What is Feminism and Why Should We Do it? By Rosemary Radford Ruether

The following is a guest contribution by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ph.D., Professor of Feminist Theology at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont School of Theology.  She is a founding mother of the feminist theology movement and author of multiple articles and books including Sexism and God-TalkGaia and God, and Women Healing Earth.

What is Feminism and why should we do it? Is it still relevant? Is it relevant cross culturally? Feminism basically means the affirmation of the full humanity of women.  This means that all the ways women have been defined as inferior, secondary and dependent on men since the rise of Patriarchy roughly six-to ten thousand years ago are rejected. It means that women are affirmed as fully human, not partly human or complementary to the male, but with all human attributes and capacities, in relationships of both autonomy and mutually with other humans, male and female, as well as the ecosystem.

Feminism is relevant cross culturally because all known cultures presently existing have been shaped in one way or another by patriarchy, although in different ways. Thus feminism must take a vast plurality of cultural contexts and forms. What it means will be different for working class African-American women than for middle class white women; different for Jewish or for Muslim women than for Christian women. These differences do not negate one another, unless some feminists make the mistake of thinking that their feminist context is normative. Rather this diversity is precisely the wonderful richness of feminism, its capacity and necessity of being articulated in many contexts and cultural locations.

Feminism has accomplished a lot in the last hundred years since it began to reform law, culture and social relations in the late nineteenth century, but it has still only barely begun. Patriarchy is very deeply entrenched and has endless ways of reasserting its patterns of male domination, covertly and overtly. In some areas it asserts itself aggressively and violently, as in Afghanistan when women are forced to wear all-encompassing burkas, acid thrown in their face when they have uncovered heads and schools for girls are burned. In other areas such as the West women are seduced by dress and appearance to play the roles of bodily mirroring of male power. Religious is evoked to shame and enforce patriarchy; but psychiatry and biological science can also been used to claim unquestionable authorization for women’s dependency.

The accomplishments of feminism are made ephemeral. Their historical developments are eroded. Its history is not included in the collective memory of the society taught in school. Feminism has to be rediscovered and remade again and again. And yet patriarchy never fully wins because each generation of girl children is born with basic intuitions of their full humanity, their equal creative capacity, and rediscovers this in new ways.  Their mothers and fathers remember some of what was accomplished by feminism as valuable human flourishing and pass it in to daughters and sons.

Feminism is about both women and men. It affirms women’s full humanity, but it is not a putdown of men’s humanity. Rather it is a critique of patriarchy as a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men. Men are distorted by patriarchy both in being socialized into aggression, but also shamed when they seek their other creativities. Feminism critiques both distortions, and liberates men as well as women.

To ask if it is still relevant in 2011 is to have a very dim and inadequate grasp of the vastness of the feminist task, and the extent of the human history in so many different cultures around the world have been deformed and are still being deformed by patriarchy. Yet the capacity of patriarchal culture to repress the feminist questions, to shame those who ask them, to make it appear that the success of a few exceptional ruling class women have finished to work of feminism, means that it takes courage to speak up, to oppress ridicule and negation and to rethink in each different situation what needs to be done to affirm women’s full humanness in community with other women and men, here, now and in this context.

Author: Rosemary Radford Ruether

Rosemary Radford Ruether is the Carpenter Emerita Professor of Feminist Theology at Pacific School of Religion and the GTU, as well as the Georgia Harkness Emerita Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. She has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a scholar, teacher, and activist in the Roman Catholic Church, and is well known as a groundbreaking figure in Christian feminist theology. Ruether has published numerous books, including Sexism and God-Talk, In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing (ed. with Rosemary Skinner Keller), and The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Her most recent books include Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism (2008), Many Forms of Madness: A Family's Struggle with Mental Illness (2010), and Women and Redemption: A Theological History, 2nd ed. (2011).

7 thoughts on “What is Feminism and Why Should We Do it? By Rosemary Radford Ruether”

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I find myself in disbelief when people disregard feminism as no longer relevant it really makes me wonder what world they are living in. Of course, I like the way you put it of course: “To ask if it is still relevant in 2011 is to have a very dim and inadequate grasp of the vastness of the feminist task, and the extent of the human history in so many different cultures around the world have been deformed and are still being deformed by patriarchy.” Indeed!


  2. I think this is the best articulation of feminism that I have ever come across: “the affirmation of the full humanity of women.” Perfect. And it reminds me very much of the way that Margaret Farley — whom I love — speaks about feminism.


  3. In response to Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether’s statement, I want to emphasize her observation that “Feminism is about both women and men.” Historically, it is a term that arose post women’s suffrage movement, of the 1920’s, to include men who desired to be in solidarity with women on the “liberation” issue. At that time, the term also evolved to embrace a larger feminist agenda that did not focus solely on women’s equality with men. Rather, the term was broadened to include critiques of all systems of dominations, secular and religious, that inhibit the full humanity of all living bodies. Ruether asserts it nicely when she states “patriarchy [i]s a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men.” Today, Earth also needs to be part of a feminist agenda that seeks her liberation from exploitative systems, that include, but are not limited to, The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Structural Adjustment programs and the widespread negative affects of capitalism and Transnational corporations on a global level. In response to the question, “Is Feminism needed in our times?” I wholeheartedly agree with Ruether. Like toxic waste that emerges from sewage systems, patriarchy and its subsequent manifestations of domination which includes racism, sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, et. al, permeates all aspects of social life. As such, though it may be invisible, we live and breathe these exploitative systems daily. In this context, feminism is very much needed to identify the “distortions” Ruether refers to as a result of feminism advocating for the “affirmation of the full humanity” of all peoples.


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