A key area in which a distinctively Christian feminism has been revitalising Christian theology is in recovering women’s voices from the past.
An early and very influential book was Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s work ‘In Memory of Her’, which focused on the women who are either barely mentioned, or not mentioned at all in the Bible, but whose presence can be inferred. Since then it has become part of mainstream biblical scholarship and preaching to note the presence of women in the biblical texts.
Some are obvious, and the first step on this journey was simply to read and use the stories of the women that are indeed in the texts. The role of the Virgin Mary has been rediscovered in the Protestant tradition, for example, and Old Testament heroines such as Esther, Deborah and Jael are now much more commonly cited when we are doing a Sunday school series on Old Testament Stories or biblical heroes, in a way that simply didn’t happen a generation ago.
More subtly, Christian feminism has pointed out the presence of other women who are relatively hidden in the texts. To take perhaps the most obvious example: The feeding of the 5000. We still call it that, don’t we? Yet what we’re told in Mark 6 is that those present ‘numbered five thousand men’, and in Luke ‘those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children’. Woah! This isn’t the feeding of the 5,000. It might be the feeding of the 10,000, or the 15 or 20 or 25, 000.
That passage is a very stark demonstration of how feminism can open our eyes to the extent that the Biblical texts were very much a product of their time. It would have suited the writers purposes to give us a bigger number, as it would have made the miracle even more impressive. It simply doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to count the women and children – literally, only men counted.
This is why Christian feminism is deeply sceptical of arguments against women’s ordination which are based on the so-called fact that Jesus only called male disciples.
Really? We don’t actually know that.
What we know, as a strict matter of historical evidence, is that the biblical texts written between 70 and 200 or so years after Jesus’ ministry, describe 12 of his male followers as a special category of disciples. They also mention several female followers, often with an extremely close relationship to Jesus. Amazingly, in fact, we know that far more of these women were with Jesus at his death than the only male disciple recorded; and that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Feminist theologians wonder, therefore. Was there in fact such a distinction between the men and the women at the time, or might this be a later interpretation imposed on the record? The question is worth asking.
Similarly, another major strand of work amongst feminist theologians is the recovery and critical study of the work of female theologians of the past. It is still relatively common to see lists of major theologians, or anthologies of Christian writings, which include either no women at all, or only one or two examples, often Julian of Norwich or another of the medieval mystics. This is often defended on the basis that, sadly, the way the world was in the past meant that women simply weren’t given the education or the opportunity to write. The giants of Christian theology were indeed all male and there is not a lot we can do about that, runs the argument.
Yet in mainstream history we have largely discarded the ‘great men’ way of doing history in favour of a much more nuanced and multi-vocal approach. Historians are very used nowadays to seeking out the stories and voices wherever possible of those normal members of society who were having history, in the old model, done to them. And as feminist theologians have gone looking for women theologians of the past, they have found them, working away in whatever ways were just about deemed culturally acceptable and open to them at the time.
The amazing role of the early abbesses, for example,has been rediscovered in recent decades. Double monasteries, containing communities of both monks and nuns, were relatively common in England before they were banned in the papal reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. And double monasteries were always headed by an Abbess, who was in overall charge of both communities; the most famous example, of course, being Hilda of Whitby.
The medieval mystics, of which Julian of Norwich is only the best known example, were very often women, and this was clearly a way in which women with great spiritual wisdom or theological gifts were able to use those in an acceptable – indeed, in a very highly valued – way.
Another aspect of women’s theological writing that has been rediscovered in recent years has been particular genres that were available to women. The most well known of these is poetry. Women writing poetry was very widely accepted, and with the invention of printing women’s poetry could even be published acceptably and enjoy a very wide readership. Some of these poems, such as those by Aemilia Lanyer – who is best known as one candidate for being Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ – are in fact carefully argued theological treatises, simply arranged in poetic form.
Another genre that was particularly available to women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the ‘Mother’s Legacy’. This was a book of theology written, or supposedly written, whilst a woman was pregnant. It took the form of a letter to her unborn child, the idea being that, if she were to die in childbirth, this is the substance of the faith that she would otherwise have taught the child in infancy. These were often substantial theological treatises, and again were frequently published and enjoyed wide sales. They were often published with a foreword pointing out that since the initial composition of the letter, the mother had found that other mothers of her acquaintance had found it helpful in teaching their own children, and that on the advice and entreaty of the local bishop it was now offered to a wider public.
So Christian feminism points out that our view of what is a theological writing has itself been skewed through a patriarchal lens.
Women were writing theology, they were simply having to use alternative genres to achieve acceptance and publication opportunities. If we continue to limit our view of what comprises the canon of classics to the university texts written by male theologians, after becoming aware of this other history, then we are complicit in continuing and extending the suppression of women’s voices.