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. Marvin

    Now if Women don't want to fill the role of in home mom/wife, that's fine, more power to them. They should have the right to choose to do what they want but don't bite the heads off women that CHOOSE for themselves to do that.

    November 3, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  2. Marvin

    Men and Woman will never be 100% equal and its not feminist or anti feminist or anti male or anti female.

    Just one line:

    Women can have children, Men can't. Simple as that. There is no way to make it happen. So stop trying. For some odd reason women believe they are less than a man. They are not. They give life.

    Now socially i believe men and women are equal 100% or if its not the case where you live, it should be. Role-wise, you can't deny the fact that women are better at taking care of children than men are. They alone have the bond with the children they have because they carried the frggin squirt for a long time. Now this doesn't mean they are less than a Man, it just means because they are female they have that attribute/feature whatever you want to call it than men don't. Again for some reason some women detest that fact. I don't know why. Yet scream bloody murder when some men don't agree with abortion. Men are dooshbags for the most part, that is also fact. That doesn't change these facts no matter what way you want to rub Nazi-feminist on a man.

    November 3, 2010 at 12:09 am |
    • brad

      Marvin, it's true that women give life. But giving birth and raising a child are two entirely different things. There are more than a few females who bring a child into the world, and then spend the next years making the child wish he'd never been born.

      November 3, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Muneef

      At least she made her choices and no one is perfect with choices and opportunities..
      Beside this male and female equality only serves the interests of G,ays and Les,bians relations and marriages since it will always look awkward unless and until female is equalized to a male. Then we will not be even surprised to see some become to be a male and a female in one with plastic surgeries since equality has made loss of differences and that would be the last stroke of des,truction for humanity??

      November 3, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  3. ak1989

    I'm a 21 year old female. My humble opinion is that most women my age naturally grow up thinking in a way that older generations would regard as "feminist". Most of us don't recognise that thought process as being feminist because it is all we know. We usually don't encounter the issues that women before us did, so we take the way things are nowadays for granted. Also, feminism accomplished a great many things but it also became associated with an element of extremism. I believe in women's rights and treating women equal to men, but a small minority of feminists seem to want to erase elemets of womanhood rather than embrace them in the quest to be equal; elements like motherhood and marriage. I am an educated professional, however I want to live alongside men and be a wife and mother along with having a career. It sometimes feels like other women look down upon women who want those things. Being equal to men shouldn't mean denying a natural experience of womanhood and trying to be exactly like men. Todays feminists are alive and well, its just that feminism itself has changed.

    November 3, 2010 at 12:00 am |
  4. Eliza

    I don't understand why the failure of students today to sign up for feminist ideas from 1973 should be regarded as the death of feminist theology. Why don't you give them someone like Sarah Coakley to read? Shouldn't they be taught what's really happening in feminism now, and then given a chance to respond?

    November 2, 2010 at 11:30 pm |
  5. AGeek

    This is where religion and reality diverge and drive me crazy. Any omnipotent and omniscience being isn't going to have a gender. Gender is required for procreation. Unless you're in the habit of telling your creator to go screw themselves, there's absolutely no need whatsoever for a gender assigned to your all-powerful being of choice.

    If you choose to assign a gender, please – do the rest of us a favor and shut the #*@% up. You don't get it – at all – not even in the slightest way. You're projecting *your* thoughts onto an omnipotent being. That'll always work out well in the end. That's the kind of thing that starts wars and leads governments to kill alleged adulterers. It's crap like that which supports and protects pedophiles. It's the entire reason why organized monotheistic religions need to be globally outlawed.

    November 2, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
    • Artemis

      Enough said!

      November 2, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
    • Muneef

      You mean hide the truth like your ancestors did with the holy scriptures and made for God a son and partners?

      November 2, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
    • Teephphah

      Based on your extensive knowledge of omniscience (sic) beings, you can assert that they would necessarily be genderless. I get it. YOU know the truth. YOU have the answers. YOUR logic is unassailable. Why won't the billions of adherants to organized monotheistic religions just listen to YOU? Everything would be all better then, huh?

      I could have done without the Youtube clips too, but your arrogance is deeply and profoundly troubling.

      Forget for a moment the way you completely (and flipantly) disregard the things these people consider SACRED (you may have to look that word up. It's okay. I'll wait.) truths, let's talk about what YOU think causes wars.


