When I say I’m a feminist

Feminism rocksI am learning to be a feminist.

I didn’t know how sexist I was. I didn’t grow up thinking a woman’s place was in the home. I did believe, however, that Eve was different than Adam — and this wasn’t just about boobs and penises. The assumed differences were all about relationships: the daughters of Eve were meant to somehow complete me and the rest of Adam’s sons. The idea of the women as the helper, as the companion, as the helpmate to man was ingrained in me. The relationship between the sexes had clear boundaries, there was no need to question it. After all the Bible was clear about this issue: God had designed men to be the head like Jesus was the head of the Church. Men were the pastors, men were the leaders, men were the decision makers. To question this was absurd, and the powers that sought to overturn the God-ordained order were really out to unravel society. You never wanted to be identified with those kinds of people.

Feminist was a dirty word.

It was an insult, a label to exclude, to separate the heathen “them” from the faithful us. Fueled by culture warrior scare tactics, I learned to respond with fear and repulsion to the word feminist — or, at least, my characterization of the idea. I learned lies about what a feminist is: they are lesbian man haters who seek to ruin traditional family structure; they are in league with the “homosexual agenda” to convert the young generation to their perverse thinking; feminists are overreacting, playing the victim, trying to make themselves more important than men, families, and God.

I heard nothing of privilege, power, and position. The ideas of equality in practice (as opposed to lip service) were never discussed. I learned from a white, male world that as a white male, I was correct in my thinking. The world was my oyster, and the right woman would be my help-mate. I could be one of the strong, godly, called, young men to stand against the onslaught of the secularist threat that was overtaking society under the name “feminism”.

So now, when I say I’m a feminist, I’m standing against all that shit.

But, feminism is bigger than my baggage.

While it is good to separate ourselves from the unhealthy indoctrination that sometimes occurs in youth, it is not healthy to simply run the opposite direction, open arms ready to embrace whatever may meet us. See, I might stand against the lies and subtle sexism of my childhood, but that is not the entirety of my reasons for self-identifying as a feminist. This isn’t some reactionary phase, being swept along in the latest buzz issues and social justice trends. I am joining in something older, bigger, and more weighty than my baggage. I call myself a feminist because willfully I choose to stand beside and with women for the sake of equality.

When I say I am a feminist, I am saying that I cannot be the champion for this cause. I am not the great male hope of feminism. I am not the hero of my female friends and family because they don’t need a hero, male or female. The have their own voice, and their voice is worth hearing in whatever way they choose to speak.

When I say I am a feminist, I am saying I want to listen. The women in my life have their own conflicts, their own struggles, their own victories, and their own defeats. The narrative of their life as a human belongs to them. I want to hear their stories, their wisdom, their fear, their pain. It is not my story to steal and turn into something else. If I believe women can and should speak up on any and every topic they choose, then I must listen when they speak.

When I say I am a feminist, I am saying I believe that equality is about more than equality of the sexes. Intersectional justice; true equality for all. This means that I am not allowed to turn my feminism into a way of finally letting the girls into the boys club. If I will stand as a feminist, with others who identify as feminists, then we will stand against discriminations based on sexuality, race, color, health, body type, world views, religion, disability, language…. To put it simply, we will stand with each other against discrimination and for equality.

I used to hear these kinds of words with suspension, expecting them to hide an agenda. Sweet words that would entice the unsuspecting away from the truth. My ears were raised to be hard, to hear lies in everything that was not my indoctrination. Speakers about equity were subjected to a higher criticism because I was sure they were really lying, determined to tickle the ear and pull people into some liberal agenda.

Then, I heard the gospel.

When I came face to face with Jesus as the reconciliation of all humanity to God, I begin hearing the voices of the  people God loves to save. I began to listen to their stories of injustice, pain, persecution — stories that I would never know first hand because I am white, male, American, lucky enough to be born without a disability, Christian. I finally accepted that discrimination actually still actively exists and that it is an affront to God when we choose to disrespect and ignore someone’s voice and value because “they” are not like us. When we fail to take seriously the truth that all people are created in God’s image and all people deserve respect according to God’s love for them — the love that is defined in the Crucifixion of Jesus; when we fail to see the image of God in all people and act accordingly, we sin against the high king of heaven.

