Feminism and My Existentialist Leanings by Xochitl Alvizo


In light of so much destruction in our world – from the violence inside individual homes to beyond and between national borders – how is it still possible to hope for and to live toward a vision of beauty and peace for the world?

It was at a community college in LA in my Psychology 4 class that I first formally encountered existentialism. When it came to the time of the semester to teach on that topic, our professor, Eric Fiazi, came alive in a new way, energetically teaching us about existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre. Professor Fiazi dramatically gestured and sketched on the board as he explained the concept of ‘nothingness’ and Sartre’s well-known proposition that “existence precedes essence.”  Teaching psychology was for him a means of teaching what he truly loved, art and existentialism. He believed these subjects helped expand students’ horizons and helped make them happy and productive members of society. And so these class sessions were his favorite to teach – and mine to experience. Immediately, I was hooked.

I remember the moment he hit the chalk to the board – leaving a speck of a mark – telling us that the tiny little mark left on the great wide chalkboard was like our galaxy, tiny  against the great vastness of the universe; the earth, a particle of chalk-dust in comparison, and our individual lives, imperceptible in its midst (it now reminds me of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot monologue). Engaging the students, he countered each one of their assertions that humans indeed have an essence, a meaning. “Humans are good by nature” – “Humans are inherently selfish beings” – “Humans are created in the image of god” – “We are each created for a purpose”; for each of these he gave a clear and logical retort. I was fascinated! What would it mean to live a life with no inherent meaning – with no essence to determine or guide our existence? How might it be different to live my life stripped of any assumed or inherited sense of meaning or purpose – to instead give these up and start from a presupposition of nothingness?

Credit: NASA JPL

Credit: NASA JPL

These new thoughts were in no way anxiety producing for me; it all felt liberating and exhilarating. The world was wide open and the possibilities endless! But my comfort with these are not surprising – I grew up with a dad that didn’t accept apologies, they just weren’t necessary for him – in his eyes what mattered was that we learned from our mistakes and made better choices as a result. Nothing was insurmountable; we always had the possibility to learn, to change, to do differently, and were expected to do so – it was a matter of perspective and approach. At the time, in class with Professor Fiazi, I didn’t make the connection, but eventually I realized that existentialism was the formal philosophy that was informally at play in my home. And later, I also came to realize that existentialism makes an excellent partner to feminism.

One of the things I love about feminisms is the visions it offers for a better, more just and beautiful world. It’s actually what I also love about Christianity and the good news Jesus lived out and embodied in community with his friends and followers – but that’s another post for another day.  Feminism invites and inspires us to live outside the hierarchical and patriarchal norms that dominate our world and live in ways that counter its exploitative and oppressive habits. It instead calls us to participate in creating a world that flourishes, a world that is just and beautiful, and that values and honors all human beings equally, as well as the earth and all its creatures. Some find this vision delusional, or even unnecessary, countering that it is an impossible dream, that to live and work for such a vision in the world, or in the church, is wasted energy. Carol Christ has beautifully responded to such sentiments and affirmed her insistence to dream, and live, and be crazy with hope for a different world. And I am with her, for the world is not just what we have; the world is what we make of it.

In light of so much destruction in our world – from the violence inside individual homes to beyond and between national borders, from the exploitation and rampant capitalism that tramples the many and privileges the few, to the devastation of the earth and the exploitation of animals, as well as the detrimental contribution religions have too often made to these – how is it still possible to hope for and to live toward a vision of beauty and peace for the world?

Quoting from Sandra Lee Bartky, one of the things Carol Adams often says about feminism is that feminists don’t see different things, but they see the same things differently – feminist consciousness turns a fact into a contradiction. Feminist consciousness sees what is and affirms that it can be otherwise, it takes what is ‘fact’ and sees it anew. For Carol this can be practiced in every single meal we eat, which is why veganism is a spiritual practice to her. She explains:

The outer world is often one of suffering, exploitation, and thoughtlessness. As an individual, that world alarms me. As an activist, I challenge it. As a vegetarian, I know that with each meal I reject that world, and instead create a sanctuary that supports my sense that the world can be otherwise – loving, thoughtful, and nonviolent.

