Feminist Spirituality and Activism in Challenging Times

Mary E. Hunt’s presentation on the intergenerational panel at the

Women-Church Convergence, April 1, 2017, Chicago


Panelists (l to r): Sonya Sjoo, Laura Singer, Lauren Robinson, Violet Ricker, and Mary E. Hunt

“Feminist Spirituality and Activism in Challenging Times” is a well-chosen topic given the dire circumstances of our world. My starting point is as a white feminist activist theologian/ethicist living inside the Beltway. As the co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, my colleagues and I bring feminist religious values to the work of social change. WATER has never been simply a think-tank, but a think and do tank, a place where people find intellectual and spiritual resources. Most of all, we find one another as we struggle to create a just and inclusive world. We try to live, however imperfectly, that which we seek.

We began our work in the 1980’s during the Reagan years when the right-wing ideology that is now rampant was generated. We lived through the worst of the HIV/AIDS crisis. We resisted the erosion of civil rights and rejected racism. We dealt with the backlash against the women’s movements including the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. We promoted same-sex and later trans justice. We protested the various wars that ensued during the presidencies of both George H.W. (Gulf War) Bush and George W. Bush (Iraq). All of that work continues in new forms given the current administration’s various attempts to destabilize society.

The Clinton years were replete with their own feminist challenges. The President dismantled many entitlements for those made poor by unrestrained capitalism. He engaged in sexual inappropriateness and lied about sex with an intern that led to charges of perjury and obstruction of justice and eventually to impeachment proceedings. It was a time made turbulent by one man’s libidinal entitlement as much as anything else.

The Obama years were clearly more to my liking. In retrospect, I did not appreciate fully how virulent the racist bigotry was or how sinister the strategies were to put a right wing, Russian-influenced oligarchy in control in Washington. Alas, here we are with health care, environment, immigration, education, jobs, wars, national security, and the rest in a dangerous, and for many people, deadly, state.

The presidential election of 2016 forced many feminist religious colleagues and me to face the fact that we have made deep inroads in our own psyches, intellects, and spirits and those of our close friends. But we have failed to operationalize our ideas in a wholesale way. We have been like a boutique rather than like Costco when it comes to social change. Not only have we not transformed many religious spaces, but also, more pressingly, our ideas of justice and equality have not shown up in the voting booth.

Americans are divided on the basics. Many people do not believe, as I do, that all persons deserve food, housing, jobs, health care, education because they are human beings not because they have money or access through others. Lots of people reject the principle that I support, namely that race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality etc. are differences that distinguish us, but do not make some more/less important than others. We are a divided nation on these foundational matters with concomitant differences in policies.

The 2016 election results pushed me to confront this reality. Like many people, I was dismayed, disoriented, and despondent the day after the election. In fact, I left almost immediately on a previously planned trip to Brasil to speak at a meeting of national leaders of Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (CDD) where, as a North American feminist, I had a lot of explaining to do.

I felt as if after forty years of working as a feminist in religion, nothing that I held dear held sway anywhere outside of a small circle of friends. It isn’t quite that bad, but the election results felt like cold water. The national and international implications remain terrible. The reality of a country divided on basic matters is obvious in families, regions, and at the polls.

Eventually I realized that the results of the 2016 elections, while largely ideological for me, were potentially deadly for many people, especially for women with children made poor, for immigrants and refugees, those whose access to healthcare is precarious, among others. There is simply no comparison between our levels of risk. Absent a nuclear conflagration, the impact will vary widely. Given the current administration, we may all be in the same boat, but we are surely in different categories of cabins. For example, some people, the very rich, have balconies. My disappointment and angst are simply not on the same ethical plane as the real possibility of losing a parent to ICE, being prohibited from travelling, or being unable to afford health care.

I concluded that my task, as my mother would say, was “to pull yourself together as a committee of one.” I need to resist and create with all who are doing the same whether it be by demonstrating, calling, writing, teaching, or any of a number of good strategies to make change in these deeply polarizing times.

At one demonstration, I met a colleague who explained to me the depth of her post-election angst. It sounded familiar. But with all due respect to her situation, I said that for us as white women with lots of education and good jobs, she and I need to deal with our personal issues in therapy and/or with medication. Our issues are important. But other people’s lives depend on our leadership, on our doing our work, on our showing up each and every time we can. Those who are far more vulnerable than we risk losing their kids to hunger, their jobs to greed, and their health to the insurance industry. I acknowledge that I may have sounded harsh to my minister colleague, but such a reality check is a way we support one another too.

