Parallel Universes? Patriarchy and Feminism in Evangelicalism

This past spring, Sarah Palin embraced the “f-word.” She said she was a feminist. Her claim was met with ridicule by many; it seemed designed merely to garner the support of conservatives by co-opting the label. More recently, observers have been surprised by the numbers of women among the supporters of the tea party and have asked whether those women should be considered feminists. RD’s own Joanna Brooks has tackled the question of the relationship between conservative (religious) women and the feminist movement in an interview with scholar R. Marie Griffith.

In the July issue of Sojourner’s magazine, Anne Eggebroten has an excellent piece on the persistence of patriarchy in conservative American Protestantism in which she suggests that patriarchalism and egalitarianism live, in conservative Protestantism, in parallel universes.

In the context of discussing a patriarchal church she visited, she outlines the challenges raised by evangelical feminists; challenges that amount to a completely different version of what the bible “really” says about women and traces a brief version of the history of the evangelical/biblical feminist movement.

Eggebroten is one of the founders of Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now the Ecumenical and Evangelical Women’s Caucus, one of two organizations of men and women that, throughout the 1970s and 1980s wrote books challenging fundamentalists readings of “problem texts” that could fill bookshelves (the other being Christians for Biblical Equality.) To get a sense of the style and substance of those critiques, you can read examples in her essay.

Eggebroten still finds a spiritual home in evangelicalism but you can hear in the voice in which she writes, as well as in the words of many of the women she quotes, that she‘s engaged in an on-the-ground battle with patriarchalism.

Icons of America’s women’s movement might not identify with Eggebroten’s more moderate critique of patriarchalism; many, like Mary Daly, came to see Christianity as too inherently patriarchal to be “reclaimed.” But evangelical feminism, and its leaders like Eggebroten, should not be confused with whatever brand of feminism to which Palin subscribes. Typically smart and educated, (Eggebrotten is a Ph.D. and a religion professor) they remain in the evangelical world and struggle against the limitations on women. They write, they teach and they organize, to make a place for the women in those churches; women who will come to an evangelical feminist bible study to learn a different reading of the text but would never walk into a meeting of the National Organization for Women.

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