Mapping Forty Years of Feminist Theology, Ethics, Ritual
Mary E. Hunt for Women Spirit Ireland
September 10, 2018 7:30 PM Trinity College, Dublin
I am delighted to join Women Spirit Ireland to think together about the impact of our collective work in feminist studies in religion. Mary Condren is, as you know, a national treasure. She is a brilliant and thorough scholar, highly regarded worldwide for her work on Brigit and related Celtic themes. I am honored by her invitation. She is so generous with her time and talent, as well as inclusive and welcoming of the work of others. Thanks, Mary, and let WATER and Women Spirit continue our long collaboration.
Thanks to the colleagues of Trinity College for this lovely venue for our conversation. I am happy to be here in Ireland en route home from Spain where I lectured in Madrid on the role of contemplative silence in the work of social justice.
Mary Condren assigned me a book title for tonight’s lecture, and it is a good idea for a book. I will resist the temptation to tell the whole story by focusing instead on the major contours of the map of feminist work in religion and offer what I think they mean in practical terms for our movement. This is a time when religious institutions and faith communities as we have known them are all but over. We do not begin from zero to create new ones because we have fifty plus years of feminist work to rely on.
(1) I begin with a few comments on recent events here in Ireland and the United States. (2) Then, I look at what I consider twin anchors of feminist spirituality, namely, religious dynamics and feminist action. (3) Finally, using the U.S. Women’s March of 2017, I conclude with some suggestions of how we might work together to enrich and deepen the scene.
(1) Recent events in Ireland and the U.S.
Ireland was ground zero for Catholic attention in August 2018 until the Saturday Night Bombshell exploded from ex-nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò and his handlers but that is another story. I confess that I was glued to the RTE coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland. Sometimes I felt as if I were in Ireland though I did not have to wear a raincoat or carry an umbrella. I was deeply impressed by the organization, boldness, and courage of sexual abuse survivors and those who demand justice for women, LGBTIQA people, and children. The smallish crowds that signaled the deep disenchantment with things Catholic heartened me in a cynical way. It was brill to snap up the tickets and toss them. We will imitate your strategy in the U.S. when given the chance.
I want to thank especially the survivors and those who love them. Words will ever be inadequate to express our sorrow with you. But words become deeds when through analysis and strategies we focus energies first and foremost on those who suffer, then on the prevention of violence, and on changing the unjust human conditions that create these injustices to begin with. That means using feminist religious insights to reshape laws, demand just compensation, dismiss those from their jobs who perpetrate crimes and their colluders, no matter who they are. I weep with you for the babies, the mothers, the lost childhoods, and the adult scars. If you want to know why we in feminist work in religion do what we do, look no further than the scandals of our day.
We are not about to clean up after criminals, especially the clergy, but we will work until they are stopped in their bloody tracks. I recommend the resources of the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, Washington. Forty years of experience working on issues of sexual and domestic violence in relation to religion make them the go-to place.
The August 2018 Grand Jury report from Pennsylvania laying out chapter and verse of 300 priests, 1000+ victims with thousands more in the offing was the straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back in the United States. The level of disgust is high left, right, and center leaving the institution on thin ice. I am amazed by the reactions—horror at the criminal acts, but equal if not sometimes greater outrage at the cover-ups. Lawyers and legislators around the country are discussing similar probes in other states and the need to lift the statues of limitations everywhere. New York State, for example, just began its inquiry into subpoenas for every one of its dioceses.
These cases were made public shortly after the Vatican punished Theodore McCarrick, the cardinal of Washington, DC. His early credible accusations of pedophilia cases, which were paid off, were covered up over the decades. Now his apparently well-known custom of going to bed with whatever seminarian or young priest he desired is public knowledge. This was business as usual, we’re led to believe, and “everyone knew,” or so we who did not know are told. Reactions have been swift and far-reaching across the ideological spectrum with mounting calls for the resignation of his successor, Washington, DC’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Wuerl’s departure is imminent both for his many mistakes in Pennsylvania while in leadership there and for his lack of attention to the McCarrick case.
