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How feminists have failed Christian women

Image courtesy of 68 Women Pictures by Unsplash

Championing “women’s issues” is not the same as championing women.

That’s according to Allison Trowbridge, author of “Twenty-Two: Letters to a Young Woman Searching for Meaning.” She claims that while feminists have focused on admittedly important political issues, they have often done so at the expense of personal development. And it’s time for that to change.

While she was a senior at Westmont College, she searched for a book to guide her as a young woman and came up empty-handed. Now 31, Trowbridge has decided to write the book she needed then. “Twenty-Two” is a collection of empowering letters to a fictional woman on topics ranging from vocation to beauty to marriage.

Here we discuss how Christian women have often been served poorly and what can be done about it.

RNS: You believe young women today often struggle to grow into and embrace their womanhood. Why do you think this is?

AT: I think we’re facing a relational crisis for women today. So often we fail to lift each other up. We compare and compete and fail to see another woman’s success as success for all women.

In the church, we still are locked into systems and structures that prevent women from flourishing and sharing the fullness of who they are within their congregations. We relegate women to women’s ministry, rather than allow them to lead across all ministry. We’ve made huge strides in the last 50 years, so I’m hopeful. But we still have a long way to go to see women’s place in society, and in the church, fully realized.

Image courtesy of Nelson Books

RNS: Male and female feminists have been fighting for women’s issues for years. While you approve of many of these efforts, you think they have often fallen short of truly empowering women. How so?

While it’s important to advocate for equal pay for women, we cannot ignore equal empowerment of women. Many feminists’ efforts have focused on political issues, which are good, but they have done so at the exclusion of personal development. We need both.

My heart is to invest in the personal development of a generation of women to help them grow in areas that have been too often overlooked.

RNS: You say that many Christians have a broken view of beauty that harms women. Explain what you mean by this.

AT: Our society has a broken view of beauty, and sadly the church isn’t much different. Look at the cover of any Christian novel and you’ll see an image of a pretty, slender young women in the dress of that fictional era. It’s the same old cultural ideal.

Our faith says that inner beauty matters most, but too often we fail to live by that. We fail to recognize that beauty, like any living thing, is fleeting. And that is God’s glorious, mysterious design.

We must learn how to honor and elevate the deeper beauties—of wisdom and character and service. The beauty of wrinkles and imperfections and authenticity. Physical beauty can and should be appreciated, but it is just the icing on the outside of our lives. Icing is enticing, but nobody wants to eat a whole cake of it.

RNS: Part of the reason you wrote “Twenty-Two” was to encourage a culture of mentorship to propel women forward. What do you suggest as a way to scale this? 

AT: We need to begin by dealing with comparison. I write about this a lot in the book, because I’m as bad as the next woman in this department. Too often I hold myself up to some manufactured ideal and feel like my life isn’t “enough.”

For example, social media should be a place where we celebrate one another. Instead, it’s the place where we tear our identity down because our life doesn’t look like our neighbor’s.

Comparison steals joy, and it damages our ability to love ourselves and others well. When we get to the heart of our comparison issue and address it, we can begin to get real and authentic. We can learn from one another, celebrate our differences, and lift each other up.

RNS: But it’s not just on women. Men often hold women back, right? For example, Mike Pence took heat for adhering to the “Billy Graham rule,” which some believe marginalizes women. What is your view of that practice, as a Christian woman and leader?

AT: You know what, I respect and admire the spirit with which Vice President Pence has made that decision—we need more public figures demonstrating that they honor their marriage. But I don’t agree with his methodology.

If my male bosses and coworkers through the years had refused to share meals with me because I’m a woman, I would not be where I am professionally today. I would have missed out on so many important conversations, on strategic decisions, on partnerships and travel, and ultimately on all the opportunities that allowed me to not feel less-capable than my male colleagues.

