Connections Between Feminism, Religion, and the Greek System

Dear Letha,

I hope you are enjoying the festivities of the holidays. I finished up a rather grueling semester (120 pages written just the last month alone!) and now I am spending time resting up with my family in Washington State. Tonight, a huge snowstorm just blew in! I sit with a cup of tea at my sister’s house, enjoying being warm while the new snow sparkles out the window.

Interconnections: Gender Ideology in Religion and the “Secular”

Letha, in your last letter you wrote about the gender hierarchy and heterosexism that exists within some practices of Christianity, but you also helpfully explained:

This ideological gender construct is not confined to internal disputes within church walls or theological seminaries, nor is it relegated to an earlier time. It comes up constantly in news reports, books, articles, blog discussions, and political decisions of the day—whether they relate to gay marriage, don’t-ask-don’t-tell policies in the military, workplace pay, family planning decisions and more.

I think this point you are making here is important to re-emphasize. The gender ideologies that we want to change within faith communities are not really all that different from the gender hierarchies that exist in so-called “secular” spaces in society. And, therefore, the work that religious feminists are doing is deeply interconnected to the work being done by secular feminists. I have been reminded of these interconnections many times this past semester.

For instance, I remember a day in class when the professor was talking about the gender hierarchies that exist within certain conservative evangelical communities. This particular class was not primarily made up of students studying religion, but rather consisted of students with majors of all kinds. From the look on some of their faces, I suspected that many of them were a bit shocked to hear the kind of gender ideologies that still exist in certain conservative faith communities. After all, when most people hear of religious movements like Quiverfull (as you cited in your last letter), it’s easy to think that the most egregious forms of rigid and harmful gender hierarchy are produced by religion.

But, as we talked in the class about the problems within religious circles, I couldn’t help but think of what had just happened on our own campus. A group of fraternity boys had just “hazed” other fraternity boys by making them chant a sexist, militant, and sexually violent song in front of the Women’s Center on campus. The chant celebrated rape and other horrific things and then ending in cheers for “USA.” A limited portion of the chant (with the words “No means yes, yes means anal”) was caught on you tube and therefore gained a lot of attention.

One of the truly horrifying parts about the whole thing was that Yale took a week to make a statement about what had happened. Even worse, the Yale Daily News ran an article accusing the Women’s Center’s response to the chant as “histrionic.” The article admonished:

Feminists at Yale should remember that, on a campus as progressive as ours, most of their battles are already won: All of us agree on gender equality. The provocateurs knew their audience’s sensibilities and how to offend them for a childish laugh. They went too far. But the Women’s Center should have known better than to paint them as misogynistic strangers and attackers among us, instead of members of our community; after all, they once partied in the brothers’ basement.

Jezebel magazine had a blog posting that took a similar approach in reprimanding feminists for being so upset about the chant. The blog’s title was “Yale Frat Boys are Not Worthy of Your Outrage.” The author concludes the following about the chant:

Sometimes a supposedly satirical comment reveals something deep and fucked-up about the culture that produced it, a not-so-secret belief that whatever’s being presented as humor is in fact the truth. And sometimes a chant is just a chant, a nakedly obvious attempt to piss people off for the sake of pissing people off. Paying too much attention to the latter has a way of trivializing the former — and it also makes us look bad.

If you click on this link to Jezebel’s blog about the chant, you can also read the words of the chant and see the you tube link with the portion caught on tape. Trigger warning, though—the chant is very violent and offensive.

When I read the article in the Yale Daily News and the blog in Jezebel, or reflect on the amount of time it took the president of Yale to make a public statement condemning the event, I realize how many people want to pretend that boys chanting about rape is somehow not deeply interconnected to a greater culture of violence. It was as though the event was merely an exceptional anomaly that we ought not pay much attention to. Seen in this light, feminists then make themselves look bad (according to the Jezebel blog) when they are outraged by “silly” chants.

As I sat in class that day, mentally comparing what had happened on campus and what is taught in some churches regarding male dominance and female submission, I developed a theory. My theory is that it is fairly easy for many of us (especially those of us more on the left) to be rightly appalled by the gender injustice we see in conservative religion. And yet, when evidence of the very same system of gender dominance and oppression is seen within secular society at large (as evidenced by this chant), some institutions will want to ignore that violence as though it is an anomaly in an otherwise “equal” and post-feminist world.

The problem, though, is that college boys chanting rape in front of the Women’s Centers is not something we can dismiss as only an extreme prank by frat boys. The chant is actually evidence telling us a great deal about the socialization of 18-year-old boys. Michael Kimmel has one fascinating take on what the chant can tell us about gender ideologies in our day and age.

While Kimmel makes some really interesting points in his article about the social construction of masculinity, I would also add that the chant reveals much more than gender ideologies. For instance, it’s not a coincidence that the chant ends in cheers for the USA: the lyrics about male domination of women are interlaced with a mindset of nationalist domination. Thus, the chant is an important “text” to remind us that ideologies of masculine domination in this country have always propped up other forms of violence.

Thus, the work we must do as feminists is to analyze how multiple systems of domination function together—in other words, our job is to study gender ideologies as they are interconnected to ideologies about class, race, and country. Religion, of course, is one important place to study how these interconnected systems work together.

Well, Letha, it’s late and I better turn in. As always, I really appreciate having these discussions with you. And thank you again for filling in for me this fall when life got too busy for me to post. I am now going into my last semester at Yale. Can you believe it? These two years have gone by so quickly. I am so thankful for my time at Yale, and I am deeply grateful for you and EEWC’s friendship and support along the way.

With love,

Kimberly

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