      November 3, 2010 at 9:40 am |
    • Frogist

      Just because someone considers something sacred doesn't mean that it shouldn't be scrutinized and challenged. One could argue that any omnipotent creature who imagined and then created two genders is both male and female, no gender at all, or a mulit!tude of gender possibilities according to its whims.

      November 3, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  6. Iqbal khan


    November 2, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  7. Iqbal khan


    November 2, 2010 at 8:59 pm |
  8. Iqbal khan


    November 2, 2010 at 8:56 pm |
  9. Joan

    I work in Technology as a VP and when I was a young computer programmer I had trouble with the "F-word" aka Feminism. Now that I am in my 40's, and still working full time with have twin daughters, I embrace it and wish for more equality between genders. I have bumped up against the glass ceiling more than once and have encountered more gender inequity as an executive with children than I thought I would ever encounter. My eyes were opened a couple years ago when I managed an intern who graduated with a degree in Feminist Studies – she gave me some books to read (Manifesta) and I really enjoyed them. We are at a point where the 1st, 2nd and 3rd waves of Feminism have broken through the major barriers impeding women and we just need to get the numbers up of women who are CEOs of major Fortune 500 companies and elected office holders in government. Once 35% of the elected officials and senior executives of companies (including Presidents) are women, I can rest assured my daughters can make it easier than I did in the work force.

    November 2, 2010 at 8:48 pm |
    • Marvin

      Well hopefully that happens, and women like palin don't screw it up for women.

      November 3, 2010 at 12:15 am |
  10. rotorhead1871

    minor blip on the radar......its gone and life goes on.......agree with the RIP....

    November 2, 2010 at 8:44 pm |
  11. Muneef

    The name Allah and the other 99 names project God Allah as a male. Rest assured.

    November 2, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  12. on_my_soapbox

    I sure miss the days when them broads were burning their bras, don't you ? (except for the chunky ones of course)

    November 2, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
  13. Brandon Arkell

    Dr. Prothero, you did not say whether or not the failure over the word "feminism" was a good thing or not.

    Why do people hate "feminism"? It's a pretty straightforward, hard-to-argue-with philosophy:

    feminism [fem-uh-niz-uhm]


    1. the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men
    2. (sometimes initial capital letter) an organized movement for the attainment of such rights for women
    3. feminine character

    Sorry, but I really don't know what the beef over "feminism" is. Why are the connotations created by smear campaigns from the early '80s and a few rotten eggs like Andrea Dworkin suddenly overriding the strict dictionary denotation? It is about equality between males and females. That is all. Why do people have such a problem with that? Have they even looked up the word in the dictionary before? Or are they perfectly happy to have Rush Limbaugh define the word for them?

    November 2, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
  14. Powerbar

    Just heard a woman say. "I love it when my man is tall, strong. Makes me feel so womanly, small standing next to him." Love it. Now we men can exploit the little helpless creatures for many more years to come. haha

    November 2, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  15. Frank

    I think the idea is cyclical and will return over time. It may not be called feminism and may not even take up the same issues and causes. But it's very hard to look at a culture that so marginalizes and segregates females based on their appearance without thinking that someone, someday is going to say, "You know what, we can do better than this".

    November 2, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  16. BioHzrd

    Lee...there is no misconception of a glass ceiling...it is there alive an well. Take a look at the number of women entering professional positions and then take a look at the number that stay there.

    November 2, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
    • Lee

      Right, lets completely ignore the women who CHOSE to leave careers for their children. That's logical. There are plenty of successful women, because they choose to stick to a career. They also have the right to choose to be mothers instead, and you're not accounting for that with your 'numbers'. If there is a glass ceiling, it's self-imposed. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general, women are equal now, and that's why feminism lost it's steam.

      November 2, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
    • Artemis

      There is a glass ceiling and I whacked my head on it a few short years ago. The company I was working for at the time sponsored some cross-training with other departments and I ended up testing very high for one of the technical departments, as opposed to the customer service department I was in. The head of the other department put in a request with management to have me transfered and put in for training, but the manager of the company refused to accept it, saying he was not going to "mess up" the department by having a woman in it. In a nutshell, he wanted women only on the phones, and all the techinical jobs for the men, which, by the way, were the higher paying jobs, and the ONLY way to advance within the company.
      Yup-alive and well.

      November 2, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
    • Lee

      You ignored my last sentence pretty well. There are always exceptions BUT here's the thing, that's no longer considered 'ok', it's now considered discrimination. Prior to the feminist movement, it wouldn't have been, and everyone would ignore you, now you have grounds for legal action, OR, if you're as good as you say, plenty of other opportunities for employment with a different company.

