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Feminist Liberation Theology

Feminist Liberation Theology

A Contextual Option

by Denise Ackermann

from Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 1988, no. 62, pp.14-28


This article will, after introductory remarks on the background to feminist theology, deal briefly with its main trends. A choice is made for a feminist liberation theological approach which is then explicated in terms of the work of certain North American and European feminist theologians. This approach is then spelt out further in regard to anthropology as a theological category which merits particular attention in our context. Certain criticisms of feminist theology are discussed, followed by some thoughts on the search for a contextual feminist liberation theology. No one article can cover the field of a particular theology adequately. This one is no exception. I have opted for an introductory approach and can therefore merely touch on issues which merit more attention, while referring the reader to the footnotes for further reading.


Until the early 19th century most intellectual and theological endeavours proceeded from a prefeminist perspective. Women’s experience, as women’s experience, was not perceived as relevant to intellectual pursuits. Women were part of “mankind” and as such remained invisible. The awakening of a feminist consciousness probably first occurred noticeably in the United States of America. Women, as women, started to take part actively in the religious sphere. Sarah Grimke highlighted the masculine bias of biblical interpretation; Antoinette Brown who studied theology at Oberlin College in 1837, examined Paul’s epistles with feminist questions and in the 1890’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton together with a committee of 20 women wrote commentries to expand the interpretative framework of those major passages in the Bible which referred to women, resulting in the Women’s Bible.(1) Elizabeth Schussler - Fiorenza finds that Elizabeth Cady Stanton outlined two critical insights for feminist theological hermeneutics (Fiorenza 1984:7). Firstly, she perceived that the Bible is not a “neutral” book but a political weapon against women’s struggle for liberation and, secondly, she saw that the Bible is not just misunderstood or badly interpreted but that it is patriarchal and androcentric.(2)

In the 20th century women’s studies appeared as part of the academic curriculum. Women’s studies stressed the need to include what had been left out - that part of history that is women’s which, though different to men’s, needed to be added so that together his-story and her-story could present a more complete picture. Women’s studies, an interdisciplinary venture, tended at first to be remedial, but ultimately resulted in expanding the body of knowledge and of raising women’s consciousness.(3)

It was this raised feminist consciousness that paved the way from women’s studies to feminist studies and then to feminist theology. According to Zikmund, 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 critique of old knowledge. Second, a feminist critical consciousness, in relationship with other liberation movements, began to shape an entirely new interpretative framework.(4)

Feminist theology arises from the historical reality of sexism in human society. Sexism, according to Rosemary Ruether, is “gender privilege of males over females”.(5) It is almost a cliche to say that the subjugation of women is the oldest form of oppression. However, when the private and corporate pain of sexist oppression is reflected on critically and systematically in the light of faith, feminist theology is born.(6)

Different Streams in Feminist Theology

There is, however, no one feminist theology. As is the case for. all theologies, context as well as cultural and religious traditions play their roles. In broad terms, however, two distinct tendencies surface in western feminist theology. They have been described as exclusive and inclusive. In the former sexism is the key to all social oppression, while the latter views sexism as one of the structures of oppression, recognising that, for instance, racism and classism are also oppressive.(7) Sallie McFague describes these two streams as revolutionary and reformist.(8) Before attempting to deal with their differences it is necessary to note that all feminist theologians agree on at least one issue: the patriarchal model for doing theology, developed and maintained over almost two thousand years can no longer be tolerated.(9) Differences arise as to strategies to deal with this model and as feminist theology has few, if any, traditions to fall back on, it would be true to say that it is characterised at this moment by diversity. Another issue on which most feminists agree, be they revolutionary or reformist, is the central role of experience in their theologising. In this regard, Ruether, who would fall in the reformist camp, says that the tendency to treat the use of experience as unique to feminist theology and to see it as distant from the “objective” sources of truth of classical theologies, is based on a misunderstanding of the experimental base of all theological reflection. She maintains that what have been called the objective sources of theology, scripture and traditon, are themselves codified human experience and that human experience is the starting point and the ending point of the hermeneutical circle. Feminist theology draws on women’s experience which, according to Ruether, has almost entirely been shut out of theological reflection in the past.(10)

Revolutionary Feminist Theology

Revolutionary feminists are those who feel that the Judeo-Christian tradition, which purports to speak of the human experience of God, has in fact been created by men for men and that it speaks to them and not to women. Its symbols, language and paradigms are in fact so hopelessly patriarchal that its very essence is a denial of an integrated self-concept for women and it should therefore be abandoned.(11) There are several varieties of revolutionary feminist theology. One of the more interesting is the “Goddess religion” of which Naomi Goldenburg, Carol Christ and Mary Daly are exponents. They agree “that a female deity or divine principle is necessary if women’s experience is to be included in a religious world view”.(12) The mention of a Goddess religion may well sound bizarre to many and I would agree with McFague that one of its basic difficulties is that it is anachronistic. Goddess religion is agrarian in nature and thrived in cultures prior to the male-dominated ones we now know. It has not survived in our urban world.

