Recognizing in religion one of the most powerful institutions for perpetuating sexism and patriarchal authority, feminists have responded in different ways. Some reject all forms of religion, believing that it is an oppressive and negative force, a trap which hinders women in the struggle for material change in their lives. Others believe that there is a spiritual as well as a material aspect to life, and seek alternatives to male-defined religions in goddess worship and other forms of woman centered theology. Still others, while recognizing the patriarchal bias of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, believe that there are spiritual truths in these religions which cannot be denied, and feel that it is therefore necessary to work for reform from within, rather than breaking away (Allen 272).
Some religious feminists work for equality, while others believe that female superiority should be recognized in spiritual matters; some reject what they consider oppressive traditions, while others believe that there is strength to be found in reclaiming and redefining women’s traditional roles.
Like all patriarchal religions, Christianity has been instrumental in creating, perpetuating, and justifying women’s oppression. Yet although the Christian church has been for many centuries the most oppressive institution, forcing women to submit to the rule of their fathers and husbands as stand ins for God, this oppression is not necessarily inherent in the religion, and many women have found in it spiritual liberation and truth. Christian teachings may be emphasized and interpreted in varied and quite contradictory ways, as proven by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her co-authors in The Woman’s Bible, and modern scholars have re-examined the New Testament to argue that despite later interpretations, Jesus was free from sexual prejudice (Allen 273).
During the puritan revolution of the mid-seventeenth century the entrenched sexism of the church was challenged as the concept that all human souls are equal in the sight of God gathered force. The more radical puritan sects took the idea of spiritual equality to its logical conclusion, accepting the authority of the spirit over that of church or state, even if that spirit happened to be manifested in a woman or a child. Although not widespread, and soon subdued, the very existence of this idea allowed feminist theory to develop within women who still defined themselves as Christian (Maitland 217).
The discrepancy between Christian ideals and the actual treatment of women within the church began to attract more attention in the 1960’s and 1970’s as more and more women were influenced by feminist ideas. Individual instances of injustice began to be seen as part of a pattern of sexism. But as women began making demands of their churches they encountered a deep, often hostile, resistance to change, and were forced to ask historical and theological questions of Christianity in a search for the roots of its sexism.
In A Map of the New Country: Women and Christianity Sara Maitland argues that the root of the problem lies in the ancient heresy of dualism: the idea that the wholeness of God’s creation can be divided into two and labelled ‘good’ (spirit) or ‘bad’ (flesh). According to Maitland: ‘Dualism is a fundamental ground of oppression-the ability to assert that me and mine are better than that which is Other, and justifying this by making God, the ultimate Other, over in one’s own image…Feminist theology perceives that dualistic splits are the cause not just of sexism, but of racism, classism, and ecological destruction.’
How far feminist theology may depart from accepted doctrine and still be considered Christian is a problem faced by feminists struggling to reconcile their spiritual with their political feelings. Some Christian feminist groups are church-linked, others are interdenominational, and others have moved, like philosopher Mary Daly, once a respected Catholic theologian, now declaring herself ‘unconfined by the teachings of church or man,’ into the new realm of spiritual feminism.
In Britain, the Christian Feminist Movement began in 1978 as an active group concerned with examining feminist issues from a Christian viewpoint, and challenging sexism both within and outside the church. They are separate from, but closely involved with, the Christian Women’s Information and Resource Service, a network linking people working to change the position of women in the church, which hopefully will be done soon (Allen 72).