Religious Feminists


Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality
Leora Tanenbaum
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, 368 pp., $27.00, hardcover

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion
By Danya Ruttenberg
Boston: Beacon Press, 2008, 256 pp., $16.00, paperback

Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl.
By Susan Campbell
Boston: Beacon Press, 2009. 215pp., $24.99, hardcover

A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith
By Nancy Mairs
Boston: Beacon Press, 2007, 142 pp., $15.00, paperback

Reviewed by Ann Braude


Four decades after Christian and Jewish feminists began a lively debate about whether their churches and synagogues were capable of moving beyond longstanding sexist practices and beliefs, the wisdom of some of what they abandoned is being rediscovered by their younger sisters. In the intervening decades, tens of thousands of women have been ordained; egalitarian prayer books, rituals and lectionaries have come into common use; and women of Islam and other faiths have joined the conversation. Feminist concerns have sent waves, and sometimes generated reactions, through every sector of American religion. Yet most religious Americans worship in groups that continue to view women as incapable of the highest levels of religious leadership, including Roman Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and Christians, Southern Baptists, and other biblical literalists. In these four books, feminist voices from within those groups assert both a stance of radical equality and a hunger and thirst to live out that radical equality within the embrace of institutional religion.

It is this sense of ownership, of both feminism and religious faith, that sets these books apart from the rich body of work that precedes them, on feminist theology, biblical scholarship, the ordination of women, and women’s religious history. The authors view themselves as legitimate heirs of institutions that have rejected, alienated, or maligned them. Likewise they view feminism as a birthright that can help them enjoy the riches of meaning-filled lives of holiness. They intentionally distinguish themselves from the academic and ecclesiastical pioneers on whose shoulders they stand, convinced that they see a new kind of feminist vision from these prodigious heights.

Leora Tanenbaum provides one of the most broad ranging and sensitive accounts of religious feminism to date in Taking Back God. The book focuses on five religious communities: Catholics, evangelical Protestants, “mainline” (nonevangelical) Protestants, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews. To learn about egalitarian activism she attended one relevant conference of each faith and conducted 95 interviews.

For readers new to religious feminisms, Tanenbaum provides accessible introductions to major themes of women’s quest for equality in each faith, painting a big picture while incorporating compelling personal stories. And here is where Tanenbaum’s writing shines. The compassion she feels for women struggling for equality so that they can deepen their faith produces even-handed yet passionate treatments of faiths historically at odds with each other.

What do women want who are deeply committed to their traditions yet unhappy with limitations placed on women within them? Tanenbaum neatly summarizes four collective goals: 1) to see women in leadership roles within their church, mosque, or synagogue; 2) to be represented in the language of their liturgy.; 3) to gain religious recognition that their physical bodies are normal and not aberrant; and 4) to be recognized as people created fully in the image of God.

Herself an example of the phenomenon she seeks to document, Tanenbaum explains, “I have so much freedom and so many choices, I can follow paths my grandmothers could only have dreamed about. . . . Following the Jewish path keeps me sane in the face of endless—often confusing—choices.” This combination of pragmatism and love of her tradition keeps her from inquiring too deeply into some of the theological sticky-wickets that have troubled feminist theologians and reinforced male power structures. She dispatches Mary Daly’s conclusion that Christianity is inherently oppressive to women and cannot be reformed, cheerfully asserting, “I disagree. Reform is not impossible. To my mind Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are strong enough that they can withstand a little reform without compromising their core values.” And many of the women she interviewed share this view, waging their struggles for equality within parameters that allow them to continue to feel orthodox. Both Orthodox Jewish and Muslim feminists, she notes, feel comfortable with separate seating for men and women during worship. They simply want the women’s seating to equal men’s in comfort and access to the essentials of worship, rather than being crowded into cramped quarters where they cannot see or hear the preaching, teaching, and liturgy. In short they want equality so that they can be more religious.

Tanenbaum traces her comfort with such paradoxes to her Jewish education. “I happen to like contradictions,” she writes. “They transform stories into puzzles that need to be solved.” Talmudic study, she explains, shows “contradictions as opportunities to delve deeper into the material, rather than as obstacles to level and trample over.” The Torah’s contradictory messages about women’s place, she concludes, are similar to those experienced by women living in modern America:

Don’t we Americans trumpet women’s equality even while we limit women’s reproductive decision making and their ability to earn a living while mothering young children? Don’t we Americans tell women that their beauty comes from the inside even while we praise them for their physical appearance?

Tanenbaum asserts that change comes from the grassroots, not the theological elite, and that she is documenting the views of such “ordinary women.” Although her account depends heavily on leading scholars of religious feminism, her sympathies clearly lie with pragmatic activists, not with nuanced theoreticians. She holds fast to the view that to make women’s religious leadership possible women must simply take the roles they wish to inhabit. By doing it, they prove that it is possible.