      Did any of you notice that in the deep southern state of SC, the 'bible belt', the place where the civil war started; they now have a female american indian elected as the governor?

      November 4, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  17. BioHzrd

    Besides the fact that Daly used his class as an impromptu assessment of feminism (we won't even go into how this is not even scientifically accurate), I think he misses the point of what feminism has become. It used to be about bra-burning and such, but I would argue that it is more about choices. Having the choice to go to work or to stay at home and to not feel guilty either way. To say that it is dead is quite glib. I would say it is alive and well, just in another form.

    November 2, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • Dr Bip

      no one ever burnt her bra. ever.

      November 3, 2010 at 1:45 am |
    • Sum Dude

      @Dr Bip

      "Ever"? I happen to know that you are wrong, having seen a few things over the years. Don't use infinitives irresponsibly, pls.

      November 3, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
    • FilthyHorror

      No, Dr. Bip is right. The bra-burning thing is a myth. http://www.snopes.com/history/american/burnbra.asp

      November 15, 2010 at 5:42 am |
  18. Lee

    It is no longer a viable movement. Women can get to the same places as men if they are willing to put up with the same bull that men have to deal with. So now you have career women who can work side by side with men, you have mothers that don't work, and you have some that do both. The only real 'glass ceiling' is a misconception created by unequal numbers of men in upper management. Well, the reality is, it takes a long time to get to those places, and if you take time off to have children, you lose some of your career growth time. BUT, with more and more stay at home fathers, the feminist movement isn't really needed anymore. Any women can be successful if she focuses 100% on her career, just like a man has to in order to obtain the same success.

    November 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
    • Artemis

      Reasonable, except men's roles in the home are ignored in this equation. Most of the professionals I know are at the height of their career (which kind of gives away my advancing age!), but there is one pattern I see. Both men and women can be powerful professionals, but all of the men are married, and only two of the women are. Personally, I don't see this as a real choice. It sends the message that women have to give up everything, while all men need to do is get a wife. REAL choice can happen for both genders, once society starts accepting a corresponding shift in options available to MEN which will provide them with validation and choice to accept options broader than just breadwinner and ruler.

      November 2, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  19. ScottyP

    This guy concludes that feminism is dead by a show of hands in one class sitting and the conservative right's disdain of anything "liberal"? Sound thesis, supported by flawless research methodology and conclusive data if I've ever seen it.

    November 2, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
  20. lizzie

    As a teacher, one who TRIED to teach Women's Studies to college students, I am well aware of the distorted thinking and lack of understanding that is prevelant in the younger generations. When I put the word "feminist" on the board on the first day of class and asked my (all female) class to tell me what it meant, they looked at me blankly. One woman said "that's the kind of woman who dresses in ruffles and stuff". No, that is "feminine". Yikes. Another said that feminists don't shave their legs and wear baggy clothes. Okay. Needless to say, the semester was interesting, but did I make a dent? I doubt it. I concur with those on this post who feel today's women have no clue that their freedom comes from decades of struggle. Why didn't HIllary Clinton get elected? Ask men or women, and the "B" word is used. Why? Because she's a feminist. It saddens me that my granddaughters have no idea why they can choose the path their lives will take without knowing how my path was riddled with obstacles. But I'll tell them. Some of us still care.

    November 2, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
    • Lee

      Why do you feel the 'path' is more important than the destination? Why are you so concerned that your grandchildren know the struggles more than allowing them to reap the rewards? It's not like we'll ever go back to how things were prior to feminism.

      November 2, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • Gene

      Apologies for the annoying redundancy. Posting hysteresis.

      November 2, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
    • Artemis

      It is a VERY risky thing to we would never go back to the way it was before.
      Time may be eternal, but memory isn't. To not remember how one's ideas or behaviors have developed leaves one at risk of reapeating it again...and losing it again.

      November 2, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Lee: Does your family tell stories about its history? If you affiliate yourself with a race, religion, political party, do you not learn about the progression to where you are today? To truly understand and appreciate what you have now, you must have access to your history. It is especially important on a global level where women still are struggling just because they are women. The need for feminism is not gone. And knowing our history helps to understand how to approach anti-feminist feeling anywhere we find it.

      November 3, 2010 at 10:15 am |
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