Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Dianna Anderson and I’m in the process of finishing up my Master’s in Women’s Studies at Oxford University. I’m originally from South Dakota in the United States, but have lived in the UK for a year now and have lived here previously.
Tell us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?
I “accepted Jesus” at 5 years old, which is really common in evangelical households in the US. I went to youth ministry at a Baptist church and went to Baptist universities for both undergraduate and my first graduate degree. My focus in academic study has circled around Protestant theology, and it’s always been the background radiation of what I do.
Tell me about how you first came to identify as a feminist.
I began actively using the label back in 2009, when I was in graduate school in Texas. Prior to then, I had many feminist values (combined with a weird relationship to conservative Christianity, which made me stand up for myself in academic aspects but reject feminism in relationships). But I was 23 before I began to use the label comfortably.
Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?
I don’t particularly struggle with it, but I struggle a lot with people outside of either Christianity or feminism who tell me I cannot be both. I’m rejected from feminist circles because of my Christianity and rejected from Christian ones because of feminism. It’s a lose-lose situation in a lot of ways, but I believe my positioning as a Christian feminist is a vital perspective for both worlds.
Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?
I’ve worked specifically with online campaigns about purity culture and protests of sexual abuse by church leaders. I’ve also been involved in Black and Native Lives Matter protests in my hometown in the US. Here in the UK, I’ve been involved in the It Happens Here movements and discussions, and with the Rhodes Must Fall student movement (on the periphery).
Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?
A major focus for me is the acceptance and protection of minority sexualities and genders. As a bisexual woman, it’s deeply important to me that LGBTQ+ people are protected and cared for. Our community has a lot of issues to combat with besides marriage equality, and I’m afraid that a lot of white middle class gays have just sat back on their laurels following the victories both in the UK and the US on marriage equality. Don’t get me wrong: marriage equality is great, but it’s a starting point, not an endpoint.
I’m also really passionate about reproductive rights, which is something that people view as being in conflict with my religious beliefs more than any other aspect of my feminism. For me, part of the liberation of Christ is in having fully autonomous control over our bodies, to be fully capable of making decisions for ourselves. There’s a lot of infantilization that’s wrapped up in the battle for reproductive rights, and a lot of that extends from particularly bad religious justification.
Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?
Absolutely. When I started out, I was total ‘White Feminist‘, thinking that progress is sort of a trickle down economics model—once I get my rights, other people’s will fall in line. I’ve come to see just how wrong that is and to believe that if I’m not fighting for justice for all, I’m not doing feminism right. Feminism isn’t the selfish cause a lot of its critics paint it as. It’s fundamentally about caring for your neighbor and their experiences of oppression and working to alleviate their pain, regardless of whether or not it makes your life easier.
Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?
I’ve been reading A LOT of Patricia Hill Collins and Delores Williams for my dissertation, and so those two immediately come to mind. I’m also a huge fan of Warsan Shire (whose work was recently featured in Beyoncé’s LEMONADE). Biblically, Rahab is pretty fantastic—lying to troops like that takes a will of steel.
If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?
Amanda Marcotte once told me I can’t be a feminist because I’m also a person of faith. So on occasion, it does cause hiccups and problems. But I’ve found in a lot of ways, it’s beneficial too—when there’s a feminist issue that comes up that’s related to Christian theology, my knowledge and love of both has made it easier to nuance the conversation, to explain where certain views are coming from, and to refute them from a position as an insider, rather than an atheist telling Christians to drop everything. I’m the last person to say I’m a bridge-builder, but I think my position helps me to cross those party lines a lot more easily.
What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?
Do you have a week? It’s been one hell of a battle. Let me put it this way: before I left to come to Oxford for my degree, I visited some very conservative family and they were really excited that I’d been accepted to Oxford until they found out that I was coming here to do Women’s Studies. I practically got whiplash from how quickly they changed the subject.
What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?
There’s a lot of … thoughts that I have about how the feminist movement has become this ‘Approved-By-Celebrities’ strain of thought and the ways it’s been branded and commercialized and slapped on a lunchbox. These thoughts are going to form part of a larger project I’ll be working on soon so you’ll be hearing much more from me on this in the future!
What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?
Transgender education and understanding of gender identity and gender as separate from biology. I’ve joked before that I wish I could make Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble mandatory reading, but jokes aside, I think there’s a severe lack of understanding of the basic of how current gender theorists understand and discuss gender (which is part of why I pursued a women’s studies degree).
But I also know that education isn’t enough, because you can explain the current theories until you turn blue, but they won’t be effective if people choose not to believe it or if they write it off as academic fluff (which is what happens a lot of the time with the discussion about trans identity in the church in the US). You have to somehow imbue them with empathy for these minority identities, which is very hard to teach. Ultimately, I wish we could have a more Christ-like attitude toward our queer family of faith, and there are lots of great folks working on this and it’s a hard climb, but we’ll get there.
Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?
Oh it absolutely could. I think the main thing is that a lot of atheist/secularist feminists, many of whom have a completely understandable reason for being angry at religion, need to develop a respectful attitude toward people who choose to remain part of the church. There’s this lack of recognition that the individual is not the institution itself, and choosing to believe in God doesn’t make me complicit in the bullshit. Indeed, I’m still here because I believe I have a role in calling out the bullshit, and accusing me of perpetuating it simply because I believe doesn’t really help.
Dianna E. Anderson hails from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After teaching English in Japan and working as a radio producer in Chicago, she is finishing her second Master’s – Women’s Studies – at Oxford University.
Her first book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, is out now. The book examines the Christian purity movement from the basis of historical and biblical analysis and offers an alternative, shame-free ethic of healthy sexual behavior and sexuality.