Feminist studies in religion and a radical democratic ethos1
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
Feminist studies in religion contribute to the fashioning of a radical democratic political culture and the creation of an egalitarian politics of meaning. In the South African context feminist studies are important elements in the emergence of a democratic and just society since they provide a theoretical framework and intellectual space for transforming kyriarchal knowledges and deeply inculcated values of oppression. Several issues are addressed, namely the nature of feminist religious studies, feminist religious studies as a knowledge producing discourse, and the institutional location of feminist studies in religion.
Feminist studies in religion are for many still an oxymoron. For that reason I will first explicate the notion of `feminism' in order to address the emotional constraints which this term imposes on the intellectual understanding of academic and popular audiences. I do not know the rhetorical situation in South Africa so well as that in North America and Europe but I assume that it is similar to that in the USA. Recent US polls have shown that about 70 per cent of women refuse to identify themselves as feminists because to their mind this label characterises a person as fanatic, biased, man-hating and crazy. Even though they endorse 90 per cent of the aims of the women's movement and acknowledge that they themselves have benefited from its social achievements, women nevertheless frequently do not want to be brushed with the label `feminist'.
Within the academy the term is equally contested. It is shunned as either too political or too ideological by those scholars who profess value-neutrality and a positivist ethos of inquiry. Or feminism is frequently rejected by male scholars of the so-called Second/Third World as a white women's movement that does not take into account class, race or colonialism. Consequently women of the Second/Third World are often warned not to succumb to Western feminism as another form of cultural colonialism. For example, I was repeatedly told during my visit in South Africa that traditional Zulu culture is much more male dominated and patriarchal than white Western culture. Yet, rather than see such patriarchal male dominance as the outcome of colonialism, white and black scholars tended to identify feminism with colonialism and thereby to argue that the preservation of Zulu culture requires respect for its patriarchal roots.
In the USA popular and academic reactions against feminism do not appeal to cultural roots and colonialism. Rather, the media periodically proclaim the `death' of feminism, announce the arrival of post-feminism, or promote `feminist' authors such as Camile Paglia or Christina Hoff Sommers, whose work is actually antifeminist and funded by right-wing foundations as an antidote to feminist emancipatory influences.2 In the academy so-called French feminist works by authors who do not want to be called feminists tend to be seen as theoretically more sophisticated than American feminist scholarship which is based on experience.
Although there are many divergent forms and even contradictory articulations of feminism today, so that it is appropriate to speak of feminisms in the plural, most feminists agree nevertheless that contemporary feminism is not only a political movement which is akin to other emancipatory movements; it is also an intellectual process for theorising the situation of women in kyriarchal societies and religions. My preferred definition of feminism is that of a well-known bumper sticker which states `feminism is the radical notion that women are people'. This definition accentuates with tongue in cheek that feminism is a radical concept and at the same time ironically underscores that in the twentieth century feminism is a common-sense notion. It declares that women are not ladies, wives, handmaids, seductresses, or beasts of burden but are full citizens. This definition positions feminism within democratic political discourses that argue for the rights of all the people. Such a contextualisation evokes the memories of radical democratic struggles for equal citizenship and decision-making powers through the centuries. It understands the death-dealing powers of women's oppression in the light of these emancipatory struggles and focuses on the women living on the bottom of the kyriarchal pyramid3 of exploitation.
WOMEN'S RIGHTS AND RADICAL DEMOCRACYAlthough I focus here on feminist/womanist intellectual practices and their subjects in the light of my experiences in the North American and European contexts, I do so in the hope that my reflections are translatable into the political and religious situation of South Africa, which seems to call for a radical democratic transformation of the university. I realise that in addressing the South African situation I am in danger of incurring the wrath of some, since it seems sheer arrogance for a visitor to address the situation of a strange country. Yet outsiders often have greater distance and freedom for grasping the state of affairs than those involved in it. At this particular historical juncture, as divergent but interlinked cultures search for democratic forms of living together and struggle to find a common political voice in the New South Africa, feminist studies in religion, I suggest, are able to contribute much to the fashioning of a democratic political culture and the creation of an egalitarian politics of meaning. The need to interlink feminist and radical democratic struggles and the importance of this linkage for the transformation of university and churches was driven home when I watched a TV debate on the lack of radical democratic practices in the university, which took place in Pretoria between white university administrators and black student representatives. Not a single woman, black or white, participated as speaking subject in this debate. Women's intellectual voices are still absent in South African deliberations on how to re-shape institutional structures of university and state in such a way that they engender radical democratic discourses and liberating knowledges.
I must confess that I arrived in South Africa with two naive assumptions. I expected that at this time a lively debate would go on as to how scholarship in the humanities and in religion can contribute to the articulation of democratic discourses. I also expected a lively interest in the recruitment and promotion particularly of black women.
On the one hand, I set out to argue for the importance of feminist studies in shaping a radical democratic and just society. If feminist discourses were welcomed by the South African academy, they could provide a theoretical framework and intellectual space for transforming kyiarchal knowledges and deeply inculcated values of oppression. Feminist discourses in religion invite and challenge malestream theological and biblical scholarship to articulate an emancipatory religious politics of values and meaning that is able to contribute to the creation of a radical democratic symbolic religious universe as well as to sustain egalitarian, societal and ecclesial institutions for which the rights and wellbeing of all citizens, women and men, are central.
The following episode can serve to illustrate the importance of feminist religious discourses for the fashioning of a radical democratic society. During my visit to one of the South African universities a professor discussed in his class the pending national bill of human rights. At the end of the class period he asked the all-male student body to vote on the issue. Since many students in theology had been in the forefront of the struggle against apartheid this colleague expected to get at least a 95 per cent vote in favour of human rights legalisation. Yet to his great surprise the bill could barely muster a majority vote among the students. When he inquired as to why students voted against human rights, they explained that in the New South Africa a declaration of human rights would primarily mean the legalisation of equal rights for women. Their conservative churches and religious communities, students argued, could or would not promote women's rights because they continued to exclude women from their own institutional leadership ranks.
