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Feminist Consciousness in Historical Perspective. By Barbara Brown Zikmund. 'From Feminist Interpretation of the Bible'

Feminist Consciousness in Historical Perspective

By Barbara Brown Zikmund
From Feminist Interpretation of the Bible
Edited by Letty M.Russell. Westminster Press,
Philadelphia 1985

Why do people change? Sometimes they are forced to change by those who are more powerful. Sometimes they change without even realizing it, growing or evolving along with other developments. Sometimes they feel injustice or limitation and resolve to overcome these difficulties. And sometimes they consciously claim new opportunities never before imagined.

In the last several centuries the situation of women has altered dramatically, especially the circumstances of white women in Western society — so much so that it is possible to document a rising feminist critical consciousness. As women have become more self-conscious about themselves, their relationship to authority, especially religious authority, has changed. Today, Christian and Jewish women have new understandings of their place in religious communities and their relationship to scripture. This new understanding may be called a "feminist critical consciousness."

If we seek to understand what is going on in biblical scholarship today, if we want to celebrate the varieties of women's gifts in church and synagogue, if we want to anticipate some of the work of feminist theologians, it is important to understand the modern history of feminist consciousness. What are its origins? How has it evolved? What are its most recent expressions?

Concern for Woman's Role

Until the early nineteenth century, most intellectual and theological work was done out of a prefeminist perspective. There was no conscious awareness that women's experience, as women's experience, was relevant to intellectual work. It was a man's world. Women were part of the male story. As women they remained invisible. This prefeminist consciousness acknowledged that women's lives did have some unique aspects, but the differences were unimportant.

Gradually, however, women came to believe that their experience was too limited and undervalued. They began to agitate for change; in the legal system, in politics, in fashion, in social expectations, and even in the church. Women became self-conscious about themselves as women.

This was very upsetting to many people. Opponents of the women's rights movement used the Bible to argue that it was not legitimate for women to name or value their female experience. Women in the churches tried to reconcile their commitment to the authority of the Bible with emerging feminist activism. They also became interested in questions of biblical interpretation. How did the Bible affirm their lives? When a text was insensitive to women's experience, what was its authority?

Today many biblical scholars believe that the specific context of interpretation matters. It is important to uncover the ancient cir cumstances that produced a text. It is also necessary to value the ways in which people of color, the poor, the aging, and women approach the Bible. These unique contexts enhance understanding and shape interpretation. In current biblical study it is almost as important to examine the contemporary situation of the reader as it is to know the particular milieu that produced a text many centu ries earlier.

A feminist consciousness in American society, therefore, has gone through several stages.

First, in the face of the new activities and claims of women in the early nineteenth century, many people used the Bible to protect the status quo. They engaged in meticulous literal interpretations of texts to define all differences between men and women. Sometimes these differences uplifted women's status; most of the time they did not. Usually the fact that woman was created second, out of Adam, was treated as evidence that she was inferior to man. In the minds of many, she was not simply different from him, she was subordinate, even evil.

Such negative understandings have a long history. There is an ancient Jewish prayer in which men thank God that they are not women. In the history of doctrine, women were commonly blamed for succumbing to temptation and leading the race into original sin. Many taboos and rituals surrounding women reinforced the under standing that women were unclean and less than men. Some New Testament texts confirm women as secondary. "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.... For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (I Cor. 11:3, 8); or, "The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says" (1 Cor. 14:34); or, "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissive-ness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (1 Tim. 2:11-14). Woman is simply less than man.

Sometimes a hierarchical interpretation of woman's fallen or secondary place in creation and redemption was defined positively. Women were different. Out of weakness and sinfulness women showed forth the amazing power of God's grace. If God could save women, God would surely save men. In her secondary status, woman played a special role in God's creation.

