“I often joke with people that feminism has been like a born-again religion for me—that once I found it and let it into my life, my entire perspective shifted in such a way that suddenly, everything made sense—and that I feel compelled to spread that gospel,” writes Melissa Fabello in Everyday Feminism.
Fabello says she is joking—but is she? In creed and conduct, belief and behaviour, isn’t feminism actually a secular religion?
Religion is a belief system that explains the origin and purpose of life, posits a spiritual or supernatural dimension to human existence, involves faith in what cannot be definitively known, and results in the radically changed understanding and behaviour of the believer.
Feminists do not usually define feminism as a religion but as a social science. Feminism postulates that most societies, and certainly all western societies, have been structured to reflect male perspectives and experiences while marginalizing female perspectives and experiences. Feminism thus presents itself as an evidence-based analysis of society and relationships.
But feminist methodology does not stop at the well-defined boundaries of social science. It ventures beyond these parameters and enters the realm of religion in its adherence to myths and unverifiable theories. Professor Mary Daly at Boston College, even seeks to go “beyond God the Father” (the title of her most influential book). Furthermore, feminists often describe their identity and understanding of the world in quasi-religious terms.
The feminist Garden of Eden, is protected not by a male god, but by a reigning spirit, the divine feminine.
As religions do, feminism offers an origin story—the patriarchy, an unjust and hierarchical social order in which elite white men dominate and oppress all other groups. Some feminist theories also posit an ancient matriarchy, a nurturing, collectivist, egalitarian, and non-exploitative state predating patriarchy, in which human beings lived in harmony with one another and with nature.
This is a feminist version of the Garden of Eden, protected not by a male deity but by a reigning spirit, the divine feminine. Here women held power and exercised it benevolently for the good of all. Some indigenous cultures are of particular interest to feminists because of their claims to offer proof of such matriarchal social structures in which women had or continue to have significant political and spiritual authority.
At some point in all feminist origin stories, humankind fell from grace because of male sin, i.e. the male lust for power. Men invented and imposed patriarchy, a structure of social relations that severed women from their natural harmony with the earth and with other women. Men introduced other forms of hierarchical control based on race, sexual identity, physical ability, and so on.
Specific feminist theories go even further and address the related, “intersectional” forms of oppression. But all feminisms, regardless of their particular emphases and approaches, believe that patriarchy is man-made rather than natural. It is an unjust social arrangement that denies the life possibilities of women (and other “marginalized” groups) and must be overturned.
According to the feminist origin story, patriarchy imposed artificial gender roles, prohibiting women from their once respected roles as warriors, healers, and inventors. Patriarchy restricted women to the domestic realm, forcing women to serve the sexual, emotional and material needs of men. Patriarchy limited the personal development of women to nurturing children and activities associated with it. Patriarchy enforced the economic, social, and psychological inferiority of women.
The religion of feminism then moves along its narrative arc from the archetypal myths of creation and fall towards the possibility of salvation and redemption from the patriarchy.
Just as some feminists posit a utopian matriarchal society from which women “fell” into their present servitude, so it imagines an idyllic condition of liberation towards which women can and should strive. It also offers at least partial redemption for men through strenuous disavowal of and restitution for their masculine sinfulness. It thus provides a purpose for all feminist activists: the bringing into being of a just world. In this eschatological future, patriarchal bondage and hierarchy will be vanquished, and all women regardless of background or condition will love and value one another and nature and the feminist kingdom of heaven will come down to earth.
In keeping with its purpose of creating a better world, a distinctive spirituality or mysticism is evident in many feminist accounts, including even the most pragmatic and materialist. Almost unvaryingly, feminist theories associate spiritual power with feminine activities, modes of being, or individual women.
This power may take the form of a liberating energy, a sexual purity, a deeper insight or caring, a greater empathy (sometimes as a result of oppression), a greater capacity for collective living, or a revolutionary ethos. The invariable assumption is that simply by virtue of being a woman—whatever that might mean to the theorist (the category of “woman” is hotly debated)—one brings gifts to the world that men do not possess.
