The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of Christian Feminism

edited by Reta Halteman Finger and Kari Sandhaas.
Innisfree Press: Philadelphia, 2004.
269 pp, $17.95 softcover.

Reviewed by Anne Linstatter

The Wisdom of Daughters book coverIn September, 1974, a daughter was born in Chicago. She lived only 20 years but her grace and truth changed many lives. The Wisdom of Daughters is a collection of articles, poems, and art that gives us today a glimpse of who she was and how powerfully God used her.

“I have to tell our truth while I have breath,” she said, as recorded in a poem by Irene Zimmerman.

This book is a breath-taking potion of strong truths about women, Scripture, church, family, society, history. It took years to uncover and digest these truths, appearing quarterly in the journal Daughters of Sarah, yet here are many of the strongest, funniest and most unsettling pieces, side by side in dazzling intensity.

Reading them now is critical to your survival. Yes, if you’re like me, you have many issues of DoS stacked on shelves in your garage or basement, but these life-giving words deserve better. For instance, “The Elder Sister” by Virginia Wiles hit me like a sermon spoken by someone spying on my life today. It’s about the typical young woman’s “sin of self-sacrifice (sacrifice of the self),” which leads to enmeshment, as opposed to the male’s sin of pride leading to alienation. I remember hearing or reading about this years ago, but I need to hear Wiles’ conclusion again today: “For one who is enmeshed (with others, with God), Christ suspends the ultimacy of her relationships, without destroying those relationships.”

ProphesyThis illustration by Kari Sandhaas (p.259) was the cover art for the Summer, 1992 "Prophecy" issue of Daughters of Sarah. With Kari's permission, it also served as the logo for EEWC's Conference 2000 , held in Chicago, which was built around the theme, "And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy-You Shall Be My Witnesses."

If you weren’t following biblical feminism in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s (or weren’t born yet), this book will provide a kaleidoscopic history of the ideas and issues that swept through our souls during those years. It’s a great gift to give a Generation X feminist, or to give to some friend or relative still standing on the Beverly LaHaye side of the fence–no telling what the two-edged sword of truth might do.

If you were a part of it all, as I was, you will read with special delight, recognizing names and articles, laughing at the seriousness with which we confronted things like the “Chain of Command” in 1980, shivering to remember the animosities aroused by debates over abortion and homosexuality.

Repeatedly this book reminded me of how deeply EEWC and Daughters of Sarah have been intertwined. They are like two sisters, or two groups of sisters with some belonging to both communities; many authors in the book have also been EEWC’s national council members, coordinators, plenary speakers. It was a joy to encounter beloved names such as Lucille Sider Dayton, Gracia Fay Ellwood, Roberta Nobleman, Juanita Wright Potter.

Remembering all these sisters who wrote for Daughters of Sarah and worked for EEWC, in the context of the first chapter, “Women in Scripture” and the last chapter, “Herstory,” I got a sense of how our generation fits into the sweep of time. Sarah, Huldah, Mary of Magdala, Perpetua, Edna Griffin, Phoebe Palmer, Catherine Mumford Booth, and Mahalia Jackson live on in Reta Halteman Finger, Nancy Hardesty, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and the rest of us led by the Holy Spirit today.

In 1978 Lucille told Daughters readers that in 1892, Catherine Booth’s son wrote of her, “She was to the end of her days an unfailing, unflinching, uncompromising champion of woman’s rights.” This is important to remember in the years 2001, 2002, 2003, as we struggle against oppression, be it in the form of the Taliban or the Roman Catholic Church. We can never give up, whether facing attitudes in our homes and families that still entrap us, customs in our churches, or poisons in our culture. We can’t rest as long as there is one person left who thinks there is a contradiction between feminism and Christianity, or one who thinks “women’s liberation” was a new thing in 1968.

Another reason to buy this book: like me, you may have missed an issue or two of DoS while changing diapers or writing a dissertation. Here the most memorable articles are gathered together, probably including some of the pieces you missed. “Fear of Aging: The Beginning of Wisdom” by Kristin Johnson Ingram is a profound, beautifully written piece that I missed in January, 1991. Perhaps aging didn’t interest me then–I was only 42, and the author writes about turning 60: “But time has brought me to the brink of old age, and pushed me in, and I must swim madly toward death and then God. . . .”

The book’s organization by subject matter tantalized me–I kept noticing the date of each article and thinking about chronology. It fascinated me that in 1976 Nancy gave us her research and rethinking on Ephesians 5:23 “The husband is the head of the wife…”; in 1988 (not long after Fresno), Virginia carefully defined the differences between homophobia, heterosexism, acceptance and affirmation. In 1992 Joanne Carlson Brown asked whether our theology of atonement is an example of “Divine Child Abuse?” In 1994 Virginia reports being “just returned from Minneapolis, where I participated in Re-imagining.”

What I want to read now is a chronological study of the development of our thought–the history of ideas approach. Perhaps Sue Horner’s forthcoming book will provide some of that–or perhaps this is someone else’s dissertation waiting to happen.

I liked the editors’ decision to follow the piece on divine child abuse with some of the invited responses and reader responses that appeared at the time. They illustrate the breadth of theologies among us, and one reader (Peggy Haymes) responds “I am grateful that Daughters of Sarah is a forum in which Christian feminists can disagree with one another.” She is frustrated with “the assumption that all Christian feminists… think alike.”

In fact, any one of us does not necessarily think the same thing from one day to the next. Change and growth are hallmarks of this collection–and a word that pops up frequently is confusion. Jan Lugibihl reports feeling confused in 1987 about how to understand personal sin vs. institutional sin in the case of sex workers in Olongapo, The Philippines; Silvia Cancio sees confusion in 1989 about use of the term “women of color.” In 1985 Karen Osman says, “If I went to an abortion rally today, I would carry a big sign reading: ‘Anti-abortion / Prochoice.’ Everyone would heap insults on my confused head….” Providing honesty rather than easy answers is one of the achievements of the DoSauthors and editors throughout their twenty years.

At any rate, I want to say thank you to the collective mothers who gave us Sarah, and to Reta and Kari for putting together this book in her memory. But thank you also to Letha, who continues to care for her less glamorous sister, the EEWC Update, a kind of handmaiden or Hagar, keeping us in touch, reminding us of Sarah.


 © 2001 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 25 number 3 Fall 2001


Anne Linstatter
Anne Linstatter was present at the founding of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now Christian Feminism Today) and attended most of the organization’s conferences. She looks forward to celebrating fifty years of CFT in 2024. A long-time Californian, she taught “Women & Religion” among other courses at California State University, Northridge, and is working on a memoir, Off Track: Confessions of a Feminist Christian.