Reformer, Revolutionary, or Rationalist? Three Types of Feminism By Kile Jones

What do Martin Luther and Mary Daly have in common? They both realized that they could not reform the Roman Catholic Church from “the inside-out.”  They came to believe that some institutions, even those dear to the heart, are not worth saving.  One of the most significant differences between Luther and Daly—aside from the obvious differences in time, culture, race, class, and sex—is that Luther’s faith in God remained intact whereas Daly’s did not.  Mary Daly, due to her positions on Catholic thought, came to represent what is now referred to as Post-Christian Feminism (or Post-Religious Feminism).  Post-Christian feminism, as seen in the writings of Mary Daly, Daphne Hampson, and Sarah Sentilles (each with differing takes), argues that there are certain incompatible values between Christianity and feminism, and as a result of this, Christian feminists ought to consider how to respond to this incompatibility.  As Rita M. Gross states in Feminism and Religion, “The most difficult question facing a feminist who discovers her traditional religion to be patriarchal and sexist is what to do next” (107).

So the question remains: should feminists reform Christianity from the Inside-out or abandon the Church altogether? 

Those who attempt to reform their religious institutions from the inside-out are innumerable.  I can think of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza as examples of “Christian feminists” who opt out of the post-Christian ideology.  These scholars are usually referred to as “Christian reformists,” since they believe that genuine reform is needed and possible.  Ruether is fine with women leaving the Catholic Church because they want to be ordained through some other denomination, but regarding herself she says, “I am very committed to keeping or trying to support the continuance of progressive perspectives in Catholicism.”

Fiorenza also calls for great change to occur within the Church.  One of Fiorenza’s bold proposals is: “organize to take over the only democratic office in the Roman Catholic Church: the College of Cardinals.” Both Ruether and Fiorenza would agree with many of the critiques posed by post-Christian feminists, but the manner in which Ruether and Fiorenza choose to respond is quite different.

Rita Gross points out how both Mary Daly and Carol P. Christ differ from the “reformists.”  She says,

Their works are especially valuable because each began as a radical reformer, publishing important books and essays in which they hoped to make sense of biblical religions and to call them away from their sexism.  Eventually each became convinced that this effort would fail because patriarchy is too integral to the outlook of those religions (Feminism and Religion, 147).

Gross avoids the question over who is correct, the reformists or the revolutionaries, by pointing out both want patriarchal religion to change, and although there may be some principled differences between them, they share many of the same goals.

One of my liberal Catholic friends once compared the Church to a family.  He said, “Just because your family has problems doesn’t mean you should abandon them.”  I thought about this for a while, considering its merits, and finally got up the courage to ask, “What if your family is abusive?”  I knew at this point we would ultimately disagree, but at least the point became obvious.  We had different takes on the negative vs. positive impact that the Roman Catholic Church has on the world.  We also had different criteria for what “abusive” means.

Another problem I had with the “family analogy” (we can call it the prosapia analogy) is that, to the average Catholic, the Magisterium, the Episcopacy, the College of Cardinals, and the Roman Curia are generally more distant than the individual’s own family (You may be able to call the authorities to report abuse by a family member, but try getting the Pope arrested!).  Certainly it is easier to hold your family accountable than an institution as large as the Roman Catholic Church.  Despite these differences, I felt I understood the overall point of his analogy: we may be “born into” structures (e.g. the Church, the State, and humanity) that have oppressive tendencies, but we have a responsibility to reform these structures from the inside out.

Finally, there is a third category understood as “secular feminists” who find principled objections to the content of religious symbolism and the ways in which institutionalized religion has translated them into practice.  The works of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Ophelia Benson are just a few examples of this type of feminism. These feminists think that organized religion not only promotes sexism and patriarchy, but that the “spiritual” or “mystical” beliefs espoused by these institutions serve to keep women in a state of permanent subjugation.  Although critical of “spiritual” beliefs, it can be said with some confidence that the primary target of their frustrations is organized religion.  Ali, primarily known for her strong criticisms of Islam, expresses her views quite clearly: “A woman’s lack of social equality and freedom is a direct consequence of the teachings of Islam.” Gaylor, the co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, unabashedly asserts that, “Organized religion always has been and remains the greatest enemy of women’s rights.

While sorting out one’s own views on which method is best, one has to keep a few questions in mind.  First, does Christianity have an essentially misogynistic core?  Can Christianity be Christianity without its patriarchal characters (e.g. the Trinity, or as Mary Daly refers to them, “the Supreme All Male Cast”)?  Second, is the institutional character of Christianity worth saving?  Finally, which method is most likely to bring about genuine change for women?  To answer these questions is to answer the main question of this article: reformer, revolutionary, or rationalist?

Although I agree with the rationalist and revolutionary over the reformer, I applaud much of the work done by women to change the misogynistic tones of their religion.  I cannot help but find it hard to believe that Christianity can eventually be morphed into something non-patriarchal.  If one were to act like Thomas Jefferson and cut out all of the misogynistic passages in the biblical text, I believe we would have a very small bible!  If somebody started a tradition based on this new bible I would be less averse to it than to traditional Christianity.  This, of course, is highly unlikely, and is the reason I choose to promote the social critiques of the revolutionary and the logical critiques of the rationalist.

