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Monday, March 26, 2007

Feminism's stormy history with religion

In October 1971, the Memorial Church at Harvard University invited professor Mary Daly to preach. No woman had ever preached in that church before and, at the time, Daly was a sponsor of "feminist theology," intent on changing the way society thinks about women, the Bible, the church, and religion.

Daly called her sermon "Beyond God the Father," a title she would use often in the ensuing decades. What she said was fiery and irreverent. But what made the event even more memorable is that, at the end of her sermon, she walked out of the church and asked the women in the congregation and sympathetic men to do the same. An assistant minister at the time wrote later. "The few of us who were left behind, sang the final hymn, 'Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,' and wondered what happened."

Well, what did happen? What did that walkout signify? Where did it leave "religion in general" and Judeo-Christianity in particular, for the remainder of the two decades of activism that we now call Feminism's Second Wave?

The celebration of Women's History Month in March gives us an opportunity to explore the sometimes rocky but always intense relationship between feminists and religion.

My conclusion — which may surprise you — is:

Even though certain churches are hostile to the claim of women's equal value to men in the eyes of God,

And even though others still remain unwilling to ordain women as deacons, ministers and priests,

One thing is certain: Many women continue to want some sort of larger-than-life Godhead or Spirit to whom they can express their needs, their awe and their gratitude.

This is not to imply that the relationship of feminism to religion hasn't been unruly.

When early women's-rights advocates argued for equality in the home, in the workplace and at the ballot box, they were met with the argument that women's subordination was justified in the Bible and was the will of God.

No wonder they felt they had to "rewrite" the Bible.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1895 "Woman's Bible" did just that. It gives us the flavor of what today we would call a "deconstruction" of the Holy Book from the point of view of the most significant women's-rights advocate of her time.

Stanton began by reinterpreting the Trinity. "Instead of three male personages as generally represented," she wrote, "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Sprit (presumed male) . . . a Heavenly Father, Mother, and Son would seem more rational."

Anger at the "Good Book" (the Bible) extended to anger at the priests, the rabbis, the mullahs and the shamans for excluding women as persons from the texts and as eligible for various priesthoods.

Some second-wave feminists gave up on Judeo-Christianity altogether and threw in their lot with fertility goddesses, who, they argue, had once reigned but were dethroned by a cabal of ancient males who replaced the idols of fertility with the abstraction of Monotheism.

The order: "Thou shalt worship no other gods besides ME," they argue, was nothing more or less than a cultural plot to keep women in their place. If God were male, then patriarchy would be (and for a long time has been considered) both "natural" and divinely ordained.

Still, many women's-rights activists have always been unwilling to leave their church and so a large number of feminists have striven to change it from within. The first step has been ordination.

Mark Chaves, professor and chair of sociology at the University of Arizona, lists in his book "Ordaining Women" the many Protestant denominations, beginning with the Universalists in 1863, that have ordained female ministers. Today, a large proportion of American Protestant churches allow women to conduct worship services and, in the case of the Reform Jewish Temple, to handle the Torah.

Embracing modernity

So, why was it not always like this? Why have our traditional religions emphasized male/female differences and reflected in the Godhead male superiority?

The reason is that life was short.

When men died in their early 40s and women often younger (during childbirth), males and females lived very different lives with few overlapping tasks and responsibilities. Traditional religion served them by providing rules and explanations that reflected their reality.

But with ever-increasing life expectancy (in the developed world), far fewer children to tie a mother down and power tools and "knowledge work" replacing hard labor, sex roles and sex differences — especially after age 50 — are no longer as relevant as they once were.

This combination of birth control and industrialization (and I am adding longevity to the mix) is called "modernity."

My view is that feminism and religion are compatible from a feminist perspective so long as religious leaders are willing to modernize their strictures to accommodate modern lives.

Today's great threat to women's continued emancipation, then, comes not from religion per se, but from the anti-modern fundamentalisms, whether Judeo-Christian or Muslim, which, in their determination to stamp out modernity, will restrict women to what they have decided are their "traditional" roles.

"In their sacred enclaves," Karen Armstrong writes about fundamentalism, here and in the Middle East, "fundamentalists overemphasize the traditional role of women because women's emancipation has become a hallmark of modernity."

The truth is many Muslim women embrace modernity — for the same reasons Christian women do. To my ears, Asma Barlas, a Muslim thinker and writer, sounds a lot like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Daly when she argues that "patriarchy is contrary to Islam, because it sets up men as rulers when only God should be seen as supreme."

Which is not so different from what I believe:

Religion, which is supposed to be about the search for eternal truths, should never be used as a means to oppress women.

No man should seek the meaning of life in patriarchy.

And no woman should accept any religion that assigns her a role that is at best secondary to men.

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