In her book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women, author Sarah Bessey writes about the stereotypes that the word feminism carries for some within the church, particularly within evangelical traditions.
"In some circles, using the word feminist is the equivalent of an f-bomb dropped in church -- outrageous, offensive," she writes.
Although it's been mistakenly labeled as a movement that derides motherhood, marriage, and homemaking, for Bessey, feminism is about returning to the roots of her faith -- to Jesus' ministry.
Women played an important role in the earliest days of Christianity. The Jesus of the Bible spoke directly to women and refused to treat them differently from men. The gospels portray them as disciples during Jesus' ministry and the first witnesses of the resurrection. They're mentioned in Paul's letters as the leaders of house churches and missionaries in their own right.
Over the centuries, this fluidity in gender roles slowly faded away. Branches of Christianity that allowed women to act as leaders were declared heretical. According to New Testament scholar Karen King, earlier texts that showed evidence of women in leadership were eventually erased or even rewritten.
But that didn't stop women from making their presence known within the church, and not just as saints. Christian women were preachers, abolitionists and suffragists. They wrote music and founded churches. Although they didn't always have the support of mainstream churches, they were willing to disturb the status quo to stand up for what they believed was right.
As we wrap up Women's History Month, HuffPost Religion asked a diverse array of Christian women to share what the word "feminism" means to them and what it could mean for the church. Some women said that they believed that Christian feminism is about acknowledging women's equality before God, while other women chose not to identify with the term, and pushed back with the idea that the feminist movement doesn't take the experiences of women of color into account. Scroll down for a few women's responses and add your own in the comments below.
Rev. Jennifer Bailey
Bailey, a clergywoman for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, on the (s)heroes who inspired her feminism:
"As a Christian leader, my feminism means daily affirming the full humanity and capabilities of women as part of God's beloved creation and their sacred work in the world. It also means honoring the sacrifices, courage and labor of the many female saints of God that it made it possible for me to wear my clerical robe and preach the gospel of Jesus. Historic figures like Jarena Lee, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie paved the way for me as did the unsung (s)heroes and everyday church mothers whose work has kept the church alive and flourishing since its inception. We still have a long way to go to completely shatter the stained glass ceiling but the ancestors have shown is it is possible by holding to God's unchanging hand. Blessed be her Holy Name."
Tina Francis Mutungu
Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist, on how feminism could impact the church's mission:
"It was following Jesus that made a feminist out of me! That discipleship lead me to caring about everything from maternal health in Haiti to sexism in the Church as issues of justice close to God's heart. Patriarchy is not God's dream for humanity: It never was and it never will be. I remain hopeful, too - more and more people are waking up to what wholeness and peace-making can look like for both men and women in the Kingdom of God which changes things on both a small personal scale but also helps to move the needle forward when it comes to systemic injustice, too."
Image: Vicky Beeching
Beeching, a theologian, broadcaster, and LGBT activist, on why Christians can be feminists:
"To me, feminism means championing the rights and equality of women. Jesus treated women in ways that were truly radical for his era, so I've argued for years that Christ should be considered a feminist. The church has seemed afraid of the feminist movement, unsettled by it somehow; branding it as harsh and shrill. That seems bizarre as Christians should be at the forefront of women's equality, not bringing up the rear! Many denominations still don't let women preach, become Elders, or get ordained, so there's much work to be done. 'Christian feminism' is not an oxymoron; it's a deeply compatible, healthy response to the injustices that still exist within the faith community."
Gail Song Bantum
Gail Song Bantum
Bantum, executive pastor of Seattle's Quest Church, on why feminism is about freedom:
"Feminism cannot merely be an idea but a life embodied. For those of us women who have fought to live out our call in spaces of leadership within the church, we embody feminism daily whether we realize it or not. Any embrace of feminism within the church must be rooted in our deep conviction that we are all created to be free -- that it was for freedom that Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1
). It is a desire for this freedom to emerge from the truth that both women and men are created fully and wholly as image bearers of God. In that sense, feminism is not necessarily about equality for me. It's about discipleship - about honoring the creativity of God in our midst, about enabling others to flourish, about fighting for another's freedom, and about submitting to the truth that we have all been gifted this breath each waking moment of the day."
Rev. Dr. Paula Stone Williams
RLT Pathways, Inc.
Williams, a pastoral counselor, on how a journey to live out her gender identity helped her understand why feminism is important:
"I have preached in three of the twelve largest churches in America. Today I would not be allowed in the pulpit of a single one. Not only would I be barred because I am transgender, I would be barred because I am a woman. The irony is the things I know now make me twice the person I was before. But women's voices remain silenced while churches stumble in the dark with a leadership blinded by its own entitlement. It has made me into something I never expected I'd be -- a feminist."
Erica Granados De La Rosa (Edyka ChilomÃ©)
Chilomé, a spiritual activist, said she believes that the word "feminist" erases her identity as an indigenous mestiza woman who seeks to carry on the traditions of her female ancestors, whom she says "fought for the dignity of life and the sacred worth of women long before the term 'feminist’ was conceived.”
"As a woman of color I don't identify as a feminist although I walk in solidarity with my feminist sisters and am working toward similar goals of transformative justice. I grew up in a christian context that inherited liberation theology born from third world liberation struggles and the continuous survival of indigenous mestizo peoples in the global south. My Christianity looked like rallies at the capital Sunday morning led by indigenous mestiza women who made very clear for me that God, in whatever form, is calling us to walk with the earth’s people and honor life first. This means that the world is my parish, and at the end of the day, compassion and accountability go hand and hand."
