Do White Feminists Have Ancestors? By Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Some years ago when I was speaking on ecofeminism, womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher posed a question that went something like this:  What I am missing in your presentation is reference to ancestors.  For black women, this issue is critical.

Baker-Fletcher’s question provoked a process of thinking that continues to this day.  For example, I began to notice that when black women spoke at the American Academy of Religion, they often began by thanking their foremothers Delores Williams and Katie Cannon for beginning the womanist dialogue.  It is far rarer to hear a white woman thank Valerie Saiving, Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, or Marija Gimbutas before her talk.

To the contrary, many white women take great pains to distance themselves from feminist foresisters.  I once heard a white woman Biblical scholar tell women students to do work on women in the Bible or other areas of religion without using the word feminist or placing their work in a female or feminist train of thought– if they wanted to get it published.  She was very proud that she had used this method and succeeded.  In other words, she was following in the footsteps of Mary Daly, Phyllis Trible, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza but acting as if she had invented the study of women and the Bible herself.  The reason for this, she freely admitted, was that male scholars who held power in her field would not respect her work if she used the “f” word.

I coined the term “contamination theory” to explain why white women often avoid naming their debts to feminism and feminist foremothers.  If the work of Mary Daly is being dismissed in certain academic quarters–perhaps with epithets such as “angry” or “lesbian” or “not Christian”– the woman who defends Daly or cites her work will be “contaminated” and dismissed along with Daly.  That this “contamination” is so easily transmitted from woman to woman may have something to do with the fact that religious and cultural traditions consider women “unclean” in the first place.  In other words, the young woman scholar must be very careful to assert her “cleanliness” to the male authorities.

But I think there is something else going on here as well.  White women are much more likely than black women to believe the American myth that tells us that we can and have made it “on our own.”  While black culture may tell a black woman she is standing in the shoes of Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King, a white woman is usually told that if she fails, it is her own fault, and if she succeeds, it is because of her own hard work.  Of course hard work can make a difference–and Goddess knows we have all worked hard– but it didn’t make a big enough difference in the years when women were not allowed into most universities or in the years when women were not admitted into graduate programs.  White women too are standing in the shoes of our foremothers.  It is time we learn to be grateful to those who have come before us and opened a way where there was no way for us.

In my previous blog I spoke of gift-giving, gratitude, and generosity as central values in matriarchal cultures.  In these societies the gift of life that is given to us by our mothers and Mother Earth is acknowledged every day.  It is a sad commentary on our culture that white women so often try to pretend that, like Athena, we have no mothers.

I was happy to see that in this new blog on Feminism and Religion feminist foremothers have been named and honored.

I am Carol, daughter of Mother Earth . 

For all She has given to me, I am grateful.

 I am Carol daughter of Janet, daughter of Lena, daughter of Dora, daughter of Mary from Mecklenburg, and a long line of women, whose names I do not know, stretching back to Africa.  

I am Carol daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, daughter of Jane Ellen Harrison, daughter of Gertrude Rachel Levy, daughter of Valerie Saiving, daughter of Mary Daly, daughter of Rosemary Radford Ruether, daughter of Marija Gimbutas, and a  long line of women who opened a way for me. 

I am Carol, sister to Judith Plaskow, Naomi Goldenberg, Mara Lynn Keller, Susan Griffin, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Starhawk, and a wide circle of sisters in my generation who heard me into speech.

 For all these women, known and unknown, named and unnamed, whose lives have made my life possible, I am grateful.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

20 thoughts on “Do White Feminists Have Ancestors? By Carol P. Christ”

  1. Carol, I especially love your words today. The first time I met you was in Santa Barbara at a retreat where we all recited this mantra and it was such a powerful experience for me.

    I was named after my grandmother and because of that I have always cherished my name. I have appreciated the traditions that have come from my mothers and carry on their legacies by continuing to remember them for what they have given me. But verbalizing this in the mantra made me all the more aware.

    Also, this blog could not possibly exist if it were not for the work of our foremothers – you included – and I thank you for your wisdom and for creating a path for me.


  2. Dear Carol,
    I read your blog this morning as I dragged myself out of bed and what an amazing reminder for me. Gratefulness has been a major theme in my life in the last year, and weirdly, as energies or goddess’ intentions tend to overlap, this week! One of my feminist sisters, Elisa, challenged me just two days ago to try and fight off *inertia* ;) by starting my morning writing down three things or people that I am really grateful for and meditating on that– well, I have been thinking a lot about this but not writing it, and your blog is just this amazing embodiment of how a visible naming of gratefulness is a very powerful thing. Thank you.

