“It’s a question that may not matter to you right now, but certainly, someday, it will be something that is significant for all of you,” associate professor and department chair of philosophy Sarah Borden said as she spoke on the topic of feminism to a room full of Wheaton College students, faculty, staff and visitors on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 1. The event, titled “History of Feminism,” was hosted by the Wheaton College Christian Feminist club. Borden addressed the origins of the first, second and third waves of feminism and also answered questions from the audience on related issues.
On Monday, Oct. 6, the club hosted its first member meeting, where professor of New Testament Gary Burge discussed the topic of “Women as Spiritual Leaders.”
“Are you guys surprised that this is a subject that needs some attention at Wheaton College?” Burge asked an audience that filled the Fireside Room. As Burge passed out papers with an outline of the Gospel of John, he explained, “What most people don’t realize is that the Gospel of John is not just giving us random stories or small episodes, but the Gospel of John has woven into its narrative some very important presentations of women — two women I want to point out to you.” Burge showed the significance that there are many women named in the Gospel of John, compared to the other gospels that include women, but do not list their specific names.
“The Gospel of John is very carefully designed … There is nothing in the Gospel of John that is there by accident,” Burge said. “Therefore, if there’s a story about a person or a festival or an event like Lazarus’ raising, it is there, laid out in literary fashion in a very strategic way.”
Burge emphasized two women in particular, giving careful and thoughtful descriptions of the stories of the woman of Samaria in chapter four and the story of Mary Magdalene in chapter 20 of the Gospel of John, including explanations on the context behind the stories and the relationships between these women and Jesus.
Member meetings, like the one that happened on Oct. 6, will continue throughout the year, occurring every two weeks and will include different speakers and activities.
The conversations discussed in both the events highlighted the hopes and goals that co-presidents Krista Pedersen and Jordan Barney have for the Christian Feminist club this year: to encourage discussion and discover the intersection that exists between Wheaton College and the topic of feminism.
“I think it’s really good to talk about gender, talk about women’s oppression, talk about how hard it can be for men to try and fit into this masculine box. Just talk about those things,” Barney said when discussing objectives for the club this year.
The club, whose cabinet consists of five women and one man, is assisted by faculty advisor and professor of communication Sarah Kornfield.
“What’s motivated me to lead the club this year is to encourage smarter conversation on women’s issues and the intersection of faith and feminism on campus,” Pedersen said. “I think the campus is ready and they’re also very excited by the conversation, and I think it’s good and it makes the kingdom better.”
Barney, agreeing with Pedersen’s statement, also added her interest in feminist theory and the academic study of feminism, which has been fueled by personal experiences. “I have a very big interest in feminist theory and the academic study of feminism… I had an eating disorder when I was a teenager, and so that got me interested in beauty standards and that led me in to this really big bucket of feminist theory that I didn’t even know existed,” Barney said. “Joining the club and being a co-president of the club with Krista this year really allows me to have places to share that theory and also learn more with my fellow students. Also the teachers at Wheaton who have so much to offer and know so much about feminism.”
When discussing goals for this coming year, Pedersen stated that she is looking forward to finding the intersection between Wheaton’s campus and feminism, and she hopes that the topics discussed will spark interest in the Wheaton campus body.
“I think we’re creating an outlet for people’s interest in feminism — just moving beyond the classroom and making it specialized for the students,” Pedersen said.
Barney reiterated this statement by emphasizing the importance of Wheaton professors coming in, joining the discussion and talking to students in order to raise awareness and conversations on topics that relate to feminism.
Beyond discussions, the co-presidents have goals of expanding conversations by hosting panels on topics that are relevant in the world of feminist and gender issues.
“We’re talking about possibly doing a panel on consent and sexual assault, so following up with things that are actually really being dealt with in the culture right now at colleges … bringing these things and having a place — a safe place — for students to discuss these things that are really becoming even bigger in the broader culture that we’re living in right now,” Barney said.
In addition to talking about their motivation to become club leaders and the goals that they have for the group this year, the Record sat down with the co-presidents to discuss the topic of feminism in the context of Wheaton College and the larger Christian community, as well as how students can become more involved in the conversation, regardless of what their personal beliefs may be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wheaton Record: For someone who might be new to the idea of feminism, how, as college students, would you define the term?
Jordan-Ashley Barney: I would say that really anyone is a feminist who sees that there is a problem of oppression and inequality between the sexes and thinks that is an issue that should be addressed. Whether that’s talking about social, political and economic inequality or whether that’s cultural or societal forms of oppression, which I think most people, and especially most Christians, would say exist — they would say that about race and about class. We think that that is also very true of gender, and that gender plays in with class and race and all of it comes together and forms these different hierarchies of power which are not about what the gospel is about.
Krista Pedersen: Therefore, it’s not fair to say that Christianity is mutually exclusive from feminism.
JB: Yes, it almost is like part of the gospel message.
WR: As Christians, how have you seen feminism embraced or rejected by both the community as a whole and on Wheaton’s campus?
KP: I think it’s usually rejected in the conversation of abortion. I think that there’s obviously a huge tie, the pro-life community with the Christian community (which was explored in the club’s first lecture). I think that’s where the tensions get pretty hot. I think that there’s a huge emotional tie for Christians to the issue of pro-life, and Christian feminism can look different on both issues for those things.
JB: I think that there was a big split that happened in politics, actually, with the family values movement, and that kind of demonizing feminists that really turned into what was a political movement and it was kind of championed by the evangelical community at that time. I can see sometimes where it can be rejected on Wheaton’s campus because of certain misconceptions of it, never actually in a real conversation when we’re talking about very real-life things or people stating that they disagree with a certain topic — it’s not really like that. It’s more like, “Oh, I have these things in my head because I’ve heard that feminists are crazy, bra-burning people who hate men,” and not really within the actual conversations. Within the actual conversations I find at Wheaton, I find that they are very encouraging and open.
WR: What are encouraging words that you would give to someone who is debating on attending a meeting but doesn’t know how he or she feels about the topic of feminism?
JB: This is a very open club — you don’t have to think exactly like us. This is really just creating conversation, talking about these things, because it’s so much better, even if you have different opinions, at least you’re talking about it.
KP: I think the “member’s meeting” title maybe skews people’s ideas of what it means because they’ll think ‘A member … I’m not a feminist though, so I’m not going to go.’”
JB: You don’t have to identify as a feminist to come to the meetings. There are many people who hold what we would qualify as feminist ideals, but they’re not comfortable with that title. I know for many black women, it’s not a comfortable title because of the way that feminism has completely ignored them in the past, and so they take on words like “womanist” or something like that. It’s not really about the title. It’s about championing this one effort.
WR: Are there any ways that members of the Wheaton College community can discuss this topic without it happening at a club meeting?
KP: Yes. I think one way, as a freshman, I became engaged in the conversation because I was curious, and I had questions. So I went to my professors and asked, “What should I read?” I know we have a lot of reading to do anyways, but I think that there are sincere articles that will explore questions.
JB: Yes, and even just encouraging freshmen or other people in general — don’t be afraid to question certain presuppositions. To question how you’re interacting with your peers based on certain ways you’re supposed to act. Also, talk about it with your friends. I know, especially living in the dorms the first few years, that there are so many opportunities to sit down and have really deep discussions with your friends.