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. Loren

    Mr. Prothero misses the point again, though he gets surprisigly close toward the end of the article when he seeks an answer why his students are unwilling to identify themselves asfeminists. The point is that feminists brought this upon themselves, positioning themselves as men-haters and Fem-nazis. As every generation finds about the next generation, the next generation isn't interested in the battles fought by the earlier generation and those next find the tactics and language used to be counter-productive and divisive. So is it any wonder this new generation is puzzled by what all the fuss was about?

    November 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
    • Artemis

      Actually, in some ways, the "fuss" about this is a good thing. It means that the early feminists (meaning pre-80's) did their job: they got people talking about lifestyle options (to marry, to stay single, kids, no kids, job, no job, etc) as choices. Before that, there weren't really any choices. Biology was destiny, at least in the eyes of religion and society. What I see was missing in the early years was what is now being debated, which is how men can benefit from gender equality, in all arenas of public and private life.

      November 2, 2010 at 9:09 pm |
    • Dr Bip

      can you please list which feminists you are referring to who represented themselves this way?

      November 3, 2010 at 1:47 am |
  2. honestly

    This is really a non-article. Remind me again why it's in the "belief blog" if it's nothing more than a narration of his workday at a classroom, not related at all to anything concerning philosophy or religion?

    I was waiting to see an argument, a point that it was trying to confirm or create or even an opening for discussion.
    This was only a ounce higher more priority than a "tweet" on twitter.

    November 2, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
  3. Mok

    I like sweater bal loons

    November 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  4. Joe

    Not being a woman, I'm confused– it seems to me that there's a false dilemma here. Somehow if a woman does not want to have a family and kids, she necessarily wants to be a man? I just thought it meant she liked living single and focusing on career.

    November 2, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
    • cindylouwho123

      don't fret, joe– i am a woman, and I'm confused too 🙂

      November 2, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  5. Beth

    I love being a woman. I love being a mom. I am grateful for the women that made it possible for me to choose the traditional role of a stay at home mom. They may not have envisioned this as a success but I feel it is. In the past women didn't have a choice. There was one path to follow and if you didn't fit in that mold then too bad. Now we can choose. I feel I have chosen the best path for me. I love it but I am not about to bash those that don't. I am grateful that I can choose this. I don't feel I have to be a man to be the equal of a man. That devalues my uniqueness of being female. It's like those people who say they are color-blind when it comes to race. That devalues the beautiful uniqueness of culture and race. For me, modernist feminism devalues femaleness. I am not a man, nor do I want to be a man. I also don't like how they put down men to build themselves up. I LOVE men. I value there uniqueness as well. Feminism comes across as selfish, witches who bash men and hate being female.

    November 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • Teephphah

      I <3 you.

      November 2, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • LEB

      Feminism has nothing to do with hating men. The correct word for hating the male gender is "androphobia."

      As a feminist, I support your CHOICE to take on what is considered the traditional female role, and appreciate that you realize it's a choice where it didn't used to be. But I'm taken aback by your assertion that just because a woman doesn't make the same choices you do, she must hate being female and all things feminine, and that she must want to be a man. And what's with calling feminists selfish witches? How is that constructive?

      Modern feminism, as opposed to feminism in the 80s and before, actually SUPPORTS women's rights to be "feminine" and not be punished for it. Gone are the days of shoulder-padded power suits and warnings that you'd better either put your kid in daycare or skip having kids altogether if you want to succeed in the workplace. The game has changed. Nowadays feminist leaders want women to be able to have families if they choose and NOT have to sacrifice their careers in the process, and they also want fathers to be allowed by their employers to be more active parents, via paternity leave, flex time, etc.

      If YOU decided to return to the workplace someday and found little discrimination in the fact that you took so much time off to raise kids, know who you'd have to thank? Those allegedly man-hating, anti-girly feminists that you despise. Why? Because modern feminists are fighting to end workplace discrimination against mothers, both legally and socially. You have SO MUCH to be grateful for in all that feminism has done for you as a female in our society, so the least you could do is stop calling feminist leaders "selfish witches," because they did what they did and continue to do what they do for you, your daughters, and your sons.

      November 2, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
    • Frogist

      @LEB: Wow! What a powerful way of putting it! Loving your posts.

      November 3, 2010 at 9:57 am |
  6. Joe

    Don't know why anyone who would like to have a family and kids would be opposed to women earning the same amount of money for the doing the same amount and quality of work.