    Your discussion of ancestors has also made me think a lot this morning. I can get my head around being grateful and acknowledging the line of thinkers and writers who have inspired my own work, but I also struggle with the idea of my ability to call these women my ancestors… and its this idea that is really sticking in my head. I’ve been vacillating between thinking that my struggle is rooted in shame and some myth of being a ‘perfect daughter,’ wondering if it is, as you indicate, a need to stand/ define myself on my own, or because of the real fear I think many of us face of being “disowned.” (or all of the above!) … and the idea of being “disowned,” brings to question my whole way of thinking about ancestry.
    … I asked my (literal and feminist) sister April about this and she reminded me that there is a difference between acceptance, belonging or emotional connection, and kinship. I am still thinking about this: the idea that I don’t have to “belong” (again, ugh, I am struck with the language of ownership that permeates my thought around this issue) to a family in order to be (a)kin to a feminist mother or sister.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts, as they have really pushed me to think about this issue!
    On a personal note, I just wanted to say that I am grateful for the teacher/ mother you and your work have been to me personally. Thank you again.


  3. Dear Carol,
    Like Gina, I attended your retreat at La Casa and was most taken by the pulling down of our ancestors. The physical act of naming, speaking our mothers names lives with me still. While my own mother and I had a tumultuous relationship in our adult years, I have come to recognize many of her qualities within myself. By naming the women on both sides I am able to take on their defining attributes, as well as keep them alive. I am actively in the process of changing my last name to my mother’s birth name, Garrity. It is in some small way an act of gratitude and respect for a woman who empowered me to be more than what others expected me to be.

    I could not agree with you more about the nature of hiding or distancing our scholarship from an explicit feminist stance, which has been one of the clear goals of this blog. Thank you for articulating this dilemma within our academic institutions.

    In the future, when I present at conferences, I will follow your wisdom by first acknowledging and thanking my foremothers and sisters.

    Peace and again, thank you!


  4. This is a wonderful prayer that I hope to incorporate into my practice—the thanking of my biological and spiritual mothers and sisters. Thank you.


    1. Indeed! Carol–My Livingston Clan were centered where Stonehenge was built (Living-stone). They came from Scotland, Irish doctors and healers intermarried with Hungarian stone-masons. ‘You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road.’ Livingstons were gentry farmers, household servants, and later, even peacemakers and statesmen.


  5. you are right sara that “belonging” is not without its complications. many of us have not been fully accepted in our families of origin, not all of us had loving mothers, and for me the most painful was when the “sisterhood of women” in the field of religion began to define itself as the sisterhood of Christian women, leaving me (yes me!!!!) out. unfortunately, we are mothers and daughters and sisters in a world where male power distorts our bonds with each other. and yes you are right, when you hope for and expect something from other women and they put their bonds with men first, it is P A I N – F U L L ! ! !


  6. Hi All,

    As a white woman, in my experience many white women are socialized not to acknowledge their ancestry because of shame. Either shame relative to “upward mobility” assimilation needs of the family or shame over the role of whites in slavery, Jim Crow, etc. I think that this shame also impacts the phenomenon you’re discussing today.

    Growing up in the 50s and 60s in the US South (northern Virginia close to DC), I was taught to look down on “hillbillies,” gospel and country music, etc. Not until I saw the film Songcatcher (highly recommend) did I connect the dots that my mother’s paternal line (Crocketts from northeastern Tennessee) were hillbillies or more appropriately, Scots-Irish immigrants with a distinct culture that has always been denigrated in the WASP-dominated US society.

    Same with the issues of race. As my feminist stirrings began around the age of 12 and I was learning to unpack my conditioning around intersecting oppressions, I was ashamed that my family may have been slave holders, which they probably were. So I avoided the issue of ancestry altogether in my early anti-racist learning and activism.

    It was only as I entered graduate school in Women’s Studies (at 32) and began to identify with and participate in the feminist spirituality community that I was taught by other women through my reading, ritual practice and ceremony, that naming the women’s lineage to which we belong is so important for our well-being, grounding, theorizing, and spiritual/socio/political practice. I also learned about this naming of women mentors as I began my recovery from trauma and addiction in 12-Step programs, where it is normative.

    I and many women in my community have found this naming of our women’s lineage to be healing in terms of historical personal and societal experiences of exclusion and empowering for our work and lives in this patriarchal world.


  7. What a beautiful prayer! I often write about women saints, but this makes it personal. After reading this, I looked up my family tree and began my own litany: I am Kittredge, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Helen….

    Thank you!


  8. This resonated with me. I have an embroidered pillow made by my great-grandmother. I framed it and gave it to my daughter, with the words Antonia, daughter of Elizabeth, daughter of Frances, and on with our birth dates added. I am also writing a series of poems about my “mothers,” including Enheduanna, Lilith, Mary Magdalene, Sophia, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, Medusa, and others, both real women and mythical.


  9. I too found it odd that white women seemed to not name the philosophical influences on their work, scholarship and life. I’ve always felt a strong connection to most 19th century feminists… Susan B. Anthony — a favorite. But I also connect to the Amazons who defeated Caesar’s armies… to the isle of lesbos itself… of course Mary Daly… whose philosophy I use every day to defeat my patriarchal enemies in battle. Women who are afraid of the past, afraid to name the women who broke down the walls, women who were our great feminist foresisters… it’s just plain cowardice.
    When I think of how Mary Daly walked out of Harvard Memorial Chapel… well that took guts.
    She busted those Jesuit chop every day at work at Boston College, she took that lesbian double ax, and their heads rolled down the street, past Medusa, and she’s still a figure of fire. That men STILL fear her is testiment to pride I’d say.

    Any woman afraid to credit the women of the past and the pioneers is a traitor to feminism, it’s that simple!


  10. i love this line: “heard me into speech”–that speaking up is a collaborative act, requires the hearing of others, and the speaking of whomever it is that is willingly brave enough to do it. thank you for presencing the foremothers and creating a lineage ladder here.


  11. Dear Carol:
    In my case, as a midwife, it has always been second nature to think of and thank my foremothers. Perhaps this is because midwifery is a “women’s profession”, although there are a few male midwives. Right from the beginning of our educational process, we learned about those who made it possible for us to practice, not only in the U.S., but all over the world. When in ritual, I mention my lineage, I always include some of the midwives that made my vocation possible. “I am Wendy, daughter of Mary Breckenridge, daughter of Hattie Henchmeyer, daughter of Sister Theophane, daughter of Betty Lester, daughter of Molly Lee, sister of Cathy Collins Fulea, sister of Melissa Avery, Sister of Betsy Greulich, etc. This all comes so naturally. Maybe we can do this because we as women, hold the power in our profession and have never had to think or care very much about what men thought of us.

    Others, both men and women, have told us that we would be more acceptable if we did not call ourselves “midwives”, as it is a title that is less than reputable. Perhaps if we called ourselves “birth technicians” it would be more acceptable. To this, we have said “We are proud to be midwives, and have no intention of calling ourselves anything else. At the same time, however, I know many midwives, mostly younger ones who do not consider themselves to be feminists, and disavow the label, though most of these women clearly conduct themselves, think and act as feminists. As midwives, we have not let others define us or name us, but we have not had the courage as a group to claim our other title. We need to say that we are “feminists” and we are proud of it!


  12. I was thinking this post over for awhile, and realized the ancestors of white women academics are routinely mentioned in footnotes. Even Mary Daly made footnotes of conversations she had with women as source material for her books. It was an unusual move back then, and one I almost never see now.

    Nevertheless, academic publishing demands footnoting, and thus, ancestors within feminism won’t forever be lost again… one can hope anyway :-)


  13. I love this post! We’ll be talking about Mary Daly in two weeks in my Feminist Ethics class. I’ll be sure to notice whether concerns about “contagion” are present!


  14. Proving your point how white women are in denial about their own white herstory/paganism/witchcraft and recently Goddess traditions is that my Name Zsuzsanna Emese Budapest is not even mentioned. I have preceded many of these fine scholars in teaching about Europian Goddess heritage of women. I have written 11 books about this subject but never wanted to teach as a installation in a University.,(nor did they want me to)
    I am ignored.
    I am the proof of your point dear sister ,the only native goddess still alive white writer and leader is left out of your list of women you feel affinity for.
    We used to be friends, we used to share the podium,we were on panels together .
    That pesky white ‘thing” just gotten to you after all.


    1. Dear Z, I just taught one of your books in my Return of the Goddess course and frequently mention your work in my writing. I also often mention that I learned about contemporary Goddess spirituality from Starhawk and you. I also point out when I get the chance that Starhawk learned about Goddess femininism from you, even if she learned about Wicca from old Gerald Gardner. Carol


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