Not a Real Feminist

February 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Posted in feminism, Hillary Clinton, New York Theological Seminary, Norman Gottwald, women | 6 Comments

By now, you’ve probably heard about young women not supporting Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign. An article in the New York Times today explores the issue, explaining that in New Hampshire, Clinton won by 11 points among older women, but lost by 59 points among “millennial voters” (though it’s not clear if the author means millennial women voters). HC lost them by quite a lot, in any case. The article also reports on the attitudes toward Clinton of younger women at Penn State, one of whom says she couldn’t even “tell you what a feminist is.”

The young woman may be an idiot. Or she may be reflecting the fact that what feminism is has never been all that simple. I became involved in Christian feminism in the early 1970s at Grailville, the farm and program center of the Grail, an international Catholic lay women’s movement. Along with Church Women United,the Grail had co-sponsored one of the first programs in feminist theology, “Women Exploring Theology” in 1972. The pioneering feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, has written that it was at that week-long program that it first occurred to her that theology was not just something created by men.

I had begun spending summers working at Grailville while I was teaching the fourth grade in the early 1970s, and during the summer of 1974, Eleanor Walker, one of the leaders of the Grail, sent for me and asked me to put together an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I had been taking care of the chickens at the time, and Eleanor said something to the effect that I didn’t seem to be very good at it, that the prayer book might be a better use of my talents. The Grailville community used the prayer book, including my inclusive language paraphrase of the Psalms, for a number of years thereafter. As a result of the prayer book, I met several theologians with whom I later co-authored three professionally-published books on feminist theology, spirituality and worship.

The truth is, I wasn’t all that interested in feminism when I started working on the prayer book. I had joined the Grail because it seemed to me to be an astonishing embodiment of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially the renewal of the liturgy. Grail liturgy, music, and arts more broadly were more beautiful than anything I had experienced previously. I was hooked.

Furthermore, my own working-class background and tendency to analyze as well as sing complicated my feminism from the beginning. After I joined the Grailville staff in 1975, a Catholic nun, Sister of Loretto Ann Patrick Ware, was leading some kind of program at Grailville–I forget what, a program just for Grail members, I think. At a meal during the program when Ann Pat and I were sitting together, she responded to something I said with “You know, you’re not a real feminist.”

She was right, if, by real feminist she meant one accepting the clear, “women are this, men are that” binary that Mary Daly and a number of other second wave feminists seemed to advocate. (One of the most helpful things I ever read about the early Catholic feminist tendency to binarize was an article by Beverly Harrison about how Mary Daly’s feminism was basically a reversal of the the hierarchical neo-Thomism she had learned getting her first Ph.D. at St.Mary’s.) One of the events I remember most clearly during my years at Grailville was Katie G. Canon going nearly berserk over the black maid of one of the (white) workshop leaders of Seminary Quarter at Grailville when we were having a meeting at the workshop leader’s home. Eventually, Seminary Quarter moved to Atlanta, at least in part because Loveland, the town where Grailville was located, was too (that is to say, almost entirely) white.

Another experience that illustrates how I am not a real feminist (of a certain sort) occurred after I moved back to New York City from Ohio. I was attending the first meeting of a women’s liturgy group in an apartment in one of the high rises across Broadway just north of Union Theological Seminary. We were explaining why we had come. An extremely well-dressed woman in the group said she was there because “men write history and women don’t.” I said, “You clearly never met my working-class father. He hardly wrote sentences.”

The facilitator of the group replied “Don’t contradict her. She’s sharing her experience.” I pictured the previous speaker on the moon, looking down and counting (experiencing?) all the men and women who were writing history at the time. I was ecstatic when, in 1994, Mary McClintock Fulkerson published her brilliant feminist theological study “Changing the Subject,” in which she argues compellingly that “women’s experience” is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

My reference to my father in that encounter up near Union Seminary in 1983 or ’84 was not coincidental; I grew up in a working class household, and my father was for some years the president of a union local. When I decided to get a seminary degree, I opted not to go to the Ivy League Union, in part because it was way too expensive, but also because the students in the courses I audited there seemed privileged beyond belief, although feminst theology was an important part of  Union history and curriculum. Instead I attended a Black/Latinx/Korean night school, New York Theological Seminary, where we all ate the bagged lunches we brought with us while the professors lectured. And my class consciousness was only intensified by the Hebrew Bible courses I took there with the great Marxist scholar, Norman Gottwald.

