feminism and American exceptionalism

Every so often I bump into an anti-feminist or an MRA who tells me that it’s ridiculous for me to be a feminist in America. If I was really a feminist I’d expel all my time, energy, and attention on real problems like the horrible subjugation of women in the Near and Middle East. Jessica Valenti has written a response to this sort of false equivalency, saying “The goal of feminism is justice – not to just be better off than other oppressed women. There’s no such thing as equal by comparison.”

But, I want to talk about this because I have something Jessica Valenti doesn’t: lived experience with Christian Patriarchy.

The above accusation– that if I were really a feminist I’d only care about “third world country oppression”– is driven by the belief that American-focused feminism is petty, shallow, ridiculous, unnecessary, and somehow vengeful, like how this article paints it by limiting American feminism to “banning the word bossy.”

First, I’m not interested in playing the “who has it worse” game. I’ve never engaged in Oppression Olympics, and I’ve never gotten behind the idea that, for example, my partner shouldn’t complain about his headache because I have fibromyalgia and endometriosis. Yes, I think it’s absurd that women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive. Yes, my stomach turns at the rape crisis happening South Africa and the growing frequency of acid attacks in India. Yes, I’m horrified that, last week, a 15-year-old girl was strangled and then incinerated for helping her friend elope.

But, the people who tend to throw this particular accusation in my face aren’t actually upset at my supposed lack of empathy for these women. Their argument is made from ignorance, and they make it because they are privileged and willingly blind. They say we can vote, and we have [some, and eroding] legal rights, so I should just stop being such a harpy and getting my panties in a twist because I don’t like how often women say “sorry.”


Almost 1,500 American women are killed by their husband or boyfriend every year. More than half of them will be shot to death. 1 in 5 high school girls report being physically or sexually abused by their male partner, and 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted or raped in college (and to be pre-emptive, that’s a link to the Post-Kaiser poll, which was a random sampling of 1,053 of current college students, so you can take your “that 1 in 5 statistic doesn’t count ‘cuz it was only two colleges!” bullshit elsewhere).

But these are all problems we’re familiar with, mostly.

What they don’t know is that all the problems they point to in those foreign places (which are populated by brown people and are usually culturally Islamic, let’s be real about the racism and Islamaphobia happening)— they exist here. In different forms, sure– we don’t use the term “honor killing” when a man murders his wife for adultery– but the consequences of misogyny and patriarchy in America are far-reaching.

I grew up in a culture that explicitly taught me that I, as a woman, shouldn’t vote. In fact, I must not vote if my vote were to contradict my husband’s, they argued. Thankfully my parents countermanded this, but the reality is that I personally knew a few dozen women in college who didn’t vote because they thought that women’s suffrage was wrong. Since I’ve started moving in ex-fundamentalist circles, I’ve found that it wasn’t limited to my neck of the woods, either– Libby Anne once argued as a teenager that “in an ideal world, women shouldn’t vote,” and she’s from the Midwest, not the Deep South. Oh, and this argument still exists today. In fact, Nancy Leigh DeMoss called the women’s suffrage movement sinful in her enormously popular Lies Women Believe.

So while yes, technically women can, legally, vote– a toxic and widespread culture frequently forbids it. Even if something is legal, what good is it if women can’t access it?

I was taught in the Stay-at-Home-Daughters movement that women shouldn’t be educated, and were forbidden from leaving home to seek employment. I was taught that women can’t be trusted to supervise, manage, or govern anything– we barely even run our own households, and we certainly shouldn’t be given control over our finances. We didn’t have to wear burkas or hijab (although the definition I was taught for “modesty” was based on a Hebrew word that means “long and flowing” and a lot of us wore head coverings), but we were prevented from basically ever leaving our houses or existing in the public sphere.

And even though marital rape was made illegal everywhere in the US in 1993, there are still eight states that have “marital exemptions” for rape– and that’s not even touching all the Christian people who think “marital rape is an oxymoron,” including people like Nancy Wilson, who’s the wife of one of the biggest names in conservative evangelicalism. She’s written regarding marital sex that “But of course a husband is never trespassing in his garden.” Your basic, run-of-the-mill, everyday conservative Christian is as rabidly misogynist as Vox Day.

It looks different than what people think happens in the Arab world, but it’s a similar ideology with similar practical consequences.

These positions are championed by the homeschooling world’s biggest names, presented at basically every convention, and the related (although not identical) Quiverful movement has had multiple reality television shows about it, most famously 19 Kids and Counting. That supposedly nice, happy, perky, oh-so-chipper family share the same fundamental beliefs about women as those who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. Christian fundamentalism can no longer be discounted as “fringe” when Ted Cruz is almost as fundamentalist as they come, and he earned 45% of the Republican delegates– with plenty of evangelicals feeling that he closely aligned with their values and beliefs.