Then came the Saturday night screed (August 25, 2018) from Archbishop-who-wants-to-be-cardinal Carlo Maria Viganò. He ran roughshod over the territory with accusations and innuendos mostly based on old grudges. His hysterical anti-gay fuming makes one wonder if the gentleman doth protest too much. He ended with a plaintive plea for the resignation of the Pope. Mr. Viganò promptly went to ground and did not surface to explain, document, or defend his letter.
The plot thickens in what makes the Borgias look like the Boy Scouts on a camping trip. Meanwhile, survivors, women, LGBTIQA people, and others who are outside the circles where such rants take place are left to piece together spiritual survival now that the apparatus of Catholicism has proven unable to carry the freight of the Gospel. In my view, the institutional church is morally and soon to be economically bankrupt. People in the U.S. are leaving by the droves and lawsuits will sap whatever economic resources remain.
Our feminist work in religion continues apace. This is not a cavalier attitude but a reflection of the reality that many feminist colleagues have left the mess behind, though the people affected remain a major concern.
(2) The twin anchors of feminist spirituality, namely, religious dynamics and feminist action.
The feminist work in religion with which I am familiar stands in sharp contrast to this institutional concern. Religious dynamics and feminist action are all around us. The needs of the world and not the failings of the church set the feminist religious agenda.
Feminists in religious studies have various starting points. I work at the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), a non-profit educational organization in the Washington, DC area. Similar to Woman Spirit Ireland, we provide both scholarly and practical work. For thirty-five years, WATER has been a go-to-place for feminist studies in religion. I do not mean to make it sound grandiose—competition is not keen in this niche market and our office is modest at best. We have created and nurtured the “New Space,” in feminist philosopher Mary Daly’s words, where the academic study of religion meets the real needs of people seeking spiritual lives. Whether a woman minister who comes for spiritual direction or a graduate student who uses our library for his feminist research, whether a Mennonite intern or an Icelandic scholar, the many and varied people who come to WATER constitute the very map we are considering.
Over the decades of our work, the map has become more of a GPS. The amazing proliferation of books, journals, articles, and podcasts only increases in quantity, complexity, and variety. What began as a dominantly white Christian and Jewish field is now exponentially more diverse as colleagues from Islam, Buddhism, Pagan/Wiccan groups, Indigenous religions, Hinduism, and many other traditions including the ‘spiritual but not religious,’ the nones (none of the above), and my new favorites, the never agains. We include colleagues from many races, nations, as well as from many academic and ministerial specialties.
All of them produce useful and fascinating materials related not simply to women, but in the words of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “to the interlocking forms of oppression including racism, ecocide, homohatred, transphobia, economic inequality, ableism and more that constitute her famous and helpful term ‘kyriarchy’ (structures of lordship)” to which much feminist work in religion is dedicated to eradicating.
In WATER’s circles, we explicitly affirm that our efforts are geared to bring feminist religious values to the work of social change. We reject myths of scholarly objectivity and discourage the study of religion for its own sake. Rather, we recognize the important role of spiritual values in personal and communal life and encourage everyone, especially women and those who have traditionally been marginalized from the construction of religion, to become protagonists of our own spirituality.
The intellectual terrain is doubtless interesting on a good day. Unfortunately, the fact is that we live in not such good days. The United States is embroiled in a political situation as scandalous as it is dangerous. Religiously fueled ideology played a real role in the election of President Donald Trump. White evangelicals were especially enthusiastic supporters: “The majority of non-college educated white women (64%) voted for Trump, while 35% backed Clinton. This figure is far higher than non-college educated black women, of whom only 3% voted for Trump, and non-college educated Hispanic women, of which only 25% voted for Trump. Black, Hispanic and other non-white women backed Clinton in far greater numbers.” [i]
I am a Catholic feminist theologian, white, and a U.S. citizen. For women like me, the gender dynamics are all too familiar. Catholic women need not apply when it comes to ordained ministry or priesthood. Priesthood or clerical status is necessary for decision-making or what is called “jurisdiction” in Catholic circles. Thus, women are de facto excluded from most of even the simplest local decisions—for example, whether a local parish hall can be used for a meeting of lesbian and gay Catholics, or whether the resources of the congregation can go to support a project in Haiti.
