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Citation for Feminism

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"Feminism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies. Ed. Claudia Setzer, Surekha Nelavala. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Jan 18, 2022. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t453/e11>.


"Feminism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies. , edited by Claudia Setzer, Surekha Nelavala. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t453/e11 (accessed Jan 18, 2022).



First-Wave Feminism

First-wave feminists used a variety of arguments to make their case for greater rights for women. Reflecting the many intellectual and social changes of their century, they argued from natural law, human rights, the idea of social progress, and God’s plan of creation. The Bible itself evoked a mixed response. Some feminists indicted it as a major tool in the centuries-long subordination of women, while others argued that its true message preached women’s equality. Some others thought the biblical text, like religion itself, was irrelevant to the struggle for women’s suffrage and the reform of society.

First-wave feminism in the United States is typically defined as the period from the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to the establishment of women’s voting rights in 1920. Women’s rights, however, arose within a broad international network of relationships that accelerated in the nineteenth century, aided by increased travel, wider distribution of books and magazines, the establishment of telegraph links, reform movements like abolitionism that spanned the Atlantic, and Catholic and Protestant missionary and revival movements. Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) conceived of the Seneca Falls convention while in London at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. A Finnish feminist spoke at an international women’s meeting in Washington in 1888 of the “golden cables of sympathy” that united women in the Atlantic community (McFadden, p. 2).

The Enlightenment thinkers of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed ideas of the rights of the individual and the supremacy of reason over revelation, setting the stage for thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill to extend its reasoning to women’s rights. They also provided the support for science and empirical method as an alternative to revealed religion in the search for truth. Virtually all first-wave feminists appeal to natural law and empirical evidence to counter religious arguments against equality.

Darwin’s work On the Origin of Species (1859) received widespread attention and acceptance. His theory of natural selection undermined literalist readings of Genesis, encouraging more varied understandings of the text. Applying scientific method to the study of the Bible itself gave rise to newer methods of analysis, or criticism, starting in the late eighteenth century but blossoming in the nineteenth. “Lower criticism” considered many manuscript variants and tried to establish the best versions of the text, while “higher criticism” considered the historical milieu of the Bible’s composition, its differing authors, and the deliberate editing of the texts. These methods coming out of Europe, especially Germany, assumed the strong influence of human beings on the composition of the Bible, thus undermining the notion of its divine authorship or absolute textual unity. These ideas were discussed in the popular press, so were accessible to feminist interpreters.

Social Change.

Activists in England began to press for reform of laws unfair to women. The Caroline Norton case in 1836 eventually led to reform of divorce laws, custody laws, and women’s right to inherit property. Josephine Butler campaigned successfully against the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s, which targeted women for forced gynecological examinations and possible imprisonment. The English Woman’s Journal was founded in the mid-nineteenth century to deal with women’s issues in the workforce, including harassment and unequal pay.

Industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century changed the lives of middle-class women. De Groot and Taylor argue that the new reality of husbands supporting the family by working outside the home for long periods helped the Victorian idea of the “two spheres” of home versus public life take shape. The “cult of true womanhood” implied that women were too virtuous and dignified to act outside the home, and should shun the rough-and-tumble of commerce, industry, and politics. Yet the authors maintain that the two-spheres idea laid the groundwork for feminism by isolating women by gender and handing over to women the responsibility for educating the children and training them in morals (de Groot and Taylor, 2007, pp. 3–7). Women had to learn as much as possible about scripture and related matters. Moreover, movements to reform society, especially temperance, required women to gather in solidarity, extending the idea of home. The slogan of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was “Home Protection.” Female seminaries were founded, including Troy Female Seminary by Emma Willard in 1821 and Hartford Female Seminary by Catherine Beecher in 1823, with the goal of educating women in the same areas as men, including theology and languages.

Suffrage was one of multiple reform movements in the nineteenth century, including abolitionism and temperance, and many of the same people were active in more than one cause. Slavery in particular had forced a confrontation with the Bible and a veering away from literalism. A plain reading of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, especially letters attributed to Paul, would seem to give divine sanction to slavery. Abolitionists could not afford to be literalists, and derived more subtle and complex interpretations of difficult passages to argue against slavery. Some women’s rights advocates engaged in a similar process to promote the Bible as an instrument of women’s equality.

The Second Great Awakening, a revival movement in American Protestantism in the early 1800s, promoted individual experience of the Spirit as authentic for females and males alike, and also provided women opportunities to join communal gatherings and act as public leaders. Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874), one of the founders of the Holiness movement within the Methodist church, preached publicly, wrote and published, and founded a mission in the Five Points district of New York City. Methodist women like Helenor Alter Davisson were circuit riders, traveling preachers who held camp meetings and preached throughout the Midwest. Jarena Lee and other women in the African Methodist Episcopal Church commonly preached and held meetings. The main Methodist hierarchy later clamped down on women’s preaching, but as Willard and others point out, it was much too late to entertain Paul’s prohibitions against women speaking in church or teaching. Women were already doing both.

On a different part of the religious spectrum, the growth in the Northeast of Unitarianism and its offshoot, Transcendentalism, also stressed the value of the individual, and the latter the importance of personal intuition. Cady Stanton was friendly with the Boston Unitarians and Transcendentalists, and says that she was particularly imbued with the ideas of Boston abolitionist and minister Theodore Parker (1810–1860). Like the evangelicals, these groups stressed individual religious experience, thus legitimating women as spiritual beings.

The Bible as Egalitarian.

The first extended analysis of the Bible from a perspective of women’s rights in America came from the hand of Sarah Grimké (1792–1873), a convert to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) from Charlestown, South Carolina. Growing up on a plantation, from childhood Grimké chafed against the slaveholding of her own family and the limitations on women’s education and possibilities. She joined her sister Angelina and brother-in-law Theodore Dwight Weld in battling slavery, touring the country and shocking some hearers by speaking to “promiscuous assemblies,” mixed audiences of men and women. Sarah Grimké wrote her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837) to Mary Parker, the president of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and it was first published as a series in abolitionist newspapers. This same year also saw her brother-in-law’s publication of The Bible Against Slavery. Since Grimké and the Welds shared a household, one can imagine the rich discussions of the Bible and the development of similar methods of interpretation around slavery and women’s rights.

Grimké’s overarching position was that the Bible reflects God’s design of absolute equality and complementarity of the sexes, but that the text had been infected with patriarchy by faulty translation and the imprint of culture. A combination of the creation stories in Genesis 1–2 and Galatians 3:28 show the Creator’s design for men and women to share as equals in improving the world. Throughout her letters and other essays she cites Genesis 1:26–27, the locus classicus asserting human dignity, where male and female are created at the same time, both in the image of God. Even Genesis 2, the creation of the woman from Adam’s rib, indicates equality. The following passage is typical of her combination of the creation stories in Genesis and Paul’s programmatic statement in Galatians to assert her conviction of the Bible’s essential egalitarianism:

"Surely no one who contemplates, with the eye of a philosopher, the design of God in the creation of woman, can believe that she is now fulfilling that design. The literal translation of the word “help-meet” [KJV] is a helper like unto himself;…It will be impossible for woman to fill the station assigned to her by God, until her brethren mingle with her as an equal, as a moral being; and lose, in the dignity of her immortal nature, and in fact of her bearing like himself the image and superscription of her God, the idea of her being female. The apostle beautifully remarks, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”" (Grimké, 1838, pp. 23–24)

Women’s equality comes directly from God, not human invention, and inequality is both unscriptural and blasphemous (Grimké, 1988, pp. 125, 160–161). Jesus, in spite of his failure to address the issue of women’s subordination at all, presents an ethic in the Sermon on the Mount that applies to women and men alike (Grimké, 1838, p. 16). Along with many later feminist interpreters, she cites antiwomen statements from Paul as the source of women’s troubles in Christianity, and attributes them to his Jewishness.

