Feminist Theology: An Overview

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Theology, as rational exploration of the nature and traits of God or deity, is central to Christianity. While other religions, by definition, include some theological assumptions, exploring the nature of deity does not have the same prestige or importance in any other religion, including the other monotheistic religions. Therefore, it is sometimes claimed that explicit and deliberate attention to theology by adherents of other religions is more an imitation of Christianity than an indigenous pursuit. For Buddhism and other nontheistic religions, the term is especially awkward, and some commentators refuse to use the term even if they wish to do critical and constructive reflections on their traditions. Nevertheless, by extension, many non-Christians do use the term for their own reflective work.

Feminist theology originated among Christians in late 1960s and early 1970s, though Jewish feminist commentators quickly joined the discussion. But while Christian feminist theologians took up questions about the implications of feminism for traditional concepts of deity as a major concern, feminists in many other traditions bracketed the question of language and imagery of deity, claiming that other issues, such as women's status under religious law, were much more pressing for women.

When discussing feminist theologies other than Christian feminist theology, the term feminism is equally problematic. In much of the world, the term has extremely negative connotations; people think it means an anti-men and anti-family movement that imposes Western values on other cultures. (This assessment of feminism tends to be promoted by religious conservatives who do not want women in their traditions to take a critical stance vis-à-vis the tradition.) Therefore, most people avoid the term, even if the work they are doing would qualify as feminist according to the Western use of the term. The term feminist implies taking a critical and constructive approach that centers on questions of women's well-being and agency to a religious tradition. Such critical and constructive tasks can involve changing or reinterpreting the tradition when it is found that women's well-being is compromised by traditional teachings and practices. The practice of feminist theology can also involve highlighting aspects of a tradition that have been largely neglected, but that do promote women's well-being. However, scholarship that simply provides more information about women's religious lives without invoking any critical perspectives does not qualify as feminist theology.

Feminist theologies generally take up two separate but interrelated tasks (these same tasks are also major topics in Christian feminist theology). Feminist reflection within a religious tradition is usually first sparked by women's resentment of their secondary and peripheral status in all the world's major religious traditions. This discovery leads to many explorations. The history of the tradition is reexamined to search out forgotten but more inspiring role models for women; sometimes this research leads to the conclusion that the religion actually had feminist values originally, but that these values gradually eroded under the weight of convention and tradition. The scriptures are examined anew to see if the traditional patriarchal interpretations are the only possible interpretations; many feminist interpreters of their scriptures claim that the scriptures do promote women's dignity, equality, and well-being, but that traditionalists have focused on a few passages, often taken out of context, that seem to promote male dominance. Rituals and liturgies are studied to see if they can be practiced in ways that are more inclusive of women. Sometimes this involves advocating the actual presence of women in the ritual spaces that were formerly closed to them. Sometimes it involves changing liturgical language to be gender-neutral and gender-inclusive. Sometimes it involves creating new rituals that meet women's religious needs more adequately. Finally, religious institutions are critiqued. Are women kept out of leadership roles? Is study of their tradition difficult for them? Do the laws and customs favor men over women? Feminists find traditional institutional set-ups quite inadequate if one defines the purpose of religious institutions as promoting the well-being of women equally with that of men.

Such questions are all part of the first agenda for feminist theologyreforming the tradition so that it serves women's needs more adequately. However, feminist theological reflection does not always take up the second, more comprehensive and challenging task. Is the whole religious worldview implicated in the male dominance of the tradition and in its typical disregard for women's well-being? This question is extremely threatening to many religious people, regardless of their specific religious tradition, because a positive answer would involve rethinking the most fundamental assumptions of the tradition. Nevertheless, some feminist theologians have explored this question. One notable example is the critique of the assumed maleness of the deity, which has been made mainly by Jewish and Christian feminist theologians. Lurking behind the assumed maleness of the deity, some feminist theologians have also found questionable assumptions about the relationship between the deity and the world, as well as about many other basic theological issues. This question has not been raised so thoroughly in other religious traditions, though some feminists have questioned some basic Buddhist assumptions. The guru or religious teacher is usually male, raising the question of whether this practice limits Buddhist women in the same way the maleness of the deity is claimed to limit Jewish and Christian women? Would women gurus highlight teachings and practices that have been largely downplayed by male gurus ? How helpful is the strong feminine imagery prevalent in some forms of Buddhism for women?