As a case in point she offers the Roman Catholic Womanpriests, who have received ordination outside the sanction of the Vatican, and with little sympathy from pre-eminent Catholic feminist theologians. These scholars, she notes, advocate a “discipleship of equals” or “a priesthood of the people.” Ordaining women to the priesthood, in their view, reinforces the hierarchy of the church, helping to keep an oppressive power structure alive rather than dismantling it. “I can certainly see the attraction,” writes Tanenbaum, “but would such a religious movement be, well, Catholic?” So Tanenbaum comes out resolutely on the side of those who see the ordination of women as a pragmatic stepping stone toward a more inclusive church.

In Surprised by God, journalist-turned-rabbi Danya Ruttenberg narrates her journey toward the precincts of religious observance where Tanenbaum’s religious feminists already live. Ruttenberg established herself as a vigorous and iconoclastic voice in the anthology, Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (2001), which she coedited with Susannah Heschel. In Surprised by God, she narrates her own spiritual journey, in which feminism is a given and the value of self-expression a non-negotiable. “Feminism . . . like punk . . .saved me from having to fear my intelligence or my strength, and it helped me to articulate why I was so repelled by the pretty girl aspirations of so many of my classmates” The surprise that motivates her story is her discovery that “I could be religious without losing any fundamental parts of myself.” Hers is a spiritual guide for GenXers whose teenaged rebellion coincided with the most ferocious years of the religious right in the 1980s.

While readers from other generations may not recognize the names of the punk bands Ruttenberg cites, they will find her story familiar: a teenager turned off by the materialism of a well-heeled suburban synagogue embraces atheism after reading Nietzsche but then finds meaning and the need for community while saying Kaddish after her mother’s premature death. Much spiritual seeking follows, most in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay. While eschewing her childhood synagogue and many others as devoid of spirituality, she nevertheless finds the atomized faith of “I’m spiritual, not religious” unsatisfying. Her iconoclastic streak comes full circle when she becomes committed to Jewish observance.

Whereas according to the unwritten code of the Bay Area, it would have been acceptably experimental to dabble a little (but not too much) in Buddhism or Wicca, it was just downright strange to sign up for one of the Big Three monotheistic faiths.

She abandons her yoga class, resonating with voices “against this pastiche of practices divorced from context”—although she eventually concludes it is permitted by Jewish law.

Ruttenberg is a savvy observer of her generation. Her conversation with a sister-traveler who whispers in hushed tones that religious convictions have begun to challenge her support for reproductive choice is especially enlightening. The grandchildren of the sixties value structure and moral certainty. “Most of the time,” Ruttenberg realizes as she takes on more and more religious obligations, “Jewish law was smarter than I was.” This experimental attitude toward Jewish law and the paucity of references to rabbis or religious texts suggests an intended audience of seekers, not observers. The difficulty of enjoying San Francisco’s panoply of ethnic restaurants while keeping kosher receives attention; challenging issues such as the laws requiring purification after menstruation do not. 

Gently, Ruttenberg lets the reader in on the surprising lesson of her journey: practicing a religion may change you—and this is not a bad thing! Determined to preach the benefits of spiritual discipline and institutional affiliation to peers whose edgy apparel and unnatural hair colors symbolize commitment to unfettered self-expression, she quotes heavily from the classics of the undergraduate religion major—Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, Martin Buber, Henri Nouwen, Annie Dillard, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Buber and Heschel are some of the only Jewish voices that join more frequent quotes from Rumi, Alan Watts, Carol Lee Flinders, bell hooks, Thich Nhat Hahn, and others.

Ruttenberg’s feminism does not arise from rejecting second-class citizenship in worship—for her that is not a struggle but a given. Rather it comes in embracing spiritual practices previously reserved for men. She dons a kippah and tefillin (phylacteries) and thinks about wearing pink tzitzit (fringes worn by observant Jews on four-cornered garments—they’re traditionally white and blue).

Many fewer options were available to Susan Campbell, whose Dating Jesus views her childhood in southwest Missouri through the eyes of a “Christ-haunted” adult. Shaped by the loosely affiliated denomination so leery of idolatry that it refuses to capitalize “church of Christ,” Campbell continues to refer to it as “my church” even though she has since become a journalist and attended liberal Hartford Seminary. Careful to distinguish her church from overly capacious misuses of the term “fundamentalism,” she describes an activist congregation that eschews the crowd-pleasing accoutrements of contemporary megachurches.

What is most compelling about this book has to do neither with religion nor feminism, but rather with the grit and determination of a girl whose awakening to her own agency occurs far from urban feminism. Schooled in one set of values at church and another on the athletic field, she grows up literally playing hardball with the boys. When her age requires that she be relegated to the girls’ softball team, she brings her hardball ethics with her, punching an opponent who aggressively slides into her at second base. “I knew how to handle this. You strike back if someone thinks you’re weak, and then they leave you alone.” Here Campbell writes what she knows. In contrast, her efforts to recover both religious and feminist history fall short, as she relies, for example on “historian” Ken Burns for information about the “suffragettes.”

Campbell seems to sense some of the writerly limitations in her description of her small-town fundamentalist church: “If it sounds grim, it isn’t. If it sounds soulless, it isn’t that either. The tradition plants in the believer—even someone who walks away from the church—a deep and soulful need.” She introduces that need through the voice of her thirteen-year-old self, capturing the banality of adolescent faith. “At thirteen, you may not know a lot, but perhaps more than at any other time in your life, you know how to believe in something.” The fierce loyalties of the very young adult are a perfect fit for Campbell’s fundamentalist church: “I can immerse myself in Jesus as I immersed myself in baptism,” she writes, explaining her mindset, “and he will be my armor against the confusion of adolescence, the modernity, the marijuana, the whole sex thing.” Eager for total immersion, Campbell went to church every time the doors were open.

While the church is filled with fallible human beings, it provides this bright and ambitious adolescent with a gateway to a deep and searching intellectual life—the bible. “A fundamentalist is a born skeptic” Campbell explains. Every Bible quote from the pulpit “is met by the tissue-hiss of parchment pages as we frantically turn to the place in the Bible to be sure the speaker is correctly quoting the Word.” She decides to memorize the Bible, the only avenue of achievement open to a talented, competitive girl. Soon she is discussing biblical scholarship with her Sunday school teacher. “I can buy the flood story and the creation story and Jesus hanging on the cross for our sins, but this one area—restrictions placed on my gender—eludes me.” Campbell’s book ends with an anguished cry for a religious community that would encompass both her youthful passion and her disillusionment, a church her adult self can call its own.

For a narrative of religious self-discovery that is a source of insight, revelation, consolation, and pleasure, turn to Nancy Mairs’s A Dynamic God. The knife-sharp honesty of these essays will grip religious and secularist alike, each piece a small gem. Mairs refers casually to her decades of working for social justice, to her decision to become and remain Catholic, to living with multiple sclerosis, to raising and losing children. Her insights have been tested over a rich and rigorous life. Hers is a mature spirituality, ready to dispense with much of conventional religion as ego-serving dogmatism, yet compelled to view every experience through the lens of faith.

The book reflects on Mairs’s participation in the worship community she belongs to in Arizona, the Community of Christ of the Desert. The group experiments with Catholic liturgy to the point that their priest must absent himself. They celebrate the mass in each other’s homes, they break bread together, they join in acts of charity and social justice, and they hope to change the world and the church. Mairs speaks lovingly of the nourishment she gains from her participation, but does so with disarming detachment.

Some of the group clearly think that if we just spoke a little louder and worked a little harder, we would persuade people to take care of one another and the world, but I do not. Not that I don’t embrace these values. I believe in them, I just don’t believe that most people will choose to change. The trick is to keep working to resolve issues without having to believe that the world will become a better place as a result.

The reader senses that Mairs speaks from a place of stillness long before we learn that this is literally true, that she uses a wheelchair because of worsening multiple sclerosis. Mairs dissected the social construction of disability in her 1996 book, Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled. A decade later, the continuing degeneration of her nervous system “renders speech and writing increasingly difficult,” adding urgency to her quest for meaning and peace, peeling away every decorative trapping of human life. Dwelling permanently in a place others strive to avoid, Mairs scouts challenging spiritual terrain. In “A Calling,” she interrogates the meaning of human life severed from the luxury of finding self-worth in productivity. “Why am I still here? What on earth am I for? Beyond giving others the opportunity to practice works of charity at my expense, can I be said to serve any function at all? And if not, am I still fully human?” In her diminishing capacities Mairs finds an extreme example of the paralysis that besets all of us at one time or another, and that will ultimately engulf us all.

Never self-indulgent, Mairs aids readers in engaging weighty matters through wit and intelligence. Humorous send-ups of the limited theological imagination characterizing much conventional Christianity place this work far outside the realm of self-congratulation. She questions any view in which “the way to eternal bliss is clear and unquestionable.”

This reviewer, a humble historian, can best give a sense of the dynamic God of her title by quoting Mairs’s text, in which God “cannot be a possessible entity, the property of some, the enemy of others.” “Even though I don’t fret whether anyone else believes in God,” she writes,

I am happy that I do. Awareness that I am immersed in the Holy encourages me to attend to and appreciate every element I encounter. . . . I don’t think that my belief confers meaning to myself or anything else. I’m pretty sure that the cosmos is meaning-less in any human sense of the word, without purpose or consequence. It is not for. It is. Yahweh, in Hebrew Scripture: I Am. What God offers is not significance for a chosen few but mystery for whoever chooses to perceive it, an inexhaustible arouser of devout astonishment.

Why does a writer of such capacious spirituality choose to live out her faith in the Roman Catholic Church and write about Gospel parables? Simply because it works for her, not because it is truer or better than other religious paths. Mairs addressed this question at greater length in her classic memoir Ordinary Time (1994). In these essays she demonstrates the compatibility of faith and feminism by allowing readers to walk with her on what may be some of her last expressible spiritual journeys, stated in the crystal clear voice she found when she became a writer. If the busy mothers interviewed by Leora Tanenbaum are sustained by their faith as long as Nancy Mairs, they will have chosen wisely indeed. It is a sign of the success of modern feminism that after a few brief decades women of faith can see it as a way to deepen their engagement with the millennia of wisdom embedded in their traditions.

Ann Braude’s publications include Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in 19th-Century America (1989), Sisters and Saints: Women and Religion in America (2007) and Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers (2004), a collection of first-person narratives by religious feminists. She directs the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. 


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