I think hard and fast rules like these only end up creating taboos around gender and hurting those involved. What matters most is context: a candlelight dinner at a nice restaurant is very different than a quick bite together at the airport. As a culture, I’d love to see us break these taboos so we can hold marriage in the highest regard while giving women equal opportunity—in both the church and the workplace.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

42 Comments

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  • Eh, the title is deceptive here because the writer and the subject have not provided text to justify the assertion in the title.
    Has Merritt never heard of Consciousness Raising? Hello? Feminism was never a top down oligarchy under superstars, much as superficial media impressed with Gloria Steinem’s looks tried to make it into that. It was always bottom-up advocacy.
    Failed “Christian” Women? It never says how. Re-Write the headline.

  • The chief sin of feminists is that no matter what they attain in life, they will always be suspicious that something is being wrongfully denied or withheld from them, even the very souls of men; that is precisely the device by which Satan deceived Eve.

  • What have the feminists said about allowing men into the girls bathrooms and locker rooms? Are they not outraged by this or do they think this is cool?

  • “In the church, we still are locked into systems and structures that
    prevent women from flourishing and sharing the fullness of who they are
    within their congregations. We relegate women to women’s ministry,
    rather than allow them to lead across all ministry. We’ve made huge
    strides in the last 50 years, so I’m hopeful. But we still have a long
    way to go to see women’s place in society, and in the church, fully
    realized.”

    Ms. Trowbridge’s quote above is a true-but-sad account of how women are usually treated in most evangelical Christian churches, and in ALL of the Roman Catholic ones. To me, it’s all centered on how these churches still see God as male, and women as temptresses and tools of Satan. Those evangelical preachers who center on the Gospel of Christ’s transforming power, apparently sttill lack the faith to believe that part of the redemption Christ bought us, was/is the redemption and restoration of the broken relationship between men and women! The old order of male domination was nailed to the cross, right alongside all those other sins of hierarchy, economic status, race, class and gender! Christ rose from the dead as the visual fulfillment of God’s original dream: a humanity made up of males and females who are different but truly equal, and equally gifted to love and serve each other and the world!

    If only those pastors who lack a clear vision of male-female equality in the mission if service to their congregation, could just take a step back and behold that “equally gifted” character of the partnership they have with their wives, they could see this different-but-equally-vital character of their leadership of their church!

  • The author of this book says: “While it’s important to advocate for equal pay for women, we cannot
    ignore equal empowerment of women. Many feminists’ efforts have focused
    on political issues, which are good, but they have done so at the
    exclusion of personal development. We need both.” I believe this statement to be absolutely false and misleading. I am amazed at the conclusions she draws from, it appears, samples of Evangelical and Catholic churches- the most conservative Christian groups. She defines “the church,” in a very narrow fashion. She has a very narrow definition of Feminism, which is unfair to promulgate among young women seeing “personal empowerment.”

    I think, worst of all, she doesn’t believe there is any real or worthwhile connection between the political and the personal, which is certainly not a tenant of Feminism. The political IS personal and vice-versa. She seems to think that personal development is not possible, if one is doing the political work of raising and empowering women, when I believe most Feminists would say personal and political growth continue side by side, rather than being resigned to two separate categories. I would say that the author doesn’t understand Feminism at all, not to mention that she doesn’t understand progressive churches that strongly emphasize the empowerment of all women. I can’t see how her book would help any young woman trying to “find herself,” because it is based on lies about either Feminism or “the church.” Very disappointing.

  • Here, again, Sabelotodo2 understands “how women are usually treated in most evangelical Christian churches, and ALL of the Roman Catholic ones.” These are very patriarchal religions. Sabelotodo1 makes a good point in saying “part of the redemption Christ bought us, was/is the redemption and restoration of the broken relationship between men and women.” I particularly like this reference: “The old order of male domination was nailed to the cross, right alongside all those other sins of hierarchy, economic status, race class and gender! This pretty much illustrates the political nature of the claims of equality, and suggests how people suffer PERSONALLY under these POLITICAL hierarchies.

  • Not surprising that a man would utter the absolutely patriarchal beliefs about women, sin, and the “deception” of Eve. This is a big problem for Feminism, to overcome our “chief sins” as defined by the patriarchy.

  • Phychareus, Thanks for concurring with my statements here!

