Liberating History

Around 11 p.m. on April 1, 2008, a young woman in Seattle sent an e-mail to an author in Norfolk, Virginia:

I was very happy to discover your book All We’re Meant to Be. I am writing because I am a 27-year-old in the midst of my own book project, where I focus on things like what it means for women to have a “voice.” Honestly, I daily face discouragement with these issues. Can the church really change? Does my voice on this matter? Can I believe in what I have to offer?
Although it was 2 a.m. on the East Coast, the author was still at her computer and replied immediately:
Thank you for writing. Yes, I do understand how lonely and discouraging it can be when one is raising questions that are not always welcome among some Christians. It’s not surprising that self-doubts pop up from time to time! But please don’t give in to any notion that you, as a woman, don’t have a voice. If God is calling you to be all you were meant to be and to fulfill that calling through writing, your voice will indeed matter and will reach those who need to hear it.
We are those correspondents. That e-mail exchange was the beginning of a wonderful friendship and colleagueship, which a few months later formed the basis for our blog, “72-27: A cross-generational dialogue between two Christian feminists.” (At the time, Letha was 72 and Kimberly was 27.)
From the beginning, we wanted this to be about mutuality, respect, and friendship. We want to learn from each other, spiritually and intellectually, because reaching across the generations is important at a time when older and younger women are so often viewed as being at odds. We look over each other’s entries before they are posted and are open to one another’s edits and suggestions.
We don’t hesitate to speak of ourselves as Christian or biblical feminists, because we reject the caricatures of feminism created by those who oppose full gender equality in all areas of life (which is the true definition of feminism). In women’s studies scholar Gayle Graham Yates’s book What Women Want: The Ideas of the Movement, she listed three categories of goals women have aspired to in their quest for gender justice. We applied these categories to today’s feminism and asked: Do women want to be “equal to men” (the stated and necessary goal when women had no rights)? Should that be our goal now, as though male ideals are the norm? Or is women’s objective to be “over against men” (a combative, reverse hierarchical approach)? Or could feminists have the goal of seeing women and men “equal to each other” as sisters and brothers with equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities? This third category is our approach.
As a writing team, we want to speak to today’s world while never ignoring the importance of history, in terms of both the different trajectories of our own lives and others’ earlier efforts to secure gender equality, including those of pioneering women in past centuries.
Our first blog discussion was about our respective reactions to Betty Friedan’s 1963 classic, The Feminine Mystique. Kimberly, long warned against its “radicalism,” was reading the book for the first time and surprised to find herself agreeing with its major points. She asked Letha how the book had struck her when she first read it. That was in early 1964, when Letha was in her late 20s too.
Letha’s life circumstances at that age were vastly different from Kimberly’s. She had witnessed and lived through the extremely limited roles and restricted opportunities for women that Friedan described. Yet she had considered herself a feminist since before she knew the word feminism existed.
When Letha became involved in Christian fundamentalism in her late teens, she heard for the first time the claim that the Bible restricted what female persons were permitted to do and that female subordination was God’s will. She felt her wings had been clipped. During her 20s, she became increasingly convinced that such teachings didn’t fit with her own earnest reading of the scriptures—that there were other ways to understand the Bible that didn’t bar women from serving God.
Another difference in Letha’s journey was that, when she first read Friedan, she was—like many women who came of age in the 1950s—already married and the mother of a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old. But she was also starting her writing career. By 1966 Letha had written one of the earliest biblical feminist articles for an evangelical audience (“Woman’s Place: Silence or Service?” published in Eternity magazine), followed by one on egalitarian marriage, and was planning the book that would become All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy Hardesty. As Letha and Nancy did research, they learned of women’s earlier efforts to obtain gender equality in the home, church, and society. Until then, Letha’s Christian feminist journey had been a lonely one.
Through our blog, we want to make sure that the journey isn’t lonely for the women and men continuing the work of gender equality today. We explore topics such as abolition and suffrage; gender roles in post-WWII America; or even what the new Twilight books and movies and other films, blogs, and political news and commentaries tell us about modern American culture and world events. We are often grappling with how gender inequality is interconnected to other kinds of oppression such as racism, economic injustices, and homophobia. For instance, while The Feminine Mystique has been embraced by many white female readers, some of its content is horribly marginalizing to women of color or poor women. In our work as Christian feminists, we try to commit to analyzing “intersectionality”—the complex matrix that includes racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and other issues that are driving people apart rather than helping us embrace our common humanity.
Up to this point, we’ve written this article jointly, but I (Kimberly) want to share some of my story, because it may reflect the experience of other young women.
For most of my mid-20s, I felt as if there was no place for me in the evangelical Christian tradition if I was genuine with my questions about “gender justice.” These issues were silenced and pushed out of the church. While as a teenager I had gone to a fundamentalist church that explicitly preached a “God-ordained” hierarchy of men over women, my church home in my 20s was more socially liberal and justice-minded. Yet so-called “women’s issues” were still assigned to the margins. My pastor would preach on David and Bathsheba, and I would wonder why it didn’t even cross his mind to ask if David had raped her? Was this not an ideal text to begin to address the importance of consent in any understanding of sexual ethics? (And, of course, I never heard Judges 19 or other explicit texts of rape ever selected for a sermon.)
When some Christian leaders did speak out, they often did so without being well-informed or self-aware. I heard a well-known pastor preach passionately against domestic violence, while embodying many of the characteristics of domestic violence perpetrators: extreme narcissism, bullying language, and a rigid embrace of hierarchical gender structures in the church and the family. Encountering popular Christian leaders who either ignored gender justice or spoke “authoritatively” while displaying significant holes in their understanding only fed my burning questions and concerns.
Faith and feminism seemed irreconcilable: I felt like a misfit. Knowing Letha has enlarged my perspective. When I first read All We’re Meant to Be, I found it so relevant to the needs of my generation that I thought it could have been written last week. Upon checking the copyright date—1974—I was shocked! Letha’s writings, and her friendship, have helped me to place my own work as a Christian feminist within a tradition of pioneers.
It also encouraged me to keep researching this legacy. I stumbled upon a Harvard University library that houses the archives of 19th century religious women reformers. During glorious afternoons there, I realized once and for all that I wasn’t a misfit. Women of faith—particularly evangelicals—were at the forefront of women’s rights, abolition, and other critical reform movements in our nation’s history.
Why is this story so little told in modern-day evangelicalism? I was ecstatic to have dug up another piece of my tradition. And yet, I was also deeply grieved. Why does each generation of women feel they must reinvent the wheel?
There isn’t one easy answer. American religious historians are beginning to understand how cyclical women’s rights have been in the church, for the very reason that when women do exercise leadership and influence, subsequent generations of male leaders tend to elide their contributions. Catherine Brekus, author of Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845, is one notable historian doing the important work of recovering women’s voices in American religious history.
We can also ask more questions about the evidence found in daily experience. Which sex speaks behind the majority of pulpits? Which sex controls more religious publishing houses or is the majority on the boards of most seminaries? Just as I—as a white woman in a racist society—am complicit in a system of white privilege that marginalizes the voices of people of color, men are also complicit in patriarchal systems that mute women’s voices in countless ways.
In 2010, far too many churches still contribute to the silence. And yet, at the heart of faith and feminism is an ever-unfolding history that we must see doesn’t get buried and forgotten. Those who are working today for gender justice are connected to the bold pioneers of the past. Those who will work in the future need to know the legacy. We want our 72-27 blog to be part of that effort.
Kimberly B. George is a graduate student in religion and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale Divinity School. Letha Dawson Scanzoni is editor of Christian Feminism Today and author or coauthor of nine books. They blog at

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