I became a feminist because of the way a Jesus theology is continually shaped me; I remain a feminist because equality and justice are work that belongs in the kingdom of Jesus, among the humanity he loves.

When I say “I am a feminist”, I am saying I want to love my neighbor as myself. When I say I am learning to be a feminist, I am admitting I need to learn from my sisters, from my brothers, from my fellow humanity how to love my neighbor as Christ has loved me.


When you say “Feminist”, what do you mean?

  • When I say “Feminist”, I mean the opposite of “Masculinist”.

    My background and changing perception of gender roles are very similar to yours (I feel like I could’ve written this post, sans label). What you’re describing is a very Christian definition of gender roles – but the misunderstanding of “helper/helpmate”, “submission”, “headship” have resulted in a very un-christian definition/application in “Christian” circles.

    I find myself “label averse”, so when I hear terms like “Christian feminist” or “Progressive Christian” – I cringe a bit as I feel like the term “Christian” is enough. And the work is in restoring the “Christian” view.

    I could be wrong.

    • Josh, I was very careful to not try and label my self a “Christian feminist”. I do believe this is the “Christian” view of equality.

      However, the term feminist is an important one, with history and cultural significance. Because the “Christian” circles have been oppressors of women (among others), I think it is important that we identify with the history of feminism (even labeling ourselves as such) so that we can stand in solidarity with the work that has gone before for rights and equality. For me and my story, this is a more Christian thing to do than to try and ignore the history by claiming that “Christian” as a label is enough. I don’t think it is. We have wounded too many people in too many ways. For healing and reconciliation, we need to be labeled and identified among those we have wounded as “Christians”.

      • Thanks, Aaron – I agree that it is wise to consider word selection and be aware of how some terms have negative attachments (ex. “Christian” being associated with “oppressing women”). But I wonder if we have one term with reactionary connection being exchanged for another with a reactionary connection (I’ve read a few articles trying to clarify what “Feminist” means because it’s use is different from the general stereotype).

        I’m glad it’s a subject being talked about in multiple circles, but as you mention, the “Feminist” term isn’t just about sex discrimination, so I wonder if that’s the best label.

        This is one of the areas that I see the current church culture becoming more and more like the 1st century Christians. Where the term “Christian” WAS associated with human equality. That history of Christianity where men & women, slave & free, Jew and Gentile, were all honored. Where love for each other showed the world that they were disciples of Jesus.

        I was reading through your post again, and if you replace the use of the word “Feminist” with “Christian” (especially your last paragraph) – it’s the Gospel.

        Like I said, it could just be my own issues with the labeling – and as my wife and I have been talking about this topic, I’ve wondered why this view point would be associated with anything or anyone but Christ – why “Feminist”? And while I share these views that you’ve expressed, along with those I’m in community with, I don’t know anyone personally who had labeled themselves a “Feminist”. And while I don’t know you personally, I’m familiar with your writing and comfortable enough to ask. Thanks.

        • Josh I hear what you’re saying. I get it I do. However, I think you are looking at this from a decidedly “in the church” point of view.

          Where as my reasons for siding with and for feminists are theological at their roots, many of the women I know who are feminists are not Christians. Does this mean that I can’t stand with them? Not at all.

          The label “feminist” involves more than just Christians. If I am going to shy away from that label, I am going to cut my self off from women, men, humans that identify with this issue of justice. I may bring my Christianity into feminism (and indeed I do believe that the ideals of feminism are also truly Christian ideals), but my Christianity does not define feminism for others.

          Sometimes labels aren’t about us.

          • It could be an “in the church” issue… I don’t think so, but I’m willing to consider it.

            I don’t think labeling oneself a “Christian” means you cut yourself off from those-who-don’t-profess-Jesus-as-Lord-but-support-a-specific-issues-of-justice… I don’t support the care and concern for the environment (for example) because I’m an environmentalist but because as a Christian I believe in the restoration of all things and our responsibility to steward and care for the place we live.

            And I don’t think I need to redefine “feminism” for others. If anything, it’s redefining “Christian” for others (by word and action).

            For a long time, I had an issue with giving myself that label – I’d identify myself as a “Christ follower” or anything other than a “Christian”. But by doing that, I think I was just perpetuating the inaccurate stigma associated with the term.