Thirty-five years ago, my similarly trained partner Diann Neu and I started WATER because we were literally all dressed up with no place to go. Over the years, WATER has sponsored scores of programs and retreats, hundreds of rituals and meditation sessions, dozens of monthly teleconferences with some of the brightest people in the field sharing their work with people from all over the world. Together we have written countless articles, blogs, liturgies, and several books.
Most important, we have developed an Alliance of people who do this work and want to do it together including our Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network at which 50 to 100 people gather yearly at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. This year’s topic is economic issues.
We have had more than eighty WATER interns including Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and those who profess no religious faith whatsoever, nones. We have also had ‘nuns’ on our roster.
I lay out this context to illustrate one example of religious dynamism and feminist action. WATER’s work is at the same time academic, promoting, and engaging in cutting edge research and writing in the field, and it is practical, encouraging, and engaging in activism that is based on feminist religious values of justice and equality.
As I look back over these first 35 years of WATER, two issues ground my analysis:
- How concern about gender has changed religious dynamics
- The relationship between feminist studies in religion and social activism
- How concern about gender has changed religious dynamics
As a feminist scholar activist, I am particularly interested in the impact of gender-related issues on the well being of Earth and its inhabitants, human and others. If religions are ways we connect (religare, L.) with one another over shared beliefs and practices, then the quality of those connections is not trivial. Justice and equality are hallmarks of right relation in many traditions, and the interconnection between/among justice issues now frames feminist religious scholarship.
In July 1848, the first Seneca Falls Convention was held in the Wesleyan Chapel in that small historic town in Upstate New York. Elizabeth Cady Stanton read the “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” that became the basis of women’s claims to equality with men, including, of course, the right to vote. It was the same suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, in 1895 with her Revising Committee, published The Woman’s Bible.[ii] That book is a compilation of exegeses of biblical texts having to do with women, written from women’s perspectives. The women for the most part are not professionally trained theologians. The collection went out of print, but it was revived in the 1970s as interest grew in matters of women and religion.
Half a century later in Geneva, New York, near Seneca Falls, the first major journal article that I know of in the English-language literature on religion and gender was written and published in 1960. Professor Valerie Saiving Goldstein of Hobart and William Smith College wrote “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”[iii] She argued that the nature of sin was different for women and men—men err on the side of power, taking up a lot of space, while women’s sin was the opposite, not taking other women seriously, trivializing ourselves, multi-tasking (before we know the word), such that women lack an organizing center. Her point was that if Jesus came to save all men from sins of pride as some of the leading Protestant theologians of her day argued, perhaps Jesus did not come to save women at all. Or, as I like to think about it, perhaps the Bible should carry a warning like on a cigarette package suggesting that it might be dangerous to women’s spiritual health.
Regardless of one’s view of Valerie Saiving’s work, the main contribution was that scholars realized that religion is gendered activity. Most scholars did not know that in 1960 and some still reject the concept today. Her insight opened many doors to new religious practices and thinking based on the now obvious idea that religion is a many-gendered thing.
As feminist work in religion progressed in tandem with the Second Wave of the women’s movements and theologies of liberation in the 1970s, feminist philosopher Mary Daly’s signal volume Beyond God the Father emerged. [iv] She popularized the problem of gender by stating that “If God is male, then the male is God.” [v] From this simple, clear insight flowed what are now five decades of scholarship in virtually every religious tradition dealing with the implications of gender in shaping religions and society. Women all over the world are engaged in this work.
Investigations and changes in doctrines, practices, rituals, and especially on language and imagery of the divine are now common in the world’s religions. I daresay these conversations have not been easy, friendly, or even in some cases, rational. That is all the more reason why they are important. As increasingly more women become religious leaders, the urgency of this conversation increases lest they simply replicate the models they inherit.
The reaction to gender as a category for analysis and change has not been universally positive. For example, Pope Francis, stated: “A great enemy of marriage today is the theory of gender…Today, there is a global war trying to destroy marriage… they don’t destroy it with weapons, but with ideas. It’s certain ideological ways of thinking that are destroying it…we have to defend ourselves from ideological colonization.”[vi] I disagree with the Pope’s assessment and find it woefully ill-informed. I doubt that he could cite serious feminist scholars of religion trying to destroy anything other than patriarchy. Rather, we seek to create and construct on the basis of evolving insights. He does get one thing right, namely, that there are practical implications of gender theory in daily life that in my view will make the world safer for women and dependent children, indeed also for men.
