Feminism: Feminism, Gender Studies, and Religion

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Very few academic fields have remained untouched by the emergence of feminist and gender theory as critical tools for reflecting on, and challenging, the legitimacy of regnant epistemologies. The study of religions is no exception, although it has been slower than other fields to incorporate the insights of contemporary feminist and gender discourses. This entry provides a brief survey of the development of feminism and gender theory and their place within the field of religious studies, and also discusses their critique of traditional methodologies and concepts within the context of the (predominantly Western) study of religious traditions.

Feminism and Gender Studies: An Overview

As with many terms, defining feminism presents an immediate difficulty, as it suggests a homogeneity that is belied both by the history of its development and the diversity of its articulations and forms. The multiplicity of feminisms that together constitute feminismwhether early suffrage campaigns, discursive analyses of gender hierarchies, or lesbian activism, for exampleindicates subtle differences of emphasis and context. Most feminisms are concerned, nonetheless, with promoting political and theoretical programs that address the secondary status of women. In this entry, the term feminism will be deployed to refer to a broad set of common themes and concepts, however differently expressed, that articulate a critical analysis of gender relations at meta-theoretical and empirical levels. Feminist theory, as the intellectual conduit of a diversity of feminisms, engages with an array of concerns, all of which reflect an accumulated fund of knowledge and experience that is situated in an ongoing teleological and etiological analysis of gender inequalities and identities in all social and cultural arenas. The possibility of conceptual and political transformation is thus at the heart of feminist practices, theories, and methodologies.

It is common to discuss the development of feminism in terms of the three main "waves." First wave feminism, from the mid-1850s to the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's ground-breaking book The Second Sex in 1949, was characterized by materialist debates and political activism concerning universal suffrage, women's rights to self-determination, access to higher education, and ownership of property. Second wave feminism refers to the reemergence of feminist political activism and literature in the late 1960s. It was largely defined by its liberal agenda; its vision of female solidarity; political interventions in the spheres of reproduction and sexuality, employment, and cultural representation; and theorization of patriarchy. It was during the second wave that feminist theory emerged as a field of cultural critique and began to make its presence felt in a wide variety of academic disciplines. These decades saw the establishment of a large number of women's studies departments, an innovation that sought to address the absence of women in the androcentric intellectual history of most academic fields by developing women-focused syllabi and research programs.

While many of the concerns of the second wave continue to be important, feminist activity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is referred to as third wave feminism, or post-feminism. It marks both a self-reflexive turn and a mature phase in feminist theorizing as it seeks to critique the previously hegemonic assumptions of the second wave. This stage registers a shift in the common preoccupations that have informed many of the debates between feminists. Most notably, third-wave feminists have moved away from the denunciation of gender inequalities towards the theorization of discursive, dialogic constructions of gender. In addition, influenced by poststructural, postcolonial, and queer theories of identity formation, third wave feminists advocate the rejection of oversimplistic and essentialist descriptions of female and male identity. This includes a sustained examination of hegemonic representations of masculinity, and a more nuanced understanding of the often significant differences between men and women in the contexts of class, ethnicity, sexuality, and economic status. In academic circles, the focus has shifted from women's studies to gender studies.

Feminist Theory, Gender Theory, and the Study of Religions

The emergence of the feminist study of religious traditions has paralleled the three-wave pattern of feminism's development. Much pioneering feminist scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s was concerned with mapping women's lives and experiences within religious traditions in order to render them analytically visible. In addition, feminist scholars challenged the androcentrism of the field's epistemological foundations and outlined alternative methodologies. The early emphasis on women contributed to the tendency of methodological and epistemological evaluation by feminist scholars to be rather narrowly focused. While it was crucial for identifying the unique place of female expression within religious traditions, it was marginalized in broader methodological debates. Feminist scholars therefore developed multiple critiques of the history of religious studies and, from the 1980s onwards, gender theory was increasingly applied not only to the analysis of religious phenomena but also to the disciplinary paradigms that sought to understand them. Feminist and gender theory began to be articulated in terms of offering the possibility of a paradigm shift, one that would generate conceptual change and renewal within the discipline and provide a necessary corrective to its androcentric foundations (see King, 1995, pp. 138). Accordingly, gender-critical scholarship has since been conceived of as a supplementary discourse.

