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. Gil T

    Any movement, feminist, liberation, etc, which defines itself according to a label it takes to itself is doomed. Furthermore, as Naisbitt explained in his Megatrends (1980s) trends (movements) began from the bottom/rural and small and grow to the top/urban and big. Fads start with the elite at the top and from that perch they topple. Despite feminists christening their's a movement in the 1960s it had the earmarkings of a fad.

    Over the past 2000 years history has witnessed the movement which began with the lowly, uneducated men who had no illusions of creating a movement. When those who took their message to heart and obeyed came to be labeled Christians it was not of their making and it was more of a insult. Furthermore, my brothers and sisters in the faith that is in Christ Jesus did not embark on a crass, clash, crash and burn iconoclasm as feminists so heartily embraced. Those first century disciples demonstrated to the a crass, ruthless world their embrace of the Divine even as our brothers and sisters were led to the spectacle of slaughter.

    What is the legacy of feminism? Undoubtedly, our American society as well as much of the world have become aware of many things with perhaps the most important something being about male/female relationships. Another part of this legacy is an irony.

    The irony is that the very things which feminists reviled in men's behavior have become the legacy of feminism's liberation among girls and young women. Crassness, crudeness and callousness in speech and relationships with and towards men, and girls themselves (witness the mean girl culture) are touted as badges of liberation.

    I have seen in this same Belief blog a good sampling of feminist theology from women who profess themselves preachers and teachers of the word of God. The crassness in their replies and their sound bites, the Daly quotation being perfect example, may be the currency of feminism, but not the scriptures.

    November 5, 2010 at 12:58 am |
  2. LanceSmith

    As long as feminism blames men (or the mythical patriarchy) for all of the world's ills, it is doomed. Every subject that supposedly men have the upper hand from education to domestic violence to pay has been shown time and time again to be complete fallacies. Feminism was built on a pack of lies: that men or "the male" is God. That was never the case and it certainly isn't now. For example, today we have government spending more and more money on domestic violence prevention yet they ignore HALF of the victims (men). That isn't right and as long as feminism refuses to accept that women aren't any more or less special then men, it is doomed to die. Read Wendy McElroy for a far more egalitarian feminist POV.

    November 4, 2010 at 11:27 pm |
  3. Meghan

    Mr. Prothero-

    As a feminist college student (attending the school you teach at, by chance), I get really really tired of the idea that "feminism is dead" or that young women won't claim the label. Yes, it is true that feminism is a "dirty word" and that the debate over what feminism is has become somewhat muddled. Yes, I sometimes get discouraged by the apathy that many students show.
    However- while it is not the same is in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there is still a thriving feminist and activist movement on campuses around the country and right here at BU. I'm part of the Women's Resource Center at BU, where literally hundreds of students come to events every semester- and I would venture a guess that many of them would consider themselves feminists. While I do wish feminism was more visible, it is NOT dead- neither on college campuses nor in the world at large.

    November 3, 2010 at 11:15 pm |
  4. B

    Time magazine published this twelve years ago: http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19980629,00.html

    How can you surmise that feminism is dead and then say it's alive and well in academia? Are those not contradictory statements?

    Feminism is far from dead. You're just looking in the wrong places.

    November 3, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  5. Sum Dude

    I am for equality between males and females.
    This sometimes makes others angry, depending on who benefits from the inequality and who does not.
    Yet equality is the only reasonable position as far as I am concerned.

    Privileges are not rights and vice versa. Many people don't bother to discern the difference, either.
    Advantages can be physical, psychological, derived from the socio-cultural matrix in which one moves, etc.

    Delusional thinking is not helpful.
    Those who seek to use religion in making decisions are more likely to make things worse than better.
    In terms of religion, inequality is the rule rather than the exception...caste systems can be fairly stable at times, but they always ignore the reality that individuals are all unique with unique situations, experiences, etc.
    Male and female "roles" have many roots in our evolutionary development as a species – primitive and instinctual reactions are not often subject to the higher brain functions.
    It's a mess, really. 😛

    November 3, 2010 at 8:15 pm |
  6. ann

    It is not that younger women don't know what the women did towards bringing equality in every aspect of our lives. No that is not the case. We just don't all agree with every aspect of the feminist movement. If you say you are a feminist then you are labeled as believing in all of it.

    Personally I prefer not be labeled at all. I prefer to be my own individual self and also a woman. Women are equal to men and yet are not men. We can do whatever we set our minds to. We can have our own individual goals and beliefs.