The writings of these feminist theologians can however, not be dismissed lightly. Apart from their obvious erudition, they should also be read as a great cry of pain and anger against the destructiveness of patriarchy to women at every level of their beings physical, emotional, spiritual, political and cultural.” They are also immensely creative in their ability to present new thought patterns in language and terms hitherto not used. A prime example is Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaphysics of Radical Feminism, an innovative philosophical work which illustrates how male scholarship and language have “erased” women from consciousness.

Reformist Feminist Theology

According to McFague, reformist feminist theologians “believe that the root-metaphor of Christianity is human liberation, not patriarchy, and that liberation for women can occur within the Christian paradigm”.(14) This is, as she remarks, a “bold faith” for it does not have a great deal to support it at first glance. Here feminist theology finds its place within the contemporary theologies of liberation which have emerged from the so-called Third World. The heart of the Christian gospel is seen as containing within it the need for human liberation which will be manifested in a new human-divine relationship in a new just order.

Feminist theologians who may be termed reformist include, among others, Letty Russell, Rosemary Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Phyllis Treble, Sallie McFague, Catharina Halkes and Elisbeth Moltmann-Wendel. They too, however, differ in emphases which becomes apparent when their hermeneutics are examined.

I choose to work within the reformed or inclusive model of feminist theology in which liberation is a key concept.(15) Despite its emphasis on women’s experience, it is not exclusivistic by nature, and seeks liberation and a new vision for all of humanity. It also finds its roots in the radical impulse of biblical faith.

Feminist Liberation Theology

As liberation theology opened up a new context for theology with its concern directed at praxis, women articulated the need for liberation from sexist oppression. They realised that oppression is multi-dimensional and that oppression occurs not only in the church but also in the social, political and economic spheres. It is not surprising, therefore that feminist liberation theology takes as its point of departure the acceptance of the equal human worth of all in a just society. The views of three leading exponents of feminist liberation theology, Rosemary Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza and Letty Russell demonstrate how they approach feminist liberation theology.

Ruether defines her approach as follows: “The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive . . . The uniqueness of feminist theology is not the critical principle, full humanity, but the fact that women claim this principle for themselves.”(16)

Ruether is a prolific writer and a fine classical scholar who established her theological reputation before she began to apply herself to the feminist perspective. Her definitive work on feminist theology is Sexism and Godtalk, described by Harvey Cox as “one of the most important theological books of this or any other season”.

Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, a New Testament scholar, defines her approach as follows: “Feminism is not just a theoretical world view or perspective but a women’s liberation movement for societal and ecclesial change. Likewise patriarchal oppression is not identical with androcentrism or sexism . . . [it is] a social-political system and societal structure of graded subjugations and oppressions . . . Therefore a critical feminist theology of liberation does not speak of male oppressors and female oppressed, of all men over and against all women but about patriarch as a pyramidal system and hierarchical structure of Society and church in which women’s oppression is specified not only in terms of race and class but also in terms of marital status. ”(17)

In any situation in which women suffer the injustice of oppression in patriarchal structures, feminist liberation theology remains first and foremost a critical theology of liberation. It explores women’s experiences of struggling for liberation particularly in biblical religion, while at the same time articulating an alternative vision of liberation.(16)

Lastly Letty Russell wrestles with the implications of the praxis of freedom for women. While affirming the biblical basis for her theology, she sees the need for a paradigmatic shift in our move away from what she calls “the pyramid of domination” in our theology and church life to one of partnership. Woman can no longer be the “outsider” or “the other” but must share with men as participants in a common journey to discover the meaning of life and ministry in Christ. The paradigm then shifts from one of authority over community to authority in community.”


Hermeneutics is not only a key issue in feminist theology but also the area in which it has to give account for itself in the face of past experience for the dangers involved when an advocacy stance is used as a point of departure. It is the place where differences in approach between feminist theologians surface. The three theologians cited above, all work within the biblical framework, albeit in different ways. Like other liberation theologians they question the sole efficacy of the historical critical method. They would probably hold that while the latter method has claimed objectivity, the results of its scholarship has been largely in the service of white middle-class males. As mentioned above, feminist theology starts from position of advocacy. It makes use of the critical tools of analysis, but remains sceptical of the ideological framework in which these tools have been used in the past.

