Feminism and Faith

By Erica Lewis, YWCA of Australia.

On the Facebook page of my campus feminist group there is a discussion happening about whether there are any significant differences between their work and the work of the campus atheist group. At the moment opinion is divided. Some see significant areas of compatibility. One response provides a link to discussions about sexism amongst atheist groups, and I added that ‘some feminists are women of faith’. I’m waiting to see what happens next, but I am puzzled by the suggestion that all atheists were feminists, and as usual left feeling a little bit odd as a feminist and woman of faith.

Erica Lewis

Erica Lewis

However, today, I have new material to support the discussions I have about why my position as a feminist and Christian and my work on women’s leadership is not as odd as some might at first think. I was passing time in the campus bookshop and as I often am was distracted by all of those concise introductions. Thumbing through Margaret Walters – Feminism – A Very Short Introduction I noticed something very interesting “Chapter 1 – The religious roots of feminism”. I’m really not sure I’ve ever before seen an introduction to western feminism begin in religion.

The chapter opens with

“Some of the first European women to speak out for themselves, and for their sex, did so within a religious framework, and in religious terms. It is perhaps not always easy, in our secular society, to bring them back to life: to recognise fully their courage, or to understand the implications, or the extent of their challenge to the status quo.”

and goes on to discuss the work of 11th century Abbess Hildegard of Bingen as a writer and composer, and Julian of Norwich (14/15th century) whose argument  for recognising the maternal aspects of the Divine have become a major influence on feminist theology. Fittingly, as I write this from the north of England, Walters ends her first chapter discussing the particularly prominent role of women and women’s organisations in non-conformist movements such as the Quakers in the 17th century.

The chapter also acknowledges (as do I) the teachings of the Church that have traditionally been used to oppresses women, Eve and original sin, the teachings of St Paul etc. But what is interesting to me is the herstory of women and faith I have failed to learn, and a wondering of how we answer the implicit challenge in Walters second sentence “to bring these women back to life”.

Too often when we talk of leaders or the work of leadership we recall the work of men. As Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, a notable leader and women of faith herself, has said

“Much of women’s leadership over the centuries has been invisible because the question of leadership has been viewed through gender-biased lenses.”

I’m reminded, once again, that it is not that women do not exercise leadership, but that our leadership work is often overlooked and forgotten, and that I need to actively look for herstory, to take the time to learn it and to find ways to share the herstory I know.

How are you learning or sharing herstory?