Fifteen Years of Ferment

By Kalven, Janet | Monthly Review, July-August 1984 | Go to article overview

Fifteen Years of Ferment

Kalven, Janet, Monthly Review

Religious feminists are a minority of a minority, distrusted by their co-religionists because of their feminism and regarded with some suspicion by other feminists because of their religious loyalties.

But in the past 15 years, the rising tide of feminist consciousness has had an effect on all significant religious traditions in the United States--Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, Mormon. And the tribe of religious feminists has continued to increase, drawing more and more support from one another as they continue to apply a feminist analysis to religious traditions.

The First Stirrings: Voices in the Wilderness

How did feminist theology originate? What factors have contributed to its development? The first American to voice a feminist criticism of religion was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in 1898 published The Women's Bible, convinced that women would never gain their rights so long as the Bible was used to legitimate their inferiority as "Adam's rib" and "seductress and source of sin." Among Catholics, the first voices spoke out in the early 1960s, stimulated by negative events at Vatican II: the exclusion of Catholic women as auditors; the refusal to let distinguished economist Barbara Ward address the assembled fathers (her paper was read to them by a man!); the refusal to allow women journalists to attend the council mass along with their male colleagues. Under the title Wir Schweigen Nicht Langer (We Won't Keep Quiet Any Longer) Swiss lawyer Gertrud Heinzelman formally petitioned the council in 1962 to open priesthood to women, pointing out the oppressive character of church teaching and practice with regard to women. German theologian Josefa Munch and the St. Joan's Alliance, originally a Catholic lay women's suffrage organization, also petitioned the council. There was no specific response.

By the mid-1960s, a scattering of articles criticizing the status accorded to women in the church had appeared in American Catholic publications such as Commonweal. Among the emerging authors were Rosemary Lauer, of the philosophy department of St. John's University; Rosemary Ruether, who would soon join the school of religion faculty at Howard University, which brought her into the thick of civil rights, black and liberation theologies and the growing peace movement; sociologist Sister Mary Augusta Neal; Sidney Callahan, who held up an ideal of full human development for women from her perspective as Catholic wife and mother; and Mary Daly. Daly, of St. Mary's/Notre Dame, had gone on for her advanced theological degree at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

Daly's The Church and the Second Sex was published in 1968. Its effect in the U.S. church was almost immediate. And Daly herself would become an increasingly controversial figure through the next half-dozen years as she fought for tenure in the theology department of Boston College and expanded her feminist position until she stood beyond Catholicism and even Christianity as generally understood.

Meanwhile, the general feminist movement, which traced its genesis to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the creation of the National Organization for Women in 1966, was becoming increasingly active and vocal. The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam protests, the political activity of the new left were the training ground, or at least the example, for many of its leaders. But it had touched a raw nerve and aroused enthusiasm among many who did not consider themselves politically or sexually radical and who, by 1970, represented a wide cross section of women.

Awareness of the feminist critique of the churches was also spreading. In 1969 Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo, of the Grail, and Catherina Halkes, a Dutch lay woman on the pastoral theology faculty of the Catholic University of Nijmegen, brought together about 35 people--mostly women, mostly Catholics, Dutch, Belgian, French, Swiss, German, American--at the Grail Center in the Netherlands to consider "The Cooperation of Men and Women in Church and Society. …

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