Feminist Theology in a Global Perspective

by Susan Hill Lindley

Dr. Lindley is assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  April 25, 1979, p. 465. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Feminist theology’s call to other liberation theologies is for them to take seriously the oppression of all women — especially the double oppression of poor, minority and Third World women. In Christ there is neither…male nor female….all persons are created in the image of God and therefore have a right to develop their full potentials of personhood.

The women’s movement and feminist theology have frequently been castigated for their preoccupation with the concerns of white; middleclass North American women. In some cases, the criticism is voiced by adamant opponents who seek to discredit feminist efforts; in other cases, it comes from those sympathetic to women’s rights. Both kinds of critics argue that in comparison with the scandal of world hunger, with human rights violations and the plight of political prisoners, with oppressive regimes of the right or left, the real or imagined oppression of white, middle-class American women seems a secondary, even trivial, concern. What response is possible to such criticism?

A Middle-Class Movement

First, one must concede that the charge has some validity. It is a commonplace among scholars of the Women’s movement that the 19th century struggle for women’s rights in America had lost much of its radical thrust by the end of the century as the vote became the single overriding issue, and that supporters of women’s suffrage were not above an appeal to blatant racism and class-consciousness to advance their cause. Similarly, though many would cite, Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique as having triggered the current women’s movement, its primary concern was for the white, middle-class American housewife. It did not speak to the poor or nonwhite woman whose idea of liberation might well include freedom from the economic necessity of working at a deadening, low-paying job and the privilege of staying home to raise her children.

Still, one should note that this is only one side of the picture. American feminism of the 19th century was born of the abolitionist movement, and of equal significance with Friedan’s book as impetus for the current women’s movement was the experience of women in the civil rights and antiwar protests of the ‘60s. Those women rebelled against being relegated to secondary roles as coffee-makers or typists while men “ran the revolution.” They realized the inconsistency of working for the rights and full humanity of another group when they themselves were denied these.

There is indeed some truth to the charge that the women’s movement is a middle-class phenomenon, but it is a charge most validly stated from within the movement, not by outsiders wishing to discredit it. Moreover, such criticism has been made by those involved, and it has been taken with increasing seriousness as the movement has attained greater maturity and impact: witness the large representation of poor and minority women at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston.

To raise such questions can, however, be a way of avoiding uncomfortable issues as well as changes which might disrupt one’s life “close to home.” It is possible for many white, middle-class Americans to distance themselves from other liberation movements. They can feel sincere but detached sympathy, can send money for world hunger projects, write to governments about human rights violations, boycott multinational corporations which exploit Third World people all without necessarily experiencing disruption in their own lives. It is harder to distance oneself from the impact of the women’s movement, for women are a part of all races and classes. Dismissing feminism as a white, middle-class movement may therefore be a means of avoiding personal commitment, or a way of trivializing the issues.

Evading the Issue

Robert McAfee Brown, in an introduction to Theology in the Americas (edited by Sergio Torres and John Eagleson [Orbis, 1976]), suggests four ways in which the challenges of Latin American liberation theology can be evaded. These evasions are equally applicable to feminist theology. First, Brown writes; “a threatening position can sometimes be disposed of simply by calling it a ‘fad’ and, those who espouse it ‘naïve.’” This is not to exempt liberation theology from critical analysis but to suggest that dismissing it without a serious hearing is irresponsible, a “cheap shot.” Oppression, whether based on race, class or sex; is not a fad, and problems are not going to go away simply because they are ignored.

Second, Brown suggests that “a threatening position can sometimes be disposed of by co-opting it.” In other words, one can insist that all persons need liberation and thereby blunt the concrete issues raised by particular liberation theologies. It is true, of course, that the ultimate aim is human liberation, not merely women’s liberation; men are trapped in dehumanizing expectations and stereotypes and are diminished by the roles they fill. But the validity of that insight must not allow one to move away too quickly from specific feminist insights and issues.

