Women's Awareness Rooted in Church

By Briggs, Kenneth A. | National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 1995 | Go to article overview

Women's Awareness Rooted in Church


Briggs, Kenneth A., National Catholic Reporter


MILWAUKEE -- Religion, a breeding ground for patriarchy, has served over the centuries as the chief catalyst for the rise of feminist consciousness, a leading scholar of women's history told a conference here this week.

Gerda Lerner, professor of history emerita and former head of women's studies at the University of Wisconsin, told the History of Women Religious Conference that her research on the development of feminist thought led her to conclude, quite surprisingly, that the "main source" of women's consciousness was found in the recesses and folds of church history.

Such notables as medieval mystics Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich "appropriated the Bible and used it for their own purposes," intrpreting passages with feminist sensibilities and using both female and androgynous imagery to describe the divine. Despite oppression by men, Lerner said, these and other women "wrote themselves into the story of redemption."

Because women had no intellectual or scholarly standing, she asserted, their individual writings were ignored and rarely transmitted to subsequent generations of women. It is only recently, she added, that scholars have become aware of that rich storehouse and the feminist legacy that it somewhat covertly nurtured. Lerner is the author of The Creation of Feminist Consciousness.

The emergence of women religious into the mainstream of historical scholarship was greeted as a most encouraging sign by the more than 200 participants at the conference on the campus of Cardinal Stritch College. It came at a time when attention to the rediscovery of the origins and purposes of religious communities is on the rise -- an increase given great impetus by Vatican II -- and at a time when historians are refining methods to uncover sisters' histories.

Like two of the organization's previous conferences, the Milwaukee meeting featured plenary sessions on broad themes of feminist thought. It also included seminars on subjects ranging from particular foremothers and the influence of Irish nuns in Boston and San Francisco to the historian as detective.

Lerner's research was viewed by participants as a major breakthrough in efforts to place the history of sisters on the larger historical stage. …

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