Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Feminist Theology, R.I.P.

So says Stephen (American Jesus) Prothero. Who is a smart guy, but in this case mistaken. Shall we explain?

Prothero, writing in a CNN guest blog, describes reading post-Christian philosopher Mary Daly with a class full of undergraduates, and discovering that [h]ardly any ... showed any sympathy for Daly’s critique of the “Superfather in heaven,” and, when I asked for a show of hands, only four of my hundred-plus students were willing to out themselves as “feminists.”

In contrast, he says that,
When I was in college a generation or so ago, just about everyone I knew was a feminist. The question wasn’t whether western civilization was sexist; the question was what to do about it, and how guilty each of us should feel in the meantime. Today, feminism is alive and well in academia.
He gives examples, but surely none are needed. And he then shares his theory that Ronald Reagan killed feminism, perhaps in league with Rush Limbaugh. And while we love to blame the Gipper for pretty much anything -- he's the AELC of American politics -- this seems like missing the real point.

We aren't sure when Prothero was in school, but from his picture we'd guess he's about our age. As an Eli, his education was probably not so different from our own, and yes indeed -- feminism was a big deal, even of the radical sort. We personally sat cross-legged on the carpet, listening to Andrea Dworkin hold forth on ... something. Damned if we remember. Probably about how bad we ourselves were, simply for lusting as we did after one or two of the young ladies in the front row, wearing their leotards and Indian skirts. Them we remember.

But times have changed. Feminism has changed. There's been a lot written about this, and we won't try to recap it. There's no doubt that, as a result of some persistent misrepresentation by the right, the word "feminist" has been tainted a bit in the public mind, just as Prothero suggests. Still, that's a secondary consideration. After all, Medicare and Social Security have survived the same treatment.

The principal fact to consider is that radical feminism, the kind represented by Andrea Dworkin and, in theology, by Mary Daly, was never all that influential outside the academy. (And, in fairness, among a handful of highly academic lawyers, like Catherine MacKinnon, and the lesbian separatist movement). Not so many people resonated with the claim that all heterosexual sex is rape, or the call to change your name to Hawkmoon Wymynchilde, move to Vermont, and raise pigs. Big surprise, huh?

(All this is distinct from the more mundane kind of feminism, which concerned itself with equal rights under the law, fair treatment in the workplace, and so forth. Of course there was a lot of overlap -- MacKinnon, for example, had a foot in both worlds. She helped create the modern understanding of sexual harassment, while fighting a vain and quixotic battle against girlie magazines.)

Funny thing, though. Because ministers, like lawyers, spend a pretty fair amount of time in school, radical feminism had -- and still has -- a niche position in American Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. Most of us are given some of the stuff to read, and inevitably a few people dig it. It's one of those hermeneutical positions, like neo-orthodoxy or inerrantism, which can strike a nerve and help to organize your thinking.

For the most part, the more extreme positions are modified by contact with the faithful in their pews. They don't mind a little eccentricity, but at a certain point they want their meat and potatoes, as well they should. It is only the odd-duck parish that will really get behind a pastor who obsesses endlessly about any single theological locus or, worse yet, theory. Such parishes exist, of course, and so the pastors do as well. But their numbers are inevitably limited. Thank God.

Where were we? Oh yes, then, back to Prothero, who has spent much of his life in the world of religious academia. For him, "feminism" means Dworkin and, especially, Daly. So when he teaches these niche-market period-pieces to modern young people, it is no wonder that they don't express much enthusiasm for what their teacher calls "feminism."

But that doesn't mean that feminism is dead, in theology or anywhere else. If Prothero defined feminism in terms of equality or even such seemingly unequal provisions as maternity leave, he would surely get a very different response. If, in theology, he gave his students something by Gail Ramshaw or Miriam Therese Winter -- neither one a sellout to the patriarchy, by any means -- he might find that their little undergraduate eyes lit up with some reflected fire. While strange enough to anybody from a traditional church background, especially of the more conservative sort, these are writers whose work is at least recognizable as Christian theology.

Did Prothero himself kill feminism? Not on purpose. But it strikes us that, if the word "feminism" -- as opposed to the thing itself -- has lost some cachet, the fault does not lie with Reagan alone. Some of it must be shared by the academics (and lawyers, and preachers) who have given too much attention to the most extreme voices in the movement, and too little to those most likely to persuade the multitudes.


Mark Christianson said...

Thanks, Father A. I think your analysis is pretty much on target. Prothero is too quick to assume that if the term feminism has been turned a dirty word, then feminism has been done in. It might be lamentable that the word is no longer embraced, but I think he's too closely uniting word and that which it defines, and much too quickly assuming that little sympathy for fairly radical feminism like that of Mary Daly is the same as a lack of interest in feminism, whether it is labeled that way or not. And he fails to acknowledge how there has been significant absorption of feminism into parts of our culture. The problem is that the absorption isn't universal by any means, and the lack of mainstream feminism remaining as a movement, or something easily named by most, means that the anti-feminists can easily make inroads.

I recently read on a political blog (Pam's House Blend, I believe) how the women's movement in the 70s had concerned itself with many issues, but now many think of it in terms of just one issue, abortion. (It then went on to consider if that was the direction that the gay rights movement is also moving toward.) Interesting idea. If a loss of feminist identification and feminist theology is an unfortunate circumstance, someone like Prothero who is identifying feminism with just the sort of critique that Mary Daly supplied, then I think he may actually be participating in moving it along toward irrelevancy.

mark said...

See: "The Sacred Feminine
Robert Hart on the Incarnation & the Ordained Ministry", in the current issue of Touchstone. Might make the postgraduate eyes um, never mind. ;-)

Pastor Joelle said...

I think his little in class survey just means that young women in college now are not going to identify themselves publicly as radical feminists. And all that means is that pressure to confirm is alive and well in the university.

Anonymous said...

Father A.,
I recently asked a friend who teaches at a Lutheran seminary if he could recommend any non-radical feminist female Lutheran theologians for me to read. He said that he couldn't think of any. Perhaps you or one of your readers could?

Father Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Every time we have an election, I think about what it would be like if 50% of Congress was female.

I don't think there's really any such thing as non-radical feminism; even the simplest things seem radical when you think of what it would really be like for women to have the same opportunities as men.

-- Anna