What is the Role of Religious Feminists?

Dear Letha,

In your last letter, you discussed the sad reality that the oppression of women has been intimately interwoven with religious dogma. I would like to continue that discussion, because I have been recently trying to parse out what ought to be the role of religious feminists within this larger conversation of women’s/human rights.

Because religion and women’s oppression are so linked, it seems that feminist movements desperately need the voices of religious feminists—those who can speak into religion on its own terms. I would go so far as to say that secular feminists movements will fail if they don’t partner with religious feminists, because at least in an American context, the religious ethos infuses the political and social ethos of our country. That was, of course, a point you also made in your August 19 letter, as you spoke about the awareness of this among many of the 19th century feminists. They realized they needed to address oppressive religious teachings directly. I’m becoming increasingly aware of that need in our day, too.

Reading the Words of the Pioneers

As you know, I started my classes at Yale a few weeks back, and one of the classes I am taking is called “History of U.S. Feminist Thought.” For that class, we’ve been reading a book called Feminism: The Essential Writings of History, edited by Miriam Schneir. (When the title says “history,” it actually means Western history; the scope of the book is mainly limited to feminist thought in the U.S. and England.) What is apparent in my reading is that when feminist pioneers in the U.S. were busy advocating for basic political rights, using the terms of Enlightened democracy, it was equally important that they could articulate gender equality using the terms of religious teachings and traditions.

These early women’s rights advocates could not dismiss religion as irrelevant or hopelessly impervious to change, as so many modern day secular feminists are tempted to do. Faith, particularly Christian faith, was a powerful force in this country in the 19th century, as it still is today, so any progress on women’s rights had to be done by gaining ground on the religious front. And while I know I have written about this topic in previous letters, I continue to be amazed by how articulate these writers were in arguing for women’s rights from a spiritual perspective. In fact, many of them were strong believers themselves, so the principles they were arguing sprung authentically from deep faith-filled lives.

From my vantage point as a divinity school student, I am interested in learning about the arguments historically used by religious leaders to silence such women and how these women then responded. My hunch is that history is really quite cyclical, and therefore studying the strategies of these early feminists will help us today.

The Case of the the Congregationalist Clergy

For instance, just to offer one historical example I’ve been reading about, when Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, spoke publicly as abolitionists, the Congregationalist Clergy of Massachusetts sent out a “Pastoral Letter” to be read in all the Congregationalist churches throughout the state (Schneir 35). The letter did not specifically mention the Grimkes, but it did speak out against their actions. And what were the Grimke sisters doing wrong, according to the Congregationalist Church? They were abandoning their “natural” place as women, of course, by speaking in public and being involved in a political cause. (What is assumed to be “natural” has always had important weight in this debate on women’s proper spheres.) The religious authorities decreed there was danger of “permanent injury” being done to the female character if women like the Grimkes continued such scandalous, ungodly, and unnatural behavior of speaking in public—especially to “mixed assemblies” in which men were present. (36).

What can sometimes be difficult to imagine from our place in history is that just the act of a woman speaking in public—no matter what she was speaking on—was offensive. Most religious leaders felt that only men could have a public voice. (This idea, I am afraid, hasn’t changed in many of our churches.)  From my vantage point, the condemnation from the churches against these women was not only rooted in sexism and ignorance, but was also a red herring for ignoring the real horrors these women were trying to hold them accountable for: How could a “Christian” nation continue to choose to enslave human beings for the economic gain of other human beings? How could Christian male slave owners think they had the right to rape their female slaves whenever they wanted to, inflicting profound physical and psychological harm? (When Sarah Grimke raised this question, she doesn’t use the word “rape” in her discussion—her language is not so explicit—but her point is nonetheless clear.)

Many religious authorities did not want to face the weight of these questions coming from women like the Grimkes, so instead they viciously attacked the character of the women who dared to raise the questions, claiming the very act of a woman speaking in public was a shame on her sex and a disgrace before God. (But, of course, it was not just from religion that women were condemned for speaking in public. Society-at-large had very strict ideas about the “natural” place of women. In fact, it was because so many abolitionist women suffered such widespread prejudice that a specific movement for women’s rights was first born in our country.)

Noticing Specific Strategies

So, because I want to learn from these women, I want to ask just how did women who were fighting for abolition and suffrage engage religion on its own terms?  How did they dismantle patriarchal norms in religion in order to advance their political goals?

Sarah Grimke, in responding to the condemnation of the Congregationalist Clergy, repeatedly focused on the principle that women have a moral responsibility before God, just as men do, to use their gifts and act for the good of humanity. She wrote:

The motto of woman, when she is engaged on the great work of public reformation should be,—“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid.” She must feel, if she feels rightly, that she is fulfilling one of the important duties laid upon her as an accountable being, and that her character, far from being ‘unnatural,’ is in exact accordance with the will of Him to whom, and to no other, she is responsible for the talents and gifts confided to her. (Schneir 42, italics are mine)

Furthermore, she explained that the duties of following Christ, as laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, make no distinction based on sex. Both men and women were called by God to “let their light shine.” But, men have distorted Scripture and kept women from being able to live as moral agents with the freedom to use their gifts.  Why have they done this? Because, Sarah Grimke claimed, the ”lust of dominion was probably the first effect of the fall; and as there was no other intelligent being over whom to exercise it, woman was the first victim of his unhallowed passion” (38). Thus she is using the Christian doctrine of sin to open up a conversation on women’s rights. In unforgettable language, she wrote that she was asking “no favors for my sex” but only that her Christian brothers would “take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy” (38).

