God’s Daughters Have Always Prophesied

by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

Our conference theme for this year brings together two announcements from the beginning of the Book of Acts. The first is that “your daughters shall prophesy,” taken from Peter’s explanation of what was going on at Pentecost, in which he boldly took Joel’s words about the last days and claimed that they were being fulfilled at that very moment in history (Acts 2:17)

The other part of our theme, “you will be my witnesses,” is taken from the words of the resurrected Jesus just before being lifted up into heaven (Acts 1:8).

Virginia Ramey MollenkottAs I was circling around these two passages, asking God what She might want to say through me concerning them, I kept being reminded of Linda Williams’ lead article in the Winter EEWC Update concerning this gathering. As some of you may remember, Linda said that our Conference 2000 title presented to her three questions: Who are these daughters who are to prophesy? What is it they are to prophesy? And what does it mean to be a witness? And it occurred to me that I should use Linda’s questions as an outline as I seek to demonstrate that God’s daughters have always prophesied, and in that context to discuss the past, present, and future of feminist theologies.

Who Are These Daughters?

First of all, then, who are these daughters whom the prophet Joel and the Apostle Peter proclaimed as prophets on an equal basis with God’s sons? Judging from the Pentecostal context in which Peter quoted Joel, the daughters and sons are everybody upon whom the Holy Spirit descends. And eventually that would include literally everybody, for God says “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” The Bible contains many chilling texts of terror, but it also contains many flashes of universal love, many gorgeous promises of ultimate universal salvation, and this is one of them. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh”–all flesh, without regard for gender or age or class or any other barrier, and “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes; and when the sun turns to darkness and the moon turns to blood, I cannot imagine a person who wouldn’t call on the name of the Lord to be saved, can you?

So the daughters who prophesy are ordinary women just like us, rendered extraordinary only by the fact that the Spirit of God is poured out upon all of us. And such in-spirited or inspired women have always prophesied.

Biblically speaking, to prophesy does not necessarily mean to foretell the future; it means to respond to God’s call and to speak the Word of God, calling for justice and for action in the face of injustice, challenging the way things are, and bringing hope that a way can be found where the is no way. The Bible is full of such daughters.

Prophesying Daughters in the Bible 

For instance, according to Micah 6:4, Miriam was a prophet on an equal partner basis with Moses and Aaron as they led the children of Israel out of the land of slavery. She is a good role model for those of us daughters who are called to leadership roles in the public spheres of business and government.

For another instance, Deborah was not only a judge and a military leader and a mother of Israel, but also a prophet, stirring up social concern and mocking those who preferred to indulge in “great searchings of heart” instead of swinging into action when action was called for (Judges 4:1-22; 5:1-31). She is a good model for activist daughters, especially those in the legal, political, and military professions. Deborah’s twice-repeated scorn for “great searchings of heart” reminds me of all the folks who say they don’t want to get involved in a given cause until all the facts are in–because of course we’ll all be in heaven before all the facts are in about almost anything!

Then there is Huldah, whose story is told in 2 Kings 22:8-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:14-28.1 Huldah is the foremother of those daughters called to prophesy within the ministry or as educators. Huldah was so threatening to male supremacy that in all my years as a fundamentalist attending four church services a week, I never once heard mention of her!

I never heard mention of Noadiah, either, nor of the wife of Isaiah, yet both these women were identified as prophets by the Hebrew Scriptures (Neh. 6:10-14; Isaiah 8:1-4). Isaiah’s wife and mother of their son is a good patron saint for those whose primary calling is prophecy from within the sphere of homemaking and motherhood.

I never heard a sermon about Anna, either, the 84-year-old widow and prophet who instantly recognized the baby Jesus as the liberator Jerusalem had been waiting for, and began to talk about Jesus to everyone who yearned for liberation (Luke 2:36-38. Anna takes away any excuses any of us daughters might be inclined to make that we are too old to begin listening for God’s voice and speaking or writing down Her prophetic words. At 84, Anna was spending all her days in the temple, worshipping and fasting and praying–and because of her preoccupation with what really matters, she knew a liberator when she saw one and began to bear witness with all her strength.

Neither was I ever told about the four daughters of Philip the evangelist–unmarried women who lived in Caesaria and who “had the gift of prophecy” (Acts 21:9). They are good models for daughter-prophets who prefer not to marry for any reason and also for those whose lives may remain relatively unknown. In our celebrity-oriented society, the spotlight seems to confer great importance on individuals who are frequently in the news; but nothing could be farther from God’s economy, in which every life is equally important because God manifests Herself within each person and through each life experience.

