Gender equality is obviously an important issue, but was Jesus a feminist? The problem I have with feminism is that it tends to cast women as victims of patriarchy. Rather than focussing on women’s achievements, feminism inclines to focus on the cultural constraints that inhibit their ability to act. Jesus wasn’t a feminist in the modern sense of the word but he looked past the constraints of contemporary social practice and encouraged women in their God-given ability to act.
Time and again he affirmed women’s actions even though they may have contravened cultural norms: Jesus encouraged Mary to learn at his feet rather than tend to the needs of guests; he did not balk at the touch of a ritually unclean woman who had been bleeding for twelve years- in fact, he called her ‘daughter’; he accepted the sacrifice of a woman who anointed his feet with expensive perfume, and he responded to the remarkable persistence of the Syrophoenician mother who begged for her daughter’s life.
People around him often reacted negatively to these breaches of cultural propriety but Jesus saw beyond gendered expectations. He responded to women’s actions, born out of desire, need and faith, not to their position in society. To Jesus, they were all people in need of His love.
In some ways Jesus seems to have moved beyond the culture of the day, redefining norms and challenging accepted ideas. He touched the unclean, ate with sinners, confronted the establishment, and associated with women. Jesus included women in his wider circle. Mary obviously had a major role in his life—she gave birth to him, was there at his death and was counted amongst the earliest followers in the upper room. Other women helped support Jesus’ ministry, and it was to a woman that he first revealed who he was, proclaimed the gospel, and appeared after his resurrection.
Was Jesus a feminist? I think he surpassed feminism. He didn’t focus on women’s position within a culture. His concern was with the general wreckage of humanity, whether male or female, clean or unclean, rich or poor, Jew or gentile.
Jesus’ attitude toward women is further explored in our course, God, Gender, Sexuality and the Church.