Decades of Feminist Writing

This article was initially intended to introduce my 2020 self-published book Decades of Feminist Writing. It highlights what appears in that resource along with some further explanation.

Thanks for looking into this resource that shares something of my journey. Originally from a rural community (town of Kalona with about 1200 people) in southeastern Iowa, I am presently located with thirty thousand plus in northern Indiana. Goshen is a college town with a growing Hispanic population. After owning our house here for forty-eight years, husband John and I now live at Greencroft Retirement. Being a writer, and therefore reader, I give less time to scheduled activities within this group of 1300 retirees. When the pandemic around Covid 19 began, I reflected more on decades past. Therefore, this book, a collection of papers written or presentations given at some time in the past. It reflects how feminism, less well-known in this area in the ‘70s, has become central to my being.

After four enjoyable years as a Goshen College student and one year teaching secondary students English and Physical Education back at Iowa Mennonite School from where I was graduated, husband John and I flew to India. We celebrated our first anniversary as teachers at Woodstock School. Nearby, we met friendly shopkeepers in the bazaar and hiked the grand foothills of the Himalayas from 1962-65. Three years in that context opened up our world—of geography, terrain, diverse peoples, boarding school, friendships that have lasted a life time, travels mostly by train, bus, or three-wheeler and, most significantly for me, direct exposure to world religions. Extensive writing about India and interreligious Wisdom, rituals, and practice await further discipline. However, influence from those memorable years in India shaped the decades since then through discovery of self-understanding and voice, the “mystery of otherness,” richness of research, and conviction about equity within human relating.

On returning to the U.S., we located in Detroit for a year. To live in a city in an upstairs apartment with a couple from Latvia taught us too. While John studied for a Masters in Math Education at the University of Detroit, I engaged with office workers, typing other’s research and scheduling engineering seniors for job interviews with companies. Located in Goshen by 1966, within several years our immediate family included two daughters. Parenting prompted the realization that, other than from observing families, we needed to learn new routines and distinctives of child development. Seminary study, parenting, and growing feminism, plus vegetable gardening and varied projects dove-tailed to shape weeks and the next years.

Early in the ‘70s part-time course work offered stimulation. By 1974 connection with kindred spirits gave shape to the Task Force for Women, a newly formed component of the relief and service organization called Mennonite Central Committee, located in Akron, PA. A new term networking came to mean cooperative effort—a key dimension of feminism. “Persons Becoming,” a packet of thirty articles that I edited, written mostly by Mennonite women, revealed varied viewpoints on themes of “The Bible and Women,” “The Church and Women,” “Changing Male-Female Relationships,” and “Minorities Within a ‘Minority.’” The packet Introduction included two quotes, the first from Letty Russell: “Liberation is never an achieved goal, but rather a process or journey toward freedom.” And, anticipating change ahead, “At the heart of any human liberation there must be a changed image of the self and its potential. For women, this means a search for a meaningful herstory and the forging of new possibilities for the present.”

Before long a four-page mimeographed statement conveyed scattered thoughts. Yes, we Task Force members mimeographed materials, typed and sent carbon copies of correspondence, and rarely connected by phone due to cost. Titled “Background material to Women (and therefore Men) in the Church,” the statement noted biblical content about male and female relationships. It highlighted a new resource by evangelical women Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty All We’re Meant to Be and writers like Claus Westermann, Atlee Beechy, and John Macmurray. Not surprising, we soon turned to budding feminist writers and friends who thought beyond traditional limits promoted by “The Total Woman” scheme, then in the news.

