The Contribution of Women and Religion to History


 By Mary E. Hunt

Originally posted on Feminist Studies in Religion Forum.

Apparently women in religion have not really made much of a difference in shaping the history of the United States. At least not according to the much-touted PBS special MAKERS: Women Who Make America that premiered in February 2013 with scant coverage of our crowd.

Perhaps it is churlish to criticize a major project about women that has so much to recommend it. After all, three-hour documentaries on any women are few and far between. This one is good as far as it goes. Myriad achievements of women in sports, business, politics, medicine, and most other dimensions of contemporary life are celebrated appropriately. The startling story of the first woman in the Boston Marathon is worth gold. Women in politics get a great deal of attention. I was expecting more women of color but the reality is how deeply racist this country has been, and how much work remains to be done to undo racism.

What about religion? Feminists have been laboring for more than a century to link social change efforts with deep, underlying, mostly religiously fueled notions of women. Several suffrage leaders, for example, made the connections. But I did not notice any significant discussion of the field of religion in this documentary. I saw virtually no images, save a nun in a habit that someone mentioned to me that would demonstrate the remarkable achievements of women in religion. Perhaps I dozed, but I think such mentions would have caught my attention.

I am puzzled by the lack of attention to, even the briefest mention of religion in the profound power shifts occasioned by feminist work in the culture at large. It is as if no one had ever thought about the link between a Father-Lord-Ruler-King God and white men’s power. Did feminist historians ever hear of Mary Daly? Antipathy toward religion as an enemy of women is a longstanding feminist academic trope. But to miss the work of hundreds of feminist colleagues who have labored to remake patriarchal religions into human-enhancing systems is rather surprising.

Granted, some of the finer points of exegesis and hermeneutics might be lost on a general audience. But surely female rabbis and female minster/priests have changed the historical landscape in important ways. What about feminist theologians and ethicists who have labored to provide intellectual foundations for women’s reproductive justice, LGBTIQ rights, and women’s economic well-being? Or, is religion really so trivial in the social equation that even our best efforts to be useful go unnoticed?

Given the kind of achievements that are considered history making by the producers of this show, I can name a dozen women whose stories could have been included. If “firsts” are heralded, like Sally Ride in space and Geraldine Ferraro as the vice presidential candidate, then I would lobby for mention of the first woman rabbi in the U.S., Sally Priesand (following the German Regina Jonas decades before), and the first Episcopal woman bishop, Barbara Harris. If groups are key, like the National Organization for Women, then let’s look at the National Coalition of American Nuns and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). If abortion is so central, then surely history should include the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice whose early clergy and lay members provided religious pro-choice counseling when abortion was still illegal.

I applaud the makers of MAKERS whose work assures that a piece of American women’s history is preserved. Rather than expect them to do it all, I see their work as sparking the need for other pieces of the history to be documented and disseminated. I challenge those of us in religion, especially our colleagues with film making savvy and our funders with foresight, to organize similar projects. For instance, Brenda K. Hipsher is doing oral histories with some feminist theologians before it is too late.

Some of us have paid attention to archiving our own materials so the primary sources of our history will be accessible to future generations. Others need to follow suit. We need to amplify our voices and highlight one another’s contributions so that women’s work in religion can be seen as an integral part of the complex social history of all women.