By the 1830s and 1840s, many women in America saw the need for different understandings of biblical material. Sarah Grimke, noted antislavery lecturer and women's rights author, charged that the masculine bias of biblical interpretation was part of a deliberate plot against women. In 1837 she called for new feminist scholarship. A few years later, Antoinette Brown, one of the first women to study theology at Oberlin College, examined Paul's epistles with feminist questions. At her ordination in 1853 (she was the first ordained woman in Congregationalism), the preacher, the Rev. Luther Lee, noted that Paul promised new gifts of the Spirit to men and women alike. He discounted some of Paul's specific admonitions against women and quoted from Galatians. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). A rising feminist consciousness called for discrimination between those parts of the Bible that were essential and those that were culturally relative.

In the 1880s, women under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized that something needed to be done to counteract the oppressive power of the Bible. A committee of twenty women examined every major passage in the Bible that referred to women and wrote commentaries to expand the interpretive framework. Although the resulting Woman's Bible did not use the newest techniques of higher criticism, it presupposed that the Bible ought to be treated like other books, limited by its historical context. Many readers wanted to discover the biblical message without getting bogged down in secondary cultural biases that distorted the freedom of Christian women

The project was especially noteworthy because it took the Bible seriously. In her introduction to The Woman's Bible, Stanton noted that "there are some who write us that our work is a useless expenditure of force over a book that has lost its hold on the human mind." Yet, she continued, "So long as tens of thousands of Bibles are printed every year,... it is vain to belittle its influence.(1) More and more women craved freedom from the oppression of the biblical word.

Yet the male scholarly establishment continued to control biblical studies. In 1894 the Society of Biblical Literature voted to admit its first female member. According to Dorothy Bass, who documents the history of women and biblical studies, there was little opposition to the few women members.(2) Most were professors at women's colleges. They were not perceived as a threat. In the early twentieth century, women biblical scholars exhibited strong scholarship but it was never self-consciously feminist. Not until the 1970s did female members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) assert that an intentional feminist hermeneutic was useful in their work.

During much of the nineteenth century, most women compen sated for the inequality and marginality they found in society and biblical interpretation by glorifying women's place. If women were created second and limited to special spheres, this was their strength. Women were separate for a reason. God gave women a special calling. Catherine Beecher argued in 1837 that "heaven has appointed to one sex the superior, and to the other the subordinate station, [but] it is not because it was designed that [woman's] duties or her influence should be any the less important." Women in the home had a "sphere of influence" characterized by peace and love. As wives and mothers they served society differently. Men used physical force to gain and keep power, whereas women influenced things in ways that were "altogether different and peculiar."(3) Women brought superior civilizing and Christianizing principles into a world which needed their contribution.

This understanding of women's role was called "soft feminism." It insisted that women were different and that the differences were good. Vive la différence. It occurred when women refused to let the negative implications of their supposedly secondary situation dominate their self-image. Knowing about the "other" experience of women gave women special strength.

Out of this attitude, women began to study the lives of great women and to examine the roles of women in the Bible (to capturetheir unique history and experience). As women came to under stand how they were different from men, they learned to capitalize on those differences. In some cases this created a reverse sexism, which declared that the male world could only be saved if it became "feminized."

Concern About Equality

By the early twentieth century, however, women rejected soft feminism and began to promote "women's studies" for egalitarian reasons. They argued that women and men needed to go behind the differences between the sexes to their common humanity. Ultimately, women and men shared one history and condition. Women's experience was important, not because it was special but because women were God's creatures alongside men. Human history was distorted if the experiences of women remained unnoticed and unappreciated. Through women's studies, society could expand areas of knowledge that had been ignored.

At the beginning, the idea of women's studies was not consciously critical, except in its concern for what had been left out. It reached out for the unknown riches of women's contributions, past and present. It sought to capture the totality of woman's history, not necessarily because it was different from male history but because it was a shared history. Justice required that women not remain invisible or secondary.

Initially, women's studies added new courses and programs. Special offerings were created to supplement traditional and classic fields. Women studied these things to discover more about them selves. Historians recovered "herstory." Literary critics examined the works of female writers. Sociologists and psychologists did research on the female life cycle, on violence, on sexuality, and on maternity. Economists and political analysts explored the roles of women as consumers or voters.