    I would just add that Catholic priests particularly, are cheated out of the humanizing effects of having a wife, and the chance to take a whole different view of women’s potential service to the Catholic church, were they allowed to marry! Having women as wives–and particularly as priests, would certainly go a long way toward flattening the all-male hierarchy that keeps things from EVER changing!

  • Yes, I agree with you in this, as well. It occurs to me that, for all the reasons that the Catholic Church demands celibacy, it seems like another form of seeing women as “unclean.” I know they wouldn’t agree about that, but that’s how it seems to me. The fact that so many priests seduce little boys, also speaks to that. Of course, women and girls were also abused by priests over the years, but until the charges were brought by men who had been abused, nobody really cared anything about it.

  • Since when have the churches cared about how women are seen? The church exploits women daily and then “writes” something like this? Come on this is no more then a vague and silly attempt churches, for one the ROMAN catholic church to appear that it is changing for the better. By the way it is the ROMAN Catholic church, dropping the ROMAN from the name is not working. To say that you are the CATHOLIC church with out putting ROMAN in front does not work. It is cleaver though but you are not the Universal which is what it means to claim to be THE CATHOLIC

  • CHURCH, (Sorry hit incorrect button) There is more then one CATHOLIC church and none of them claim a “universal” standard. There is nothing wrong with simply declaring who you are which is THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH!

  • …not to mention the patriarchy’s omniscient power to define the whole “race” of feminists, as in “…no matter what they attain in life, they will always be suspicious…”. Then again, the fundamental nature of women is something that only a man truly know/s.

  • Not patriarchal beliefs about women, but rather a particular observation about feminists.

  • EDWARD BORGES-SILVA – you have replied that I just proved your point.
    It is still a mystery to me what your point is. Could you clarify? Do you have to be so vague?

  • Just an anecdote that your post reminded me of… I spoke to a feminist on HuffPo once who wanted to nothing to do with Christianity because it was patriarchal from the git-go, set up to be led by 12 men, and she wasn’t going to be the second class citizen “cleaning everyone’s feet” at the last supper.

    Mouth fell open in astonishnent. I thought surely Poe troll, but she was dead serious.

  • I’ve known many feminists, Edward, including myself. (Feminism isn’t exclusive to females.) But I’ve known only one person who might arguably fit your observation. Women needn’t be envious, suspicious, or hostile toward men to be feminists, and women who are envious, suspicious, or hostile toward men needn’t be feminists.

    The only characteristic feminists share is advocacy for “bringing about the equality of the sexes (of women and men) in all aspects of public and private life”.
    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/feminist

    I must say that I’m surprised and disturbed by your comments presuming to predict how other people “will always be”, and ascribing a seemingly Biblical level of evil to those other people by references to “their chief sin”, “even the very souls of men”, and “the device by which Satan deceived Eve”. I sincerely hope — and can empathize if — something else was going on, perhaps in your life; and that your comment does not truly reflect your views toward half of your equals on the planet.

  • I guess that Edward Borges-Silva has no intention of clarifying his meaning or answering my question about his point. That’s too bad.

  • I am apprised that men are also classed as feminists’, Alan Alda comes to mind. I have a high regard for women as fellow creatures, despite the fact that I use a metaphorical sardonic expression as part of an ironic axiom regarding my perspective on feminism. In my experience the axiom holds functionally true on average, at least among feminists with a high public profile. Most of the women I know do not identify as feminists and are offended when viewed as inauthentic women because they do not hew to the feminist line. But every woman I know believes in equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity in employment, etc. , but not in abortion on demand, or the culture of professional victimhood which seems to be the world that some feminists live in. Most of the women I know are too tough or too independent to embrace that perspective. As to a biblical level of evil, in my view most of us rise to that level of evil on a daily basis, even Christians. My axiom was written in the cynical spirit of Mark Twain who regularly hyperbolized to underscore a specific personal observation; it rises (or sinks) to the level of black humor. My sincere regrets for your dismay.

  • It speaks to a lack of understanding, and an unwillingness to understand the context of the New Testament. Perhaps I am unqualified as a male to remark on the perspective a woman might have, but I find nothing in the biblical text that relegates women to 2nd class status, though in certain instances they may be called to different roles and responsibilities in the Church; I tend to avoid arguments over such questions as I find them secondary or tertiary to other more basic tenets of the Gospel. Query: As usual, I am behind the curve with respect to Internet lingo, yours is the 2nd reference to “Poe troll” I have seen recently, I plead ignorance, please enlighten me. My thanks in advance.