Ruether, Fiorenza and Russell would all accept patriarchy as the social context of scripture. Ruether finds that within biblical faith there are resources by which biblical texts themselves can be criticized. This prophetic-liberating tradition is incompatible with patriarchal ideology, which then loses its normative character; in fact it becomes idolatrous and blasphemous. “It is idolatrous to make males more ‘like God’ than females. It is blasphemous to use the image and name of the Holy to justify patriarchal domination and law. Feminist readings of the Bible can discern a norm within Biblical faith by which the Biblical texts themselves can be criticised. To the extent to which Biblical texts reflect this normative principle, they are regarded as authoritative.”(20) She points out that no theology, regardless of its claim that the Bible is a work of inspiration, ever considers all parts of it as equally authoritative. Feminist theology finds what is normative in the rediscovery of the prophetic context and content of biblical faith itself. This prophetic liberating principle claimed by Ruether as hermeneutic for feminist theology is not new. The fact that it is claimed for women is.

Fiorenza has probably devoted more time and painstaking scholarship in search of a feminist critical hermeneutic than any other feminist theologian. In her monumental work In memory of her, she says that “Regardless of how androcentric texts may erase women from historiography, they do not prove the absence of women from the center of patriarchal history and biblical revelation. Therefore, feminists cannot afford to disown androcentric biblical texts and patriarchal history as their own revelatory texts and history.”(21) Yet women must remember that these androcentric texts are not necessarily a trustworthy account of human history, culture and religion. Fiorenza suggests that a feminist critical hermeneutics must move from androcentric texts to their social-historical contexts. Then it can claim the contemporary community of women struggling for liberation as its “locus of revelation”, and it can also reclaim its foresisters as victims and subjects participating in patriarchal culture. Such a feminist reconstruction of the historical world of Christianity needs a feminist hermeneutic described as one which shares in the critical methods and impulses of historical scholarship on the one hand and in the theological goals of liberation theologies on the other hand.(22)

Russell agrees with Ruether that the Bible “has a critical or liberating tradition embodied in its ‘prophetic-messianic’ message of continuing selfcritique . . . As a feminist I look to the horizon of expectation of the Bible as the source of my own expectation of justice and liberation”.(23) She finds her interpretative key in the witness of scripture of God’s promise (for the mending of creation) on its way to fulfilment. All that denies the intention of God for the liberation of our groaning creation in all its parts is not viewed as authoritative. This hermeneutic is developed around the theme of partnership - God’s partnership at work in the biblical story and in our lives, and partnership between women and men, who develop new ways of relating to the world and to one another.(24)

The dilemma or paradox of feminist theology, or rather of those feminist theologians who use the Bible as the source book of their theology, is pointed out by Mary Ann Tolbert: “. . . one must struggle against God as enemy assisted by God as helper, or one must defeat the Bible as patriarchal authority by using the Bible as liberator.”(25)

A Feminist Anthropology

The task of feminist liberation theology is to engage in a systematic reconstruction of our religious symbols which, in reflecting the relationship between humanity and God, are founded on a sexist bias. Such an exercise would require, among others, that we look at our God-language, Christology, redemption, our views on anthropology and on church and ministry.

Feminist theology’s concern with finding new images makes the doctrine of anthropology a central concern. It is chosen here to illustrate how some feminist liberation theologians deal with this theological category. It is also of prime importance in our search for a contextual feminist liberation theology in a country where issues of race, sex and class are glued together by the ideology of apartheid.

Christian theological anthropology is seen by feminist liberation theologians as based on a dualistic understanding of humanity. Our present humanity is fallen and sinful and not an authentic representation of the image of God. When theological tradition is examined it is found, on the one hand, that the equivalence of female and male in the image of God is deeply rooted in Christian thought. On the other hand, however, it has tended to be obscured by the tendency to “correlate femaleness with the lower part of human nature in a hierarchical scheme of mind over body, reason over passions”,(26) thus already revealing a certain anthropological stance. Ruether reasons that this “lower” part of the self is seen as the source of sin; femaleness then becomes linked to that part of self which is prone to sin. She sees this phenomenon as a case of projection - men who have monopolised theological self-definition project onto women the rejection of their “lower selves”. Women are then viewed as rather an “inferior mix” and as such are by nature to be subjugated.(27)

