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Just before I left for Oregon, I got into a conversation with a commenter, aHuman, on my post about discussing feminism with anti feminists. The conversation got interrupted by my research trip, but this past week after I came home I stumbled across a comment thread at Feministe that touched on an issue similar to one that aHuman brought up toward the end of our exchange: what is the nature of a feminist value system?

More specifically, aHuman responded to an analogy I made about “feminist” being an umbrella concept kind of like “Christian,” in that self-identified feminists don’t necessarily agree with every single other feminist, yet they share a few core tenets (for more, see the comment thread). In response, aHuman wrote

I find it very revealing that you draw parallels between feminism and Christianity. Well there are very good reasons for why religion is kept strictly out of politics and law in all western democracies (certainly the USA). So I’d like to call for an equal treatment under the constitution of feminism with all other religions. That meaning mostly, that anyone can be a member and believe in it or not, but it cannot and should not have any say in politics or education.

Religions are belief systems, not a theory and not an academic discipline.

Actually I’m not that harsh with feminism. I don’t classify it as a belief system but as a political ideology. If anything, I’d compare it with Marxism. Either way, it certainly is not an academic discipline or even a theory.

And this underlines my point about the radical members of feminism. If feminism was an academic discipline or a scientific theory, then those radicals would have been treated far more harshly and critically than they have been. They would have never had enough attention to get a public voice.

There is a lot to unpack in this comment, obviously. For starters, in order to determine whether feminism is a “belief system,” “theory” or “academic discipline” we’d have to decide what we meant by each of those terms and whether they were mutually exclusive. I have no final word on this, but I do have a very personal response that has to do with how I think about feminism (my primary political identity) in relation to my academic work, and how I think about feminism in relation to metaphysical belief systems (religion). And I’m going to try and share some of them. But first, I offer a second comment from Jill over at Feministe who was responding to a commenter in the comment thread of a blog post on dating while feminist. The commenter asked

It’s an interesting point. Is feminism even more integral to feminists than their culture and their religion (or lack thereof)?

And Jill replies

I’m sure the answer to that question differs from feminist to feminist. For me, my culture and my religious beliefs have probably shaped me as a person more than or at least as much as feminism has. But when I’m looking for a partner, shared values vis a vis feminism are much, much more important to me than shared cultural or religious backgrounds/beliefs. Feminism is distinct from other opinions or traditions that I hold because it is a lens that I choose to use to view and pick apart and critique the world around me. It is, for me, the way in which I can maintain my sanity in a place that often feels really fundamentally unfair and ass-backwards. I need a partner to be able to understand that.

I particularly like Jill’s description of the feminist lens as what she chooses “to use to view and pick apart and critique the world around me. It is, for me, the way in which I can maintain my sanity.” I like it because, for me, this was why conscious, political feminism (a conscious critique of cultural frameworks and social structures, as opposed to my childhood “girls and boys are equally capable, worthy human beings” feminism) spoke to me as a teenager. I could feel what was wrong, but I didn’t have the language to articulate it effectively, particularly in the face of conservative Christian adults who were arguing that queer sexuality was immoral and women should be subservient to men, at least spiritually if not materially. Feminist theory provided me with a language to talk about these feelings, and a political framework through which to try and change what was making the world feel (on the worst days) uninhabitable.

My very first academic class that specifically incorporated feminist theory was an intro level theology class on Christian Feminism, taught by a member of my liberal arts college’s Religion department (mostly Reformed, protestant Christian theology and history, although with some ecumenical and world religion offerings). Because of this, I’ve always been kind of taken aback by people who suggest that feminism is a religion. I heard a conservative Catholic faculty member — at a different institution — once argue that feminists couldn’t possibly be Christian because they held heretical religious views that were oppositional to Christian values. However, most of the self-identified feminists I’ve known personally over the years would identify themselves as religious — and often that religious identity is distinct from their feminist identity (that is, when asked about their spirituality, they would say they are Christian or Jewish or Muslim, or Wiccan, agnostic or atheist — not Feminist).

Feminism, as a lens through which to understand the world, does not attempt to answer questions about the metaphysical realm (what happens to us after death, whether there is a God, etc.). Feminist theology, regardless of the religious tradition from whence it springs, tackles these questions from a feminist perspective — but it is not in itself a spiritual orientation toward the world. Or, at least, I have not yet come upon a feminist who understands it as such. Feminism, as a analytical tool, attempts to understand how women and men are constrained by various cultural assumptions of sex and gender; as a political movement, feminism seeks to counter inequalities between human beings related to sex and gender (as well as supporting a wider range of intersecting issues such as race, disability, age, etc.) It is a values system, in that feminists make certain judgments about what is right/wrong, healthy/unhealthy, moral/immoral (whatever terms you choose). For example, feminists belief that human beings should all be valued equally. That is a value judgment.

However, it is not an inherently religious value judgment: one could make such an argument without drawing on any metaphysical beliefs whatsoever.

When it comes to my feminist self and my academic self, I would say that feminism informs my academic work, and is often the subject of my academic work, although the methodologies that I use depend on the project at hand. aHuman suggests that religion (and feminism, if it is treated as a religion) has no place in schools, yet I would point out that the study of religion and theology are both important academic disciplines, as are political science and philosophy. All of these disciplines understand the world through a particular framework (or frameworks), and yet all of them are seen as legitimate fields of academic study. Feminism, to my mind, falls into this category of something that can both be studied and serve as an analytical framework through which to study other subjects. In this way, it is similar to, say, postmodern philosophy, liberal economic theory, or Marxist theory. So I disagree with aHuman that feminism is something ill-suited to intellectual inquiry or academic research.

Returning to Jill’s reflections on the primacy of feminist values, or a feminist orientation toward the world, I am reminded of a paper I had to write in undergrad for our mandatory Senior Seminar (a capstone seminar that was supposed to help all final-year students integrate faith, scholarship, and vocation) in which I basically argued that I hold religious practice accountable to my feminist beliefs: that is, in my worldview, feminist humanism trumps religion. I don’t care (at least not a lot) whether someone chooses “feminist” as a political identity — but if they’re not acting in ways I believe reflect a fundamental belief that women (and all human beings, no matter how marginal) are human beings worthy of our care and attention as fellow persons, then I’m not okay with that. The same goes for any other religious or political philosophy: does it incorporate a conscious critique of power relations and a belief in the worth of all human beings? If not, I’m out.

In that way, yes. Feminism, both as a theoretical framework and as a political stance, trumps my religious/spiritual beliefs and also my cultural background as a core part of my identity. At the same time (bear with me) I’d also argue it’s somewhat incidental: an accident of time and place. While I believe that culture is a powerful force in shaping our identities, I am not enough of a postmodern purist to argue that we bring nothing unique of ourselves into the world. Feminism, as I encountered it, spoke to me, my Self. It suggested a world in which I could thrive. And I have yet to encounter another theory or movement for social change that offered a similar world: a world in which I was invited to be my Self, in the company of other Selves. This includes religion, which often demands of us not compassion and attention to valuing individual human beings, but policing behavior and judgment that diminishes Selves and our connection to God (if you believe in God) or the metaphysical world.

This isn’t to say I believe feminism is the “final word,” as in a closed, finished philosophy — it is ever-evolving in both theory and practice, and I feel I continue to grow with it. But I will say that feminism is my starting place. And so far, it hasn’t disappointed.