Why We’ve Heard So Little

Nevertheless, there is a major reason why we have heard so little about the daughters who have always prophesied, and the name of that reason is androcentrism. Androcentrism is the assumption that because males are the standard for what is fully human, they do the public work that deserves notice, whereas females are derivative and subordinate beings whose work is usually not worthy of mention. There is an old African proverb that captures the essence of how androcentrism works: “Until the lions come to power, the hunters write the history.” Accordingly, it has been up to “feminist and womanist lions” to put us in touch with the stories of women who have gone before us, stories the androcentric “hunters” did not consider important.

Women in Luke’s Writings 

As I have said, the theme of this conference comes from Acts, so I want to give you my “take” on Luke to complement the “take” Reta Finger so lovingly gave us [in her presentation]. Luke, the human being who wrote down the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts was apparently convinced that all women should be prayerful, quiet, and grateful, supportive of male leadership and willing to forgo prophetic ministry in order to give the full spotlight to men. Because Luke was trying to help Christianity gain favor in the Roman Empire, he soft-pedals and diminishes women’s roles as much as he can in order to conform to the patriarchal Roman model.

I think it is richly ironic that this dear but androcentric man was the one who apparently was given by the Holy Spirit certain oral and written sources that weren’t available to the other Gospel writers, sources featuring women, so that despite his personal bias, it is only Luke’s writings that tell us about Elizabeth, and Anna, and about the widow of Nain, the bent-over woman, the woman sweeping her house to find her lost coin, the persistent widow, the women who traveled with Jesus, the women at the cross, the women preparing spices,2 the Christian women persecuted by Saul before his conversion to Paul (Acts 8:3; 9:2; 22:4), the Sabbath gathering at Philippi composed exclusively of women (Acts 16:13), Sapphira the equal partner of Ananais (Acts 5:1-11), Tabitha whom Peter raised from the dead (Acts 9:36-43), Priscilla the Bible teacher, missionary, and equal-partner with Aquila (Acts 18: 2, 18, 26),3 and so forth.

Gail O’Day, who teaches Biblical Preaching at Candler School of Theology, comments that the details of these women’s stories, which “reside below the level of conscious literary strategy,” work together to “subvert Luke’s [personal] priorities,” and this subversion contains “the seeds of hope for women readers” (p. 401).

I love the Holy Spirit’s sense of humor, inspiring an androcentric human being like Luke to give us the narrative details that subvert his own beliefs about gender. There is hope for us all, that despite our egocentric assumptions, the Spirit can give voice to God’s truth through us if we are willing! And we can be grateful to Luke for writing down the two announcements that have provided us with our theme: “Your daughters shall prophesy” and “you will be my witnesses.”

Anti-Religious Bias

But the achievements of the daughters who have always prophesied have not been obscured only by the androcentric folks who wrote religious history; their obscurity has been deepened by the anti-religious bias of many secular feminists, most of whom are theologically illiterate. Here I quote the words of Tina Beattie, who teaches theology at the University of Bristol in England:

[S]ecular feminism . . . still has a patriarchal blind spot with regard to the significance of Christianity in many women’s lives and the role of theology in the shaping of Western thought. [Even] in the work of feminist theologians, it is difficult to find any acknowledgment of just how effectively the secular sisterhood silences women’s theological voices. It is as if Cinderella is pretending that of course she has been invited to the ball, and steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that she has been confined to the entrance hall while the [wicked] sisters are having a ball without her in the banqueting rooms of the ivory tower.4

Any of us who have lived with one foot in academia and one foot in the church know exactly what Tina Beattie is talking about. Repeatedly, secular feminists have asked me why I waste my time with Christianity and have acted as if I am the only feminist who ever has. Some feminists, such as Daphne Hampson, have gone so far as to argue that a person cannot be both feminist and Christian. But even Hampson’s all-out attack is preferable to the feminist ignoring, silencing, and omission that has disempowered and helped to erase the existence of the daughters who have always prophesied.

Furthermore, even among the white feminist scholars of religion and theology, there has been an ignoring of evangelical scholarship and also of the voices of relatively unlearned women of faith who have nevertheless found ways to prophesy. (By contrast, most African American womanists have always been open to evangelical insights.)

