The Feminist Mistake: A Review, Part 1

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This is part one of what I'm expecting to be a four-part review of Mary Kassian's The Feminist Mistake. An earlier version of this book was published in 1992 under the title The Feminist Gospel. Since I've never seen the original, I have no sense of how much was changed for this new edition. My review will treat the book as it stands in the current edition and will assume no knowledge of the original edition. Kassian divides the book into two larger topics: The Philosophical Quake and The Shockwaves. Part one is sub-divided into three sections: Naming Self, Naming the World, and Naming God, and then part two follows. Most of the book is dedicated simply to tracing out the development of feminist thought, mostly throughout the latter half of the 20th century or so. Kassian handles feminism in society in general and in religion, particularly in Christianity. Part one traces the major strands of feminist thought that amount to women's naming of themselves as a way of liberating themselves from being named by others. As such, it's at once brief and thorough in working through a number of elements of feminist thought along the lines she defines as Naming Self.

Kassian's first eight chapters constitute her account of how feminist thought seeks to name self. She traces several themes as they developed historically. Probably about 90% of what she discusses in this section arose within the 1960s and 70s, roughly the period of what many call the second wave of feminism (the first was the early 20th century movement for suffrage and acceptance of the right to equal chance at employment). She begins with the philosophical foundation of Simone deBeauvoir's 1949 The Second Sex, whose chief thesis was that women are treated as the Other and therefore denied autonomy and a voice. Women are defined in terms of men, and the only way out of the oppression that results is collective assertion. DeBeauvoir's work is steeped in existentialist terminology and thus would sound like utter nonsense to anyone not schooled in that sort of thing, so it took until Betty Friedan popularized such ideas in ordinary terms for the American populace to awaken to her points in 1963 The Feminine Mystique. Friedan's thesis was that women had a mythological picture of women to live up to, and when they did they were unhappy.

Kassian then moves into the feminist critique of the church. As women in general society have been misnamed, so too are women in the church misnamed. Men have named women's role in the church, and women must seek to name themselves. This is one of the few places in the first six chapters where Kassian inserts commentary of her own besides a simple presentation of the historical developments in thought. She points out that almost all of the misnaming of women in the church have to do with prevention of women to engage in the use of their gifts for the edification of the body and notes that the problem stems mostly from something unrelated to gender, and that's the structure of the church and the artificial lay/clergy distinction, leaving ministry to some special class of believers, all male. The call to open that special class to women is unwarranted if there's no such legitimate class to begin with, as Kassian believes but doesn't argue here.

One element of the feminist critique deserves highlighting, because it's especially ignored among evangelicals. Mary Daly's 1968 The Church and the Second Sex turns feminism onto church doctrine and not just church practice. Daly contends that a true feminism requires revising the church's teaching, not just in its outright teaching about women's roles but in its teaching about God. Though she acknowledges that no one really believes God has a sex, she points out that language about God acts otherwise. God is treated with male pronouns, and Jesus is male. She goes beyond this common enough (nowadays, anyway) claim to say that doctrines about God are also male-dominated. Thinking of God as unchanging, providential, and omnipotent, she claims, means God endorses any inequities in society. It makes God look like a patriarchal tyrant. Claiming that God is jealous for our worship paints God like a jealous husband who wants to control his wives. Christian theology as it stands is thus misogynistic from its very roots.

Kassian traces out a few other major themes in the rest of this section. She develops the main themes of a few feminist thinkers who trace women's problems to enslavement by their biology, either from men's taking advantage of women through biological differences (having to be the ones to bear children and differences in size and physical ability). She looks at the idea that feminism requires a revolution, which ends up developing into a reworking of liberation theology from a feminist point of view. Feminist liberation theologians claimed that the most important kind of liberation, which would lead to every other kind of liberation, is the liberation of women from patriarchal control. Liberation theologians would reinterpret virtually every theme in scripture as if it were about such matters, minimizing any relevance to the original content of those scriptures.

One interesting note in Kassian's account is how feminists won support among mainstream women. They had focus groups of a sort to gather women to discuss their problems, under the guise of some sort of therapeutic group discussion. These would be led by leaders within the feminist movement, and they would guide women to find anything they could find to complain about in their lives. When any presence of a male figure popped up, the leader would direct the unhappiness in that direction, thus turning each complaint into a complaint about men, and when each member of the group saw this it would become clear that men were truly harming women en masse. This was the first I'd heard of such focus groups. I had no idea the leaders of the feminist movement had been so sneaky. This really sounds like brainwashing, though I imagine they saw it as overcoming the bias women's plight had left them with that prevented them seeing that they'd lost their identity.

One other tidbit stood out to me at the end of this section. She points out that some larger societal issues had become women's issues as opposed to issues for everyone. These included "abortion, pornography, wife abuse, and women's participation in the workforce". It may be true that these had previously been seen as men's issues if indeed the feminist critique is right that every issue had been seen as within the domain of men, with women as the Other. Still, this doesn't seem to me to be the right attitude. If the issues are merely women's issues, why would men care about them? Men won't own the issues unless they see the issues as theirs. We'll see whether Kassian develops this theme, but it strikes me that she uses the language she uses here shortly before ending this major section of her book.

Next: Naming the World

Note: This book was reviewed as part of a book review program coordinated by The Diet of Bookworms. To read reviews of this book written by other bloggers, please visit The Diet of Bookworms.


J -
I think you are doing some good stuff w/ your blog. Keep it going.
- Raj

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