“Why do you stay?” It is a question often asked of women who balance both a feminist and religious identity. Many feminists argue that to embrace a patriarchal religious tradition is to participate in a structure that is oppressive to women. Likewise, many who belong to those traditions argue that to be feminist is to reject our “God-given” gender roles. Nonetheless, more and more, women are choosing to challenge oppressive structures by working within religion and honoring the foundational teachings that call for liberation of all persons.
Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay explores this phenomenon. Forty-five women – fifteen from each tradition – respond to this question and share their stories of struggle, strategy, and search for liberation from the inside. These women have courageously stepped forward to acknowledge the ways that one can exist within a structure and find beautiful possibilities.
It has long been argued that feminists within religious traditions have been brainwashed and are “subscribing to patriarchal misogynist beliefs that we need to reject in order to achieve gender equality.” Furthermore, many associate the idea of a faith filled woman with the likes of Candice Cameron Bure, a woman who heeds to her husband’s wishes in honor of her religion. Nevertheless, the celebration of feminism and faith has a long history and continues on today as witnessed by the women in this volume.
We each choose to “stay” for our own reasons; family, culture, a love for a tradition we recognize as being foundational in our search for liberation. Within our faiths we find the tools to dismantle oppression and the empowerment to work for change.
While we do recognize that sexist interpretations result in the appearance of a disconnect between our feminism and faith, we also recognize that leaving our traditions will not change the oppressive structures that exist. Countless women and men will continue to be subjected to damaging teachings inspired by patriarchal thinking. And so, “staying” within our traditions allows the opportunity to call out these sexist interpretations while engaging our faith communities.
Working from within tradition is certainly not the only path to creating change. The work of feminists like Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde, and Mary Daly well demonstrate this. Their efforts have led to incredible growth in the movement to eradicate sexism and all oppression. There are many ways to work for change. We choose to do so from within and while celebrating our cultural and religious heritage.
It is not lost on us that “Why do you stay?” is a question often associated with abusive relationships. However, we do not believe our traditions are abusive; rather, we recognize that interpretations of teachings as calling for the subordination of women are distortions of faith. And so, while many claim it is only a feminist act to leave one’s tradition, we maintain that it is indeed a feminist act to stay.
The following is an excerpt from the essay “Do You See What I See?” by Mariam Williams in Faithfully Feminist:
I was a twenty-year-old college student the first time I documented my thoughts about feminism and Christianity. At a campus-based women’s prayer group primarily made up of African American women, we discussed submission in Christian marriage. Some members advocated for women to remain in abusive marriages, and I ran to my journal fuming.
What 20th century, college-educated woman could think this way?
I asked my pages. Why were my peers applying gender expectations from four thousand years ago to modern times and not seeing the Christian man’s duty not to be violent in the first place? Obviously they haven’t seen what I’ve seen, I thought.
I became a feminist the day my Aunt Grace came running to our house barefoot and bleeding from cuts her husband had etched into her face with a knife moments before. My mother and I, plus Aunt Grace’s fifteen-year-old daughter, who didn’t get along with her stepfather, lived with my maternal grandparents then. My grandfather wasn’t home at the time, and knowing his extremely peaceful nature, I doubt the scene would have unfolded and shaped me as it did if he had been home. I watched my grandmother pick up the phone; instead of dialing 9-1-1 she called Aunt Grace’s home number and unleashed curses upon Aunt Grace’s husband. My grandmother said words I did not think she knew and that no eight-year-old should hear. My mother grabbed her car keys and ran out the door, saying she was going to get her sister’s shoes and some clothes. My grandmother dropped the phone, ran to the door and called out, “You can’t go over there! He’s crazy!”
My mother stood sternly in her five-foot frame and responded, “I ain’t scared of no man.” My cousin, who was seven inches taller than my mom and weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, ran past my grandmother and said, “I’m going, too!”
The situation terrified me, but the strength of these women was staggering. Their united audacity to think that their daughter/sister/ mother had a right to be free from abuse—and their fearlessness in defending her—awed me. My mother and cousin returned with the clothes, they tended to my aunt’s wounds, and my lifetime of fascination with women’s empowerment began.