To undermine statements that suggested women’s subordination, Grimké employed what today’s scholars would call “cultural criticism.” Deliberately or not, she says, translators of the Bible have injected a false idea of women’s inferiority into a purely egalitarian text because they lived in a culture that saw women as slaves or empty-headed dolls (Grimké, 1838, pp. 12, 102). The original biblical text is inspired, but the translations, especially the King James, are corrupt. For example, the so-called curse on Eve in Genesis 3:16, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” is not a command from God, but a regretful prediction of one of the ills that will afflict society (ibid., p. 7). Grimké also looks to individual women as models, the prophets Miriam and Deborah in the Hebrew Bible and the preachers and deacons Phoebe, Priscilla, and Philip’s daughters in the Pauline corpus.

Lucretia Mott delivered her Discourse on Woman in 1849 and continued to argue for women’s rights using the Bible as only one of her sources. As a Quaker, she did not see the Bible as the sole source of truth but subject to “the inner light” possessed by each individual. Many of her arguments echo Grimké’s—the fundamental equality and complementarity of men and women, the holding up of biblical women as models of authority and identifying the misuse of the Bible to limit women’s possibilities under the influence of contemporary culture. Both the laws of Moses and Jesus’s teaching apply to men and women alike. It is theological and church authorities who have twisted it to their own purposes. In a speech at a women’s rights conference in Cleveland in 1853, she is blunt, saying, “The pulpit has been prostituted, the Bible has been ill-used…. The practice has been, to turn over its pages to find example and authority for the wrong, for the existing abuses of society…. We have been so long pinning our faith on other peoples’ sleeves that we ought to begin examining these things daily, ourselves, to see whether they are so; and we should find on comparing text with text, that a very different construction might be put upon them”(quoted in Greene, 1981, p. 151).

The most complex and witty defense of women’s rights using the Bible came from Frances Willard (1839–1898), a reformer on multiple fronts, who is best known as the longtime president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Raised a devout Methodist, her childhood home in Oberlin, Ohio, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As president of the WCTU, Willard promoted a “do-everything” policy to reform society that included prison reform, free kindergarten, labor reform, and women’s rights.

In Woman in the Pulpit (1888), her extended argument for ordination of women as ministers in her own tradition, Willard shares many convictions with Grimké and Mott, but goes beyond them in her methods. She explicitly rejects literalism, analyzes material in ways that mirror the historical-critical methods developing at the time, and is not afraid to needle preachers and laypeople who misappropriate the Bible. She loved the Bible but rejected literalism early in life, calling it a straitjacket and a dangerous tool. If men wish to keep women in subjection by citing Eve’s punishment for the sin in the garden, she suggests, then they had better be equally certain to fulfill Adam’s curse, to daily “eat his bread in the sweat of his face.” Such wooden literalism, she says, is “a two-edged sword, and cuts both ways” (Willard, 1987, p. 33).

Not only does Willard identify the influence of her own culture on translations in her time, she suggests that tampering with manuscripts may have distorted the text from the very beginning. In this she echoes “lower criticism,” which recognizes deliberate or unconscious alteration of different manuscripts. She notes how a Christian missionary of her own time deliberately removed a reference to women fellow preachers of Paul to avoid offending the sensibilities of his Chinese hearers. “Who can tell what weight a similar motive may have had with transcribers of the New Testament in the uncultivated ages of the early church?” (Willard, 1987, p. 32).

Willard also was aware of forms of “higher criticism,” as it was called, the attempt to reconstruct the history of the text (Willard, 1995, pp. 388–389). She lines up contradictory biblical statements about women to show that more than one voice exists within the text. Paul’s statements adjuring women’s silence in the churches are defeated by the many numerous verses that show women praying and prophesying in Judges, Joel, and Luke (Willard, 1987, pp. 27–28). Identifying different strains of thought undermines any idea of the Bible as a unified, direct revelation, which was the objection of some traditionalists against the Documentary Hypothesis, the identification of sources within the Pentateuch. While Willard is loosely doing the same thing, she is not overly reverential toward “scientific criticism,” as she calls it, saying it is “the most misleading of all arts,” which she expects to improve as humanity develops (p. 230). References to new European methods of historical criticism were common in the popular press, and its value was debated in The Independent, a publication she read and wrote for. While she imitated some of its ideas, they did not interfere with her appreciation of the Bible. The biblical text was for Willard not immutable, but part of a larger plan of “progressive revelation,” the gradual evolution of humanity to higher forms of spiritual attainment. Men and women interpret best in a “stereoscopic,” complementary way, with women expected to inject “a pinch of common sense” (Willard, 1987, p. 26). Complementarity of the sexes is the ideal situation from which humanity can go forth to reform the world. God, Jesus, and human beings are both male and female, she believes. She speaks of the motherhood of God (p. 76), and says, “Christ is as much the typical woman as the typical man of the race” (p. 90).

African American women faced double discrimination because of their gender and race, including from the suffrage movement itself. The Bible was a crucial voice of truth for them in asserting the essential dignity of all humanity. Sojourner Truth employed two biblical examples in her famous 1851 “Ain’t I A Woman” address for women’s equality, suggesting that if Eve’s sin upset the world, she should have a chance to set it right again, and that Jesus came into the world through God and a woman, without any man’s help. Virginia Broughton (1858–1934) was a Baptist writer and missionary who gathered biblical material supporting women’s authority to preach in her work with Bible Bands, groups of women who studied the Bible daily. Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964), a historian with a doctorate from the University of Paris-Sorbonne, also learned biblical languages when a student at Oberlin College. Her A Voice from the South (1892) argues for the education and increased rights of black women. She does not engage in close exegesis, but harmonizes biblical ideas with women’s equality. The Bible and Christianity for her represent allies in women’s search for justice. We do not see African-American women critiquing the Bible on cultural or other grounds, but understanding it as a fundamentally liberationist text.

The Bible as a Source of Women’s Subordination.

Other women’s rights leaders saw the Bible as deeply implicated in women’s subordination. Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898) was one of the commentators in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s commentary The Woman’s Bible and also one of the editors of the first three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage. In Woman, Church, and State (Gage, 1893), Gage indicts the Bible as the source of patriarchy and denial of women’s rights because it promotes polygamy, the idea of wives and daughters as property, and the idea of a male supreme God who desires war, discord, and child sacrifice (p. 43). The cardinal teaching of the fall of Adam through marriage to Eve resulted in “the union of the state with the church in the enforcement of man’s ‘curse’ upon women” (p. 463). She contrasts biblically based society with other cultures, like those of ancient Egypt, the Iroquois, and the Hindus, cultures where, she maintains, women enjoyed more power and status. While in her view the Bible cannot really be saved as a moral document, she does show it is sometimes misread, and sees God as separate from the biblical text, as a “spirit or vivifying intelligence,” able to be rendered male, female, or neutral. The feminine element shows itself in the gender of the Greek words for “spirit” (pneuma) and “wisdom” (sophia) and the Hebrew word for “understanding” (bina), one of God’s attributes in the kabbalists’ schema (pp. 43–46).

Gage ferrets out examples of powerful women of the Bible whose influence has not been properly credited by the text itself or Christian tradition: Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, aided his ascent to power (Gage, 1893, pp. 61–63); the Queen of Sheba was a matriarch of her people (pp. 66–70); and the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation possesses spiritual and occult powers misappropriated by the church (pp. 176, 181).