On the other hand, prior to my arrival in South Africa I had naively assumed that the need for more women scholars in religion and theology would engender the same political pressures that led to the inclusion of a significant number of women in political parties and in the new government. Yet, as far as I could find out during my visit, the need for feminist scholarship is not yet widely recognised. Although only a very few South African women hold doctorates in theological or religious studies,4 this is not seen as a grave lack. For instance, there seems to be only one white woman who has completed a doctorate in my professional area of specialisation, Christian Testament studies. Moreover, very few women have full-time university posts or hold full professorships. Finally, there seems to be very little ongoing discussion of how standards of excellence must be rethought and reformulated if affirmative action measures are to work and have an impact on the humanities or on religious and theological scholarship.
If the number of white women in religious studies is minuscule, the presence of qualified black/Indian/or coloured women scholars is even more dismal. Little research, particularly on the questions and needs of black/ coloured/Indian women, seems to be done. Nor is much attention given to the academic mechanisms, cultural prejudices, and professional obstacles that keep women out of religious studies and theology. This discouraging state of affairs seems not to be of primary concern among administrators and faculty in religious studies or theology so that the ameloriation of this situation could be expected in the not too distant future. As in the USA, so also in South Africa affirmative action seems to be perceived more as a threat than a great opportunity for the field. If black/Indian/coloured women in ever-greater numbers would move not only into feminist/women/gender studies in general but into feminist studies in religion and theology in particular, their presence would foster the construction of interreligious dialogue and feminist research on women and gender in different religious contexts. Critical research on traditional African religions and the so-called independent churches from a womanist perspective would not only contribute to the reshaping of the field of religious studies and theology, it would also enhance the lives of women from different social backgrounds and in different religious communities and churches.
While on all levels of religious/theological studies the number of women from different sociocultural backgrounds must be increased, such an expansion does not automatically ensure that students -- both women and men -- receive an adequate training in feminist/womanist/gender studies. The few students who have managed to complete an MA thesis in feminist theology or religious studies pointed out again and again during my visit that their research interests were not taken seriously and that the faculty did not provide adequate support for their inquiry. Insofar as faculty members generally are not able to render competent assistance, they tend to pressure students into changing their innovative research topics or into reformulating them in such a way that their work would fit into the frameworks of malestream scholarship. Not surprisingly, it is difficult for many faculty members to develop research projects in this area because they often lack even a basic competence in the field of feminist studies in religion. Research and publications in this emerging field have increased so much in the past decade that it is virtually impossible to remain or become competent in feminist/womanist studies in religion without professional training and institutional support.5 Conversely, if feminist scholarship were to be welcomed by the South African academy, it could make a unique contribution to the re-conceptualisation of the humanities and the transformation of religious studies and theology. Such a contribution is badly needed because in a democratic society both feminism and religion are important factors either in promoting radical democratic values or in maintaining the status quo. By exploring the self-understanding of the emerging field of feminist studies from the perspective of my own social location in the North American academy I hope to facilitate increased discussion of the intellectual contributions which South African feminist studies in religion can make to a radical democratic vision of society. The following elaboration will focus on the subject of feminist thought and on the intellectual practices rather than the objects of this intellectual inquiry, be they woman/women or binary gender relations.
THE FIELD OF FEMINIST STUDIES IN RELIGIONThe diverse theoretical articulations of feminism come together in their critique of elite male supremacy and hold that gender is socially constructed rather than innate or ordained by G*d.6 The root experience of feminism makes one realise that cultural common sense, dominant perspectives, scientific theories, and historical knowledge are not only androcentric but kyriocentric, that is elite male or master centred. Malestream language and science do not give an objective account of reality but they interpret, construct and legitimise reality, in the interest of relations of exclusion and domination by making them appear as 'natural' or `common sense'.
Feminist studies in religion investigate how centuries of women's exclusion from academy and institutionalised religion can be undone. Women's and disenfranchised men's exclusion from the university because of their gender, race, class, or ethnicity has produced knowledge and science that is one-sided and biased because it has been articulated from the perspective of elite educated, mostly Western men. Feminist studies in general seek to correct and transform such kyriocentric Euro-American scholarship by introducing a theoretical perspective and educational practice that systemically reflects on the rich diversity of human experiences. Feminist studies in religion in particular underscore both that women must be recognised as religious and intellectual subjects and that more research needs to be done on women and the sociopolitical construction of gender.
In general, survey essays of the field tell the story of feminist studies in religion either in progressive temporal or in definitional terms. I want to do so here in terms of the institutionalisation of feminist thought and intellectual practices. As far as I can see, the field is at present construed in three or four divergent ways. The academic women's movement usually defines itself as a women's studies movement. Woman or women studies, however, has been developed in two different ways. On the one hand it has come to mean the study about women as objects of inquiry which seeks to complement malestream academic research that does not focus on women and other marginalised peoples. On the other hand, women's studies can also place at the centre of its attention women as subjects of scholarship and research and as critical agents in academic institutions. The former emphasis on woman as objects of study has been taken up and further theorised by gender studies which argue that woman and man are not two independent cultural categories but are correlated and interdependent. Gender categories are not a 'natural fact' or `revealed by G*d' but are socially constructed and hence can become objects of research.
Whereas the disciplinary approach of gender studies stresses the social construction of gender, feminist studies have developed the second aspect of women's studies which emphasises that women are intellectual subjects and sociopolitical agents. This third approach of critical feminist studies seeks to balance and correct the academic-objectivist frameworks of gender and women's studies by developing theory as a critical tool of inquiry into women's oppression. Feminist critical theory seeks not only to understand but also to change our knowledge of the world and of the kyriarchal institutions which produce such knowledge and which in turn are legitimated by it.
