Feminist theology seeks to speak of God without writing sexism into the sky on a divine scale.
Many Christian traditions imagine God to be male, solely because so many human societies privilege men over women. Many Christian theologies and rules grant men a fuller participation than women in the life of the church, restricting women to a lesser role. Feminist theology intentionally works against the sexism of these traditions. Some feminist theologians remain within their home traditions, seeking to change them from the inside; others either move to less sexist Christian traditions or abandon the church altogether, while continuing to write and pray and study, often creating exilic or parachurch communities among themselves.
As with many other theologians who study the use of power in society, feminist theologians argue that every theology has a gender politics, whether it is stated or not. Every piece of theological writing makes gendered assumptions. To bring gender questions into theology is nothing new.
There are many kinds of feminist theologians. They come from many countries, many languages, many classes and many ethnic backgrounds. Some hold academic posts and some focus on advocacy, and many do both. Some are strongly orthodox, endorsing all the traditional doctrines even as they re-interpret them with a feminist lens (Elizabeth Stuart, Jacquelyn Grant, Serene Jones). Some argue that sexism has twisted the traditional doctrines beyond recognition, so that feminist theology’s task is to restore the true Christian tradition (Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Mary McClintock Fulkerson). Some present the traditional doctrines using more woman-centered metaphors that may be new, or so old as to be nearly forgotten (Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague). Some find the traditional doctrines to be themselves oppressive, and seek to open up Christian practices to include more liberating practices from other traditions (Carter Heyward, Mary Daly). Some are engaged in critical dialogue with liberation theology (Elsa Tamez, Marcella Althaus-Reid). Some have gone back to Near Eastern archaeology and Biblical studies to discover an egalitarian Christian tradition that predated the sexist traditions (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, Luise Schottroff).
The intellectual history of feminist theology in the United States roughly parallels that of secular feminist thought. A First Wave emerged together with the abolitionist movement and continued through the struggle for women’s suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Seneca Falls collective produced The Woman’s Bible, a Bible with creative storytelling and scathing anti-sexist commentary, in 1895. The goals of the First Wave had mainly to do with opening up the “man’s world” to women’s participation. A Second Wave sprang from the civil rights movement, women’s discussions around abortion and contraception in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nascent gay and lesbian movement, and the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Voices from this period of the movement ranged from the relatively conservative National Organization for Women (Friedan’s organization) to radical collectives of lesbian separatists. While equality was still a goal (notably, women’s enfranchisement in the white-collar workforce) feminist thinkers, including feminist theologians, began to question more loudly the social structures themselves that in overt and subtle ways make women into second-class citizens. In the 1980s and early 1990s a Third Wave burst into life once the academic establishment was forced to recognize that white North American women cannot speak for all women everywhere. The highly influential book This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, together with the work of Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, sparked intense conversations between women of different races, cultural backgrounds, and sexualities in the United States that have transformed feminist theology. White professional women had to be educated about the vast differences in experience between women of different backgrounds; for example, poor women have always worked, and do not need to spend time fighting Feminine Mystique-style pressure to be cosseted/overworked housewives. Certain new terms were proposed by feminists of different backgrounds: “womanist” by women focused on African-American women’s experiences (“womanist” is a term from Alice Walker’s work), and “mujerista” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Cuban-American theologian. While “womanist” found more traction among theologians than “mujerista” did, many African-American women still prefer the term “feminist.” Meanwhile, today the landscape has changed, and “feminist” is no longer as white a term as it was in 1985.
Feminist theology and praxis have always gone together. It is not enough for feminist theologians to talk about changing the world; they are usually directly involved in attempts to change it. Feminist theologians work in many different arenas of advocacy, some directly focused on gender and some emphasizing other issues with a feminist critique.
Feminist theologians are often concerned about these other areas of theological discourse that relate to feminist inquiry about gender and power inequality:
- gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experiences and critiques
- colonization and post-colonial work
- the church’s response to abuse and trauma
- class inequality
- lack of communication between women of different races, languages and countries
- non-hierarchical, collective work and decision-making
A few good books for those who would like to know more about feminist theology, from a diversity of viewpoints:
Feminist Theory and Christian Theology by Serene Jones
Sexism and God-Talk by Rosemary Radford Ruether
White Woman’s Christ and Black Woman’s Jesus by Jacquelyn Grant
Journeys by Heart by Rita Nakashima Brock
In Memory of Her by Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza
Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly
Daughters of Anowa by Mercy Amba Oduyoye
Powers and Submissions by Sarah Coakley
Struggle to Be the Sun Again by Chung Hyun Kyung
Just Good Friends by Elizabeth Stuart
Fierce Tenderness by Mary Hunt
Touching Our Strength by Carter Heyward
Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible
Reformed and Feminist by Johanna Wijk-Bos
A few secular books that have had a pronounced impact on feminist theology:
This Bridge Called My Back edited by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
This introduction contributed by Heather W. Reichgott
To suggest other books, ask questions, or add your thoughts, please leave a comment below.