earth_day_Feminisms and existentialism together point us in new directions. They affirm that the world can be otherwise because we can be otherwise – starting with our small daily practices. They help free us from the influence and power of scripts and norms that would strap us down and conform us to the status quo. They free us from forces that are at work to convince us to play our part in the world as it is and to believe it is within our nature, our essence, to do so.  But a feminist existentialist consciousness frees us to see the world as it can be, to see that we, and our world, are in our own hands. It enables that which seems to be fact to become the contradiction that no longer allows us to play along. Feminism with existentialist leanings is Mary Daly’s Courage to Live – “the Courage to refuse inclusion in the State of the Living Dead, to break out from the deadforms of archetypal deadtime, to take the leap after leap of Living Faith”! (Wickedary, 69).

If existentialism’s ‘nothingness’ core is a cause of anxiety for you, as it is for some of my friends, it can be tempered by process metaphysics’ affirmation that the nature of reality is one of process and inextricable relationality. There is responsibility that comes with relationship and with the Courage to Be. The pale blue dot* we live in might be just a mote of dust, but it is our mote of dust, the only home we’ve ever known – we make it what it is. And it, and we, can be otherwise!

* I thank my friend Alex for introducing me to the ‘pale blue dot’ – thank you friend! 

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters.

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Categories: Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, Feminist Theology, God-talk, Mary Daly, Relationality, Resistance, Violence

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10 replies

  1. love it…you are such a great writer :)

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  2. You raise such profound issues here. I too was inspired by existentialism–even though I doubt I understood the metaphysical issues at stake. I was also inspired by Michael Novak’s The Experience of Nothingness (as was Daly) to see the connections between the RC mystical tradition and existentialism and like her made the connections to feminism. I part company as I suspect you do as well with Sartre in viewing the cup of life that ends in death to be full rather than empty. Yes, the structures that we have been taught are “real” may not be “real,” but on the other hand, I do not find a life that ends in death to be a cause for “nausea,” and though I fight like hell against unjust structures, I also experience “delight” and “joy” in the world in relationships with others, human and other than human, even though we all will die some day. Love your post.

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    • Yes, indeed, I agree with you. And I think that in some ways Sartre would agree with you also. I haven’t read him talking about joy and delight, which would only make his work that much more appealing for sure! but he did often affirm existentialism’s optimism; optimistic because it is based on an ‘ethic of action and self-commitment’ – action and commitment to make real the world we desire, that we think is of higher value. I think Mary really liked this part of existentialism too – so much of what she writes is about the Courage to choose – choose to leave patriarchy, choose to Leap, to Love, to Be-friend, to Be…Ah, this stuff makes me happy!

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  3. Beautiful! A lovely beginning to this day, to more life!

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  4. Brava! I learned about existentialism (while Sartre and de Beauvoir were still alive) in college theatre classes when we were introduced to the plays of Beckett and Albee and the theatre of the absurd. Which seems to be “about” different kinds of worlds. Makes me wonder if there are any absurd feminists. Or feminine absurdists. Oh, well, it’s early in the morning here in SoCal.

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    • Thanks Barbara. And at least in regard to the ‘lighter’ and more fun side of the absurd, I think you yourself help bring us fun and comical expressions of feminism – which are necessary and wonderfully meaningful!

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  5. Xochitl — I really enjoyed your post. Yours is certainly a different take on existentialism than mine was. I read some Sartre as an undergrad and every single piece that Samuel Beckett wrote as a 25-year-old graduate student. When I was done, I decided I never wanted to have a thing to do with Beckett or existentialism again. Of course, Beckett goes another step further towards the absurdity of life than Sartre does, but still…Most of the time, I don’t feel my life is absurd. But with you, I believe we make meaning in our lives, and as feminists we do that by rewriting the cultural scripts that define us.

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    • Yes, there is definitely a spectrum of existentialists – so I hear you, and I agree with you, life is not absurd. What I like is that existentialism makes life all the more meaningful, exactly because of what you point out, it’s a call to participate in meaning-making and to freedom from that which would stifle and suppress the life in us. Thanks for engaging!

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