Some scholars treated women as one among many minority groups. Women's studies were lumped with Black studies and ethnic studies on the edges of the academic marketplace. Sometimes they were considered a passing fad unrelated to the main corpus of knowledge. As a "minority group," women were not seen to participate fully in the majority culture.

Others argued that women were not a minority. Women were part of every group. Whereas intermarriage blurred the distinctive cir cumstances of other minority groups, intermarriage by women with the master class (men) was actually the principal source of women's oppression. Women's studies were different from minority studies.

At first women's studies were remedial. They sought to repair damage and correct distortions. They remembered what had been left out. They served the needs of women themselves, by giving a sense of importance and value. They expanded knowledge. Further more, because women's studies had no vested interests, their dis coveries were freely shared. Women's studies cultivated a new com munity of persons who celebrated the equal gifts of women and men in history and culture.

In biblical studies, the advent of women's studies expanded women's understandings of biblical authority. By helping everyone appreciate the place of women in the Bible and in the early church, it stretched orthodox assumptions about tradition. It offered alter native images of women. It suggested that more inclusive language could be important for the faith and the church.

Much feminist consciousness-raising is still being done through women's studies. Women need to see the total picture and claim their equality in God's world. Women's groups in church and syna gogue appropriately highlight that which has been overlooked. But the journey toward a feminist critical consciousness does not stop with new information or supplemental women's studies. The femi nist interpretive task has a critical and creative agenda that goes beyond helping women claim their history and see their place in society. It enables women to praise God in this "strange land," and it criticizes the distortions perpetuated by the majority. In its full ness, a feminist critical consciousness strives to develop an authen tic inclusive interpretive framework for all biblical, historical, and theological work.

Feminist Consciousness

In the movement from women's studies to feminist studies, two things happened: first, the new material and methods cultivated in women's studies became the basis for a critique of past assumptions and paradigms. Enthusiasm about new knowledge turned into a critique of old knowledge. Second, a feminist critical consciousness, in relationship with other liberation movements, began to shape an entirely new interpretative framework.

Women in the mid-twentieth century came to feel that reinterpre-tation was not enough. It was essential to deal with patriarchal tradition itself. How should women and men who accepted the promise of liberation deal with the Bible and the church today?

Strictly speaking, women's studies cared only about those aspects of life where women played a part. A feminist consciousness, how ever, was not limited to women. Inclusive questions needed to beasked about every biblical text and every event in church history: What difference did it make that women were or were not included? If women were not taken into account, why? The answers to these questions challenged many sacred principles of doctrine and prac tice.

In our times, an emerging feminist consciousness attacks majority positions and points out the injustices of history. Feminists are angry, iconoclastic, and revolutionary. A feminist critical conscious ness does not always state positively what it stands for, but it knows and names its enemies. Feminism does not simply stretch the hori zons of knowledge, it alters the landscape by tearing down many of the old patriarchal buildings.

Feminism has to be very careful, however, that its criticism is not co-opted by an establishment mind-set. For example, if feminists uncover the importance of women's ministries in the early church and become highly critical of the contemporary church, they cannot turn around and insist that women ought to have access to the accumulated power and privilege enjoyed by male clergy through the ages. Giving power and privilege to women who have been denied it historically does not do away with the problems of pa triarchy.

Virginia Woolf wrote about the dilemma women confront when they try to move into arenas previously dominated by men:

For we have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that [academic] procession, or don't we? On what terms shall we join [hat procession? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men? . . . Let us never cease from thinking,— what is this "civilization" in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?(4)

The ultimate aim of a feminist consciousness is to make the expe rience and insights of women available to the entire world, not simply to know more about women in and of themselves. Yet if we are to include women in the total picture, we are called to rethink how we interpret everything. A canon that is inclusive is self-correct ing and constantly reinterpreting God's ways with this world. A history that is inclusive involves different periodization, different content, and different emphases. And because our religious faith is grounded in the historical experience of Jews and Christians ex pressed through scripture and lived out through history, a feminist critical consciousness must build a theology by moving beyond criticism to constructive alternatives.