For Jacques Derrida, a supplement is something "added on," seemingly deliberately, to a prior term in order to address an omission within it, although it appears to be exterior and secondary to the primary term it supplements. Derrida, however, argues against the metaphysical logic that places the supplement in a secondary or derivative position. He suggests that if the supplement is necessary to compensate for the absence it reveals in a prior term, then it is not so much an external extra as a necessary constituent of the term it supplements: "The supplément is neither a plus nor a minus, neither an outside nor the complement of an inside, neither accident nor essence" (Derrida, 1981, p. 43). An example of supplementarity that provides a useful parallel for understanding the role of feminist and gender theory in the study of religions is the emergence of the field of "women's history." As Joan Scott has argued, "there is a troubling ambiguity inherent in the project of women's history for it is at once an innocuous supplement to, and a radical replacement for, established history" (Scott, 1991, p. 49). As the study of women is added to the discipline of history it also occasions its rewriting. Gender theory, applied to the study of religions, similarly attends to the exclusion of female and non-elite male perspectives at the level of data gathering and analysis, and, further, queries the epistemological and conceptual formulations that enable such exclusion in the first place. Feminist interventions have thus insisted on the implementation of a series of critical adjustments to traditional concepts and theories in the study of religion's methodological paradigms.

Feminist and Gender Theory: Transforming Methodologies

June O'Connor, in her influential article "The Epistemological Significance of Feminist Research in Religion" (1995), usefully summarizes the epistemological framework of feminist and gender theory in the context of the study of religions. She identifies five moments that define the contours of feminist research (p. 46):

  1. Application of a hermeneutics of suspicion that recognizes the androcentric content and context of sources;
  2. Attention to the retrieval of the religious history of women, alongside other marginalized groups;
  3. Critique and transformation of established concepts, particularly universal and androcentric notions of human subjectivity;
  4. Rejection of exclusionary modes of scholarship;
  5. Self-reflexive scrutiny of assumptions and ideological commitments in order to avoid the assertion of new orthodoxies.

These steps constitute the basis for the critical transformation, by feminist discourses, of the epistemological grounds of the study of religions, a task that has been taken up vigorously.

Feminist scholars have identified central androcentric biases in the formulation of core disciplinary questions that were, historically, defined from the perspective of predominantly white, educated men. It is for this reason that feminists have been quick to criticize the textual bias of traditional studies for unthinkingly replicating elite, male perspectives and rendering the participation of women in religious traditions as either invisible, or as defined only in androcentric terms. Moreover, categories like homo religiosus and the insider/outsider debates have been censured for further enacting the marginalization of women. Rosalind Shaw argues, for example, that the homo religiosus, as representative of a religious collective, is generally "undifferentiated by gender, race, class or age, or defined explicitly as male" (1995, p. 67). The insider/outsider formulation also falls down on its failure to account for the "outsider" status of women within their own religious traditions. From the perspective of feminist analyses then, the main consequence of biased, androcentric scholarship has been the production of distorted, partial scholarly accounts that contain serious deficiencies at the basic level of data-collection and interpretation, as well as in the subsequent development of theoretical paradigms (see Gross, 1974, p. 7).

Randi Warne points out, however, that the partiality of traditional epistemological models is not solved by simply adding the study of women to existing scholarship: "Women were not simply 'omitted' through a[n] act of scholarly absent-mindedness; women were excluded from scholarship, as from 'significant' subject matter, as from positions of authority and power, when the basic ideas, definitions, principles and facts were being formulated" (2001, p. 150). A key feminist strategy for confronting gender bias has thus been to revisit traditional methodological debates and to propose critical adjustments to their fundamental premises. Grace Jantzen, for example, in her book Becoming Divine (1998), has argued that the traditional philosophy of religion, and Western thought more generally, has wielded theoretical categories that are considered neutralfor example, rationality, objectivity, truth, and Godbut which are undeniably biased towards male values, authorizing masculine master-discourses at the expense of female perspectives. A first step in confronting this bias and correcting its glaring lacunae has been to undertake what Jantzen calls "a radical deconstruction of both religion and secularism to make evident their unacknowledged dependence on alterities of race, gender, and sexuality" (Jantzen, 1998, p. 2). Subsequently, Jantzen seeks to develop alternative epistemologies that celebrate difference, acknowledge the subjective basis of knowledge production, and promote a variety of new models from a feminist perspective, including an emphasis on metaphors of natality and human flourishing as foundational principles.

Feminists have also challenged the conceptual assumptions of the phenomenology of religion, particularly its claim to undertake disinterested observation of religious phenomena and to replicate scientific empiricism at the methodological level. Given the feminist critique of the androcentric nature of the traditional study of religions, the claim of methodological disinterestedness is both demonstrably false and theoretically naive. Although the attempt to justify such a methodology on the grounds of the autonomy of disciplinary boundaries is understandable, feminism's meta-theoretical orientation suggests, instead, a fluidity of critical perspectives and the benefits of multidisciplinarity.

