5 Examples of Religion as the Next Feminist Frontier by Meagen Farrell


meagenfarrellIn February 2014, headlines incorrectly stated that Gloria Steinem said religion is the biggest problem facing women today. Wrong.

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.

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Categories: Activism, Catholicism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Feminist Theology, Women and the Media, Women's Voices

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21 replies

  1. Thanks Meagan, very interesting post! Thanks. In response to your question: I would add there’s been a dramatic increase in women writers on the topic of eastern spirituality over the past decade or so. It used to be only men who published manuals on Taoism, Buddhism or Zen — just being able to read a woman’s perspective on these topics is liberating, if not directly feminist. I’ve been tracking some of it at my website. I just ordered a book called “Asian and Feminist Philosophies in Dialogue: Liberating Traditions” by Jennifer McWeeney, & Ashby Butnorand” and I can’t wait to see where it might lead me!!

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  2. We can also look at the Goddess community and authors like Carol Christ, Z. Budapest, Starhawk, and others (including me). We’re always talking about feminism, specifically spiritual feminism or feminist spirituality.

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    • Thank you, Barbara. When most people, even this web site talks about feminism and “religion” they usually only address Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Rarely do they include Buddhists and Hindus. Almost never do they include Wiccans, Pagans, and any earth-centered belief systems. Sad.

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      • bjrosendale,

        I do think you are right that Christian feminists sometimes tend to think within the box of organized monotheistic religions, so they mention Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. However, this is not true of the FAR community.

        Take a look at the right side of our blog space and click on articles by Jassy Waston, Judith Shaw, Deanne Quarrie, Barbara Ardinger, and me on earth-centered religions, and Oxana P on Buddhism. Earth-based traditions and Buddhism are regularly discussed–though there could be more discussion of Buddhism. I think you are right about there not being a writer on HInduism on the blog. Anyone out there?

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    • Niamh Middleton

      A serious problem for feminist theologians who work in academic institutions that are under the umbrella of institutional religion is that they can seem like blow-ins to the ordained and full time religious, while being treated with suspicion (to say the least) by mainstream secular feminism.

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  3. Niamh Middleton
    A serious problem for feminist theologians working inside academic institutions that are under the umbrella of institutional religion is that they can come across as blow-ins to the ordained and full time religious, while being treated with suspicion (to say the least) by mainstream secular feminism.

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  4. Thank you for this thoughtful article. The world certainly needs more women who are conscious and empowered to live fully from their divine feminine spirits.

    Here is another to add to the list!

    MorningStar Adventures: A retreat and eco-spiritual life center established by Julie Keefer in 1982 to value and support women’s unique identity in the Divine and to encourage experience of the Divine for the journey toward wholeness and Love. The center, supported by a broad community of women, provides holistic resources, nurturing space, and a caring community to affirm, inform and celebrate women’s journey to living an integrated life of body, mind, soul and spirit. http://www.morningstarretreatcenter.com

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  5. One thing that needs to be taken into account for Catholic women is that their practice of the religion is often a private matter, not a social event, and maybe more about prayer and quietude. Transforming that into politics might not be easy or welcome for everyone, even if they are generally feminist otherwise.

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  6. I really enjoyed your article and always, it’s inspiring to know about more women doing the everyday work of demanding acknowledgement while living the life of spiritual beings. Having said that, in defense of Steinem, she has more recently become aware of and been influenced by, the tremendous amount of research (Neolithic to Present day) in the academy, regarding women’s spiritual practices and their influence on society prior to patriarchy; and of the surviving matristic/,matriarchal societies still in existence. The archaeology and carbon dating itself is amazing in giving back to women “our” story – one that was never told, although as Eevan Bolen states – it is concurrent with “his” story. Gloria is asking feminists (many who walked away from any form of spirituality) to look at this evidence because therein, is a greater and more correct human story. Many feminist academics “refuse” to look at this concrete evidence because they fear women will return to some form of fundamentalist paradigm – missing the point that within this research, is again, a more “real” story about humanity. It means women don’t have to be like men but have archetypes of their own, that supersede and have greater value to society, government and politics than male models. Along with the books Barbara mentioned is my own, “Feminine Reformation; a goddess meta narrative”, “Matriarchal Societies” Goettner-Abendoth, “Goddesses” Miriam Robbins Dexter, “Dark Madonnas” Lucia Birnbaum, “Africa, Mother of Western Civilization” ben Jochnann, “Blood, Bread & Roses” Judy Grahn, “The Chalice and the Blade” Riane Eisler and I apologize for not being able to mention the so many, many more… such as Mary Daly but aside from these are the astounding finds and archaeologists such as Marija Gimbutas that have brought the story alive to us all. Blessed be … Jayne 4 http://www.womensheritageproject.ning.com.

