by Stephanie Y. Mitchem

The idea for this issue of CrossCurrents focusing on feminisms and religion began over a year ago at a conference honoring Rosemary Radford Ruether. The idea raised two concerns for me. The first is found in feminism and its meanings. While there were some contributors from the conference papers, there are so many meanings of feminisms to consider. How could this diversity of voices be heard? Of course, the bad press for feminists continues: some powerful investors in the status quo offer a portrait of feminists as irrational, wild, angry, bra-burning women, bent on the destruction of families and/or heterosexuality.

The second concern has been present but intensified in the last few months. Feminisms and religions seemed an off-kilter topic when war drums are being beaten by governmental representatives. In the midst of the drumming, faith is often appealed to in promotion of ideological self-interests. Religiosity, when it is confused with flag-worship, fares little better in the madness, as it is reduced to exercises in pietistic dominance. In this war-talk, women regularly are pictured as the tenders-of-home-fires by media portraits reminiscent of World War II propaganda and feminism seems anti-American. My concerns of feminisms’ multiple meanings and escalating war drums were answered by a question posed by an undergraduate student who asked, “So, what is the purpose of all this academic analysis?” The figurative light bulb went on over my head.

Feminist analyses over the years have significantly contributed to the deconstructions of concepts that deem social oppressions as normative. There is a range of feminisms globally, and many of those from so-called Third World countries: Asian, African, Chicana, and others. There are various flavors of feminists in the United States: postmodernist, socialist, womanist, mujerista, white, black, and more. Some feminists are considered radical, some liberal. There are even mainstreaming efforts at feminism, such as papal feminism. In each of these cases, there are women and men willing to enter the arguments of critically analyzing all those socially accepted “understoods” that create human limits. Without analysis, ideology is guaranteed. Suddenly the “threat” posed by feminisms became clear to me. Enter this discussion of Rosemary Radford Ruether and feminisms.

As her biography from the conference stated, Rosemary Ruether has been considered a pioneer in feminist theology for over three decades and has written over thirty books and hundreds of articles and reviews. These works certainly focus on women in religion and cross multiple disciplinary boundaries from patristics to liberation theologies to ecology to analyses of anti-Semitism and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to urban church ministry. Ruether has been a significant leader in the development of feminist theology. Feminism, for Ruether, is not merely an academic exercise for she lives the feminist ideal of connecting theory with practice. Her activist work has an international scope as is evident by participants in the April 2002 conference. A global citizen, Rosemary Ruether’s work as a feminist demonstrates commitment to gender and race and class and sexuality and ability as critical foci to include in any social analysis. Ruether balances these “ands” in her own research and leadership, challenging others to grow out of ideological confinement. She continues teaching, now serving as the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Several of the articles in this issue are papers from that conference, held at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. In that group of contributors are Ivone Gebara, a leading ecofeminist from Brazil and Marc Ellis, Professor of American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Texas, pointing to Ruether as shaping ideas and influencing conceptual growth and exploration among her colleagues. Letty Russell, retired from Yale University but not from her activist efforts on behalf of women around the world, offers a theological reflection about Ruether. Susan Ross, a professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago, shows how Ruether has helped to form other teachers.

One other article offered about Ruether is from Rosalind Hinton who is currently teaching at DePaul University in Chicago. Hinton did not present at the conference, but offers a glimpse for CrossCurrents’s readers into life with Ruether as a mentor and a teacher.

Feminism is not a single issue, not univocal, and certainly not finished in its analytical labors. Other voices can be heard and other contributors bring different feminist analyses to the forefront. Rita Gross brings her reflections on her years as a feminist, leading to some important questions. Lisa Bellan-Boyer links art history and scripture to reflect on missing women. Sara Melcher reminds us of lingering anti-Semitism in Christian biblical studies. These essays, along with the Ruether contributors and with poetry and book reviews, provide feminist analyses that range along disciplinary lines of environmental studies, biblical studies, art history, psychology, education, and politics. The writers are not irrational, but well versed in their disciplinary approaches. Feminists are not generally in any position that is powerful enough to destroy the world, just to demolish a few delusions of grandeur as their analyses point out when the emperor is stark naked.

I return to my student’s question: “So what is the purpose of all this analysis?” Drawing lessons from Ruether and other feminists in this issue, at this time of war-talk, I must answer the question in a more pragmatic way than I might have last year. Though it might shake a few things up, analysis should help all of us to state our own or hear other people’s realities and needs. Analysis is a key to open our minds to new possibilities. It might be termed critical thinking or deconstruction, but analysis has power to take oppressions apart. Our humanity is enriched by this growth. The next step is for all of us to become stronger communities, motivated by the compassion learned in analysis.

We need feminist analyses now more than ever.


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Source: Cross Currents, Spring  2003, Vol. 53,  No 1.