Image Courtesy of Mica McGriggs
McGriggs, a Mormon, on why she thinks Jesus was a feminist:
"Feminism for me as a Christian means I am working toward being more like Christ; I see the Savior as the ultimate intersectional feminist. He was always concerned and working for 'the least of these' he looked to the margins and created spaces that were inclusive to all. That is what intersectional feminism aims to do. The church would be a safer and more loving environment for all God's children if they were to embrace liberation theology and the practice of intersectional feminism."
Rev. Christine Lee
Lee, the first Korean-American woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, on the value of seeing women as Jesus did:
"As a Christian, to me feminism is about seeing and valuing women as Jesus did. I'm always moved by the stories of Jesus' interactions with women in the gospels. In a time and culture where women were often invisible, he saw them and treated them as ones who were honored by God and deeply loved. If the church followed the example of Jesus in how he treated women, it could heal the world. Just like the human body, the whole flourishes when every part is made stronger."
Nicole M. Garcia
Garcia, a transgender Latina who is a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on tracing feminism back to the creation story:
"Genesis 1: 27 is very clear: God made humankind in God’s image. Feminism, to me, does not mean I want more, I want what God gave to each of us -- to be a human being in God’s image. The church has subjugated women far too long and it is time to emphasize the love and compassion Jesus taught us in the Gospel."
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño
Carcaño, the first Hispanic female bishop in the United Methodist Church, on women's God-given gifts:
"As a Christian, I view feminism as a commitment to women having the opportunity to fully be who God created us to be.Creation itself allows us to catch a glimpse of God’s amazing creativity with all its beauty, potential and interrelationship. Individually and collectively women bring God-given gifts to life.The church has a responsibility to remind the world of the sacredness of all life including that of women. When women suffer because of discrimination due to their gender, everyone suffers through the loss of the gifts women bring to the world."
Monica A. Coleman
Inner Prizes Inc.
Coleman, a scholar, activist and minister, on what a woman's perspective and questions can bring to the church:
"For me, feminism in religion is about voice and power. It's about what I notice and what kinds of questions I ask: Where are the women in the story? Who has voice? Who doesn't? What might she have said? Who is in leadership in churches? Whose voices and perspectives have the loudest voice and influence? I try to answer these questions when I preach and teach. I want them to feel natural to my daughter's faith."
Rev. Winnie Varghese
Leah Ruddy / Trinity Wall Street
Varghese, an Episcopal priest at New York City's Trinity Wall Street Church, on feminism and equality:
"As a Christian, feminism is a reality check on the gospel message of equality among all people in the eyes of God. If we believe we are equal in the eyes of God, we have to work to make that equality a reality in the world we live in. This has implications both for how girls and women understand their full humanity and dignity and how people of all genders understand the worth and dignity of women, which the church has historically profoundly influenced negatively."
Kelly, founder of the Ordain Women movement in Mormonism, on how feminism could have an impact on women in society:
"In my home state of Utah, policy is heavily influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is an extremely patriarchal religion. Any Church that excludes women from leadership roles is clearly missing out on 50 percent of the potential, talents and wisdom of its adherents. But, religious gender discrimination also leaks out of the bounds of the institution and negatively impacts society at large. Utah has one of the largest income gaps
between men and women, as well as one of the lowest female college graduation rates
. The influence of the religious teachings that put women below men affect not only Mormon women, but all people that live in Utah… Societal parity for women will never be fully actualized until women are spiritually integrated as equals into every major faith tradition in the world."
Emilie M. Townes
Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, preferred to use the word “womanist,” a phrase coined by poet and activist Alice Walker to embrace the experiences of black feminists. Townes described the term this way: “Womanism is when historic and current insights of Black women are used to eradicate inequalities for all people with a particular focus on class, gender, race, sex and sexuality as social and theological tools to unseat evil.”
"As a Christian, womanism underscores the power of the gospel working in our lives to set us all free from stereotypes based on gender, sexuality, race, class, physical ability, and all of the ways in which we are humans in God’s creation. Womanism is a spirituality of life that calls me to remember that my life is a gift from God and I should use this gift to work for peace and justice by sharing the good news and to work with others to craft a space and place for folks to thrive. This space and place, to my mind, is the church. It becomes the place that is genuine[ly] involved in being partners with God in bringing in the new heaven and new earth and an embodiment of love, hope, peace, and justice in a world that can use a good dose of each these days."
Messina-Dysert, co-founder of the site "Feminism and Religion," on why Christian feminism isn't an oxymoron:
"While many believe the idea of a Christian feminist is an oxymoron, in truth, feminism and Christianity have a long history together. Although, many argue to be feminist is not to be Christian or vice versa, in fact, Christianity has feminist value. If we examine the foundation of the tradition, the idea that every person should be liberated and treated justly, this is very much in line with feminist ideals. Nonetheless, patriarchy has resulted in the manipulation of the tradition into one that has been utilized to oppress women. But with that said, feminism has a responsibility to uproot oppression wherever it exists - and that includes religion. And so, as a feminist lens is used to critique patriarchy in all aspects of society; it is critical that feminists continue to apply the same lens to religious traditions."