Liberalism as Feminist Religious Tradition: Friend or Foe? By Amy Levin
Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving – Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Whenever I find myself in conversation with a liberal skeptic who assumes that the existence of a liberal Mormon or Catholic is about as likely as aliens walking the planet, I do two things. First, I show them our blog. Second, I attempt to describe the complicated, long, and constantly evolving relationship between American liberalism, religion, and feminism. The roots of this complex triad are planted in a complicated history whereby, on the one hand, religious liberalism helped women gain equal rights and social justice, while on the other hand, it created divisions among some religious women who felt liberalism threatened their theological beliefs. Of course, the term “liberalism” is fraught with its own contemporary meanings. However, religious feminists throughout history have nevertheless engaged in practices we could place under the rubric of liberalism, including the push toward cosmopolitanism, modernism, and political progressivism. The difficulty was (and still is) maintaining their religious practices and beliefs.
In some sense, this blog is a product of the feminist theology and liberal activism of women in the 1960s and 1970s. But the roots of this liberalism date back much further. For one, women were both prominent leaders and reformers in the Spiritualist movement in the mid to late 1800s. The movement’s affinity for socially radical ideas and practices was especially attractive to women who enjoyed roles as spiritual mediums and teachers as well as women’s rights activists. Spiritualist mediumship created new spaces and opportunities for women, who began to challenge traditional religious and political authority, fighting for issues like women’s suffrage and abolitionism.
Another often forgotten religious group in this vein is the New Thought movement, popular in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. While the New Thought movement’s system of belief placed a heavy emphasis on the power of mind to transcend materiality, women in the movement, namely Mary Baker Eddy, a Christian Scientist who inspired New Thought, inverted the traditional association of men with mind and women with matter. The influential New Thought female figures argued that desire was not a mortal symptom in need of suppression, and instead offered a means to power.
It may be difficult to see remnants of the women who engaged in social progressivism or spiritual practices of the Spiritualist or New Thought movements, but there are some women whose influences we can see right in our own online feminist home. In Kathi Kern’s biography of social reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she cites Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s claim that Stanton is a “foremost foremother” of modern feminist theologians. Though it evoked extreme controversy and critique at the time of its publication, The Women’s Bible, which Stanton spearheaded, stands as one the first radical feminist interpretations of the bible.
The Spritualists, New Thought practitioners, and early creators of feminist biblical hermeneutics are just a few branches on the genealogical tree of liberal feminism in religion. But liberalism was never an easily embraced ethos of freedom and liberation, nor is it now. In fact, there are feminists today who find liberalism quite limiting in terms of religious belief and practice.
One of my favorite scholars of feminism and religion, Laura Levitt (who I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s AAR meeting), grapples with what a theoretical safe home for a Jewish feminist might look like. Levitt interrogates the limits of liberalism in several places throughout her writing, namely questioning Judith Plaskow’s feminist theology as having broader implications of liberal tolerance. For example, she argues that Plaskow’s feminist Judaism rests on a type of liberalism built on asymmetrical power structures. She claims that the liberal marriage contract as a model for God’s relationship with the Jewish people is oppressive to women and queer people. In her writings on Jewish secularism, Levitt argues that Jews who immigrated from Western and Eastern Europe were forced to assimilate in ways that made them shed aspects of their Jewish cultural identity. Jews were made to reduce their Jewishness to the terms of a Protestant notion of secularism in which Jews, like other minority religious groups, are tolerated under the rubric of religious pluralism.
I think it is important for any serious reflection of feminism and religion to take seriously both the liberating possibilities of liberalism, as well as the ideological limits it imposes. As feminists, religious or secular, we have always had to be cautious of rallying under the aegis of a shared experience, and yet our experiences of living in patriarchal cultures are what draw us together from both the left and the right. And we certainly have our modern day Cady Stanton’s, pushing the radical bar and receiving harsh backlash in this already polarized political climate. I hope that we can continue to negotiate our projects for equality, in all of its culturally lived meanings, as we evolve with and through liberal traditions.
Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.