Earlier this week, feminist Gloria Steinem said that religion is the “biggest problem” facing feminism today.
Steinem made this assertion in response to a town-hall style question she was asked during an interview with Jennifer Aniston at the MAKERS Conference. The MAKERS Conference was born of the PBS documentary, “MAKERS: Women Who Make America,” and was held to develop an “action plan to define the agenda for women in the 21st century.”
Steinem was asked, “What do you think the biggest problem with feminism today is?” to which she replied, “What we don’t talk about enough is religion. I think that spirituality is one thing. But religion is just politics in the sky. I think we really have to talk about it. Because it gains power from silence.”
Steinem frequently speaks of the effects of religion on the feminist cause. In a 2001 CNN interview, Steinem said, “religion is often politics made sacred. If God is a man, then man is God. We need to return and go forward to the understanding that there is God in all living things, not more in men than women ... To believe otherwise is only an excuse for dominating women and nature.”
That religion is the largest suppressor of women is not a new thought by any means. In 1949, French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir wrote:
“Man enjoys the great advantage of having a god endorse the code he writes; and since man exercises a sovereign authority over women it is especially fortunate that this authority has been vested in him by the Supreme Being. For the Jews, Mohammedans and Christians among others, man is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefore repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female.”
In today’s world, it is perhaps that “religion is often politics made sacred” that causes this line of thought to continue among the mainstream. Despite the efforts of churches and faith-based non-profits to eradicate sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and the poverty in which many of the world’s women are mired, what television viewers and blogs readers are bombarded with are stories involving the church, religious beliefs, and reproductive-related issues, such as the Affordable Care Act’s provision for birth control, or how congressmen quoted Scripture as a basis for cutting food stamp funding.
When Steinem says religion “gains power from silence,” she certainly does not mean that the church is silent. She has made clear her belief that, if anything, religious views are aired far too loudly within the political arena, with far too great an influence on public policy. Steinem instead means that the collective we are not crying foul when those in positions of moral authority assert that men are superior to women. To move closer to gender equality, she proposes, the collective we must cry foul.
Other differences aside, to demonstrate a true global interest in love, grace, mutual submission, and justice, Steinem is right: this conversation must be had. And perhaps just as importantly, when the political does take to the sky, perhaps it could do so in regard to equal pay for women, family-friendly work place policies, and mandatory paid leave for new parents to further the cause of building strong families. These actions would speak volumes for where our true priorities lie.
Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a Berkeley-based writer, attorney, wife, and mom of four. Her writing appears in numerous publications, including Sojourners and Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics. She is a contributing writer to Christian Feminism Today and a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Jamie blogs weekly at jamiecallowayhanauer.com, and you can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @JamieHanauer.