Feminist Religious Studies
Feminist religious Studies is a relatively new branch within the academic study of religion (religious studies) less than half a century old. It consists of academic scholars, mostly women and largely within religious studies, who have “confronted the sex and gender biases that given rise to these attitudes in the religion, and hence to theories of religion…” (1).
Feminist religious studies has gained traction given prevailing attitudes deeming it unnecessary to study the religious lives and experiences of women. According to the late scholar Rita Gross,
“the result is that research about religion actually deals mainly with the lives and thinking of males, whereas women’s religious lives are treated much more peripherally, as a footnote or a short chapter toward the end of the book” (2).
Feminist religious studies works form the basis that women inhabit the human realm (they are not “other”), and that their religious lives and experiences are worth investigating. A number of scholars across several academic areas of specialization have enriched the conversation through publishing work on the subject. Ursula King, Kawahashi Noriko, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Judith Plaskow, and Carol Patrice Christ are several large names within the academic study of religion. Scholars with interests in feminist and religious concerns from several other academic professions include Caroline Walker Bynum (history), as well as theorists of the past such as Rita Gross (religious studies), Margaret Mead (anthropology), Karen McCarthy Brown (anthropology), and Mary Daly (philosophy). Some of these scholars, notably Christ, Brown, and Daly, are deemed “radical” feminists given the methodologies they advocate when studying religion (these radical feminist approaches will be given their due attention in a follow up to this post).
Academic Versus Social Feminism
It is helpful to distinguish between feminism as a political vision and feminism as an academic pursuit, despite their clear interdependence. Feminism in the academic context is first and foremost an academic method, not a sociological perspective. Gross explains that “It is important to recognize that feminist scholarship does not inherently make judgments about what women’s position in society should be. It only entails a requirement to study women thoroughly and completely” (3). One can in essence employ feminism as an academic method whiteout adopting feminism as a social perspective. This distinguishes it form social feminism which deals with ideals social arrangements and interactions between men and women.
Unified Approach to Studying Religion
Feminist scholars of religion agree on several fronts. The agree that scholars of religion and their methods have subtly privileged men. This is why feminist scholars evidence concern for terminology, particularly that which has been used by historical theorists of religion. For example, the androcentric notion of “religious man” (derived from the French sociologist Mercia Eliade’s concept of Homo Religiosus) would seem to speak only of men in the same way that phrases such as “mankind” (as opposed to the more gender inclusive “humankind”) would seem to do.
Further, they attempt to pry open the religious and spiritual experiences of women, both historical and contemporary. As history has been recorded and comes down to the historian, one finds that the religion of a certain people is examined or privileged (which is of interest to scholars in post-colonial and a black study of religion), while men are the ones who receive the most attention. This is often at the expense of women’s religion and experiences which have been considered peripheral. Thus, feminist scholars of religion contend that women’s experiences should also receive attention because they are human beings, and that to do any less than this is to fail to understand the human being. For example, prior to the academic work of Caroline Walker Bynum, knowledge of the religious experiences of European women living during the medieval period was near non-existent. Historians had documents at their disposal penned by men who evidently concerned themselves little with women’s religious experiences and self-consciousness.
Inquiry focusing on concepts such as “patriarchy” and “androcentrism,” which have previously been neglected in religious studies, are now entertained by feminist scholars of religion. How, for instance, is it that men occupy the important roles in religions? Lamas, gurus, buddhas, bishops, popes, cardinals, khalifs, ayatollahs are all men while doctrines such as the Trinity in Christianity and the sky god Dyaus-Pitr of Indian tradition appear androcentric. Why do some Muslim men insist that women wear veils, and why are women confined to the gallery in the synagogue? And where the roles of women in religion are found (sibyls, prophetesses, female bhodisattvas etc.) they appear to remain subservient to men who have monopolized positions of authority and power within the religions. Thus, why, asks the feminist scholar, have the religious and spiritual experiences of women been neglected as they have? Why do they occupy subservient roles? What explains the pervasiveness of androcentric terminology in religions?
Reformist and Revolutionist Scholars of Religion
There are two major categories feminist scholars of religion typically occupy: reformist and revolutionist. Kawahashi Noriko, a specialist in Buddhism and Japanese religion, explains that,
“the revolutionaries find find gender discrimination to be so entrenched in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity that these faiths cannot change, so they seek to discard those traditions. The reformists, while recognizing traditional gender discrimination, also find that Judaism and Christianity conveyed a message of liberation, to they seek instead to transform those traditions” (4).
Some scholars of religion have felt emotionally and spiritually alienated from certain religious traditions, and discovered that their religious tradition is immune to reform from the inside given its apparent patriarchal and androcentric norms. They have thus left it behind, and typically gone on to criticize religious traditions that are dominated by patriarchy, androcentrism, and any other feature which appears to give men superiority or privilege over women. Other feminist scholars, however, do not desire to venture down this path, and instead attempt to reform a religious tradition by reforming the church and producing new theologies concerning the roles of women in the religion. Debate and discussions in this category focus on determining how to go about including the perspectives and experiences of women, and giving them a voice and a role within a specific tradition.
1. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 189
2. Gross, R. 1996. Feminism and Religion. p. 19
3. Gross, R. 1996. Ibid. p. 22-23.
4. Noriko, K. 2002. Feminist Buddhism as Praxis: Women in Traditional Buddhism. p. 301-302.