Attention to gender in religion is not only about women, though it is principally about women despite the neutral sounding term. What began as a search for women and women’s experiences hidden in texts, shrouded in prejudice, is now a new frame for thinking about human experience in its endless particularity. Anti-racism work, efforts to erase heterosexism, attention to the ways in which ableism rears its ugly head, all seek to decenter hegemonic masculinity, white supremacy, homo and trans hatred, body barriers, and body shaming. These analytic efforts are integrally related to the work of gender transformation in the interstructured and interconnected efforts to bring about justice and equality.
The change in terms from what began as “women’s studies in religion” to “feminist studies in religion,” and lately to the more vanilla “gender studies” ought not to obscure the activist agenda implicit in most of the work. While some academics shy away from even the conversation about activism, it is important to acknowledge that most who are engaged in this work are not simply academically interested. Such scholar/activists are concerned to create a safer, more just, and equitable world. These are not mutually exclusive purposes. Intellectual work and activism combined are the gold standard.
Religion has the power to shape basic values. The editorial statement of the premier journal in the field on which I serve on the Editorial Board, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, co-founded by Christian feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, conveys this point clearly: “Its editors are committed to rigorous thinking and analysis in the service of the transformation of religious studies as a discipline and the feminist transformation of religious and cultural institutions.” [vii] Note the reminiscences of both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Daly in that the changing dynamics of religion are put to the service of social change.
- The relationship between feminist studies in religion and social activism
Given this history, it is not surprising that many who now work in the field of feminist studies in religion are keenly aware of how important it is not simply to “add women and stir” as I warned years ago.[viii] Rather, we seek to change those religious beliefs and practices which run counter to the well being of all who are marginalized whether by gender, race, sexual identity, age, ability, or the like. Obvious examples relate to reproductive justice, LGBTIQA rights, and environmental questions for which nuanced, interstructured analysis of the many forms of injustice is needed. These data become part of a hermeneutic for looking at texts, teachings, and practices. Woman Spirit Ireland’s work on Brigit and the Cailleach tradition are examples of this. Both history and current spiritual needs are at stake here.
For those who perceive religions as unchanging, gender, anti-racism, and related analyses present a serious challenge. However, for those who join Catholic moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire in affirming “the renewable moral energy of religion,” this work is second nature. [ix] It is not a way to leave religious traditions aside, but in an ecological turn of phrase a way to recycle them. We recognize that the same religions that are the source of visions and impetus for justice can also be barriers to its accomplishment. This is a fraught and vexed but real situation.
Liturgies and rituals are one of the primary ways most people meet religion—when their mother dies or their community celebrates its holy days. Inclusive language about the divine and about human beings makes all the difference as to whether some people can pray or not. But efforts in Christianity, for example, to move beyond the “Father, Lord, Ruler, King” vocabulary for the divine, especially in hymns and preaching, have been unsuccessful.
Many women-led religious groups work in the political mainstream. For example, Muslims for Progressive Values’ President Ani Zonnenfeld discusses women imams and queer Muslims in popular media. That begins to change the understanding of Islam if not for Muslims at least for others who realize there are feminist and queer Muslims. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance founded by Blu Greenberg is made up of Orthodox Jewish women “expand[ing] the spiritual, ritual, intellectual, and political opportunities for women with the framework of halakha,” or Jewish law.[x] These are all foundational challenges to major religious traditions on the basis of gender that find expression in the political arena.
Politically connected women’s groups do not stop with so-called women’s issues. For example, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, which was started more than forty years ago by dozens of nuns from many religious congregations, the so-called “nuns on the bus” has a broad agenda. Executive Director Sister Simone Campbell and colleagues worked to pass Obamacare despite the opposition of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The nuns became the face of American Catholicism, much to the consternation of the bishops and to the delight of President Obama and progressive colleagues. It showed that even as entrenched a religious tradition as Catholicism could have a new public face.
