Nancy Hardesty, Founding Mother of Biblical Feminist Movement (1941-2011)

Many are surprised by the claim that there is a biblically-oriented feminist movement in American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Indeed I often write here at RD about Biblical Patriarchy but rarely explain that that contemporary movement arose in response to a transformation in conservative Protestantism in terms of its understanding of women’s roles.

But it’s true. Today’s Biblical Patriarchy Movement is not that old. And it is a direct response to the transformative work of a handful of evangelical women (and a couple of men) in the early 1970s, in the midst of the larger American women’s rights movement.

They produced a small stack of books (now a book-case full) that argued for alternative readings of the “difficult passages” in the Bible that had been used to subjugate women in Christianity. And they did so in a style of reading the Bible that was intended to connect with conservative Christians. One of the earliest of those books was All We’re Meant to Be by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty. Letha has on posted a tribute to Nancy on her blog: the story of their growing friendship as they wrote the book together and sought to find a publisher. Letha’s narrative itself is both painful (they almost didn’t find a publisher) and quaintly charming with photos and recollections about women’s lives in the 1960s and 70s.

Together with a few others, Nancy and Letha founded the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus) which became a place of refuge and fellowship for many at the same time as it had tremendous impact on institutions such as Fuller Theological Seminary.

Imagine that it is the early 1980s and a young woman in her early twenties is struggling to find her voice and her place in the world. She goes to a Fundamentalist church and feels constantly battered by submission theology. It’s bad enough when its, all too often, the focus of the sermon (Mother’s Day is the worst, and if you are laughing I bet you know Nancy’s work).

But submission theology also permeates every part of Christian life in our young woman’s world. Her interest in things intellectual is looked upon with suspicion or derision. Her leadership qualities are squeezed into “appropriate” but ill-fitting tasks like working with the children. It seems that no part of who she knows herself to be is welcome in this world, or for that matter by God, because, after all, the Bible is clear about the status of women. Right?

I still remember when I first discovered that the text in Ephesians that tells wives to be submissive is immediately preceded by a command that Christians be subject to one another with no reference to gender at all Not only is this text explicit that the submission go in both directions, the traditional reading of the text that follows (commanding husbands to love their wives) is assumed to also apply to wives even though it doesn’t say so!

Nancy Hardesty passed away last week. She knew she was dying and had written an essay full of insight and wisdom, “Some thoughts on Living and Dying.” She said,

“Some might have asked, “Why me, God?” but I did not. I pretty much subscribe to the unofficial A.A. mantra, to put it frankly: “Shit happens.” While I have had my share of disappointments, slings, and arrows, I often say I’ve lived a charmed life….Through my writing and teaching, I have touched many lives. So many people have shared with Letha and me how our book, All We’re Meant to Be, changed their lives. Within the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus I have left a legacy.”

Indeed she did. To those who never felt battered by these texts, it’s hard to explain just how freeing it is to realize that those interpretations are just that: interpretations. And in fact they are interpretations made by men who have an agenda. That realization opens the whole world. Thank you, Nancy.