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November 2nd, 2010
08:00 AM ET

My Take: Feminist theology and feminism, R.I.P.

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Yesterday my students and I discussed Mary Daly, the Boston College professor, feminist theologian, and professional provocateur who died earlier this year. Judging by our discussion, feminist theology has died too, and feminism with it.

Our reading for the day was a selection from Daly’s second book, Beyond God the Father (1973), which decries a sexist cycle that has patriarchal cultures creating patriarchal divinities who then sanctify in turn the patriarchal cultures that gave them birth. “If God is male,” Daly writes, “then the male is God.”

When I was in college a generation or so ago, just about everyone I knew was a feminist. The question wasn’t whether western civilization was sexist; the question was what to do about it, and how guilty each of us should feel in the meantime.

Today, feminism is alive and well in academia. At last week's annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, there were meetings of the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network, and for the board of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. A “Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Group” held a series of sessions, and there were two panels devoted to celebrating the life of Mary Daly herself.

But there was little celebrating (and only a little more life) in my classroom yesterday. Hardly any of my students showed any sympathy for Daly’s critique of the “Superfather in heaven,” and, when I asked for a show of hands, only four of my hundred-plus students were willing to out themselves as “feminists.”

Much has been written about how the right has successfully turned the term liberal into a dirty word. But the other f-word (feminist) has fared even worse, sullied by some combination of the Reagan Revolution, the culture wars, and the success of the feminist movement itself, which has left young women today feeling more empowered and less vulnerable than their more feminist-friendly forebears.

When I asked my students why they don’t want to call themselves feminists, they spoke of bra-burners  man-haters and Femi-Nazis, which is to say that in the war of the words which was the feminist movement, feminists seem to have lost perhaps the most important battle: the battle over the meaning of the word feminism itself.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Culture wars • Education • Women

soundoff (212 Responses)
  1. evewasaheroine

    Some of the trouble for women in the church began with the unique Christian interpretation of the beautiful Eden myth in literal terms – a speaking serpent included. But almost all the components of the Eden myth are found in the pre-biblical epic poem of Gilgamesh. This ancient work, once lost to civilisation preserves the Adam-like creation from clay of an instant adult male. He lived naked with the animals – as did Adam – until joined by a naked female. The poem records the first man to enter the garden paradise, and mentions a serpent with a human head known as 'lord of the tree of life.' At their origins, however, these stories had nothing to do with original sin. On the contrary, when interpreted in the light of their polytheist origins – in which the concept of obedience is the opposite of the revolutionary monotheist concept – these stories preserve the record of an unprecedented evolutionary event of value to all human beings. Eve was framed, and it is time her original pre-biblical role was recognised. (See: Eden: The Buried Treasure.)

    January 13, 2011 at 6:58 am |
  2. david

    To spilisz08 - you are right on, brother or sister. God is not just he or she, but the Trinity of persons, father, son, holy spirit.,
    And I also have a masters in theology.

    December 2, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  3. david

    I think that adult women and adult men should be about taking care of children, not promoting themselves by feminist or macho movements. It's not about women. It's not about men. It's about the children of the world, of the city, of the family.

    December 2, 2010 at 6:45 pm |
  4. DisrespectFearandLoathing

    I was once a Feminist, but now I'm a Humanist. The truth is- we're all idiots and we all just want to be happy.

    Since I own my own business, house etc. and pay my own way, I am entirely unconcerned with and free from the effects of whatever your thoughts may be pertaining to limitations on my behavior as determined by my genitalia.

    I do exactly as I please and I am angry with no one.

    How do you like me now?

    December 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  5. AnthonyL

    Women have no right in the political or religious realms of public service. There is a movement currently underway to empower us as men to rise up and take control back over our homes. That is where women need to be, that is the only place that they are worth anything. Please visit mgtow.proboards.com and look around. If you like what you see, please join the movement to force the uppity women of this nature back into their natural roles. The-spearhead.com is another good one. If you visit this website, please take a look at the forums after reading the many insightful articles. The comments to the articles as well as the forum are very insightful, as the guys posting here are who make up the men's rights movement. Our nation will collapse if we don't shut women up and place them back where they belong, which is in the home. If you have been divorced and had to go through the harrowing experience of having your ex FALSELY accuse you of domestic violence to take your kids, who rightfully belong to YOU away then you will find other men who will help you through this. ALMOST ALL CLAIMS OF DV ARE FALSE and the MRM seeks to bring that truth to light.

    November 21, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • Kate

      My congratulations to your wife for escaping you.

      I hope you come in to where I work sometime (a bank) and need a loan which are approved and declined at my discretion. We're all girls here and we can smell a chauvanist. You wouldn't get approved for a 2001 PT Cruiser. I hope you need my best friend, an ER nurse, and she decides to let you go just a little bit longer without the morphine you desperately need. You'll need a woman someday, and she'll know just what you are. And you'll regret it.

      December 1, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  6. TDJ

    If "feminist theology" has really died, let me say goodbye and good riddance. The thing was a huge instrument of distortion in Christian theology. Let it rot, don't revive it.

    -Theo

    November 15, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  7. SL

    Thank you B. Feminism is not dead – people are looking in the wrong places.
    The reason so many young people don't understand the gains in equality and respect women have made is because they aren't taught about it. Everyone learns about the civil war and civil rights era in the sixties – from popular films to h.s. history class (and rightly so.) However, the same attention is not given to women's rights and equality, so how would young people have the same understanding? How many biopics have been filmed about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinam. How many required reading lists have The Feminine Mystique on them?
    It's important to continue to RESPECT EVERY GENDER and keep wiping out se-xist policies.
    TByte, it sounds like you've had a difficult experience. However, the very definition of feminism is rooted in equality for all. Feminists are equalists. If you've found you faced discrimination for being male, you should take action to end the discrimination & examine the policies that are causing the discrimination. Please don't insult feminists by saying we don't care about equality because you've run into a policy that is outdated and has become 'reverse' discrimination.

    November 14, 2010 at 5:13 am |
  8. TByte

    As a young man, I used to consider myself a Feminist and supported feminist causes.
    But then I found myself in a divorce, and a custody battle, and I came to realize that Feminist's pursuit of equality ended when it bumped up against the many areas in our society where women receive benefits and special privileges.
    Now, I consider myself an "Equalist". The current feminist movement does NOT pursue gender equality in all areas of society.
    I will bet you that if you ask your class how many of them consider themselves "Equalists", you will get many hands raised, even if they have never heard the term before. And what this would show is that, far from being ignorant of the advances made by the women's movement that you hold so dear, in fact your students have actually moved beyond yourself in terms of social morality.
    And it is about time you started catching up with them.

    November 5, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.