Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt and summary of Mary Kassian's book, The Feminist Gospel: The Movement to Unite Feminism with the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992).
Biology Is Destiny
According to feminists, patriarchy was the problem, so in the late 60s, they placed patriarchy under close scrutiny. They concluded that biology is destiny and the woman's biological capacity to bear children was a mixed blessing carrying with it a necessary dependence on men to serve as providers and protectors. Hating this dependency, feminists redefined the physical strength and genitalia of men as weapons which, as they saw it, down through the ages men had used to intimidate women for the purpose of keeping them subservient. Recognizing the interrelatedness of biological destiny, power, and leadership in the relationship of the sexes, feminists theorized that the best way to destroy patriarchy was to overcome-or at least minimize-sexual distinctions.
At this time many feminist organizations were founded to change society's structures so that sexual distinctions might be minimized or overcome. Progress toward this goal was, at first, quite limited: feminists protested the Miss America pageant; they threw their dishcloths, girdles, false eyelashes, bras, and copies of Playboy, Vogue, and the Ladies Home Journal into a "Freedom Trash Can;" and they organized consciousness-raising small groups. Each of these forays was an attempt by feminists to convince the uninitiated that men in general-and particularly husbands-were women's oppressors.
In the early 70s, women began the monumental effort to develop a feminist view of the world. Men had secured power for themselves by claiming the authority to decree meanings. To challenge this, feminists developed a woman-centered analysis of all of culture. Every niche of human experience had to be challenged and redefined.
Language: Feminist linguists maintained that a bias favoring males was embedded in both syntax and semantics. The sexes were socialized to use "boy language" and "girl language." Women were tentative and unassertive in speech, avoided swearing, and were identified by their relationship to a man. All this had to change. Through this women-centered analysis of language, women were encouraged to claim power for themselves by claiming the right to name.
Psychology: Men had determined what was and what was not mentally healthy. Psychologists like Phyllis Chesler maintained that what was often diagnosed as mental illness in women was simply a healthy response to a patriarchal environment. Feminist therapists guided women to realize that their negative emotions and frustrations were attributable to the false role that men had forced upon them.
History: Elizabeth Gould Davis in her book, The First Sex, sought to establish the primacy of women by exploring prehistory. She argued that women possessed an evolutionary primacy testified to by their superior biological and sexual attributes. Women were once supreme but lost that supremacy when men-who were genetic mutations of women-formed into bands and overthrew the peaceful matriarchies, inventing rape and other forms of violence.
Though Davis did not convince historians with her reconstruction of the past, she did inspire feminists with a vision of what could be. If patriarchy could be destroyed and a world centered around feminine values established, humans would once again find themselves entering into a glorious reality that would satisfy their deepest longings.
Holistic Medicine: Women were encouraged to return to a de-institutionalized, natural view of their bodies. This led to a proliferation of health stores, herbalists, nutritionists, and non-medical healing practitioners, such as witchcraft. Natural childbirth methods surfaced. Women abandoned bottle-feeding and returned to breast-feeding. Midwifery once again became a respected profession.
Motherhood: Each individual woman must have the right to determine when, where, and how to become a mother. If she had an unwanted pregnancy, she must have the right to abort her child. If she chose to have a child, it was to be cared for by society as a whole so that the responsibility would not restrict her in any way.
Sexual Relationships: Following the sexual revolution of the 60s, feminists agreed that women should be free to have sex with whomever they wanted. However, up until this point, the matter of sexual relationships between women was not discussed in public. The issue was forced in the early 70s, and a woman's choice of sexual partners became more than a personal choice; it became a political statement.
When Kate Millett published Sexual Politics in the summer of 1970, she was hailed by Time as, "The MaoTse-tung of Women's Liberation." In the Fall of that year Millett spoke at Columbia University. Following the lecture, students were asking questions when someone shouted, "Kate…Kate! Are you a lesbian?"
The question was met with silence but the voice persisted. "Say it. Are you?"
As the crowd waited for her reply, Millett weighed the consequences of her answer. Many feminists feared that the taint of homosexuality could destroy the progress the woman's movement had made. With slow determination, Millett forced out her confession. "Yes, I am a lesbian."