Related to the rejection of "disinterested" research and the rigid policing of disciplinary boundaries has been the development, by feminist scholars of religion, of a cooperative relationship with feminist theology. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, feminist theology, with its emphasis on the primacy of female experience for assessing the validity of religious doctrines and authority, offers both an academic method and a social vision with regard to the position of women within religious traditions; secondly, the hermeneutic orientations of many feminist theologians provide a promising and well-trodden pathway for the analysis and critique of patriarchal religious symbols, narratives, and discourses. Importantly, the affiliation with feminist theology has occurred at a time when many scholars of religious studies have made a concerted effort to delineate between their own nonconfessional, secular approach and the confessional stance of Christian theology. As feminist scholars of religion have sought to make connections with feminist theologians, they have called into question both the clarity of disciplinary boundaries and the purportedly secular orientation of religious studies.

Some scholars of religion have criticized the tendency of feminist scholars to reduce religious phenomena to their interrelation with cultural forms such as gender and class. Feminists have replied to the charge of reductionism by arguing that the acknowledgment of the social and political constitution of religious phenomena is a vital frame of reference for adequately theorizing difference in religious contexts. As Shaw has noted:

Attempting to understand a woman's experience of religion in terms of (not just "in the context of") her position within a male-dominated religious tradition is reductionist only if we have severed "religion" from "power" in the first place. On the contrary, it would be a "reduction"in the rather different sense of a diminished and distorted representation of her experienceto bracket off "male dominance" and "gender asymmetry" as a mere biographical backdrop to, but not really part of, the experiences which she calls "religious." (Shaw, 1995, p. 70)

Feminism and gender studies offer innovative epistemological tools for scholarly reflection on the processes and politics of academic knowledge production, as well as for the understanding of religious phenomena. They insist on conceptual transformation in order to account for the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of religious expressions, and further maintain that the topography of religious studies must be mapped within a cultural arena that accounts for, and acknowledges, the contradictions and contexts that attend cultural symbolizations. The breadth and depth of feminist scholarship in the study of religions holds out the promise of a much-needed paradigm shift, one that is slowly, but surely, being realized.

See Also

Gender and Religion, overview article and article on History of Study.


Anderson, Pamela Sue. A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief. Oxford, 1998. Anderson queries traditional empirical realist accounts of theistic belief in the philosophy of religion and offers an analysis of the theoretical devices that exclude women. She develops a revisionist program using feminist frameworks and epistemologies that challenge traditional assumptions of sex and gender, and seeks to broaden the fundamental propositions of the philosophy of religion.

Anderson, Pamela Sue, and Beverley Clack, eds. Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Critical Readings. London and New York, 2003. The first collection of key readings on the feminist philosophy of religion. It offers an introductory overview of the different types of feminist philosophies of religion, and considers some of the important religious concepts that are addressed by poststructuralist and psychoanalytical approaches. It includes essays from leading thinkers in the field, including Grace Jantzen, Alison Jasper, and Janet Martin Soskice.

Butler, Judith P. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York, 1990; reprint, 1999. A now classic study of gender theory and one of the most influential books in the field. It addresses the limits of French feminist theory for interrogating gender ontologies, proposing instead to understand gender construction in terms of parody and performativity. In the 1999 tenth-anniversary edition, Butler addresses the critical response to her original arguments and the ways her thinking has been adjusted as a result. Although its language is dense and often difficult, it is ultimately rewarding and is compulsory reading for anyone working with gender theory.

Butler, Judith P., and Joan W. Scott, eds. Feminists Theorize the Political. New York and London, 1992. A rich collection of work by leading feminist scholars that addresses the relevance of poststructuralism to feminist politics. It affirms the importance of feminist theorizing for the transformation of gender relations and understandings and provides a useful overview of contemporary feminist debates operating at the meta-theoretical level.

Castelli, Elizabeth A., and Rosamond C. Rodman, eds. Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader. New York and Basingstoke, U.K., 2001. This interdisciplinary and multitraditional volume highlights the contributions that different disciplinary approaches offer feminist and gender-theoretical studies of religion. It demonstrates the theoretical richness of contemporary debates in the field and includes contributions from Mieke Bal, Donna J. Haraway, Nancy Jay, Patricia Jeffery, Aihwa Ong, Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, and Judith Plaskow, among others. A useful reader for the classroom.

Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. London, 1981.

Flax, Jane. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford, 1990. Flax offers a wide-ranging and careful critique of psychoanalytic, feminist, and postmodern theory, examining the relations between them and evaluating the ways in which each set of theories succeeds in coming to terms with the crises of truth, knowledge, self, and power in contemporary Western culture. An essential text for thinking through the role of theory in humanities research.

