Feminist Faith-Based Social Justice

A plenary presentation delivered at the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today 2014 Gathering
on June 27, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri

by Mary E. Hunt

Mary E. HuntI am thrilled to be with you this weekend, having long admired and learned from your organization. I respect deeply the work you do and your steadfastness in doing it. We at the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) read your materials and value our collaboration with you in the development of feminist faith. I bring greetings from my WATER colleagues.

Thank you for your fine organizing of this event, and for the warm hospitality that you are providing. I give special thanks to Letha Scanzoni for including me in this meeting. I consider Letha one of the stalwart pioneers of this organization whose contributions provide both continuity and challenge. Letha’s careful inclusion of young women is a model for all of us. Just look at the student presenters at this meeting! Your blog inspired me to even deeper collaboration with young women, three of whom are interning in our office this summer. I think the training that our sister organizations offer is helping to prepare a talented and lively cohort of young women who will continue this work long after us.

Two of your faithful members come to mind as I begin my remarks. The first is Nancy Hardesty, whose memory continues to be a blessing. Nancy and I were not well acquainted personally, but I counted on her wisdom through her writing. She was always a good indicator of where evangelical feminists stood on various issues. What a legacy she left to you and to all of us who came to appreciate the subtleties of evangelical life through her helpful work.

Likewise, I think warmly of my beloved friend Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. I am certain that she is praying for us in her home in New Jersey, tickled to pieces by the fact that her worlds are converging as we meet. Virginia invited me to share with her the leadership of the wonderful Sisterly Conversations retreats at Kirkridge that she led with lesbian/bi/trans/queer women for 25 years. I did so gladly, sure that I would learn more than I would teach in collaboration with one of the most unique, brilliant, and committed people in the world. Whoever expected a Bob Jones University graduate to lead the way for our understanding and inclusion of transgender people? Ah, yes; we who know her have come to say, “With Virginia, all things are possible,” because we trust that Virginia is beloved of Sophia Wisdom (Matt. 19:26). Let these good women guide our work today.

In keeping with our theme, “Let justice roll on like a river” (Amos 5:24), I will focus on Feminist Faith-Based Social Justice: 
How feminists of faith can collaborate to amplify our voices and deepen our collective impact. I want to be both theological and practical at the same time. I begin with the big picture of feminist work in religion to situate us with our colleagues around the globe. Then I name some of the challenges we face, given the issues and backlash we are dealing with at the moment. Finally, I propose how women across a wide spectrum of feminist and faith starting points might collaborate, inviting us to imagine some strategies for amplifying our voices and deepening our collective impact. I hope this will be but the first of many collaborations between Christian Feminism Today and WATER, two groups that, while distinct in their history and styles, are nevertheless sister groups in the struggle for social justice informed by feminist faith. Alleluia!

A. What is going on in the field of feminist work in religion?

This is a huge question. The field began more than 40 years ago, with a handful of women, like Valerie Saiving, Nelle Morton, Anne McGrew Bennett, Letty Russell, Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Delores Williams, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, to name just a few at the risk of leaving out the many. These colleagues raised unheard of questions that have unleashed a veritable cottage industry today. Think of the books, tapes, workshops, classes, artwork, sermons, and blogs that contemporary feminists (both men and women) are producing.

Our foremothers would be astonished at the diversity of what is called feminist today. I think they would also be horrified by the fact that many of the same issues that claimed their attention still claim ours: inclusive language, access to ministry, poverty, reproductive health, etc. But I think they would be heartened by the fact that the movement, which began in the United States and Europe, has emerged around the world. Women throughout Africa, in India, around Latin America, in the Pacific Rim, and elsewhere are producing their own work; not translating or imitating ours, but making their own voices heard on their own terms. We are their students and colleagues.

1. The great feminists of our early days set a trajectory that left nothing off the table. Virtually every theological sub-specialty—from systematic theology to biblical studies, from church history to ethics, from pastoral studies to interreligious dialogue—has been grist for the feminist mill. That work, though far from permeating most religious congregations, much less the public arena, cannot be erased or undone. I tear my hair every time we have a state funeral or a new pope and women are in short supply on the altar and/or among press commentators. Nevertheless, the work of Christian feminist leaders and so many other women is here to stay.