Let me illustrate these different theoretical approaches in feminist/woman/gender studies with three examples from religious studies and theology. Speaking to a Women's Studies audience in the USA, the Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow points to the widespread suspicion in women's studies that anyone interested in religion must be either co-opted or reactionary and argues that it is not justified. The notion that feminists must critically study patriarchal ideologies, she argues, has not been extended to the serious work done by feminists in religion. This attitude of suspicion toward feminist studies in religion is regrettable for three major reasons.
Firstly, feminists need to study religion because it has played and still plays a key role in both women's oppression and liberation. Hence, a central task of feminist studies consists in understanding the implication of religion in the continuing political exploitation of women as well as its active participation in social movements for change. Plaskow asserts that an explicit connection between feminist critiques and social change has been made in feminist studies in religion from its very beginnings. Secondly, women's studies in religion is a variegated and vibrant field that has moved from analysis and critique of male texts toward reconstructing women's heritage in and outside patriarchal religious traditions and most recently has focused on the constructive transformation of patriarchal traditions and the creation of new ones. Finally, Plaskow maintains that to a much greater extent than feminist scholars in other areas, feminists in religion have sustained strong connections to women's communities outside the academy. Much work of feminist studies in religion has been generated and challenged by women in and outside organised religions who search for a feminist spirituality and politics of meaning for their lives. Conversely, feminist scholars are also involved either in traditional religious feminist groups or in goddess and spirituality movements that have critically challenged and enriched biblical articulations and religious formations.7
The well-known South African theologian Denise Ackermannn does not speak about women's, gender or feminist studies in religion but entitles her exploration of the field `Faith and Feminism: Women Doing Theology'.8 Although Ackermannn does not use feminist theology in the title of her article, she clearly speaks to a theological audience. She begins by characterising her own perspective as indebted to the Christian tradition and then goes on to define and delineate feminism, feminist theology and the diversity of feminist theologies by characterising briefly the different approaches taken in the USA, Europe, South Africa and by women in the Third World. In a second step Ackermannn attempts to articulate a feminist theological agenda for women in South Africa and argues for context and experience as points of departure for liberating praxis, and for defining a more inclusive view of humanity. Other issues discussed are women and the church, use of sexist and racist language, women and sexual violence and the creation of a contextual spirituality which is relevant for the South African context.9 Following Sharon Welch she recommends a spirituality of risk which entails in her view `making oneself vulnerable in every aspect of one's life'.10 Although she is aware that an ethics of vulnerability has been part and parcel of the kyriarchal oppression of women, Ackermannn nevertheless advocates for South African white women such a contextual spirituality of vulnerability.
I have chosen these two most recent conceptual definitions and contextual delineations of feminist studies in religion and theology by two leading feminist scholars to show how the story of the field is named and told differently depending on the audience to whom it is told. In the last decade gender studies in religion have emerged as a third discrete approach in religious studies. This approach not only has emerged from within the academy but also does not position itself explicitly in a political women's movement for change. Instead it orients its discourses towards a `scientific' mostly male audience and seeks to win its respect and approval as a serious intellectual malestream discipline. For instance, the Canadian scholar Peggy L Day locates biblical gender studies within the objectivist academic paradigm by separating feminist theological studies from gender studies of the Bible. According to her, feminist theological interpretation seeks out the significance of biblical texts for today, whereas gender studies adopt and apply the critical approaches of `the secular humanities and social sciences to the field of biblical studies'.11 Yet, such a characterisation remains oblivious to the danger for feminist studies in religion in accommodating themselves to the reigning scientist paradigm and abandoning the political concerns and practical connections with the women's movements in society and church which have helped women's studies to preserve its feminist political and intellectual integrity. Many feminist scholars have pointed to the de-politicising tendency of such a shift from women/womanist/feminist studies to gender studies in the humanities.
Such a move to gender has been facilitated by the adoption of a modified structuralism as a form of functionalism that tends to satisfy value-neutral scholarship insofar as it describes and accounts for the functioning of a society without making any explicit value judgements and without paying attention to the implicit power imbalance implied in gender constructions. Gender may have replaced woman as an object of study because it supposedly communicates the scientific seriousness of a work by suggesting that information about women is of necessity also knowledge about men. Consequently, its claim to more objective and 'neutral' scholarship rests on the uncritical acceptance of malestream theoretical frameworks. Insofar as gender studies isolate structural gender oppression from other structures of women's oppression such as racism, class exploitation and colonialism, they are a step backwards since they revert to a theoretical frame of reference which women of all colours have challenged as theoretically unsatisfactory and as practically regressive. For the diverse resistant discourses of the emerging feminist movements around the world increasingly challenge white Western women's universalistic claims that all women have in common a special, essential nature and that all women are defined in the same way in their otherness from men.
It is debated whether the influx of women of the so-called Second/Third World constitutes a fourth approach in women's studies in religion or whether these new critical voices will be successful in destabilising the central Euro-American voice of women or gender studies in such a way that feminist studies become redefined as global or cosmopolitan. If women's studies should displace the kyriarchal `politics of otherness', these feminist voices argue, it can no longer construct women's identity as unitary and universal and establish it in terms of either the exclusion and domination of the others or as the others' self-negation and subordination. For unravelling the unitary otherness of `woman' from `man' in Western philosophical-political and religious discourses, the emerging feminist movements around the world focus on the specific historical cultural contexts and on the historically defined subjectivity as well as on the plurality of women.
By deconstructing the ideological construct `woman and the feminine', such global feminist discourses elucidate how the identity of women who belong to subordinated races, classes, cultures or religions is constructed as `other' of the `other', as negative foil for the feminine identity of the `white lady'. The African American feminist Anna Julia Cooper whose work A voice from the south appeared one hundred years ago has underscored the significance of women of all colours for a feminist movement. Her assertion still holds true today:
The colored woman of to-day occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country ... She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both.12
In other words, the struggle of the women's movement and its power to challenge kyriarchal power relations must be located at the juncture of racial and sexual politics.