The feminist critical consciousness in the late twentieth century has been greatly influenced by the development of the so-called "woman's liberation movement." In that context women have explored together the realities of women's oppression, found support for a growing conviction that the personal is political, and celebrated the power of consciousness-raising experiences. Feminists in secular and religious studies build upon this common context to reshape their disciplines.

Contemporary feminists approach reality with new questions and formulate new interpretations. The motive is not simply to reform; it is to reconstruct. A mature feminist critical consciousness is revolutionary. It challenges method and upsets assumptions. Very early in the evolution of feminism, Mary Daly predicted that this would happen, because

the tyranny of methodolatry hinders new discoveries. It prevents us from raising questions never asked before and from being illumined by ideas that do not fit into pre-established boxes and forms. . . . Under pa triarchy, Method has wiped out women's questions so totally that even women have not been able to hear and formulate our own questions to meet our own experiences.(5)

As a critical feminist consciousness comes of age, the situation is further complicated by the fact that religion is different. We do not just study religion, we live it. Changes in religious questions and assumptions affect people deeply. With religion the personal is not just political, it is ontological: that is, it informs our entire way of being and relating to God, not simply our situation in the sociopolitical order.

Against this reality, feminists in religion are developing new methods for liberating their faith from patriarchal patterns. Feminists are seeking alternative interpretive frameworks for biblical, historical, and theological work. Feminists are using different materials to enrich their faith. And in all cases, feminists are trying to do this in an uncompetitive collegial style.

Two patterns of feminist work have emerged in religious studies. The scholars in this book represent those feminists who refuse to give up on the liberating power of the scriptures. They seek new ways to understand the normative authority of the Bible in their faith. Other feminists fear this is impossible. Both groups agree that patriarchy must be overcome, but they differ in their understanding of how.

Jewish and Christian feminists use new interpretive principles to liberate God's word in scripture. They are willing to risk, out of a belief that God has promised liberation to all creation. They are redefining authority to celebrate the resources of community in interpreting God's Word. By allowing women's experience to in form the task, they are discovering new theologies and leaving behind old oppressions.

Feminists who feel that the Bible and its theological/ecclesiastical traditions must be left behind focus upon the sacrality of women and seek to recover the rich religious insights of Goddess traditions. This approach may be called pagan. Yet even for those who want to stay within the Jewish and Christian legacy, the work of neo-pagan or nonbiblical feminist spirituality is important. Goddess religions have powerful symbols that stretch our understanding of religious practice and human experience.

Both groups emphasize that feminist perspectives in faith and practice enrich religion. They name oppression, celebrate the personal, and explore the nature of community. They believe that only when the patriarchal repression of women and women's religious experience is replaced with religious faith and practice affirming a healthy relationship to the holy can the human religious spirit be truly free.

The development of a feminist critical consciousness has moved from the innocent assumption that women's experience was irrelevant to the conviction that it is normative. There were (and are) those who insist that differences between men and women forced women into separate spheres of life and responsibility. Women were viewed as subordinate. Sometimes, women's situation (though separate) was considered equal and even superior. Women's studies took society beyond this double standard and invited women to discover the unknown and unexplored parts of their story. Women's studies presupposed that men and women were equal. Eventually, new knowledge led to a critique of old assumptions, which in turn shaped a new feminist critical consciousness.

Dealing with the Bible through all of this has not been easy. Sometimes it has been common to ignore scripture and avoid ques tions of authority. Many women of faith, however, are not willing to give up. They believe that the Bible offers a liberating word for our times and that the feminist critical consciousness which has emerged over the last century can unlock new meaning in scripture. Contemporary feminists are asking new questions and forging new theories to enrich the religious understanding of all women and men.


1. The Woman's Bible, p. 11. 2. Bass, JSOT 22:6-12.

3. "An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism with Reference to the Duty of Females," reprinted in Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller, eds., Women and Religion in America, vol. 1 (Harper & Row, 1981), p. 311.

4. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938, 1963), pp. 62-63 of 1963 edition.

5. Daly, Beyond God the Father, pp. 11-12.

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