Feminists, Capitalism, and Power

I read an article on elle.com this morning and I felt the need to respond to it. It was entitled “Ambitious Women–Why powerful women don’t say they’re ambitious.” and written by Leslie Bennets. Here’s the link (http://www.elle.com/life-love/society-career/why-women-don-t-say-they-are-ambitious) I regularly find myself interested in themes of gender, sexuality, race, etc…and so when an article jumps out at me like this I like to think about it. I find that articulating a perspective  in these discussions is challenging. Not that I have some kind of clever masculine rejoinder, but rather that I am always hesitant to speak into a space where I could unintentionally affirm an oppressive status quo. Many men of my sort (seminarians, Christians, Hispanic males, the list goes on) are significant participants in the serious issues affecting women that are talked about in this article. This being said, I hope to say something different than them here.

I found the article to be insightful in many areas. Bennets pointed straightaway to a problem that plagues many women. More than any particular issue, there was a hesitancy in most (if not all) of the famous women she’d interviewed to acknowledge their own success, intelligence, desire to achieve, etc…Bennets connected this well with the socialization of children. She mentioned that girls are socialized to be reactive whereas boys are socialized to be askers. I think that this makes sense. I do note that more often than little girls the question directed to little boys is “what do you want to be when you grow up?” In my experience boys are encouraged to talk more in school, be louder, more confident. Women who do the same, often run the risk of receiving negative feedback. I had a friend in high school who used to ask me to ask questions for her because she didn’t want to seem stupid. AP Biology was hard for everyone…I don’t understand who would have thought that, but the world had a different landscape for her as a woman.

Furthermore, Bennets quoted an author called Catherine Catherine Orenstein who ran a study with people who were asked to discuss why they were the expert in a given area. Catherine noted that almost across the board hated the exercise. She said, “When women talk about the reasons, they almost always stem from virtues taken to excess: modesty, humility, responsibility, selflessness. But when you’re living in a culture where you don’t have a big voice, you start to internalize the external context, and you become part of your own marginalization.” This is a huge point. That women have internalized the majority view on who/how they should be. The socialization toward being reactive shows up in adulthood.

Despite the many reasonable and helpful points made throughout her article, I began to see Bennets’ thoughts as a sort of church potluck scenario. There are a few really good things on that table, but by God I cannot live on most of the food. I found that Bennets was barely scraping the surface of what might be some really fascinating themes and at the same time selling out the feminist enterprise to a misguidedly capitalist conception of power.

To start with when Bennets mentioned the virtues American women had seemed to internalize (modesty, humility, responsibility, selflessness), she was in effect echoing the Protestant reformers’ views of women.

A brief history of the reformation would take more time than I could spare and you’d be bored. Let’s just say that when the Protestants broke off of the Catholic church there was suddenly no place for a religious calling for women. No more Nuns for protestants. Now for some this was freedom (some were forced to be nuns), for others this was a return to patriarchy. The ideal protestant woman in the reformation era had 3 main characteristics. She was A) a wife and B) knew her bible and C) embodied the virtues mentioned above.  At some level these things had some scriptural arguments. Not that I agree with them, but there were attempts at arguments for why this was the case. Moving forward, we see that when the Eastern Seaboard of America was colonized the people who left landed were largely protestant, spoke English, and soon enough had slaves who were English speaking protestants. Fast forward roughly 300 years and we can see the influences still. The protestant reformation era view of women has become so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that we still socialize our little girls to be subordinate housewives.

This is fascinating because many people in America still think this is the ideal woman, but they’ve forgotten why they do. I feel that the roots of the issue Bennets describes go much deeper than women just not taking the opportunities granted them. There’s a scary method to the madness that she did not engage with. Furthermore, she made the problem strictly a white woman’s issue when she haphazardly quoted Anna Fels. Anna’s quote was regarding the issue raised about women in terms of ambition, and she stated that “That’s less true in the black community and in the lower-middle and lower classes; those women haven’t been brought up with the expectation that femininity is equated with a subordinate role. But for the white middle-class woman, it’s a major issue.”

I will leave many of the comments that might be said about this alone. Despite coming from a psychologist, this quote is as incorrect as it is racist. In my experience, women in the “minority” communities know far better the bleak oppression of damaging patriarchy than many middle-class white women. In one quote Bennets manages to make feminism a fight that is only needed to be fought by white privileged women. This is obviously not the case.

The themes of race and American psyche with regard to women are fascinating and broad and merit more than a few accurate sentences about socialization and an ignorant quote. Nonetheless, having found ignored this potential goldmine of worthwhile and interesting topics, Bennets left it aside and proceeded to ground her argument in a very unhelpful view of feminine power. It was at this point that I was deeply frustrated by Bennets’ approach.

Throughout her article her concern seems to be power. Women are in need of power and are implicitly less valuable without it. While this does reflect some of the issue she mentions, her discussion of power seems to be bound in terms of a capitalist driven worldview. To Bennets, power is jobs, success, and upward mobility. I am staggered at the shortsightedness of this view. For one thing, through Bennets’ lens the goal of humanity–especially feminine humanity–is bound to a capitalist model. Are we really to believe that power is measured in terms of a woman’s job and success therein? In terms of whether she has ambition for political office?  Is the feminist solution merely to arrive at the same “achievements” as men or is it to attempt to move towards a society in which everyone is held with equal value and given equal opportunities while acknowledging their race/gender?