            That the best way to change the stigma, was to identify myself as a “Christian” and let Christ in my life change the perception of the term for others.

            I wonder if it’s a similar issue with labeling oneself “Feminist”. That term becomes the instigator of the call for justice – that you care about the dignity, respect and honor for all genders/people, not because you’re a “Christian”, but because you’re a “Feminist”?

            My only “issue” is in regard to the labels, which isn’t really an issue at all… or is it?

            Thanks for allowing me to share. I’ll continue to examine if I’m coming at it wrong, or “in the church” point of view…

  • Thank you.

  • I used to think I was a feminist, but I realized that even that is too narrow a view. I do think women have a long way to go before we are treated as equals, but we’ve gotten much further than people of minorities in the US, and I’ve begun to realize that my upbringing (even as a woman) was privileged, and I personally need to start focusing on how to treat all people as my equals and teaching others to do the same. I don’t begrudge the Christian feminist movement, I think it is a huge step in the right direction that many are taking on the cultural attitudes, but some of us need to move beyond women’s issues and deal with racial reconciliation.
    I believe a feminist is someone who wants to treat women as equals in all areas of life, and I don’t believe feminism is a bad word, I think it’s a very good thing.

    • Or deal with both women’s issues and racial reconciliation – healthy feminism recognizes intersectionality.

      • Yes, I totally get that, and I think the biggest thing for me is that I go to a church that recognizes women equally, yet we still have a racial divide. At least within this church it’s gotten beyond simply feminism, while I realize that if I ever go somewhere else, I’ll probably have to change my focus. Especially since my desire is to be a church planter. I don’t want to say “I’ve moved beyond that” it’s just that it’s not the focus where I am (personally) right now.

        • Hmm, I think I overreacted a little because your comment seemed to suggest that race and feminism were separate issues which deserved separate focuses. My apologies,

          Still, I’m not sure you can ever have meaningful conversations about either issue without focusing on both at the same time.

          • Thanks for clarifying this point, Cassie. @AbbyFahmi:disqus, as someone who does identify as a Christian feminist, I am committed to seeking justice for all who have experienced oppression, which includes many intersectional issues such as racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

    • I agree. We can’t just say “I’m a feminist” and stop at sex discrimination. We need to embrace all the areas of culture that demand justice: race, age discrimination, mental illness, physical disabilities… It is an all encompassing thing. Depending on your context, there may be things that are more in front of our faces that need to be emphasized and directly addressed more so than other things, but that is part of working towards equality for all.

  • I appreciate your very good thoughts on this. I’ve been discussing the idea of identifying as a feminist with colleagues at the Christian college where I teach, wondering whether the term is a barrier to students who have learned growing up that feminists are evil. Are they less receptive to the ideas of feminism when they are labelled as such? My argument is that we need to continue rehabilitating the label to combat the lies evangelicalism has told people both about feminists and about presumed roles for women ( and men). When I say I am a Christian feminist, I intend that to mean that I am for helping remove any barriers that keep people from being all God intends them to be.

    • I agree. We need to redeem the term in evangelical circles. Otherwise, the dehumanizing of others based on labels will continue. Plus, part of the prophetic role of the Church is to combat lies by standing against it’s self when portions of the ekklesia are perpetuating the lies.

  • My wife and I definitely do not have a relationship where I “lord it over her” in any way. Far from it. We make decisions together, serve together in our local church, and share teaching responsibilities in the small groups we’ve led in the past. When it comes down to it though, we do both view the final responsibility for our spiritual health as falling upon me. This is our understanding of verses like Ephesians 5:21-33. How do you interpret passages like this, where it seems God places men in a place of authority spiritually for a home.

    I do rail against men who “rule” their homes as a dictator, or view their wives as subservient “by God’s rules.” But I struggle with the idea that there is no distinction between men and women, mostly because I haven’t had a ton of interaction with people willing to dialogue.

    Usually comments like mine are seen as fighting words. I hope the same doesn’t happen here. Aaron, hear my heart in this. I am not trying to start a war of words here, but an honest dialogue. Looking forward to yours and others’ responses.

    • I don’t see your comment here as “fighting words” at all Chris. I see you (and know you) are open for a discussion, and dialogue about different understanding of some biblical passages.