  • Merely that among feminists of a certain stripe, grievance is part and parcel of their internal state, and the bread and butter of their professional lives. My axiom was written in the spirit of Mark Twain who made wry observations in a hyperbolic manner to not only discomfit the comfortable but to underscore a philosophical point of view.

  • I only meant that I thought at first that she was an anti-feminist trying to make feminists sound bad. We used to have a Poe troll around here, named Ronald or something, but he seems to have gotten bored with his game and moved on

  • I understand troll. But where does Poe come into it? Sorry for my failure to understand the context of the usage.

  • It was named after a guy named Nathan Poe who created “Poe’s Law” as an insult aimed at creationists — that one supposedly can’t parody their beliefs without someone taking it seriously. But of course it’s true of any kind of fervent belief; I used to see it quite often on feminist forums back when I used to have some interest in gender issues.

  • One doesn’t have to be Frederico Fellini to figure out why you want to be coy about answering my question. I couldn’t figure out what you might have meant until I entered into past reports of positions you have taken on a variety of subjects You are very transparent – very clear, especially when you say, ” Perhaps I am unqualified as a male (non-feminist) to remark on the perspective a woman might have.” Clearly you are unqualified, but that doesn’t stop you from interpreting feminists of “a certain stripe,” and to declare that grievance is part and parcel of their internal state,” as if that were a bad thing! You clearly have disdain for what you see as feminists’ culture of victimhood. You think of yourself as Mark Twain, “making wry observations in a hyperbolic manner to not only discomfit the comfortable but to underscore a philosophical view,” but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what possible philosophical view you are talking about that any feminist, who has studied philosophy would not be able to take apart in a New York minute. Everything you write wreaks with an odor of sanctimony. You think most non-feminists you know are too tough or independent to embrace our grievances. This is not what feminists do, we deeply feel what our grievnces are, and we fight for justice pure and simple. Maybe you can understand what I mean when I reference Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who it seems was a lot like you at one time. But living with the marginalized, oppressed and forgotten people of Nazi Germany taught him compassion, and a lot about how personal grievances. can enoble those who participate, at least empathetically, with the suffering of others. Bonhoeffer said
    that he had “learned to see the great events of world history
    from below, from the perspective of the excluded, the ill-treated, the
    powerless, the oppressed and despised …so that personal suffering has
    become a more useful key for understanding than personal happiness.” While you look at events from above, you miss the entire worthiness of personal/political suffering far beyond any participation in a “culture of victimhood.” You think are very clever, but I don’t think you are clever enough to enter into a dialogue with any feminist worthy of the name. I’m sorry you require me to be so blunt. I don’t want you to guess my meaning here.

  • Thank, you, Edward. My main concern was that you might be having difficulties.

    In another of your posts today, you said, “Merely that among feminists of a certain stripe, grievance is part and parcel of their internal state, and the bread and butter of their professional lives.” I feel compelled to remind you that, among every group of people, and among humanity as a whole, there are people of that selfsame “certain stripe” who always seem to carry grievances around for grievances’ sake.

    Obviously, you and I have had entirely different experiences. Maybe you’re just as surprised and disturbed by my responses as I am by your assertions. At any rate, rather than continue this stressful (for me, anyway) debate — You say “on average axiom”, I say “prejudicial stereotype” — let’s call the whole thing off.??

  • I wish that Mr. Merritt had asked, and that Ms. Trowbridge had answered, the following 3 questions:

    1.) What do you mean by ” “women’s issues” “? And why did Mr. Merritt enclose it in quotation marks?
    2.) What do you mean by “personal development”? It’s clearly a concern for both the interviewer and -ee.
    3.) What do you mean by “womanhood”? That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

    When it comes to the salient words and phrases to which an article’s title refers, guessing is galling.