In her entries in The Woman’s Bible Gage sharpens her diatribe against the Bible, its core ideas, and its use by church, state, and society:

"From “Thou shalt not make a graven image, or any likeness of anything in heaven above, the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth,” down to “A woman shall not speak in church, but shall ask her husband at home,” the tendency of the Bible has been to crush out aspiration, to deaden human faculties, and to humiliate mankind. From Adam’s plaint, ‘The woman gave me and I did eat,’ down to Christ’s ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ the tendency of the Bible has been degradation of the divinest half of humanity—woman…. But our present quest is not what the mystic or the spiritual character of the Bible may be; we are investigating its influence upon woman under Judaism and Christianity, and pronounce it evil." (Stanton, 2002, vol. 2, pp. 208–209)

The Woman’s Bible.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the most influential and far-sighted founders of the American movement for women’s rights, gathered a committee of women to write a commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Raised a Presbyterian in upstate New York in an abolitionist family, Cady Stanton became acquainted with virtually every major figure in both the abolitionist and suffragist movements. She was close to the New England Unitarians and Transcendentalists, enjoying the friendship of Theodore Parker, William Ellery Channing, and Ralph Waldo Emerson during her years in Boston.

Her committee included some Europeans, but most entries were written by American women of Protestant background, but minus any biblical scholars or evangelicals. The commentary picked out sections of the Bible where women appear or are glaringly absent, and made brief comments. The comments are far from uniform, and many reflect nineteenth-century attitudes: the identification of God with Nature, the uncoupling of “pure religion” from its institutional manifestations, Orientalism, anti-Judaism, interest in mysticism and the occult, knowledge of emerging methods of historical criticism, belief in science and progress, and progressive revelation. The work is not easily classified. While it harbors much critique, it also appreciates the unique emotional place of the Bible for individuals and the culture. To some colleagues who wanted to dismiss the Bible altogether as a worn-out relic of a barbarous past, Cady Stanton replied, “The sentimental feelings we all have for those things we were educated to believe sacred, do not readily yield to pure reason.” For women who still held the Bible to be divinely inspired, Cady Stanton encouraged them to submit their exegesis, but also to accept the new methods of biblical criticism (Stanton, 2002, vol. 1, pp. 11–12).

Like the Transcendentalists, Cady Stanton identified God with Nature, and viewed an abstract, permanent force, “the Spirit of All Good,” as a purer notion than an anthropomorphic God. The historically limited and contingent narratives of the Hebrew Bible she considered more primitive and suspect. The story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:1–21 evokes disdain: “Does anyone seriously believe that the great spirit of all good talked with these Jews, and really said the extraordinary things they report? It was, however, a very cunning way for the Patriarchs to enforce their own authority, to do whatever they desired, and say the Lord commanded them to do and say thus and so” (Stanton, 2002, vol. 1, p. 40). The “God of the Jews,” that is, of the Hebrew Bible, the commentary characterizes as “the Jewish Lord, guiding and directing that people in all their devious ways, and sanctioning their petty immoralities,” quite unlike “our ideal of the great first cause, a God of justice, wisdom and truth” (vol. 1, p. 47).

Predictably, the Hebrew Bible comes under attack from the commentators for its treatment of women, for cruelty, and for deficient morality. Often “the Jews,” as the first section of the commentary calls the biblical writers, are the source of it. The Noah story shows the “low ideal the Jews had of the great first cause” (Stanton, 2002, vol. 1, p. 35), while the courtship of Isaac and Rebekah, despite its sweetness, shows the Jewish Lord “guiding the people in all their devious ways, and sanctioning their petty immoralities” (vol. 1, p. 47). Sarah’s cruelty to Hagar is partially excused as reflecting the moral standards of the time (vol. 1, p. 141). Exodus 1:5, counting Jacob’s descendants as seventy souls, raises speculation that the Bible may not have counted women as souls (vol. 1, p. 69).

Some contributors are more generous. Clara Bewick Colby argues that some revelations remain true, but the text has been misused to shore up preexisting prejudices, and that the translators were not divinely inspired. The call for a wife “to obey” her husband is better understood as “to defer to.” She echoes Sarah Grimké when she maintains that the curse against Eve was not meant as a command from God, but as a sorry prediction (Stanton, 2002, vol. 1, p. 37).

The Woman’s Bible does not fall into the trap of assigning all negative morality and antiwoman prejudices to the “Jewish” past in the Hebrew Bible or to Judaism of their own time. Colby sees the narrative of Isaac and Rebekah’s meeting as evidence of Rebekah’s “personal freedom and dignity,” showing that Jewish women enjoyed better treatment than those of neighboring peoples (Stanton, 2002, vol. 1, pp. 48–49). Christians have missed the significance of Deborah from Judges 4 and 5, Clara B. Neyman asserts: “How could Christianity teach that women should be silent in the church when already among the Jews equal honor was shown to women?” (vol. 2, p. 21). Cady Stanton resists the idea that the New Testament was an improvement over the Old when it comes to women. “While there are grand types of women presented under both religions [Judaism and Christianity], there is no difference in the general estimate of the sex. In fact, her inferior position is more clearly and emphatically set forth by the Apostles than by the Prophets and the Patriarchs” (vol. 2, p. 113).

The commentary notes some women exemplars in the biblical text, but misses others. It makes nothing of Hagar and little of baby Moses’s rescuers, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam is cited briefly, while much is made of the prophet and judge Deborah (Stanton, 2002, vol. 2, pp. 85–92). Ruth, Huldah, and Esther are lauded, and Vashti, the queen who refuses to come at her husband’s call in the book of Esther, comes in for special admiration. Showing courage and self-respect, “she is true to the Divine aspirations of her nature” (vol. 2, p. 88).

The New Testament receives much less attention than the Old. The commentary praises the Canaanite woman who convinces Jesus to heal her daughter (Matt 15:1–28), Elizabeth and Anna from Luke’s gospel, and Jesus’s mother. Jesus’s mother has not been fully appreciated, says Cady Stanton, and “the best thing about the Catholic Church is the deification of Mary” (Stanton, 2002, vol. 2, pp. 143–144). Mary’s example evokes a meditation on motherhood itself from Cady Stanton. The notion of the church as a womanly institution, “Mother Church,” brings Lucinda Chandler to declare that without a recognition of the feminine element in God and complete equality of men and women in the church, the church cannot be thoroughly Christian (vol. 2, 173). Matilda Joslyn Gage composed comments on Revelation, arguing for its mystical and astrological interpretation, pointing to the great cosmic battle for women’s elevation. Cady Stanton is considerably less taken with the work, because of its violence and negative depiction of woman (vol. 2, pp. 176–184).

Some women leaders mentioned by Paul in Romans, such as Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia, are identified in the commentary. Oddly enough, no one picks out the women followers of Jesus, evident especially in Mark’s gospel. Even Mary of Bethany’s stance as a disciple who sits at Jesus’s feet (Luke 10:38–42) is ignored. No one notes the significance of Mary Magdalene as the first to find the empty tomb and report the event that signaled the resurrection, nor of her honor as the first to meet the risen Jesus in John’s gospel.

Jesus and Paul.

The teachings of Jesus and Paul present special problems for anyone looking for the biblical sources of women’s rights. Jesus never said anything explicit about women, and Paul said rather too much. The nineteenth century saw the first quest to uncover the historical Jesus by D. F. Strauss and Albert Schweitzer. Feminist interpreters shared with these questers the assumption that the “real” Jesus could be discovered through critical methods, a Jesus distinct from his Jewish environment, the writings of the gospel authors, and institutional Christianity. This pure and abstract Jesus is always visualized as a champion of women’s equality, and a paradigmatic male and female.