    November 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  7. LEB

    I consider myself as feminist, and at just 30 years old I can't tell you how many times I've heard women my age and younger start a sentence with, "I'm not a feminist, but...." It just baffles me how ANY woman, even those who consider themselves "traditional," can't NOT be a feminist given the relative freedoms we have today compared to our mother and grandmothers. Today young women can sign up for any class in public schools (including the advanced maths and sciences), apply for any college they choose, pursue any career they want (short of some limitations in the military), and earn a paycheck, have a bank account, a credit card, a car, and a house in their own names. This simply wasn't the case 50 years ago, and yet today's young women and men seem unaware of just how bleak a woman's life was back then.

    As a modern feminist, if a young woman wants to live a traditional life and get married young, have kids, and be completely dependent on her husband, while I'll never understand that desire I still respect that it's her CHOICE. Back in the day, there was no choice. I just wish today's young women and men (and the older ones, too) would recognize that women and men of the past fought HARD for the freedoms women have today, and we can't take them for granted or we'll lose them. Western culture is NOT equal opportunity by default. We have to work to keep it that way.

    November 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
    • Loren

      Actually, things do happen by default, people just start accepting that this is the way things are done. Feminisim has become outmoded because it sets up a confrontational paradigm to solve issues that are now personal to individuals. Personally, I think that women have more choices in their lies than men and there needs to be rebalancing in our societal roles to address that inequity.

      November 2, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
    • LEB

      @ Loren – I agree that in some regards men have fewer choices. For example, there is FAR more stigma on being a stay-at-home dad than a stay-at-home mom. I think this is a shame and that we as a society need to be much more open-minded about the good dads can do when they're the ones home with junior. I also think that men should have the legally protected right to paternity leave in equal amounts of time to what women get for maternity leave. It doesn't seem fair that a company gives a female employee 3 months and a male employee half that time. Several European countries have already figured out that when Dad is at home to help those first several months of baby's life, Mom gets back to work faster.

      Modern feminism is actually very supportive of men's rights in the parenthood realm, because while women are gaining equality in public life, men still face limitations in their private lives, due more to social stigma than policy or law. While women can work almost all jobs than men work, there's one job women do that men never can... give birth. So it seems only fair to me that we figure out ways for men to have equivalent privileges in the fatherhood arena to balance privileges women have that are necessary due to biology. Modern feminism is about gender equality and about choice, so when men's rights are lacking, it's only right to push for reasonable solutions.

      November 2, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  8. Peanut

    I'd like to put forth the idea that many women today feel the need to be less of a woman and more like a man so they can advance in their career. let's face it- you're not going to get to be a CEO of a company standing up for being a woman- companies don't have time for that kind of drama. And to be honest- I don't want to see or hear it.

    November 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  9. Mary

    If I had a nickle for every time I've heard a kitchen/sandwich/woman joke, I'd be rich. It's funny the first few hundred times. Then you start to realize that a startling number of these guys actually believe, somewhere in the back of their minds, that you've no business doing anything but. There is still a culture of men who resent women being out in the workforce who happily use this quip like a badge or honor to childishly dismiss anything a woman has to say.

    But god help you if you get annoyed about sandwich joke #173947595639. Then you're an over-sensitive whiny b*t*h. Even other women will shun you, fearing to be labeled as such. I would love to see people going around and telling African Americans "why don't you go back to the field and pick me some cotton?" and see how well that flies. The fact that it's still alright to joke about women being house servants for any man to command is proof enough that we still need feminism. It's not the joke that's the problem; it's the fact that the idea behind it still hasn't died.

    November 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • Loren

      Maybe your problem is that youve never figured out a good response to th sandwich joke (whatever that is), Every company has discrimination policies and mechanisms for protection from the idiots. Oh, and by he way, why would you want towork with a cretin who makes such jokes. Either report him and get a new job, there are not that many of them out there.

      November 2, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
    • Den

      Den's retort #223

      M: "Make me a sandwich!"

      F: "Poof! You're a sandwich!"
      Witch Tips:
      You can also turn the man into a newt, turn a car into a driveway, and many other fun things this holiday season!
      (see pg. 468 in Spellbook's November issue)

      You can get extra points for using the man's wand instead of your own. (pg 1)

      Saying "sandwichificus!" without the "f" will cause the sandwich to appear unappetizing. Remember that "f", girls!