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  7. Feminists have always been involved with religion. Mary Daly, Rosemary Radfort Ruether, the womanpriest movement, MCC where half the clergy in that denomination are lesbian, all the goddess books written, all the Episcopal women priests…we’ve been going at this for a long time….Matilda Joseyln Gage and her “Woman Church and State” book from the 1890s in continous print. Feminism has always been involved with religions worldwide. What is weird is that secular feminism seems to not really know this.

    Mainstream feminists like Steinem seemed to not even know about MCC, when the power of women there was huge. A lesbian heads this denomination now.

    So I think it is more that there is a secular society, liberals, certain people who have simply left the church, and are secular and uninterested in religion. I find it pretty dull dealing with women still in the most womanhating sects like Mormonism, Catholicism etc. As a lesbian, I find straight women’s support of these horrifying male dominated nightmares shocking to say the least.

    As a radical feminist, I felt the need to simply create my own theology of lesbian warrior nation. Even I can’t stand to read those books anymore, I’ve moved on.

    Backlash has created young women who are in those churches and who don’t give a damn that they are lesbian attacking engines of pure bigotry, but hey, they’re married to men, they want to “reform’ from within at my expense, well go for it, just don’t come whining to me later.

    I’ve met a lot of Muslim lesbians who are still in Islam, but they are lesbians— they have a very strong sisterhood power the way all cultures of women only space tends to develop, in that they are powerful, but then you have so many women who have just gone onto other things.

    Liberals really aren’t that involved with religious groups—- we have the liberal stars like Steinem, but she doesn’t really represent me as a radical lesbian feminist. I admire the women like Z. Budapest, for example, or even Starhawk. Ultimately, I got bored with male religions and kind of moved on. Clearly I find more happiness within lesbian sisterhood networks than I do with even most straight women, who have so little in common with me.

    We divide the secular and the religious in America, but that doesn’t mean religion and feminism haven’t been around for a very long time. We just don’t have much TV time for the Nancy Wilsons of the world, you don’t see Z. Budapest on Charlie Rose or at the White House, but there is a huge network of lesbian visionaries, clerics that have had at this for a very very long time.

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    • I do agree with you Turtlewoman, that secular feminists often ignore all the work that spiritual feminists have done. And then if the light dawns on them, they speak of “feminism” not considering religion as may be the case in question–again erasing spiritual feminists again. “Aren’t we feminists too?” In the case of Ms magazine when they do discuss religion it is usually Episcopal women priests, Catholic women priests or the RC church on abortion, or new rituals in Judaism. Their editors have rejected articles on Goddess feminism and also failed to commission them. However, they did recommend my book Diving Deep and Surfacing for summer reading years ago. It is great that Gloria Steinem is talking about feminism and religion and discovering the Goddess, but not so great if she is talking as if she invented the questions. As you say, this could end up being another form of dismissal. Hopefully not. Gloria Steinem is a great voice for women.

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  8. As a Christian feminist who seeks out online communities of other Christian feminists, I see a lot of work being done within that realm. I am not as familiar with feminist works in other religions, so thank for these resources!

    I think that certain (American) Christian feminists are quite prominent within (American) Christianity, but not within secular feminism. For example, Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, is well-known to both my conservative Christian friends who disagree with her and with my liberal Christian friends who love her work. But I was in one of my favorite “feminist free-for-all” forums the other day, and I was surprised at how many very active, very aware feminists had never heard of RHE.

    In my one-on-one conversations with secular feminists, however, they acknowledge the value and necessity of feminists working within Christianity (or other patriarchal religions), because a religious community can only change from within.

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  9. I am anti-religion….any and all….because I am not interested in investing time and effort in chiselling a crack into unyielding patriarchal religion into which women can squeeze themselves with the hope of eventually widening the crack which might one day accomodate…no, embrace……female spirituality. In fact, I often point out to women that the 10 Commandments were written for men…only… as evidenced by the commandment “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s WIFE (not spouse).” Thus, the 10 Commandments do not have any import to women. Extended….the christian religion has no import to women. Ditto for all other male religions created by and FOR men. Why can’t the brightest female thinkers create a religion for all of humanity…..female and male?

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