      While this isn’t the best space to get into all the specifics, let me lay out how I view the entire bible being pro-feminism. In Gen 1 and 2, we are told that male and female were made in the image of God. Right from creation, before the curse and breaking of shalom, we are told that to be human is to be in the image of God. We were made sacred to God, imbued with a value (equal in all) simply because we are human.

      After the fall, that image was broken. The curse was pronounced, and part of that curse (or result of sin seeping into our core) was an imbalance in the relationship between the sexes (see Gen 3). If this is part of the result of sin, why would we assume it to be pat of God’s good plan?

      Understanding that inequality is part of the curse then leads me to read the rest of the bible in light of How God is rolling back the curse (including the inequality) as part of the missio dei. What I see is God intentionally honoring women in remarkable ways, even though the culture was patriarchal. When we get to Jesus, we are left in shock at how he broke social expectations and included women in his disciples, how he spoke directly with women (as equals), and how he was not excluding women in the great commission. Read it again: all his disciples (his mom and women included) were there, not just the 11 men.

      When we get to Paul, we are forced to see that he is a product of his culture (male dominated religious/political system). Yet, even in that Paul’s statements are also hinting at the truth that in Jesus, because of his reconciliation of us to God, there is not discrimination based on economic status, race, or sex. “If anyone is in the Messiah: New creation! the old way has passed and the new [kingdom way of living] has come.”

      Sure, we have to wrestle with cultural context and what is said, but never forget that wen Paul talks about “submission” for wives (btw: not all women to all men), he then turns to the men and says “love her as the Messiah has loved the people of God: Jesus laid down his life so that the people of God could be set free of bondage and be fully human, fully the image of God.”

      We don’t get to proof text for any position. We have to look at the story of the bible, how Jesus interprets it for us, and what our salvation actually is in order to navigate the meanings of every passage, not just the “hard” ones.

      • Aaron,

        I know I picked a challenging verse, and thanks for responding with a broader answer than my question really asked for. For the record, I have always seen the Ephesians passage exactly how you said it above. I actually think 5:21 is the key verse for the whole passage, including chapter 6 with children. We are all to be in submission to Jesus, the only true head. Also, my personal response to this passage is to read it for what I need to do. I will be so busy for the rest of my life loving my wife as Jesus loved the Church. If I ever think I am done with that, then I can start perfecting my ability to love her as my own body. Geez, there’s enough there to keep me busy enough I don’t need to worry about how my wife is doing!

        I actually agree with almost everything you said above. I do have a question for you though, and it feels in my mind like a very big one. When you say Paul is a product of his culture, are you saying we should read all of his epistles with the lens of male dominion, and try to “read that out” of the text to see a deeper truth? If so, that feels a bit uncomfortable to me.

        I am surely willing to take this conversation to a different forum, if it’s easier. We can always FB, email or Skype. I’ve been looking forward to this post since you started hinting about it on Twitter, and I am now fascinated even more

        • I’ve been thinking of the best way to respond to your comment. I think it’s going to take a larger post in it’s self. But I did want to address this is bit here.

          It’s not that his lens was necessarily male domination, and I don’t think there is something for us to read out. I think it is important to understand that Paul is a product of the culture he was in, just as we are, and yet he was still being transformed by the gospel of reconciliation, just as we are. His words about women are going to come from his history and his context, just as ours are. If we decide to read Paul with the sex relationships as the lens, we are going to get the wrong questions and answers.

          We need to read Paul’s words through the lens of Jesus: where do we see Jesus and what does the revelation of Jesus tell us about ourselves in relationship with Jesus, each other, and the world?

          We are not trying to read Paul, his context, or his humanity out of the text to find some “deeper truth”. Rather, we are looking for how the Spirit has revealed Jesus in the text and what the implications for our life as the body of Jesus now.

          • I am going to chew on this some more. Right now, it feels like you are suggesting that taking the Pauline epistles at their face value will lead to an immature view of faith and/or the role of men and women in church and life. And that feels very uncomfortable for this Baptist-trained, Vineyard-attending church dude. However, I don’t want to derail a very good conversation here on a broader topic for my specific concern. Looking forward to continuing dialogue on this later though

            • I just have a few words on this, if I may.