The result of this is the patriarchal anthropology which has dominated classical theology for so long. The pattern is familiar and has been supported by views on the nature of women by great lights like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Barth. “Woman,” in the vulgar eloquence of Chrysostom, “is a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a pained ill.”(28) According to Ruether, Augustine is the classical source of this type of anthropology. When discussing the question of the image of God, he reflected on the trinity, arriving at the conclusion that the woman “. . . when she is referred to separately in her quality as a helpmeet . . . then she is not the image of God, but as regards the male alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”(29 )

Aquinas continued this tradition holding that women are defective by nature. He also said: “Father and mother are loved as principles of our natural origin. Now the father is a principle in a more excellent way than the mother, because he is the active principle, while the mother is the passive and material principle. Consequently, strictly speaking, the father is to be loved more.” (30)

No real changes were brought about to patriarchal anthropology by the Reformation. Luther suggests that in the original creation Eve would have been equal with Adam but that through the fall she lost her original equality and became inferior in mind and body. Subjugation is her punishment for sin - an expression of divine justice. In Calvinism women are viewed as equivalent with men in the image of God. Their subordination is not an expression of inferiority but rather reflects a divinely created social order which has ordained the rule of some and the subjugation of others. This pattern of thought continued in Barth’s theology. For him his established, created order of male over female reflected the covenant of creation.

Distinguishing between history and nature he found that “the female is as significant for human nature as such as the male is for human history.”(31)

Apart from the patriarchal models of anthropology, there are those models which can be called complementary or egalitarian. They are, acording to Ruether, a transmutation of the hierarchical model which took place during the eighteenth century under the impact of the Enlightenment. Liberalistic feminism rejected the classical tradition that identified the order of creation with patriarchy and confirmed the equivalence of all beings. “Liberalism secularizes the doctrine of imago dei. The equivalence of male and female refers to the actual capacities of men and women as finite, historical persons.”(32) Thus the restoration of equality becomes the aim of all reform. Marxist feminism builds on this tradition. It recognises that inequality is not simply a legal structure but also an economic system of discrimination against women. Echoes of this approach are found in the thinking of black feminists in South Africa.

In the complementary model, the secularisation of society and the privatisation of religion were accompanied by the identificaion of religion and “femininity” with one another, an identification in which each expressed altruism and non-rational spirituality. As a result, a new dualism emerges, one in which women are the “spiritual”, nurturing, affective, non-rational beings; and men are aggressive, logical and materialistic.

Clearly an approach is sought which moves beyond those described above. Why? The effect of the above anthropologies on women demand it. Woman’s experience of herself has been greatly influenced by these views on her as they have provided legitimation for her inward doubts. Mary Daly has described women’s “original sin” as her internalisation of blame and guilt.(33) Women’s complicity, enforced to large measure by conditioning, has allowed women to live out the abject role assigned to the “second sex”. The eradication of this sin of complicity in self-destruction is basically redemptive for the whole of society, as sexist oppression is dehumanising to both women and men. Daly finds that “in self-liberation women are performing the most effective action possible toward universal human liberation, making available to men the fullness of human being that is lost in sexual hierachy.”(34) There are certain side effects that arise from this internalisation by women of their identity and being as “the other”. Psychological paralysis, which arises from a general feeling of hopelessness and anxiety over social disapproval, is one such effect. Another is feminine antifeminism - so prevalent in our society. This is generally expressed in hostility, disapproval or ridicule. Another side effect is false humility - found in the attitude that women should not rival men or threaten men’s egos. It is publicly expressed in women’s organisations which espouse self-depreciation. A striking example in the USA is the National Council of Catholic Women who voted against the Equal Rights Amendment, saying that the amendment was “a threat to the nature of women”. Lastly, emotional dependence is another such side effect rooted in a low self-image. Women accept being subordinate in their job situations, for example, the position of women teachers in this country.

Clearly all feminist theologians reject patriarchal anthropology. Greater ambivalence exists in regard to the complementary models. Instinctively most recognise that the complementary model in its patriarchal form is intended to make women different, and even better to keep her in her place in the home. Some have resorted to the use of androgyny as a concept which expresses the human nature that all persons share alike. “Androgyny refers to the possession by both males and females of both halves of the psychic capacities that have been traditionally separated as masculinity and feminity.”(35) The term can be misleading, for it suggests that men and women possess both male and female psychic characteristics, and thereby perpetuates the idea that certain attributes can be labelled feminine and others masculine. There appears to be no valid biological basis for such labels. In her inimitable manner, Ruether comments: “To put it bluntly, there is no biological connection between male gonads and the capacity to reason. Likewise, there is no biological connection between female sexual organs and the capacity to be intuitive, caring, or nurturing. Thus the labelling of these capacities as masculine and feminine simply perpetuates gender role stereotypes and imports gender complementarily into each person’s identity in a confusing way . . . We need to affirm not the confusing concept of androgyny but rather that all humans possess a full and equivalent human nature and personhood, as male and female.” (36)

So where does this leave us? There is a third alternative anthropological model from a feminist perspective, described by Catharina Halkes as the transformative model. Such a model is directed at the attainment of full personhood for both men and women, whilst realising the simultaneous need for societal change. It derives from a more holistic impulse than the complementary model (or quite obviously than the patriarchal model).