Feminist Theology in Judaism and Islam

Judaism and Islam are similar to each other in many ways. Both are strictly monotheistic and often use male imagery and language for the deity. Both value religious law over theology and pride themselves on providing a comprehensive overarching way of life for their followers. Both regard the sexes as complementary; each sex has its distinctive sphere, and it is often claimed that these separate spheres are of equal value. Both regard public religious observance as a male preserve and see women's roles as being centered in home and family. Both look extremely male-dominated by standard feminist assessments.

There have been strong women's movements in both traditions, but the movements are quite different, in part because the Jewish feminist movement is quite critical of the tradition, whereas Muslim women's movements often seek to educate women about rights they have under Muslim law that are often not fully observed. These differences are also due to the fact that the Jewish women's movement is centered in North America, where feminism is part of the culture, whereas Muslims must constantly deal with the accusation that any attempts to critique or reform Muslim practices surrounding gender are inappropriate forms of "westernization" and should be resisted.

Jewish feminist theology takes the form of both an attempt to include women in all aspects of traditional Judaism from which they have previously been excluded and an attempt to radically rethink the basic categories of Judaism, such as God, Torah, and Israel. Women have been ordained as rabbis in all forms of Judaism, except the Orthodox movement. Jewish education for women and girls has grown exponentially since the 1960s, with the result that women insist on participating equally in the synagogue roles for which they are trained, and many women have taken on the obligations of daily prayer that are required only of men. But such egalitarian reforms do not go far enough, according to some Jewish feminists, who argue that Jewish theology must be entirely reconceptualized. For example, in addition to insisting that female imagery and language of deity is appropriate, many wish to challenge traditional images of the deity as a ruler with power over humanity and develop partnership models of the relationship between deity and humanity.

Muslims, both feminist and nonfeminist, insist that Islam improved the status of women over what it had been in pre-Islamic Arabia. Muslims also insist, correctly, that Islam gave women rights that women in Christian and Western countries have obtained only recently, even if these rights may seem inadequate from a contemporary feminist point of view. Many Muslims also insist that the primary problem for women is lack of education, not lack of rights. Women may not know what rights they have under Islamic law, and local customs have often eroded whatever rights they have. Some Muslim feminists have shown that many traditional beliefs about women's inferiority have no basis in genuine Muslim thought. The customs that feminists find most problematic, such as female circumcision, honor killings, and even veiling, have no basis in the Qurʾān, though modest dress is required for both women and men. However, the traditional practices of sexual segregation and the requirement of separate spheres for women and men have not been challenged consistently. Traditional theology and concepts of God have not been subjected to feminist analysis.

Feminist Theology in Hinduism and Buddhism

The agenda for feminist theology has been largely determined by its Western and Christian practitioners. Some of their concerns merge well into the Hindu and Buddhist contexts, but others find no parallels in Hinduism and Buddhism. Generally, concerns about male-dominated religious institutions and women's access to prestigious religious practices are central to feminist critiques of these traditions. However, many of the more theological issues involving claims about the deity simply do not translate into Hindu or Buddhist contexts.

Hinduism, an umbrella term for extremely varied religious beliefs and practices in India, is as formally male-dominated as religion could possibly be. However, feminist commentators frequently point out that there are the formal law codes on the one hand, and there is religion as it is actually practiced on the other. In India, the former are usually more stringent than the latter. For example, women should not study the Sanskrit Vedas, but they do; a son is needed to light the parent's funeral pyre, but in the absence of a son, daughters sometimes light the fire. Especially in the twentieth century, most areas formerly closed to women were at least formally opened to them. Nowadays, Sanskrit learning is largely accessible to women, and some gurūs have transmitted their lineages to women disciples, who now hold positions of the highest religious authority. Additionally, offsetting the male dominance of much public religious practice, Hindu women have always had a rich repertoire of rituals for women led by women. The problem of the male deity does not exist in Hinduism, not because there are no male deities, but because there are also numerous female deities, many of them fierce and strong. Hinduism is largely a theistic religion, but it traditionally includes an almost unlimited number of ways to imagine deity. For all these reasons, as well as a general Asian reluctance to use the term feminism, there has been little feminist theology, per se, in the Hindu context, and few organized movements to improve women's status in religion. Nevertheless, women are quietly doing virtually everything religiously in Hinduism, at least in some places.