Feminist theologian Mary Daly argues that women’s interactions demonstrate new modes of non-hierarchical relationship in “cosmic covenant”
Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin claims that only women, because of their lived experience of one another’s pain, can imagine “the real practice of equality”
American psychologist Carol Gilligan argues that women develop a different, and superior, form of interpersonal morality
French feminist theorist Helene Cixous celebrates the special capacity of womanly creativity as joyful, non-linear, and intimately associated with the fecund powers of the female body
Avant-garde lesbian novelist Monique Wittig pictures women-loving women as uniquely sexually powerful
Many popular notions stress women’s capacity for empathy, problem-solving, non-violence, and egalitarianism.
In contrast, masculine habits of thought and actions are consistently linked with violence, predation, and dehumanization, as revealed by the widespread use of the term “toxic masculinity.”
The assumption is that simply by virtue of being a woman one brings gifts to the world that men do not possess.
While most feminists deny that feminism promotes female superiority, nonetheless many contemporary feminist campaigns and social movements, whether of the ‘Women never lie about rape’ variety, the insistence on saving women from the draft, the determination to keep women out of prison or to change laws to provide special protections for them—all manifest a basic underlying assumption that women are more moral than men, deserving of special concern and protections not warranted for men.
Arguments to increase the number of women in politics and in the boardroom often rest on the (explicit or implicit) assumption that women bring special powers for good—caring about children, social sensitivity, cooperation—that men do not possess. Arguments to raise the number of men in certain occupations or sectors of society—for example, in primary-school teaching—almost never rest on similar assumptions about masculine virtues.
The blatant contradiction between two opposed ideas—that femininity is entirely a social construct of patriarchy, based on nothing biological; and that women possess distinctive capacities for good that should be generally recognised and promoted—is an example of the incoherent magical thinking that characterises much feminism and that highlights its faith-based foundation.
Of course, religious elements might similarly be found in many totalising worldviews (such as Marxism, for example) that judge the present as unjust and embrace a utopian vision for the future. But feminism’s umbilical cord with religion becomes more striking in relation to the manner in which a “sinner” or “seeker” comes to accept feminist claims, and their subsequent effects on believers’ attitudes and behaviours.
Most fundamentally, feminism requires a fervent belief in a central tenet or proposition for which no indisputable evidence exists, whether it be patriarchy, male sexism, the social construction of gender, or women’s sexualised oppression.
Although feminism claims to rest on scientific observation, and although feminists of all stripes tend to cite irrefutable-seeming statistics about the wage gap, violence against women, sexual harassment, and the glass ceiling, etc., all of these not only fail to stand up to objective scrutiny but are effectively nullified by other statistics showing female advantage and male suffering, including numbers regarding male suicide, workplace fatalities, health outcomes and longevity, real wages and job status, rates of incarceration and sentencing, and post-secondary participation.
If it were a matter of evidence, feminism would have lost its legitimacy as an explanatory framework long ago. But no matter how many times feminist assertions are shown to be false—including inflammatory sexual assault statistics and the truism that women are paid less than men for the same work—such myths continue to be cited with respect by pundits, politicians, and policy-makers.
Here is where the element of faith shows itself most clearly. No matter how many times feminist statistics are undermined and no matter how many times countervailing evidence is revealed—feminists continue to cling to their beliefs, often simply by repeating the original mantras with increased fervour and conviction.
If evidence for the biological basis of sex is brought forward, a feminist will simply claim in response that all science is sexist. When StatsCan data shows that men report levels of domestic violence comparable with women, feminists continue to proclaim “violence against women” as the pressing reality. Nearly any fantastical belief—about rape culture, repressed memories of childhood abuse, or gender bias in STEM—comes to seem real through devotional reiteration, not dissimilar to the repetition of a religious creed.