2. This phenomenon, what I call the “feministization” of religion, began with Christianity but continues undaunted in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Pagan, Wiccan Goddess groups, and others. Even feminist atheists are making their contributions. The group Secular Women began in 2012. So there is no shortage of materials by/for feminists dealing with religion. There is, however, a woeful shortage of what I would deem real progress when it comes to structural changes that reflect feminist values of equality and inclusivity. Nor is there in church or society much spiritual change when it comes to seeing women and other marginalized people as integral parts of communities with full rights. We are far from such a moment, decades of hard work later.

3. One major positive impact of feminist work in religion is on ministry and leadership. It is no accident that women are entering the ministry in record numbers, especially in the more progressive churches. Those same denominations (United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, Episcopal Church USA, Lutheran, etc.) are losing members (which is to say market-share) rapidly, proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

Such data contribute to the well founded speculation that the ministry is rapidly become a recipe for a woman’s job in patriarchy. Like nursing and teaching, ministry is morphing into a relatively low paid job involving endless availability and nurture, and enjoying less prestige and social clout than in decades past. Also, in many cases, especially in Roman Catholicism, which I know best, the ordination of women (if and when it comes) will signal one more time that women are brought in to clean up a mess; in the Catholic case, priest sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up. I know that strains of these dynamics are taking place in some evangelical settings, as well. This is why just adding women to the ministerial ranks and governing structures of religious groups is not, in my view, an adequate long-term strategy. Some colleagues and I have warned against this danger for decades, worrying that women will be saddled with the mop-up tasks as Christian churches decline and decay.

But having more women in ministry and leadership has the important consequence of improving the quality of ministry. God knows things have improved in the pulpit, the study, the classroom, and the hospital room simply by having women ministers. Many people prefer women to men as their ministers. Some of our women are quite spectacular at the job. The twentieth century achievement of women in ministry is still unfinished in many places in the world. But there is simply no denying the difference that having well trained, well intentioned women in ministry has made, especially when it comes to resetting the moral compass; that is, setting new priorities for churches. I daresay the focus on sexual violence, the priority on reproductive justice, and the inclusion of people of diverse sexualities and genders is largely resultant of the feministization of some churches, over the dead or dying bodies of some of their members.

4. Another dimension of this big picture is that secularization is shaping cultures as much as religions do. Whether future generations will even think religiously, as we have come to understand the term, remains to be seen. But the freedom FROM religion is as important as the freedom OF religion. The influence of rightwing religious groups needs to be countered lest they impose their views on societies whose values they do not mirror. This is a challenge in a democracy. For example, efforts by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to oppose the provision of contraception through Obamacare are more than a nuisance. They are a threat to women’s health that requires our collective rejection.

5. Indeed, the social justice agenda is where feminism is most obvious in the ongoing evolution of religion. What began as a sustained analysis of gender-based issues is now a complex and multifaceted approach to wholesale social change in an increasingly polarized and unjust world. While issues of sex and gender, especially gender-based violence, are still central to feminist work, they are incomplete and inadequate without equally serious and sustained work on anti-racism, post colonialism, economic injustice, heterosexism, transphobia, and the like. Today we train our attention on war, reproductive justice, climate change/ecology, human trafficking, immigration, and more. This is not simply a laundry list of current ills, but a checklist of the specific ways in which women and dependent children around the world experience the ravages of patriarchy, the same issues our foresisters faced but with the added dimension of huge economic disparities and worldwide instantaneous communication to make it all obvious.

These five factors, and others one could add, mean that our work as religious feminists is well grounded, broadly based, and has a certain limited impact on ministry. At the same time, secularization is increasingly persuasive to many people, and most important, the needs of an increasingly unjust world remain to be met.

B. The challenges we face given the issues and backlash we are dealing with at the moment

I start with the challenges we face in the field of women and religion as a way to enter into social justice discourse. Otherwise, we risk becoming too abstract in our analysis. Further, while we may concern ourselves with other issues, I am fairly sure that few people other than us will concern themselves with our issues.

