To Build a Dialogue
An Excerpt from Faith & Feminism: A Holy Alliance
By Helen LaKelly Hunt
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to bridge secular and faith-based feminism is very important.
Women of faith feel that the rights movement is anti-religion,
and the rights activists haven’t made enough effort to listen
to and include the women of faith. The social justice movement
needs both voices. We need to be able to move to the next step,
of dialogue between the rights world and the religious world.
—DOROTHY Q. THOMAS
In past decades, many of us have been aware of
a gulf between faith-based and secular feminism. On one side were
activists who found religion indispensable to their activism. On
the other were activists who found religion outdated, superficial,
or perhaps just irrelevant to their activism. While on a personal
level, there was some interaction between these two groups, an
occasional casual friendship, on the philosophical level, there
was a barrier. If a feminist happened to refer to her spiritual
life in “mixed company,” she was likely to be met with an embarrassed
silence. But if she talked exclusively from a secular point of
view, she was using the lingua franca of the movement, and nobody
would raise an eyebrow.
Dorothy Q. Thomas, founding director of the Human
Rights Watch Women’s Rights Division and a 1998 Mac- Arthur Fellow,
has spoken eloquently about this division and the need for healing
through dialogue. I agree with her. More women in the movement
are looking for ways to reconnect and reintegrate secular and faith-based
worldviews into a single, stronger feminism. In order to bridge
the gulf, we need to consciously create opportunities to talk and
to listen. Dialogue gives us a way to find common ground.
In 1995, I found an opportunity to engage in dialogue
with women about faith and feminism. In the spring of that year,
I was preparing to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference
on Women in Beijing, China.1 It seemed to me that the conference
was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear from women from all
over the world about important issues in their personal and social
I decided to interview conference participants
about their thoughts on religion and the women’s movement, and
developed a survey consisting of three open-ended questions. The
questions were designed to encourage my interviewees to share their
personal experiences regarding religion and feminism. Originally,
I had hoped to interview women from all over the world, but as
I thought about it, I focused only on women from the United States.
I had a hunch, which was later confirmed, that women from other
countries might not split their faith from their feminism the way
we do in the United States. My questions to American women were
simple. Was the social activism of secular women and faith-based
women unified and coordinated? Did they experience a split between
the two? And if so, why was there a split? What should be done
about it? I didn’t know it then, but these questions became the
impetus for this book.
The results were striking. All of the fifty women
I interviewed said they felt a polarization.3 Not one of them thought
that secular and faith-based feminists were working in coalition
or in harmony with one another. As they talked about the reasons
for the split, many said that while spiritual matters were important
to them personally, organized religion had been no friend to women.
The institutionalized church has been one of the fiercest opponents
of women’s social and political equality. One of the women I interviewed
put it most graphically: “Of course feminists shy away from religion.
There is blood on the cathedral steps.”4 She was talking about
the blood of women sacrificed because of the church’s doctrinal
She was right. The historical record of the church
includes too many examples of women’s oppression and too few documenting
support for women’s rights.5 I understand why feminists might want
to stand apart from these malecentered ideologies and theologies.
Why be a willing participant in an organization that has acted
in opposition to its own core teachings on the equality and worth
of all human beings?
If you are like me, this is a question you have
asked yourself. All thoughtful people of faith must come to terms
with the church’s damaging contradiction between principle and
practice on the subject of women’s rights. I have wrestled with
it for many years. Because I was raised in a Christian family,
my spirituality has been nurtured within the Christian tradition.
But I had to learn how to maintain integrity while practicing allegiance
to a faith that I knew was deeply flawed when it came to being
expressed in daily practice.
I admit to being led first by my heart in these
matters. I love my faith. The beauty of the ritual and liturgy
reminds me of the oneness of the entire human family. My faith
makes clear to me that equality and justice are not just social
constructs, but an ontology, part of the divine order of life.
That we are all a part of a large web of connection that is sacred,
if we have eyes to see.
For me, the brainwork comes later, after the love.
Nevertheless, the brainwork has to be done. In order to be a Christian
and a feminist, I must understand and reconcile apparent opposites.
This reconciliation takes place within me every single day as the
seeming contradictions of my faith and my feminism actually amplify
and enlarge, even complete one another’s core values.
What I know to be true is this: the crimes of any
religious institution do not negate the value of universal love
and the religious ideals at its core. Sadly, human institutions
will always be flawed reflections of the values they hope to embody.
Every women’s organization falls short of its values and ideals
as well, and the work of feminism is to name these ideals and to
strive for them. If there is blood on the cathedral steps, we must
also recognize the bloodshed inherent in combating political oppression.
If we are so angry at the deeply flawed parts of religious institutions
that we cut ourselves off from our spiritual birthright, we make
no gains. Instead our anger is exacerbated by profound loss. I
say preserve the anger, yes, but also preserve our right to our
spiritual traditions. The patriarchy may have stolen our freedoms,
but we don’t have to be complicit in the abandonment of our souls.
Two Revolutions: Feminism
When I talk about Christianity and feminism, I do so with the awareness
that each is a whole complex world of ideas and feelings. Although
I am clear about the ways they are different, I see them springing
from the same originating impulse. Both are revolutions of consciousness,
a manifestation of the desire and need for inclusion and connection.
Early Christianity shook up the established order
of life under Roman rule by proclaiming that freedom and grace
belonged to everyone. Nearly two millennia later, early feminism
(the 1830s) emerged with a similar message and made it more specific
and inclusive. Then the second wave of feminism (the 1960s) articulated
the message once and for all through the proclamation of the National
Organization for Women,6 which defined feminism as “the radical
notion that women are people.”7
These two revolutions of faith and feminism, though
very different, were built upon the same fundamental assumption:
every person is intrinsically as valuable and worthy of love as
any other. The implications of this revolutionary doctrine are
staggering. Both Christianity and feminism did more than suggest
a few fresh ideas to the prevailing worldview. They shook things
up until a new world order emerged. The new Christian and the early
feminist could see the kingdom of justice and equality for all
was just within reach.
In their dynamic, pure form, both of these revolutions
sought to enlarge our capacity for compassion and empathy. Both
preached the transformation of the human mind and heart, and both
have contributed to the evolution of new social orders. On a personal
level, each of us separately can reflect on whether our experiences
with Christianity and feminism have felt congruent. Have our feminist
experiences been Christian? Have our Christian experiences felt
I wanted to take some time to study the origins of American feminism,
and in so doing, accidentally stumbled upon the abolitionist
feminists of the nineteenth century, whose relatively unknown
story needs to be told. These were women of color as well as
white women, who knew that their country was founded on the ideal
of “liberty and justice for all,” and decided to take this declaration
at face value. They took offense at the idea of a liberty that
was for white men only. The same rights belonged to men and women
of color, to poor people, to immigrants, to children; all humans
The story begins with a fierce band of Quaker women
who began to ponder the unequal treatment of women and people of
color in the culture. In the silence of their meetings, a voice
spoke to them and guided them to the work they needed to do in
the world. They developed absolute certainty that God’s law demanded
freedom for all people. Slavery must end. They were confident that
they were being called by God to bring this vision of justice into
the world. No more taxation without representation. No more pay
discrepancy. No more silence in the church. They tucked their Bibles
under their arms and marched to the first abolitionist–women’s
rights meetings, propelled by the vision of this spiritual mandate.
