When the Private is Political -- Sightings

Recent debates in Congress and in the public square have raised the issue of religion and public life. How do these two relate? Is religion truly private? When the two collide, as they often do, what gives? The issue of contraception opened up a lot of different debates, some having to do with the way we understand religion.  In this Sightings article, Caryn Riswold asks us to consider once again the long standing Feminist witness.  It's not, she says the final frontier, but a frontier that has been contested for centuries within the church.  It's a very provocative piece that is worth deep consideration!  



March 29, 2012

When the Private is Political

— Caryn D. Riswold
Who imagined that the hot political topic in Spring 2012 would be contraception? That Rush Limbaugh would flame back into relevance for demanding that a Georgetown law student provide him and his buddies with sex tapes? That a religious organization comprised entirely of celibate men would exert such power over all American women's access to health care?

Welcome to the messy space where feminism and religion meet. Some of us have been here for a while. It's not new. Nor is religion, as Lisa Miller's recent piece in The Washington Post suggests. "Feminism's Final Frontier" suggests that this messy space has just been discovered or is just now being explored, in effect dismissing a long and transformative history of feminist engagement with religion.

Women have been leaving, rebelling against, and more importantly changing religious traditions for centuries and for a variety of reasons. Feminists in particular have been critiquing, constructing, and transforming religions for generations.

It was all the way back in the year of my birth, 1971, when Mary Daly preached the so-called "Exodus Sermon" at Harvard Memorial Church: "Sisters—and brothers, if there are any here: Our time has come. We will take our own place in the sun. We will leave behind the centuries of silence and darkness. Let us affirm our faith in ourselves and our will to transcendence by rising and walking out together."

Even long before that call, in 1837, Sarah Grimke publicly addressed the use of the bible to limit women's roles in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes: "The Lord Jesus defines the duties of his followers in his Sermon on the Mount. He lays down grand principles by which they should be governed, without any reference to sex or condition."

Nineteenth and twentieth century American religious history is filled with examples of women evangelists like Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth, women activists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Anna Julia Cooper, and women religious innovators like Mary Baker Eddy and Phoebe Palmer. Medieval Christianity left the legacy of Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena. All of these are women profoundly dedicated to faith and political transformation of women's roles in church and world. And those are just examples from the Christian tradition.

Perhaps the problem is that not enough people know this history. Or that the more recent work of women scholars in Transformative Lutheran Theologies or New Feminist Christianity is not more widely read. Or that more feminist theologians and progressive people of faith in general are not meaningful participants in public debates about religion and politics.

Because of the push back from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops on the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that insurance cover preventative health care, and because Rush Limbaugh decided to engage in the tired patriarchal tactic of slut-shaming Sandra Fluke for testifying before a Congressional panel about contraception as preventative health care, religion is not private. Neither is contraception. They are public and they are political. The Catholic Church's absolute ban on artificial contraception is now something everyone is talking about.

This is a good thing: Good for religion and good for women.

Make it public. Shed light on the fact that Church teaching makes absolutely no difference in the rates of contraception usage among Catholic women and men. Pay attention to the history of the Catholic Church itself, when a Papal Commission recommended relaxing this absolute ban in 1966, and the Pope rejected it outright. Tell more stories about how making contraception harder to get returns us to an era where Lysol was promoted for female hygiene and even birth control.

When it is not just private and personal, it is political. Then, change can begin to occur.

It is a classic feminist rallying point to insist that the personal is political. It means that we recognize how individual experiences are connected to and sometimes the result of systemic and structural inequalities. It suggests that when we make changes to those systems and institutions, that our lives can and will begin to change. Or, if we find new institutions, that our lives could be better. This concept led to changes in access to educational opportunities for girls and women, increased rights in the workplace, and secured legal protections against sexual violence and harassment... even when they occur at home, the most private sphere of all.

So let us make it all public and keep talking about it. Sex and religion. Women and politics. Birth control and church. Not because this is a new or even final frontier, but because we have a rich and complex history of scholarship and activism on which to draw for making lasting and meaningful change.


Lisa Miller, "Feminism's Final Frontier? Religion.Washington Post, March 8, 2012.
Mary J. Streufert, Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives (Fortress Press, 2010).

Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu, New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views (Skylight Paths Pub, 2010).

"Contraception Provision Sets of Firestorm," NPR, February 3, 2012.

Sandra Fluke, "Slurs Won't Silence Women," CNN, March 14, 2012.

Profiles of women evangelists can be found here.

Caryn D. Riswold is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women's Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is the author of Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, and you can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

Sightings is published by the Martin Marty Center


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