              I agree a lot with what Aaron is saying. I also think that people tend to think of Paul as putting women in a submissive role as a bad thing. If you read carefully on how a household should be run in the epistles, the wife has MUCH more power than people typically think she does. Just because Paul suggests that men are the final decision makers doesn’t mean that husbands will do whatever they want. Men were built to desire at least some level of respect from their wives. When a wife chooses to respect her husband’s decision whether she approves or not, it can make the husband take a second look.

              I experience this a lot in my marriage of under a year. I don’t have a lot of time spent in marriage, but I still know that when I choose to voice my opinion, but leave the final decision up to him, he will frequently see my point of view and decide that I had the better suggestion and we do it the way I would have on my own. The saying “Husband is the head; wife is the neck that turns the head,” can be incredibly and somewhat surprisingly true.

              Another possible reason I have thought of as why Paul suggests women should submit to men is that it honestly keeps us women in check. As a woman, I have a tendency to become very controlling if I don’t consciously make an effort to remember that my husband is an adult capable of making wise decisions as well. Likewise, I believe that is why Paul says that husbands have to be willing to lay down their lives for their wives out of love. Women work on respecting. Men work on loving. This work helps to keep either party from gaining too much power or unequally overruling the other person.

              My husband and I make decisions together, but I make sure he knows that I will always back up his decision, even if I’m unsure of how well it will turn out. We do still have to take Paul into the context of his time, but what he is saying is not at all bad and can still be applied successfully today without inequality.

  • Beautiful, Aaron. Thank you for this.

  • amen and amen. i love how you write with both boldness and humility here, weaving faith with justice, kingdom theology, and intersectionality. well done.

    • I appreciate that Suzannah. I do see all of those things being together a tapestry of grace, redemption, and justice. I’m glad that comes across in my words.

  • It seems to me that verses like “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” get conveniently forgotten by a good number of well meaning folk. That said, what do we do with the other verses that tell us “You husbands likewise live with your wise in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman, granting her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life?” (I won’t even mention the famous Ephesians passage).

    To my mind, the whole egalitarian/complementarian debate is a false dichotomy. Because the Bible here is not either/or, but both/and. It teaches both complementarianism and egalitarianism. Just like teaches both predestination and free will.

    • Chad, I can see what your saying. If this was just about a theological point, I wouldn’t have spilled so much ink about it. Feminism is more about issues of justice through. It’s only one small piece of the conversation when we talk about heads of household, who can pastor, and the rest. And honestly, we end up asking the wrong questions in that debate so we never really get an answer.

      This however, for me and I believe for many women I know, is more about people made in the image of God being devalued because they are women, or because they are a specific race, or because they have a mental illness, or because they are confined to a wheel chair, or because they are “fat”. The devaluation of human dignity is the heart of feminism for me. The other things, egalitarian/complementarian, ordination, etc… those are fringe issues — important but not the true heart of the matter.

      • Aaron, I see what you’re after. It’s basic, fundamental human decency. It’s about honoring the personhood of every individual. For surely each of us is of equal value in God’s economy.

        For there isn’t a single soul for whom Christ didn’t die.

        I wish we could take it beyond gender-specific labels altogether. What you’re talking about encompasses far more than what’s known as “feminism.”
        We need a new word.

        Personism

        PersoQuality

        HumaQuality

        Ah, the word doesn’t exist for what I’m trying to describe.

        • I hear you on that Chad. However, I will gladly keep that label because there is a history of suffrage and toil and protest, and intersectional (race, etc…) justice tied to that term.

          While it would be great to take this concept and put a label on it that doesn’t elicit one gender, at the same time saying “feminism” is a reminder that there is inequality between men and women. Maybe wanting to take sex out of the word before equality exists is part of the problem. Just thinking out loud.

          • abi

            Lindy West wrote a great piece on Jezebel (which does not have a good track record for publishing thoughtful, empowering content, but this particular post was really good) about why we still call “feminism,” “feminism,” and if you don’t mind I’m going to copy-paste a big chunk of it here because I think it’s pertinent:
            …..
            I wish, more than anything, that I could just be a “humanist.” Oh, man, that would be amazing! Because that would mean that we lived in a magical world where all humans were born on equal footing, and maybe I could live in a house shaped like a big mushroom and birds would help me get dressed or something. Humanism is a gorgeous dream, and something to strive for. In fact, it is the exact thing that feminism is striving for right now (and has been working on for decades)! Yay, feminism!