However, as the African American literary critic Mary Helen Washington has pointed out, Cooper herself was never quite successful in connecting race, class and gender issues and in making them pivotal in wo/men's resistance to all forms of subjection, because she herself was not able to escape the ideological entanglements of the cult of `true womanhood' or that of the `Lady' and its dictates. Writing as a middle-class black woman she neither imagined ordinary black working women, sharecroppers or domestic maids as her audience nor as the vanguard of her politics. Rather, like other educated middle-class black women Cooper had an even greater stake than her white compatriots
in the gentility guaranteed by the politics of true womanhood ... Burdened by the race's morality, black women could not be as free as white women or black men to think outside of these boundaries of `uplift'; every choice they made had tremendous repercussions for an entire race of women already under the stigma of inferiority and immorality.13
Although some writers of women's history have suggested that the tenets of `true womanhood' represent an incipient form of radical feminism, such a positive assessment of the middle-class cult of femininity overlooks that the ideal of the `lady' has determined the dualistic formation of gender feminism. Only when in the words of Cooper the `darkened eye' is restored, can we begin to `see a circle rather than just a segment' of feminist studies in religion. The insights into the interaction between race, gender, class and culture which are articulated by feminist discourses emerging around the globe, compel middle-class feminists in the so-called First World not to reduplicate the whitemale14 universalistic discourse of gender dualism. At the same time they caution middle-class feminists of the Second/Third World not to reproduce the neo-colonialist discourse on `woman' and `femininity' in order to prove their cultural stature and legitimacy.
However, just as the category `woma[e]n', and the `feminine' so also the term `feminist' has become problematic since it is also often understood in essentialist rather than historical terms. If feminism is understood as a gender theory that concerns itself with the universal and unilateral oppression of women by men, it reproduces the cultural patriarchal discourse on `woman' and the `feminine.' Hence for many women of the Second/Third World the term `feminist' designates the women's movement as that of white European/American women, or that of the `white lady'. Therefore some have suggested that the qualifier `feminist' should be displaced and replaced with a proliferation of names and self-designations, such as `womanist', `mujerista', or Asian/African/Latin American, lesbian, differently abled, elder, Protestant or Jewish women's perspective.
While some of the proposed neologisms and self-definitions explicitly claim to be feminist (cf Alice Walker's definition of womanist as a black feminist), others reject the term as too radical. Again, other feminists of the Second/Third World argue to the contrary that abandoning the term `feminism', would be a `mixed blessing' for women of that world. Not only would such a practice credit the historical achievements of feminism as a worldwide political movement to white European/American women, it also would relinquish the claim of feminists around the world that they have shaped and continue to define the meaning and practice of feminism in a different key.15 Instead of rejecting feminist movement as white middle class, these feminists maintain that women of all colours have always engaged with feminism or `feminist movement' -- to use bell hooks' expression. It is more important for feminists of all colours, Cheryl Johnson-Odim asserts, to be concerned with participating in shaping
and defining feminism than with changing the terminology ... Since `modern day' feminism is still in the process of incarnation, especially at the international level, I question whether the coining of a new term simply retreats from the debate, running the risk of losing sight of the fair amount of universality in women's oppression16
Rather than reify `feminist/feminism' as a white supremacist definition by theorising it in terms of the Western sex/gender system, feminists of all colours argue that one needs to rhetorically destabilise and problematise its meanings. While it is important that diverse feminist communities proliferate their own positive self-designations, such a proliferation can easily lead to the `balkanisation' of feminism in academy and religion, which in the interest of established powers turns differently articulated feminist movements into `special interest groups'. It thereby reenacts the fragmenting tendencies of the modern multiversity that has splintered knowledge into isolated disciplines and disciplinary languages that speak only to themselves.
Instead, these tensions and conflicts between the different formations of women's studies in religion or feminist theology are best understood, I suggest, as structural-systemic problems. Rather than negotiate and debate them just as problems existing within feminism, one must analyse them as systemic problems engendered by academic structures of marginalisation. For, all women entering the academy and theological studies face the same disciplining pressures although they experience them quite differently depending on their position within the overall kyriarchal structures of domination.
Hence it becomes important to critically analyse and problematise such institutional disciplining structures rather than see systemic contradictions just as a problem generated by feminist articulations. Instead, these discursive structures are to be reconstituted in political-rhetorical terms exploring and discussing different feminist interests and articulations not as forensic arguments in defence of one's own position, but as different perspectives and contributions to a deliberative debate that empowers wo/men for change. To avoid the debilitating impact of academic and religious fragmentation as well as a forensic academic and doctrinal style of discourse, feminist theorists around the globe seek to conceptualise their debates as open political discourses that are again and again problematised, destabilised and defined differently. Only if the term `feminist/feminism' is not reified as a fixed essentialist classification but understood in rhetorical-political terms can it function as an `open-ended' category which is to be questioned, destabilised and redefined in ever-shifting historical-political situations of domination.
Feminist studies in religion therefore again and again have to re-articulate the categories and lenses of interpretation in particular historical situations and social contexts. Feminist studies may not subscribe to a single method of analysis or adopt a single hermeneutic perspective or mode of approach. Feminist discourse also may not restrict itself to one single community or audience. Rather, a feminist critical theory searches for appropriate theoretical frameworks and practical ways of interpretation that can make visible oppressive as well as liberative traces inscribed in Jewish, Christian and traditional African religions. A proliferation of feminist perspectives from different subject locations that does not constitute these particular approaches as exclusive totalising strategies, I argue, can articulate them as different feminist practices of collaboration for changing particular relations of domination and alienation. Hence, in a third step I will explore the structural problems and institutional obstacles which feminists face who as intellectual subjects seek to pursue religious and theological studies, which were once an exclusively male domain.