The third means of evading a threatening position which Brown cites is “keeping it at a safe distance.” Again, the evasion is readily applicable to feminist theology: “I can accept women as equals and co-workers in the public world, as long as my wife remains a traditional homemaker; I’ll support the ERA, but I won’t have to change my own life style; it’s all right for women to become ministers, but my congregation will never call one as pastor; it’s OK for a few women to come into our system, as long as their presence requires no major structural changes.”

Finally, Brown writes, “a threatening position can sometimes be disposed of by describing it in emotionally discrediting terms.” In the case of Latin American liberation theology, the common “scare” term is “Marxist”; for feminist theology, a series of images frightening to many people is evoked by the use of such terms as “lesbian,” “unisex” and “antifamily.” The point is not whether such labels may apply to some proponents of the position but whether the issues and analyses they raise are significant and accurate.

A Double Oppression

Thus when criticizing feminism as a white, middle-class movement, one must keep the limitations of that critique carefully in mind and analyze one’s own motives in voicing it: Am I trying to protect my own world from disruption or to trivialize the movement’s ideas to avoid facing the threat? But given such qualifications, I would argue that feminism can and must move to a broader, global perspective, in general and in its self-consciously religious manifestations.

And indeed, this development is already taking place. Feminist theologians are coming more and more to recognize the double oppression of minority and Third World women. Other liberation theologies have, with few exceptions, ignored the special problems and oppression of women. In part, this tendency has resulted from a situation in which racial or class oppression is so immediate and desperate that it overrides the less obvious oppression of women in particular. Thus if women’s special needs are acknowledged at all, they are delayed -- “put on the back burner” -- lest they jeopardize the primary cause.

The reaction is hardly a new one: abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier wrote to Sarah and Angelina Grimke, early American abolitionists and advocates of women’s rights, about their concern for women: “Is it not forgetting the great and dreadful wrongs of the slave in a selfish crusade against some paltry grievance of [your] own?” (quoted in Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought, edited by Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson [Harper & Row, 1977], p. 207). Yet, on a practical level, women are understandably tired of being told to wait until more pressing needs are met; they are skeptical that the “later” moment may never arrive. As one author has written of the double oppression of Third World women:

The women from South Africa and Australia indicate strongly that racism is by far the most vicious oppression they have to deal with. . . . However, it does not follow that Third World women should ignore sexism. Just because being lynched is worse than being raped, doesn’t mean that if one is vulnerable to both, one should do nothing to try to stop rape [Crimes Against Women: Proceedings of the International Tribunal, edited by Diana E. H. Russell and Nicole Van de Ven (Millbrae, California: Les Femmes, 1976), p. 89].

And it is not true, even on a practical level, that the choice must be a stark either/or -- the needs of blacks or women, the  poor or women (especially since at least half of the blacks and the poor are women).

There is a certain arrogance in presuming to define from outside a situation who does or does not need or deserve liberation, whose suffering is less significant. A strong emphasis in current liberation theology is the imperative to let the oppressed speak for themselves and to define their own needs, and not have this done for them, however well-intentioned the outsiders. Moreover, if one accepts the premise of liberation theology -- that all persons are created in the imago dei and hence have the right to realize a full personhood unrestricted by unjust systems and structures -- it is inconsistent to maintain that one group, defined by gender, is not yet to be fully included in such personhood.

On one level, the problem is the lack of awareness of the double oppression of minority and Third World women. But it is possible to remedy that ignorance, if not with the depth of personal experience, then at least through communication such as the written word and the conference -- at which, incidentally, victims of double oppression may speak for themselves.

A Unique Vulnerability

But what is the content, the substance, of this double oppression? One might suggest two kinds of oppression affecting women in general but especially poor women. First, there is that directly connected with woman’s sexuality, her role in reproduction and the customs and mores arising therefrom. A particularly tragic example was the mass rape of women in Bangladesh during the 1971 war. Estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000 women raped and tortured, with the resulting tragedies of venereal disease, pregnancy and psychological trauma. But the crowning irony was the attitude of the husbands, male relatives and society toward these women. As Susan Brownmiller reports:

The Reverend Kentaro Buma [an official of the WCC] reported that more than 200,000 Bengali women had been raped by Pakistani soldiers during the nine-month conflict, a figure that had been supplied to him by Bangladesh authorities in Dacca. Thousands of the raped women had become pregnant, he said. And by tradition, no Moslem husband would take back a wife who had been touched by another man, even if she had been subdued by force. “The new authorities of Bangladesh are trying their best to break that tradition,” Buma informed the newsmen. “They tell the husbands the women were victims and must be considered national heroines. Some men have taken their spouses back home, but these are very, very few” [Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (Bantam, 1976), p. 80].

