Taking Back God: American Women
Rising Up for Religious Equality
by Leora Tanenbaum
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009.
Reviewed by Alena Amato Ruggerio
Why do they stay? Why do women remain in religious traditions whose forms of worship, language, sacred texts, and laws of everyday behavior have been structured to degrade and erase them? And what kind of work are these women doing to make their faith communities more equal? These questions drove author Leora Tanenbaum to interview a multitude of women, participate in national conferences, and attend worship services across the country to hear the answers. Taking Back God tells the stories of women who have a fierce love of their religion, but also a powerful calling to end its sexism.
Tanenbaum’s project is broad in scope, illustrating the modern movements in religious feminism among the major monotheist traditions. Each faith community wrestles with its own version of the issues: Roman Catholics are struggling with the ordination of women to the priesthood; evangelical Protestants debate the hermeneutics of biblical inerrancy and headship; mainline Protestants battle over the so-called feminization of the church; Muslims disagree about virginal purity and women leading prayer; and Orthodox Jews focus on women’s seating in the synagogue and wives chained to husbands who withhold consent to a divorce.
These profiles of the activists working to reform the particularities of each religion are bookended by chapters that point out what they all have in common. “These women collectively voiced four goals: 1. They want to see women in leadership roles within their church, mosque, or synagogue. 2. They want women represented in the language of their liturgy. 3. They want religious recognition that their physical bodies are normal and not aberrant. 4. They want to be recognized as people created fully in the image of God” (pp.9-10). At the end of the book, women from all the represented traditions weigh in on matters of sexuality and language.
The devout women breathe with life in these pages because the author allows them to tell their own stories of their individual contributions to religious feminism, and she permits them to claim or reject the label of “feminist” according to each woman’s wishes. The book is filled with moving stories like Renée Septimus’s, who, barred from being named in her son’s lineage at his bar mitzvah and unable to see him read from the Torah for the first time from behind the divider of the women’s section of the synagogue, read a personal prayer at the reception connecting her mothering to God, “Always I’ve felt intimately our partnership in the creation and maintenance of the children you have blessed me with. But as they leave my womb and the womb of our household, I feel and need your presence ever more as I confront the limitations of my own ability to protect them” (p. 300).
Or the story of Asra Nomani, who, filled with fervent love of Allah after her hajj to Mecca, brought a proposal back to her hometown to design adequate facilities for the women into the architecture of the new mosque they were building. But before she could even be greeted by the men or articulate her plan, she was told, “‘Sister, take the back entrance!’… Stunned, Nomani relates that she ‘had never been treated so rudely at the Sacred Mosque in Mecca or in the Holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem,’ and that even though she ‘opposed most of Saudi Arabia’s policies toward women, the government made the hajj experience more equitable than I could ever have imagined… And yet it was unacceptable for me to walk through the front doors of my own mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia’” (p. 189). The fallout from this confrontation gave Nomani the impetus to pen the Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques.
I learned a great deal about feminist issues in other faith traditions from these stories. There is much that is parallel, but also much that is unique.
The author goes to great lengths to accurately recount the story of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, too. Many Christian Feminism Today readers will remember meeting Leora Tanenbaum when she attended the 2006 EEWC conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. She interviewed Nancy Hastings Sehested, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Nancy A. Hardesty, Anne Eggebroten, Mel Bringle, and others. She quotes the works of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and Patricia Gundry. She draws a nuanced picture for her readers, explaining the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist, and citing the historical links to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Hildegarde von Bingen. In the past, some authors and scholars from outside EEWC have told only part of the story or been mistaken on details. What a joy to read a work so faithful to the facts and respectful of the journey of evangelical feminism.
Sure, there are a few aspects of the book that I, reading through academic rather than journalistic eyes, wish could have been different. Little acknowledgment of the continuum of genetic sex and gender performance reinforces a binary ofand. The contributions of feminist men are downplayed as outside the scope of the analysis (I nominate David Scholer and Gilbert Bilezikian for the evangelical chapter). Feminism is conflated with equality. The physical descriptions of the interviewees—“slender,” “honey-colored hair,” “luminous beauty,” “could pass for thirty”—are probably intended to put a human face on the subject and acknowledge that these ideas originate in bodies situated in race, age, and level of disability, but end up seeming to me to unconsciously imply, “Look, they’re not threatening monsters, they’re pretty.” Yet overall, I found heaps of genuine education and inspiration in this book, and it’s exciting that it will reach a wide audience of people who have never heard the message that faithful feminism is not an oxymoron.
This is a compelling, swift-reading collection of the voices of the women who are leading movements of change in their mosques, synagogues, and churches. Taking Back God provides a meaningful view of religious feminism from the macro level.
Reviewer Alena Amato Ruggerio is currently enjoying sabbatical leave from her associate professor position in the Department of Communication at Southern Oregon University. She will be the guest editor for the Spring 2009 issue of Christian Feminism Today on the theme, “How I Became a Feminist?” Alena’s speech from the 2008 EEWC Conference in Indianapolis can now be heard on the audio section of the EEWC Website. Be sure to check it out.
© 2009 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 32 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2009