Feminist scholarship in religion has the same activist component. In the summer of 2017, Feminist Studies in Religion Inc. (which publishes the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion among other activities) gathered scholars/activists to consider “Making Alliances, Breaking Taboos, Transforming Religions.” [xi] It was a rich if complicated opportunity to hear from colleagues from several countries and realize how hard it is to do this work across race, class, age, religions, nationalities, and other identities.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, feminist biblical scholar at Harvard, recently published Congress of Wo/men: Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power. [xii] She criticized feminist scholars for leaving aside religions as a resource for social change. At the same time, she calls out some religious feminists for universalizing arguments that pass over the fact that women are quite unique and diverse. Her focus, while theoretical, is also innately practical as the damage of religious fundamentalism becomes apparent in legislation and public policy.
It is important to point out that while we used to know what a woman was and what a man was, today there is no reason to be confident. Transgender persons have changed all of that, and I thank them. The diverse and fluid nature of both gender identity and sexual orientation is widely acknowledged. For example, if a lesbian woman in a relationship decides to become a man, does that make her partner heterosexual all of a sudden? If a man transitions to being a woman, does he experience sexism the same way as those who are born women? These are not trivial questions. Ask trans people in the U.S. military who had the rug pulled out from under them in a clear case of religiously reinforced notions of sex and gender gone awry. Feminist work does not change because it is not only about women; it is about all those who are oppressed for a variety of reasons.
One project that began an important conversation in this regard resulted in the book entitled Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions.[xiii] A dozen scholars from eight countries and six religious traditions addressed ourselves to the question of what women think of as “good sex.” Virtually every religious answer to the question that we had studied up until that point had come from a male perspective. Indeed, women’s answers were different. For instance, I addressed what I called “Just Good Sex,” linking the goodness of sex with the goodness of having housing, food, a job, with the goodness of safety and consent. [xiv] Rebecca Alpert, a Jewish colleague, took on the matter of taboos, when something is good because it is bad.[xv] A Muslim writer looked at Islam and Women’s Sexuality.[xvi]
A parallel project was Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect edited by feminists Marvin Ellison and Judith Plaskow. [xvii] Authors from a range of religious traditions explored not homosexuality, about which so much has been written, but heterosexism, a far less studied but deeply problematic theme.
These two projects are examples of feminist studies in religion moving in the direction of international and interdisciplinary cooperation as well as reframing the basic questions and inviting new voices into the conversation. That is what it means to change the power dynamics in feminist studies in religion.
As our religions change on the basis of this kind of feminist work, as their “renewable moral energy” is unleashed, there is a concomitant increase in social change. There is a fairly deep drop in the U.S. numbers of religious adherents just as in Ireland. Pew Research shows the sharp decline of participation in mainline traditions. [xviii] It is interesting to look at cases where those who attend to matters of gender both within and beyond religions work together for social change. One such example was the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington.
Large numbers of people took to the streets to reject in public and wholesale terms the values of greed and “America first” that were articulated in what they perceived as sexist, white supremacist, xenophobic statements, and policies of the newly inaugurated president and his administration. Little did we know then how much worse things would become.
The marches were held around the globe on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States who was not a woman. The election was a referendum on the many achievements of the last forty years—particularly in healthcare, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTIQA acceptance, deeper awareness of the needs of immigrants and people living with disabilities. It was an Electoral College win in which 3 million more people voted for the loser than the winner. Russian intrusions into the process and the possibility that the winning campaign may have colluded in such a breach in democratic practices have been part of the evolving fallout.
For many people, the sense of disbelief following the election gave way to despair. It was bitterly disappointing for a candidate who distinguished himself by his crude and crass behavior toward women to win over a woman. This led to an unfolding policy agenda that includes rolling back climate change remedies, trumpeting torture, walls, and aggression. Spiritual malaise set in for many people. The organizers’ genius insight to invite and ignite people for action touched a nerve.
Millions of people participated. A huge crowd gridlocked Washington, DC for hours. A handful of women scientists and their penguin friends protested in Antarctica against threatened cuts to federal research funding. Sociologist Dana Fisher, in a careful look at this and subsequent marches, finds that the resistance is not slowing down.[xix] So-called “protest fatigue” has not set in as many who marched for women also marched later for science, against racism, the environment, and then for immigrant and LGBTIQA rights. We will vote in vast numbers in November 2018.
