
That women in our culture are unvalued, objectified, and dehumanized is an indictment against us all. As the people of God, we will be held accountable for the treatment of women among us. Their dignity is our responsibility.
It is ours. And ours alone. And we must not be silent.
Karla Bohmbach, “Conventions/Contraventions: The Meanings of Public and Private for the Judges 19 Concubine,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 83 (1999): 97.
Jacqueline E. Lapsley, “Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament,” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 65.
Lapsley , Whispering the Word, 65.