THE INSTITUTIONAL LOCATION OF FEMINIST STUDIES IN RELIGIONSince the institutional location of feminist studies in religion is that of malestream scholarship, feminists, I argue, must not only deconstruct hegemonic academic discourses but also construct a different feminist discursive space as well as conceptualise feminist studies as critical rhetorical-political practices for liberation. When one is conscious of women's sociopolitical location in the academy, it becomes apparent what is at stake in the theoretical construction of such a discursive position. Feminists, who as `outsiders' or `aliens' engage in religious studies in order to transform the patri-kyriarchal discourses of church and academy, can do so only if they become both qualified residents and remain foreign speakers at one and the same time.
Although the number of women studying theology and enrolling in seminaries has increased worldwide in the past decade or so, no equivalent change of institutional practices has yet taken place.17 Consequently, wo/men entering theological and religious studies still have to adopt the language and discourse of those clerical and academic communities that have silenced us, have excluded us as the `other' of the Divine, marginalised us as the `other' of the scientific man of reason,18 and relegated us to the status of social, religious, and intellectual nobodies. For feminists to enter into dominant theological discourses as equals, both the systemic interrelation of theological-religious knowledge with global oppression must become conscious and the `gendered character' of religious and theological studies must be rendered explicit.
The dominant paradigms of religious studies therefore are to be critically scrutinised for their emancipatory aims and for their impact on the formation of a critical consciousness and the production of radical democratic discourses. For scholars are always constrained by the frame of reference of the interpretive community to which they belong.19 If the malestream academic community acts somewhat like a police force for defending against unacceptable scientific practices, then it becomes important to reflect on the social institutional location of critical feminist studies in departments of religion and schools of theology. For whenever liberation discourses are displaced from their social location in emancipatory movements, and become integrated into the institutional practices of church or academy, they become subject to the disciplinary pressures and requirements of these interpretive communities.
For almost two hundred and fifty years academic religious studies in the US were understood as a `discipline' for the training of elite white men in `religious and moral piety'.20
In the nineteenth century a paradigm shift took place that introduced as the new model for higher education that of German scientific research. This transformation of the humanities curriculum replaced religion with science as a rational philosophy that claimed to account for the entire universe. This change resulted in a galaxy of separate `disciplines' and `departments' that accredited people for a particular kind of professional work. The unifying ethos of the emerging scientific academy that insisted on objectivist method, scientific value-neutrality and disinterested research unseated the centrality of the Bible and religion in the Western academic universe.
The professionalisation of academic life and the rise of the technocratic university went hand in hand with the marginalisation of theology and religion in the humanities. This scientific positivist ethos engendered not only the privatisation and feminisation of religion, but also the masculinisation of all disciplines within the university as `hard' sciences. Yet feminist studies have shown that despite such rhetorical claims to value-neutral objectivity, virtually every academic discipline operates on the unreflected `common-sense' assumption that equates male reality with human reality. Intellectual histories and other `canonised' cultural and academic texts have generally assumed that elite educated man is the paradigmatic human being. They have claimed that 'natural' or essential differences exist between women and men. Consequently they have defined women and other colonised peoples as rationally inferior, marginal, subsidiary, or derivative `feminine others'. Women and other colonialised intellectuals who have shown leadership and claimed independence in turn have been judged to be unnatural, aggressive and disruptive. As Adrienne Rich has put it: `There is no discipline that does not obscure and devalue the history and experience of women as a group.'21 A similar statement could be made about the working class, women of all colours, or colonialised men. The recourse of `scientific' arguments to biological determinism and to the regime of the Western sex/gender system is still frequent today in scientific debates that seek to defend the kyriocentric framework of academic disciplines as `objective and scholarly'.22
This positivist ethos of value-free science has also provided the institutional context for the development of religious studies which aspire to the status of a secular `hard' academic science in distinction to theology which is construed as doctrinal and confessional. Just as literature and history sought to become academic disciplines in the last quarter of the nineteenth century by proving themselves as objective sciences in analogy to the natural sciences, so also did religious studies. Since this self-understanding of religious studies as a `scientific discipline' has developed in the US political context of the separation of church and state, its rhetoric of disinterested objectivity continues to reject as unscientific any overt acknowledgment that religious, sociopolitical, or theological interests determine the research of religious studies. The aspiration of religious studies to `scientific' status within the academy and their claim to universal, unbiased modes of inquiry cannot but deny their hermeneutic-theoretical character and `kyriocentric' religious perspective. It also masks their sociohistorical location as well as their sociopolitical and religious-cultural interests.
To become speaking theological subjects, women find themselves in a contradictory and conflictual position: they must `master' the clerical and academic discourses of the fathers which have been fashioned to exclude women. For in Kuhn's23 terms, to become a member of the community of scholars, students have to internalise the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, shared worldviews and systems of knowledge as maps or guidelines for thinking and speaking in a `scholarly' way. In the course of this socialisation process, women students experience severe contradictions which they often internalise as personal failure. If they `master' these conflicts between their own social or religious lifeworlds and those of their discipline they will finally speak and think in the professional idiom.
The process of acquiring the `insiders' language and public persona can be likened to the process of socialisation into an alien culture. This process of becoming a Harvard, Stellenbosch, Natal or Pretoria `man' is even more alienating for those women students and faculty who do not share the racial, social, cultural, or religious background of those elite white men who have shaped the academic disciplines and still do so. Black students, for instance, suffer from much greater contradictions between their own cultural languages and experiences and those of the theological or religious studies disciplines24 Students of a different class background also experience acute self-alienation, having to move between two languages and feeling out of place in the places they have taken. This daily experienced contradiction is eloquently expressed in the following statement:
I had secrets and these were the secrets of my own inferiority, my own pretense of being a native speaker anywhere ... This is the hidden injury of class. [and race] ... It is also the hidden injury of sex. For an educated woman speaker/reader travels far from her body ... The secret of femaleness is the secret of her inferiority. And yet, I still believe it better to speak than to be silent.25
Realising that the educational process of theological professionalisation amounts to socialisation into an elite male Eurocentric persona makes it even more pressing to ask: How can feminist studies in religion transform the intellectual discourses of religious studies and theology in such a way that women and others who have been excluded from scholarly discourse and religious leadership become speaking subjects and agents for systemic change? Given the long history of kyriarchal silencing of women in church and academy, it remains very difficult even for feminists to understand ourselves as speaking, theory-producing subjects in theological schools and to occupy resistant subject-positions in the dominant discourses of the discipline.
