Liberalism as Feminist Religious Tradition: Friend or Foe? By Amy Levin

Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is movingElizabeth Cady Stanton

Whenever I find myself in conversation with a liberal skeptic who assumes that the existence of a liberal Mormon or Catholic is about as likely as aliens walking the planet, I do two things. First, I show them our blog. Second, I attempt to describe the complicated, long, and constantly evolving relationship between American liberalism, religion, and feminism. The roots of this complex triad are planted in a complicated history whereby, on the one hand, religious liberalism helped women gain equal rights and social justice, while on the other hand, it created divisions among some religious women who felt liberalism threatened their theological beliefs. Of course, the term “liberalism” is fraught with its own contemporary meanings. However, religious feminists throughout history have nevertheless engaged in practices we could place under the rubric of liberalism, including the push toward cosmopolitanism, modernism, and political progressivism. The difficulty was (and still is) maintaining their religious practices and beliefs.

In some sense, this blog is a product of the feminist theology and liberal activism of women in the 1960s and 1970s. But the roots of this liberalism date back much further. For one, women were both prominent leaders and reformers in the Spiritualist movement in the mid to late 1800s. The movement’s affinity for socially radical ideas and practices was especially attractive to women who enjoyed roles as spiritual mediums and teachers as well as women’s rights activists. Spiritualist mediumship created new spaces and opportunities for women, who  began to challenge traditional religious and political authority, fighting for issues like women’s suffrage and abolitionism.

Another often forgotten religious group in this vein is the New Thought movement, popular in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. While the New Thought movement’s system of belief placed a heavy emphasis on the power of mind to transcend materiality, women in the movement, namely Mary Baker Eddy, a Christian Scientist who inspired New Thought, inverted the traditional association of men with mind and women with matter.  The influential New Thought female figures argued that desire was not a mortal symptom in need of suppression, and instead offered a means to power.

It may be difficult to see remnants of the women who engaged in social progressivism or spiritual practices of the Spiritualist or New Thought movements, but there are some women whose influences we can see right in our own online feminist home. In Kathi Kern’s biography of social reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she cites Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s claim that Stanton is a “foremost foremother” of modern feminist theologians. Though it evoked extreme controversy and critique at the time of its publication, The Women’s Bible, which Stanton spearheaded, stands as one the first radical feminist interpretations of the bible.

The Spritualists, New Thought practitioners, and early creators of feminist biblical hermeneutics are just a few branches on the genealogical tree of liberal feminism in religion. But liberalism was never an easily embraced ethos of freedom and liberation, nor is it now. In fact, there are feminists today who find liberalism quite limiting in terms of religious belief and practice.

One of my favorite scholars of feminism and religion, Laura Levitt (who I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s AAR meeting), grapples with what a theoretical safe home for a Jewish feminist might look like. Levitt interrogates the limits of liberalism in several places throughout her writing, namely questioning Judith Plaskow’s feminist theology as having broader implications of liberal tolerance. For example, she argues that Plaskow’s feminist Judaism rests on a type of liberalism built on asymmetrical power structures. She claims that the liberal marriage contract as a model for God’s relationship with the Jewish people is oppressive to women and queer people. In her writings on Jewish secularism, Levitt argues that Jews who immigrated from Western and Eastern Europe were forced to assimilate in ways that made them shed aspects of their Jewish cultural identity. Jews were made to reduce their Jewishness to the terms of a Protestant notion of secularism in which Jews, like other minority religious groups, are tolerated under the rubric of religious pluralism.

I think it is important for any serious reflection of feminism and religion to take seriously both the liberating possibilities of liberalism, as well as the ideological limits it imposes. As feminists, religious or secular, we have always had to be cautious of rallying under the aegis of a shared experience, and yet our experiences of living in patriarchal cultures are what draw us together from both the left and the right. And we certainly have our modern day Cady Stanton’s, pushing the radical bar and receiving harsh backlash in this already polarized political climate. I hope that we can continue to negotiate our projects for equality, in all of its culturally lived meanings, as we evolve with and through liberal traditions.

Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.

14 thoughts on “Liberalism as Feminist Religious Tradition: Friend or Foe? By Amy Levin”

  1. Great post, I hope you will ponder the influence of radical feminism on 20th c. feminism in religion too. Many of us were more radical than liberal feminists. As for ECS, I was surprised that ESF claimed her, insofar as she was not Christian but Unitarian, and I (with my bias) would have thought that with her “maternal feminism” she might have been attracted to the Great Mother, had she known more about Her. ECS’s colleage, Matilda Joslyn Gage was attracted to Theosophy and Matriarchy. And no one could claim her as a Christian, even if they wanted to, which is probably why she is less well-known than ECS. My own maternal grandmother and great-grandmother were followers of Mary Baker Eddy.


    1. Thank you, as always, for such an informative and interesting reply. I think a genealogy of radical feminism, with a strong focus on religious women would be useful for me, Although, it seems that many of these foremothers didn’t see themselves as “radical” or “liberal” for that matter. It is always interesting to see who we and those around us claim as our cultural ancestors.


  2. My true faith has been for a very long time radical lesbian feminism. ECS and Matilda Joselyn Gage were NOT liberal feminists. The Women’s Bible is still considered shockingly radical even today. Just look on at the comments about that book. Many fundamentalist christian conservative women see the title “Woman’s Bible” and think it is a devotional book, then they go on Amazon to order the book and go into shock over it. This happens in 2012! Gage was so radical and visionary that Susan B. Anthony AND Elizabeth Cady Stanton effectively erased her. Mary Daly had to rediscover her feminist foresister— Daly considered the term “foremother” problematic, and preferred the more radically egalitarian term “foreSISTER.”

    I’ve never been very impressed with liberal feminism; I find it odd and naive. But I do know that people get very isolated, and even a lot of lesbians find it hard to believe that lesbians are Christians, or SHOCK even Mormons. Mary Hunt made a very funny comment years ago: “Too Christian to be a lesbian and too lesbian to be accepted by Christians, tis ever thus.” Mary, who is probably one of the wittiest of our lesbian visionaries still manages to be Catholic, but really it is her lesbian activism that most makes me love her, that and her great speeches, in which SHOCK, she actually takes real questions from the audience during the course of the speech…. something liberal feminists of a hierachical persuasion seem unable to do.

    What do liberal feminists do? They want to be part of patriarchy, only have a better job title. They often refuse to confront the global system of patriarchy SYSTEMATICALLY, and they want to bring Nigel the good man to events, when a lot of us don’t want men in the room. Liberal feminists actually are afraid of what radical feminists have to say a lot of the time, I think it might be guilt for living with the enemy, or being able to tolerate the womanhating churches to begin with.

    Radicals batter down the door, and then are thrown out in the trash as the “liberal” feminists invade the academy. Liberal feminists try to erase radical dykes, Mary Daly, and “include” male authored texts into “feminism.”

    I’d say that liberal feminists are very heteronormative assimilationist. And as Jews were forced to assimilate, liberal feminists force radical lesbian feminists to assimilate, and we won’t do it. So there will always be trouble in paradise between radical feminists and women who just want to be CEO or head of Claremont or whatever…. it’s mostly about add women and stir into jobs, rather than really change the entire world, which women, as half the population could easily do. It’s what scares the hell out of patriarchy, the knowlege of how many women there are in the world, and what the world would look like if women refused to have sex with all men, refused to produce children, and refused to live with men. Men would be left out in the cold powerless, if women really rose up everywhere. A liberal feminist who gets to be pastor of a liberal church is not changing anything. Being happily married to a man and having kids is not feminist, getting to be CEO is not feminist. It is simply accomodation.

    Can we afford to accomodate the mythology of male gods? Do women really gain from being “liberal Mormons”? Is it possible for hetero women to even comprehend this? And I think the answer here is clearly no. It is accomodation, assimilation… it is hetero tribal comfort over real change. So of course the liberals are out there. Even one of my old college chums congratulated me when Iowa passed same sex marriage. “Oh thanks, and what did you do to help in this great civil rights movment?” I asked. She thought it big of her to voice “tolerance” but she did nothing for decades as I struggled in battle after battle for lesbian freedom. She was a liberal. I don’t support marriage of any kind — hetero or gay or lesbian marriage is just patriarchy and ownership. But hey, it is liberal to support accomodation and assimilation, and to be kind, perhaps it will benefit the children of lesbians—I know “what about the children!” I must being going liberal on ya all.


  3. I agree with Carol that this is a very thoughtful post, and I also want to echo her comment about considering the distinction between liberal and radical feminism. My theology is not grounded in a liberal feminist perspective because, as Zillah Eisenstein pointed out years ago in her wonderful book The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, liberal individualism does not leave room for a full analysis of power relations or the ways in which certain groups of people have dominated others. Along with many other religious feminists, I have advocated not liberal inclusion but the *transformation* of patriarchal religious traditions. I do not see the liberal marriage contract as a model for *anything,* let alone God’s relationship to the Jewish people! (See Martha Ackelsberg’s and my “Why We’re Not Getting Married” in response to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts.)


    1. Thank you deeply for this reply. It is both enlightening and humbling. I do indeed struggle with the distinction between liberal and radical feminism, both in their abstract/discursive meanings and in their lived invocations. Thank you for clearing up my mistake, and it is refreshing to see such deep critique of liberal inclusion among both religious and non-religious feminists.


  4. I’m currently reading the writings of Mary, Lady Chudleigh (1656-1710), which mostly deal with the themes of (1) the oppressive nature of marriage, (2) the glories of reason, and (3) the cultivation of virtue. She was among a generation of English advocates of women’s equality, but who confound the narrative of liberalism being inherently progressive, insofar as they argued on Tory principles against the liberal contract theory of John Locke. More famous than Chudleigh was the philosopher Mary Astell (1666-1731). Both Chudleigh and Astell favored episcopal and royalist conceptions of the Church of England, and were wary of the non-conformists who were heirs to the legacy of the class upheaval in the era of the Commonwealth and Protectorate of the 1650s.

    I’ve always had an internal pull between a liberal and a radical political sensibility, so it’s pushing some of my boundaries to see arguments for women’s autonomy coming from a more conservative bent at a particular historical moment. But it’s still useful for getting some complexity into the Enlightenment narratives of progress, which all to often end up reproducing a white male idea of what the universal is we’re all supposedly progressing toward.


  5. The marriage model of God’s relation to “his” people, has never been liberal, whatever that means in relation to the Bible or premodern theology, it was domination with love patriarchalism, authoritarian, and sometimes violent.


  6. I agree that the idea that marriage is god’s relation to “his” people is absurd. There is nothing liberal about a modern marriage contract at all. It is grounded in the social control of women, and everytime I read the word “god” I substitute the word “men.” God is simply used as a stand in for male power enforcement, and what better way to control women than to do it through either the “kindness” model of patriarchal benevolence, but this masks it’s utter domination of women’s bodies by individual men, or the terrorist method of beating women within marriage. Domestic violence being males get to bash females in the privacy of the male castle.

    You can’t make marriage liberal at all, you simply make it less obvious as a way for men to control all women. I don’t even think the terms liberal or conservative necessarily apply. I liked the article on “Beyond Marriage” which Xochitl linked to. Women would obviously thrive in larger women’s communities that could be common place. And we need to heed the census data for a real idea of just how diverse households really are.

    I agree with Judith’s comments that there is no analysis of group power dynamics within liberalism, and that women’s subordination within marriage is considered “so natural” as to be invisible to most of the “Liberal” women within these marriages. I am always amused when straight women seem to have to “call home” to check in with their husbands, even when the husband knows the woman is out with women friends. But they all do it. I never do this, because my partnership is not about being owned. All women married to men are owned, they don’t want to face this, but men view women as property. It is not the route to freedom for women, it is just a kinder and gentler dominant system. So there really is no liberal about it. Even Susan B. Anthony understood this about marriage.

