On Pronouns and Liberation in the Classroom by Ivy Helman

photoIn my introduction to Christianity class, almost every one of my students (who come from diverse religious backgrounds – primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim), continues to believe that the best image if not the only appropriate image for G-d is male.  When probed they may speak generically about G-d as genderless, an entity or spiritual presence of some kind, yet conclude by affirming their belief that G-d is male often by adding something along the lines that G-d is best described as Father.  Some go so far in these affirmations that they articulate G-d’s maleness as fact.  It never fails that every semester I struggle with how to address this basic feminist issue within the classroom.

At least as early as 1973, Mary Daly, in Beyond G-d the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, articulated the problematic basis of the relationship between gender and divine imagery.  She argues that “If G-d in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.”  In other words, if maleness is associated with divinity, then the power, domination and running of society by men seems to be divinely ordained.

To counter this underlying problem within patriarchal religious traditions, some feminist scholars have suggested balancing masculine and feminine images for G-d. This too can be problematic as the feminine sides of a given deity are often understood to be lesser.  Rosemary Radford Ruether expresses this well in Sexism and G-d-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology: “We need to go beyond the idea of a ‘feminine side’ of G-d, whether to be with the Spirit or even with the Sophia-Spirit together, and question the assumption that the highest symbol of divine sovereignty still remains exclusively masculine.”  Others, such as Sallie McFague in Models of G-d, have argued that Christianity (and other Abrahamic faiths for that matter) needs models of G-d that are free of king and judge imagery associated with “power-over” otPower, kingship, G-dhers.  At the same time, many feminist scholars, finding their received religious traditions too patriarchal to be changed, have walked out of them to make new rituals and from new communities focused on the worship of a Goddess instead.

Forty years later, I continue to encounter students who do not understand the power of language to shape our perceptions, our assumptions and our everyday lives.  In other words, these students do not understand the link between pronouns and liberation.  Most have never heard of this problematic association between gender, power and divinity nor had the opportunity within their religious educations to think about G-d outside of the proverbial male box in which patriarchal religious traditions have enclosed “Him.”  When we confine the Holy One in a box and continue to explain G-d’s power as power-over, we not only do a disservice to G-d but we are also frustrating and delaying the global liberation of women.  In addition, we are supporting patriarchal forms of domination, power and conquest that form the basis of racism, classism, heterosexism, colonialism and environmental destruction.

From a practical perspective in the classroom, I have struggled with how to introduce and foster productive conversations about the ramifications of exclusively male-gendered language for G-d.  As the professor, I conscientiously and consistently use only gender neutral language for G-d by substituting G-d for every use of a male pronoun referring to G-d in the Bible and our textbooks.  Nevertheless, from day one my students call G-d he.  I am not sure it registers that I never do.

A few years ago because of a growing frustration with the seeming lack of effect that my personal word choices had on students, I experimented for two semesters.  I confronted the issue the first week of class by introducing feminism’s critique of G-d’s maleness and asking every student to speak and write about G-d as gender neutrally as possible.  To that end, I also included a policy statement in the syllabus requiring gender inclusive language for humanity as well as G-d.  Then I went on to teach the rest of the class as I normally did with a few reminders of my inclusivity policy when it was violated.

Almost every student evaluation I received mentioned my call for inclusivity.  They believed it to be pointless, exhausting, bothersome, annoying or just plain overdone and unnecessary, even when it was clear they understood why we did it.  Most didn’t think it was that important anymore since women had made strides in so many walks of life.  Using “one” instead of “he” to represent the generic person and substituting “G-d” for “he” seemed to be just too much for them.  Even those raised Roman Catholic who understood the direct connection between gender discrimination, the priesthood and the maleness of Jesus and his disciples did not think new imagery, concepts or gender neutral language for G-d was really necessary.Priest, Male, Roman Catholic

Needless to say, as a feminist and a religious scholar who wishes to advance the liberation of humanity from all forms of oppression as well as someone who wants liberatory religious traditions for us and the planet, I was and have been extremely saddened and frustrated.  This was one of the earliest critiques of patriarchal religion by feminists, and it is nowhere near being settled or even clearly understood by many members of the next human generation.

So, I took it out of the syllabus and out of most of the class.  While I still use only gender neutral language for G-d and humanity, I save the discussion about G-d and gender for the last week of class.  By then, the students seem to have an educated enough understanding of Christianity and its history that they are able to think more open-mindedly about the use of language.  The discussions go better and the evaluations do not focus on it as a problematic or annoying issue within the class.

I’m not sure why exactly that is, but I have a few ideas.  First, leaving discussion about the gender of G-d to the last week makes it seem tangential and therefore not as important as everything else the students learned all semester.  This seems to make the topic safer to consider.  Second, I approach the conversation as a hypothetical suggestion.  I am cautious as I speak and use language in which I suggest that the students think about these critiques.  I imply that they do not have to believe them although I am clear about the fact that I do.  Finally, I have come to find that one concrete example offers them a look at the relationship between gendered ideology and power: the male-only Roman Catholic priesthood.  I layout the reasons given by the Roman Catholic Church as to why women cannot be ordained.

I believe it to be a combination of these three tactics in the classroom that facilitate a good and productive discussion about gendered imagery for the divine.  This is nowhere near perfect.  However, I figure that if I have raised the consciousness of even two students in my classroom about the relationship between power-over and  gendered language for G-d, then I have made a contribution to the advancement of feminism in religion.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Belief, Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, Feminism, Gender and Power, God-talk, Hierarchy, Naming, power, Sexism

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12 replies

  1. You must count me among those who ‘do not believe patriarchal traditions’ can be changed. But my love of Goddess isn’t only, or even primarily, about rejection of (male) God. She is, was and ever will be Her own self without reference to any other deity. So, for me and many others, Goddess isn’t just a substitute for (male) God.

    But can I make a suggestion for you teaching practice ? Just get your students to use the feminine pronoun for God in class for a whole term. Explain to them that this is a purely practical exercise to make them think about the way they use language.
    In my own experience, simply using the feminine pronoun in this way has an extraordinarily radical effect on people’s response to language, inside and outside of the class room.


  2. I understand your frustration with this issue. It is why I spent years of research and wrote both of my books, my latest being the eBook, “A Gender Neutral God/ess.” In that eBook I use the word “Deity” rather than God. I Also point out the different terminology used for the Divine Being. For Instance El (m.), Elah (f.), and Elohim (pl.) are used. Elohim, the plural, is used over 2000 times, whereas El (m.) is used about 200 times, and Elah, which is used
    100 and some times IS feminine. The word “double” is also used in describing the Deity. what is one to make of all that? And the name YHWH….the origin of it is a fascinating story
    to trace. How about the fact that in the Hebrew language (which has only two genders) first a feminine word is used as an attribute of Deity and then a masculine word is used (poetic parallelism). I explain the changes in language from the early Hebrew to the somewhat later development of the Greek. Then, what about the neuter (in Greek) descriptions in passages referring to Jesus? Also, one teaching method I found very effective was to pass out a number of different Bibles (KJV, NEB, JB, NJB, RSV, interlinears, etc.) and have each student read the same passage in their respective Bibles. Then they could see translations being altered and how the feminine was being written out. It was quite an eye opener for them.


  3. “[F]rom day one my students call G-d he. I am not sure it registers that I never do.”

    This really struck me. Around this time last year, I was investigating a new Episcopal parish and had attended a few of the Wednesday evening Eucharists. It wasn’t until I met with the priest to talk about possibly joining and he mentioned in that conversation the gender-neutral language at the Wednesday service that I even noticed that the language was gender-neutral! And the issue of gender and the Divine is an important one to me, yet because I was raised in a highly patriarchal faith, the word “God” still subconsciously registers as male to me, unless I’m making a concerted effort for it to be neuter or feminine.

    I also liked this: “When we confine the Holy One in a box and continue to explain G-d’s power as power-over, we not only do a disservice to G-d but we are also frustrating and delaying the global liberation of women.” I’ve written on my personal blog: “Polytheism may be an effective way to guard against idolatry; maintaing multiple images of God lessens the likelihood of becoming too attached to any one of those images, which are, after all, all graven, all the work of our own hands and minds.”


  4. I might suggest taking the approach, advocated by Elizabeth Johnson for example, that no single image can adequately capture all that God is, and so we should use a variety of images for and languages about God, including feminine language. Then use a mixture of genderless and gendered language in your own speech through the semester.

    This is a less threatening approach for those who are scandalized by the idea that God might not be male, and it’s grounded in a very orthodox understanding of the transcendence of God.

    I wonder what kind of results you would get if you opened the semester by stating this and proceeded to model it, and then about halfway through the semester, do something that would either encourage (extra-credit assignment) or require (required assignment, requirement for all subsequent assignments) the students to do so as well. Working the semester half-and-half like that would create an opportunity to discuss, at the end of the semester, whether their experience had been affected by the change.