      November 5, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  10. Mark Seattle

    This article is just an example of the partiarchy in action. They tried to silence Mary Daly when she was alive. They're attempting to dimish her after her death. Keep buying her books. Let's keep them in print and the thoughts alive.

    November 2, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  11. ann

    If the word Feminism only evoked the image of women who are searching for equality than I think many women would have no problem identifying themselves as such. However, there is a certain negative connotation that I noticed growing up where feminism almost seemed to be pushing for men to be lesser than women. No, of course that was not the objective of all women in that movement, but a certain vocal portion certainly made it appear as such.

    From my perspective if I have a son (which I have not yet) would I want him to do worse and want worse for him than a daughter? I think some women cannot fully embrace a movement that also embodies those fringe elements. Ultimately even if you aren't a man you may have one. And therefore equality you can push for, but not going further. I think that is where some (granted it is probably just a few) feminist lost their way. or at least appeared to lose their way.

    Also, my impression was that the feminist were some how against anyone who should prefer to be a stay at home mom or do something where they weren't out trying to compete with men in the workplace. This again is actually not very feminist because feminism should want women to pursue whatever they want to pursue even if that isn't in the workplace.

    And last and probably a silly reason sounding reason, they seem to act as though being feminine (shaving armpits, wearing makeup, wearing bras.. etc) was not being a true woman. And that likewise in my mind is contradictory. Not all women just dress for men. Some do it for themselves and it is what we prefer. Shouldn't I be able to do what I wish? Isn't that what real feminism is about?

    So in summary, I think feminism is very much alive but not in the way that some in the movement had in mind. I actually think it is a healthier version that takes into consideration a woman's true feelings where she doesn't have to become a man to be equal to one.

    November 2, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • E

      Have you ever considered that the concept of man haters and all that are largely a creation pf people opposed to the movement and thus trying to villianize it? There is fringe in every single movement, religion, political party... It is the opposition who tries to define the movement by a couple of people who take it too far.

      November 2, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
    • Loren

      No, the characterization of the movement as men-haters was not just a construction of the opposition, it was the result of the rhetoric used. Women today have the benefit of what came before, but they also have the benefit of no having to follow the same path.

      November 2, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  12. baruch

    I'm a feminist. I'm alive. Eco-feminism is alive and thriving. Stephen, you may be a bit too cloistered in academia. Second Wave Feminism has passed, yes, but it has been integrated into the culture. The effects are visible in all aspects of our society. The cultural effects are somewhat diminished from the original intentions of Second Wave Feminism as happens in any assimilation or integration process, but to say that feminism and feminist thealogy RIP is reductive and rather silly.

    November 2, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  13. HS

    Or it could be that the feminists of the past did such a great job, most women feel they have no need to define themselves in such terms. They just want go about their lives in the way they are free to and welcome to choose. Whether that be by being a stay at home mom, a full time career woman, or a working mother. Women feel they have the option to make their life what they want....and that was a main goal of feminism.

    November 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
    • John K

      I agree. Having slain their dragon, old guard feminists wistfully look about for another one to slay, and don't truly appreciate the fact that there are fewer feminists today because women don't NEED to be feminists. Instead of feeling good about what they've accomplished for the younger generation, the old guard despises younger women for the freedom that they themselves never had.

      November 2, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • Frogist

      @John K: I don't think the old guard despises young women. That's a mischaracterisation. I think there is a disconnect between generations about what the movement is about. The older generation of feminists are, I am sure, excited about the fact that their efforts were worth it, and their children will not have to go through the same open biases that they had to deal with. Meanwhile, the younger generation, carry with them all the traits and expectations of what feminism is about without using that name. That doesn't make them any less of a feminist. I still consider it unfortunate that they do not look to their mothers and grandmothers and recognize the efforts they made and the history of the feminist movement.

      November 3, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  14. L in Seattle

    "I like being a girl." However, I chose to disassociate myself from "feminists" and "feminism" because when I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, all I ever saw from the "feminist movement" was disdain for being feminine. I got the impression from "feminists" that women should act and be like men, as if femaleness was a disease or something that had to be purged.

    November 2, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
    • Beth

      I agree. In the 80's and 90's it felt like I was being taught that being female was bad and I had to be just like a male in order to be equal or empowered or something.