This does not surprise spiritual feminists who have long insisted on an intersectional analysis and interstructured solutions to myriad social problems. The marches were a case of putting that approach to the service of social change, with or without religious input.
The role of religion and spirituality in all of this is telling though not in the measurable ways of how many people belong to religious group X, or the percentage of those who practice faith Y. Rather, religion and spirituality in the broadest sense of what connects people were on the march in postmodernity.
The very act of gathering was a spiritual statement. These marches and rallies were not feel-good fests, but serious, if at times light-hearted (a popular chant is “We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter.”) manifestations of people who are working to create a just world. Nary an arrest was reported during the January 2017 DC march.
Speeches and music (not sermons or hymns) added content to these marches. Pink pussy hats with cat ears (now available in both winter and summer versions!), made a statement against sexual violence. The heart of the matter was being there, showing up, embodying something that puts the brakes on the dismantling of affordable health care, bans on immigrants, violence against people of color, and lower tax rates for wealthy people. The rainbow umbrellas on the bridge in Dublin during Pope Francis’ visit served a similar purpose.
The role of organized religion was relatively minor in these actions. Unlike their predecessors during the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war protests, clergy and religious leaders were not generally in the vanguard of the marches though some religious people spoke at rallies. The lead groups of the march in DC were Planned Parenthood (dealing with women’s health), the Natural Resources Defense Council (concerned with climate change and fossil fuels), Emily’s List (dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women candidates), and NARAL Pro-Choice America (supporting abortion, birth control, sex education, and resources for healthy pregnancies).
The so-called Religious Left is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. But in its institutional expressions like the National Council of Churches, Sojourners, even the Moral Monday groups it remains largely patriarchal in substance. That means mainly male leadership without primary attention to issues of women’s well being, especially reproductive justice including legal abortion. It implies a silo approach to issues rather than intersectionality. Additionally, it means a preponderance of language, imagery, hymns, and preaching that are replete with ‘Lord’, ‘Father’, ‘Ruler’, and ‘King’ language as if decades of feminist work to diversify religions had never happened.
There are partner groups of many stripes in current organizing including those working against gun violence, in favor of girls’ education, on peace and environmental issues. Religious groups are among them, but as often as not they come from the margins of their traditions rather than from their institutional hearts. For the Women’s March, several Jewish organizations, Unitarians both at the national and local level, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Catholics for Choice, and Faith in New York were among the official partners. Most of these people are religious feminists.
Feminist spirituality is one of the most useful explanatory constructs for talking about what happened. What brought people together was not a particular dogma or doctrine, not a specific voting issue. To the contrary, participation in organized religions is on the wane in the U.S. with ‘nones’ far outpacing ‘nuns’ for new members. Vision and hope are lived out in multiple ways which need not be competing or mutually exclusive. But that way of thinking about the world, as if there is no one right answer, no single correct route from birth to death, no unified worldview is not what most people hear from their religious traditions. Instead, they are taught to follow “The Way”, “The Path”, or some other unitary approach that smacks more of concern about market share than helping people find ways to live out their commitments in solidarity with others.
The challenge of twenty-first century religion is to find ways to live with many different, sometimes overlapping, ways of being in community. It is not easy, but the marches prove that many people are willing to try. That is what feminist spirituality incarnate looks like walking down the street. The Women’s March was, among other things, the fruit of the work of groups like Woman Spirit Ireland and WATER.
The arts play a major role in this kind of social change. It was not surprising that on the day of the Women’s March in Washington, DC the National Museum of Women and the Arts opened its doors without charge. Hundreds of people, many of them new to the thirty-year old museum, had their first glimpse of a collection that is almost exclusively made up of work by women. The building was originally a Masonic Temple; now it is a temple of a feminist sort.
The intentionally broad agenda that attracted millions to march requires that no one is completely satisfied but that everyone is willing to give a little. Such is a functional definition of democracy. As singer and cultural worker Bernice Johnson Reagon of the women’s acapella group “Sweet Honey in the Rock” put it years ago, “If you are in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it is not broad enough.” Feminist spirituality is at once coalitional and lived out in very particular local expressions whether liturgical, ritual, artistic, athletic, culinary, or some other creative form.