    We can choose to be with a man but don't need a man (I lived for several years on my own before marrying). We can be a mother who works, or stays at home. We can choose not to be a mother. We can be whoever we want to be.

    I listened to my mother and made sure I had an education and always have a backup plan to be able to care for myself. While single I purchased land, paid to have a home built on that land, and mowed all three acres myself. I have a degree in both Math and Computer Science despite the people who tried to suggest that only men are good at those things. I worked with mostly men throughout my early career and listened to some of them suggest that despite the fact that I was good at Math and Computer Science I was a freak of nature and that most women are much worse at those things then men.. even men who can't do math.. oh yes they did say that. I have heard it all and did not listen.

    Yes the women that came before fought for our rights, but the fight still lives on, just not under a label.

    November 3, 2010 at 7:10 pm |
  7. m

    "this was sort of a non-article"

    I couldn't of said it better myself.

    This is such an interesting and important conversation that needs to happen, and is starting to happen, within academia, however, never have I ever read an article about the subject so bland before.

    This offers absolutely nothing new to the discussion.
    Extremely dry...and surprising for a CNNBelief Blog.

    November 3, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
  8. Reality

    One more time:

    Hmmm? "Mary Daly (October 16, 1928 – January 3, 2010[1][2]) was an American radical feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian. Daly, who described herself as a "radical le-sbian feminist",[1] taught at Boston College, a Jesuit-run insti-tution, for 33 years. Daly consented to retire from Boston College in 1999, after violating university policy by refusing to allow male students in her advanced women's studies classes. She allowed male students in her introductory class and privately tutored those who wanted to take advanced classes.[1][3][4]"

    Obviously, Mary D did not like men in any of her pursuits!

    November 3, 2010 at 3:14 pm |

    EXODUS 15:3 "The LORD is a warrior; Yahweh is his name!"

    So much for Mary Dale and feminism.

    November 3, 2010 at 10:49 am |
    • Reality

      According to 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis, the Book of Exodus is pure myth.


      November 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Gabriel: I don't understand... Are you proving that god has no gender because your quote doesn't make a distinction about god being male.

      November 3, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  10. Wisdom for life

    Sometimes when fighting for something important, we experience gains and losses in the battle. Struggles for equality for women has been a clear example. On some fronts, the battle has been so fierce that victories have been offset by significant losses. A primary loss has been respect (and honor) for the distinctiveness between men and women. It is a big loss when advancements in equality diminish our celebration of the beauty and virtue of distinction.

    For further discussion, see: Equality for women: gains and losses- http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/equality-for-women-gains-and-losses/

    November 3, 2010 at 10:12 am |
  11. CSmith

    Mary Daly needed to do more research. God isn't male (or at least not just male). One of the oldest names for the Christian and Jewish God, Jehovah Jireh (God the Provider), when you break it down into the Hebrew pictograms, literally means "God the Great Teat".

    November 3, 2010 at 9:54 am |
  12. ladiesbane

    I am a firm feminist, but I disagree strongly with a good part of what I've read from Mary Daly, and am embarrassed by what passes for scholarship in some leading feminist texts, particularly regarding the role of women in prehistoric societies. But hearing young women say "ooh, icky, I'm no feminist, I just believe in, you know, equal pay for equal work and all that" makes me want to beat them with my copy of the Equal Rights Amendment.

    November 3, 2010 at 9:26 am |
    • Sara

      By saying that you sound like a very angry and bitter kind of feminist. You have your right to believe whatever you want to...and so do the rest.

      November 3, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  13. me

    As part of the honors program I was in during college, we had to take a seminar led by an exceptional woman, a self professed feminist. Upon reading her choices for the class, I became to think of feminism in two lights. First, I'm thankful. Of course women should be able to vote, work, live in any way they wish and should not be held back simply because they have a uterous. On the other hand, it made me angry that, since I intended to use said uterous, I was treated like a traitor to the team. I admired this woman and was sure I could follow in her steps, but there was one problem. I WANTED to be head of the carpool, cut the crusts off the bread, put bows in hair and live happily ever after. Eight years and two kids into marriage later, I'm the highest paid professional at work and a stay at home mom. And believe me, my job is the easy part of my life.

    November 3, 2010 at 9:06 am |
    • Sara

      I attended college and grad school. I am fluent in three languages, and I am a stay at home mom. I am proud of it. I believe women have the capacity of becoming what they want to. I have the brains and preparation to be a CEO, however, I chose to become a wife and mom because I believe it is the noblest cause, and it makes me happy. I've been married 11 years and have two children.