The interpreters rely on arguments from silence, ignoring occasional statements he seems to make to men alone, and noting Jesus’s example in his relationships with women. Grimké, for example, maintains that the kernel of Jesus’s teaching, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5—7 is addressed to men and women together. Willard calls Jesus an “emancipator” and “deliverer” of women (Willard, 1987, pp. 23, 51), who treated women as disciples. In the second chapter of Woman in the Pulpit she cites the commissioning of the Samaritan woman to preach (John 4) and Mary Magdalene to declare the resurrection, Martha’s declaration of Jesus’s messiahship (John 11:27), and women’s reception of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:13–14) as proof that the women around Jesus were disciples, even if they were not “called” like the men. The Woman’s Bible deals less with Jesus than with the characters of the Hebrew Bible. Nor does it always assume that Christianity was an automatic boon for women. Nevertheless, Jesus enjoys immunity from any charge of patriarchy or antiwoman prejudice (Stanton, 2002, vol. 2, pp. 114, 164–165).

Paul is forced by some interpreters to shoulder the blame for much of the teaching of subordination of women that underlies much Christian teaching. For Grimké and some commentators in The Woman’s Bible, the prejudice is attributed to Paul’s Jewishness. Grimké cites the commentary by Adam Clarke that explains the command for women to keep silent in the churches (1 Cor 14:34) as “a Jewish ordinance. Women were not permitted to teach in the assemblies or even to ask questions” (Grimké, 1838, pp. 111–112). According to her, the enthusiasm the women showed in the church was also the fault of Judaism. Repressed under Judaism, when they were set free by Christianity, they temporarily got carried away (p. 111). The same reasoning applies to 1 Timothy 2:11–12 and the command that women may not teach or have authority over men (p. 114).

The Woman’s Bible is not uniform in its treatment of Paul, and we have seen that Cady Stanton herself does not usually favor Christianity over Judaism, but a few cases of anti-Judaism appear. Lucinda Chandler says Paul’s commands for women’s silence were not inspired but holdovers: “He carried the spirit of the Talmud, ‘aggravated and reinforced’ into Christianity.” Jesus himself made no claims for dominion of any sex over the other (Stanton, 2002, vol. 2, p. 165). Louisa Southworth similarly suggests these rules are anachronisms based on some “absurd old myth” that Paul probably heard from his teacher Gamaliel (vol. 2, pp. 158–159). Willard, although she shares the distrust of translations and accepts the imprint of cultural biases on biblical interpretation, seems free of anti-Jewish prejudice. She ultimately sees the text as liberating, and so perhaps is less inclined to assign blame.

The Bible as Irrelevant.

For many women the Bible itself was not a particular focus, except to the extent that it bolstered the power of churches and clergy to hold women back. Lucy Stone (1818–1893), who with Cady Stanton and Anthony was a driving force in women’s suffrage and feminism, responded to a heckler at a women’s rights convention in Cincinnati in 1917 who called the movement a group of “disappointed women.” Turning the jibe around, she said, “In education, in marriage, in religion, disappointment is the lot of women. It shall be the business of my life to deepen this disappointment in every woman’s heart until she bows down to it no longer.” Arguing against the idea of two separate spheres, she said God equipped women for greater things: “I have confidence in the Father to believe that when He gives us the capacity to do anything He does not make a blunder” (Stanton et al., 1881–1922, vol. 1, pp. 165–167).

Ernestine Rose also considered biblical and religious teaching to be beside the point. A Polish Jew and daughter of a rabbi, she became an atheist, but defended Judaism and battled anti-Semitism in a set of published exchanges with newspaper editor Horace Seaver. Nevertheless, when the Reverend Antoinette Brown, the first woman ordained as a minister in the United States, offered a resolution at a women’s rights convention in Syracuse in 1852, stating that the Bible recognizes the equality and rights of women, Rose successfully blocked it. She said,

"I cannot object to anyone interpreting the Bible as he or she thinks best; but I do object that such interpretation go forth as the doctrine of this convention, because it is a mere interpretation and not even the authority of the Book; it is the view of Miss Brown only, which is as good as that of any other minister, but that is all. For my part I reject both interpretations. Here we claim human rights and freedom based upon the laws of humanity and we require no written authority from Moses or Paul, because those laws and our claim are prior even to these two great men." (Harper, 1899, p. 65)




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  • Setzer, Claudia. “Slavery, Women’s Rights, and the Beginnings of Feminist Biblical Interpretation in the Nineteenth Century.” Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds 5.2 (2009): 145–169.
  • Setzer, Claudia. “A Jewish Reading of The Woman’s Bible.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 27.2 (2011): 71–84.
  • Setzer, Claudia. “Frances Willard, the Undermining of Literalism, and the Reform of Society.” In Finding Themselves: Women and the Bible in the 19th Century, edited by Angela Berlis and Christiana de Groot. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, forthcoming.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815–1897. New York: Schocken, 1971. First edition available online at digital.library.upenn.edu/women/stanton/years/years.html.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Woman’s Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2002. First edition available online at www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=2267536.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage. 6 vols. Rochester, N.Y.: Susan B. Anthony and Charles Mann Press, 1881–1922.
  • Willard, Frances E. “Woman in the Pulpit.” In The Defense of Women’s Rights to Ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church, edited by Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford. New York: Garland, 1987.
  • Willard, Frances E. Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855–96. Edited by Carolyn De Swarte Gifford. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1995.

Claudia Setzer

Second-Wave Feminism

Unlike first-wave feminism of the nineteenth-century United States, second-wave feminism emerged as an entirely secular movement, in which religious groups, activists, and scholars of theology and religion played only a marginal role. This is also true for feminist Bible scholars who have not significantly participated in setting the agenda for the feminist movement as it developed during the late 1960s and early 1970s in Western societies (Scholz and Matthews, 2013; Scholz, 2007, 2014). In fact, some pioneering feminist thinkers, such as Mary Daly, characterized the Bible as the antithesis of feminist principles owing to its androcentric and sexist nature. In a much translated and widely distributed essay, Daly observes that “in the documents of scripture, church fathers, popes, and theologians throughout the centuries we find an astonishing contrast between, on the one hand, the teachings concerning the value and dignity of the human person and, on the other hand, an all-pervasive misogynism and downgrading of women as persons” (Daly, 1970, p. 138).

Since 1970, therefore, the feminist value of the Bible has been questioned again and again. Some, such as Alison Jasper, advise “to give the whole thing up as a bad job, a dead horse which it is pointless to flog any further” (Jasper, 2001, p. 110). Others, such as Shulamith Firestone, who grew up in a highly religious family, came to feminism to escape their experiences of severe patriarchal domination and wanted to have little to do with religion. They maintained that feminists should not waste their energies on religious institutions and practices, powerful sources for the subordination and oppression of women. In their view, religions would only change once women enjoyed equal educational, professional, and political opportunities and positions with men. Since a major goal of second-wave feminism was freedom from traditions, conventions, and laws oppressive to women for millennia, secular feminists gave feminist theologians and Bible scholars curious glances at best, as they saw little merit in a systematic engagement with religious sources and traditions. To them, religions were in opposition to the liberation of women from patriarchy.

Endorsing Women, Faith, Queer Sexualities, or Economic Neoliberalism?

Feminist suspicion toward religion has not deterred those feminists who hold on to their religious faith traditions or have become academics in theological and religious studies. Interestingly, when the second-wave feminist movement came into being in North America, a considerable number of women scholars had recently earned or were in the process of earning their doctoral degrees in biblical studies. Among them have been women scholars in Hebrew Bible and New Testament, such as Alice Bach, Phyllis Bird, Athalya Brenner, Sheila Briggs, Bernadette J. Brooten, Claudia V. Camp, Adela Yarbro Collins, J. Cheryl Exum, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Esther Fuchs, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Carol Meyers, Carol A. Newsom, Letty Russell, Jane Schaberg, Luise Schottroff, and Phyllis Trible (see also Scholz, 2012b; Lopez and Penner, 2012). They turned to the emerging feminist discourse to inform their burgeoning scholarship. However, much of feminist biblical studies developed in relative isolation from feminist theories and the field of women’s studies and what later expanded into gender studies (Trible, 1982a; Hackett, 1987, Coggins, 1988; Day, 1991; Frymer-Kensky, 1994). Pamela Milne explains that the disconnect between feminist biblical studies and women’s and gender studies is related to the fact that feminist Bible scholars have felt primarily accountable to the academic discipline in which they had earned their doctoral degrees and in which they were hired to teach at institutions of higher learning (Milne, 1997, p. 44). Often, they developed their work without considering the general feminist agenda, as articulated by the feminist movement and secular feminist theorists, despite some calls to do so since the early stages of feminist biblical exegesis (Wire, 1986). To Milne, mainstream feminist discourse thus mainly ignored feminist biblical scholarship.

There is yet another reason for the disconnection. According to Milne, feminist biblical scholars have not usually articulated the relationship between their feminist and theological convictions and, in fact, often defended the Bible as a women-friendly authority for women (Trible, 1982a, 1982b; Schüssler Fiorenza, 1982; Tolbert, 1983). Sometimes, they have reinforced the androcentric status quo, advanced neoliberal feminist recuperations of the Bible, ignored or dismissed feminist theories, and reauthorized the “fathers” of the field. Esther Fuchs eloquently articulates this problem (Fuchs, 2008). In her view, a neoliberal trend has emerged in feminist biblical studies since the 1990s. It has enabled feminist Bible scholars to conceptualize their work by merely adding “women” to the existing field of biblical studies. This add-on approach advances a reformist and gradualist agenda, adheres to the notion of inevitable progress in social change and advancement, and does not question existing epistemologies and binary dualisms. Fuchs explains that this neoliberal compliance relies on an essentialist view of gender, as if fixed and unchanging traits shape women’s identities formed by women’s experiences that are self-evident and universally valid for women anywhere and at any time.

In addition, such feminist biblical work, which Fuchs identifies in such books as Ilana Pardes’s Countertraditions in the Bible (1992), Susan Ackerman’s Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel (1998), and Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s The Bible and Women’s Studies (2006), rarely refers to feminist genealogies of knowledge, rarely acknowledges its indebtedness to feminist mothers, and rarely mentions methodological or theoretical departure from feminist predecessors. Fuchs states: “Contemporary neoliberal theories seek to introduce a commonsense, natural, and straightforward reading of the Bible, where women appear as real individuals, as universal typologies, or as sources of antipatriarchal thinking. This approach is positivist and essentialist” (2008, p. 63). It ignores what Fuchs characterizes as the “foundational proposition in feminist theory”: “that ‘woman’ is a construct, much as the definitions of gender and sex are culturally determined, [and] that all three are implicated in historical processes and transformations” (2008, p. 65). In short, according to Fuchs, key feminist Bible scholars are more loyal to male-dominated conventional approaches than to feminist theories, and so they reinscribe “conventional hegemonic methodologies” (2008, p. 65), the disciplinary status quo of biblical studies.

Other scholars highlight other factors as contributing to the ambiguity, hesitation, and even rejection of feminist goals in feminist biblical exegesis. Pamela Milne observes an increasing professionalization and depoliticization of feminist Bible work since the 1970s (1997, p. 53). Feminist interpreters, trained by professional biblical scholars in seminaries and universities and aiming for recognition and acceptance in academic institutions of higher learning and in professional biblical scholarly organizations such as the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), have been coopted into supporting the status quo. For them to be offered academic positions, their work has to comply with the standards of the field. They have to get reference letters for employment, tenure, and promotion, as well as collegial support for their publications. Hence, Milne argues, feminist scholars usually rely on “traditional methods of analysis to investigate non-traditional questions (i.e., questions of relevance and interest to women and about women) from feminist perspectives” to change “the way individuals interpreted biblical texts about women” (1997, p. 53) Such work is highly technical and, as dominantly practiced in biblical studies, focuses on biblical texts as the primary resource for reconstructing ancient Israelite history and women’s roles in biblical stories and poems. Carol Meyers wrote a classic feminist-historical book on the Hebrew Bible (1988, Discovering Eve); Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza published a classic feminist-historical treatise on the Second Testament (1983, In Memory of Her); and Phyllis Trible produced a classic feminist-literary interpretation on the Hebrew Bible (1978, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality).

Yet, Milne notes, feminist biblical scholars do not usually study women readers and their attitudes to the Bible. As employment opportunities have sharply decreased since the early 1990s, a wide acceptance of the professional and depoliticized standards in academia in general and biblical studies in particular dominates (Scholz, 2012a). This is how Milne articulates the conundrum for feminist scholars:

"At a time when few teaching positions are available, and when departments of religion and religious studies are being “down-sized” or eliminated in favour of more “essential” disciplines, women—who have entered the discipline in record numbers over the last decade—find themselves shut out by economic factors that compound the problem of sexist bias that has traditionally been a systemic barrier to women in this field. Personally, I do not think the economic argument is unrelated to the problem of sexist bias. The devaluing of the field that we can now observe at many institutions may well be linked to the fact that what was once a virtually all-male discipline is now no longer so." (Milne, 1997, p. 43)

Milne thus worries about the long-term viability of feminist scholarship in biblical studies, primarily owing to the gradual disappearance of teaching positions.

Teresa J. Hornsby offers an even more disconcerting view of the status of biblical scholarship engaged with feminist, gender, and sexuality issues. She argues that the development from a women-centric focus to a more broadly conceptualized gender and queer agenda is not indicative of a subversive positioning of feminist biblical studies, as for instance suggested by Deryn Guest (2012). Rather, according to Hornsby, both women-centric and queer approaches in biblical studies need to be understood as accommodating the forces in the economic-capitalist globalized world in which we live, since “sexuality and gender are constructed in collusion with capitalistic power” (2011, p. 137). Therefore, Hornsby claims, as capitalism changes and shifts, sexual and gender norms do too. She bases her analysis on three assumptions, namely, that “power produces sexual normatives,” “the dominant form that this power takes in Western Euro cultures is neoliberal capitalism,” and “Christianity (indeed, organized religion) is an arm of power that aids in this production” (p. 137). Accordingly, calls for changes in feminist, gender, and queer biblical scholarship, as well as in other areas of culture and society, are linked to the shift from a “closed, centrally powerful, and industrial” economic system to one that is “open, globally diverse, and electronically based” (p. 137). Consequently, to Hornsby, theoretical inclusions of nonheteronormative and queer sexualities in culture, theology, and biblical interpretation are not deconstructive moves for overcoming worldwide oppression but “capitalism’s use of Christian theology to construct the types of sexual/economic subjects it needs” (pp. 141–142). And what is needed are bodies willing to submit and to enjoy masochistic positions in the societal-economic interplay of power, and, Hornsby explains, feminist, gender, and queer biblical exegesis assists in this process even if this help is provided unintentionally; such is the power of the neoliberal capitalist system over every body and thing.

Hornsby illustrates these dynamics in cultural and exegetical feminist and nonfeminist approaches to the passion narratives of Christ and to Pauline theology, arguing that “the end product is an extraordinarily submissive body—a body that connects suffering with hope and humiliation with empowerment” (Hornsby, 2011, p. 149). Since the dynamics in capitalism produce, reproduce, and sustain this kind of masochistic positioning for all people—no longer only for those performing as women as the position of the victim is increasingly masculinized, heteronormative expectations lessen and sociocultural space for queer desire increases. In other words, to Hornsby, queering the Bible does not challenge neoliberalism, because “queer sexualities are manufactured and serve power just as much as a sanctioned sexuality” (p. 153). Since capitalism needs people with “more open, fluid, ambivalent sexual identities,” willing to suffer for this elastic and promised space, calls for feminist, gender, and queer readings of the Bible (and culture) accommodate this need. In Hornsby’s assessment of feminist, gender, and queer biblical interpretation, then, resistance to neoliberalism is an illusion because the feminist agenda is always already part of economic neoliberalism.

Hornsby’s dystopian explanation takes on almost totalitarian proportions without any alternative options. Borrowing from Foucault without explicitly saying so, her discussion is a cautionary note about the difficulties of resisting the cultural, sociopolitical, economic, and religious dynamics of one’s time (see, e.g., Heller, 1996; see also Justaert, 2010). The jury is still out on whether feminist biblical scholarship can be reduced to helping those performing as women become fully integrated into a societal-economic system dependent on a large and continuous supply of willing consumers who buy and comply. Milne’s suggestion that feminist biblical scholars connect their work directly to the social, political, legal, and economic goals of the feminist movement seems harmless (Milne, 1997, p. 59). Nevertheless, her proposal to relate biblical exegesis to feminist theories and practices may be a better option than falling into resigned inaction because, according to Hornsby, resistance is futile.

On a Future of Feminist Biblical Studies.

It should thus not be a surprise that feminist Bible scholars wonder about the next step. After almost every biblical woman character has been identified, every scholarly method applied, and practically every biblical text analyzed for its gender ideology (Meyers et al., 2000), the question is what remains to be done if we do not want to merely give in to the neoliberal status quo. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why feminist biblical scholars are currently in the process of surveying and assessing the field. For instance, Athalya Brenner poses the following questions when she reflects on the future of the field:

"Quo vadis, feminist biblical scholarship?…What is beckoning? Where do you want to go? Is the Master’s House still the house you long to possess, only that you would like to become its legitimate(d) masters and mistresses instead of marginal(ized) lodgers? Would you like to move it (houses can be moved now from one location to another)?…Will an act of exchanging places within the accepted power paradigms be the object of desire? Are new structures of dominance, a shift in majority/minority balances, being implemented? Are you, we, aspiring to conquistador positions in the names of the proverbial “oppressed”? Should we not simply demolish the house instead of merely deconstructing it and its inhabitants, in order to build a completely new one instead? And if so, who will get right of occupation in the new house, and on what terms?…The contenders are many and the audiences are dwindling, as we are becoming more and more radicalized. Whose scholarship will matter, say, twenty-five years hence?" (Brenner, 2005, p. 338)

Brenner wonders about the existing power hierarchies, as feminist Bible scholars adapt to the status quo or even change it. It is a reflection on the in-house situation of feminist Bible studies at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Yet Brenner’s concerns do not address the larger intellectual and societal developments, in contrast to Milne, who considers the political and social implications of biblical exegesis for women in the past and the present. But even Milne’s analysis is text-centered, as if the identification of textual meaning and its gender ideology were already present in the text (Milne, 1997, p. 11). Others, such as Deryn Guest, recommend that feminist biblical scholarship “tool up and become even more expansively theory-rich, able to bring the critical studies of masculinities, queer studies, trans studies, intersex studies, and lesbian and gay studies into negotiation with feminist theory without necessarily privileging what have been, to date, stalwart feminist positions” (2012, p. 150). Still others observe that feminist biblical exegetes need to be committed to intersectional hermeneutics and take seriously connections between sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and geopolitics. Already in 1982, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld acknowledged “the cultural and functional inseparability of racism, sexism, and classism” (1982, p. 19). She saw these issues addressed “on the theological front” but not in biblical studies where “the literature dealing with these three ‘isms’ remains on three separate tracks” (p. 19). She recognized that “we Bible specialists have more work to do in this area” (p. 19).

Womanist theologians pressed the concern for an intersectional analysis. In 1987, Toinette M. Eugene, an ethicist and womanist scholar, called for a womanist biblical hermeneutics. She noted that owing to women of color’s “doubly and triply oppressed” status in patriarchal society, it does not suffice to identify patriarchal oppression with androcentrism alone. Sexism must be understood as part of other oppressive ideologies, such as racism, militarism, or imperialism, because “the structures of oppression are all intrinsically linked” (Eugene, 1987, p. 20; see also Williams, 1986). She advised that feminist biblical hermeneutics “articulate an alternative liberating vision and praxis for all oppressed people by utilizing the paradigm of women’s experiences of survival and salvation in the struggle against patriarchal oppression and degradation” (Eugene, 1987, p. 25). In her view, a feminist biblical hermeneutics is “the litmus test for invoking scripture as the Word of God” (p. 24), and the question is “whether or not biblical texts and traditions seek to end all relations based on oppressive domination and exploitation” (p. 24).

Eugene’s demand for the inclusion of other forms of social analysis did not, however, find full articulation in the 1980s. During this phase most feminist biblical scholars focused on gender and androcentrism alone, as Nyasha Junior observes:

"A brief survey of key works in that field [feminist biblical studies] attests to the lack of substantive impact that womanist approaches have had on the discipline of biblical studies. The volume edited by Adela Yarbro Collins, Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship (1985), does not include an article on black feminist or womanist thought. In Letty Russell’s edited volume, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (1985), Cannon, an ethicist, contributes an article on black feminist consciousness. In addition, Cannon writes “Womanist Interpretation and Preaching in the Black Church,” in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Searching the Scriptures (1993). In the seventeen volumes of the Feminist Companion to the Bible series, edited by Athalya Brenner, only one article has an explicitly womanist approach. Brenner’s overview volume, A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible (1997), does not include an article on womanist biblical interpretation. In the nine volumes of the Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings series, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, there are no articles from a womanist perspective. Moreover, to date there is no full-length monograph on womanist biblical interpretation or edited volume utilizing womanizing approaches." (Junior, 2006, p. 44)

The omission of race, class, and geopolitical dynamics as analytical categories in much of the pioneering work in feminist biblical studies is obvious, and so feminist biblical scholars from around the world have embraced intersectional, postcolonial, and dialogical hermeneutics (e.g., Dube, 2000; Kwok, 2006; Mbuwayesango and Scholz, 2009; Kim, 2010).

Yet again and again, some feminist scholars charge that second-wave feminist aims of equality and women’s rights have been coopted by the status quo. They are thus less optimistic about the future of feminism in general and feminist biblical studies in particular (Exum, 2010). In their view, feminist calls to action often become secondary, and the impetus toward sociopolitical, economic, and cultural transformation has been neglected. Loyalty to conventionally defined hermeneutical and methodological principles overshadows feminist biblical works. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, twenty-first-century feminist biblical research often engages in depoliticized and technical projects that comply with dominant standards, norms, and expectations. As Caroline Vander Stichele and Todd Penner state, the guild of biblical studies “maintains a strong line of male-identified scholarly assessment and production” (2009, p. 169), and “the difference that is tolerated does not challenge the phallocentric and colonial structures of the guild” but rather contributes to “solidify its hold” (p. 170; see also Fuchs, 2003). Feminist biblical scholarship, like other marginalized discourses by the “excluded other,” functions as a “fetish” and “is granted access to the formal structure as a beneficent gesture” (p. 169; see also Scholz, 2005). In other words, feminist biblical scholars are relatively far from restructuring the master’s house, although they often contribute to making it stronger and last longer.

