I was talking with some friends this week about favorite childhood books (we’re still not over Sheftu. True story.) and I realized that reading good stories with strong female characters built a lot of subconscious mental structure which helped me see women as equal to men, and drove me to be skeptical of the soft patriarchy in complementarianism and question other elements of privilege or inconsistent treatment of people in the church.
I just needed to have the lights flipped on in my head to bring these two parts of my mind together and see how they didn’t line up. But before I realized that I was a feminist, I was the girl who ate up stories about strong women and female warriors and brilliant females from history.
Maybe my first awareness of feminism came from my fierce, academic grandmother, who halted me mid-sentence one day when I was 6 or 7 (and probably prattling on about how “we” didn’t like something as a family because dad didn’t like it), and looked me in the eye and said, “well, you’re entitled to your own opinion.” That idea stuck with me — I remember yelling it in fights with my sister when I was in middle school. “I’m entitled to my own opinion! Shut up!” (Sorry, Heidi.)
That idea gave me permission to enjoy the host of strong female characters in YA historical fiction, in the books on the Sonlight reading list, in the literary classics I gobbled up, despite my mother’s concerns about attitudes in books like Ella Enchanted. (Was I the only one who had to write a book report about that one with the expectation that I’d be critical about the negative portrayal of obedience to parents?)
But books were my gateway to feminism. Before I even knew the term “slut-shaming” and what it meant, I read The Scarlet Letter and I realized how inappropriate it is for the church to treat a woman like Hester was treated.
I read fairy tales and I learned how hard life is and how it’s possible for a woman overcome terrible fates if she’s quick with her mind.
I read Till We Have Faces and I learned that the agony of a woman’s soul can be beautiful. That a woman’s spiritual journey is deep and intense and full of meaning.
I read biographies of Mary Slessor and Amy Carmichael, and I delighted in how fierce and true they were, and wanted to be like them.
I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and realized how destructive a marriage can be if there’s no intellectual equality, honesty, or companionship.
I read the Anne books and learned that making mistakes and learning by experience is a valid way to live (and not everything has to be dominated by principles and ideals), that women in the “olden days” went off to college and were the better for it.
I read Little Women and felt a kinship to Jo and her misfit spunk and how she embraces her own huge personality, and most of all, I related to her as she grew into her writerly self and took courage from her confidence.
I read the Little House books and every time Pa called Laura “strong as a little French horse,” I wanted to be like that, too.
I read the Brontës and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, not so much for their stories and poems (though I adored them), but for their ability to do what they loved with their lives, despite gender norms.
I read The Ordinary Princess and loved Amy for her communion with nature and her spiteful attitude toward an arranged marriage.
I read Lord of the Rings and wanted to be Eowyn.
I read everything I could find by Madeleine L’Engle and coveted the intelligence and bravery of her heroines.
I read stories of women who disguised themselves as men and fought or spied or traveled. I read all the books I could find about female heads of state throughout history, and read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for more stories of brave women who defied cultural standards. I wanted to be Joan of Arc, Hatsheput, Boadicea, Sacajawea, Margaret of Austria, etc., etc.
And I never wanted to be a feminist, because feminists hated men and were selfish.
But then I went to college and two things happened while this English major was just a baby English major.
1) My scary-wonderful-smart Brit Lit prof asked us: Could we name a book where a male author succeeded in creating an authentic and rich inner life for a female character?
And we couldn’t give her a single title. [She retorted that it was just as well, since the only one she knew of was Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.]
2) I met feminist literary theory, in particular: I learned to read the absent female narrative in a text, starting with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar on the madwoman in the attic (and damn, there was a lot of female silence in literature), and I became acquainted with the concept of semiotics and the works of Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous.
And I barely scratched the surface with those authors and theories before the light switch in my head flipped on after reading A Handmaid’s Tale.
I was a feminist. There were voices missing. Feminism wasn’t the feminism my parents had grown up with — it was much more mature, nuanced, thoughtful than the second wave feminists who scared them into complementarianism. This was a feminism that was intellectual and observant and, I began to realize, compatible with my Christianity in a way that didn’t just complement it, but reinforced it and made it more holistic and loving and thoughtful.
Then I went back and I reread the four gospels. And I sat on my bed and cried over how Jesus treated women, because it was so beautiful and tender and respectful. Because it was so very, very different from what I had seen presented for women in the church as I grew up.
And then I realized: I’m entitled to an opinion of my own. I’m a feminist.