In her interview by Jennifer Aniston at the first Makers Conference, Steinem said that not talking about religion is one of the biggest problems facing feminism today. That’s a big difference. At first she said the biggest problems are “anti-feminism” and “pay inequality,” but those issues are already on the table. She believes the feminist establishment isn’t talking about religion enough.
I agree and have agreed for a long time. Like many in this community, I have spent many years talking about feminism and religion, and it’s about time the Big Names noticed it is an important conversation. I hope they realize quickly that it’s already been going on for over a century!
Catholic feminists are one group trying to increase awareness of their efforts. For example, Pope Francis commented that the Catholic Church needs to move away from talking about women “inspired by an ideology of machismo” and “work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” In response, readers of National Catholic Reporter provided an excellent women and theology reading list that highlights the hard work already being done.
I have been mulling over the statements of Steinem and Francis for months. I don’t think I’m alone in my belief that religious expression is the next frontier where women are struggling for and achieving expanded opportunities. As a famous religious reformer once said, “The harvest is ready but the workers are few.”
Unfortunately, few people seem to be paying attention to this broadening horizon. I hope these public statements are indicators that many women reformers in religion will soon have wider recognition. As evidence of this trend, I would share five promising examples:
1.SWAYAM: This 15-year-old women’s rights organization based in Kolkata, India is committed to ending violence against women. Their publication Prayas gives women a voice, in which you can read emerging models of Hindu piety like The Digambari Devi, or Chitrangada instead of Sita, that encourage women to stand up for their rights.
2.Mimi Feigelson, an Orthodox Jew ordained (given smicha) as a rabbi in Jerusalem in 1994, has led a Passover Seder in the Dalai Lama’s home and participated in interfaith dialogue with Buddhist nuns. She says, “Really being set free from [Mitzrayim/bondage/Egypt] is being able to expand our vision emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically, to not be locked into what our physical eyes see.”
3.Sisters in Islam: A progressive Islamic organization founded in 1987 that promotes democratic society, social justice, and gender equality. Towards this end they have pursued law reform, Qur’anic exegesis and interpretation (tasfir), and public education. They currently support a legal clinic, publications, and provide trainings for diverse audiences.
4.Whale Rider: Though this is a fictional film, it depicts a Maori girl (New Zealand) whose mystical experiences confirm her calling in service to her tribe. Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, the film uses the whale symbolism and location authentic to the Whangara community depicted. The community’s blessing and participation in the film is an example of an inclusive reinvention of sacred stories and practices for a more just future, one of Ihimaera’s major goals as a writer.
5.Li Tim-Oi Foundation: This organization empowers Christian women ministers in the Two-Thirds World (South/East Asia) in honor of Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, ordained in China as the first Anglican woman priest in 1944. In her memoir Raindrops of my Life (1996), she wrote, “The highest purpose was to realize ‘on earth as in heaven’: for all wars to cease, promote human peaceful coexistence and harmony, and create an ideal world together with God.”
Many call these categories disconnected movements “third wave feminism” because they are operating outside of the mainstream secular “second wave” feminist establishment. I am excited about them because we need groups to promote women’s rights in every context, and can’t depend on larger social or policy changes to “trickle down.”
Unlike Steinem, I don’t think of myself as an optimist. As a realist, I report what I see: Advocates for women are not being silent in religion and theology, even if they are being ignored by mainstream religious and secular feminist movements. It gives me hope to pay attention to and celebrate their successes, and it keeps me humble to analyze their challenges.
What examples of feminist leaders or movements in religion would you add to this list?
Meagen Farrell is an educator, writer, and consultant from Northeast Ohio. She has an M.A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, B.A. in Religion from Oberlin College, and is currently writing a book about social change in traditional religions, highlighting how Anglican women became priests in Ireland.