Although critical feminist liberation theologians and scholars in religion speak from within the disciplinary discourses of academy and church, we do so, I have suggested, from the sociopolitical location of resident aliens. The identification `resident alien' positions one as both insider and outsider: insider by virtue of residence or family affiliation to a citizen or institution; outsider in terms of language, experience, culture, and history. The metaphor of resident alien seems an apt figure for a feminist movement and politics of liberation within the context of academy and religion. This metaphor of resident alien for a feminist movement and politics of liberation opens up a theoretical space and sociopolitical position from which critical feminist scholars in religious studies can speak. If the `white lady'26 has been the civilising channel and feminine `glue' in Western colonial domination, then white women as fairly recent `immigrants' in academy and ministry must struggle against pressures to function as elite women and prized tokens who are `loyal to civilisation' and religion. Feminist scholars in religion refuse to produce or teach religious studies and theological knowledges that legitimate intellectual and religious discourses which vilify women and other nobodies by intellectually justifying practices of exclusion and the languages of hate.
If feminist religious studies are not to perpetuate women's religious self-alienation and theological silencing, we must develop approaches and knowledges that enable women and disenfranchised men to critically analyse and explore their own experiences of oppression and liberation, victimisation and agency. Feminist religious studies therefore first of all engage students and faculty in a process of `conscientisation' that enables them to produce knowledges for generating or sustaining critical consciousness. An increasing number of feminist students and faculty in religious studies insist on asking their own questions by engaging a hermeneutics of suspicion, on articulating their own historical and systematic reconstructions and on claiming their own experiential, theological and ecclesial authority. If they are not heard and their questions are not addressed as legitimate intellectual, religious, or theological problems, many will become alienated from intellectual work. Such alienation and frustration engenders anti-intellectual sentiments among many feminists in religion and especially in theological schools and deprives them of the knowledge and intellectual power for change.
Although feminist scholars produce knowledge claims that contest those of dominant biblical scholarship, the malestream academy declares such alternative knowledge claims marginal, anomalous, or ideological. Malestream scholarship does not grant that feminists produce competing theological knowledge claims which are based on a different procedure of validation. It insists that women students as well as faculty must be measured by the prevailing standards of excellence. Women seeking ordination face the same dilemma with religious-pastoral knowledge claims. For instance, students being tested on their knowledge of biblical interpretation will be certified if they know the white male Euro-American tradition of biblical interpretation. Their knowledge of African religions or feminist theories and theologies does not count. Conversely, students who have no knowledge of either African, Asian, Hispanic, or feminist religious knowledge are still certified as competent. In a similar fashion, the scholarly work of feminist faculty is not accorded the same professional acclaim as that of white male faculty who remain within the malestream Eurocentric tradition. Pioneering work of black feminists is put down as `unscientific', whereas mediocre research that fine-tunes established methods and approaches is pronounced to be excellent and worthy of prestigious awards.
Feminists seeking to change religious studies not only problematise and challenge malestream standards of scientific and professional validation as partial, biased, and formulated in the interests of one particular group in society and church. They also question dominant modes of reasoning in the Eurocentric malestream paradigm of knowledge that separate reason from feelings and emotions in order to produce detached impartial knowledge. The more a scholar keeps distant from her subject matter and remains detached from the issues it raises, the more her knowledge is said to be objective and scientific.
The classic articulation of this `scientific' ethos stems from Max Weber who has decisively influenced the scientific posture of value-neutrality. In a famous speech before students in 1909 Weber argued that university professors must restrict themselves to communicating objective and scientific information. Empirical statements must be distinguished from value judgments since both rely on different forms of methodological validation. Empirical scientific knowledge relies on conditional judgements -- if one does this, one will achieve this goal. Why one would want to achieve this goal, in the second place, is a question of value judgements that cohere with a certain system of ethical values. In Weber's view, professors should teach knowledge of the first kind but not of the second in order not to proselytise students by virtue of their authority for a certain value system27
Speaking from the subject-position of the resident alien, feminist faculty and students must confront this ethos as well as its dominant modes of theological argument and pedagogy. As long as women and disenfranchised men are forced to acquire theological knowledge and methodological skills within the kyriarchal framework of religious studies in order to become `bona fide' residents in theology and religious studies, it remains one of the major tasks of feminist studies to make conscious the mechanisms and implications of this mode of knowledge production. Women and other theologically muted persons must learn to demystify the dominant structures of knowledge in order to find their own theological voices, exercise personal choice and achieve intellectual satisfaction in their work. Feminist studies have therefore sought to develop a different model of intellectual discourse, one that does not reinforce the kyriarchal patterns of knowledge but seeks for a democratic mode of constructing and communicating knowledge. Such a radical democratic feminist paradigm seeks to enable students and faculty to find their own theological voices by developing discourses of critique, empowerment, and possibility. It seeks to engage in the complex process of redefining knowledge by making women's experience a primary subject for knowledge, conceptualising women as active agents in the creation of knowledge and by including women's perspective on knowledge, looking at gender race, class, and colonialism as fundamental to the articulation of knowledge28 in Western thought. In such a critical democratic feminist model students would begin with the systemic exploration of their own experience,29 commitments, and questions as well as with a critical analysis of their theological presuppositions and frameworks.
