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.