Reformer, Revolutionary, or Rationalist? Three Types of Feminism

What do Martin Luther and Mary Daly have in common?

They both realized that they could not reform the Roman Catholic Church from “the inside-out.”  They came to believe that some institutions, even those dear to the heart, are not worth saving.  One of the most significant differences between Luther and Daly—aside from the obvious differences in time, culture, race, class, and sex—is that Luther’s faith in God remained intact whereas Daly’s did not.  Mary Daly, due to her positions on Catholic thought, came to represent what is now referred to as Post-Christian Feminism[1] (or Post-Religious Feminism).

Post-Christian feminism, as seen in the writings of Mary Daly, Daphne Hampson, and Sarah Sentilles (each with differing takes), argues that there are certain incompatible values between Christianity and feminism, and as a result of this, Christian feminists ought to consider how to respond to this incompatibility.  As Rita M. Gross once said, “The most difficult question facing a feminist who discovers her traditional religion to be patriarchal and sexist is what to do next.”[2] So the question remains: should feminists reform Christianity from the inside-out or abandon the Church altogether?

Those who attempt to reform their religious institutions from the inside out are innumerable.  I can think of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza as examples of “Christian feminists” who opt out of the post-Christian ideology.  These scholars are usually referred to as “Christian reformists,” since they believe that genuine reform is needed and possible.  Ruether is fine with women leaving the Catholic Church because they want to be ordained through some other denomination, but regarding herself she says, “I am very committed to keeping or trying to support the continuance of progressive perspectives in Catholicism.” (italics mine)[3]

Fiorenza also calls for great change to occur within the Church.  One of Fiorenza’s bold proposals is: “organize to take over the only democratic office in the Roman Catholic church: the college of Cardinals.”[4] Both Ruether and Fiorenza would agree with many of the critiques posed by post-Christian feminists, but the manner in which Ruether and Fiorenza choose to respond is quite different.

Rita Gross points out how both Mary Daly and Carol P. Christ differ from the “reformists.”  She says,

“Their works are especially valuable because each began as a radical reformer, publishing important books and essays in which they hoped to make sense of biblical religions and to call them away from their sexism.  Eventually each became convinced that this effort would fail because patriarchy is too integral to the outlook of those religions.”[5]

Gross thinks, “It is a mistake to try to settle the question of who is “right,” the reformists or the revolutionaries.”[6] Gross’s general point is that both the “reformist” and the “revolutionary” want patriarchal religion to change, and although there may be some principled differences between them, they share many of the same goals.  To put it simply: they share common values, but disagree on the best way to bring about genuine change in the world.

One of my liberal Catholic friends once compared the Church to the family.  He said, “Just because your family has problems doesn’t mean you should abandon them.”  I thought about this for a while, considering its merits, and finally got up the courage to ask, “What if your family is abusive?”  I knew at this point we would ultimately disagree, but at least the point became obvious.  We had different takes on the negative vs. positive impact that the Roman Catholic Church has on the world.  We also had different criteria for what “abusive” means.

Another problem I have with the “family analogy” (we can call it the prosapia analogy) is that, to the average Catholic, the Magisterium, the Episcopacy, the College of Cardinals, and the Roman Curia are generally more distant than an individual’s own family (You may be able to call the authorities to report abuse by a family member, but try getting the Pope arrested!).  Certainly it is easier to hold your family accountable than an institution as large as the Roman Catholic Church.  Despite these differences, I felt I understood the overall point of his analogy: we may be “born into” structures (e.g. the Church, the State, and humanity) that have oppressive tendencies, but we have a responsibility to reform these structures from the inside-out.

There are also a third kind of “secular feminists” who find principled objections to the content of religious symbolism and the ways in which institutionalized religion has translated them into practice.  The works of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Ophelia Benson are just a few examples of this type of feminism.[7] These feminists think that organized religion not only promotes sexism and patriarchy, but that the “spiritual” or “mystical” beliefs espoused by these institutions serve to keep women in a state of permanent subjugation.