            Unfortunately, the reason that “fem” is a part of the word “feminism” is that the world is not, currently, an equal, safe, and just place for women (and other groups as well—in its idealized form, intersectional feminism seeks to correct all those imbalances). To remove the gendered implications of the term is to deny that those imbalances exist, and you can’t make problems disappear just by changing “feminism” to “humanism” and declaring the world healed. That won’t work.

            Think of it like this. Imagine you’re reading a Dr. Seuss book about a bunch of beasts living on an island. There are two kinds of beasts: Fleetches and Flootches. (Stick with me here! I love you!) Though the two are functionally identical in terms of intellect and general competence, Fleetches are in charge of pretty much everything. They hold the majority of political positions, they make the most money (beast-bucks!), they dominate the beast media, they enact all kinds of laws infringing on the bodily autonomy of Flootches. Individually, most of them are perfectly nice beasts, but collectively they benefit comfortably from inequalities that are historically entrenched in the power structure of Beast Island. So, from birth, even the most unfortunate Fleetches encounter fewer institutional roadblocks and greater opportunity than almost all Flootches, regardless of individual merit. One day, a group of Flootches (the ones who have not internalized their inferiority) get together and decide to agitate to change that system. They call their movement “Flootchism,” because it is specifically intended to address problems that disproportionately disadvantage Flootches while benefiting Fleetches. That makes sense, right?

            Now imagine that, in response, a bunch of Fleetches begin complaining that Flootchism doesn’t address their needs, and they have problems too, and therefore the movement should really be renamed Beastism. To be fair. The problem with that name change is that it that undermines the basic mission of the movement, because it obscures (deliberately, I’d warrant) that beast society is inherently weighted against Flootches. It implies that all problems are just beast problems, and that all beasts suffer comparably, which cripples the very necessary effort to prioritize and repair problems that are Flootch-specific. Those problems are a priority because they harm all Flootches, systematically, whereas Fleetch problems merely harm individual Fleetches. To argue that all problems are just “beast problems” is to discredit the idea of inequality altogether. It is, in fact, insulting.
            …..

            For me, I call myself a feminist — sometimes, if I’m feeling wordy, an intersectional feminist — partly in deference to the decades of work that feminists have put into righting the system of inequality and hierarchy that are a result of systemic patriarchy. But also, I call myself a feminist because of how much baggage is attached to that word, for the same reasons that I call myself a Christian instead of a “Christ-follower” or “Jesus-disciple” or “child of God” or some other term: that owning the historical label “Christian”/”feminist” is an act of reclaiming that word from people who have maligned it. Because there is power in saying that I am a “Christian” or a “feminist” but not hastily following it with “…but not that kind of Christian/feminist”. I get to define the label by the actions that I commit under that banner, and in so doing, help to empower and lift up those around me who are also calling themselves Christians and feminists, and help to slowly change the knee-jerk perception that Christians and feminists are all a certain way.

            (Forgive me for writing a novel in your comments, Aaron.)

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  • Christiana Vandermale

    I have been wondering about how people from a privileged group come to realize their privilege. I became aware of my privilege as a white person at least partly from experiencing injustice as a woman, and that opened my eyes to other forms of oppression, like ones based on ethnicity. I’ve wondered how someone from multiple privileged groups would come to see those things, and this post gives me some insight into that, thank you!

    You said you learned from hearing other people’s stories. I would love to hear you expand on your process of learning and realization! What kind of stories? What were the factors that enabled you to be ready to hear them? What character qualities are necessary? You talked about the perspective that you came from, and how it invalidated other viewpoints. Why is it that some people are completely unable to hear and understand those stories, at least in this point in their lives? And what advice would you give someone (either from a privileged group, or from one of the groups that gets invalidated) who is trying to dialogue with a person who is still stuck in your former perspective?

  • troy mc laughlin

    We would be well served to love others, that’s everyone as Christ loved us and lay down our lives for them. True sacrificial love transcends any label and any act of hate. It conquers all.

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  • Caedmon

    When I say, “I am a feminist,” what I mean is, “I love my neighbor. All of them.”

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