The matter of belief leads to what is perhaps the most salient feature of feminism as religion: its marked effect on the believer’s attitudes and behaviour. Becoming a feminist is akin to a religious conversion in that there is a marked transformation in the believer’s orientation to the world, a sense of “rebirth” or “awakening” that changes all one’s personal coordinates. Melissa Fabello speaks for many when she explains how “Feminism has coloured every single thought and action that passes through me in a day. Feminism has changed how I see myself and others. [It] has rebooted my entire being.”
If it were a matter of evidence, feminism would have lost its legitimacy as an explanatory framework long ago.
What may once have seemed a heterogeneous mix of experiences is now organised by a single dazzling insight into the reality of structural inequality, the “casual and ingrained sexism” of even “the best men (and women).” Nothing escapes the explanatory power of the intersectional feminist thesis. Previously innocuous behaviours by men are now placed on the continuum of expressions of male privilege. All interactions between persons, no matter how trivial or seemingly amicable, are understood as negotiations of social power in which the oppressed person, usually a woman, is at a perilous disadvantage. This changed perception is not only applied to the world ‘out there,’ but to the most personal dimensions of the believer’s life.
As a result, a profound sense of grievance and passionate desire to fight for collective justice well up in the believer, along with a fervent longing for feminism’s promised land—the end of all inequality under the sign of the divine feminine. All of the feminist believer’s former experiences are now re-evaluated in light of the feminist insistence on women’s experience of sexualised violence. In cases where the conversion is truly radical, a sweeping hatred of feminism’s ‘other’—the white heterosexual man—may develop. Women who do not share the believer’s new understanding are classed as unenlightened, deluded by patriarchal “original sin” (which according to Mary Daly was, for women, internalized guilt and self-blame).
A young woman can write about her horror at discovering that she is pregnant with a male child; a feminist leader can pen an article proposing that boys’ failures in school are the result of their ‘privilege’ in the world—and that we should stop helping them succeed in life; these are seen as reasonable expressions of elite opinion. The satirical question “Would you rather your child had cancer or feminism?” refers to an immediately recognisable reality for many parents, friends, or lovers, who have had family members alienated irreparably because of feminist-inspired paranoia and resentment.
There are evident parallels to the fanatical religious believer who becomes alienated from former friends and family members. The difference, however, is that the major religions of the western tradition, including Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, stress the believer’s continued responsibilities to family (especially in the commandment to “honour your father and mother”) and to the wider human community. The God of these religions is a loving Father who cares for His creatures whether they know Him or not. Such is not the case with feminism, whose goddess-spirit cannot dwell in the masculine.
Feminism differs from most orthodox religions in making its ‘Promised Land’ a place that must be built in the here and now, not in an afterlife, with the result that a deep urgency attends all efforts to renew present society. The effort by necessity includes the harsh punishment or exile of feminism’s enemies (think of feminist efforts to destroy those who argue with them online), for the feminist utopia cannot be created while the unregenerate pollute the land.
Feminism contains no injunction to “Love your enemies” (or even your neighbour) and it demands immediate and ongoing reparations for the perceived injustices of the past. Thus it may be said to encourage all the negative aspects of fervent religious beliefs—irrational passions, a rigid worldview that refuses other perspectives, the demonisation of non-believers—and none of the benevolence and self-sacrificing love that characterise true religions at their best. In its supremacism and justification of violence against non-believers (and ‘dhimmi’ status for male feminists), it perhaps most closely resembles fundamentalist Islam.
The impact of a religion on an individual or on a whole society is not necessarily bad, of course—it all depends on the content of the religion and the cultural forms it takes. We should be clear that feminism is closer to a religion than a social science, concerned less with truth than belief, often impervious to reason, and highly intolerant of competing viewpoints. It may be allowed a carefully circumscribed place in the public sphere, but it should not be allowed to operate as an unofficial state sanctioned religion.
(Dr Janice Fiamengo is Professor of English at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her books include Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say, Home Ground and Foreign Territory: Essays on Early Canadian Literature, and Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination).