Printer Friendly

Fifteen years of ferment.

Religious feminists are a minority of a minority, distrusted by their co-religionists because of their feminism and regarded with some suspicion by other feminists because of their religious loyalties.

But in the past 15 years, the rising tide of feminist consciousness has had an effect on all significant religious traditions in the United States--Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, Mormon. And the tribe of religious feminists has continued to increase, drawing more and more support from one another as they continue to apply a feminist analysis to religious traditions.

The First Stirrings: Voices in the Wilderness

How did feminist theology originate? What factors have contributed to its development? The first American to voice a feminist criticism of religion was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in 1898 published The Women's Bible, convinced that women would never gain their rights so long as the Bible was used to legitimate their inferiority as "Adam's rib" and "seductress and source of sin." Among Catholics, the first voices spoke out in the early 1960s, stimulated by negative events at Vatican II: the exclusion of Catholic women as auditors; the refusal to let distinguished economist Barbara Ward address the assembled fathers (her paper was read to them by a man!); the refusal to allow women journalists to attend the council mass along with their male colleagues. Under the title Wir Schweigen Nicht Langer (We Won't Keep Quiet Any Longer) Swiss lawyer Gertrud Heinzelman formally petitioned the council in 1962 to open priesthood to women, pointing out the oppressive character of church teaching and practice with regard to women. German theologian Josefa Munch and the St. Joan's Alliance, originally a Catholic lay women's suffrage organization, also petitioned the council. There was no specific response.

By the mid-1960s, a scattering of articles criticizing the status accorded to women in the church had appeared in American Catholic publications such as Commonweal. Among the emerging authors were Rosemary Lauer, of the philosophy department of St. John's University; Rosemary Ruether, who would soon join the school of religion faculty at Howard University, which brought her into the thick of civil rights, black and liberation theologies and the growing peace movement; sociologist Sister Mary Augusta Neal; Sidney Callahan, who held up an ideal of full human development for women from her perspective as Catholic wife and mother; and Mary Daly. Daly, of St. Mary's/Notre Dame, had gone on for her advanced theological degree at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

Daly's The Church and the Second Sex was published in 1968. Its effect in the U.S. church was almost immediate. And Daly herself would become an increasingly controversial figure through the next half-dozen years as she fought for tenure in the theology department of Boston College and expanded her feminist position until she stood beyond Catholicism and even Christianity as generally understood.

Meanwhile, the general feminist movement, which traced its genesis to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the creation of the National Organization for Women in 1966, was becoming increasingly active and vocal. The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam protests, the political activity of the new left were the training ground, or at least the example, for many of its leaders. But it had touched a raw nerve and aroused enthusiasm among many who did not consider themselves politically or sexually radical and who, by 1970, represented a wide cross section of women.

Awareness of the feminist critique of the churches was also spreading. In 1969 Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo, of the Grail, and Catherina Halkes, a Dutch lay woman on the pastoral theology faculty of the Catholic University of Nijmegen, brought together about 35 people--mostly women, mostly Catholics, Dutch, Belgian, French, Swiss, German, American--at the Grail Center in the Netherlands to consider "The Cooperation of Men and Women in Church and Society." That group was fascinated by the first manifestations of the women's liberation movement in the United States. I remember spending an evening explaining the demonstrations at Atlantic City.

A few months later a group of women attending the general assembly of the National Council of Churches (NCC) set up an informal caucus of women concerned about the need for greater recognition and participation of women in the Protestant churches. Claire Randall, who would go on to become general secretary of the NCC, was at that time program director of Church Women United (CWU), a national ecumenical group. The Nijmegen meeting had gone quite far in developing a philosophical and theological basis for women's liberation in the churches, and Randall was interested in that.

I was invited to join the CWU commission that functioned as a consciousness-raising group for its members and as a planning group for CWU, which subsequently began a series of cnsciousness-raising workshops on feminism for Protestant church women in various parts of the country. Experientially, we had discovered at the Grail by the mid-1960s that something was wrong with complementarity as we had been teaching it. The head/heart paradigm of Catholic teaching seemed to make men domineering and women passive and lacking in initiative. The 1969 conference in Holland started me thinking along new lines, of women as adult human beings, subjects taking responsibility for their lives and their choices. I began to see the cultural conditioning and sexual stereotyping inherent in complementarity. Human beings have vocations in terms of their individual gifts and potentialities. It is crippling to force sensitive, artistic men or intellectually gifted women into gender stereotypes.

As such questions were arising from within the Grail, we were also faced with the burgeoning feminist movement in society. As a women's movement ourselves, we had to ask how we wanted to relate to women's liberation. It has been a long, slow process with a gradual acceptance of a feminist perspective by more and more Grail members in the United States and internationally.

Religious feminists began coming together in a variety of configurations--conferences, commissions, workshops, consultations, associations--that provided a supportive environment in which new ideas could germinate and sprout. Ecumenism was not something decided upon, but inherent in most of these gatherings from the beginning. For instance, at the Grail we had a history of ecumenical contacts. As early as 1964 we had one weekend conference with 10 Catholic women and 10 Protestants invited by Frances Maeda of the World Council of Churches.

In 1970 women in the Boston Theological Institute (BTI)--nine seminaries including the Jesuits and the Greek Orthodox--had a conference on "The Role of Women in Theological Education." Four of the resource people were Catholic--Daly, Neal, Elizabeth Farians, and Arlene Swidler. This conference outlined in some detail a feminist theological curriculum and program of research and was one of the steps that led to the establishment of the Women's Theological Coalition within the BTI.

In 1971 a number of women theologians were brought together for a conference by the Alverno College Resource Center on Women in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1972, 75 women--one-third ordained, one-third in seminary, and one-third either active lay women or in professional church work--gathered at Grailville under the sponsorship of the Grail and CWU for a week of "Women Exploring Theology." Most were Protestant, but I was among the participants as were Ruether; Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who had a doctorate in New Testament from the German university system and had come to the United States in 1970; and several other Grail members representing a Catholic perspective.

It was a heady experience--all these women who had been voices crying in the wilderness back home were suddenly in a group of like-minded people. Insights flew thick and fast. We had wonderful feminist liturgies. Creativity burst forth in song, dance, and drama. Judith Plaskow, a Jewish theologian, wrote "Coming of Lilith" for one of the liturgies. The gathering was repeated in 1973 and gave rise to Seminary Quarter at Grailville.

Such gatherings, whether large or small, task-oriented or open-ended, provided a context for experiencing and elaborating a new approach to theology. Judith Plaskow in her article "The Coming of Lilith" (in Womanspirit Rising, edited by Plaskow and Christ) describes the context. The theological process begins with a sharing of women's lived experience; women literally "hear each other into speech," in Nelle Morton's phrase. The listening ear enables the speaker to get in touch with her own experience, plumb the depths of her fear and anger, begin to think the unthinkable and frame the questions that challenge the millenia of patriarchal religious traditions. One woman's insight triggers another's in what Plaskow calls "the yeah, yeah experience." Individuals and groups act on the new insights, giving rise to new experiences and new insights in an ever-widening spiral of scholarly work and personal and group actions.

Thus, the 1970s saw a great influx of women (including Catholics) into the seminaries. The Office of Women's Affairs was formed at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and the Women's Theological Coalition was set up in the consortium of theological schools in Boston. Catholic nuns formed two grassroots organizations: NCAN (National Coalition of American Nuns) and NAWR (National Association of Women Religious). In 1975 and again in 1978 the Women's Ordination Conference brought together several thousand nuns and lay women plus a sprinkling of clergy and lay men to consider "new women, new church, new priestly ministry."

Controversy and media attention tended to focus on the ordination of women. Most of the main-line Protestant denominations were already routinely ordaining small numbers of women, but the drama surrounding the struggles of Episcopalian women became continuing national news. The first Catholic women's ordination conference was in November 1975, and the proceedings were published the next year.

Organizers had expected about 500 participants. They were overwhelmed by the response and had to move to larger quarters. Eventually about 1,300 people attended and 500 more had to be turned away. Three bishops and a small number of other men were present. Nuns outnumbered lay women five to one, and the main talks were given by nuns--Neal, Sister of Mercy Elizabeth Carroll, Sister of Mercy Margaret Farley, and Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Anne Carr. But Fiorenza, Ruether, and Arlene and Leonard Swidler were also among the speakers.

The conference centered on the ordination issue and on identifying women who wanted their call to ordination tested. Frances Ferder subsequently did a study of about 500 women who had expressed their desire for ordination, using the same criteria that Eugene Kennedy had used in his study for Catholic priests undertaken for the National Council of Catholic Bishops. Published as Called to Break Bread, Ferder's study showed that most women were exceptionally mature, well-educated, and well-qualified.

The next women's ordination conference, in 1978 in Baltimore, brought together 2,000 people. This time, lay men out-numbered nuns, and many of the main talks were given by lay women, such as Sheila Collins, Mary Hunt, and Fiorenza. This conference seemed to me to be divided between those who saw ordination as the tip of the iceberg and conceived the women's movement in the church as a broad liberation movement attacking all the oppressions--racism and classism as well as sexism--and those who were engaged in various ministries, and wanted to be able to hear confessions and to consecrate the eucharist.

One result of this conference was the dialogue group of three or four bishops on the bishops' committee on Women in Society and Church and representatives of the Women's Ordination Conference, which by this time was organized and functioning. This dialogue continued for two years, and a joint report was submitted to the bishops' conference. Last November about 100 bishops met with about 50 representatives of various Catholic women's organizations, such as the National Council of Catholic Women, and listened to talks by Fiorenza, Francine Cardman, and Sister of St. Agnes Diane Bergani.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops subsequently decided to develop a pastoral letter on women and justice, although they continued to underscore the rule against women priests. I think it's a pity that the bishops have decided to write a pastoral on women. That's just telling women who they are and should be. At any rate, the letter is expected to take four years to complete.

On that same November weekend, 1,000 other women met in Chicago at "Women Church Speaks," and the issues of societal justice were definitively tied in with the feminist religious movement. I found there the same sense of excitement generated by women sharing experiences and thinking together that I have found all through these years when women have been theologizing together. It is a source of my hope that "evil will not have the last word."

First Fruits and Backlash

Where are we now in the fateful year of 1984? In a time of ferment, certainly, characterized by both first fruits and backlash.

Most conspicuous among the fruits is the harvest of publications. In 1964 Daly had predicted "a barrage of essays and scholarly books on women in the church," a prediction that has been amply fulfilled. The 600 words the editor allotted for this history could not begin to do justice even to a mere listing of authors and titles. Let me mention some major categories: (1) new translations and interpretations of scripture from a feminist viewpoint, e.g., Phyllis Trible's God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality; (2) the recovery of the hidden history of women's lives and contributions, e.g., Keller and Ruether's three-volume documentary history of Women and Religion in America and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's magisterial In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins; (3) works which use the principle of the full humanity of women to criticize the sexism of the traditions and to construct an alternative, e.g., Daly's Beyond God the Father (1973), Carol Ochs' Behind the Sex of God, Ruether's Sexism and God-Talk (1983), all of which demonstrate that feminist theology is not a matter of "add women and stir," but rather involves a profound rethinking of theology, its sources, method, and themes; (4) works by women who, having found Jewish and/or Christian traditions irredeemably patriarchal, are looking elsewhere, e.g., Starhawk's The Spiral Dance and Dreaming the Dark, Spetnak's The Politics of Women's Spirituality, Goldenberg's The Changing of the Gods.

Feminist theology is holistic, integrating the splits which a patriarchal culture makes between mind and body, thought, feeling, and action, spiritual and political. The new insights find expression in new forms of ritual and celebration; new ministries--women on seminary faculties, in team ministries, in political ministries aimed at changing unjust social structures; new forms of theological education, e.g., the new Women's Theological Center in Boston with its one-year integrated program toward the M.Div.; new forms of community--experiments by nuns with lay co-membership, noncanonical communities set as Sisters for Christian Service.

At the same time there is backlash from conservatives in all the traditions and at many different levels: against inclusive language, women lectors, women preachers, women seminary students and professors; reaffirmations of the banks on divorce, birth control, abortion, tubal ligation; renewed insistence on patriarchal marriage structures and widely obedience; against new lifestyles for nuns.

Religious feminists are simply drawing out the implications of affirming that women are fully adult human beings, made in the image of God. They have already demonstrated that they have rich gifts to bring to the churches. Will the churches accept these gifts?
COPYRIGHT 1984 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:religious feminists
Author:Kalven, Janet
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jul 1, 1984
Previous Article:Women's studies.
Next Article:Liberation theology in the Bible belt.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters