When Feminists Disagree by Linn Marie Tonstad


Linn Marie TonstadA while back I gave a talk on feminist trinitarian theology to an audience of mostly progressive academics, including feminist and womanist scholars of religion. In the course of analyzing what I called the ‘trinitarian imaginary’ in Christianity and its often-patriarchal and masculinist forms, I suggested that transforming that imaginary might require recognizing the hypothetical character of theological statements until the eschaton, a theme that has been developed in depth by a German theologian named Wolfhart Pannenberg. Now, Pannenberg is decidedly neither a feminist nor a progressive theologian. To name just one example: in his three-volume Systematic Theology, his few explicit references to feminist or female theologians include a brief mention of Mary Daly (volume 1, p. 262) in connection with a critique of feminist theologians for projecting (!) masculinity into God in their readings of divine fatherhood, and a critique of Valerie Saiving and Susan Nelson Dunfee’s positions on the traditional Christian doctrine of sin as pride (volume 2, p. 243). So when I mentioned Pannenberg as a resource in my talk, one of the feminist scholars in the audience audibly gasped and flinched – it became clear in the Q&A that she had significant concerns about whether I could count as a feminist at all. After all, to mine someone like Pannenberg for constructive feminist theological work might imply an endorsement of his other positions, or might entail taking over aspects of his system that would taint my own project in anti-feminist directions – all legitimate concerns. 

Disagreement among feminists and womanists is often incredibly painful. When allies disagree with one another, it can feel like someone is being “bad for the cause.” The history of the relationship between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly, and its public representation, is just one example of the wounds that have marked feminist and womanist theological circles. Feminist and womanist theologians disagree about theological method, about faith, about the possibility of de-patriarchalizing Christianity, about the value of trying to do so, about whether and how Christian themes can or do support feminist ends, and so on – and that’s just focusing on feminist and womanist theologians who have some relationship to Christianity; many, of course, do not. In my own theological work, I value aspects of Christian traditions that many find oppressive and off-putting – divine transcendence, for instance. I am also more skeptical than some about the power of revisioning God in maternal terms as a counterbalance to the heavy weight of divine fatherhood. And I probably ought not even to start on my rant about why the Holy Spirit should not be envisioned as feminine – as so often, Mary Daly said it better than I ever could (“You’re included under the Holy Spirit. He’s feminine!” Gyn/Ecology, p. 38).

In my teaching, I try to present a diversity of feminist, womanist, queer, and “embarrassed et cetera” theological positions, rather than having ‘the’ feminist or ‘the’ womanist voice on my syllabus. This can help students think about the advantages and disadvantages of different arguments and about the positions regarding God, the world, theological method, human flourishing and political ends that generate such disagreements among feminist and womanist thinkers. I want to give students the resources to develop their own constructive theological positions rather than encouraging them to share the positions to which I have come, and it is extremely important for students to recognize that there is no such thing as ‘the’ feminist position on most issues. But I also teach non-feminist, and even anti-feminist, theologians – pope-now-emeritus Benedict XVI being one such. I want students to see the power of the theological logics of his positions on issues where I think he comes to deeply mistaken conclusions – gender, sexuality, and authority being only a few of them. But I don’t teach him as an antagonist or a target. I want students to learn what his positions are so that they can evaluate them for themselves and not simply accede to my assessment; that too is a feminist principle of teaching, in my view.

Some will disagree. So what do we do then? Do we transform the discussion into a question of what counts as ‘real’ feminism, and where that boundary should be drawn? (I myself draw it at ‘choice-consumer’ feminism; how about you?) Do we try to convince each other of the correctness of our views? Can anti-feminist tools ever be used for feminist ends? (Yes, I was teaching Audre Lorde’s essay a couple weeks ago.) We will all fail at achieving feminist perfection (!) in many areas of our lives, personally and professionally, and as feminists it is also part of our task to call each other to account for such failures. But the question becomes particularly pressing when I view as a strength what another views as a failure. In the example with which I began, another feminist scholar thought that engaging someone like Pannenberg positively, even though I had explicitly critiqued him earlier in the same talk, had the potential to undermine the feminism of my constructive theological project. In my view, elements of ‘classical’ or non-feminist Christian discourses can be powerful resources for feminist theology, resources that we have yet to mine with sufficient depth. What do you think? Let’s get this disagreement started!

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is a constructive theologian working at the intersection of systematic theology with feminist and queer theology and theory. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally entitled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology. 



Categories: Academy, Belief, Black Feminism, Christianity, Feminism, Feminist Theology, God, God-talk, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Mary Daly, Theology, Womanist Theology

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29 replies

  1. And I probably ought not even to start on my rant about why the Holy Spirit should not be envisioned as feminine – as so often, Mary Daly said it better than I ever could (“You’re included under the Holy Spirit. He’s feminine!” Gyn/Ecology, p. 38).

    It seems to me that you are quoting Daly in favor of a position she would never have endorsed here–a defense of the Trinity and (I am not sure where you are going with this) what may be a defense of a Trinity spoken of with male-gendered language. Daly’s point was that because the Trinity would always be understood as male, the Trinity should be rejected by feminists. Her point was that making the HS female would not be enough to create a sex change on a God whose first 2 persons were so clearly understood to be male.

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    • Carol, I am endorsing Daly’s position. I’m not sure what about my post would have given you the impression that I would want to defend an all-male trinity when I take aim at it in the second sentence! My target was those who claim that feminizing the Holy Spirit will be enough to undo divine masculinity – a position that I encounter with great frequency.

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      • I think the female trinity of “Maiden-Mother-Crone” makes a whole lot more sense.

        Sent from my iPhone

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      • Sorry! That was not clear to me, glad to hear more about your position. It was the dismissal of maternal imagery for God along with the dismissal of a female HS that gave me the wrong idea.

        In writing my new book with Judith Plaskow on Goddess and God it has become clear to me that I have never been a Trinitarian–not even during my Christian years. I was always a radical monotheist. Currently I describe my postion as immanental or panentheistic inclusive monotheism.

        Will be interested to hear more of your ideas.

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  2. I don’t call myself a feminist. My aims are all about a balance between the two poles, male and female and a realization of the equal validity of all of the gender variations in between those poles. I understand the biblical material as a dialog over the millennia about these issues. So, let the dialog continue…..

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    • I call myself a feminist and define it by saying that — as a bottom line — a feminist is someone who believes that women should be seen as equal with men, but within patriarchy they aren’t. I believe that it’s very important for people who want that kind of change in our society to call themselves feminist, because that underscores the direction in which change needs to occur, namely by elevating women to equality.

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    • I would you say you are actually a feminist, not all feminists are radical, most actually do not want women to be superior than men – they only want equality – sadly people think we have already achieved that and we really haven’t. Let alone women in the Global South where exploitation, oppression and physical bodily harm at the hands of men is a daily occurrence.

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  3. Male and Female delineation is only at this realm of existence on theplanet Earth. Once transcended there is no male or female differentiation just love energy (God, Yahweh, Great Spirt) which we, mere mortals, try to make into our image rather than us letting go of our gender personhood and becoming genderless Spirit/God/Yahweh filled. Only the second ‘person’ of the Trinity has an established gender and Jesus never touted his gender as anything more or better than female. His inclusivity is what made his ministry divine.

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  4. Let’s just put the trinity aside. Whether it’s all male or all female, it’s inadequate. The true pattern is fourfold. We have four seasons, four tarot suits, four of many things. Robert Graves more or less invented Maiden-Mother-Crone in his 1948 book, The White Goddess. My friend Donna Henes and I created a new pattern, and she wrote a book about it. Maiden-Mother-Queen-Crone. There’s an analogous male pattern, too, but I can’t remember it right now. Men know who their mothers are. Even the pope had a mother. Fathers weren’t particularly important until the patriarchy arose and men had to have sons to leave their property to.

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  5. Appreciate your naming of this issue! I encounter it regularly.

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  6. It’s interesting that you’ve included “womanist” in your comments, in addition to “feminist,” and I think any woman of color would be pleased. But in addition, womanism, as a movement, is very much keyed to your concerns here. It absolutely begs for difference, that is, that we each retain our own vision and unique approaches to religious beliefs, rather than align ourselves with established, ecclesiastical structures, because they are so routinely and unapologetically exclusive.

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  7. Marie —

    I believe you have outlined the horns of the dilemma quite well. On one hand, we feminist professors/teachers, can teach “value-free” and leave it up to our students to decide for themselves or on the other hand, we can teach them our perspectives on feminism. When I taught upper-level courses in the Women’s Studies Program at the UW-Madison, in many ways I would take the first course, because my students already had the tools to decide for themselves exactly what their feminism entailed (but I also told them my perspective when asked). But after many years of teaching those types of courses, I taught the intro course and realized that I had a responsibility to give my students feminist tools. That made for a very different classroom. My question to you is what kind of students you are teaching? If the former, then your decentered, “value-free” approach is probably appropriate. But if your students are new to feminism, then I think you need to give them the tools to understand their lives in this patriarchal society.

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  8. Mary Daly was a strong advocate for reading enemy texts, and becoming a pirate to steal back that which was stolen from women in the first place. It is essential for feminist to know exactly what patriarchal enemies write, and how they reason. So I don’t see that there is an issue with having students read Benedict or other male supremacist theologians. Mary Daly had one of the finest philosophical and theological educations on earth, and look what she did with this information.

    The point really is in understanding the complexity of feminism, and creating tools for genuine women’s revolution.

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  9. That said above, I feel I got enough of a male based education to now move on, so I no longer read much of what men say at all religiously or otherwise. I certainly don’t think men have much place in feminist revolution, because I don’t want equality with men, I want women’s liberation, women’s freedom, and that social structure has nothing to do with what men have creatived in modern capitalism or religion.

    Liberal feminists might want this “equality” thing, but I am a radical lesbian feminist, I don’t live with men or love them, so there is little conflict for me.

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    • I also identify as a radical lesbian feminist, but I’ve been married twice (slow learner) and have two grown children, so my perspective is a bit different, and I do wonder how you feel/felt about your father. It’s hard to live in a world that contains men and not have to interact with them in some way.

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    • I’m fairly new to feminism and literally still unlearning a lifetime’s worth of indoctrination. What I like about this comment is the ability to live in this world a person in her own right.

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  10. Sorry for the multiple posts here, my computer is acting up.
    There will be feminist disagreement and a lot of it revolves around varying degrees of conflict of interest. Women who are married to men and have boys are going to get defensive over my desire to have as much male free space as I can get globally, for example. Women who work in the church are going to be uncomfortable with women who see this as a kind of treason. So there will be difficulties, and there will be conflicts between on the ground activists vs. academics.

    But we do need to know what men are saying about women, what lies they have created, and what damage they have done to women. The lies are huge, and men once tried to prevent women from even getting an education, so they could slander us for centuries, and we’d never know what they were up to. Conflict within feminism is inevitable, and each feminist position has value in and of itself. We each need to have the space to become free in our own way, and I think full disclosure about our conflicts of interest would be good overall. Mary Daly is the gold standard for me, because…. because because because because… singing :-)

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    • I agree. As the mother of a son, I have to try to keep in check my otherwise tend-to-get-out-of-control emotions about the patriarchy and my occasional desire to send all men to another planet. A few years ago I asked a male professor of religion what he thought were the sources of the male power-over paradigm, and he indicated that it might have something to do with the way mothers raised their sons. Interesting, I thought – how it’s always the woman’s fault! I do wonder sometimes whether men’s incredibly powerful need to subjugate women is based on a subconscious fear of women’s power (and their envy of women’s ability to create/give birth to/nurse something as momentous as a CHILD). And all men were once little boys who had big mothers who said “no” to them on occasion. Maybe some of them never want to feel that vulnerable again.

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  11. Katherine– interesting ideas. It’s hard to say exactly what happened to create patriarchy in the first place, because it is so hard to even find out what women were like thousands of years ago. We have so few writing of women of that time to begin with. Mothers of course get blamed for everything; that is patriarchy. Mothers will be blamed for the atrocious behavior of men–hey boys resented Mom telling them what to do etc. etc. Everytime I see young men getting into trouble– beating up other men, raping girls, shooting up school yards, I see the fathers disappear

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  12. The fathers are not there in court when little Johnny gets hauled before the judge for beating a man in a public place– it a row of female relatives, with the mother crying, no male relatives in sight.
    And on it goes. The fathers know how to pull the puppet strings, know how to hide their power, and that is patriarchy, its invisibility to most people male or female.