“The Unfinished Business of the Twenty-First Century”: The Case of Gender and Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Feminist Biblical Studies.

There is, however, hope. Since the early years of the second-wave feminist movement, violence against women and girls has been on the top of the agenda. Susan Brownmiller’s book on rape brought the topic out of the shadows and engendered debates about origins, mechanisms, and consequences of gender and sexual violence against women and girls (Brownmiller, 1975; see also Scholz, 2000a, 2000b). In fact, feminists have developed the idea of a global “rape culture” to capture the extent of violence against women and girls. In an important anthology, Emilie Buchwald, Pamela R. Fletcher, and Martha Roth define rape culture as “a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women…a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent” (Buchwald et al., 1993, p. v). A widely distributed book by New York Times writers Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009) illustrates the extent of worldwide gender and sexual violence against women and girls, and recent revelations about sexual violence in the U.S. military (Nelson, 2002; Benedict, 2010) have reminded people that gender and sexual violence against women and girls, even when defined as a “linguistic fact” (Marcus, 1992), shapes the lives and opportunities of millions and millions of women and girls in cruel, limiting, and profoundly damaging ways.

Feminist scholars in biblical studies have taken the topic very seriously. In 1984, Phyllis Trible examined four biblical narratives on sexual violence against and murder of women and girls from a feminist perspective (Trible, 1984). Her bold and by now classic study inspired other feminist interpreters to investigate biblical prose and poetry on the topic and relate it to the Bible’s interpretation histories and the manifold rape-prone and misogynist assumptions in society and culture (Setel, 1985; Bal, 1987; Weems, 1995; Dijk-Hemmes, 1993; Brenner 1993; Exum, 1993, 1996; Selvidge, 1996; Scholz, 2000b; Hens-Piazza, 2003; Baumann, 2003; Anderson, 2004; Parry, 2004; Bader, 2006; Schroeder, 2007; Yamada, 2008; Scholz, 2010a; O’Brien and Franke, 2010; Rapoport, 2011). What remains to be done is placing this work into the sociological contexts of the hermeneutical debate (Scholz, 2010b, 2013) and comprehensively integrating feminist work into standard commentaries and introductions to the Bible (e.g., Niditch, 2008). Churches and synagogues also need to foster serious conversations and education processes about the Bible and its connections to gender and sexual violence. To read the many biblical stories of women, girls, and some men who are depicted as enduring gender and sexual violence, among them Dinah, Tamar, Abishag the Shunammite, Susannah, Hagar, Bilhah, Zilpah, Sarah, Rebecca, Ms. Gomer, Ms. Potiphar, Delilah, Lot’s daughters, the women of Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh, Joseph, Samson, and Ehud, ought to demonstrate that “in naming it [sexual violence], we reclaim the truth which we know, that the way things are is not the way they have to be” (Fortune, 2005, p. 237). Although sometimes feminist interpreters get confused about the methodological, hermeneutical, and linguistic legitimacy of analyzing biblical texts on gender and sexual violence according to this principle (e.g., Fewell and Gunn, 1991; Gravett, 2004; Lipka, 2006), explorations of the phallocentric ideology in biblical literature and its manifestation in commentaries, sermons, and culture demonstrate the ongoing need for wrestling with this tradition (O’Brien, 2001). However, the existence of so many texts on gender and sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible does not mean that only the Hebrew Bible mentions such acts. For instance, the New Testament feminist scholar Jane Schaberg identifies sexual violence in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Gospel stories (Schaberg, 1987). Rather, the mention indicates that the recognition of gender and sexual violence in biblical literature confronts a major injustice in today’s world. It demonstrates that feminist Bible scholars need to resist, dismantle, and oppose rape-prone assumptions, conventions, and conduct wherever they appear, including in the Bible. The aim is not to single out the Bible but to develop an understanding of religious texts and traditions as contributing factors to gender and sexual violence in the world today (Scholz, 2004).

Toward the Nurturing of Alliances: Concluding Comments.

Schüssler Fiorenza proposes that feminist biblical scholarship “must be informed by a hunger and thirst for justice” so that feminist interpretations resemble “a critical quilting of meaning” and articulate a “wholistic biblical vision of well-being for all” (2006). It seems obvious in the age of global corporate economic domination, especially in the United States, that the nurturing of alliances beyond the narrow confines of one’s immediate affiliation is essential to making this proposal a reality. Feminist Bible scholars will need to resist, perhaps more than ever, the lure and rewards of what postcolonial theorists call the empire. At the same time they will need to articulate and build theoretical and practical alternatives so that the next generation is able to continue the work. The establishment of institutions that foster such emancipatory alternatives in biblical studies and in the world remains foremost on the agenda of feminist biblical studies in the twenty-first century. Such institutions, broadly conceived, are much needed so that the field of feminist biblical interpretation will continue producing innovative and important scholarship that contributes to eliminating structures of domination and to nurturing religious, societal, political, and economic forces of justice and peace.




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  • Scholz, Susanne. Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34. New York: Peter Lang, 2000b.
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Susanne Scholz

Third-Wave Feminism

Feminism as a movement has broadly manifested itself in three phases that are classified as first-, second-, and third-wave feminism. First-wave feminism began in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and advocated for basic female rights and dignity. However, given that as a people’s movement feminism is inherently dynamic in nature, new needs and challenges gave rise to second-wave feminism in 1970s.

Second-wave feminism continues into the twenty-first century, concurrent with though distinct from third-wave feminism. Because third-wave feminism is essentially inclusive and intersecting, seeking not to undermine the experiences of any women, it does not dismiss second-wave feminists who spoke from their authentic experiences. Nonetheless, third-wave feminism critiques second-wave feminism for assuming that women’s experiences are universal, and it questions essentialism of any sort. Considering each experience of each woman to be unique and authentic, third-wave feminism affirms multivocalism and seeks to liberate subjects from frameworks prescribed or defined by others. Rejecting all frameworks, third-wave feminism is by its nature dynamic and always in the process of becoming. Consequently, third-wave feminism becomes absolutely situational, individualistic, and decentralized by abstaining from deontological aims and goals, unlike the second-wave feminists, who work toward a universal goal for all women.

Third-Wave Feminism: A Brief Discussion.

Rebecca Walker can be credited with launching the new movement in 1992 when she declared that she was the Third Wave (Heywood, 2006, vol. 1, p. 5), arguing that her feminist articulations were distinct and different from what was being defined as feminism. Walker’s book To Be Real gives analytical explanation of this new intergenerational movement. In it, she explains that those in the third wave do not consider male and female as a binary as do those in the second wave. While some in the third wave disassociate themselves from second-wave feminists, Leslie L. Heywood claims that third wavers do not reject second-wave feminism as such but instead correct its essentialist assumptions (Heywood, 2006, vol. 1, p. 139).

While there are numerous points of divergence between third- and second-wave feminism, a few are worth special attention.

Third-wave feminism is postmodernist in orientation, focusing on the self rather than group, context, community, religion, or society at large. If self-centered perspectives incidentally benefit a larger group, such benefits are welcomed, but the primary purpose of third-wave feminism is not social change. Third-wave feminism is individualistic, not contextual, in its essence (Strauss, 2000) and thus cannot be defined or standardized. With each personal story, feminism gets defined differently.

