Campus & Community

Reconciling faith with feminism:

6 min read

HDS’s women and religion conference attracts overflow crowd

Women and Religion conference
Listening to a lecture given by Charlotte Bunch, president of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, are (from left) moderator Ann Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program; Azizah al-Hibri, president of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights; Roberta Hestenes, minister-at-large, World Vision; and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms. Magazine.

Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin remembers attending a “Women and Identity” conference in the 1970s and being asked, with all the conferees, to stand beneath a sign – black, Latina, woman, Jew – that best identified her.

“In 1972, I would make a beeline to the word ‘woman,’” she recalled. “Today, I refuse to be asked to choose.”

Pogrebin, who is Jewish, shared her personal struggle to reconcile her faith with her feminism at the “Religion and the Feminist Movement” conference Friday (Nov. 1). Sponsored by the Women’s Studies in Religion Program of the Harvard Divinity School, the three-day conference gathered a diverse group of panelists who, like Pogrebin, “refused to choose.”

“Religious feminists have never been completely embraced either by their religion or by feminism,” said conference organizer Ann Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program. “I really wanted to disprove the notion that religion and feminism were opposing forces in American culture. I think it’s historically inaccurate and I think this conference demonstrates that.”

Attendance at the conference also demonstrated an eagerness to explore the intersection of the two areas. More than 300 academics, religious professionals, and students attended and 150 were turned away when the conference, which had to be moved from the Divinity School to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, could not accommodate more participants.

Intersecting paths through religion and feminism

At the opening panel, called “Religion and ‘the Movement,’” Pogrebin and three other women from diverse religious backgrounds discussed their journeys – sometimes diverging, sometimes intersecting – as religious women and feminist women. Establishing a theme that would resonate throughout the conference, they each described how their faith nurtured their feminist beliefs and then, in many cases, rejected them.

“The Methodist Church and the Methodist student movement really put me on the path to feminism,” said Charlotte Bunch, women’s rights leader and president of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. “[The church] trained me to lead and to stand up for my principles and I felt that it abandoned me when I tried to do so.”

Growing up in rural New Mexico, Bunch admired the Methodist missionaries she met, whom she saw as reconciling their passion for adventure with their Christian morals. She took this zeal to Duke University where, in the 1960s, she became an activist and a leader in the student Christian movement.

Out of the ivory tower and into the “real world” of church hierarchy, however, she found her leadership skills weren’t embraced. Nor, she later learned, were her feminist ideas or her lesbianism.

“The more the feminist movement grew, the more radical our interpretation and understanding and analysis of patriarchy became and the more we saw how deeply rooted it was in the church institution, the more impatient we grew,” she said. “I found myself moving inexorably further and further into the secular world and away from the church.”

‘I was told that I didn’t count’

Like Bunch, Pogrebin’s early years were marked with an eager enthusiasm for her faith. She studied the Torah with her father, a lawyer and Talmud scholar, delighting in the connection to both her religion and her father.

Fifteen years old when her mother died, Pogrebin turned her back on Judaism after her father refused to allow her to complete the minyan – the 10, traditionally male, Jews required to satisfy the quorum requirements of a formal ritual – instead summoning a man who couldn’t even read Hebrew.

“My connection to Judaism was very deep and very visceral but I was told that I didn’t count,” she said. “And if I didn’t count, I wasn’t going to count myself in.” Pogrebin left formal Judaism and deepened her connection to her mother’s less refined, more folkloric Jewish practice.

Feminism stood in for Pogrebin’s religion for many years, yet it also led her back to Judaism and helped her synthesize the two. In the 1970s, she created a feminist Seder, and in the early 1980s, she spoke out against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments in the women’s movement. Pogrebin detailed her journey from Judaism to secular feminism to a merging of the two in her 1991 book “Deborah, Golda and Me.”

“I try to live with a feminist head and a Jewish heart,” she concluded.

For Roberta Hestenes, a respected Christian educator and minister-at-large for the Christian relief agency World Vision, feminist ideals powered her trip to religious leadership. Raised in a nonreligious household, she described her conversion to Christianity in college as “an utterly life-shaking, transformative, amazing experience.”

Yet her quest to share her religious beliefs through teaching was repeatedly thwarted by the church’s patriarchal views. When her anger about women’s roles in her Presbyterian church threatened to force her out, she resisted, the power of her faith proving too strong to sever.

She became the first female faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, where she taught that institute’s first course on women in ministry. In 1987, she became president of Eastern University in Pennsylvania; there, she was the first woman president in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities.

Religion on her own terms

Azizah al-Hibri, president of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, received a rigorous education in the Quran and classical Arabic at home in Lebanon that mirrored Pogrebin’s Jewish foundation. But life led her to the United States, to Marxism, to Malcolm X, to civil rights, and to feminism. Islam slipped away.

She returned to Islam, she said, “on my own terms” when a personal crisis brought her to her knees to pray. “God talks to you in different ways,” she said. “You just have to be sensitive and listen.”

Other speakers throughout the weekend included activist and women’s studies scholar Gerda Lerner and Mormon Women’s Forum founder Margaret Toscano, who riveted the conference with the story of her deep connection to and subsequent excommunication from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Radical feminist Mary Daly brought a dissenting voice to the conference, asserting that there is no hope for reform in patriarchal religions.

“I hate religion. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be interested in religion and divinity and God. … The words have become worthless,” she said.

Braude believes that it was the opportunity to hear the personal stories of influential feminist and religious thinkers like Daly that gave the conference its power – and its overwhelming attendance.