Subsequently, when I was the president of the board of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the early 2000s, I met with the leaders of several national Black Catholic women’s organizations about working with us, they told me in no uncertain terms (alas) that they had more important issues to contend with. And when RCWP Bishop Patricia Fresen said, in an address at a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, that the exclusion of Catholic women from ordination is just like apartheid, I nearly had a heart attack. Except for the hundreds of thousands of Black people killed and imprisoned in South Africa, I thought. Whatever feminism is, it’s “pas si simple,” as the French say. It’s complicated.

This brings me back to Hillary Clinton. If she gets the Democratic nomination, I plan to support her ferociously. All of the Republican candidates would be catastrophic if elected, especially the current front-runners. I am trying to decide when the right moment might be to shift my support to HC to prevent such a catastrophe. But up till now, I have been supporting Bernie, and I am deeply grateful to him for raising issues that a good number of second wave white feminists didn’t pay enough (or any) attention to. Can he get elected president? We’ll see. But at least one older U.S. feminst hasn’t transferred to the HC camp yet.



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  1. Marian, very much enjoyed this blog. I identify as never fitting into or being comfortable with a certain prevailing view of a feminist. It seemed narrow and not life giving enough. My guess is it doesn’t fit younger women comfortably either, though maybe for different reasons. I will investigate further with my adult daughter and others her age.


  2. Make that two of us. This seventy-something long time feminist is very much a Bernie supporter.

    The narrowing of the definition of who is a “real feminist” seems to me akin to the narrowing of the definition of “real Christian” by the literalist, fundamentalist branch of Christendom, which seems intent on drawing ever smaller circles around who is “in”. I hold to the idea that each person has the right to name their own identity, be it ethnic, political, or ideological, and I have the obligation to hear and accept that identity. Carolyn McDade wrote a chant that expresses it beautifully: “Tell me your name, the one you call yourself. It can’t be given, only claimed. It can’t be stolen or bartered away.”

    As for Bernie vs. Hillary, the latter has been and remains too much the corporate animal for my taste. I’m supporting Bernie until he either wins or concedes the nomination. Should it be the latter, I will of course support Hillary in the general election. There is far too much at stake to do otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I heard HC speak at a gathering in Philadelphia in 2007. I became her supporter from that day.
    Michael Nutter was there as well-and he was soon after elected Mayor of Phila.
    You may recall, he faithfully supported HC until she was super-delegated out of the nomination, although she had won the popular vote. I felt he had been convinced that day in Philadelphia, as I was. (I have always been grateful that I learned very early on from WOC and SepaWOC that feminism includes women and men)
    Hillary’s real compassion for the struggling-especially women and children- in every part of the world-touched my being. She wad strong and gentle.
    A friend of ours once told me, knowing of my dedication to peace, that HC is only “slightly to the left of Attila the Hun!” I have carried that in my heart.
    As there are no real peace candidates for President, my hope is that HC will be able to temper her militarism with the imagination James Carroll has called us to: to be able to imagine the real people the bombs are falling on.
    To see the sexism-underlying and blatant-in our political structure in both 2008 and again now, infuriates me as deeply as it hurts me.
    I like Bernie and want him to have a prominent role in an HC administration.
    Be all this as it may, I so appreciate your teachings, your explanations, your widom, your wit, your faith and your youness!
    Onward to “Gender, Gospel and Global Justice!”


  4. Thank you as always for your wit and wisdom. I agree that labels are too limiting, people seem to want to define us by their ideas. That has never worked for me. As with any candidate, I look at what they have supported in the past and decide if that is what I want to support or not, male or female, black or any other race, we need to be discerning voters and definitely get out there and vote! I am for Bernie as the one who has supported peace and justice for all and has opposed corporate where necessary, unless he doesn’t get the vote, then I am for Hillary, as you say, she is better than any of the Republican candidates for me.


  5. I shifted in the last couple of weeks to Hillary. I want to win. I remember McGovern. I don’t want Bloomberg.


  6. Most appreciative of your post, Marion, and the ensuing comments by others. I live in Toronto Canada, but am eligible to vote (and do) in Massachusetts. These kind of discussions are very useful for me. Thank you. Onward and upward!


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