Increasingly, scholars acknowledge that American
feminism was rooted in the abolitionist movement, and that religion
played a central role in condemning the institution of slavery
and substantiating the need for immediate abolition. Women created
many local female abolitionist societies. Representatives of these
societies came together in New York in 1837, forming the Anti-Slavery
Convention of American Women, the first national political women’s
meeting in America’s history. Both black and white women met and
began to break the taboo of speaking in public and petitioning
in the political arena. Calling their work “the cause of God,”
this courageous band of 180 women saw themselves on a mission to
unite Heaven and Earth, in the form of a society that would live
and practice the democratic and religious ideals it espoused.8
This convention has received relatively little
study by historians. But the documentation of this meeting shows
these earliest feminists to be revolutionaries and visionaries
who had their eyes on a universal law that superseded man-made
ecclesiastical and governmental laws of the day. I studied these
earliest feminists for two years, focusing on how they were galvanized
by their religious passion to act in radical revolution. They were
catalyzed into action not by a social ethic, but by a belief in
an ontology of connection—that we are all meant to live in equality
and harmony. It was this metaphysical vision that set fire in their
hearts and started a social revolution. Having the conviction that
something needed to change meant doing whatever was required. “This
is a cause worth dying for,” declared Angelina Grimke about her
commitment to speak out against slavery.9
The backlash against women meeting together publicly
was severe. When these same women met again the next year, this
time in Philadelphia, a mob of 10,000 men encircled the building,
shouting and angrily throwing stones through the windows. It got
to the point where no one inside the meeting hall could hear what
was being said. When it was impossible to continue the meeting,
the women filed arm in arm out into the street. While they were
able to exit safely, the mob continued to riot around the meeting
hall, breaking the doors and windows. They finally set fire to
This public backlash to the women’s convention
was devastating in some ways but also galvanizing in others. Reading
the women’s diaries and other primary accounts of this event, I
could feel the deepening resolve of these early feminists. It came
naturally, from the deep springs of their faith in God. The women
documented the proceedings of each convention, and these writings
help us see how their faith and their courage to fight for social
reform were intertwined. They began their meetings with prayer.
Then they voted on public resolutions such as this one: “The time
has come for woman to move in that sphere which Providence has
assigned her, and no longer remain satisfied with the circumscribed
limits with which corrupt custom and a perverse application of
Scripture have encircled her.” 10 This statement is the first public
call for women’s rights in America.
I can’t read these words without feeling stirred.
And I find the phrase, “a perverse application of Scripture,” to
be a startling acknowledgment that the ecclesiastical structures
of the day used religion as a weapon against women, especially
against those who were fighting for the professed ideals at the
heart of Christianity. This is not an unknown tactic in our own
time. I am often embarrassed or outraged by fundamentalist doctrine
that, in my view, has been used to set back the progress we’ve
made in human rights. We must continue to be wary of the “perverse
application of Scripture” for the purpose of justifying policies
and institutions that keep people divided and excluded.
As I studied this early feminist organizing, I
saw it was significant in other ways. The abolitionist feminists
insisted on “Sympathy for the Slave” as the organizing motto. They
worked in pairs, circulating petitions, and in groups on collaborative
writing projects. And in so doing, they acknowledged their awareness
that their abolitionist activism brought the values of empathy
and relationship they had cultivated in their homes into the public
realm. They had no intention of leaving behind the strengths and
beliefs they knew would serve them well as they enlarged the sphere
of action. Empathy and relationship—two values desperately needed
in public life today.
Ten years later, in 1848, what is generally acknowledged
to have been the first women’s rights meeting in America was held.
Five women met in Seneca Falls, New York, for what became a notorious
tea party where women plotted revolution. The women were Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Martha Wright, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann McClintock, and
Lucretia Mott. They shared their outrage over not being allowed
to participate in public meetings or have a voice in society. The
decision was made at this small but historic meeting to place a
notice in the newspaper calling for a Women’s Rights Convention
to be held at a nearby church. The purpose would be “to discuss
the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of Woman.”11
The notice ran on July 14, 1848, and only five days later, three
hundred people, including some forty men, attended the first Women’s
Rights Convention. About a hundred attendees signed their names
to the famous Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,
written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Some of the same women attending
this convention had helped plan the antislavery conventions, and
their knowledge of protocol helped to make this gathering a great
success. This Seneca Falls Convention is considered to have officially
set in motion the most important social movement of America’s history.
