By Chris Burke

(first posted January 2005)

Chris Burke discusses the key aspects of feminism and asks if it is possible to be Christian and feminist:

“I am not a feminist, but…” Sometimes feminist is used as a put-down, sometimes as a hammer, other times as a badge of honour. In seeking to avoid it, people sometimes use “feminine”, but this word also begs the question: what does it mean? ‘Feminine’ has a long history of “sugar and spice”, of pink frills and compliance, as well as compassion, gentleness and care. Quite a mixed bag!

I write this as an Australian and a Loreto sister, challenged and supported by a 400 year commitment of my order to expanding the options available to women. My perspective is shaped by theological and philosophical educational opportunities, and sharpened by working within the patriarchal structures of the Catholic Church. This gives a particular slant to this article, which attempts to clarify meanings of feminist as used by Christian feminists.

Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s named the women’s movement as one of the major “signs of the times”[i], a key arena for discerning the action of God’s Spirit in our world. So we can ill afford to cling to established attitudes and practices if we claim to be guided by that Spirit. Not all women are feminists, and not all feminists are women. An increasing number of men stand with those women who work for the equality of women and men. They recognize the need for accepted structures and gender roles to change if this is to become a reality. However, many women and men find the term ‘feminism’ either frightening or off-putting. This is understandable: early feminists were often strident; in voicing their hurt and often righteous anger. They felt they needed to shout to be heard. Some younger women wisely resent and resist the media stereotype of a virago, bra-burner or man-hater. While the current generation of women enjoys many fruits that have come from their older sisters pushing for change, they have grown up with a media that exploits confrontation. The voices of those who espouse divisive versions of feminism have received constant media coverage.

Feminists come from a variety of experience. Culturally, since the feminist movement found voice in the West, where individualism is so strong, little attention was paid to the communal dimension as women sought the opportunities that rugged individualism had made possible for men. In this period, 1960s and 70s, there was a tendency to downplay the value of the choice to care full-time for children. Because men often had the inside in running for positions of responsibility, affirmative action programmes sought to redress this balance. The focus on freedom created a strong link between feminism and women’s groups that advocated abortion as an unfettered right rather than a tragic option in a moral dilemma that calls for heroism and responsibility for ‘the other’ as well as care for the self. This made the movement highly suspect for many Christians and others who believe there is more at stake in this debate than advocates will often admit. Resistance then came from another quarter. It was quickly pointed out that the middle class, white women who spoke of oppression were themselves part of the system, which benefited from the oppression of black and Hispanic women and men, and indeed all the previously colonized world. They could not speak for all women. Terms like womanist, mujista have emerged to describe the hopes and emphases, which other cultural groups espouse for a more participative and inclusive vision to guide women and men towards communities of mutual respect. With so many voices needed to authenticate the discussion, is there any core to the term ‘feminism’?

Key aspects of feminism

Underpinning these varieties and struggles is a broad perspective that honors and celebrates the dignity and full personhood of women. Feminism affirms that women are fully human, and are to be valued as such. Feminists look at what oppresses women and take action to change it. This means a fairly constant struggle to point out ways that women and their experience have been excluded from participation in various aspects of our society, and to take action where possible to change that. It is not a comfortable stance, since change always challenges those who enjoy the status-quo.

Some themes that recur in most forms of feminism give a clue to what animates mainstream feminists:

§ They seek the equality and dignity of women and the opportunity for them to develop their capabilities and contribute their gifts in every area of life.

§ They recognize that experience shapes our insights and conclusions, and so they always seek to name their own experience so they and others can be aware of what limits or enriches them from that background. They view with suspicion statements made by those who fail to acknowledge the limits of their own experience or the particular needs of others from other contexts.

§ This leads to favoring a way of knowing that comes from experience of what is actually happening. This contrasts with approaches where conceptual rigor and well articulated ideals form the primary engagement.

§ They are committed to valuing difference, and to believing it can be constitutive of unity, rather than a barrier to it.

§ Most clearly, they oppose sexism in all its forms, and are very conscious of its links to other forms of oppression: to be poor, black and a woman is to bear a triple burden.

§ Feminist historians seek to uncover a hidden history, often called her-story: the stories of women who did not make it to the big screen of history but acted in ways that claimed or aided a new awareness of women’s potential.

