To get noticed in social media these days, just start a Tumblr account, set up a Facebook page, and start tweeting under a hashtag that questions the significance of feminism. At least, that’s been the case for the grassroots movement “Women Against Feminism.” Despite its moderate Facebook presence (currently under 17,000 “likes”), #WomenAgainstFeminism has garnered attention from Time, MTV, BBCSalon, and the Daily Beast—all in the same week.

We need a vision for humanity that transcends categories and labels and protects and nurtures life wherever it is found—whether in a slum, in a mosque, in a prison, or in the womb.To be fair, the buzz has less to do with the strength of #WAF and more to do with the perpetually controversial nature of feminism. In fact, many of the frustrations of #WAF are rooted in the perceived weaknesses of 21st century western feminism. It is too white. It is the luxury of the middle-class. It dismisses the contributions of men, makes victims of women, and disdains the traditional roles of marriage and motherhood.

In response, feminists have pointed to past successes and current gender inequities. Several prominent Christian voices have joined in supporting feminism, writing and blogging under the hashtag #FaithFeminisms. For them, feminism’s usefulness isn’t tied to our western context alone but to the atrocities women face globally. So while religious feminists may not agree with their secular counterparts on every issue, they are united with them in believing that feminism can effect positive change as it advocates for “the radical notion that women are people too.”

This “radical notion,” those familiar with the faith-and-feminism conversation may notice, is strikingly similar to wording used by lay theologian, writer, and philosopher Dorothy L. Sayers. In her 1938 essay “Are Women Human?” Sayers argues against male-normativity (understanding the male experience as universal), advocating instead for sex-equality and writing that “a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as man.”

On the surface, Sayers appears to have successfully merged faith and feminism, but while Sayers’ language is similar to modern faith-based feminists, her rhetoric is not. In fact, Sayers makes a rather disappointing voice for feminism, even agreeing with the claim of #WomenAgainstFeminism that the time for feminism has passed (this in 1938!). For her, the answer to sex-inequality was not found in advocating for a specific class but in emphasizing individuals. Here is the complete quote:

“A woman is just as much an ordinary human being as man with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.”

Sayers’ point—and one widely missed in the back and forth over feminism—is that we cannot advocate for women’s rights without first advocating for individual human rights.

“If you wish to preserve free democracy, you must base it—not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as a member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick, and Harry, and the individual Jack and Jill—in fact, upon you and me.”

And suddenly the inability of feminism alone to fight the global oppression of women becomes clearer. If a society does not value individual freedom, it will be impossible to advocate for women’s equal rights because what, in fact, are we advocating for? Despite feminists’ hopes, the “radical notion that women are people too” will have little effect in societies with mistreatment run amok. In such societies, the oppression of women only comprises a small part of a widespread lack of individual liberty, human rights abuses, and the subjugation of political opponents, members of lower castes, and religious minorities.

Take, for example, the April 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian girls by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. After these girls were abducted, they were transported across the border and either sold as domestic workers or forced into Islamic “marriages.” On the surface, this incident is a classic example of the need for feminism. Until you hear journalist and author Alex Perry’s reflections. Discussing his recently released The Hunt for Boko Haram on Fresh Air, Perry explains that these girls were kidnapped because they were girls. If they had been boys, they would have been slaughtered.

Or consider the case of Meriam Ibrahim who gave birth to her daughter while chained in a Sudanese prison, having been tried for adultery and sentenced to die simply for marrying a Christian man. Was this a question of women’s rights? Or was it about religious freedom? Maybe it was an issue of political freedom—the right to self-determination and free movement?

Absolutely, gender oppression occurs, but oppression is rarely based on gender alone. More often it centers on the intersection of gender, class, religion, and politics. Feminism alone cannot halt the global oppression of women. Instead, as Sayers suggests, the solution must be rooted in something deeper: a robust understanding of human rights.

Still, if intersectionality reveals the limits of feminism, it also reveals the parochialism of #WomenAgainstFeminism. For many, feminism is no longer necessary because they live in a western context with individual freedom as an established norm; they forget that historically feminism was a tool used to establish that norm, a tool essential to societies still developing an understanding of human rights. In these societies, feminism will eventually play the role that it played in our own, helping to answer such basic questions as whether or not women have the right to vote, own property, or divorce abusive husbands. And at that point, the fact that women “are people too” will have tremendous significance.