In her memoirs, Elizabeth Cady Stanton states that
there was “a religious earnestness that dignified all the proceedings.”
12 While this meeting laid the groundwork for what became the
suffrage movement, in truth, the movement’s social
implications were broader than that. By starting with the issue
of the vote for women, they were ushering in a social transformation
that cut across the political, social, and economic structure of
the country. Think of it! Five religious women sitting at tea,
believing simply that God had called them to do the right thing,
were catalytic in a groundswell movement to usher in social equity
that is still reverberating in our lives.
It is remarkable that one of the most significant
social revolutions of all time was fueled in large part by the
personal convictions of a small band of nineteenth-century religious
revolutionaries. I don’t think we can begin to understand their
actions if we don’t make an effort to understand their faith. Nor
can we understand their faith without looking more closely at their
When we read their letters and study their public
writings, we learn an interesting fact. Nineteenth-century feminists
made a distinction between institutional authority and their own
intensely personal religious experiences. The fact that the church
wasn’t supporting their efforts didn’t mean that God wasn’t supporting
them, nor did it invalidate their religious faith. Those early
feminists were filled with the confidence that their mission was
an outgrowth of divine order and justice. They sorted out the issues
wisely. Personal religious experience is not necessarily the same
as organized religious doctrine. My concern is that as contemporary
women we have lost the capacity to make this distinction. As far
as I’m concerned, if a religious institution does not support an
is- sue that is based upon Christ’s teaching, it’s imperative to
challenge the institution, not necessarily the teaching. Unfortunately,
some feminists are immune to this difference. They have thrown
the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. They have ignored the
transformative power of religion because they deplore the stupidity
and blindness of some of its practitioners. And many contemporary
feminist historians have written the history of the women’s movement
solely from the point of view of the secular academy. They have
not entered into the reality of these earlier feminists, nor truly
listened to their words. This, combined with the fact that churches
and temples have been among the strongest opponents of the women’s
movement, has created a vast chasm between faith and feminism.
As a political movement, feminism seeks to transform society by
challenging and changing social institutions. Religion, on the
other hand, seeks first to transform individuals through a personal
relationship with God, which then results in a desire to work
for the transformation of society. Religion and feminism share
many common ideals.
Someone with a religious sensibility develops an
acute awareness of certain questions. Do I live out my beliefs?
Am I the same person in public that I am in private? Am I experiencing
life as it is, delicately interconnected? Am I working from anger?
Am I working from love? I know many women in secular feminism who
function from this same place of integrity, but the religious feminists
I know have an advantage.
Their faith requires and supports the continuous
exploration of these questions, and their communities of faith
are there to help them find their way when the journey becomes
In order to talk about religious qualities as more
than abstract ideas, let’s explore how they become manifest in
individual people. By listening to the voices and understanding
the lives of women of faith, we will be able to see whether religion
has enlarged or restricted their potential. From my study of the
early feminists, it is clear to me that religion was far more to
them than a source of comfort. It offered a process for integrating
disparate experiences and provided a source of empowerment and
transcendence that made these women giants. On a personal level,
these early feminists overcame being called misfits and heretics
by recognizing that, in the larger view, they were extremely important
to God. In them, self-examination and self-acceptance occurred
in the same moment. They presumed themselves to be incomplete,
but they knew they were accepted in their incompleteness and loved
anyway. And this is the optimum mind-set for anybody who wants
to undertake the hard work of social change.
As the women in this book show us, faith and feminism
can work together to achieve the same ends. Both Christianity and
feminism offer a prophetic vision for the future by inviting the
transformation of the individual and of society. The two may be
experienced differently, but they point us in the same direction.