§ Feminists question communication where language and images obscure, trivialize or exclude the presence of women. The language used in most texts prior to the 1980s shows how men were considered the norm: “not counting the women and children” is a mindset not limited to the gospel story in which it occurs.

§ Mostly feminists are conscious of the inter-woven or holistic nature of life, and are active in peace, ecology, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary fields.

§ Often they espouse new models of organization that encourage partnership, collaboration and mutuality rather than a pyramidal pecking order.

Most feminists espouse the value of a more inclusive, respectful and caring humanity, and work to ensure that, by claiming their rightful place, women can allow men to grow in new ways. Any form of feminism that is anti-male does not work for peace or for the love that is needed if our world is to be healed. Such voices are far from the mainstream and are not the feminism that animates the key theologians whom I respect.

Can one be Christian and feminist?

The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full dignity of women. “Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is therefore appraised as not redemptive… not an authentic reflection of the divine”[ii]. This struggle towards the equal dignity of women, which underpins feminism, resonates deeply with the Christian tradition. Jesus accepted women as friends and companions, and encouraged their participation in a movement where rank, status and power were upended. He did away with barriers that had been taken for granted in some Jewish circles. He engaged women in theological debate: Martha and the Samaritan woman come easily to mind, as does the woman from Sidon. Often the gospels relate that women were more sensitive to what was at stake in these encounters than were the male disciples. Jesus questioned structures which exploited the poor, or served religion rather than human flourishing: the Sabbath was made for people, not vice versa.. He stood with people on the margins and many of these were, and still are, women. He even implied that structures built of the power of the elders and fathers were no longer appropriate: “unless you become as this little child…” and “call no man father.”

A central and much valued teaching about God from within the Judeo-Christian tradition is that God relates to all that is created in a personal way. The insight into God that Jesus gave us was gradually understood by the early church to mean that God is a communion of love, in whom there is difference, equality and unity. The love of this God spirals out in an ever-increasing circle to include all creation. The early Christian community named God as Trinity, and thus affirmed the members’ faith that communal love is the meaning at the core of life. All creation is connected through this divine communion, dwelling in our hearts and in the beauty and richness of all creation. So in the equal value of women and men, in the challenge to one directional power-over others, in concern for the people at the margins and in the sense of the spirit at work in creation, there is much in Jesus’ life and his notion of God that can connect to feminist principles.

However, this positive picture must be balanced by another reality. In the two thousand years since Jesus’ time, the community gathered in his name has not followed through on this vision. The cultural milieu of imperial Roman organization and the Greek philosophy eventually carried greater weight than the fledgling counter-culture of the Gospel. Many patristic texts can be quoted to show that women were seen as inferior, and this attitude was ingrained in philosophers and theologians over the centuries. The dominant western culture was Christian in some respects, but certainly did not continue Jesus’ recognition of the equality of the discipleship of women and men. This has resulted in laws, teachings, actions and practices within church circles that have been and continue to be detrimental to women. So in claiming the authenticity of the gospel as a source of inspiration for this movement, we must also own our failure as Christians to implement the vision.

One major question is: isn’t God male? One of the key insights that feminist theologians have recovered is the deep and always proclaimed truth that God is beyond all imagining and imaging, and in fact we know God more in our ‘not-knowing’ than in our knowing. Whenever we use any symbol or language about God, we always have to also say that God is not as we know that symbol to be: God is always beyond what we know. As Christians however, we have become so used to imaging God as male, as father, that we have forgotten that this is only one aspect of the infinite God. To say “God, She ….” is seen in some situations as blasphemy. What does that reveal about our attitude to women? Scripture talks of God as giving birth, as gathering her chicks under her wings. As Wisdom, Sophia she dwells within us and comes to us in our experience, encountered in the market meeting place as well as in silence. God is spoken of as Rock, anchor, water in the desert, light, love, life. God is more than either male or female. God can be invoked as father and as mother, in masculine and feminine terms. In recovering this richness, feminist scholars have again moved God from the safe and controllable zone of being made in man’s image and likeness. Such theologians take seriously the fact that both women and men are made in God’s image, and that the whole world shows forth the glory of God.