Living with the discomfort of diversity in order to move forward is not a sign of cheap relativism, but a hallmark of feminist spirituality. Without abandoning one’s beliefs, it is possible to pass over the rigid, narrow foci that have kept patriarchal ecumenical and interfaith efforts from succeeding. It is not a sign of rampant secularization. And so what if it were, and still got the justice job done? Rather, it is evidence of reasonable and responsible religiosity, better, forms of spirituality, which are expressed by embracing a shared vision of human flourishing and cosmic harmony.
Such expressions are about far more than individual choices. They are about structural barriers to full participation like racism, sexism, ableism, economic inequality, and the like that must be eradicated. They are about the world adults want to bequeath to their children and grandchildren, and the world those children will pass on to theirs. Quite simply, no one issue determines the future, although, all condition what it will look like and who will survive to live it.
Calling this spirituality and using the resources of feminist studies in religion does not relegate it to a mystical realm or get one off the hook for critical analysis. Instead, this kind of feminist spirituality is a way of seeing social change for the common good as the heart and soul of the human religious project.
Resistance is crucial, but so too is the creativity to build the scaffolding of a just and sustainable society. Feminist spiritualities, in all of their diversity of expression and priorities, in all of their performative power and interreligious richness are a great source to spark and sustain this work. They are not all we need but they are helpful. The visceral memories of the marches, both in the muscles of those who participated in person and for those who observed, are motivating factors. We know what democracy looks like, and we know how it feels to be moving together in the same direction, however slowly and deliberately, sometimes gridlocked and stymied, but in time and with cooperation, making our way together.
One more example of feminist work in religion is the newly inaugurated Center for Womanist Leadership in Richmond, Virginia. African American women in the academy and ministry use ‘womanist’ approaches as they work for justice as women. The Center, founded by the great womanist theologian the Reverend Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, was inspired by the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians whose founder, Dr. Mercy Amba Oyuyoye, was present for the Richmond event. Imagine the joy when 225 mostly African American women gathered for the first meeting of what we hope will be a powerful new organization. I was privileged to attend and was asked to write about it. Sadly, three weeks later Dr. Cannon was diagnosed with what became a fatal illness. She died scant months later. Her memorial service is today. Whether and how the Center will continue without its charismatic founding director is not clear but we hope for the best.
(3) I conclude with the most tentative suggestions of how we might work together to enrich and deepen the scene.
I offer my suggestions in light of life and death of Katie Geneva Cannon who began her studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York as a Hebrew Bible student. That program had never had a woman of color graduate. She was put out of the program by shortsighted professors. Feminist ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison embraced her as a doctoral student and so began Katie’s illustrious career in womanist ethics. Dr. Cannon showed all of us how issues of race and gender are interstructured. My suggestions honor Katie and reflect the need to nurture colleagues in the field.
Given the current theo-political climate, and the example of the Women’s Marches as but one expression of how religious dynamism and social action go hand in hand, what might we reasonably expect in the future?
- Technology, social media, and the like will accelerate the rate of change, the speed with which new ideas about diverse and inclusive ways of being religious will take hold. Unfortunately, social media also fans the flames of conservative ideology. This is obvious. But I find that many people have increasingly less tolerance for ideological foot-dragging when lives are at stake. For example, for Catholics it is no longer tolerable to hear anti-LGBTIQA rhetoric when queer teens are killing themselves. Cell phones and tablets are practically extensions of young people’s hands so we need to use all of the contemporary tools at our disposition—podcasts, webinars, Instagram, Snapchat, and things I have never heard of to carry on our conversations. I have a 17 year old, so this is personal to me. I work with many young women who are positively genius and just as generous in sharing their skills. We need young people, especially young women of color, to join our work and shape its future.
- The rise of “spiritual but not religious” people, “nones” or “never agains” as the categories evolve, means that work on gender and religion, indeed all of the interstructured particularities with which we now analyze religions, must be done in concert with people who are not religious at all. Recalling how many of us were trained in a single religious tradition—Jews with Jews, Methodists with Methodists, Catholics with Catholics in our own silos—it becomes obvious that we need to broaden our horizons.
One way that conversation happens is through shared social action like the women’s marches—political campaigns, lobbying efforts, voter registration—where beliefs are articulated by actions, not actions dictated by beliefs. I am delighted to branch out well beyond religious circles. I sometimes get tired of religious people! There are many people who are not interested in being religious, but in understanding how religion works. They are valued colleagues.
- While it may seem contradictory to what I just articulated, there are few if any fonts of vision and creativity as rich and as deep as our religious traditions. Think of religious art, music, and rituals, all of which are being reimagined according to feminist lights. Consider the insights of sacred texts that are under deep renovation by textual scholars and the differences they are making in social consciousness.
Then it is not hard to imagine newly minted coalitions of religious people who are gender-inclusive, in economic solidarity with one another, anti-racist, pro-sex, speaking diverse languages, and using many media. They provide support and inspiration for social change, which goes beyond what any one faith tradition can offer. Then it is obvious why religious dynamism and feminist action are important anchors of contemporary feminist spirituality, and what a difference it all makes in the world.
I see us, Woman Spirit Ireland and WATER, as sister groups that have many other siblings around the world. I think of my friends who are into feminism and Santeria in Cuba; the Concerned Circle of African Women Theologians; colleagues in the Philippines and in Germany who are doing amazing scholarly work; those who are struggling for abortion rights in Argentina; the good colleagues in Australia who work to stop climate change and welcome immigrants to that vast land. They are just a few of our many kindred spirits with whom crafting a better world is sacred, enjoyable, and hard work.
Thank you for your part in it. I look forward to further collaboration.
Christ, Carol P. and Plaskow, Judith. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in
Embodied Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.
Ellison, Marvin and Judith Plaskow. Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007.
Hunt, Mary E. and Diann Neu, Eds. New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many
Views. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2010.
Jung, Patricia Beattie, Mary E. Hunt, Radhika Balakrishnan, Eds. Good Sex: Feminist
Perspectives from the World’s Religions. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University
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[ii] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible, New York, European Publishing Co., 1895-98.
[iii] Valerie Saiving Goldstein, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” The Journal of Religion 40, no. 2 (1960): 100-112.
[iv] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1973).
[v] Mary Daly, p. 19.
[vi] Inés San Martín, “Pope calls gender theory a ‘global war’ against the family,” Crux, October 1, 2016, https://cruxnow.com/global-church/2016/10/01/pope-calls-gender-theory-global-war-family.
[vii] Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/pages.php?pID=84&CDpath=4
[viii] Mary E. Hunt quoted in, Charlotte Bunch, Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action, New York: NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1987, 140.
[ix] Daniel C. Maguire, “renewable moral energy of religion,” Sacred Energies, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000, 10.
[xi] Feminist Studies in Religion Conference at Drew University, “Building Alliances, Breaking Taboos, Transforming Religions, http://www.fsrinc.org/blog/events/making-alliances-breaking-taboos-and-transforming-religions/, June 18-21, 2017.
[xii] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Congress of Wo/men: Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power. Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Publishing, 2016.
[xiii] Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt, Radhika Balakrishnan, eds., Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
[xiv] Mary E. Hunt, “Just Good Sex: Feminist Catholicism and Human Rights,” in Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions, Eds. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt, Radhika Balakrishnan, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001, pp. 158-173.
[xv] Rebecca T. Alpert, “Guilty Pleasures: When Sex Is Good Because It’s Bad,” in Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions, Eds. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt, Radhika Balakrishnan (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), pp. 31-43.
[xvi] Pinar Ilkkaracan, “Islam and Women’s Sexuality: A Research Report from Turkey,” in Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions, Eds. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt, Radhika Balakrishnan (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), pp. 61-76.
[xvii] Marvin Ellison and Judith Plaskow, Editors, Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007.
[xviii] Michael Lipka and David McClendon, Pew Research Center, “Why people with no religion are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population,”
[xix] Sarah Kaplan, “A scientist who studies protest says ‘the resistance’ isn’t slowing down,”