This understanding was brought home to me at an
annual fund-raising breakfast for the New York Women’s Foundation,
one of over a hundred women’s funds that make up
the Women’s Funding Network. After the program, Florence Pert,
an associate minister of Marble Collegiate Church, approached me.
“You know what’s really going on here, don’t you?” she asked. “This
isn’t just about coming together to pool resources for women’s
causes, the way it’s talked about. This is about church.”
As I reflected on her comment, I began to understand
what she meant. We each contribute to the split between faith and
feminism when we think of them as dualities. Social action is as
much an expression of the spiritual impulse as are prayer and ministry.
Women’s funds include those who are marginalized and left out of
the rooms of power. They give voice to those who are voiceless.
They reach out to women who are in prison because they carried
drugs for their boyfriends. They provide material help to inner-city
mothers struggling to work and care for their children. Florence
Pert carries the belief, as do many women of faith, that whenever
we act for the common good, we are engaging in spiritual action.
Feminist activism fostering justice, equality, and love embodies
the prophetic, powerful verse in Scripture: “Let justice roll down
like waters . . .”
Healing the Split
In the twentieth century, feminism developed in opposition to religious
authority and became a secular political movement. It has sponsored
an honorable political agenda and achieved significant improvements
in the economic and social lives of millions of people. But in
this great work, the renewing, transformational language of the
spirit has been obscured.
The women’s movement has not found a way to reconnect
comfortably with the religious impulse that was central to its
origin. Ironically, we have emulated the male model of progress
through separation rather than connection. Feminist social scientists,
especially those at the Stone Center at Wellesley, have written
about the female pattern of development, which, given that the
mother and daughter have the same gender, emphasizes the importance
of remaining in relationship. This is distinct from the male pattern,
which encourages separation.13
The feminist movement has not been able to stay
in relationship with religion. We couldn’t have separated faith
from feminism more completely if we had been agents of the patriarchal
system separating the concept of love from the concept of power.
Will such separation continue to serve the larger purposes of the
feminist cause? This is an important question for each of us to
The severe secularism of the twentieth century
appears to be softening, but a dangerous extremism also appears
to be growing. More people now tend to talk about matters of the
spirit, but as feminists and people of faith, we must acknowledge
efforts to use religion as a political vehicle to compromise our
human rights. Our task is to call upon the passionate faith of
the abolitionist feminists that generates within us a moral courage,
that moves us toward social justice, and that opens us to our indissoluble
relationship to God and to each other.
There is growing interest in examining the point
at which the political and the spiritual intersect. Service to
others is a spiritual value, and the overt recognition of this
can be part of the development of our own wholeness. My hope is
to add my voice to the chorus of other women who are calling for
a bridge between the secular and the spiritual. Our effectiveness
in building this bridge will depend on how well we connect to each
other in every interaction. That means taking the time to listen
to those who come from points of view that are different from our
own. If we listen well, learn from one another, and find the ability
to empathize with one another’s experiences, I believe the split
will have served us well. When a broken bone mends, it becomes
stronger along the break. When we strengthen our connections to
one another, we become whole. And when we are whole, we are empowered
and can empower others.
Copyright © 2004 by Helen Hunt, PhD. Reprinted
by permission. Excerpted from Faith
and Feminism by Helen Hunt, Ph.D., published by Atria Books,
a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (Available at your local
bookstores and at simonandschuster.com ISBN 9780743483728, $14.00)
LaKelly Hunt is an activist within the women's movement. She is
founder and president of The
Sister Fund, a private women's fund dedicated to the social,
political, economic, and spiritual empowerment of women and girls.
Helen has helped start a number of women's funding institutions,
including the Dallas
Women's Foundation, the New
York Women's Foundation and the National Network of Women's
Funds (now the Women's
With three degrees from Southern Methodist University
and an honorary PhD. from the Chicago Theological Seminary, Helen
also holds a PhD from Union Theological Seminary. In 2004, Atria
published her book, Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance,
which lifts up the dynamic synergy between feminism and progressive
other awards, Helen is an honored inductee in the National Women's
Hall of Fame.
