From the Listserv!

Rebecca Saulsbury

 6/01/01

Can One Be a Christian Feminist?

My comments are in response to Sarah's thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on feminism in the Bible-belt and to a few postings on the listserv commenting on her essay. One posting asked if feminism and Christianity are mutually exclusive in light of Sarah's experience.

I am a Feminist and a Christian, and I do not believe the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, quite the contrary. My early experiences with Christianity were somewhat different from Sarah's, as I was baptized in and attended an Episcopal church across the street from the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s and 1970s. Liberal in its theology and congregation while maintaining traditional ritual practices, this church taught me, by faith and example, that Christian faith is all-inclusive, welcoming all without prejudice and treating them as equals in the body of Christ.

I was only nine years old when women were first ordained in the Episcopal church, so I grew up seeing and hearing women interpret Scripture and conveying those interpretations with the authority that had previously been reserved only for men. I grew up hearing the stories of heroic women in the Bible. In Sunday services and Sunday School, I learned that Christian faith must be accompanied by a commitment to social justice, as demonstrated by Christ. As my feminist consciousness emerged in high school, my Christian faith increased, not diminished.

I do not want to convey an uncomplicated, Pollyanna view of Christianity, nor do I discount feminists' critique of patriarchy and oppression in Christianity (indeed, I share those views). As many feminist theologians have pointed out, however, (and I am NOT an expert in this area), the problem seems to lie in the relationship between feminism and the development of the organized church. When the central body of Christianity organized itself based on the Roman empire, women were pushed out. However, in the "far-flung" areas of Christianity, that is, those away from Rome--Ireland, for example, women continued to play strong, active roles (equal to men) in Christianity. Hildegard Von Bingen and St. Bridget are just two examples of such women.

Also, most religious conservatives (and I apologize to any who may take issue with this statement) rely on Paul's letters to individual churches to keep women down and to justify a patriarchal hierarchy. And Paul often gets a bum rap, as he was trying to help infant churches survive in an extremely hostile environment. Robin Scroggs provides an insightful, alternative, and more historically grounded interpretation of Paul's letters in Paul for a New Day (unfortunately, this book is now out of print, but check the library or buy it used at this link). Paul actually considered the long-held practice of women's subordination to men to have been overcome by Christ (see Galations, for instance).

However, when considering the relationship between feminism and Christianity, it is perhaps most important to look at Christ's relationship with women. If you consider Christ as a historical figure (see, for example, Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: the Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith) and look at the Gospels that chronicle his relationships with individuals as well as the Roman Empire, you can see that Christ was not only a social revolutionary but also a revolutionary in his relationships with women. The account of Jesus speaking with the woman at the well, for instance, broke two taboos: he engaged in a theological conversation with a woman who also happened to be Samaritan, or an "untouchable" to the established Jewish community and religion. By talking to her, he violated all rules of ritual cleanliness and purity. And this example is only one of many. Christ considered Martha and Mary and Mary Magdalena some of closest friends. Mary Magdalena, in particular, was a wealthy woman who gave money to Christ and Christ considered her one of his most valued confidants. Historians and theologians have also argued that Christ had female disciples, but since men wrote the Gospels, their participation was left out. Consider, too, that immediately after his resurrection, Christ appeared FIRST before women--it was women who announced his "life after death" to his male disciples. After Christ's death, women served as ministers of the Early Christian church, preaching, praying, and prophesying along with men.

Of course, I could also go into a detailed discussion about how Christianity proved an important vantage point for nineteenth-century white women in the first wave of the woman's movement (see for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Woman's Bible) and also for nineteenth-century African American women who liberated themselves from the double bind of chattel slavery and patriarchy. Numerous black women were preachers in the early AME church, despite opposition from the men. Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Julia Foote preached the gospel, challenging women's traditional roles and argument for women's authority in spiritual matters. All three argued for their legitimacy as preachers (see Sisters of the Spirit, a collection of African-American their spiritual narratives, edited by William Andrews). See also Jane Tompkins chapter in her book Sensational Designs on Susan Warner's subversive use of Christianity and the doctrine of submission in The Wide, Wide World (reprinted by The Feminist Press, incidentally). I could give many more examples, but this is a good start I think.

For an excellent discussion of the role of women in the Bible and Christianity, see the entry for "Women" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. The entry is lengthy and informative and written by several scholars, mostly women. Rebecca Lyman's Early Christian Traditions gives an account of Christianity before its formal organization. Cullen Murphy's The Word According to Eve: Women in the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own provides a helpful introduction to feminist theology. See also the work of Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, a well known feminist theologian. There are many, many titles that discuss women and Christianity, Feminism and Christianity.

The sheer preponderance of texts ought to prove that the two belief systems are not, and do not have to be, mutually exclusive. One such title, The Feminine Face of God by Patricia Hopkins and Sherry Ruth Anderson, discusses more than just Christianity, and includes a scholarly but readable account of how the feminine aspect of divinity has been masculinized in Christianity and Judaism, but how this has not always been the case. Another great text which every woman interested in female spirituality should have is Barbara G. Walker's The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, which is painstakingly researched and interesting, exploring everything from the female pope to Isis to the Green Man.


Rebecca Saulsbury
Florida Southern College

(Editor's note: The last paragraph, with its recommended texts was added by me).

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