So do we need feminism? Yes and no. If you are looking to feminism to secure a bright future for oppressed women, you will be severely disappointed. Feminism alone cannot do this. For that, we need a vision for humanity that transcends categories and labels and protects and nurtures life wherever it is found—whether in a slum, in a mosque, in a prison, or in the womb. But that is a vision not so easily hashtagged.


  1. Great article! I think that your paragraph about the intersectionality of gender, class, religion, and politics is dead on. The feminist theologian Elizabeth A Johnson makes what i think to be a complimentary point when she writes, “it is shortsighted to single out sexuality (in the sense of gender identity) as always and everywhere more fundamental to concrete historical existence than any other constants; for gender identity itself is shaped significantly by religious, political, economic, and cultural differences.” I think when we realize gender identity and oppressive views regarding gender identity are not formed in a decontextualized environment we can truly began to gain equal dignity for women.

  2. Hi Hannah! This was a great post. Sayers’ essay is one of my all-time favorites, so it was cool to see you engage her with this.

    I totally agree that “feminism alone cannot halt the global oppression of women” and that oppression often “centers on the intersection of gender, class, religion, and politics.” And you’re right, the whole point of Sayers’ essay is that women should be treated as human, not a separate class of people.

    But where I think feminism comes in handy is in in identifying the reality that, indeed, many women are oppressed precisely because they are women and are seen as a class separate from the rest of humanity. If we’re serious about addressing human rights, we have to look at the factors that are impeding them. And the reality is, patriarchy is a problem that, just like poverty, needs to be named and addressed in order to confront certain types of oppression. We can’t “solve” the problem of child brides, for example, unless we directly confront the notion that women and girls are property. One of the main reasons Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face was because she was a girl going to school. So, in addition to other issues, we need to confront the idea that girls are not worthy of an education. I suspect you would agree that it’s not enough to simply respond to oppression with condemnation of the oppressors and aid for the oppressed. We have to get to the root of the problem, the worldview that supports the oppression, and address that. And, the reality is, patriarchy is often a significant component of oppressive cultures. Not the only component. But a significant one.

    So while there are often other factors contributing to the oppression of women, we cannot deny the fact that patriarchy often plays an important role. Feminism is not the cure-all, but it does give us the language with which to confront damaging narratives about what it means to be a woman – whether the narrative is that women are property to be bought and sold by men, or whether the narrative is that women are objects to be exploited in media.

    The whole point of Sayers’ essay is that women are not treated as humans beings. We see this not only in the developing world but also in the Western church, where women are often relegated to specific interests and roles. I wish more had changed since 1938.

    (Note: recommend “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof for more on how addressing gender equality is an important part of tackling poverty, oppression, and exploitation around the world.)

  3. Absolutely, gender oppression occurs, but oppression is rarely based on gender alone. More often it centers on the intersection of gender, class, religion, and politics.

    I know there are several feminists who only take issue with gender and maybe sexuality. They tend to be white and upper/upper-middle class, though. Where I interact with feminism and where I boost it, it is highly intersectional – recognizing that oppression occurs at tandems of femininity, socio-economic class, physical & neuro-abilities, race/ethnicity, etc. That is true inside and outside of Christian circles.

    A rigorous sociological outlook will help us to see that women, however, regardless of status, tend to fall under their male, straight, cis counterparts. That is why feminism as movements centered on social AND personal interactions is so important.

  4. intersectionality is a concept coined by black researcher and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw which undergirds robust and diverse feminist/womanist activism, theology, and expression. her work and legacy certainly “reveals the limits of” classist, white supremacist, capitalist/corporate/Lean In White Feminism but not feminism itself(!), which cannot be exemplified by any one practice or practitioner, particularly the most privileged.

    using Crenshaw’s own terminology to erase the myriad historical and ongoing contributions of women of color, indigenous women, queer women, low-income and disabled women in feminism and then proclaim it a narrow and generally failed initiative is staggering.

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