      Some people have told me I studied for nothing. It amuses me. I don't even answer when they ask why I attended college and worked so hard to later become a housewife.

      About feminism, I mean, the movement, I can understand the motives, I can sympathize with the cause. But I also think it was a little extreme. I don't hate men, I don't want to step on them. I believe in achievement, education, growth and equal opportunities. I believe in respect for all. I believe the right to choose the path you want to follow.

      That is what I will teach my daughters.

      November 3, 2010 at 9:30 am |
    • Frogist

      LOL@Sara: "I don't hate men, I don't want to step on them. I believe in achievement, education, growth and equal opportunities. I believe in respect for all. I believe the right to choose the path you want to follow. "
      Look out now! You are a feminist!

      November 3, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  14. Jen

    Personally, I think it is the way that feminists have mostly succeeded in their efforts that make the feminist thought less intense now. Of course, there are still areas where we are not treated as equally as we might be- but I think that those things aren't as obvious or as intense as they once were, so people tend to just take the same tack as I do- we've got it pretty darned good, and the rest will come. I believe that women are the equal of any man in almost every situation today- at least as equal as our physical and personality differences will allow- why would I EVER want to be a whining feminist who believes that she is so badly abused that she can't function? That is how the feminists have ALWAYS sounded to me, even though I know most are not that way. And as for feminist theology- I find it absolutely RIDICULOUS to blame someone ELSE- the Church or who ever else it may be- for your OWN feelings of inadequacy or "otherness". I actually get highly offended when we sing old hymns or even new ones at Mass where there is an obvious intent to change God into something besides our Father. Just my own two cents.

    November 3, 2010 at 8:49 am |
  15. BellaTerra66

    Thank you for this article, Mr. Prothero. I remember when Mary Daly's books were published. She and other ground-floor feminist theologians and historians (like Schussler-Fiorenza) helped me to disentangle myself from organized, patriarchal religion (I born and raised Roman Catholic). None of their writings were absolutely 100% correct - I understand that - but no one's writings are. Regardless, I was and always will be most grateful to them. My life without organized religion has bene so much better and richer.

    November 3, 2010 at 7:46 am |
  16. yeahright79

    This is just me venting about a pet peive of mine. People love to trot out the "Fact" that women earn less than men, which is true. But then again women usually persue careers that don't pay as well because they aren't really in demand or they choose to place thier careers on pause to tend to family matters or they don't persue raises and promotions as agressively as men tend to, all of these factors lead into the pay gap.

    If you adjust for all these factors the Pay "Gap" is less than 1% and time alone will probably correct that.

    November 3, 2010 at 7:25 am |
  17. Rita

    Mary Daly hated men....but she behaved and dressed like one. She was simply resentful and angry because she was not born a man.

    November 3, 2010 at 6:56 am |
    • Muneef

      Strange isn't it that we find females that are as strong and big and tough as males and act like males, and we see males that are as delicate and small and soft as females and act like females??
      isn't that some thing to do with Hormones? Well guess then Hormones are the best judge for gender but equality of normal male and female does not look romantic nor balanced since for married couple would mean looking like two chief leaders for one mission rather than one chief leader leading all tribe,family...? Not sure but this how I view it from my angle and society ..

      November 3, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  18. Dr Bip

    I teach feminist theory and every single semester the students are stunned to find out what feminism actually is. No one who ever knocks it in my presence has ever actually read any feminists. And if the women in this man's class aren't feeling turned on by Mary Daly, why don't we consider how he presented her ideas? Given that he's a patriarchal Christian, I think we can wager a pretty informed guess......

    November 3, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  19. GodIsForImbeciles

    I am STUNNED that CNN keeps printing this moron's essays. He is a celestial non-participant in intelligent discussion.

    November 3, 2010 at 1:00 am |
  20. Ohh

    Letting feminist c unts know the truth: Manhood101 . com

    November 3, 2010 at 12:40 am |
    • HotAirAce

      You have set a new low for truly disgustung comments. I am embarrassed as a male and apologize to all women, including those that I passionately exchange views with about religion.

      November 3, 2010 at 12:47 am |
    • Marvin

      You sir fail at making an argument.

      November 3, 2010 at 12:54 am |
    • kh

      It's because of little men like you that there is feminism.

      November 3, 2010 at 9:22 am |
    • Frogist

      @Ohhh: Thanks for making the point that feminism is still needed and relevant in our time.

      @Hot Air Ace: Thanks for that. But you shouldn't have to apologize for obvious trolls.

      November 3, 2010 at 10:28 am |
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