Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History #1

Just this week, I have been working on a paper which has brought my thinking back to my original work on women’s issues from a historical position. My Master’s Thesis was “"An Exploration: Feminist Ethics and The Principles of Orthodox Christianity," which included the history of early feminism. I also wrote a rather long article for Voices of Orthodox Women entitled “The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History.” That was 2005.

Today I am going to start placing small portions of the paper on radical feminism in the mainline churches on my blog. I will break up some of my long paragraphs and perhaps modify some of my information if it is too outdated.

The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches:

A History

Part 1

Recently, in a poignant letter written by an Episcopal vicar renouncing her vows, I read these words, “No one cares if my soul is sick, estranged from God and destined for the fire.” The vicar was not writing because she was renouncing faith in Christ nor because she no longer cared for the church of Jesus Christ, but rather because she feared that the institution she belonged to, the Episcopal Church, would so neglect not only her soul but the souls of others that they would die spiritually. In the same neglectful manner, in every mainline church, many in leadership in women’s organizations, seemingly, do not care if our souls are sick, estranged from God and destined for the fire.

The history behind such leadership is one that few know or understand. Their advocacy, such as empowering the self and reproductive choice is based on concepts and ideas garnered from a century of feminist ideology. Their theology based on a century of feminist alternative spirituality is replacing the theology advocated by nineteenth century Christian women who were intent on aiding the other half of the Christian Church in proclaiming the gospel.

In contrast to such women as Catherine Booth (1829-1890), a forceful preacher and wife of Salvation Army founder William Booth; Katharine Bushnell (1855-1946), author of God’s Word to Women and a medical missionary to China; and Louisa Woosley (1862-1952), the first ordained woman in any Presbyterian Church; who truly preached and upheld the gospel of Jesus Christ, contemporary women’s leadership often proclaims a dry ideological agenda devoid of biblical redemption.

In its early beginnings the feminist movement was, to put it simply, a movement among women seeking equal rights; that included voting rights, equality in education, and positions of leadership in churches. For nineteenth century women the act of gaining rights was a startling new kind of ethic drawing diverse groups of women together. The names applied to the various movements and groups stretched from women abolitionists, leaders of the temperance movement to suffragettes.

Most women in any of these movements were suffragettes, that is, most believed that women should be allowed to vote. Contemporary historians classify the positions of women seeking equal rights under the heading of feminists; however, it is doubtful that that was the name of choice at the time. Scholars list two main categories for those nineteenth century women seeking equality. Those who insisted on women’s rights on the basis of a rational philosophical position are seen as enlightenment feminists, and those who looked at women’s problems from a woman’s social and domestic perspective are considered cultural feminists.

There are sub-titles under these headings such as liberal feminism under Enlightenment and romantic under cultural feminism. Another group of women found their identity in Christianity, and, among other rights, sought the right to preach and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is doubtful that feminism as we think of that term today would be considered acceptable to early Christian women who sought for the right to preach1.

Most of those women seeking rights worked together in various causes related to the suffrage movement, such as abolition and temperance, and some of their ideas overlapped. But as the movement grew the ideas among the different types of rights advocates changed and because of this some of the groups grew farther and farther apart.

In fact, at one point, the movement split into two rival groups who barely spoke to each other. One group, the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone, Mary Livermore, and Julia Ward Howe, agreed to wait for the Afro-American male to receive the vote before pushing forward for women’s suffrage; the other group, the National American Woman Suffrage, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was more radical in membership and insisted, in very racist terms, that the more intelligent white woman should be granted the vote before ignorant black men. 2

1 Here, after much thought and research, I am changing my own perspective. I have called all of these women feminists in both my Master’s Thesis and other articles, but given the changing meaning of that term and the fact that it rarely shows up in early suffragette writings I have changed my mind, I believe we need a new way of defining early Christian women who fought for various human rights.

2 Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2001), 228-34.

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