Rita Gross as Pioneer in the Study of Women and Religion

Article excerpt

Rita Gross has been a pioneer in shaping both the theory and practice of women and religion and in Feminist theology. Her pathbreaking work in these fields has received insufficient recognition among both feminists and scholars of religion. This session at the 2010 AAR meeting devoted to her work is a small rectification of this neglect. Rita has written more than 150 articles and written or edited around ten books. Three of these volumes--Beyond Androcentrism (1977), Feminism and Religion (1996), and A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religion Explorations (2009)--span her writing career and exemplify her contributions to the field of women and religion.

As Rita Gross makes clear, she went to the University of Chicago in the 1960s to explore the field of comparative religion, not to study women in religion explicitly. She was forced into this focus on women and has continued to return to this concern because of the resistance of the scholars in this field to paying attention to the ways in which half of humanity--women--participates in religion. Her concerns with women's roles in religion were shaped in response to the attitude of her mentors at the University of Chicago who insisted that what women did in religion was unimportant and was, in any case, covered by studying what men did in religion. One of these mentors ridiculed her by asking if she did not realize that the masculine is generic for humanness as a whole and so "includes the feminine." At most one might mention men's view of women. What women themselves think and do is irrelevant. At that time there were very few women in doctoral studies in religion at Chicago, and their teachers made clear that any concern with women as subjects of religion was a sure way to terminate their careers in the field.

It was in responding to these kinds of messages from her teachers that Rita began to craft, in the late 1960s and 1970s, a fundamental shift in the methodology of religious studies. This would shape her decision to write her doctoral thesis on women in Australian Aboriginal religion, to edit a group of essays in her 1977 volume, Beyond Androcentrism, as well as doing pioneering work with Nancy Falk in the volume Unspoken Worlds, where they demonstrated the transformative understanding of religions that opens up when scholars focused on women's roles.

This methodological shift, which Rita Gross has returned to again and again through her writings, she called the movement from androcentrism to androgyny. Androcentrism as a bias in religious studies, or any other field, means quite simply the assumption that the male (usually the elite male) is the normative human being. To understand the "essence" of the human in any field it is sufficient to study what this elite male thinks and does. For Rita this is not only an injustice to women, but it also means turning a blind eye to at least half of what is actually going on in this or any other field. In other words, what is wrong about androcentrism as a way of doing study in religion is that it gives one a partial and distorted picture of reality. It is bad empiricism.

The shift to androgyny means really looking equally at what women are doing as subjects of religion, not simply adding information about what men think of women. It is not that this information is totally absent or impossible to get. Often it is right there in the primary data, but is ignored by the scholars because of their androcentric bias. Bringing in women's activities and viewpoints as equal does not merely add a missing corner to the picture; it means transforming the whole picture. What men are thinking and doing is relativized and put in a larger context. For example, in understanding Australian Aboriginal religion one discovers not only that are women excluded from men's key rituals, but also that men are excluded from women's key rituals. The whole religion shifts from being understood as male dominant to being recognized as complementary. …