Last year, she co-chaired a campaign called Women
Moving Millions that raised $180 million for women’s funds
in the Women’s Funding Network.
Also, Helen has co-authored seven books with her
husband, Harville Hendrix, and has been instrumental in the development
of Imago Relationship Therapy, which he founded. Helen and Harville
live in New York City, and have six remarkable children.
1. The conference in Beijing was the first U.N.
World Conference on Women to include spirituality and religion
as topics of discussion.
2. I created and administered this study as
a course under Delores Williams at Union Theological Seminary.
3. Wilma Montanez commented on the value of
recognizing that “if you leave faith out of the organizing, you
leave Hispanic women out.”
4. A statement made by Robin Morgan, a leading
second wave author and activist.
5. One example is Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s work,
in which she draws parallels between current circumstances that
women face today and the witch hunts, citing materials from India
as being the most similar. Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze:
A New History of the European Witch Hunts, San Francisco: Pandora
6. The National Organization for Women (NOW)
exposed the anti women tactics of organized religion.
But it also structured and founded a national-level
committee for feminists and faith based institutions.
While it is not commonly known, there were many
women of faith who created the resurgence of feminism in the
NOW had its founding meeting on the campus of
a Catholic women’s college, Alverno, in Milwaukee, and one of
the founders was Sister Joel Reed from Alverno.
The coalitions for the equal rights amendment
were greatly enhanced by the support of many churches and religious
Secular and faith-based women worked side by
side on the ERA in spite of the fact that the amendment raised
some “dangerous” issues, such as abortion, birth control, and
See Ann Browdy’s work at Harvard Divinity School
for more information on this.
7. The catchphrase “women are people too” calls
to mind shameful periods throughout history in which women had
to fight having a sub-human category forced upon them. One recent
example concerned both Canadian and Australian women, who were
defined by the 1876 British Common Law ruling: “Women are persons
in matter of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters
of rights and privileges.” Thus, they were not permitted to participate
fully in public offices and affairs of state. In 1916, Judge
Emily Murphy, the first female magistrate in the British Empire
found herself challenged in court by a defendant’s lawyer who
claimed that she was not a person and therefore not able to perform
the duties of magistrate. In the spring of 1928, Emily Murphy
and four other women appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada
to consider this question: “Does the word ‘person’ include female
‘persons’?” The Supreme Court answered, “No, it does not.” They
appealed this ruling, and finally, on October 18, 1929, the lord
chancellor of the Privy Council announced the unanimous decision
of the five lords on the council that “the exclusion of women
from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than
8. Turning the World Upside Down, The Anti-Slavery
Convention of American Women, (The Feminist Press at the City of
New York, NY. 1987). 11.
9. Angelina Grimke to William Lloyd Garrison,
30 Aug. 1837 in Liberator, 19 Sept. 1835.
10. Turning the World Upside Down, 13.
11. Virginia Bernhard and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,
The Birth of American Feminism: The Seneca Falls Convention of
1848, (St. James, N.Y.: Brandywine Press, 1995), pg. 79
12. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years or More:
Reminiscences, 1815-1897. (Boston: Northeastern University Press,
13. Judith Jordan et al. Women’s Growth in Connection:
Writings from the Stone Center (New York: Guilford
Press, 1991). See especially Jean Baker Miller, pp. 13-20, and
Janet Surrey, pp. 52–56. Judith Jordan, Jean Baker Miller, Irene
Stiver, Janet L. Surrey, and Alexandra G. Kaplan have written extensively
about the different patterns of development followed by male and
female children. They maintain that female infants and children
evolve an identity while remaining in relationship with their context
(beginning with their mothers). Males, on the other hand, are encouraged
to separate from their context. They are given the message that
they must individuate in order to become themselves. Women are
given the opposite message.