The statement sent shock waves through the centers of media power. Time recanted its glowing endorsement. Many wondered if the movement would survive. The feminists needed to strike back quickly and did. A march in New York defended Millett. Later, with Gloria Steinem at her side, she defended her sexual preference before the media.
The National Organization for Women reluctantly admitted that "Lesbianism is indeed a legitimate concern of feminism." For those in the inner circles of the movement, it soon became much more than a "legitimate concern." It became the water-shed issue, the acid test of one's allegiance to the feminist cause. Many feminists came to regard lesbians as the only true feminists within the movement.
As this women-centered analysis progressed, its conclusions were disseminated through women's studies programs at colleges and universities. Eventually, it was integrated into all levels of education -kindergarten to college-via the revision of textbooks and other core teaching materials. Consequently, the feminist movement was strengthened and society began to change. Women were different from men, but these differences were not weaknesses or a source of shame. Rather, they were a source of pride. Women had not only claimed the right to name themselves but also the right to name and define the world around them.
Feminist Liberation Theology
While secular feminists were focusing on the elimination of patriarchal structures in the early 70s, feminist theologians were continuing to develop their new theology. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Letty Russell modified Gustavo Gutierrez's Latin American liberation theology into a feminist theology of liberation for women. They accepted his proposal that the liberation of the oppressed was the crux of the biblical message and applied it to themselves. Rather than focusing on those who were economically oppressed, Ruether focused on those oppressed because of gender, even asserting that sex discrimination was the root cause of all other forms of oppression.
In their women-centered analysis of theology the Bible was not a guidebook full of directives for all time but a tool to assist people to understand how God had worked throughout history to free the oppressed. This conception gave women the liberty to discard passages that did not agree with their vision of sexual equality. They either dismissed a text as outdated and the author as misogynistic, or they reinterpreted it and assigned it a meaning different than that which the author intended. The truth of the Bible was judged by the experience of women.
Every major doctrine had to be modified. God was no longer the transcendent, almighty Creator. He was the one who helps humans to realize liberation, wholeness and utopia for themselves. Jesus was not God incarnate who came to save us. He was our example who initiated women's freedom in such a way that they were drawn with all creation into the horizon of God's freedom. Sin was not a matter of right and wrong. Rather it was a situation in which there was no community, no room to live as a whole human being. The church was that people of God whose reason for existence was to be the servant and midwife of the process of liberation and the overthrower of the oppressive orders of society. By working to liberate all people, humans could usher in the new age promised by God.
Herstory And Hermeneutics
Some feminist theologians, such as Mary Daly, concluded that Christianity and the Bible were irredeemably patriarchal and consequently unacceptable, so they left the church. Those who remained embarked on a women-centered analysis of the Bible in order to recover herstory, the story about women and for women, hidden in the recesses of the patriarchal text. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza developed a set of hermeneutical guidelines to facilitate this process.
Hermeneutic of Suspicion: This guideline encourages the interpreter to approach the text with an attitude of distrust. It is based on the assumption that the male author has distorted what actually happened in order to reinforce the patriarchal culture.
Hermeneutic of Proclamation: This guideline maintains that those portions of Scripture which transcend their patriarchal culture and announce liberation for the oppressed women of today must be proclaimed, and those which do not must be rejected.
Hermeneutic of Remembrance: This guideline encourages women to explore the suffering of women in the Bible and to draw feminist meaning from it. The remembered past will bring about a universal sisterhood for the present and a future of women in religion.
Hermeneutic of Creative Actualization: This is the process whereby feminist theologians read into, embellish or augment the biblical text. It helps women to reclaim the same imaginative freedom, popular creativity and ritual powers that the male prophets and apostles had possessed. Women need to add to the biblical text whatever is appropriate to their personal vision of freedom. By using the hermeneutics of suspicion, proclamation and remembrance, feminist theologians extracted a usable past from the Bible. The hermeneutic of creative actualization enabled them to open up the door for a usable feminist future.
To be concluded in the next issue.