Some Encouraging Signs

I see some signs that white feminist exclusion of evangelical work is beginning to dissipate, such as the fact that Nancy Hardesty was invited to write an article on Evangelical Feminism for the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, that I was invited to write an article for The Feminist Companion to the New Testament, and that Mary McClintock-Fulkerson of Duke Divinity School has argued that academic feminists in religion must stop acting like a “professional managerial class” that “knows better” than other Christian women.5

Fulkerson devotes almost 60 pages of her book on Changing the Subject to an analysis of the hitherto-unnoticed strategies of female self-empowerment used by Pentecostal women, pointing out that what may look to an outsider to be totally patriarchal, such as expressing complete dependence on a Father-god, may in practice be a discourse of liberation in certain contexts. Therefore, it should not be “neatly separated out as the oppressive patriarchal discourse” that keeps women submissive. Certainly some of us here in this room can testify that if certain elements of biblical faith were used to oppress us, other elements of that same faith were the keys that unlocked our prisons and set our spirits free.

Although as I’ve been saying, there are many factors that have obscured the truth that God’s daughters have always prophesied, in recent years some Christian feminist and womanist “lions” have come into their power and have begun to balance patriarchal religious history with the stories of women of faith. They have shown that in every era of the church’s existence, God’s daughters have prophesied.

Prophesying Daughters in History

I think of the women who testified and died as martyrs in the early years of Christianity, women such as Perpetua or Catherine of Alexandria. I think of Anabaptist martyrs such as the nursing mother Elizabeth who wrote a remarkable letter to her infant daughter just before being executed for her faith. I think of female missionaries who have died for their prophetic witness in previous centuries and in our own time as well. I think of the women mystics through the ages, from Marjorie Kempe and Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen and Joan of Arc through the Quaker women who prophesied ecstatically in 17th century England to contemporary mystics like Simone Weil or Dorothea Sölle.

I think of women theologians such as Marie de Gournay, who in 1622 wrote a pamphlet on the equality of men and women based on the Scriptural fact that both are equally made in the image of God. In that pamphlet she reminded her readers that sex is of the body, not the mind or the soul, and pointed out that Jesus was called the “son of man,” not because of Joseph but because of his mother. Sarcastically, she wrote that those who deny the image of God as female have mistaken their beard for the image of God and have denied it to those who do not possess beards.6

The modern feminist bumper-sticker joke, “Adam was a rough draft,” was anticipated by a prophetic daughter in 1399, Christine de Pizan, who argued that Eve was nothing less than God’s masterpiece.7 For me, one of the great pleasures of my feminist faith-journey has been to discover that the biblical exegesis I prepared for the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus 25 years ago had been anticipated through the centuries by God’s prophesying daughters I had never at that time heard a word about.

I hope all this at least begins to answer Linda Williams’ first question, “Who are these daughters who prophesy?” In Part II, I’ll move to her second question, “What is it they are to prophesy?” I will focus on contemporary Western theology, because that’s where we are, and here and now is the place and time in which our voices can make a prophetic contribution.

Notes 

1 Middoth 1.3, cited by Miriam Therese Winter in Woman Wisdom (N.Y.: Crossroad, 1991), p. 336, and Rose Sallberg Kam, Their Stories, Our Stories (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 144. 

2 Jane Schaberg, “Luke,” Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, ed. Carol A Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), pp. 363-380. 

3 Gail R. O’Day, “Acts,” Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, pp. 394-402. 

4 Tina Beattie,”Global Sisterhood or Wicked Stepsisters: Why Don’t Girls with God-Mothers Get Invited to the Ball?” In Is There a Future for Feminist Theology? ed. Deborah F. Sawyer and Diane M. Collier (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), p. 114. 

5 Mary McClintock-Fulkerson, Changing the Subject: Women’s Discourses and Feminist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), p. 395 and pp. 239-298. 

6 Elisabeth Gössman, “The Image of God and the Human Being in Women’s Counter-Tradition,” In Sawyer and Collier, Is There a Future for Feminist Theology?, p. 40 

7 Ibid., pp. 48-49.

© 2000, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is the author or co-author of 13 books, including several on women and religion. She is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award (in 2002) and has published numerous essays on literary topics in various scholarly journals. In 1975, she spoke at the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, D.C., and delivered plenary speeches at almost every gathering of the organization over the next 40 years. She has lectured widely on lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights and has also been active in the transgender cause. Mollenkott is married to Judith Suzannah Tilton and has one son and three granddaughters. She earned her B.A. from Bob Jones University, her M.A. from Temple University, and her Ph.D. from New York University. She received a Lifetime Achievement award from SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a direct-service and advocacy group for seniors in New York City in 1999. At age 85, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott continues to use her doctorate in English to share insights with folks who visit the EEWC and Mollenkott websites, and with elderly people in the Cedar Creek educational programs. She has recently taught an Elderhostel course on the poems of the Rev. Dr. John Donne, and is now preparing a Fall course on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. She deeply regrets that her severe arthritis forbids her presence at recent and wonderful street protests.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.