Not to mention the idea that for a woman to have power of this sort an economy is required in which certain people are necessarily left behind. Free Market Capitalism and Social Darwinism go hand in hand as an economic game of “survival of the fittest” issues some power and value and others neither. Power for women then becomes largely bound in privileged circles where upward mobility is actually a realistic possibility without the joining the military or a personal miracle. For Bennets, power is ultimately a racially and socioeconomically limited category.

I submit that here the Feminist enterprise has been sold out to capitalism. Human worth has been construed in economic categories. Power has become the ability to move “upwards” in the eyes of a patriarchal society.

So, then what are we feminists to do otherwise? Yes. I include myself.

I think first of all, we will all be helped if we can learn to leave a capitalist mindset aside as the main lens through which we view the world. While Bennets isn’t a terrible person, she is a terrible model for a way for women (or anyone) to think of themselves. The problem isn’t so much that people shouldn’t want to do well in or have equal access to work. It’s more that if feminists start out with a concept of power that limits the size of the party to the privileged white people…we have issues.

Secondly, I think we’d all be helped if we thought a little bit more like the Greek Philosopher Aristotle. A life worth living is a life that embodies “human flourishing.” This means more than how much higher you can climb in your job or our “success.” The virtues mentioned before are not bad things. All people should learn about humility, modesty, responsibility, and self-sacrifice. The point isn’t forcing those things onto just women, but allowing all of humanity to be able to grow into flourishing life. I wonder if the above quote about virtues taken to excess has really thought about if that’s actually possible. I do think it’s more likely to have been a misrepresentation of these virtues taken to excess. This brings me back to my point about the Protestant reformation. These virtues mean and have meant things, but without a framework to understand them they get warped.

While for Aristotle human flourishing was about being a social animal, for Christians human flourishing is proclaimed to be growing into the life of Christ. A life where we are equally affirmed in our value and purpose before God, each other, and ourselves. This is real power. Power is not endless potential, but has an end. A goal. We’re empowered to be a part of the work of God in the world and are indeed equal in that. The power of God in this world was in dying on the cross to redeem humanity. This was success for Christ.

What should that mean for humanity?


Reflections from the Medical Clinic: God is not disappointed.

I work in a medical clinic as a chaplaincy intern. Most days I feel like I’m the cabin boy on a ship staying afloat in the high seas of people’s suffering. I’m doing whatever I can to healthily put myself in a place where I can hold the stories of heartache, grief, loss, and pain that our patients and staff carry. As I’ve done this through the summer I’ve come to realize that many of us (myself included) walk around carrying a weight we do not have to bear. So many of the patients I see treat themselves so unkindly. They fail, just as we do to allow ourselves to be received by God. One woman after recounting a story of deep-seated pain, said that she wanted to reconnect with God and told me that she thought that God must be disappointed in her. I don’t think she is the only one.

Recently I started to think about where we get that message. Interestingly enough, it turns out that the bible does not use the word disappointed from the perspective of God. God is hurt by humans disobedience, God gets rightfully angry at humanity’s callous disregard for our neighbors, and God in in Jesus God is even killed by His own creation. Yet, he is never described as disappointed with humanity. This is surprising. It turns out God is not as we would be comfortable thinking of Him.

The more time I spend at the medical clinic practicing the art of receiving another’s brokenness, the more I realize that the Eastern Orthodox conception of sin is the most accurate I’ve encountered. Sin for the Eastern Church is a sickness. It is a disease which is slowly killing humanity. The actions of all of us sinners are the symptom (not the disease) of a deep seated brokenness. The fault lines of the traumas we have experienced in this broken world stretch to the depths of our hearts. We are all in need of medicine for this, not judgement. We are in need of connecting ourselves to the life of the one who has cured our illness in Himself. We need Jesus to truly live.

I think an orientation towards ourselves that takes this into account would help to ease and heal much of the self-inflicted pain and rejection we experience. It is difficult to look at a terminally ill person and judge them for their lack of dedication to help themselves live. It’s probably shocking to think of the fact that part of the Christian proclamation about humans is that we are all terminally ill. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “No one gets out of life alive.” Not even Jesus. The cross came before the resurrection.

Surely many diseases of this nature can be and are made worse by human decisions, but I think once you get close enough to another human being this is not what you focus on. You begin to focus on helping to orient that person you care for towards life. You’re not scolding them for the ways that they were oriented towards death. Life for the terminally ill becomes a new way of receiving God, ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

This is life through receiving how God sees us. We are loved as we are by God, and are invited to love ourselves and others in the same way. We’re terminally ill, but not disappointing in our sickness. Dying, yet destined for life in Christ. We are at all times invited into the healing life of Holy Spirit and one day we will be whole.

Sometimes I laugh when Christian people are so vehement about the need for sending the non-believers to hell. It’s not because hell doesn’t exist (I see enough of it at work), but it is because these people are cheapening the power of God. We are cured in Christ. Humanity is brought to life from death in Him. Who are we to say that any one of us can ever truly escape the black hole of love that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?

How are we to give up demanding the way we think things ought to be and receive the way they are? We demand judgement for our own shortcomings; God gives us mercy. We demand that we must be loved only after we have arrived at perfection; God loves us in our brokenness. We look at our failures and run away from God expecting condemnation; He pursues us in love and constantly waits for our return.

There are only 2 biblical usages of the word disappointment. One shows what happens when we trust in ourselves. The other shows what will not happen when we receive the work of God.We will always be disappointed by trusting our own inclination to be judges of ourselves or others. God has given us mercy and always will. We will never be disappointed when we receive the work of God. We’re always invited to the party in Christ.

We’re not disappointing to God. The terminally ill have been invited into the fullness of life just as they are.