To the credit of the authorities, and in part because of the international sympathy aroused by an unusual amount of publicity, significant steps were taken to, ameliorate the plight of the victimized women; nevertheless, the incident clearly dramatizes not only the vulnerability of women to this particular form of violence but also the injustice of a culture, sanctioned by religion, which regards the woman’s sexual integrity as primarily the concern of husbands and male relatives whose honor is at stake: bluntly, she is property, not a full person in her own right. That attitude is an ancient and pervasive one, and it has much to do ideologically with the customs and laws surrounding not only rape but also marriage, divorce, inheritance, freedom of movement and access to education -- in all of which areas women suffer a disadvantage. Because the being of woman has traditionally been so closely identified with her biological role in reproduction, many aspects of feminist protest are linked to sexuality and marriage and the limitations which religious dogma and social custom have placed on women in these areas.

Political, Cultural, Economic Factors

A second general category of oppression, distinct from though not ultimately unrelated to women’s sexual role, is the political, cultural and economic oppression of women -- again, especially of poor women. Women are grossly underrepresented in political power structures in the United States and around the world, and even in the most “advanced” nations, the vote for women is a relatively recent achievement. Women are concentrated in low-paying and nonpaying jobs, and the concept of equal pay for equal work is again a recent development and far from universal.

The problems becomes clear and acute in the situation of rural women in the Third World. As the authors of Who Really Starves? note: “Although the industrialized world thinks of farming as men’s work, most of the world’s farmers are women.” Yet, ironically, “women as a group suffer most from inadequate food supplies” (Who Really Starves? Women and World Hunger, by Lisa Leghorn and Mary Roodkowsky [Friendship Press, 1977], pp. 23, 9). For various cultural and social reasons, women eat least and last, and thus are most likely to be malnourished. Men receive more food and food of higher nutritional quality, since they and their work are perceived as more valuable.

A second irony lies in the changes effected by the introduction of Western technology in Third World nations. The traditional division of labor was disrupted, as men were recruited for wage-paying export agriculture and other industries -- employment frequently requiring long absences from their home villages and families, yet without the compensation of substantially greater support for those families. Moreover, technological improvements in agriculture were applied to the cash crops raised by men for export, not to the food crops raised by women for their families, so that the problem of indigenous hunger was compounded. Here is double oppression at the most basic level.

Let me cite briefly two more examples: illiteracy rates and infant formula. Half the world’s women are illiterate and desperately in need of education for sheer survival, if not for economic improvement and personal fulfillment. Yet even where education is permitted, girls are often discouraged from taking advantage of the opportunities, both because of social custom and the immediate need for their labor at home. And so long as they cannot go to school, they are trapped in the social and economic conditions perpetuated by ignorance.

The effort to market infant formula in the Third World is another absurdity. Multinational corporations have advertised the advantages of commercial products, convincing poor women that they should shift from breast-feeding to bottle-feeding. The claims of these formulas’ superiority are medically dubious; moreover, many poor women have diluted the expensive product to stretch it, thus depriving their infants of adequate nutrition. Related problems include the lack of pure water, sterilization and refrigeration. The attempts to create a market and a need where none exist are a ludicrous example of the Madison Avenue mentality -- and one with tragic results.

Empowering the Women

The solution to Third World women’s double oppression is not, of course, more charity and paternalism; rather it lies in women’s empowerment. Poor nations, insisting on their human rights of autonomy and self-control, rightfully resent outside identification of their problems and “proper” solutions dictated by developed nations, however well intentioned. Similarly, if one agrees that it is morally wrong for rich nations to exercise paternalism in their relations with poor nations, surely the same is true for the relations of men and women.

It is not sufficient for men in the Third World to develop power and autonomy, while the women remain in their traditional state of dependence and powerlessness, subject to the control of husbands, fathers and a male power structure. Indeed, with technological modernization, the woman’s position may be less favorable than in a tribal culture. Systemic change which stops short of addressing sexism is, incomplete and embodies an ideological contradiction. Women must have the same rights of power and autonomy vis-á-vis men as poor nations rightly demand in their relations with developed nations.

Thus the contribution of women to liberation theology is essential. As the authors of Who Really Starves? conclude: “Growing numbers of women are working together to create new solutions to the old problems of poverty, famine and racial prejudice, adding not only their energies and skills but also different perspectives on these problems”. (Ibid., p. 36). It is imperative that the voices of poor women be listened to, and that conditions be created where such speech becomes possible.

An Agenda for Feminist Theology

In conclusion, what might be some of the contributions and directions of feminist theology in a global perspective? First of all, it can develop an awareness of the forms of oppression for all women and a particular concern for the disadvantaged. Such awareness will include a prophetic criticism of American feminism when it is too narrow in scope, when it demands that the power of determining and directing social goals and structures be shared with middle- and upper-class American women while other women and groups are still excluded from that realization. Such awareness will also recognize the diversity of human needs and the fact that liberation may mean different things to different people. To let the oppressed themselves define their freedom is crucial; yet one can also recognize the reality of cultural conditioning and lift up alternatives for those who never imagined that certain options even existed. Nor will such awareness have to deny the reality of the middle-class woman’s oppression, especially spiritually and psychologically, as a valid, inclusion in the spectrum of needs.

Second, feminist theology in a global perspective can recognize the interrelatedness of all liberation theologies. No one group has a monopoly on suffering, and there is no single paradigm or “worst” form of oppression. Thus if feminist theology’s message to feminists is that they must recognize other varieties of oppression beyond sexism, its call to other liberation theologies is for them to take seriously the oppression of women, and especially the double oppression of poor, minority and Third World women. For both practical and ideological reasons, their needs are not secondary ones which can safely be ignored until all other forms of oppression have been eliminated.

Finally, the feminist perspective can contribute an important critique of structures, symbols and patterns which continue to reinforce the secondary status of women. First, feminist theology questions the whole idea of a hierarchically structured reality, whether in the church or in a nation’s economy. Rejecting the necessity for domination, it asks the radical question: Must there “always be a “servant” class, a facilitating group to take the mundane cares from the shoulders of the “‘more important” group, and to be controlled by them? Whether the model be the world community, the church, the nation or the family, many feminist, theologians argue that cooperation/equality is a more Christian model than dominance/submission. Priests, husbands and rulers are not more worthy, more valuable or closer to the divine than are laypersons, wives and “common people.”

Despite the overwhelming precedents of history, is it not possible, feminists ask, to have human communities where all share in the more and less fulfilling tasks? Cannot particular positions be filled by gifts and inclination, rather than being dictated by a person’s birth as a man or woman, as a member of a particular race or class? Could one not envision a community where such different functions, freely chosen, were similarly valued and not the ingredients in a complex hierarchy of wealth and status? That scenario sounds rather visionary but perhaps no more so than Paul’s words on the members of the body of Christ (I Cor. 12, Rom. 12).

Contra Dualism

A second and related theme is the feminist critique of a dualism which elevates spirit, mind, soul and male as superior and denigrates matter, body, nature and female as inferior. Our dualistic heritage forms a. significant implicit or unconscious part of Western culture and religion. Thus many feminists are explicit champions of the goodness and value of nature and the body, especially as these have been culturally and historically associated with “the feminine.” Such criticism can indeed extend to the whole idea of a dualistically structured world view. What ontological or philosophical necessity exists that reality be dualistic rather than basically monistic, expressed in plurality? Might not apparent dualities be viewed as different emphases rather than as antagonisms?

Such are the questions and issues raised by feminist theology in a global perspective, proceeding from the conviction that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, and that all persons are created in the image of God and therefore have a right to develop their full potentials of personhood.