November 2, 2010 / Perspective
Today, as I write this, the world is learning about the death of Ronnie James …
April 4, 2005
I’m not afraid of the monster under my bed. I’m afraid of the monster next to my bed. I’m terrified by the growing number of books which I want to read, have been told to read, or feel obligated to read. It seems that, no matter how many times I reorganize the stack of books, it continually grows closer, taller, and may eventually reach the ceiling. I religiously cling to the dream that someday I’ll have all the time in the world to read. But until that day comes, most books will have to wait their turn in the dusty stack.
Unexpectedly, Pamela D. H. Cochran’s Evangelical Feminism—A History never touched the stack of books next to my bed. Within hours of it being placed in my hands, I started reading. To be sure, it wasn’t the two-tone cover, the dry title, or pages of end notes that made me want to read this book. It was one word – Feminism.
Feminism is not a novel word. To most people it represents a movement during which women worked to end the male-dominated role of women, in an effort to offer equal opportunities to women. The modern feminist movement was birthed during the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the early 20th century, gained strengths in the 1960’s, and faded after the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. To understand how quickly the term became antiquated, I am reminded that my mother read Betty Freidan’s “Feminine Mystique” as popular literature; and just thirty years later I read it as assigned text in an evangelical Christian college history course.
But Feminism remains a contested concept within the church. Cochran’s Evangelical Feminism reminds us that there is an ongoing debate as to whether one can be an Evangelical Christian and a feminist at the same time.
For this question alone I was drawn to the book. I’m not sure if it is because I am an unmarried woman, because I voice my opinion, or because I am in law school; but at some point in the last three years, I started being called a feminist. It’s as though someone took a permanent marker and scrawled “FEMINIST” across my forehead, without warning me. Eagerly, I’ve been waiting for an author who would academically and historically discuss feminism from a biblical perspective – until now.
Cochran, a lecturer in religious studies and Communication Director of the Center on Religion and Democracy at the University of Virginia, set out to give a faithful history of the evangelical feminist movement. The author tells the personal stories of men and women who planted the seeds of a feminist movement within evangelicalism, relying on their personal notes, interviews, speeches, and recollections. She wisely stays clear of meaningless uses of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Instead, Cochran relies upon terms such as “traditional” and “progressive” to satisfactorily explain theological differences within the church.
Cochran organizes her discussion – of what she calls “Biblical Feminism” – into four time periods. She first outlines the development of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC), an organization of evangelical feminists, from 1973 to 1975. Started at the 1973 Evangelical for Social Action conference in Chicago, the author reports how the movement grew within the context of American evangelicalism and secular feminism.
Second, Cochran outlines the history of the EWC from 1975 to 1983. She describes the membership and growth of the organization, bolstered by apparent unity in vision. The author notes that tensions within biblical feminism, regarding biblical interpretation and inerrancy, mirrored those in the broader evangelical community. From this discussion alone, the reader is given historical perspective on evangelicalism as a whole.
Third, Cochran summarizes the organizational fracture of the EWC, which took place between 1984 and 1986. She explains how divergent views on biblical authority came to a head over the issue of homosexuality and led to the creation of an alternative organization of biblical feminists called the Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). Cochran outlines the major scriptural differences and notes that the conflict over lesbianism was very similar to that which occurred within the secular feminist movement just years before.
Forth, the author describes the theological and organizational differences between the two groups, the progressive evangelical feminists of the EWC and the traditional evangelical feminists of the newly formed CBA, from 1986 to the present. Separated into two chapters, the author first concentrates on the theological consequences resulting from their differing opinions on biblical authority, with specific examples of interpretation differences. Second, she discusses how the two organizations, the ECA and CBA, developed independent of one another.
Cochran recounts how the evangelical church has responded to biblical feminism. She details the reactions from within the church, including support from Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek Community Church and opposition from John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Overall, the author discusses the effect these two organizations have had upon American evangelicalism.
In her conclusion, the author compares the ability of the progressive and traditional biblical feminists to affect American culture. Cochran questions whether biblical feminists have a prophetic voice in American culture. In the end, she questions whether either group can speak the truth in this pluralistic society.
I was attracted to this book because of one word – Feminism; but this book is important because of the first word in the title – Evangelical. Cochran skillfully weaves the history of American evangelicalism into the story of the biblical feminism. Like salve for my open wounds, I was blessed by Cochran’s ability to discuss feminist theological issues honestly. But more importantly, I was blessed by her explanations of evangelicalism. This book is important to the greater Christian community because it places the conversation about biblical feminism within the context of the broader discussion of biblical inerrancy and interpretation.
Am I a feminist? Maybe. But no matter the answer to the question, I am equipped to join the ongoing discussion of biblical feminism. No longer will this discussion be divorced from the history of evangelicalism. That is why this book is important.
Hope E. Baldwin
Hope Baldwin is currently finishing her third year of law school at Seattle University. She continues to prioritize reading over sleeping. After graduation, she hopes to work in public defense.