Kathy Kelly, a Mormon woman, was excommunicated by her church for leading efforts to get Mormon women ordained. In the summer of 2014, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of Episcopal women in the United States in a memorable “valid but illicit” ceremony held in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974. How sobering four decades later to see the same dynamics play out, to witness the same hurt and challenge to feminist faith. It is a sobering lesson to all of us to realize that our work is far from finished.

I do not believe that the ordination of women is the cure-all for patriarchal religions; only substantive theological and structural changes can be that. But if denominations are going to ordain anyone, they surely must ordain all persons without regard to gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other particularities lest they risk their very integrity, as the Mormons have done so horribly this season.

The Catholic Women’s Ordination Conference group and the Mormon Ordain Women group have made common cause. Both groups are led by young women. Good for them! I watch this drama playing out with a sense of déjà vu—and a deep sense of gratitude to the many women, and some men, as always, who are stepping forward to lead these movements.

There are other challenges for young women in our field. Academic doctoral programs have shrunk the number of people they accept, making it harder for our future feminist scholars to get trained. Many women graduate students fear doing their own feminist work in masters and doctoral programs, having been warned that they will be marked for life––the scarlet F (or M for mujerista or W for womanist)—and unemployable. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but the threat alone is shaping many projects into tamer directions than I would hope. This timidity is replicated in many fields as the anti-feminist propaganda grows.

Now it is easy to hire women, whether as ministers or professors, who are not feminists/womanists/mujeristas. Some women, especially younger women, make the important point that feminism is not the word they chose to describe their commitments. Nonetheless, actions speak louder than words, so experiencing solidarity, whether with women or men, feminists or others, takes us a long way toward the needed changes.

Add finances to the mix and one begins to see how global inequality affects women, especially poor women and women of color. Right in our own field of religion, there are people with privilege who can afford their principles and pay their way so as to take advantage of many opportunities. But women who will be saddled with student loans and forced to take positions in state schools where they can expect some debt reduction, albeit after many years of teaching, simply do not play on the same field. This, too, is part of a global pattern of economic injustice from which we are not exempt.

Think about what is valued in our culture—money, mergers and acquisitions, stocks and bonds, hedge funds. No wonder women are increasingly taking on religious ministry and leadership. Ann Douglas described the parallel role of women and clergymen in the 19th century, consigned to the domestic sphere in The Feminization of American Culture (NY: Macmillan, 1977). Despite the efforts of some men, religions remain a distant third to money and sports in the shaping of culture. Nonetheless, when someone’s baby dies or their spouse gets sick, when no amount of money will bring them back or cure them, many, many people still look to religion as a source of comfort and meaning. If only in deference to them, and surely because we need to set a moral agenda that reflects the needs of those who are marginalized, I think our feminist work in religion is more important than ever.

I perceive certain barriers to that work, which in turn become barriers to our exercising the full potential of our moral agency. Among them are:

  • Our faith ghettos
  • The mistaken divide between academics and activists, scholars, and ministers
  • Backlash against the many gains made in the 20th century

1. Our Faith Ghettos

I do not mean to blame the victims, but let me name the reality of our faith ghettos as barriers to common progress on social issues. This dynamic plays out primarily to divide and conquer. For Catholic women, for instance, the distinction between nuns and laywomen is a good example. Did you know that all nuns are laywomen until the first one is ordained validly and licitly as a priest? Neither do some of them! The distinction is between lay and clergy in Catholicism, and since nuns are not clergy, they are de facto lay. That they are members of religious communities is interesting, but not determinative vis-à-vis their status with other women.

Similarly, many Catholic and Protestant women like ourselves no longer buy into patriarchal divisions that separate us. That is not to deny certain cultural differences, variations of theological emphasis, and the like. But it is to affirm, as you do by inviting me and as I do by enjoying your company, that “nothing will separate us from the love of the Divine” (Romans 8:38–39) and on the basis of that common love, nothing will separate us from one another.