    The idea that you can reform patriarchal religions is laughable at best and downright pathetic in the amount of energy women waste on this project. HIStory reveals this nicely I think, but for women within marriages to men, hope is always springing eternal. But there is no hope in patriarchy, no freedom in male gods, and god is the man who controls the men who controls the women.


  7. Thank you for this terrific essay. I find the discussion equally fascinating and provocative. What is most striking to me is precisely how the term “liberal” is being used in this essay and in the various responses. Some use it to signify left politics, others use it as a foil for distinguishing among and between feminist positions, in most cases between a more tepid feminist stance, liberal, and various more critical feminist movements and positions. In these posts it seems, most often “liberal” is set in contrast to “radical” feminists of various stripes. Some claim radical positions to argue that liberal is only about individualism or otherwise embedded in masculinist and heteronormative discourses and practices and unable to more fully critique those oppressive structures.

    For me, liberalism is very much a part of the whole legacy of social contract theory and classic liberal political thought. This is a tradition that has been profoundly critiqued by feminist political theorists and I have been most profoundly influenced in this regard by the work of Carol Pateman. I think that it is because these ways of thinking and being in the world are so ubiquitous they are quite difficult to critique, we are formed and informed by them. This ethos of classical liberalism certainly is formative for me and explain my ongoing struggles with and critique of liberalism.

    And so, because this form of liberalism is so often simply taken for granted as somehow normal or nature or a given in American culture,defining so many of our best values–liberty, justice, democracy–it remains difficult to critique. And so I return to the central argument of this essay, the promise and dangers of classical liberalism. In such conservative times, liberalism still holds out some emancipatory promise and, it is also not nearly enough.

    I am humbled to be cited in this essay and delighted to see that these questions have generated such a lively conversation.


    1. Professor Levitt thank you for this fantastic reply! I am humbled, once again, by all of these responses, and am becoming once again reinvigorated by the promises of feminist dialogue and this blog. Thank you for these comments, and as I said in my essay, much of my thinking on liberalism is informed by your astute critiques.

      In particular, thank you for drawing attention to the way I, and other responders, are using the term liberalism. I agree that liberal ideas are so ubiquitous, that we are indeed “formed and informed by them” and thus they are that much difficult to critique. However, if we delineate “classical liberalism,” as you say, we can perhaps begin to flesh out which ways of thinking are perhaps less emancipatory than others.

      My graduate thesis is precisely on this issue of liberalism, particularly American religious liberalism and the way such theologies and cultures have been documented by scholars of American religion. I see more and more academics drawn to researching conservative religious cultures, but I think that this issue of liberalism may be one that is calling out to us for interrogation and perhaps re-cultivation.


  8. I agree that people can be religious and liberal, like the Uitarians. However, I think religion is too flawed to “save”, and believe that atheism is the true path to freedom and independence.


  9. Thank you for this great response! I am excited to hear more about your work on this topic and especially your thesis. I think you are right that there is something about attention to more conservative forms of religious expression in scholarly work, including some of the work you cite in your essay on Islam that also presume that only such forms of religious practice or expression are “really religion” and, in so doing efface, the range of ways one might be religious and, at the same, don’t allow those of us engaged with these traditions to challenge them as well. I also wanted to tell you that I believe that there is going to be panel devoted to a critical reassessment of liberalism and American religion at the AAR this year in Chicago. The session will be sponsored by the North American Religion Section! I am sure you already know Tracy Fessenden’s brilliant work (there will be an author meets critics session on her book Culture and Redemption as well.) And I thought you might already know this but it might be helpful to others as well to know about the special issue of the scholar and the feminist online that addresses issues of religion and the body. Here is a link:


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