Sarah Grimke didn’t mince words. No wonder the powerful male leaders of her day wanted her sit down and shut up—the stakes were high if such a strong, articulate woman as Grimke was allowed to keep speaking. She was boldly threatening an entire system of white, male privilege on whose ideology our country was founded. For as much as we like to think of our country today as rooted in democratic ideals, this country was not actually a democracy until the 20th century. It was a patriarchy until 1920 and a ”slaveocracy” (I am using Toni Morrison’s term from her book Playing in the Dark) until 1865, and we need to face that heritage. We are still recovering from slaveocracy and patriarchy; we are still giving birth to the truest expression of democracy in America. Sarah Grimke was part of that birthing process.

Encouragement for Today’s Moment

Women, like Sarah Grimke, are my “clouds of witnesses,” as the Bible says in the Book of Hebrews. They remind me that in some ways many things have not changed in the cultural landscape of America: Christian authorities are still spouting falsehoods, upholding injustice, and creating red herrings to avoid real political and social issues. Meanwhile, the roots of the Gospel—a Gospel of truth, righteousness, and freedom for the oppressed—continues to hold tremendous power to unbound the chains of injustice. But, what feels crucial to me is that there are yet feminists who know how to engage religion on its own terms. This country is still highly religious, and the work of women’s rights will still need to articulate itself well on religion grounds.

That, of course, is the reason why I am at Yale Divinity—because I want to be part of that work. But, as you know Letha, I struggle at times in using the label “Christian feminist,” because I don’t see my calling as being limited to just religious spheres. At the same time, I know that in my historical moment—just as in 19th century America— there is a pressing need to dismantle patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia from within faith communities. In your last letter you talked so well about the significance of a “born-again” believer like Jimmy Carter standing up for women’s rights. To advance the cause of justice, women and men who understand and can speak from within their faith traditions, will need to continue to stand up.

I deeply believe that this century holds tremendous potential for dismantling this entire matrix of oppression—our intersecting systems of oppressions based on gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. But, I don’t think that this dismantling can be done if faith traditions sit on the sidelines of justice. Like it or not, religion is not only knit into the fabric of our matrix of oppression, but also paradoxically has the tools, power, and passionate followers who are capable of being part of creating a more just world.

Final Thoughts: Partnering Together Across Differences

As you know, Letha, last weekend I attended the Women and Power conference at the Omega Institute in New York. The conference was designed to help promote feminist dialogue across the generations. One thing I realized while participating in the conference was the tremendous diversity of people wanting to work on behalf of women’s rights. One speaker I want to highlight is Sakena Yacoobi, who gave me holy chills when I listened to her speak. She is a devout Muslim woman who is the president and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning. She has risked her life under the Taliban to bring health education to women and children, schools to boys and girls, and guidance for young women in how to navigate being positioned in a patriarchal context.  As part of her work, she believes that if people had access to education, they could reclaim the message of peace which she believes is written into a true practice of Islam. She has also in seasons of her life worked beside Christian activists, who similarly believed in the underlying message of justice and peace within Christianity.

When I hear about the work of women like Yacoobi, I realize that today is no time to jettison religion from the feminist platform. If progressive thinkers dismiss religion, we are only leaving it the hands of fundamentalists who will then control dogma to oppress people. It is crucial that thoughtful, articulate people of many different faith traditions do the work of reclaiming religion for its messages of justice and peace.

As a 3rd wave feminist, I long for a movement large enough to embrace the gifts of diversity—whether we are religious or not— but always focused enough to partner together to alleviate human suffering and advance justice. I think that such a partnership is critical to making key advancements in the human rights issues of our century.

Your friend,

Kimberly

Kimberly George
Kimberly B. George directs Critical Social Theory Consulting, an innovative business that brings specialized academic theory on power, privilege, and social justice (including the tools of feminist, critical race, and queer theory) into spaces such theory is not traditionally taught. Kimberly holds an MA (summa cum laude) from Yale University, where she was a Merit Scholar from 2009–2011, and a Postgraduate Associate in Gender Equity and Policy from 2012–2013. She’s currently a doctoral student, where her scholarship focuses on structural violence, psychic life, and creative pedagogies. Kimberly is also a writing consultant, supporting both creative and academic writers. Her own writing has appeared in such publications at The Feminist Wire, NewBlackMan (in Exile),The New Haven Register, The Washington Spectator, Feministing.com, and The OpEd Project’s ByLine Blog.

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