Christianity itself is a ghetto, if we let it be. But as feminists, we are linked with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, and other feminists who struggle as we do to transform patriarchal religious groups. It is astonishing to realize how much energy in patriarchal religions—again I will use Catholicism for sake of ecumenical politeness—goes into carving out what is distinct and unique about one religion over another. The careful ecumenical/interreligious discourse reflects nuance upon clarification in order not to offend. But I believe it is also crafted so as not to embrace whole-heartedly persons from other traditions.

It is as if spirituality were a limited commodity to be squirreled away and sold to the highest bidder. I reject that, certain that the diversity of the natural order is a mirror of our human diversity, without rank or measure. It is this kind of scarcity thinking that sets Sunnis and Shias, Jews and Palestinians, among others, against one another. Oh, to let the women of Code Pink and the Women in Black try their hand at peace processes. Somehow I think they might find ways that have eluded men. Even if they failed, they would try in different ways that begin with respect for diversity.

2. Another mistaken divide with roots in our field and implications far beyond is the false dichotomy between academics and activists, scholars and ministers.

From graduate school training onward, the two routes divide such that the rich feminist integrated approaches are considered suspect. And yet, some of our greatest scholars—I think immediately of Mary Daly, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether among others—are also some of the most involved, strategic thinkers of our movements. I suppose it is their very success that has scared off those who would contain us, but being contained is what we must avoid.

Scholars bring a great deal to the table. History and analysis are indispensable components of successful change. Activists informed by such work are formidable agents of social transformation. Think of suffrage and civil rights work, how scholars and activists informed one another. Or, consider how contemporary queer theories and queer theologies help to shape a queer agenda such that marriage equality is the beginning but by no means the end of our work. But it takes a veritable village of feminist scholars and activists in intentional, international conversation to keep that work going and growing.

3. Backlash against the many gains of the 20th century is a real and present danger.

The Koch brothers do more than fund political candidates, but the ones they choose are invariably the ones who represent values and commitment diametrically opposed to many of ours. I think here of members of Congress who voted against the Affordable Care Act. Many of them are in league with religious professionals who use their bully pulpits to try to turn back the tide on same-sex marriage. Even as they lose state after state, with the inevitability of marriage equality at a national level not far off, think how they could be using their influence and the money that belongs to their congregations to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and address the root causes of global poverty. It is the loss of those resources, as much as the words of discrimination and prejudice, that is finally so disappointing and dispiriting.

Backlash is a subtle thing. It can result in even the bravest of us stepping back from what we know to be right because the cost is so high—the loss of a job, perhaps, because of principles, or some dreaded implication for our children, who can become pawns and/or casualties in social justice skirmishes. While backlash is a measure of our progress, it is also a dangerous and demoralizing experience every time it happens.

C. Given these many challenges/barriers, let me propose how women across a wide spectrum of feminist and faith starting points might collaborate, inviting us to imagine some strategies for amplifying our voices and deepening our collective impact.

It is my view that we as feminists in religion hold many of the clues and tools necessary to create a more just and loving world. I say that not to flatter us, but because I think it is true at such a deep level that neither the wider community nor we have yet understood. Part of the reason for that is that our voices, while strong in and of themselves, loud among ourselves and sometimes even discordant when we struggle among ourselves, are simply not heard enough in the wider community.

There are reasons for this: lack of financial resources to do the kind of marketing that works in our economy; lack of respect for women, for religion in an increasingly secular world, for feminisms that challenge patriarchal assumptions, and for our commitment to diversity. These are simply not popular, despite how useful they can each be in the shaping of a just world. Or, maybe it is the case that BECAUSE women, religion, feminisms, and diversity can be so effective they are consciously rejected. Regardless, here are some of my ideas for how to change all that. I offer them not because they are the only ones, but because the urgency of children at the border, dying people who are denied the right to choose how they will die, global warming, wars raging in more sites than I can name, and a financial divide between the 1 percent and the rest of us set conditions about which I find it remarkable that anyone can be agnostic. How can we not train our best and brightest energies on these matters?

