If you were to stop by my house lately, you'd be greeted by stacks of dishes, piles of unfolded laundry, and me sitting in front of my laptop, editing a book for Christian women that I've been working on for almost two years. It's my invitation for them to embrace their imagodei identity, to believe that we are made for more than the banality we often settle for, to believe that we cannot be reduced to being wives or mothers or published authors or PhDs.
This should make me a good candidate to join the burgeoning ranks of evangelicals who embrace the "feminist" label, who contend to be a feminist simply means that you believe that women are human beings.
Within the church, the "F-word" has been a point of tension for several decades. Conservatives want vocal condemnations of feminist ideology and exact explanations of what a woman should and should not do. Progressives want inclusive statements and decisive action against the male oppression they perceive lurking behind every darkened doorway. Both sides agree that being female in this world too often makes you a candidate for oppression and neglect in ways that being male does not.
Subject to domestic violence, sexual abuse, or something as routine as wage inequality, the girls and women who hold up half the sky are regularly treated as less than the image bearers they are. This, I believe, is why many of my sisters now identify as feminists. They're not necessarily identifying with the ideology of women like Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem, but with the brokenness that feminism gives voice to.
But the seemingly simple nomenclature of feminism gets sticky: It's one thing to declare that "women are human" and deserve to be treated as such, and it's another thing entirely to agree on what it means to be human and what it means to be a woman. Self-described feminists can find it difficult to pursue solutions to the threats women face simply because they must first agree on what does and what does not constitute a threat to a woman's personhood.
Do you become human at conception or only after you're born? And what happens when a girl's right to be born conflicts with a woman's right to choose a son instead of a daughter? Once you are born, is your womanhood fixed or is it something you can reject? What should womanhood look like in practice? Does a woman's humanity enable her to fill any role a man does?
Our answers reveal more about our actual paradigms than whether or not we call ourselves feminists. It's these deeper questions that ultimately keep me from embracing the title. By definition, feminism doesn't have the language or categories to answer them; after all, as my sisters assure me, feminism simply means believing women are human—nothing more, nothing less.
I prefer a more robust label, one that answers both what it means to be a person and what it means to be a woman: Christian.
Ultimately, what you believe about a woman's value is directly tied to what you believe about the God who made her. Cultures and philosophies without this foundation have little way of pursuing lasting equality because they do not base it on personhood as revealed in Jesus Christ, the perfect Image made perfect Image Bearer. The essence of Christianity, on the other hand, is about restoring us—male and female alike—to full humanity. For a woman, this doesn't mean defining herself in relationship to men or the roles she fills but in relationship to God's own nature. It means freeing her to live as the image bearer she is, to embrace both the responsibility and privilege that this entails.
This deeper paradigm is why Christians have historically led the way in social justice–prison reform, animal welfare, the abolition of slavery, and yes, the protection of women and children. The first mass organization of women committed to social reform, the Christian Women's Temperance Union, was founded in 1874 by evangelical Protestants and is still in existence today. Although most often associated with the prohibition movement, the CWTU also advocated to protect working women from sexual harassment, fought prostitution, and lobbied for equal pay for equal work. Many in the CWTU were also part of the suffrage movement believing that women needed the vote in order to extend their moral influence over society.
Some will quickly counter that Christianity itself has been used to oppress women and therefore doesn't speak clearly enough to the issues women face; in my mind, this is all the more reason to reclaim it. I'm much more concerned with Christ being represented well than with feminism being represented well.
We fight sex trafficking, forced abortion, and child brides, not because we are feminists who happen to be Christians, but because we are Christians who understand that every person is valuable because he or she is made in God's own image. When people see our good works done in Christ's name, they should know to glorify our Father in heaven not our feminism on earth.
In this sense, Christianity offers a culture of life greater than feminism ever could. Feminism, by definition, addresses only the oppression of women; Christianity teaches us to see the world, not in stark categories of women oppressed by men, but of the weak oppressed by the strong. It can even explain why a strong woman would oppress a weaker one, whether she is a madam in a brothel, a "queen bee" in an office, or a mother who aborts her daughter in favor of a son. And ultimately, only Christianity can restore both the oppressed and the oppressor to full personhood in Christ.
I understand why many of my sisters are embracing a feminist label; insofar as this means that they are fighting the brokenness around them, I cheer them on. But let's not confuse what is the fundamental impulse of Christianity with a perspective that, at best, can only identify the problem without offering sustainable solutions. Instead let's move forward in the name of the One who first made us in his own image and continues to restore us to that same likeness—male and female alike.
Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of the upcoming book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live Imago Dei (Moody, April 2014). She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com on Twitter @sometimesalight.