  5. Thank you for this post. I am always appreciative of insights into the younger generation. Elizabeth Johnson’s work has strongly influenced my thinking about images of G-d. My particular area of interest as a writer is fostering images of G-d that are empowering to women in childbirth.


  6. Ivy —

    Like you, I used gender-neutral language in my Women’s Studies classroom (in this case language usually designating people) until I read an important study on gender-neutral language in the 1980s. The reason Leah didn’t notice that gender-neutral language was used in the Wednesday night Eucharists she attended (in the above response) is for the same reason — unless otherwise stated, people raised in a patriarchy assume that the gender-neutral term refers to a man/men. That’s why you get such headlines as “Five survivors, three of them women” — the patriarchally-acculturated assumption here is that survivors, ostensibly a gender-neutral word, are male. Or for instance, a sentence like “The workers emigrated from Ireland, leaving women and children behind.” Again the assumption is that worker — ostensibly gender-neutral — is masculine. And the worst example, in my opinion, there’s a tendency to talk about a woman as the “chair” of a department or committee, but call a man in the same position “chairman.” Since reading this study, I always say “chairwoman.”

    As a result of patriarchal conditioning (which we all have undergone), in order to underscore the presence of women in our society — something we as feminists need to do as much as possible — we need to name the feminine, name women, name Goddess in every context in which they show up. I like the idea of your students having the experience translating their masculine understanding of G-d into the feminine, just like we feminists have always had to translate for our sanity.


  7. Patricarchal conditions cannot be changed ever. Women can refuse to sit in those pews and listen to men preach. End of. Just refuse to ever listen to men do god talk at all ever. leave the patriarchs to the patriarchs, stop giving men any energy at all in these churches, no money, no time, no sitting and listening to them blather…. nothing!


  8. Clearly and cogently written. As a feminist who has thought about these issues, it is good to be reminded why pronouns matter in religion and spirituality. I am also really pleased to see that the liberation of all humanity is addressed, since before I became a feminist I thought “why is it only women who need liberating?” and as a feminist now, I still believe it is needed for the human race and for all life on Gaia. Thank you for posting.


  9. Thank you for your provocative and revealing statement. I have been going through similar machinations in my classes; writing and WOMEN WRITERS [!!!], I remind students of this Wittgensttein quote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” as well as Adrienne Rich’s essay, :”When we Dead Awaken.” Some awareness results, but this connection between language and liberation is slow going. Keep up the good work.


  10. Great post. Reminds me of a tweet I saw last year, not from a theologian or women and gender studies student, that said something like, “It’s impossible for women who refer to God as “he” to see women as equals to men.” While I disagree with her, I see how pronoun usage affects our perceptions. I think of God as spirit, but refer to God/God’s as “he/him/his.” Perhaps that’s because of how patriarchal I know the Christian faith has … become (I’m not a theologian, either, so I can’t say it inherently is). I agree with your point about king, judge and “power-over” imagery. I often see some “sides” of God that way and think of those as distinctly male attributes.

    I love June’s suggestion of having your class always refer to God using female pronouns. I bet some would outright refuse to do it.


    • Mariam, thank you for your response. When I first started using the feminine pronouns for Deity (too many years ago to count) even I (who honours Goddess above all) found it quite strange at first : but VERY empowering. It also had a radical effect on my friends and family: I would refer to deity as ‘She’ and someone would say ‘but God isn’t a woman’ to which I liked to reply ‘She is in my house!’
      The thing is, the actual use of the feminine pronoun really tests how far people really mean it when they say that Deity is equally male and female. If that is the case, one can use the feminine just as well as the masculine pronoun : apart from which, we’ve been referring to God as ‘He’ for a couple of thousand years, how about using ‘She’ for the next two thousand ?
      Many people pay lip service to the idea that God is both man and woman, but balk at the feminine pronoun.I think feminists should always refer to deity as ‘She’ just because it makes people sit up and think
      For me, of course, Deity is always ‘She’, and my children and grandchildren have grown up in that tradition, even in small, everyday things – so we say ‘Goddess bless’ if someone sneezes, and ‘night night, Goddess bless’ when we go to bed. The kids loved this when they were little, now its second nature to them



  1. Mysteria Misc. Maxima: February 22nd, 2013 « Invocatio

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