The transformative model, according to Halkes, seeks a theological base in the concept of imago Dei based on Genesis 1:26-28. In their search for a biblical grounding it is not surprising that women turn rather to the creation account in Genesis 1 than in Genesis 2.

It is argued that, in an adequate biblically grounded theological anthropology, humankind, in the first instance, reflects God’s image. According to Halkes: “Zonder de tekst van Gen. 1,26-28 geweld aan te doen, kunnen we stellen dat bet diepste geheim, de meest markante trek van elke mens is dat zij/hij geschapen is om op God te lijken, God te representeren en verantwoordelijkheid te dragen voor de schepping. Mannelijk of vrouwelijk zijn is ‘secundair’, komt overeen met bet karakteristieke van al het geschapene om vruchtbaar te zijn en vraagt telkens, in de geschiedenis en in elke cultuur, om een verantwoorde invulling en vormgeving.”(37)

Here we see a different emphasis to Ruether’s who does not view sexuality as “secundair”. Such an anthropology strives to incorporate a cosmic dimension, which sees the interrelatedness of all of creation and in so doing enriches and deepens relationships between people. For Halkes the transformative model contains the clear injunction to recognise the potential and abilities of every human and concentrate less on sexually specific roles, qualities and commissions. She raises the question whether such an anthropology does not result in a neutralised, colourless equality of humanity in which it becomes difficult to speak of male and female.(38) What are the implications of such an anthropology for men? The transformative model identifies deeply with Paul’s vision in Galatians 3:2728 - “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” Men here are addressed not merely to partake in some future vision, but to become involved in the practical and present application of such an anthropology in breaking down all patterns of domination in society. Nor does it imply the neutralising of the sexes. The experience of being a woman or a man contributes its own particular colour. It asks that we become “medescheppende partners van God.”(39) When women, moving outward from a whole view of self seek a new sociological integration that overcomes the dualisms in mind and society, the holistic thrust in the transformative model becomes apparent. Recovering our imago Dei and the realisation of our full redeemed humanity necessitates the transformation of structures in church and society, so that the recovery of our full potential can function at all levels. The transformative model wants not only a newly integrated self, but a newly integrated social order.

Some Criticisms of Feminist Liberation Theology

In critically assessing feminist liberation theology after about twenty years of its existence, it may be slightly premature to ask whether it has realised its potential as a liberating force for women of faith. In some respects the answer would be a resounding “yes”. The voice of women is now being heard in theological debate, more women are studying theology than ever before and many churches are looking at the role of women in their structures with a new concern for their gifts and ministries. In other respects, however, the gains seem meagre when weighed against the massive volume of feminist theological writing of a high level of historical, textual and linguistic competence. Women in the Catholic church are experiencing painful rebuffs; the churches who ordain women are doing so very slowly; feminist liberation theology is still relatively unknown in this country; the structural oppression of women continues in church and society.

With the wisdom of hindsight it is possible to say now that feminist liberation theology spent too much time and energy on the question of women’s ordination in its earlier stages, when in fact what was needed was a new theological understanding of women. It seems to me that for Catholic women this door will remain closed until the Catholic church’s understanding of women changes, indeed, until it rethinks its anthropology. Ordination as such cannot liberate women. Once there is a new understanding of women, ordination will follow for those who qualify. When feminist theologians make ordination the central issue, they reinforce the foundations of the very hierachical and patriarchal order which discriminates against them.(40)

Feminist theological scholarship has also devoted an inordinate amount of its energy to the historical study of the injustices perpetrated by patriarchy. It is now a social evil which can be documented with ease. The question this raises is the following: to what end is this done and will men, once provided with the facts, stop discriminating against women? Kee comments perceptively: “The danger is that by putting the responsibility for ending domination on to men, women might reinforce one of the most fundamental elements in male domination of women, namely that women have been dependent upon men for their well-being.”(41)

Of great relevance in our context is the fact that feminist liberation theology has been accused of being both middle class and racist. It is undoubtedly true that its origins in North America and Europe are largely found among white middle class women whose initial concern tended to be more with individual rights than with their movement’s social impact. However, the use of the tools of social analysis in regard to the relationship between patriarchy and social, political and economic conditions and the understanding that racist and sexist oppression have much in common, have contributed to a shift in emphasis. Context as a determining factor however remains, as women of different races and classes seek to understand the meaning of liberation, equality and justice for themselves in their respective milieus.

