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-Talk, Gaia 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.