      November 2, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
    • Frogist

      @L in Seattle: Yes, that is what I heard too. I think that has caused many women to be disenchanted with the whole affair. The people who put that idea forward were acting in a decidedly un-feminist way. They were telling women what they have to be instead of asking them what they want to be. It took me a long time to realize that being feminine didn't prevent you from being feminist.

      November 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
    • housewife

      yes, being "sensitive" and "delicate" is something that espouses femininity. feminism sees this as being "weak." WHAT. A. JOKE. in feminism, you are taking the very essence of being a girl and despising it, wishing you were born with a pen is

      November 3, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • Frogist

      @housewife: I am a feminist and I take exception to your comment. I think you are desperately mistaken about what feminism is. Please go re-read the comments I've already made regarding feminism and femininity. Despising being born female is the opposite of what feminism is about.

      November 3, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  15. Keyster

    Feminists managed to prove one thing about women in the last 50 years.
    Women are VERY good at being feminists.
    ...claiming untold victimhood, while moving their agenda of control over men forward.
    Other than that, women as a group, after decades of "liberation" haven't contributed much to society.

    November 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Keyster: Do you have a mom or a sister or a girlfriend or wife? Go say that to her. I'm sure you will both agree vehemently.

      November 2, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • E

      i agree, you should definitely tell all the women you know how useless they are. Then go live a life without any contributions from women.

      See how much you like it.

      November 2, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  16. Kyle

    I wish this op-ed piece were longer. It feels like it should be a longer article but was stopped mid-flow. Too bad as I was really digging the author's writing and was ready for a little more content and analysis.

    November 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  17. Rock God

    I am a man and I am a feminist. The religious right, whether it's the Taliban or the GOP, cannot destroy feminism and the simple belief that women are fully human.

    November 2, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  18. thepkexperience

    Feminist Theologist? Didn't even know it existed. OMG write about something of substance, not something that has passed on like bell bottom pants....

    November 2, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  19. Sunflower

    Sorry for the repeat post

    November 2, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  20. Sunflower

    Not being sarcastic at all. All the Femi-Naszi's here can strap on their dic-s and grow a pair so they can try to act even more like the men they want to be. I'd rather be enjoying one than wearing one. Have a great day!

    November 2, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • TMcGregor

      Carefu,l Sunflower. Your trollish bits are showing. Why would wanting to be treated as a human being with full and equal rights under the law make a woman want to be a man? This sounds like something you were served with your breakfast cereal as a child and swallowed just as unthinkingly. Feminism says you have the right to direct your life the way you want to, and so do I. Most likely you agree with that. If so, there's nothing to argue about, is there?

      November 2, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
    • Sunflower

      I'm all for full and equal rights, and the choice to live your life the way you desire. I want to direct my own life and be a wife and mother. There are millions of women who simply can't stand to hear that.

      November 2, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
    • bandgeek1

      Sunflower, what you want out of life sounds very nice, but consider some of the "what ifs..."

      What if your husband died and left you with a huge mortgage and no income?

      What if your husband beat you and your children? And don't say "that would never happen". It has and it could.

      What if husband's job wasn't didn't pay enough to support you and your children, or lost his job? You would have to work. Without the gains made by the womens movement, you can be educated in the career of your choice and earn enough income to support or help support your family.

      Of course you realize that without the womens movement you would lose your children should your marriage fall apart. You woudln't be able to get a loan in your name. The list of things you would never be able to do is endless.

      Please, go and find your husband, be happy and raise many beautiful children in a warm and loving home. But kindly remember the women who never have the opportunity to live that life. They and believe ot or not you, needed the feminists.

      November 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
    • ann

      bandgeek1: I think she is expressing what I have noticed albeit in a colorful way. That the impression was out there that should you choose motherhood and wifehood you were not a feminist and in fact were almost a traitor to womanhood. Sunflower has not mentioned if she also works outside the home nor what kind of education she may have. Therefore you cannot assume she is dependent on her husband in that way. I personally like being a wife, however I work and make a good living and got a good education and can exist on my own if need be. That I believe is the gift of my feminist mother. Always have a backup plan.

      November 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • Ann

      I don't want to be a man. I want to be a human – an adult human, with the opportunity to be independent and make decisions for myself, without regard for what others think is appropriate for my gender. So does my husband. I'm lucky to have found someone who agrees with me about gender/family roles. I hope you have, too. The point of feminism was to give us the choice.

      November 3, 2010 at 9:50 am |
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