Kile Jones is a Ph.D. in Religion student at Claremont Lincoln University working on the intersections between secularism, atheism, and religious belief.

Categories: Feminism

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9 replies

  1. Thanks for the interesting reflections, Kile.

    I think Mary Daly would have disagreed with you that she “lost” her faith in God. Perhaps what you mean is that Luther remained a Christian and she did not? As a Catholic she studied Being and as a post-Christian, she never wavered in her understanding that Be-ing as Verb is the groung of our be-ing, also a verb. I would think she would have said that she continued to seek the truth of Be-ing and our relationshipship to Be-ing all her life. She no longer believed that the truth of Be-ing was to be found in the Bible or the cannon law, but she certainly always believed that we are grounded in a power greater than ourselves.


  2. Small corrections needed here, Martin Luther King was not Catholic and did not seek to reform a single church, rather society at large. Also, a difference in “culture” is hard to see here, both figures were part of and extracted from a midcentury American cultural worldview. The intro needs to be tweaked just a bit.


  3. Carol P. Christ: Thanks for your comments. By “faith in God” I meant to indicate faith in some kind of “orthodox” understanding of God. Thanks for helping me clarify.

    Maat: I am talking about Martin Luther (95 Thesis), not Martin Luther King Jr.



  4. Nicely done, Kile. Proud to be in conversation with you.


  5. Leanne: Thanks! You as well.


  6. I think Mary Daly just out grew god, and Martin Luther really opposed the catholic church and all its abuses of power. I don’t believe Luther was troubled by a male god, and the protestant reformation he launched played right into the witchcraze and the burning times. Male reformers or periods of male upheaval often backfire on women… the renaissance brought on more witchburning, the printing press produced The Hammer of the Witches right after the bible.

    Daly saw beyond god the father, and realized there really is no reforming any churches or male secular creeds like Jungianism, Marxism or even Capitalism. I think Daly’s sense of wonder at the natural world and her unfailing honesty make her discoveries so much more powerful than Luther’s objection to catholicism… he just wanted different men running the bible show of that era.

    Really what I see is women not going far enough, and still getting stuck in patriarchal churches
    And reading this blog, a lot of it is simply job related…. getting the religion degree or ordained, and then teaching within patriarchy. But it’s not breaking free it is just settling into heteronormative dulling women’s roles…. not the revolution in thought that Daly described.

    In a way, it’s just conservative choices within patriarchy, and it is a false belief that women who read sacred male written texts will be free… the bible is male authored…. you can’t use it to end patriarchy. Daly thought it was boring, but she did love intellectual greatness, and pirating male theologians and thinkers to pirate the stolen women’s worlds to get radical knowledge back to women.

    Women can believe this stuff can be reformed,but it ends up being just a job choice. Even Mary Daly was never able to found a woman’s university… even she couldn’t escape acadamentia…in the end she wanted women to form hedge schools outside the academy. I think it all depends on what kind of compromises you want to make. Marry a man, have kids, make less money, teach patriarchy… hey it’s a choice but it is not feminism, it is accomodating to male supremacy and pretending this too is reform….

    Daly’s belief in women and her total devotion to women’s capacites was amazing… and for a woman who could commune with chimps in a zoo or hear a clover leaf or a hedge speak to her… well that is true belief in the connection of all things/beings. She makes the Luthers of the world look dull by comparison. She questioned every word… so faith god spirituality…. none of those words were good enough…. because they were tainted with patriarchal mindbindings. She spoke to her tribe, and we all loved her for it!!


  7. Kile – I’m totally delighted by this post. It’s thoughtful, well-written, and shows that you are growing to understand the literature in this field. I am so glad you are integrating feminist thought in your work!

    A few things that might also help you complicate your typology and narrative:

    (1) Luther was not a revolutionary (at the beginning at least), he was absolutely a reformer but, as you know, the church “quit” him just as much as he “quit” the church

    (2) I sense some ambivalence about what your post is about – is it about the possibility for Christianity (with a capital C) to abandon its patriarchal vestiges or the possibility for the Roman Catholic church to do the same? The two, as you know, are not identical and many would argue that some Protestant denominations have gone much further in pursuing feminist ends than either others or the Catholic Church.

    (3) Re: the Bible; are the only options open for feminists to leave the Bible as it is or cut out the “texts of terror”? Perhaps a more sophisticated hermeneutic would see that there are plenty of more options, reading texts in their proper historical and cultural context, recognizing that Christian theology and ethics have MORE sources than just the Bible, etc.

    Still, great work!


  8. Turtle Woman: Good points.

    Dr. Kao: Thank you for your comments and support. You have played a large role in encouraging me to grapple with some of these issues. For that, I am most appreciative. I agree with (1). Regarding (2): It is about Christianity in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. I have to mull over (3) for a while. Thanks for bringing up these good points.



  1. Feminism and Religion: Where Do I Stand? by Kile Jones « Feminism and Religion

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