Feminist theologians suggest that the constant repetition of ‘almighty’ or all powerful Father in our naming of God in our liturgies, betrays a preoccupation with power which fails to reflect the God Jesus revealed on the cross. God’s mystery grows as we recognize God in vulnerability, especially in the vulnerability of those on the cross in our time: “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.” Basic to Christian theology is the belief in God as three persons, equal, distinct, and mutually self-giving. Somehow, though, in popular understanding God the Father is really God and Jesus is a bit like God, while the Spirit slips from our imaginations and our minds. A God who is communion calls us to build communion in our daily lives and in the church. As Orthodox theologians have always claimed, we are invited to join in the dance of divine life. Our God seeks our response, and calls us and all creation into the fullness of life. As a more respectful language about God moves into common parlance, and the limiting and limited male imagery makes way to include alongside it a rich variety of images, new ways of praying and a new sense of the importance of mutuality and equality might come into our church. This could be the moment when this aspect of the Gospel finds expression in new ways of being ekklesia, or assembly or church as we witness to God in our time.

Catholic and Feminist?

This raises the final point: can one be feminist and Catholic? Can Christian feminists stay with integrity within a church that appears irredeemably patriarchal? Would it not be better to shake the dust off our feet? Most feminists who stay within the church care deeply about Jesus Christ, and take seriously the promise of the Spirit to be with us. They believe community is integral to being a gospel person, so they will not walk away. They urge, sometimes angrily, sometimes despondently, that we as a community “open our ears” to the cries of those on the margins, that we become a community which values women and men equally, and witnesses to that in its mode of operation. They are usually passionate about the importance of our community really becoming “the sacrament or sign of God’s love in our world”, which Vatican II claimed was our calling. As church, we must find ways to show a community where the values spelt out in the scriptures and in the social justice teaching of the church are actually put into practice. We will always fall short of our ideals, but admitting our failures and beginning again is integral to being Christian. Humility about our personal failures to live as Jesus did can enable us to hold in hope this battered body of Christ which is the church, and to hope in and work for a transformed future.

As people concerned for our young, this must be our priority. In so far as church often fails to hear or speak to the dreams, hopes and ideals of the young, we fail them. Jesus can still attract and inspire, but our community is called to be a place where his dream is enfleshed for today. Calling our church to speak creatively to our young people, and in this case our young women, is a challenge. It requires a balancing act. This is a painful rather than a self-confident stance. Its basis is trust. Transforming the church is God’s work, part of Her labor of bringing to birth a community that can be Christ in our world. She calls each one of us to work with Her towards transforming this rather broken, disfigured, body of Christ that we are. So the person in this struggle needs faith, hope and love, and a commitment to reconciliation. No one said loving enemies or taking up one’s cross was easy, but Jesus authenticates it as a way to bring about transformation. It is heartbreaking when structures and customs that are not of the essence of the gospel control our church. To stay with the church we need both passion for God’s dream and compassion for those who stand in the way. Many of us hope this will not lead to spiritual schizophrenia!

Mary Ward, who began the religious order to which I belong, faced the same dilemma in the early seventeenth century. She believed women had the capability to work intellectually and pastorally to make Jesus’ message known and to bring people to a deeper relationship with God. Her views clashed directly with those of the church leadership, who believed “never has it been known that women or young females should perform any apostolic duty”[iii], since that sex is everywhere known to be…”soft, changeable, insecure, fickle, erring, always striving after new things and subject to a thousand dangers.” Mary had claimed some years earlier in 1618 “ I would that all men understood this verity, that women, if they will be perfect and if men would not make us believe that we can do nothing, and that we are ‘but women’, we might do great matters.”[iv] For her efforts Mary was condemned as a heretic, imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition, her order suppressed, and yet she chose to stay within the church and work to change the mindsets that blocked this work she saw as clearly from God. The word feminist was not invented, but the passion for women’s equality and dignity was evident throughout her life. For women in her order the choice that holds together women and the church is no less painful but is not negotiable.

Christine Burke, ibvm.(Australia,) is a freelance writer and formerly a member of the faculty of the Adelaide College of Divinity, an ecumenical college that is the theology school of Flinders South Australia. Presently the provincial of her chapter of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Chris obtained her doctorate from the Monash U., Melbourne. Aside from her involvement as member of the EWA Continuity Committee from 2002-2005, Chris is a member of the Australian Catholic Theological Association and of WATAC ( Women and the Australian Church).

January 2005 update