Afro-American women are seeking to affirm themselves as black while simultaneously owning their connection with feminism in what is called Womanist Theology. The concept “womanist”, which can be found in the writings of, for instance, the novelist Alice Walker, seeks to reclaim black history, religion and culture.

Black South African women, who resist feminist liberation theology as a bourgeois import from an alien culture, will grapple with the particular problems of race, sex and class from their place. White feminist liberation theologians in South Africa will, as their starting point, have to understand that the differences between white and black women have to be recognised and responded to. If this is not done, white feminism will remain in the realm of the abstract and whites will remain in bondage to their roles as oppressors. We will need to develop a critical social theory which will enable us to tackle the persistent problems of both racist and sexist domination, and to understand our roles in each. Otherwise we may justifiably be accused of dabbling in feminist theology, of being “upperclass women (mostly white) [who] realise their so-called liberation at the expense of the oppression and exploitation of the lower class women.”(42)

Feminist liberation theology is in essence practical theology, that is it is committed to action and reflection in a reciprocal relationship. If it remains on the level of reflective theologising only and does not take up an advocacy stance in the struggle for a just and new society, it can rightly be accused of an utopianism which deals only in eschatological dreams. Our concern is with liberating praxis not with abstract universals. There is no separation of the private and the public - the personal is political.

The Search for a Contextual Perspective

Some of the problems which are present in a search for a contextual feminist theology are touched on above. There can be no one feminist liberation theology for South Africa.

The question of race alone provides different perspectives. “In South Africa the colour of one’s skin - one’s ‘race’, in the popular terminology - is a crucial determinant in ordering people’s lives.”(43) The enforcement of apartheid by the white minority, has created race, class, social, political and economic barriers in a unique way in our country.

I shall, therefore, endeavour to address this search from my context. What does it mean to be Christian, to be woman, to be a white, in South Africa today? What does it mean to believe in a gospel of love, justice and peace and to be a female member of the white tribe in South Africa? In attempting to do theology in this situation, I need to find a strategy in the battle for truth which reflects my own context. Herein lies my dilemma. In my context I am both oppressor and oppressed. I live inside the white web of power, I benefit from white supremacy in terms of education, housing, freedom of movement, etc; economically and politically I am advantaged by the very fact that I am white. As a woman, however, I am subjected to an oppressive patriarchy - both in sociopolitical terms and worst of all, in the religious sphere. I have learnt that being a woman means in many senses being second class. How do I pursue feminist liberation theology in this dichotomy of being oppressor and oppressed? Clearly my context differs from that of black women, the majority of whom suffer racist, sexist and classist oppression. In certain respects therefore our agendas for liberation must differ, in others they will meet. Ruether, commenting from an American perspective, says: “Sociologically, women are a caste within every class and race. They share a common condition of women in general: dependency, secondary existence, domestic labour, sexual exploitation, and the projection of their role in procreation into a total definition of their existence. But this common condition takes profoundly different forms, as women are divided against each other by class and race. In a real sense, any women’s movement which is only concerned about sexism and no other form of oppression, must remain a women’s movement of the white upper class, for it is only this group of women whose only problem is the problem of being women, since, in every other way, they belong to the ruling class.”(44)

In South Africa belonging to the ruling class involves both class and racial distinctions. A white feminist liberation perspective must therefore both seek freedom for white women (indeed for all whites) who are trapped in the situation of being oppressors, while at the same time articulating alongside black women our struggle for our liberation from patriarchal oppression - an awesome agenda. Ours, in the words of Brigalia Barm, is indeed a patriarchal society.(45) The very pervasiveness of patriarchy, the fact that it is so part of our religious institutions and our cultural traditions calls for the voices of women to be raised in protest from all sections of our society.

It is probably true to say that the majority of white women do not see themselves as oppressors. We share the social advantages of our class and race unthinkingly, blanketed by years of cultural and educational indoctrination which is reinforced by the determination of the rules to keep us ignorant. We are taught to leave important matters like the affairs of church and state to the experts (the men), the acceptance of which allows us to remain in the state of collective denial we already know so well. We suffer from the most dreaded of all diseases the absence of doubt. For instance, devoted white mothers blithely keep devoted black mothers in situations of separation from their children.(46) We have in our patriarchal society inherited a basic division between private and public morality, between our family life and our life out there at the work place, between our personal and our public behaviour. Theologically speaking we have lost our concept of neighbour. We have lost sight of what Martin Buber described as “love your neighbour he [sic] is like you”. When love of neighbour dies, love becomes a one dimensional experience restricted to the private sphere. It no longer defines our human relationships or regulates them satisfactorily.