1. Let us try something simple to start—saying we, not they, about one another. I find myself in the bad habit of distancing myself from evangelical women. How silly, not to mention how unhelpful. While it is true that finding an evangelical bone in my body will require an autopsy, I am proud, humbled, and delighted to be with my sisters. After all, EEWC/CFT and WATER are among the few longstanding groups working on social change issues from feminist religious perspectives. How utterly foolish to do anything but say we about us! Let the record show that I am now, with check in hand, a member of EEWC/CTF.

2. This little at-home start reminds us to do the same thing with our sisters who are Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Buddhist, Goddess, or of no faith whatsoever. With them, we say we, seeking ways to work together in coalitions for justice. The Religious Coalitions for Reproductive Choice is a good example of people, mostly women, of many faiths standing together for reproductive justice. The National Religious Leadership Roundtable is another instance of religious people collaborating across faith lines on issues of sex and gender. We need to create more such coalitions—not just on Capital Hill among religious staffers but in our own communities. What could be more powerful than a religious feminist coalition against domestic violence or feminist faith-based support for a living wage? I regret that there are religious groups working on many issues, especially ecology, that seem to forget, if they ever knew, what an integrated, multi-issue feminist agenda looks like in all its antiracist, post colonialist splendor.

3. We need to be concrete in these actions. I was so glad to see my intern colleagues at WATER standing with their Mormon sisters as Mormon Church leaders were deciding Kate Kelly’s excommunication. WATER will be on the steps of the Supreme Court with all sorts of groups when the Hobby Lobby decision on reproductive justice emerges later this month. We will blog and tweet our support. We will write the analysis that grounds our commitments. We will ritualize them as well—see our June Pride liturgy at www.waterwomensalliance.org—so that we reinforce the many ways that people feel a part of justice movements.

4. I think it is time to do more exchanges among our young women. Maybe we can convene a joint meeting of young evangelical women and young progressives of other stripes, as many like to call themselves instead of saying feminist. Maybe we can follow up on the book Talking Taboo (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2013) with more young voices searching for new, culturally competent approaches and stretching the rest of us as they go.

5. What about our shared theological/liturgical/ethical resources? Check out the expansive language work of the United Church of Christ women. Let’s learn from the debates among the Presbyterians that resulted in their amazing legislative work to expand the definition of marriage (subject to vote by judicatories), and to allow marriage equality in their churches. There is no reason to reinvent the social justice wheel when there are so many issues to deal with. Rather, adapt and apply the work that has been done in the many situations where it is needed.

6. Shared intellectual resources also play a large role in this work. Check out the various blogs, including FIR (Feminism in Religion Forum) and FAR (Feminism and Religion), where some of us publish. Look at books like New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views (edited by Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu, Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2012), for clues about the priorities and perspectives of a wide variety of women. Consider translating articles by women from other countries who speak other languages. For example, religious feminists in Iceland, Sweden, Brasil, and Guatemala, to name just a few places where I have been in touch recently, are doing incredible work. It is stunning how limited we are if English is our only language, though equally impressive how good some of the on-line translation programs can be. There is simply no excuse for monolingual work anymore.

7. Feminist religious education for children is an area that remains sorely underserved in the religious groups I know. Of course, there are the wonderful books by Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Kate Ott’s work on sex education and Debra Haffner’s work at the Religious Institute bring progressive feminist faith to religious discussions of sexuality. But I regret to report that, in the many decades during which I have been paying attention to these matters, this is the area where the least work has been done. Who better than our groups to take on this challenge?

We have looked at some of the exciting, helpful feminist sources that are informing our common work. We have seen some of the problems/barriers that prevent the full flowering of this work. We have begun to think about effective strategies for making our important voices heard and felt more effectively. Discussion of these matters takes place not above but around our circles. We move together without apology and with enthusiasm, confident that, if justice is to roll down like a river, it is because we are in the water together.


Read more about the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today 2014 Gathering.

© 2014 by Mary E. Hunt

Mary E. Hunt
Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian. With her partner, Diann Neu, she co-founded and co-directs the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER). A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, Mary lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to social justice concerns. A prolific writer, Mary has written articles for numerous journals; contributed chapters to many books on theology, feminism, and other social issues; and is a frequent contributor to the website, Religion Dispatches. Among the books she has authored, edited, or co-edited are Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship; New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views; A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z; and Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions.


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