  • Consciousness raising is nothing new, as is self-development, but then she is speaking to a new generation who may find it new. It’s unfair to downgrade the focus of the women’s movement as just political issues. As Ellen Goodman once said, “The personal is political.” I applaud the focus of the author’s book, but this social evolution has been going on for years. Frankly, Jesus Christ was the first feminist. He applauded Mary over Martha for sitting in on his teachings among all men, he appeared first to a woman, etc. Church culture limits women but Christ never did.

  • I think your whole argument only reinforces my original point. However, to your charge of my being “coy,” I can only declare that if I sometimes dance around the edges, it is not from a desire to eschew frankness, but a mild effort to reply mildly when I am internally tempted to be rude, which is against my principles. However, in some instances, no matter how one may reply, rudeness will be found where none is intended. Yet, from your point of view, my perspective on feminism is illegitimate and therefore innately rude. I can’t help that. We have reached the point, probably from the beginning, where we can do nothing but talk past one another I’m afraid. I may disagree with your world view, but I bear you no ill will because of it.

  • Thank you…all I could think of was Edgar Allan, and that made no sense; I suppose a Google inquiry might have produced the necessary explanation, but again, Thank you.

  • I still don’t know what your original point was, perhaps because of the dancing around, when you are internally tempted to be rude. That point is clear and we call that passive-aggressiveness. Feminists, who would be spiritual, if not religious, believe that without a strong voice against patriarchal religions, we are left with soul-killing philosophies and no alternatives to finding ourselves what we call God. Some women, Christian and otherwise, have given up on religion for just such a reason, while others of us try to “reform” the church from within. Seeing that some believe that Feminism has let down Christian women is very disturbing, especially when we see Jesus’ ministry turned upside down by conservatives in our midst. Fortunately, I belong to a denomination that allows much freedom to bring even a Feminist perspective to bear, the Episcopal Church in America. I am so very grateful for my church. Yes, you are free to disagree with my world view, and I am free to advocate for it. This has been an interesting exchange. Thank you.

  • Your words, “Not surprising that a man…” shows exactly how you feel about men. This is worse than stereotyping. It is judgmental, hypocritical, and venomous. Wake up. Repent.
    As the Word of God, this verse “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived…” in 1 Tim. 2:14 is actually for your benefit and not to control women or put them in their place. Be like the woman in Proverbs 8 and not the woman in Proverbs 9. Scripture is given to us so that you (and everyone) might NOT be put in their place that we all deserved which is a place where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Pray about it. Women these days under the influence of feminism have been putting young men who haven’t even had a chance to figure out who THEY are yet through a meat grinder of guilt because of what they’ve been told about history and the past. They get a number or two flung at them intended to provoke an angry emotional response and it works. Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t always tell the truth. The wise woman of Proverbs 8 takes things with a grain of salt, and looks into things for herself. The equal pay fight is flawed not because the Census stats show that men average higher incomes, or because a man is making more in the same kind of job. Of course they are. Women choose to be mothers much more often than men……….which means they end up 10-20 years behind men in career building. And the stats between single men and single women do not factor out the never-married women or single mothers. The stats for never married women and never married men on the other hand show that they are actually making MORE than men now (but that fact gets buried because it doesn’t fit the agenda) Their grumbling about unfairness definitely does not align with what Jesus taught about grumbling about unfair pay in Matthew 20:1-16. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” Yea, Jesus said that.
    A person who grumbles that they deserve the same pay as someone with 10 more years of expertise and experience is being short-sighted at best and Veruca Salt in the Chocolate Factory at worst, and such attitudes do not belong in the Church. Jesus teaching in Luke 10:7, “The worker deserves his wages.” is not based on some inanimate fact, but the person’s WORK. A person’s work will show itself for the experience/skill/knowledge/know-how that is there. Or isn’t there. He didn’t say, “the worker’s genetic traits or family background or gender deserves its wages.”

