Mary Kassian on the Church in a Post-Feminist World

Mary Kassian, author of Girls Gone Wise and The Feminist Mistake, will conduct a workshop during The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 national conference in downtown Chicago. Registration is open for the conference, which offers three rounds of workshops. Kassian, a distinguished professor of women’s studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, was kind enough to answer a few questions about “the feminist mistake.”

The description of your workshop says “we’ve entered a post-feminist era.”  What are some of the distinctions between the “feminist” era and the “post-feminist” era?

It’s important to note, when we’re talking about feminism, that it is, in fact an “-ism”—like atheism, humanism, Marxism, existentialism, or postmodernism. The “ism” indicates that we’re talking about a particular philosophical theory, a doctrine, a system of principles and ideas.  Feminism encompasses much more than the cultural phenomenon of the women’s rights movement. It’s more than women having the right to an abortion, the right to vote, or the right to pursue a career. Feminism is a distinct worldview with its own ideologies, values, and ways of thinking. The feminist era was the period of time during which feminist ideas were proposed, developed, articulated, promoted, and accepted into society’s collective mindset. This period lasted for approximately 30 to 40 years—from 1960s through to the start of the new millennium.

In the past decade, we have been transitioning from a “feminist” to a “post-feminist” era. What’s the difference between the two? In the feminist era, feminist ideas were being developed—now they are fully formed. In the feminist era they were touted by philosophers and academics—now they are spouted by everyone. In the feminist era, the ideas were radical—now they are commonplace. In the feminist era,  feminist ideas were pushed to be accepted—now they have been integrated. In the feminist era, feminist ideas were identifiable—now they are indistinguishable from mainstream thought.

Feminism,  as a cultural movement, is over. This is not to say that feminism has ended. On the contrary. The only reason the feminist movement is over is that it has been so wildly successful. Feminism has transitioned from being a movement to being the prevailing mindset of the masses. Hence, a movement is no longer needed. In the feminist era, a feminist could be identified as a “feminist”—but now, the term has become superfluous.  Virtually everyone is a feminist. Yet virtually no one would identify him/herself as such. Feminism has seeped into people’s systems like intravenous drugs into the veins of an unconscious patient. The majority of people in today’s churches are feminists—and they don’t even know it.

How has the “post-feminist” era affected the ministry of the local church?

The implications of the postfeminist era for ministry in the local church are enormous. Prior to feminism, culture upheld many Judeo-Christian ideas about manhood, womanhood, male-female relationships, sexuality,  marriage, and family. During the feminist era, all of these ideas were challenged and deconstructed. This upcoming post-feminist generation has absolutely no concept about God’s plan for gender and morality. In the past, truths about gender were generally “caught,” but now, they must be intentionally “taught.” The biggest thing that leaders need to understand is that the default setting has changed—even for those raised in the church. Leaders cannot assume that the people in their congregations have a biblical framework for understanding these things. Manhood, womanhood, and male-female relationships have become primary discipleship issues. It is critical that we ground our leaders and our people in deep, gospel-centered theology about God’s design for gender. A doctrinally rich understanding of manhood and womanhood is essential in order to combat the relational/sexual/marital carnage that accompanies a post-feminist mindset.

How has the movement shown itself in American marriages?

Nowadays,  women grow up thinking that the essence of womanhood is the exercise of personal power (including sexual power). They’ve been taught to be loud, brash, sexual, aggressive, independent, and demanding. They have been trained to value education, high-powered careers, and earning potential—and to devalue the home, marriage, and children.  Furthermore, women are encouraged to be the initiators and pursuers in male-female relationships. They expect that men will conform to female thoughts and expectations about what men should be. Naturally, this has had no small impact on marriage and family life. Male-female relationships are strained. Marriage is delayed, or put off altogether.  And because feminist ideas about womanhood stand in direct opposition to who God created woman and man to be, it has become increasingly difficult to make relationships work. Marital breakdown is at an all-time high. What’s more, statistics show that it is increasingly the woman who gives up on the marriage and initiates its dissolution.

Who are some of the prominent “post-feminist” voices?

That’s an interesting question. During the feminist era, it was very easy to identify the women who were the leaders and voices of the women’s movement—Friedan, Steinem, Millet, Greer, etc. But now, the voices are much more difficult to identify. Oprah had an enormous influence over women’s thinking during the transition to post-feminism. But I think it is still unclear whose voice women are going to listen to in this post-feminist era.

Are there any encouraging signs concerning manhood and womanhood in the church today?

There are many encouraging signs concerning manhood and womanhood in the church today. There has been an increased focus in the seminaries on understanding God’s design for gender. There has been an awakening to the fact that God created man and woman for a very specific purpose,  which is to put his gospel and glory on display. In many evangelical circles, there has been a move away from evangelical feminism toward complementarity.

I remember sitting around a table at one of the first Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood meetings,  about 20 years ago, with Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and a few others,  deciding that “complementarian” was an apt term to describe our position. At that time, this biblical position was on the verge of disappearing from the evangelical landscape. But now, theologians,  pastors, and God’s people are recommitting themselves to a complimentary understanding of gender.

Another encouraging sign is that a new women’s movement has started in the church—a quiet counter-revolution of women who are committed to saying “no” to the world’s (feminism’s) ideas about womanhood, and saying “yes” to God’s design. In the past two and a half years, tens of thousands of women have joined the True Woman Movement. Almost 21,000 have signed a document, The True Woman Manifesto, which signifies their commitment to “do womanhood” in a way that honors God’s design. I have seen an overwhelming response to my new book, Girls Gone Wise,  which was published last year. Scores of college-aged women are eagerly embracing it and having their thoughts about womanhood radicalized by the doctrinal truth it contains.

I see many encouraging signs. But Satan never gives us the luxury of fighting on only one front at a time, so let me put a caveat on my enthusiasm. Though the return to complementarity is encouraging, in some quarters of the church it is becoming distorted and imbalanced, and in need of correction. In some spheres, complementarity has degenerated into a list-making, legalistic, cookie-cutter pattern for roles that emphasizes gender differences more than the gospel and grace to which gender points. There is a danger, as we see a resurgence of interest in gender roles, that we focus on the “fence” and forget about the vast,  beautiful “field” around which it stands.

What do you hope people take away from your workshop?

I hope that attendees will leave with a better understanding of what feminism is, how it has been integrated into the contemporary mindset,  and the challenges a post-feminist mindset presents for ministry. I hope that listeners will grasp why people think the way they do about manhood, womanhood, sexuality, singleness, morality, marriage, and family. This understanding will help them more effectively minister to the overwhelming brokenness in the area of gender and male-female relationships.

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