Since the malestream intellectual paradigm does not teach how to reflect together and deliberate with each other on values considered most important for a democratic society, students tend to retreat either into doctrinal absolutism or liberal relativism. Yet `both absolutism and radical relativism make it possible, even necessary, to avoid serious engagement with differences understood from the beginning as being in transactional relation to each other.30 In short, critical feminist studies in religion aim to fashion an ethos of intellectual inquiry that does not undermine democratic thinking but rather supports and strengthens democratic modes of reasoning by recognising the importance of experience, plural voices, emotions, and values in the educational process. At stake here is a theoretical shift from the paradigm of domination to one of radical equality.31 To that end universities and institutionalised religion have to create discursive communities that foster democratic debate and an ethos of accountability.
In the past two decades political or liberationist rather than gender feminism, I submit, has offered one of the most dynamic examples of such a counter-discourse in society in general and biblical religions in particular. It has constituted an oppositional public arena for generating critical analyses of kyriarchal oppression and for articulating feminist interests and visions. Still, insofar as the feminist movement has projected itself as a single oppositional front which has been articulated in terms of the sex/gender system and has generated a universalising critique of sociopolitical structures from the standpoint of [Euro-American elite] woman, it has tended to constitute its feminist counter-public as a hegemonic sphere of privileged, white Western women.
Recent feminist work that positions itself within the ethical-political space of the radical democratic paradigm seeks to theorise such a public feminist space from which to speak differently. In order to move away from essentialist notions of `women's perspective', Chandra Talpade Mohanti has suggested the notion of the `imagined community' for Second/Third World oppositional struggles to be the kind of space which provides
political rather than biological or cultural bases for alliance. Thus it is not color or sex which constructs the ground for these struggles. Rather it is the way we think about race, class and gender -- the political links we choose to make among and between struggles. Thus, potentially, women of all colors (including white women) can align themselves and participate in these imagined communities.32
Situating feminist theorising and theologising within the logic of radical equality rather than within that of female/ethnic identity allows one to contextualise so-called natural binary sexual arrangements together with those of race, ethnicity or class as sociopolitical ideological constructions. Women live in structures that are not simply pluralist. Rather `they are stratified, differentiated into social groups with unequal status, power, and access to resources, traversed by pervasive axes of inequality along lines of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and age.'33 By insisting in its own discourses on the theoretical visibility and difference, for instance, of black, poor, colonial, lesbian, or working women, feminist theory and theology make it clear that `women' do not have an unitary essence but represent a historical multiplicity, not only as a group but also as individuals.34
To minimise the possibility of its co-optation in the interests of Western kyriarchy feminist studies in religion must place at the centre of its attention everywoman's struggles for transforming kyriarchal structures rather than focus its gaze solely on the malestream texts, traditions, institutions and authorities. Since through the centuries patriarchal theology and church have silenced women and excluded us from religious institutions of authority, feminist theology must seek to empower women for becoming theological subjects, for participating in the critical construction of biblical-theological meanings and for claiming their authority to do so. Whenever feminist studies in religion succeed in such a process of intellectual conscientisation, and in the production of radical democratic emancipatory knowledge they are apt to rewrite religious scholarship in such a way that they change the discipline rather than to become disciplined by it.
In place of a conclusion, I would like to invoke the images of two women: the icon of the African35 philosopher Hypatia and that of the Syrophoenician woman. Hypatia (c370--415 CE), a philosopher, scientist and professor at the university was lynched by a Christian mob in the streets of Alexandria in Egypt.36 Her story together with that of the Syrophoenician woman marks the dangerous discursive space of feminist critical studies in religion. Hypatia's name signifies the misogynist violence provoked by the intellectual work of women, whereas the image of the Syrophoenician bespeaks women's agency and courage. In my book But she said I have argued that feminist scholars in theology and religion are like the woman from Syrophoenicia who according to the gospels enters the house where Jesus stays and breaks through the cultural `masculine' tendency to separate and isolate, to draw exclusive boundaries. Women have entered the house of religious studies and theology from which we were excluded for centuries. Yet women's theological silencing and exclusion is only one side of the story. The other side is the `dangerous memory' of women's religious agency as prophets, teachers, and wise women not only in Christianity but also in Judaism, Islam or African religions. Both sides of the story must be held together, if women should find their religious intellectual voices today.
The Greek woman outsider who moves into the house37 in order to engage Jesus, the teacher, in a debate about inside and outside for the sake of her daughter's welfare emerges as a paradigm for the feminist scholar in religion. Mention of this woman calls forth the names of other women of wisdom who throughout the centuries not only have been victims of kyriarchal religion but also have shaped and defined biblical and other religions, although historical records either do not mention them or refer to them as marginal figures in religion. The mere names of women prophets, religious leaders, and wise women which have survived in anti-heretical or colonial records indicate that women were religious leaders and teachers. As mystics, missionaries, witches, medicine women, prophets, heretics, and shamans women have shaped religious symbol-systems and created emancipatory communities.
Just as the great medieval mystics or the nineteeth-century African-American `sisters of the Spirit', women seers and teachers have recorded their spiritual wisdom in letters and books. However, many of their works did not survive kyriarchal censure or make it into malestream historical records. For instance, the prophetic books of the Montanists were burned by imperial decree in 398 CE. Although women's subjugated knowledges are fragmentary, any discussion of feminist theological and religious studies must position itself within this still visible although fragmentary tradition of women's agency and conflict. Through the centuries women have acted as religious teachers, counsellors, founders, prophets, wise women and intellectuals. Feminist studies in religion carries on today this `dangerous memory' of women who dared to speak and to act in the power of the Spirit.
NOTES1 This paper was prepared for a seminar at Unisa and parts of it were given as a lecture at the universities of Stellenbosch, Natal, and Zululand in August 1994.
2 See e g the report of Laura Flanders, `Stolen feminism' hoax: antifeminist attack based on error-filled anecdotes, September/October issue of Extra (1994).
3 In my book But she said. Feminist practices of biblical interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) I introduced the term kyriarchy i e the rule/reign of the Lord/master/father/ husband to explicate that patriarchy is not just a dualistic male dominance but an inter-structured social system of multiplicative structures of oppression. Since antiquity this system has included not just sexism/heterosexism/ but also racism, class exploitation, and colonialism as basic structures of women's and disenfranchised men's oppression. Kyriarchy is the counter-system to radical democracy.