Oh, and just in case you thought that the oppression of women and children was limited to keeping us chained to our homes and dismissing marital rape as impossible, it’s not. A few weeks ago I saw a bunch of articles on child marriages go through my feed, with many people shocked and horrified (which they absolutely should be). When I told a woman who’d exclaimed “I’m so glad that doesn’t happen here!” that child brides do indeed exist right here at home, she didn’t believe me. It’s not her fault. Most people are unaware of the long and continuing history of child marriage in America.

Growing up, one of the most romantic, lovely, well-circulated and highly praised stories of courtship I’d ever heard was told about Matthew and Maranatha Chapman:

When Matthew first expressed his interest in Maranatha … Maranatha was 13 and Matthew was 26. When Matthew heard from God that he was to marry Maranatha, and begged Stan [her father] to let him propose marriage to her, Maranatha was 14 and Matthew was 27. When Stan gave Matthew the go ahead to propose to his daughter, Maranatha was 15 and Matthew was 27. They were the same ages when they married just over a month later.

A 26-year-old man was sexually interested in a 13-year-old little girl, and this story gets passed around as the ideal courtship. In fact, when Matthew confesses his attraction to Maranatha’s father, Stan’s response to is say that his feelings for a 13-year-old are from God, I shit you not.

But that story is from the 80s! It’s over two decades old! Well, this one isn’t. It’s from this week. A misogynist decided to organize an event where patriarchs can go and sell their daughters for a “bride price,” and the man running it said this on the event’s website:

The woman who has arrived physically and sexually at a point where she is ‘ready’ for a husband, is ready for a husband, else we make God out to be a liar… Calvin and Gill, quoting the Jewish authorities in reference to the term Paul uses in I Cor 7:36, place the lower limit of this at twelve years old for girls

Scripture speaks of the father of the son “taking a wife” for his son, and the father of the bride “giving” her to her husband  It gives example after example of young women being given to young men, without the young woman even being consulted …

And while this stinking pile of shit thinks “not very many girls” are truly ready for marriage at 12 years old, they could be and he says there’s nothing wrong with marrying her off for a bride price without her consent.

Burn it down. Burn everything down.

Our belief in American exceptionalism prevents nearly all of us from seeing these things as they really are, as they really happen. We hear about some “Get Them Married Retreat” and think “oh, that’s Kansas, that’s Christian fundamentalists, that’s hilarious.” As if the thousands upon thousands– if not millions– of children being raised in conservative and fundamentalist households don’t matter, or aren’t significant enough to care about. It’s easy to think of brown, Islamic people being horrible to women and children because that fits in with our imperialist and white supremacist view of the world. It’s easy to dismiss anything white, Christian people do because we can justify them as “outliers” … and because they look like us, it can’t be that bad.

Except it is. It’s worse than you think.

Photo by Joe Campbell
Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

  • Beroli

    It truly is. And of course, if you point that out to the “why are you worrying about petty sexism here? Islam Islam Islam!” people who cloak themselves in “reason,” they’ll refuse to believe you or they’ll disappear altogether, but they certainly won’t do what a genuinely reasonable person would do and reconsider their conclusion.

  • The irony is that the people who make this objection are not overwrought with concern about women in the Middle East. It’s a smokescreen to eliminate their need to critically examine themselves and American culture and their obligation to change.

    Somehow, I doubt these people are crying out to God day and night over the horrific treatment of women in the Middle East.

    • Exactly. They’re just trying to win an argument, they don’t actually care.

  • Jackalope

    For those who are interested (I am a nerd and I was excited to learn the term for this), the fallacy involved here is “the fallacy of relative privation”, defined by Wikipedia as ” dismissing an argument or complaint due to the existence of more
    important problems in the world, regardless of whether those problems
    bear relevance to the initial argument.” (To find the definition, look up “List of Fallacies”.) Apparently only the VERY WORST sufferer in the history of suffering gets to be upset about it, and the rest of us just get to be thankful that we’re not that one person.

    The biggest hole for me in this argument is that even supposing that all of the things Samantha just wrote about (child marriage, bride selling, lack of access to voting) weren’t true, even if we “only” had to deal with a little domestic violence and sexual assault, as some claim, that doesn’t mean not taking action on that. I care deeply about the status of women in other countries. I have worked overseas before for an extended period of time, I have donated money on a regular basis to organizations that help make women’s lives better, I have prayed about this, I have signed petitions… what I can do, I’ve done. That doesn’t change the fact that I am physically located in the US and that therefore the greatest amount of direct action I can take is here, unless I move overseas again. I can’t see how it helps anyone either here or in other parts of the world to choose not to act here just because “it’s not as bad as over there”.

