“A Feminine Complaint Against Theologians”

Fifty years ago this Sunday, feminist theology of the second wave was born. Well, maybe not born—but it made it into Time, under the headline “Religion: Male and Female Theology.” Yes, Monday, June 27, 1960. The cover picture: US Ambassador Douglas MacArthur II. Here’s how the article opened:

Modern theology should be labeled FOR MEN ONLY, according to one woman who has made a study of the subject. In the current issue of the quarterly Journal of Religion, Valerie Saiving Goldstein, 39, instructor in religion at Hobart and William Smith colleges in Geneva, N.Y., lodges a feminine complaint against contemporary theologians: they are making the mistake of assuming that a thinking man’s theology is equally good for a thinking woman.

The essay cited in the Time article was Saiving’s “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.” Originally published in a scholarly venue alongside a piece by Rudolf Bultmann, it went on to be reprinted in the widely influential anthology Womanspirit Rising, edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (re-issued in 1992 and still available today). As a result, Saiving’s scholarly article was read by generations of feminists—or soon-to-be-feminists—and generations of college and graduate students across the United States and beyond.

Its influence was substantial. Mary Daly, for example, cited Saiving in her own influential early work, The Church and the Second Sex, and Plaskow herself wrote a (published) dissertation drawing substantially on Saiving’s essay entitled Sex, Sin and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

Womanspirit Rising published Saiving alongside others whose names came to define the second wave of feminist theology: Mary Daly, Rosemary Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Elaine Pagels, Rita Gross, Merlin Stone, Starhawk, and Aviva Cantor among them; as well as Christ and Plaskow themselves. While critiqued (not least by its own editors in their 1992 preface and their sequel, Weaving the Visions), the anthology continues to bring women, and men, to an understanding of why gender matters and why it matters when it comes to religion. It lets us see burgeoning feminist work—both critical and constructive—in Christianity, in Judaism, and in what were then new “goddess” religions. Despite sometimes being seen as dated in her essentialism, Saiving is, and was, key to this and much much more.

Womanspirit Rising was not the first time nor the last that the 1960 essay would be reprinted. It appeared again in a scholarly venue, the journal Pastoral Psychology, in 1966. And it has been repeatedly anthologized in the decades since, appearing in The Nature of Man in Theological and Psychological Perspective (1962, 1973) edited by Sam Doniger and in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology in 1995. Even more recently, in 2009, Saiving’s piece was anthologized in Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology edited by Ian McFarland. Here, Saiving’s essay appears alongside selections from Augustine and Calvin, Justin Martyr, Schleiermacher, Barth, and Aquinas. “The Human Situation” is bracketed by the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and James H. Cone. Saiving is among nine (primarily twentieth and/or early twenty-first century) women to appear among the fifty-one thinkers.

That Saiving’s essay remains influential is attested to, as well, in both Catholic and Mormon discussions on the Web. And yet, many of those influenced by “The Human Situation” have forgotten Valerie Saiving and are surprised to discover her work. Witness the blogosphere of today.

Theological Nostalgia

“I am a student of theology; I am also a woman,” wrote Saiving in the first two sentences of “The Human Situation.” She was recognized in that issue of Time alongside reports of the Nixon/Kennedy rivalry, of unrest at Vanderbilt over the expulsion of “Negro Divinity Student James M. Lawson Jr. for promoting sit in demonstrations,” and of various university commencements that saw, for example, two “Negro” Ivy League graduates as newsworthy. It included, as well, a book review, entitled “The Ogre of Merion,” examining a book entitled Art and Argyrol; yes, about the same suburban Philadelphia man whose art collection is the subject of a 2010 documentary called Art of the Steal.

Elsewhere in the magazine, science raised and answered questions that seem so contemporary: Can science help parents choose in advance the sex of their baby? The answer: not now, but perhaps before very long.

That same magazine included this commentary on the era’s pessimism:

If the world outside was anything like the one described at commencements across the U.S. last week, the 1960s graduate would do well to forget that $600-a-month job offer and bury himself as far back in the library stacks as he can squirm.

Reading about Saiving alongside such details: the sense of discovery, the hope, the odd combination of so familiar and so unfamiliar that makes for theological nostalgia. Whether we are talking about oil paintings or feminist theology, so long ago, so recently, fifty years. Nixon is long dead, as is Kennedy. “Negroes” have become African Americans. Radcliffe no longer produces graduates, and it is not quite so newsworthy when students of color graduate from the Ivy League. We remain unsure whether parents can (or should) choose their baby’s sex (even though we also know they do). And we continue to care about Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection.

But we know so much more. Fifty years have passed.

Women’s Sins

Saiving’s essay focused on much more than the linking of her identity to her theological perspective. She made the argument more broadly that, for example, Christianity’s condemnation of pride and will-to-power as the central human sin and selfless (sacrificial) love as the solution. By emphasizing difference between male and female, masculine and feminine, Saiving pointed to the tragedy of selflessness in the absence of the capacity to develop a self and the risks of disappearance into the lives of others (including one’s children) as typically feminine temptations. As she writes of women’s sins:

They are better suggested by such terms as triviality, distractability, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s sense of self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason—in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self. (Journal of Religion, Vol. 40, No. 2)

Saiving’s analysis looks to culture as well. She does so by naming modernity a “hypermasculine culture,” with its emphasis on external achievement, self-differentiation, and separation of man from nature. And, she points, as well, to “the feminizing of society itself” that she witnessed around her. Here, she has in mind a kind of selflessness and community that risked the merging of “individual identity in the identities of others,” leaving us with “a chameleon-like character who responds to others but has no personal identity of his own”. (This fifty-year-old characterization may indeed have been prophetic—of, if nothing else, our poll-driven democracy.) But it points to more; Saiving quotes Lionel Trilling as well:

The American educated middle class is firm in its admiration of non-conformity and dissent. The right to be non-conformist, the right to dissent, is part of our conception of community. Everybody says so… Admiring non-conformity and loving community, we have decided that we are all non-conformists together.

In the face of memory and nostalgia, what the phrase “I am a student of theology. I am also a woman” might mean remains up for grabs. What it might mean to be a culture embracing dissent through conformity, too, remains a dilemma.

Saiving gave us the gift of identity—and we live with it and wonder, perhaps, what she would make of what we have done with her gift. We have made theology, and we have made women’s studies. And we have deconstructed both.

We have certainly not made a world where women are free.

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