While third-wave feminism is individualistic, it also claims to be inclusive, accepting every experience as authentic and every discussion as important. Thus third-wave feminism rejects stereotypes and all forms of essentialism and universalization. It does not seek to qualify itself to fit into any standards or framework, and thus does not operate according to rules, expectations, norms, and standards.

Third-wave feminism affirms femininity or “girl power” loudly and clearly. Third-wave feminists celebrate femininity as powerful rather than shameful (Wolf, 2005, pp. 14–15). They critique second-wave feminists for entering the male world of masculinity and mimicking male role models in order to project power. According to third-wave feminists, second-wave feminism is counterproductive, causing females to disown femininity and thus submit to genderism with its inherent discrimination against women.

Third-wave feminism drew strong initial attention as a movement addressing and intersecting with several areas and issues, but it has not yet influenced the field of religion as much as other fields. Some of the compelling works of third-wave feminism, while addressing other justice issues, have not approached religion as a resource or even something to critique. Whether the absence of religion in third-wave feminism is incidental, intentional, or the result of indifference is unclear. Is third-wave feminism a postreligious/nonreligious movement?

Third-Wave Feminism and Its Relevance.

Younger third-wave feminists have been critical of first- and second-wave feminists for paying less attention to a feminine lifestyle, and for foregoing the fun of carrying femininity for the sake of power (Baumgardner and Richards, 2006, pp. 302–303). Affirming inclusivism as opposed to exclusivism, they see no point in a sex or gender war. They often distance themselves from the hate that is often associated with the label “feminist” in society.

In these critiques, third-wave feminists have sometimes underestimated the major struggles of first- and second-wave feminists, who had to break through patriarchal systems with an aggressive attitude when a merely assertive attitude was not enough. They took on the roles needed because of their passion for women’s justice and left comfort zones in order to enter into the masculine world, where they were not welcomed and had to fight for every achievement. Third-wave feminists have stereotyped all the second-wave feminists as angry, boring, asexual beings, without appreciating their sacrifice, namely having to let go of their femininity, and the fun associated with being dolls. The sacrifice of first- and second-wave feminists both epistemologically and practically secured the enjoyments that young women today take for granted. It is easier to be a “girly girl” and enjoy femininity than to sacrifice the comfort zone of being dressed up and wearing makeup, and sitting on a comfortable couch in a room cooled by air conditioning.

Third-Wave Feminism and the Bible.

In the West, second-wave feminism has challenged other fields with corrective epistemological theories and has itself been challenged. Similarly, its theories and articulations have been received, adopted, expanded—and challenged—by people all over the world.

Some non-Western readers have received feminism with open arms to alter and appropriate in their specific contexts (such as Asia). Others have resisted the nuances connected with the term “feminism” and introduced distinct terms for their own women’s movements, attempting to address the ways in which the complex realities of injustice define their “women’s issues” differently than second-wave feminists did. While second-wave Western feminism categorized humans into male and female and challenged male domination, other prominent biblical readers and theologians have sought to assert female subjectivity while also attempting to understand the multilayered and complex issue of women’s subjectivity.

Alternative women’s movements critique and challenge second-wave feminism for positing Western women’s experience as the standard and norm for feminist theories and thus universalizing women’s oppression as seen and experienced by Western women. Such universalizing tendencies have ignored other layers of oppression that women experience: racism, regionalism, classism, casteism, colorism, colonialism, ageism, religion, and so on. In critical response to the second-wave feminism of the West, alternative women’s movements stress the contextuality, multilayered oppression, and distinctive experiences of women. Examples of alternative women’s movements include womanist, mujerista, Asian and Asian American, and Latino. Pioneers of these different movements include Delores Williams, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Kwok Pui-lan, María Pilar Aquino, and Musa Dube. In addition, postmodern feminism, postcolonial feminism, and Indian feminism suggest the contextualization of feminism.

Some of these movements have understood the label “feminist” as exclusive for white, Western feminism, whereas others have received it as open to contextualization and qualification. Yet, despite the labels, all movements agree on justice for women. For instance, not all Hispanic women speaking for women’s justice necessarily claim to be using a mujerista perspective, nor can any mujerista stake a claim over all Hispanic women while remaining sensitive to women’s freedom and justice. Similarly, not all black and other women of color of African descent who are part of the women’s movement are essentially womanist nor claim to be womanist. For instance, Monica A. Coleman asks, “Must I be a womanist?” suggesting ambiguity around the claims, definitions, and essentialization of people and labels. While she feels at home with womanist articulations, she is not as uneasy and distant as others in responding to the word “feminism.” Womanists and feminists are personally important to Coleman, and she calls her predecessors of the movement “godmothers” (Coleman, 2006, p. 86). This is a clear example of third-wave feminist claims to appreciate ambiguity and individual preference without needing to find a home in a feminist village.

Developments in women’s movements have been both chronological and contextual. Third-wave feminism emerges both from an intergenerational paradigm shift and from the resistance, division, rejection, and mutual learning emerging from the critical dialogue between contextualized women’s movements and Western feminism.

Although first- and second-wave feminism differ in goals, aims, and means of advancement, the distinction between them becomes less clear when discerning their intersection with biblical studies. Differences between second- and third-wave feminist approaches to biblical studies are also not sharply drawn, particularly in comparison to the situation in secular feminism. While secular third-wave feminists often sharply debate secular second-wave feminists, these tensions are less evident in the field of biblical studies, where there is loyalty, sympathy, and mutual learning among the second- and third-wave feminist scholars of the Bible. Most of the feminists of the younger generations find second-wave feminism both helpful and useful, and members of the older generations are open to new perspectives and appreciate the critical conversations, especially when some of the questions once posed by second-wave feminists are no longer relevant in today’s contexts, especially in Western societies. Compared to secular feminism, second- and third-wave feminist scholars of the Bible engage more in dialogue than debate.

Therefore it is difficult to place the feminist scholars of the Bible under a single umbrella of either second or third-wave feminisms, as there is no critical border that divides them in feminist biblical hermeneutics. Even though a postmodern feminist biblical scholar defines oneself as a third-wave feminist, broadly speaking, one also seems to affirm first- and second-wave feminist theories and interpretations of the Bible as pillars for third-wave feminism and consider that third-wave feminism is an upgraded version of feminism that fits the age and cultures of the postmodern era. Similarly, third-wave feminism is not in contrast or necessarily in disagreement with first- and second-wave feminisms; it engages in a critical yet affirming dialogue that is informative and educational in both directions in biblical studies, since both second- and third-wave feminism coexist as concurrent. Most contemporary feminist works are a compilation of essays that suggests the importance of diversity and inclusiveness. Contrary to some interpretations, second-wave feminists are no longer exclusivists, nor are they blind to diversity and multiple perspectives. Second-wave feminists in the twenty-first century are open, committed to diversity, and passionate about being inclusive in their approach, and they do not necessarily engage in sex and gender wars. Thus it is hard to discern sharp differences between second- and third-wave feminism related to biblical interpretation: they overlap in extendedness and openness, while focusing on a specific context. Third- and second-wave feminism have many points of convergence and common goals rather than divergence and division.

Third-wave feminism has much to offer in dealing with the challenges inherent to third-wave feminist hermeneutics of the Bible. It offers the tools for eliminating the distinctions between central and marginal, dominant and subordinate, and upper and lower binary poles, as it that affirms every experience and every category is authentic by rejecting essentialism and thus theoretically offering liberation to all people.




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Surekha Nelavala

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