    Katherine, I actually find it quite easy not to interact with men

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    • I’ve also created a man-free space as much as I could. Even my cat is female. A married friend is soon going to be told to come and visit on her own. I do have male friends but they will enter my door only on my invitation as and when it suits me.

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  13. I don’t have kids, never was married to men, never had any reason to want this. So I don’t really get later in life lesbians at all, and think you might have a lot of hetero baggage, but I just don’t think it is a valuable use of my time to deal with men if I can help it, since I so dearly love women’s space where we have plenty of time to develop our ideas, our ideologies, our sense of power free of the male gaze. There are plenty of women out there who can placate the men or want dialogue with them. Fine, but to me, I want women to have as much time to b

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  14. build feminist revolution, the way men had centuries to be in male only groups– universities, the priesthood, congress, the supreme court–they’ve had centuries of male only space, and I want women to be serious with each other, and to say what it is we want and actually get it. Men to me are a waste of ideological time, but again, there are plenty of women out there who have conflict of interest–they believe that equality is possible or that men are capable of it; they are not. So we need to have the knowledge, and young people in college today can learn about different forms of feminism, and have feminist confli cts and arguments. I favor separatism because it is exciting for me to not have to deal with any children or male distractions.

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  15. A lifelong lesbian is different, we have resisted patriarchy in a unique and powerful way. We don’t have to compromise the way women who ave been married to men have to. We don’t produce future rapists, and that’s what having boys does. Hey I don’t have the answer, I just say what women are doing now is not working, and that we do need to have feminist discussion and disagreement, and know that each of us brings something special to the table. Just don’t ask me to have to deal with males ever within feminist situations, and don’t subject me to boys. I want my space competely free in this way. The liberals

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  16. can share and compromise, and I’m fine with that. But do respect the lesbian who have a dynamic passion for women, and have a vision all our own, and that needs to be celebrated in the academy as well. The fact that it rarely is is suspect, and perhaps hetero women just are afraid and need the privileged position to bring boys in the door etc. But really, is it working? And I say what we are doing now is not stopping male violence or hatred of women—men are escalating the conflict in a big way, and we need to know this.

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  17. I do respect women who are constituted such that they have no need for men, nor do they want anything to do with them. However, I’d like to point out that men are human beings too, not all of them have patriarchal tendencies, some of them are actually decent and even fun to be with :-) Do we have to be such radical feminists that we totally condem all males? Extreme matriarchal tendencies are just the flip side of patriarchal tendencies. Being assertive in achieving a status of equally validity is different from condemning all men. And on a question of semantics, I say that I want Equal Validity, not Equality, I.e. what I do or am or accomplish may be different from what a male does but it is equally valid (I do the investing and take care of the finances; my husband shovels the snow, builds the fire, and sees that the toilet is repaired. Who is more valid? Or?)

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  18. And by the way, he is an extremely good wood sculptor….and yes I’m a very good watercolor artist….and no, I don’t want to be ‘equal’ to him as a wood sculptor….nor do I wish to be as equal cleaning toilets.:-)

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  19. Like Nancy Vedder-Shults I think it is really important that we call ourselves “feminists” for the reason she describes: it announces our expectation of equality as a starting point for discussion. I also identify with and appreciate Linn Marie Tonstad’s nuanced approach…like her, I value many aspects of Christian tradition and thought and don’t my feminism should lead to automatic forfeiture of what I value about that tradition. She walks delicately through difficult terain

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  20. I’m celebrating the freedom I have within a woman only context. I don’t want to deal with men unless I am absolutely trapped with them. I celebrate the choice of radical lesbians to be in these spaces free of the oppressor. We need to celebrate the radical power of women, and not erase it from the discussion of feminism. Liberal feminism is liberal for a reason, we radical women who want male free worlds don’t see the point of it. Men aren’t going to change, and half the world’s population could end their reign of terror. It would be pretty easy, but it is a threatening idea for women who are in a personal conflict of interest situation. If you are married to a man who shovels your snow well and good. I prefer to shovel my own snow, and be in a world free of rape, porn and aggression… if there are no men, there are no rapists in the room. It is a celebration of how far women can come if we focus 100% of our attention on each other, and the right of great numbers of us to just say no to reform, and yes to radical visionary space. Men can go off and reform themselves.

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