For Buddhism, the situation is somewhat different. Because of Buddhism's growing popularity in the West, it has encountered more direct feminist critiques and reconstructions. There is also a worldwide Buddhist women's movement. Its agenda is restoring the bhikkhunī (nuns) ordination in places where it has been lost and improving the education and status of nuns everywhere, but it also addresses women's concerns more generally. Buddhist teachings are remarkably gender-neutral and gender-free, probably more so than those of any other religion. That is because all Buddhist teachings point to the ultimate irrelevance of gender and to the fact that, like all phenomena, gender lacks substantial reality and is, in that sense, illusory. Buddhism is also a nontheistic religion, so the problem of the male deity does not exist. The plentiful anthropomorphic imagery found in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism features many prominent and popular female representations, as well as male ones. The problem in Buddhism has been its institutional setup, which historically has been extremely male-dominated and much more favorable to men than to women. Thus, Buddhist feminists primarily point to this internal contradiction within Buddhism rather than suggesting profound changes in its worldview. Regarding institutional reforms, progress in Asia is slow, but things are definitely changing. In North America, which in many ways can take a fresh start, the situation is different. Many of the best-known Western teachers of Buddhism are women, as are about half the senior teachers. However, most of these women teachers do not explicitly deal with feminist issues.

Feminist Theology in East Asian Religions

The major religions of East AsiaConfucianism and Daoismare religions under stress due to the influence of missionaries and other Western critics of Chinese religion, as well as to the hostility of the Chinese Communist government to religion in any form. Consequently, there has been little feminist analysis or reconceptualization of these religions. A few Western-educated Chinese scholars have compared the teachings of these religions with the claims of modern feminism and have found much room for dialogue between Daoism and feminism, but less consonance between Confucianism and feminism. It remains to be seen if these religions regain their former influence, but Daoism in particular does seem to be making a comeback and is also attracting non-Chinese followers. If they do make a comeback, these religions will also undoubtedly receive more attention from feminist theologians.


Feminist theology may or may not be an appropriate term for the feminist analysis that is done in non-monotheistic or nontheistic contexts. But it is important to recognize that critical and constructive work regarding gender has been done and is appropriate in those religious contexts. Too often in North American theological and academic studies of religion, the process of Christian theologizing is thoroughly discussed, whereas other religious traditions are presented only as static, completed systems of thought. The term theology does acknowledge that all religious traditions are changing and responding to current issues, including those brought about by the various feminist critiques of male-dominated religions and societies.

However, feminist theologies in the various religions are much more complex and nuanced than could be indicated within the limits of this short article. It is also important to note that even though several major religions have been discussed, many others, including all the world's indigenous traditions, have been omitted from this short survey.

See Also

Dialogue of Religions; Feminism, article on Feminism, Gender Studies, and Religion; Gender and Religion, overview article, and article on History of Study; Religious Diversity; Theology, articles on Christian Theology, Comparative Theology.


Three anthologies give systematic accounts of feminist theology in various religions: Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel, After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1991); Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young, Feminism and World Religions (Albany, 1999); and Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young, Her Voice, Her Faith: Women Speak on World Religions (Boulder, Colo., 2003). Two other anthologies have collected religious views on topics important to feminists: Daniel C. Maguire, ed., Sacred Rights: The Case for Abortion and Contraception in World Religions (Oxford, 2003), and Patricia Beattie Young, Mary E. Hunt, and Radhika Balakrishnan, eds., Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World's Religions (New Brunswick, N.J., 2001). For an overview of feminist issues in the world's religions see Rita M. Gross, Feminism and Religion: An Introduction (Boston, 1996). The most important feminist analyses of Judaism include, in the order of their publication, Blu Greenberg, On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (Philadelphia, 1981); Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (San Francisco, 1990); and Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Boston, 1998). Many books on women and Islam have appeared, but most of them are descriptive rather than analytical. More analytical discussions include Barbara Freyer Stowasser's Women in the Qur'an: Traditions and Interpretations (Oxford, 1994) and Fatima Mernissi's The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam (Reading, Mass., 1991). For a gripping autobiographical account, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (Boston, 1980), by the well-known feminist activist Nawal el Saadawi, is recommended. Finally, the anthology Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford, 2003), edited by Omid Safi, includes a section on gender issues in Islam. Many fine anthropological accounts on Hindu women have appeared, so that earlier generalizations about Hindu women are no longer relevant or appropriate. Nevertheless, there are few explicitly feminist analyses of Hinduism. One of the few such books is Alf Hiltebeital and Kathleen M. Erndl, Is the Goddess a Feminist?: The Politics of South Asian Goddesses (Sheffield, U.K., 2000). The most thorough feminist analysis of Buddhism is Rita M. Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (Albany, 1993). Three anthologies on women and Buddhism also offer useful feminist perspectives: Marianne Dresser, ed., Buddhist Women on the Edge: Contemporary Perspectives from the Western Frontier (Berkeley, 1996); Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon, eds., Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment (Boston, 1997); and Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Innovative Buddhist Women, Swimming against the Stream (Richmond, U.K., 2000).

Rita M. Gross (2005)