Introducing the Women & Religion Review Series

by Lori Rowlett

[From Feminist Collections v.24, no.2 (Winter 2003). ]

As recently as ten years ago, when I mentioned religion and feminism together, people would ask, “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”  Suppressing a sigh, I would begin at the beginning with an explanation of how women had begun to challenge their subordinate positions within various religious traditions. Today, such a large body of work has been produced on feminism and religion, I would hardly know where to begin. Women are transforming their traditions—or giving up on that and creating new ones.

When Phyllis Holman Weisbard and her co-editor JoAnne Lehman approached me with the idea of a book review series on women and religion, I recognized it as an idea whose time had arrived. While the problem a decade ago was a dearth of materials, the problem today is exactly the opposite: so many new and interesting books on women and religion are coming out every month, we had to come up with ways of grouping them into manageable categories.

We decided to begin at the most obvious starting point, with introductory textbooks and anthologies. A review of five such works, by theologian Charlene Burns, appears in this issue. Also in this issue we have included Deborah Louis’s review of nineteenth-century feminist critiques of Christinaity, equally germane to opening the dialogue since two of the books reviewed, Matilda Joslyn Gage’s Woman, Church and State and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible, helped to set the parameters of debate regarding religion for first wave American feminism.  Louis’s review also includes Kathi Kern’s Mrs. Stanton’s Bible, which concerns the same era and places some of the events in historical perspective.

We would like to follow these with reviews that cover the major religions of the world: Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and so on—by scholars with specialized knowledge of each field.  We are actively seeking reviewers to take up these topics.

In the Spring issue, Sara Meirowitz will review young women’s stories of their religious or spiritual journeys to and from many of the major religions. The books under review include Bare Your Soul: The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Enlightenment, a collection of essays from Seal Press, and Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, by Lauren Winner.  In the Summer issue, Alice Keefe will review several American Buddhist women’s memoirs and “personal quest” stories.

Some topics, however, do not fall so neatly into traditional categories. What about women’s fight for ordination, for example? We debated whether to examine books on the issue within each separate religious tradition—Judaism, Catholicism, the African American Church, or whatever—or to group them together to highlight the commonalities of women’s struggles across boundaries. We hope to engage a reviewer to do the latter.

Still other topics fall outside the world’s established religions altogether.  Feminist Collections did an issue many years ago that reviewed books on the feminist spirituality movement, with a focus on what is commonly called neopaganism.  Beginning in the late 1970s, many women, finding their own religions irredeemably filled with masculine imagery and resistant to change, followed Mary Daly’s exodus out of the established religious institutions in search of a woman-centered spirituality and sought to create their own new religions. Although the Western religions banned goddesses as remnants of a degenerate polytheism, women began to find deities made in their own (female) image in mythology from around the world.

Male scholars had long considered the earth-centered polytheisms of indigenous people to be an inferior “primitive” stage in the development of religion. Inevitably, they theorized, the “superior” and “sophisticated” monotheisms would replace the “savagery” of religions closely tied to nature and its processes.  Feminist the-a-logians (replacing the male “the-o” with the feminine “a” ending) reversed the values of male theologians, arguing that the separation from nature fostered by Western modes of thought, including religious thought, has caused the environmental crisis in which we find ourselves today; and that the masculine model of domination and conquest of nature has to be reversed and replaced with a  recognition that nature is not inert matter to be used, or used up.  It is alive; one could even say that it (she?) is life itself, and therefore sacred.

Along with connection to the earth, women’s spirituality has emphasized connection of people with each other. The wave of spirituality that grew up with second-wave feminism tended to valorize women’s difference from men, identifying women as kinder, gentler, less hierarchical, and less exploitative. Subsequent scholarship has problematized the picture of a cohesive women’s culture by pointing out the differences between women.

Early on in the feminist spirituality movement, Audre Lorde questioned Mary Daly’s focus on goddesses of (white) European origin. Immediately afterward, books began to include goddesses from many different cultures: African, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Australian Aboriginal. The main problem with some of the books from that period, especially those written for the popular market, was that the goddesses were isolated from their larger cultural and religious contexts. For example, a reader might learn about a Hindu goddess without learning how she fit into Bhakti Yoga in Hinduism or even realizing that Hinduism as practiced by most people in India today is a deeply patriarchal religion. Hindu women have their own struggles for equality, unique to their tradition. Books with a smorgasbord of goddesses divorced from their contexts fail to take other cultures seriously.  Recent works have questioned some of the earlier biases.

Meanwhile, the feminist spirituality movement has developed other branches. Many women (in Western cultures and elsewhere) have elected to remain within their religious traditions, attempting to transform them from inside. Rather than diverging from the goddess movement, however, women in Christianity, Judaism, and other established religions have influenced and been influenced (perhaps even nourished) by the neopagans. Points of convergence can be seen in theologians like the Catholic Rosemary Radford Reuther and the Protestant Sallie McFague, both of whom seek to create a more earth-friendly Christian theology.  A similar transformation is taking place within Judaism’s “eco-kosher” movement, with books like Ellen Bernstein’s Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet (Jewish Lights Publications, 2000).  Monotheism, these scholars argue, need not be anathema to love of the earth.

Scholarship today includes many such convergences, while at the same time taking seriously the very real differences between diverse cultures. Our challenge is to do justice to the subtle distinctions, without losing sight of the similarities in women’s situations with regard to religion. We hope that in this review series we can lay open both the commonalities and the diversity of women’s experience, as seen in the many resources coming out today on women’s religion and spirituality.

[Lori Rowlett has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Cambridge University in England and a Master of Theological Studies degree from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  She has taught Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, Southern Methodist University, Iowa State University, the College of William and Mary, and Christopher Newport University, Virginia, and is currently on the faculty of the Women’s Studies Program and the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.  She  lives with her partner Sherri and four dogs.]


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Mounted July 14, 2003.