    This preemptive judging of men that has created the male social deficit that we now live in is detestable and does not belong in the Church. Time once was when the male-female courtship/dating dance started out at zero as far as the male having to prove himself. Now, the male must dig himself out of a hole before he even realizes that he’s in it. Men deserve respect and honor. They are doing a lot of good out there that goes completely unnoticed and ignored because of the hostile culture we live in today. But even in saying that, I have relegated myself to the hate speech class. I run a blog and write books on men’s issues (http://www.thetrueman.org) to help men see they have value. More value than many sparrows, as Jesus put it. Men commit suicide in this country and most of the world at an alarming rate 4 to 1. Over 77% of suicides in this country are males. Being an adult male is much harder than women realize because who talks about these particular kind of stats? No one. Why? It’s hate speech. I cannot share my site to many places on the internet without getting vitriolic hateful response or simply censored. This isn’t so much upsetting to me as it is saddening and depressing.

    So to use your own rhetoric, It’s Not Surprising That my efforts and similar ones get vitriolic and hateful responses from a lot of women and feminism-leaning parties. I understand. I’m in the hole, and you don’t even know me. I also encourage people take a moment to watch the new documentary Red Pill. It was done by a lovely lady who was a feminist until she completed the documentary. God bless.

  • I have been advised that Matt B. has replied to one of my opinion pieces, and I would like to respond to him, but I can find no place on Discus where either my position, or Matt B’s opinion are posted. Can anyone help us with this?

  • You think you know exactly how I feel about men? You know nothing about how I feel about men – you may know how I feel a little about our patriarchal institutions, such as the church. I have had a husband, 2 sons, 4 grandsons, all of whom I love tremendously, not to mention male friends, teachers and clergy, whom I admire. Of course, none of them are pariarchial, and as it happens, men in my family are feminists by choice, and they don’t like the patriarchy any more than I do.
    You are sounding like an old testament prophet, which you aren’t – saying Wake up. Repent! You don’t notice that that is judgmental, hypocritical and venomous, as you said above. You prophesy that I will go to hell, if I don’t repent. You use a lot of Old Testament scripture to “prove” that you know what you are talking about, and very little about the New Testament, other than to cast Jesus as another patriarch. Christian Feminists know all your arguments about equality, equal work, equal pay, what is a woman’s place, etc. We know all the sociological arguments that right-wing “Christians” and fundamentalists spout. It may surprise you to know that women study scripture in depth and have come up with some different ideas about women’s relationship to God and especially to Jesus. I suppose you might think their interpretations of scripture are unworthy, just as I think of yours. There is no “pre-emptive judging of men” here – there is only history. You are assuming that feminists do not honor or respect men. That depends on whether or not they are honorable. We do talk and write about this, because those of us who are mothers of sons, particularly, understand that the patriarchy has damaged both men and women. You don’t seem to know that. I don’t know what you write in other places that get you “vitriolic and hateful responses,” but perhaps you don’t see how judgmental and hateful you come across, for example in this venue. You say that I don’t know you, but you would be wrong. You have told me everything there is to tell about yourself vis a vis your relationship to women, your interpretation of scripture, and your disrespect of Feminisms. And what may be particularly anger-provoking is your closing statement about a documentary by a “lovely lady who was a feminist until she completed the documentary.” That is similar to what men say about lesbians – that if they had one good man, they would revert to being heterosexual. Feminists are involved in politics, economics, religion, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, the law, Literature, psychology, and just about any discipline you can think of, because they have studied the patriarchy from all these many vantage points, and not just the Old Testament. God Bless, as you said.

  • I am a bit leery about any kind of identity politics brought into the context of Faith in Christ.
    That is not to say I support societal patriarchal practice as it has been engendered in organized religion. The congregated faithful have a duty to transcend social norms and practice, and come together in obedience and praise. The accidents of nature of the individual ought not come into consideration, but rather the individual’s demonstrated and recognized dedication to obedience and service.
    On the Day of Judgment, we will all have to answer for our errors of incomplete submission. I caution anyone who thinks to bring anything to the Worship of God not simple obedience and submission.

  • Feminism is satanic. Feminist want to be men, EXCEPT on the battlefield where death and injuries occur. Over 98 % of battlefield deaths and injuries are to men. The Holy Bible clearly outlays the differences of men and women and different roles they are required to perform. Feminist are hypnotized by the word “equal”, they think it always must mean identical, they are wrong.

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