4 See the papers which Professors Christina Landmann and Joyce Massenya read at the seminar on Feminist Studies in Religion at Unisa which are being published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Joyce Massenya advocates that black South African feminist scholars adopt the expression womanist, which according to Alice Walker's definition means a black feminist, for positively naming their own movement and work.
5 For a good overview of the fields development in the past decade see The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.
6 In my book Jesus: Miriam's child, Sophia's prophet. Critical issues in feminist Christology (New York: Continuum, 1994) I have adopted this spelling of G*d in order to indicate the brokenness and inadequacy of human language to name the Divine.
7 Judith Plaskow, `We are also your sisters: the development of women's studies in religion,' Women's studies quarterly xx/1 (1993) 9--21.
8 Denise Ackermann, `Faith and feminism: women doing theology,' in de Gruchy & C Villa-Vicencio (eds), Doing theology in context: South African contributions (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994)197--212.
9 Unfortunately the book Women holding up half the sky. Women in the Church in Southern Africa, edited by Denise Ackermann, Jonathan Draper, and Emma Mashinini, was not available to me when I prepared this paper. It would have been very interesting to see whether the story of feminist theology changes when told from a black South African perspective as is done in this book by Roxanne Jordan and Martin Mandew.
10 Denise Ackermann, `Faith and Feminism', ibid, p207
11 Day, PL, ed, Gender and difference in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 1989, 1--2.
12 Anna Julia Cooper, A voice from the South, p134.
13 Mary Helen Washington, `Introduction,' to A Voice from the South, pxlvii.
14 For this expression cf Houston A Baker, Jr, `Caliban's Triple Play,' ibid, 381--395. 382.
15 Barbara Smith, ed, Home girls: a black feminist anthology (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983); bell hooks, Feminist theory: from margin to center (Boston: South End Press, 1984).
16 Cheryl Johnson-Odim, `Common themes, different contexts: Third World women and feminism,' in Third World women and the politics of feminism, ed CT Mohanty, A Russo and L Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 314--327. 316.
17 For pre-1980 statistics cf The Cornwall Collective, Your daughters shall prophesy: feminist alternatives in religious studies (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1980), 49--53. In the past decade the number of women in liberal theological schools has far surpassed the 50% mark.
18 See Genevive Lloyd, The man of reason: `male' and `female' in Western philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 108: `Philosophers have at different periods been church men, men of letters, university professors. But there is one thing they have had in common throughout the history of the activity. They have been predominantly male; and the absence of women from the philosophical tradition has meant that the conceptualization of Reason has been done exclusively by men.'
19 Stanley Fish, Is there a text in this class? The authority of interpretive communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980).
20 Florence Howe, Myth of coeducation: selected essays 1964--1983 (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984), 221--230.
21 Adrienne Rich, `Toward a woman centered university,' in On lies, secrets and silence: selected prose. 1966--1978 (New York: Norton, 1979), 134.
22 See the critical reflections on the Arizona project for curriculum integration by S Hardy Aiken, K Anderson, M Dinnerstein, J Nolte Lensinck, P MacCorquodale, eds, Changing our minds: feminist transformations of knowledge (Albany: State University of New York, 1988), 134--163.
23 Thomas Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions (2d ed; Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1962).
24 See specially the reflections of bell hooks on a revolutionary feminist pedagogy, reflections on graduate school, on being black at Yale, and on class and education in her book Talking Back (Boston: South End Press, 1989), 49--84.
25 Jo Anne Pagano, Exiles and communities: teaching in the patriarchal wilderness (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 135ff.
26 Hazel Carby, `On the threshold of woman's era: lynching, empire and sexuality,' in Race, Writing, and Difference, ed HL Gates, Jr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986):301--328.
27 Max Weber, `Wissenschaft als Beruf,' in M Weber, Gesammelte AufsÌtze zur Wissenschaftslehre (TÏbingen, 1922). See also Ija Lazari-Pawloska, `Das Problem der Wertfreiheit im UniversitÌtsunterricht,' in Halina Bendowski and Brigitte Weisshaupt (HgbInnen), Was Philosophinnen denken. (ZÏrich: Amman Verlag, 1983), 30--36.
28 ML Andersen, `Changing the Curriculum in Higher Education,' Signs 12/2 (1987):222--254.
29 On the process of an experientially based education see John H Fish, `Liberating Education,' in C Amjad-Ali and W Alwin Pitcher, eds., Liberation and Ethics (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1985), 15--29, especially the chart on p27.
30 Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 167.
31 For further elaboration see my books But she said. Feminist practices of biblical interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) and Discipleship of equals. A critical feminist ekklesialogy of liberation (New York: Crossroad Press, 1993).
32 Chandra Talpade Mohanty, `Introduction: Cartographies of Struggle,' in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed Chandra Talpade Mohanti, Ann Russo, Lourdes Torres, 1--47. 4.
33 Nancy Fraser, Unruly practices: power, discourse and gender in contemporary social theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 165.
34 E Frances White, `Africa on my mind: gender, counter discourse and African-American nationalism,' Journal of Women's History 2/1 (1990):87.
35 For this emphasis see Cheikh Anta Diop, The Cultural History of Black Africa (Chicago: Third World Press, 1990).
36 See the entry on Hypatia in Jennifer S Uglow and Frances Hinton, eds, The International Dictionary of Women's Biography (New York: Continuum, 1985), 234.
37 For this emphasis see also Ched Myers, Binding the strong man: a political reading of Mark's story of Jesus (New York: Orbis Press, 1988), 168. In In memory of her. A feminist reconstruction of christian origins (10. Anniversary Edition; New York, 1994), 175--184 I have argued that the patriarchal division between private and public sphere was not yet operative in the house-church. The sociopolitical location of the early Christian movement is the ekklesia in the house.
Professor Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza