Monday, September 26, 2011

The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History # 5

Twentieth Century Women’s Spirituality Movement

In a wonderful essay entitled “My Cab Ride with Gloria Steinem,” Federica Mathewes-Green not only tells about her encounter with feminist Steinem, she reveals a small but significant detail about her own feminist past. Mathewes-Green writes of “attending a consciousness-raising session at the home of lesbian friends during the 1970s.” Important to her story was the discovery that the two friends were raising mushrooms in cow manure in their bathtub.1

This was the early beginning of the women’s liberation movement of the twentieth century which includes the women’s spirituality movement. Mathewes-Green’s experience with the feminist movement was among those feminists who could best be described as cultural feminist, those who value women’s nature as well as nature itself. They are also referred to as radical feminists. Mathewes-Green has since become a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and laid aside her feminism. She has found her home in the Greek Orthodox Church.

In the same manner, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,  (1941-2006), the Eléonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at Emory University, and the founding director of the Institute for Women’s Studies, writes of a consciousness-raising group she helped to organize in the 1970s. This group consisted mostly of young married women supporting their professional husbands.

Based on Fox-Genovese’s description, it was not radical but rather a means for women to enjoy a time away from families while sharing with each other their joys and frustrations as well as a means of encouraging each other to “become strong independent women.” 2  Fox-Genovese, became a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

Women gathering in consciousness-raising groups are a part of the story of the women’s liberation movement which began with earnest in the late sixties and early seventies. Purportedly an early feminist group, sometime in the mid sixties, named New York, Radical Women, began the activity as a means “to defeat male spremacy (sic) and give women equality.”

Kathie Sarachild, author of “Consciousness-Raising A Radical Weapon,” spoke of this in 1973. She stated that they studied “women’s lives by topics like childhood, jobs, motherhood, etc.” Their authoritative foundation was their own experiences and one of the questions they brought “at all times to” their “studies would be -- who and what has an interest in maintaining the oppression in our lives.”3 While, clearly not all women held to a radical agenda when exploring their own experiences, many were moved by radical activism and experimentation at the very beginning of the women’s liberation movement.

The movement undoubtedly came to birth with the publication in 1963 of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. Basically the book is a critique of many women’s lifestyles in the fifties when to some new drapes and shaggy carpets seemed like a very high goal. For some women it was an eye-opener, for others, who were busy anyway, it was just an affirmation that women, like men, needed higher aspirations.

The comments of Elizabeth Achtemeier, who was visiting Professor of Hermeneutics and Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, are telling:
So when women confined themselves to housework and joined in 1965 in Betty Friedan’s published plaint, ‘Is this all?’ I thought, for goodness sakes, of course it’s not all! Get out there and use your talents. Stop draining your brains down the kitchen sink.”4
Reading The Feminine Mystique sparked much of the consciousness-raising groups among women. One sees the connection in the records of the United Presbyterian Church.

In 1966, an early effort to give woman more rights in the United Presbyterian church included a consultation at Ghost Mountain Conference Center. Maggie Kuhn, who was to be “instrumental in organizing the Gray Panthers,” instigated the Ghost Mountain Conference named “Masculine/Feminine: Mystery, Misery, or…” Betty Friedan was “a resource leader.”5 A Task Force on Women was established in 1969 by the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, although it was not overseen by the General Assembly.

Along with this national Task Force, Elizabeth Howell Verdesi writes that women were forming local task forces, “so that by 1971 there were five functioning judicatory task forces on women.” Verdesi goes on to write that, “as a consequence of such activity, the Task Force on Women recognized that the future effectiveness of the women’s movement within the church depended on the establishment of small consciousness-raising groups in the judicatories”6

Another move was the establishment of women’s religious organizations promoting both religion and women’s liberation agendas. Many of these were independent of the church, yet the church contributed to them.

Jeanette Stokes, Presbyterian Pastor and founder in 1977 of Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South writes, “When I moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in the fall, RCWMS took up residence in a spare room of my apartment and consisted of a cardboard box and some three-by-five cards with the names of women interested in feminism, religion, ministry, and social justice.” Stokes, now involved in promoting the divine feminine, further states that in 1978 the United Presbyterian Church’s Council on Women and the Church (COWAC) gave from their Emergency and Experimental funds fifteen hundred dollars to her new organization.7

Earlier, in 1977, the COWAC along with the Council of theological Seminaries held a Symposium in Chicago with the theme, “In Christ … Neither Male nor Female.”8 The journal Theology Today printed the position papers of the symposium along with other relevant articles. The early seeds of radical feminism can be seen in the various papers. For instance, the Editor, Hugh T. Kerr, intentionally offered his readers a group of prayers that leaves out any gendered pronouns, but the prayers also leave out any reference to Father and Son.9

One author, “Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, now Professor Emeritus of Church History at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA, in her article, “On the Way to Wholeness,” upholds the importance of revelation but admits that one’s experience will affect how the text is interpreted. And she does mention when affirming the importance of revelation those women who, at that time, no longer see revelation as the prime disclosure of who God is, but instead rely on their own experience.

Gonzalez makes a case for seeing women’s basic sin as self-hatred in contrast to pride. She writes:
It is no accident that those in society who are most powerful and who are the norm for the human, that is to say, white men, frequently see pride as their greatest sin. . . . But others, and in this case women, are taught by the society to see themselves as weak, inept, vacillating, destined by their biology to serve others.
Gonzalez goes on to explain that women have no understanding of what to repent of because the church never mentions the sin of self hatred.10

In the coming years numerous women connected to both the women’s liberation movement and the church would not only push for needed reforms, they would push past the boundaries of a biblical Christianity and move into radical feminism. From their experimentation and focus on their own experiences they were to find an alternative spirituality for both secular women and church women.

My next posting will look at the alternative spirituality.

1 Federica Mathewes-Green, “My Cab Ride with Gloria Steinem,” in Books & Culture, May-June 2000, found at See also, Mathews-Green, “Twice Liberated: A Personal Journey through Feminism,” Touchstone, Summer 1994, found at

2 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Feminism is Not the Story of My Life” How Today’s Feminist Elite has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women: (New York: Nan A. Talese Doubleday 1996), 15,16.
3 Kathie Sarachild, “Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon, This is “a compilation and expansion of texts, notes and comments from a talk Kathie Sarachild gave on consciousness-raising to the First National Conferences of Stewardesses for Women’s Rights in New York City, March 12, 1973. Sarachild outlined the original program for “Radical Women’s Consciousness-Raising” which was presented at the First National Women’s Liberation Conference outside Chicago, November 27, 1968.” Found at,
4 Elizabeth Achtemeier, Not Til I Have Done, A Personal Testimony, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1999), 16.
5 Elizabeth Howell Verdesi, “Survival, Change and Promise: Women in the UPCUSA, 1970-1983,” In Our Rightful Place: The Story of Presbyterian Women 1970-1983, Elisabeth Howell Verdesi and Lillian McCulloch Taylor, (New York: Presbyterian Church (USA) 1985), 12.
6 Ibid., 13.
7 Jeanette Stokes, “A Brief History of RCWMS,” at
8 Theology Today, Editor, Hugh T. Kerr, January 1978.
9 Ibid., “Editorial: The Language of Prayer,” 353-356.
10 Ibid., “Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, “On the Way to Wholeness,” 378-385.

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