Finding Feminism

This account was fun to write. Since feminism and feminist theory has been such a big part of my academic life for the past (almost) 18 years, it’s hard to remember my intellectual life before it. My contextualizing of my early thoughts on feminism in 1992, come out of my teaching and researching about the early 1990s backlash against feminist for my Contemporary Feminist Debates course. I don’t actually remember thinking much about feminism in those first years of college. 

I found feminism during my junior year at Gustavus Adolphus College, while working on a research paper for my “Luther and his Legacy” class. This upper level seminar on Martin Luther and his theology was an unlikely place to find feminism. I don’t recall any exams for the class, just one big research paper at the end. For some reason, I decided to research feminist theology. Why? What was the connection to Luther? Since my professor was just a few years from retirement, I don’t think he cared what I picked for my research topic. I don’t remember that much about the research, just that I read a lot about feminist interventions into theology. I read Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford-Ruether. I read about the Goddess movement.  And, I probably read some Carol Christ and Womanspirit Rising.

Up to that point, I hadn’t taken any women’s studies courses in college. I think I was a little intimated and bit confused by what feminism was about. Why, for example, was the gathering place for feminists in the Gustavus student center named the Womyn’s center?

When I started college, much of my exposure to feminist idea(l)s was through popular culture. It was 1992, a notoriously bad time for popular representations and understandings of feminism. In fact, a feminist backlash (against Hilary Clinton, Murphy Brown, Roseanne Barr, Anita Hill, any successful, outspoken women) was in full swing as republicans like Dan Quayle and Pat Robertson charged that feminists were destroying family values. Coming from a family of democrats, I didn’t agree with Quayle’s or Robertson’s ideas on anything, but I’m sure their campaigns to discredit feminism had negatively impacted me and my assessment of what feminism was. Did I buy into the stereotype of feminists as angry and aggressive man-haters? Possibly.

For whatever reasons, I didn’t formally study feminism and women’s studies until working on my research paper on feminist theology in 1995. That paper changed the direction of my research. I was double-majoring in religion and japanese studies and was planning to do a thesis that combined the two areas. Instead, I ended up turning my japanese studies major into a minor and writing my religion thesis on feminist theology and women’s experience.

During my senior year of college, I spent a lot of time researching, writing and thinking about feminist theology and how women’s experiences were ignored or suppressed within theological constructions of God. This work culminated in the production of my senior thesis, Does the Category of Women’s Experience Limit Feminist Theology?

I loved writing that thesis. It was exciting to be exposed to so many new ideas about feminism and feminist theology. I recall first reading the introductory paragraph to Valerie Saiving’s essay, The Human Situation: A Feminine View and having my limited (and somewhat distorted) view of the world shift and break open. She writes:

I am a student of theology; I am also a woman.  Perhaps it strikes you as curious that I put these two assertions beside each other, as if to imply that one’s sexual identity has some bearing on his theological views.  I myself would have rejected such an idea when I first begin my theological studies.  But now, thirteen years later, I am no longer as certain as I once was that, when theologians speak of “man,” they are using the word in its generic sense.  It is, after all, a well-known fact that theology has been written almost exclusively by men.  This alone should put us on guard, especially since contemporary theologians constantly remind us that one of man’s strongest temptations is to identify his own limited perspective with universal truth.

Now, after 18 years of closely and deeply studying feminism and feminist theory, the idea that our dominant understandings of humanity are constructions, shaped my those in power, seems obvious. But, in the fall of 1995, learning about the male as the default subject and reading a confession in which the author connects their roles as student, theologian and woman, was revolutionary and mind-blowing. I didn’t know it at the time, but my move from theology to feminist theology through that thesis, signaled the start of a bigger shift towards work that troubled the status quo and challenged academics-as-usual. This work would eventually take me beyond disciplinary work in religion and theology to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship in women’s studies.