Dorothee Soelle says: “The state of permanent, built-in injustice we contribute to and benefit from in this society has, of course, consequences for our system of values”(47) - apt words for white South Africans. As oppressors living in a racist structure, we cannot but sin. As we sin, not only against our neighbour but against ourselves, we become estranged from both neighbour and self. Ultimately we are alone. The signs of being estranged from our humanity are found, firstly, in our truncated anthropology - we no longer see people as people, but as groups, other races, above or below us. Secondly, and following on this, we no longer identify with what it means to struggle against oppression, against hunger, poverty and injustice.

The above remarks are not meant to constitute a systematic analysis of the situation of whites and more particularly, of white women in South Africa. The oppression of women in the social and religious spheres is barely spelt out. The question thus arises - how do we white South African female oppressors and oppressed rediscover our imago Dei both in ourselves and in others? Has feminist liberation theology tools to offer us in reconstituting our anthropology in our journey to freedom?

Feminist theologians would say that such a journey must start with a process of conscientisation. It is a truism to say that change can only happen when awareness of the need for change is present. Critical dialogue must be shaped which enables people to become aware of their particular world and makes them want to reject what is dehumanising in it. Brainwashing must be debunked and shibboleths like “separate but equal” must be understood as to their intent.

Mary Daly has pointed out that there are many devices available to both women and men for refusing to see the problems involved in sexist oppression. One such device is to trivialise, eg. “Why worry about the problem of women? There are so many other more pressing issues like racism, pollution.” Another is to particularise: “That is a Catholic problem. We are not medieval like they are.” By spiritualising one refuses to look at the facts: “In Christ there is neither male nor female, so why worry.” And lastly, some try to make the problem disappear by universalising the issue: “But isn’t the real issue human liberation? ”(48)

The challenge in a process of conscientisation is to overcome feelings of powerlessness - the belief that we are not capable of changing anything anyway. The most frequently heard motto from those in whom a glimmer of awareness is present, is “there is nothing we can do”. This is often undergirded in a somewhat pietistic fashion by the belief that the more helpless we are the stronger and greater that makes God. Ultimately we rob ourselves of our own capabilities and responsibilities and wait for the powerful God to act. Feminist theology challenges the concept of God found in this kind of thinking. Soelle says: “I have to ask why it is that human beings honour a God whose most important attribute is power, whose prime need is to subjugate, whose greatest fear is equality.”(49) She finds God’s inner authority in powerlessness in the crucified Christ, in love that is weaponless power.

Once white women become alive to their roles as oppressor and oppressed, we will, in order to “choose life”, have to take up the cause of liberation. We will have to examine the part played by religion in our history in the legitimisation of domination in all spheres - racial, sexual, political and economical. We begin to see that patriarchy is not just the expression of a dualistic theology but it is in fact a socio-political ideology expressed in an oppressive system in which we are graded as “the other”. We share our experiences and a common resistance is born. The validity of one of the basic insights of the feminist movement becomes a reality - the personal is political. My situation as oppressor and oppressed is not merely individualistic - it is part of a vast socio-political system which is, among others, legitimised by the church. Its implications touch the whole of my life as well as that of my neighbour. The need to move from the collective estrangement as a white and a woman to partnership and mutuality becomes an imperative. To affirm the gospel of love, justice and peace means to become involved in liberating praxis. In the words of Soelle: “That God loves all of us and each and every individual is a universal theological truth, which without translation becomes the universal lie. The translation of this proposition is world-transforming praxis.”(50)

The way out of the dichotomy of oppressor/oppressed does not ultimately require two different solutions. As a white and as a woman I need to be released from all that diminishes my humanity. For me this means to become involved at all levels in the struggle for freedom. As a theologian I will have to take cognisance of both the perspectives of the oppressed and of my place in the history of South Africa as an oppressor - both can be met by a liberation perspective. Sharon Welch says: “To be a liberation theologian is to be engaged in specific battles for justice, to work for social structures that enable, rather than destroy, possibilities for justice and human dignity.”(51)