Although they are critical of “spiritual” beliefs, it can be said with some confidence that the primary target of their frustrations is organized religion.  Ali, primarily known for her strong criticisms of Islam, expresses her views quite clearly: “A woman’s lack of social equality and freedom is a direct consequence of the teachings of Islam.”[8] Gaylor, the co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, unabashedly asserts that “Organized religion always has been and remains the greatest enemy of women’s rights.”[9]

While sorting out one’s own views on which method is best, one has to keep a few questions in mind.  Firstly, does Christianity have an essentially misogynistic core?  Can Christianity be Christianity without its patriarchal characters (e.g. the Trinity, or as Mary Daly refers to them, “the Supreme All Male Cast”[10])?

Secondly, is the institutional character of Christianity worth saving?  Finally, which method is most likely to bring about genuine change for women?  Which method will bring change about quickest and with the most beneficial long-lasting consequences?  To answer these questions is to answer the main question of this article: reformer, revolutionary, or rationalist?

Although I agree with the rationalist and revolutionary over the reformer, I applaud much of the work done by women to change the misogynistic tones of their religion.  I cannot help but find it hard to believe that Christianity can eventually be morphed into something non-patriarchal.  If one were to act like Thomas Jefferson and cut out all of the misogynistic passages in the biblical text, I believe we would have a very small bible!  If somebody started a tradition based on this new bible I would be less averse to it than to traditional Christianity.  This, of course, is highly unlikely, and is the reason I choose to promote the social critiques of the revolutionary and the logical critiques of the rationalist.

[1] Lisa Isherwood and Kathleen McPhillips give good description of post-Christian feminism: “Hence the term ‘post-Christian’ signifies a destabilization of what could be considered a stable meta-discourse (Christianity) through a series of interjections including feminist, post-colonial and psychoanalytic. The term `post-Christian’ points towards a condition of the unravelled nature of Christianity; of the breakdown of duality as the principle organizing force of knowledge particularly through disruption to the relationship between believer and institution. Post-Christian feminisms suggest an immediate engagement with issues of definition, subjectivity and identity, ethics and meta-theology.”  Post-Christian Feminisms, ed. Lisa Isherwood and Kathleen McPhillips (Abington: Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 2.

[2] Rita M. Gross, Feminism & Religion: An Introduction (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996), 107

[3] Rosalind Hinton, A Legacy of Inclusion: An Interview with Rosemary Radford Ruether, Cross Currents, Spring 2002, Vol. 52, No 1

[4] Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza, We are Church – A Kingdom of Priests, Keynote Speech at Women’s Ordination Worldwide Conference Ottowa, July 22, 2006.  Located at:

[5] Gross, Feminism & Religion: An Introduction, 142

[6] Ibid, 147

[7] One of the main differences between “secular” and “post-Christian” feminism is that many post-Christian feminists still retain certain beliefs about the spiritual, the Goddess, or Mother Gaia.  It is also possible that they simply engage in doctrinal reformulation while staying within their religion.

[8] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, My View of Islam, American Enterprise Institute, August 2, 2002.  Located at:

[9] Annie Laurie Gaylor, Nontract # 10, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.  Located at:

[10] Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1978), 38

Photo is courtesy of quinn.anya’s photostream via Creative Commons.

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3 thoughts on “Reformer, Revolutionary, or Rationalist? Three Types of Feminism

  1. Thanks for writing this, Kile. These are questions I often struggle with myself, especially on a personal level as I approach ordination. Am I really ready to dedicate my life and self to an institution that has a history and tradition of misogyny? I often tell myself that in order to reform the institution one must be a part of it, but after a few years of already being worn down by it, I am now left wondering, “At what cost?”

  2. Kari–Thanks for your comment. I have met many people who feel the same way as they approach ordination. Maybe it is just part of it?


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