I welcomed a surge of influential feminist Christians, feeling a bit envious of some Roman Catholics’ academic achievements. Rosemary Radford Ruether’s theology offered questions of Christology along with answers regarding our human link with imago dei.1 Elisbeth Schussler Fiorenza’s first major work, In Memory of Her, stated with conviction that with many women named in early church locations, certainly even more of them led. Even that idea stretched what we had been taught. Schussler Fiorenza has since then become a prolific writer of theology and about interpretation, like editing the fine two- volume Searching the Scriptures. Phyllis Trible’s Hebrew translation of Old Testament texts amazed me; her more recent interreligious attention adds further depth and personal connection.2 Letty Russell’s 1993 insight into feminist methods within church leadership in Church in the Round supported my growing conviction about authority, ordination, reading the margins, and spiral connection.3 Sallie McFague4 prodded thought regarding language with Metaphorical Theology Models of God in Religious Language and not to be overlooked are Nelle Morton, Kwok Pui Lan, and Chung Hyun Kyung.

Reading and libraries became prime sources for me for decades: to enlarge the meaning of feminism, to connect with mentors beyond male church leaders, to pursue biblical thought as about Sophia. At first cautious to learn of ancient goddesses, such caution deserved understanding. An ad hoc group, mostly single and younger than I, met informally with the Goshen College’s Social Work leader Anna Bowman, supposedly to discuss Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology The Metaethics of Radical Feminism.5 To hear Daly in person in Ft. Wayne impressed me beyond her “way with words”! Admittedly, ambivalence surfaced at times. Fortunately, feminism helped to enable ease with ambivalence, with overcoming rigid options. Simultaneously, respect for the goodness of difference grew, as in relation to people loyal to religions other than Christianity. As freedom within ambivalence became comfortable, so honesty with deliberate openness to divergence became more normative.

During 1976-77 our family experienced a valuable year in Cambridge, MA, daughters in kindergarten and second grade while we adults studied half-time, John at Harvard’s School of Education and I in Episcopal and Andover-Newton seminaries. Research resulted in a paper included here. What a stimulating location for courses along with museums of interest, concerts to attend, and diverse people to befriend. Week-end options included Sunday morning sermons with notable preacher Peter Gomes at Harvard Memorial Church and evening gatherings with Mennonites in homes.

A project completed with six other women in the spring of 1987 created a slide set of women whom we had known when living in Guatemala, Bolivia, Argentina, Zaire, Uganda, Egypt or India. Titled “Women of Strength: Ancient and Modern,” the script to accompany 160 slides from modern settings combined with the ancient Proverbs 31 text about a woman known for economic and managing skills.

A highlight for 1988 summer was my being with a Fulbright study tour in India titled “Women, the Family and Social Change in India.” For that rare opportunity, I joined nine women from the University of New Mexico. To hear from Indian women who also advocated for women’s self-improvement was special. In multiple major cities I also connected with individual church women, each who lived with Hindu or Muslim neighbors, to learn of their strategies and vision. One hundred of them completed a questionnaire that I created; results are reported in my Pinch Penny Press (Goshen College) book titled Strength, Struggle, and Solidarity: India’s Women. (1989)

During June 1989 I enrolled in a course taught by guest Professor Phyllis Trible in Notre Dame’s Theology Department. Titled “Literary Criticism, Feminism & the Bible, “content centered on the biblical books of Ruth and Jonah. For a paper, I looked particularly at literary patterns and actions in two segments: “Sailors and Jonah (1:7-16) and “Yahweh and Jonah” (4:1-10). For example, while Jonah speaks only seven times, he is spoken about seventeen times and to eight other times. Meanings emerge through interpretation. Having taken a Hebrew language course in which we translated the entire book of Ruth, I had at that time completed a word study of the term that translates to redeem. Its frequency of appearance in Ruth is striking. More than a decade earlier after hearing Trible give a lecture on the book of Ruth at Andover-Newton seminary,6 I had left the lecture hall saying to myself, ‘If this is what can result from feminist study, I’m all for it!’ Trible’s disciplined work with Hebrew texts has always inspired me, my feminist being.

Nudged by maturing daughters to attend the Re-Imagining Conference in Minneapolis in 1993, I have been ever-grateful for that opportunity to see and hear in person a good number of feminist writers. Through their writing, they had become my reliable mentors from a distance. Elsewhere in this book I reflect more on how valuable for me became the attention given at that event to Sophia. The freedom to commend Spirit/Wisdom/Sophia, bringing better balance to Divine imaging as vital for my feminism, has grown during decades since.