    • Kevin

      A number of years back PBS’s NOW interviewed a Bangladeshi human rights advocate, who criticized both Guantanamo Bay as well as human rights violations in the Islamic world. He said many criticized him for not limiting his criticisms to the West. His response: human rights violations need to be called out wherever they occur and regardless of who the perpetrators or victims are.

  • Michelle

    Thank you for not calling this a fringe movement. The fact that I grew up in Oregon, yet am deeply familiar with every movement and name you mentioned in in fundamentalist-homeschool-cult-evangelical culture says a lot for how widespread these beliefs are in reality. I clearly remember my 18 year old big brother coming home from Bible school and spouting his new views on why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote (I also remember my mother being visibly upset and an incensed by this, which thankfully took some of the wind out of his sails). My family was so deep in this movement. My dad pastored a nondenominational homeschool church for most of my teen years, making our isolation complete. But the mainstream evangelical church as a whole has such solid base in soft-patriarchy that, really thei view of families like mine were “dress like homeschoolers, a bit uptight, but aren’t their children so polite!!” Maybe my inability to handle complementary teaching in church today, has something to do with the fact that that theology effectively normalised the oppression I faced as a child/teen….

    • Exactly! I grew up just south of Boston, city of liberal mania (kidding, kidding). And yeah, while the “you can’t vote” argument is new to me (I only read “Lies Young Women Believe,” which apparently didn’t mention that, though plenty other misogyny was there – and yes, my church promoted both books), the “you can’t be president or pastor, etc.” argument its pretty familiar. I believed it, too, though my dad insisted otherwise :).

  • notleia

    For something completely different, this anime song that has been stuck in my head for the past ~week:

  • As the daughter of extremely liberal Yankee Jews, I had no idea about the fundamentalist movement(s) you write about, until I discovered your blog. So thank you for everything that you do.

  • So much worse than we can possibly admit. It’s so much easier to think of violent sexism (rape, genital mutilation, child marriage) as something *those* countries do *over there* and it’s so hard for us to do anything about it because we’re so far away and it’s not our system. And then we get to have all the gold stars for feeling sympathetic AND keep not doing anything about what’s happening in the nearness under our line of sight as we gaze sadly toward the horizon.

  • LeslieFish

    Let’s expose these worthless people and subject them to thundering ridicule. That’s the one thing they can’t endure.

    • spacegal2003

      I’m not sure about that. It could cause them to entrench their beliefs even more, while claiming Christian Persecution.

      • LeslieFish

        But it would strip away their not-so-thoroughly-fanatic followers, especially the younger ones.

  • As for Ted Cruz, I was flabbergasted that he chose Fiorina as a running mate – the belief that women shouldn’t be president was pretty strong in my conservative evangelical/fundamentalist circles. I then tried to explain this to my evangelical-experienced friend and he was like “What? You were in a cult, then!”
    Except, I’m not sure I was. These beliefs aren’t confined to my old church. Or extreme movements like Quiverfull. They’re in plain old evangelicalism, and it’s awful.
    Thank you for writing this.

  • Wow. I have never heard it put like this before- showing that right now in the US, conservative Christian culture treats women exactly as badly as we imagine “those people” over in other countries do.

  • Dag

    I was just talking with my dad today about what made me bail on Mormonism (at about 13, I stopped going to church regularly. At twenty-two, I had my name ‘removed’ officially). Once I turned twelve, I was segregated into Young Women’s where we were informed of our destiny to marry (eternally!) and have children. I remember this video called ‘Johnny Lingo’. We were supposed to find it incredibly romantic when this young guy paid a whole bunch of cows for a girl. Up until twelve, the emphasis on gender roles wasn’t as strong and forceful, and so I found church bearable. At thirteen it was like hell naw.
    I’ve always felt that pressure to not complain ‘too much’ because I know there are many who have it much worse, but … I do think what was done to us was wrong. I think teaching children to be ashamed of their upper arms and body shape is wrong. I think attempting to limit anyone’s dreams to just marriage and children is also wrong. (Not that there is anything wrong with marriage and children for those who desire them.)

  • I remember being taught explicitly that 12 years old was only too young in godless western cultures. I remember talking about it with other young homeschooled girls, and none of us thought it was weird, we just hoped out fathers would pick younger men for us, rather than older. I was still being attacked by my father on a regular basis at 12 years old, and he’d “married” me when I was four (I thought we were married in God’s eyes until I was 15, and almost killed myself over it, and I was repeatedly reminded by purity culture all the way into college that I was dirty, used up rags that no godly man would want unless God called him to it sacrificially, like Hosea.