After a refreshing holiday vacation and plenty of time to reflect—the stuff of privilege I acknowledge freely—I started the New Year afresh with three guiding insights:

1) Our work as feminists in religion has never been more important in my lifetime than it is today. The work is different now. At WATER, we say that if one is not doing things differently post November 2016 one is not paying attention. The work now is intersectional, interreligious, and international. There are more people doing it. The renaissance of interest in feminism/womanism/mujerisimo and other articulations of women-led, multi-issue, multi-ethnic, justice-based organizing is life giving in every sense of the term (see my article “Feminist Spiritual Practice—On the March” WATERwheel, Vol. 25, Issue 1, 2017, and a fuller version, “Women’s Marches as Spiritual Practices”).

We are living feminist spirituality not just talking about it. At demonstrations, voter registrations, rallies, calls to and proposed sit-ins in congressional offices and myriad other ways, we are embodying feminist religious values with a vibrancy that I do not get from many people who claim to be “religious” like they were last year. There is an urgency to showing up, calling up, writing up, and not putting up that is invigorating. We are showing our children what it looks like to be deeply committed to religious values and to a peaceful, shared life on Earth.

2) The leadership of Catholic feminists is well in tune with the culture. A Pew Research Center report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (May 2015) confirmed that younger Americans are increasingly less likely to belong to an organized religion; many are unaffiliated, spiritual but not religious, or nones. From 2007-2014, the percentage of the population that identifies as Christian fell from 78% to 70% with Catholics making up a large percentage of this drop.

We of the women-church movement are not starting from scratch. We have simply been ahead of the curve, which means we are experienced. We have decades of successful work at letting the needs of the world not the failings of the church set our agenda. We know how to work with other groups. For example, WATER people showed up at the “Health Care for All” rally led by the Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Jennifer Butler with a procession to Congressman Paul Ryan’s office where the group left “holy books” for Congressional members to consult. We know how to collaborate, let young people and people of color lead, and just be bodies when numbers are needed. We do not need to lead all the time.

We know how to ignore the noisy nonsense of Catholic kyriarchs without apology or permission. We know how to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and respond to the needs for reproductive justice including providing birth control and abortion for women. We know what it is to stand with queer people, especially trans women of color. At the same time, we also know that we have to change the conditions that lead to those and other forms of injustice. We engage in this work out of religious conviction and spiritual commitment. It is a contemporary way to be women-church.

3) We have plenty of resources to share and to create. WATER has never been busier. Whether it is a liturgy/ritual for women engaged in social change work, research on feminist forms of non-violence, counseling with women who are dealing with difficult choices, young people looking for ways to share their amazing energy and talent for social justice, publications on feminist theo-ethical topics, there is no end to the need and creativity of feminists in religion.

We have experience to share, networks to mobilize, people to rely on. Terrorism, the Keystone Pipeline, inadequate health care, and corporate dominance are all daunting and we have no illusions. But I sense vibrancy in our resistance and integrity in our efforts to create new options. There is authenticity in our hard conversations across differences. We are finding ways to work together because the stakes are so bloody high, and just bloody for many.

This moment is not a blip on the historical horizon. As Jewish feminist theologian and committed activist Judith Plaskow observed at WATER’s 2016 Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network, “I know what I will be doing with the rest of my life.” We urge our friends to pace themselves—not to expend all of their energies at once and wind up depleted in what will be a long, for the foreseeable future at least, struggle for justice.

I find meditation helps me to stay centered. Time with family and friends is not a luxury. Vacations are a human right that we need to socialize. I have upped my own arts quota—seeing more films, enjoying more concerts and plays, and taking in more art exhibits to keep my own spirit alive so that I know what I am struggling for after all.

Part of what we do as women-church is to provide safe, inclusive ways for people to be spiritual. To fall back on the old ways of worshipping, old ways of being church is about as helpful as reading last week’s newspaper and sending faxes to your members of Congress. Those days are over.

Now is the time to imagine what it is that we can knit together–think about and beyond pink hats– to create a life-affirming social fabric for all. Then we need to do it. Many lives depend literally on us.