To conclude, I shall have to do my feminist liberation theology from my perspective as a white South African woman, to determine my place and reflect on it critically. At the same time women of faith in other contexts will be finding an authentic response to their need for liberation. Then we shall meet, because ultimately, all women have much in common. Indeed, all who seek liberation, women and men, black and white, will ultimately meet on common ground. As women we shall meet in the center of the circle as issues of rape, battering, economic and sexual exploitation, legal discrimination, pornography and prostitution draw us together. In the center of the circle our female bodiliness will be our common link. Ultimately we must find one another as “the best tactic of the preservers of the status quo is to make sure that they convince different groups of women that they have nothing in common. This will prevent the use of their collective power for the elimination of racism, sexism and classism in the building of a more humane society.”(52) In the search for our common humanity we shall have to reconstitute our anthropology, eliminating discrimination of any kind and affording dignity and justice to all as God’s creatures. Herein may lie the contribution of feminist liberation theology to the much needed crossing of barriers in our fragmented society.


1. B.Zikmund, “Feminist consciousness in historical perspective”, in L.M.Russell (ed), Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1985) p.23.

2. E.S. Fiorenza, In memory of her, (New York: Crossroad, 1984) p. 7.

3. Zikmund, op cit., p 26.

4. ibid.

5. R.R. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) p. 165.

6. D.M. Ackermann, “Liberation and practical theology: a feminist perspective on ministry” in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 52, 1985, p. 33.

7. ibid

8. S. McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in religious language. (London: SCM Press, 1982) p. 152.


10. Ruether, op. cit., p.12.

11. Ackermann, op. cit., p.35.

12. McFague, op. cit., p.156.

13. ibid., p. 160.

14. ibid., p. 164.

15. For differences between feminist liberation theology and liberation theology, see Ackermann, op. cit., p. 36.

16. Ruether, op.cit. p. 18.

17. E.S. Fiorenza, “Emerging issues in feminist Biblical interpretation” in J.L. Weidman (ed.), Christian feminism: Visions of a new humanity, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984) p. 37.

18. ibid., p. 38.

19. L.M.Russell, “Women and ministry: Problem or possibility?” in J.L.Weidman, op.cit., pp. 76-92.

20. Ruether, op. cit., p. 23.

21. Fiorenza, In memory of her. p. 29.

22. ibid.

23. L.M. Russell, “Authority and the challenge of feminist interpretation”, in L.M. Russell (ed.), Feminist interpretation, p. 139.

24. For the development of Russell’s views on creatidn and partnership see her two volumes, Future in partnership and Growth in partnership, both published by Westminster Press.

25. In Russell “Authority and the challenge”. . . p. 140.

26. Ruether, op. cit., p. 93.

27. ibid.

28. P.K. Jewett, The ordination of women: An essay on the office of Christian ministry, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).

29. De Trinitate 7.7.10 in Ruether, op. cit., p.95.

30. M. Daly, The church and the second sex, (New York; Harper 1975) p, 91.

31. K.Barth, Church Dogmatics 1,2, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956) p.195.

32. Ruether, op. cit., p 103.

33. M. Daly, Beyond God the father: Toward a philosophy of women’s liberation, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973) p. 49.

34. ibid., p. 51.

35. Ruether, op. cit., p.111.

36. ibid.

37. C.J.M. Halkes, Vrouwen-Mannen-Mensen, (Baarn: Ambo, 1984) p. 11.

38. ibid., p. 16.

39. ibid., p. 13.

40. A. Kee, Domination or liberation: The place of religion in social conflict, (London: SCM Press, 1986) p. 26.

41. ibid., p. 29.

42. From “An open letter to men, husbands sons and brothers,” Women’s Decade Consultation, Hammanskraal, 1984, published in Women and Change, (Johannesburg: SACC] p. 20.

43. C. Walker, Women and resistance in South Africa, (London: Onyx Press, 1982) p. 4.

44. R.R.Ruether, New woman new earth:Sexist ideologies and human liberation, (NewYork: SeaburyPress,1975) p.125.

45. See her article “Priorities for women in South Africa” in D.L. Eck & D. Jain (eds.) Speaking of faith: Cross-cultural perspectives on women, religion and social change, (London: The Women’s Press, 1986) pp. 39-45 for a black women’s perspective in this regard.

46. See Angela Davis’ comments in this regardin Women, race and class (London: The Women’s Press, 1981) p. 235.

47. D.Soelle,The strength of the weak: Toward a Christian feminist identity, (Philadelphia:WestminsterPress,1984) p.28.

48. M. Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 5.

49. D. Soelle, op. cit., p 97.

50. Quoted from S. Welch, Communities of resistance and solidarity: A feminist eology of liberation, (New York: Orbis Books, 1985) p. 47.

.51. ibid.,p. 65.

52. L. Russell, Human liberation in a feminist perspective: A theology, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974) p.37.

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