Confessions of a wannabe feminist

Friday, March 16, 2018
And a pledge to #pressforchange at Avondale

I’m sitting at a table eating lunch with a friend. I tell her I’m writing an article and ask her to be first reader. She asks about what I’m writing, so I take a deep breath, gather my courage and answer: “I’m writing about how I don’t identify as a feminist.” She takes a moment to consider this, frowns and slowly replies, “Well, I’m a feminist, so I can’t promise to like what you write.”

This isn’t surprising. She publicly and passionately speaks about systematic privilege for men and the marginalisation of women, particularly in the church. Her views are strong and she’s unapologetically political, traits I admire. But I can’t tell her people like her are one of the reasons I don’t identify as a feminist. To me, feminists are women and men willing to put their words into the public domain and their beliefs into action. They can see what many in our culture can’t—or don’t want to, or don’t care to, or don’t choose to—see, then they act. My friend’s the real deal. She’s in the ring; I’m watching from behind the ropes.

Well, that’s not entirely true. You know the line from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”? That’s me—except, of course, I’m a woman.

I teach an introductory course to literary studies each year during which I induct a new cohort of students into the dazzling world of critical theory. The unit covers a range of “isms” such as Marxism, postcolonialism, structural and poststructuralism and feminism. “In this unit,” I tell my students, “you will have to learn to read all over again.” I mean that literally, because reading is so much more than comprehending the words. Deep reading, the kind that changes your mind (or your heart or your world) depends on an ability to see how a text positions you as a reader. It’s about seeing past what’s written to what’s buried under the text. The messages deeply embedded in our dominant cultural narratives—you’re supposed to be beautiful, you’re supposed to fall in love, you’re supposed to marry the hero—are not every woman’s story. I love seeing students grasp this. The “aha” moments—the realisation they can read the world differently—are a joy. For a lucky few students, these moments lead to a revelation: they can live the world differently.

When we extract Christianity from its web of human traditions and oppressive doctrines and restore the power of the gospel, every Christian will bravely, wisely, unapologetically work for the goals of every “ism”—including feminism.Dr Lindsay Morton, Assistant Dean (Teaching and Learning), Faculty of Arts, Nursing and Theology, Avondale College of Higher Education
I teach people to read—to see. Although this might not change the world, it occasionally changes a worldview. Mostly, this is enough for me. But is it enough to claim I’m a feminist?

Earlier I mentioned that authentic, active feminists put me to shame, and this is one of the main reasons I struggle to count myself in their number. But for better or worse, there’s another reason I’m a wannabe. (Hold off the stone-throwing till you’ve heard me out.)

At the end of each semester, the Approaches to Lit class, as we call it, analyses our texts from a Christian perspective. Students are curious. The default, understandably, is a moralistic rather than a critical analysis. The main character acted unethically. The ends did not justify the means. A lie is a lie—she didn’t deserve forgiveness. It’s always a challenge pulling some students out of this space and into the light of the gospel.

The soapbox moment (my students know exactly what this is—so sorry!) inevitably comes when, despite the intention of letting the students realise themselves, I find myself passionately lecturing about how we need all the “isms” working together before arriving at the revelatory power of these words: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV).

The truth is the gospel is more emancipatory than postcolonialism, demands deeper equality than Marxism and collapses the power dynamic between male and female more effectively than the most radical feminism can. I’m so hungry—I ache—for the day when Christians are once again known as agents of revolutionary power and change for good. When we extract Christianity from its web of human traditions and oppressive doctrines and restore the power of the gospel, every Christian will bravely, wisely, unapologetically work for the goals of every “ism”—including feminism.

After reading the first draft of this article, my friend—once a student in my class—graciously responds: “I do remember that class as one of the small turning points of my life because it gave me new eyes, adult intellectual eyes. Marxism intrigued me, capitalism infuriated me, feminism clung to my mind and heart because someone has described my personal story before I realised it existed. The revelation knocked me out of my little lecture chair.”

After completing the class, my friend slowly aligned herself with feminism, copping much criticism from her friends. “But now,” she writes, “they’ve come around, too.”

So, perhaps our friend George is wrong: teaching is doing. But if this is true, why do I still find it difficult identifying as a feminist? The answer is uncomfortable: because I haven’t had to.

Writing this article helped me reflect on the privilege that has allowed me to stand behind the ropes while others step into the ring. With apologies to George, something closer to my truth is: “She who can, does. She who cannot, chooses not to.” This is a painful realisation. With it comes a call to exercise the influence I have on behalf of those who have less.

So, here’s my pledge: 2018 is the year I take my passion for feminism out of theory and into practice, out of the classroom and into the boardroom. I’m starting by joining the Avondale Women’s Network, which addresses challenges in—and create opportunities for—women’s careers. This is an effort to #pressforchange until Avondale College of Higher Education becomes an employer of choice for women. Given the persistent gender gaps in the tertiary sector, this kind of change is urgent and necessary. I owe my career to visionary, articulate, powerful and brave women: 2018 is the year I start giving back.

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Author

Lindsay Morton

Dr Lindsay Morton is Assistant Dean (Teaching and Learning) in the Faculty of Arts, Nursing and Theology at Avondale College of Higher Education.

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