I wish yet to mention details about other writing that appears in this book. During my adult years, I have likely given more time to the three early Genesis chapters that explain human creation than to any other text. The overall shaping of male-female relating returns to core influence from there, I fear. My understandings have shifted somewhat over the decades. Due in part to the mythic nature of early Genesis content, not all feminists agree with my present views. Such difference is okay. Whether we, wish together to achieve improvement in relating depends on willingness to change—another core descriptor of feminism. My conviction appears in the first chapter here.

Interesting as well as troublesome accounts describe stories of those presumably involved with Israel’s origins. Admittedly, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent stretch a reader’s imagination about ancient times and accounts. They also inform. Questions will linger which is good. We each choose how or why to weight story features of our personal religious heritage. Living in India alerts a person to the ongoing, strong influence of stories about good and evil. Just watch a crowd respond to a new production or a movie version of the “Mahabarata” or “Ramayana” epic.

My charting of references to woman in Deuteronomy through II Kings (except for the many in four chapters of Ruth) started from curiosity. To read through those books as a teenager, (reading three chapters per day except for five on Sundays to complete reading the Bible within a year) can differ a great deal from genuine attention to a given theme like woman. Part of a feminist’s effort to pursue facts can lead to both further awareness of how patriarchal content actually persists as well as new awareness that women did matter to the story. We learn in part what we choose about scripture; so also, we bring bias or openness to exposure to texts that are sacred to Hindus, Buddhists or especially Sikhs.

My process with creating narration and verse for a musical for the Naomi and Ruth story brought personal satisfaction. Seeing through its production added to enjoyment. That it was turned down for publishing perhaps reflects dis-ease with the fine tune created about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi having been titled “A Woman Loves a Woman.” Feminism enables openness to difference! Esther’s story raises questions too. While the account portrayed here reveals Esther’s commitment to her people when linked with an enemy group, it stops abruptly prior to the mass near-revenge killing done by her Israelites. Might Christian promotion of peacemaking need to penetrate deeper than feminist validation of ambivalence in this instance? Prophet Jeremiah’s direct effort to confront syncretism becomes acute in his lengthy book. Prior to a course focused on that prophet, I had not been aware of the extent to which many Israelites were drawn toward Asherah. Again, having lived in India brought goddess worship to mind. So also, insight into majority Hindu meaning for the Ultimate deserves Christian sensitivity rather than ignorance.

Feminist study has drawn attention to Jesus’ interaction with women in helpful ways. Themes imbedded in stories like the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well can be so rich. Bias against highlighting such truth disqualifies a person from writing, preaching, or teaching children about them, I believe. Background research transformed into conversation for a one-act play stimulated me as did my prof’s pause with emotion on hearing when performed the Jesus character state “I AM.” Feminist theologians ever-prompt useful pondering: Rosemary Radford Ruether’s questions about Christian Christology and my teacher at Episcopal Theological Carter Heyward’s book title Saving Jesus From Those Who are Right.7 Truly a Mentor and Teacher, Jesus’ emphasis on God’s kin-dom of inclusion provides purpose for believers. His care for the disadvantaged also makes rich the reading of Asian Christian women writers.8

Making more public Early Church accounts of women as leaders has emerged along with the increase of women leaders in Christian denominations. Professor Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s writing In Memory of Her (1983) gives convincing evidence. To identify women named suggests that more were present and active. How house churches depended on women is clear; how men then ‘took over’ control of leadership roles as deacon, minister and bishop is also disturbingly clear. Traditional importance given to Paul without crediting his validation of numerous women’s engagement with him reflects outright failure to convey truth. Need hesitation to promote feminist efforts for woman’s equity with man be doubted?

Major chapters here offer historic studies of: a window into the experience of some Roman Catholic women religious during Medieval centuries; women’s conviction within early Anabaptism; efforts by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and friends to publish the Woman’s Bible, 19th century US pulpit ministry by women; and significant Mennonite feminist development during the 1970-1990 decades. To research provides pleasure, even if one at times fails to find the desired. Often, having spent what time I had available for a project, not adequate time remained for due analysis or observation. Hopefully, future feminist researchers will extend the tasks.

To think theologically draws a person toward varied issues, many more than appear here. What I wish for in revealing personal perspective is that readers will in turn consider and shape their conviction and insight on such themes. I seriously welcome your sharing views if not in print then directly with me: As concerns other Christian feminists, I needed to process dimensions of my experience with the Divine. Not able to note just when I first formed a concept or image of God, childhood focus centered more with Jesus of the Trinity. My shift to God language has made several changes. At some point I used primarily the term Yahweh. At another point my desire to include attention to the divine female prompted depth with Spirit which led to study of Sophia and Wisdom. Divine female figures within other religions matters too. What appears here is a paper written for a seminary theology course when primarily male language for God was heard in public worship; that pattern truly disturbed me. Such narrow awareness of Divine breadth offends.

Increasingly important for Mennonites since Reformation years has been active teaching toward Peace engagement. Not that so-called “Peace Churches” have a ‘corner’ on peaceful relationships. Our theology has intentionally urged its practice. Having been invited to speak about Peace to the All-Mennonite Women’s Retreat when living in India, I include several presentations made there. The privilege was mine to think of Indian women while preparing at Gurukul Theological in Chennai, to experience being translated, to interact with limits of language, to know that they too valued Peace.

Having taught a course at Goshen College titled “Bible and Sexuality” nine times, a chapter here includes minimal insight into that experience along with the broader church’s debate of sexual orientation. To have balanced writing about sexuality with discussion of spirituality would have been wise, in part because feminist perspective on the latter also matters. Imagine insight into Spirituality’s breadth, like: justice-making, working the earth, discovery, divinity within, linking priest and prophet, reflection and communion with Holiness, intentional being/doing that empowers the Ultimate, the self, and others.

Leadership, although discussed here, needs further vision. Not inclined to deny that particular women have been leaders throughout history in fields like science or psychology, my concern asks what distinct features have women brought to it during recent decades? Questions multiply. What further patterns or insight into peacemaking, for example, have Mennonite women leaders designed? Has that new depth been broader than legitimate concern for physical abuse? Has deepened self-understanding led to new approaches to interpret scripture, not only the practice of doing it? Has feminist insight into the Divine helped people to welcome difference of perspective regarding the Trinity? Has leadership re-vision affected conservative patterns as with Pentecostals, not newly invigorated more liberal ones?

Four of my sermons appear here. Not that they rank as “best” sermons, they simply reflect diverse themes enjoyable to engage. I have valued opportunity to preach because of the discipline involved in preparing. To delve into scripture involves discovery of something new about more than a text; to study inspires. No seminary student before me had preached at College Mennonite Church, Goshen, which I did when a member there and taking a preaching class. I valued shaping two Sunday morning services as well as two full Sunday evening events. How times have changed! Sermons here vary in date, location, and theme, the latter focused on death/living, ministry, Spirit/Wisdom, and interfaith. The final chapter here highlights the theme of Feminist Theology. It was first presented as an exchange with friend Judith Davis for a New Perspectives evening lecture, open to community people interested.

How, finally, might a paragraph further introduce feminism? Theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza quotes a bumper sticker’s message that “feminism is the radical notion that wo/men are people.” More seriously, she describes feminist work in three words—power, struggle, and vision. Struggle attempts to “change relationships of inequities and dehumanization.”9 Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible explains feminism as to advocate the full humanity of female and male or to oppose male domination and female subordination.10 Professor Anne Clifford describes feminism as a perspective on life, “as a movement to liberate women from all sexism.”11 Whereas years ago a friend told me that she “would never be a feminist,” reading this book may suggest why others of us cannot do other than promote healthy feminism, for the benefit of all.