Franzmann, Majella. Women and Religion. New York and Oxford, 2000. Women and Religion is aimed at undergraduate students of religious studies and is an accessible and serious introduction to the process of studying and listening to women's accounts of their own religious experiences. It discusses women's roles, positions, and experiences within five religious traditions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. The topics that are covered include the widespread marginalization of women in the context of mainstream religious texts, rituals, and codes of law; women's experiences within less orthodox religious contexts; women's independent forms of religious expression; and women's creative reimaginations of older forms of religion.

Garry, Ann, and Marilyn Pearsall, eds. Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy. 2d ed. London and New York, 1996. A broadly useful collection of twenty-five essays by well-known feminist scholars that addresses key issues in feminist philosophizing, including epistemology, metaphysics, mind-body dichotomies, gender and language, gender and race, and postmodern perspectives. It also offers a window into some of the most prominent controversies in feminist theory and philosophy.

Gross, Rita M., ed. Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women and Religion. Missoula, Mont., 1974. A classic collection of essays dealing with methodological issues in the study of women and religion.

Jantzen, Grace. Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion. Manchester, U.K., 1998. A compelling and groundbreaking revision of the field of the philosophy of religion. Jantzen proposes a lucid and timely critique of the core preoccupations and epistemological assumptions of the field and sketches alternative philosophical models based on ideas about gender, desire, community, and justice. Drawing on the critical thought of key continental thinkers like Derrida and Luce Irigaray, she further proposes an imaginative concept of the divine that challenges traditional dualistic thought and emphasizes process and becoming as a model of divinity. A substantial, solidly argued, and scholarly book, not aimed at beginners.

Juschka, Darlene M., ed. Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader. London and New York, 2001. A useful anthology of the feminist theories that have been influential in the development of the feminist study of religion. The selected readings provide a wide range of perspectives and include the work of religious studies scholars, as well as scholars from other disciplines, such as Nancy Chodorow and Judith Butler. The book shows how debates about feminism within the study of religion have been influenced by broader theoretical discussions and offers an excellent overview of the range and breadth of feminist theorizing.

King, Ursula, ed. Religion and Gender. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1995. The standard textbook for the field of gender theory and the study of religion. The book brings together an international group of scholars, provides a systematic overview of the new theoretical and critical perspectives that gender theory offers religious studies and offers a comprehensive discussion of important methodological and hermeneutical issues. King's introduction provides a thorough and systematic outline of key developments and interventions in the field.

King, Ursula, and Tina Beattie, eds. Gender, Religion, and Diversity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. London and New York, 2004. An essential collection of twenty articles that provides a timely follow-up to King's well-received volume Religion and Gender. It is particularly useful for its assessment of the impact of postcolonial, queer, and gay and lesbian theories on feminist theory in the study of religions. Contributors include Melissa Raphael, Rita M. Gross, Morny Joy, and Diane Treacy-Cole. A key volume for advanced undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.

Morgan, Sue. "Feminist Approaches." In Approaches to the Study of Religions, edited by Peter Connolly, pp. 4272. London and New York, 1999. A comprehensive overview of the history and context of feminist approaches to the study of religions, including a helpful discussion of the relationship of these approaches to feminist theology.

O'Connor, June. "The Epistemological Significance of Feminist Research in Religion." In Religion and Gender, edited by Ursula King, pp. 4563. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Scott, Joan W. "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis." In Coming to Terms : Feminism, Theory, Politics, edited by Elizabeth Weed, pp. 81100. London and New York, 1989.

Scott, Joan W. "Women's History." In New Perspectives on Historical Writing, edited by Peter Burke, pp. 4266. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Segal, Lynne. Why Feminism? Gender, Psychology, Politics. Cambridge, U.K., 1999. Surveys the shifts in feminist thought since its emergence in the 1960s. Segal examines critically the significance of feminism for cultural theorizing, its controversial relationship with psychoanalysis, the influence of queer theory, and some of the contentious efforts to address issues of masculinity in gender theory. An important and well-timed assessment of the status and influence of feminist inquiry.

Shaw, Rosalind. "Feminist Anthropology and the Gendering of Religious Studies." In Religion and Gender, edited by Ursula King, pp. 6576. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Tong, Rosemary. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. 2d ed. Oxford, 1998. Tong provides a substantial and thorough summary of twentieth-century feminist thought, including the liberal, radical (libertarian and cultural), and Marxist-socialist schools of feminism, and psychoanalytic, existentialist, and postmodern approaches to questions of gender.

Warne, Randi. "Engendering the Study of Religions." In Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader, edited by Darlene M. Juschka, pp. 147156. London and New York, 2001.

SÎan Hawthorne (2005)

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