Women, Gender, Religion: Troubling Categories and Transforming Knowledge

  • Elizabeth A. Castelli


“‘Aomen’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relative to other categories which themselves change,” Denise Riley observes. Perhaps no one should be more aware of the persuasiveness of this claim than the feminist student of religious traditions—traditions that are themselves often deeply implicated in the historical and dis¬cursive construction of “women” as a category. Gender, Joan Scott argues, is simultaneously the interpretation of perceived sexual difference and a primary means for talking about power. This definition resounds profoundly for those who think about religious discourses and practices. As soon as the divine is analogized to the human realm, gender emerges as a problem of both differ¬ence and power. Once that analogy has been mobilized, the two realms seem to oscillate endlessly back and forth, each reflecting and reinscribing the other’s claims. Meanwhile, “religion” is, as David Chidester ably demonstrates in his study of colonialist contexts such as southern Africa, a non-innocent category. Critical feminist readers will no doubt recognize stark parallels between the colonial situation and other political arenas in which the organization of human social life is thoroughly framed by the power to define and to name.


Religious Tradition Religious Experience Academic Study Muslim Woman Feminist Study 
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  1. 1.
    Denise Riley, “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 1–2, 5, 6.Google Scholar
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  3. 3.
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  4. 5.
    The literature that founded this movement within the academic study of religion is far too vast to summarize in a single endnote, and the literature that sustains it is yet farther reaching. Accessible and very useful bibliographies can be found in Ursula King, Women and Spirituality: Voices of Protest and Promise (2nd ed.; University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 233–59, and eadem, “Introduction: Gender and the Study of Religion,” in Religion and Gender, ed. Ursula King (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 31–38. See also the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, which began publishing in 1985 under the founding editorship of Catholic biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow and continues to flourish today.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In the West, such struggles can be traced backward through women’s battles for access to public institutions (access that was routinely denied through recourse to religious, often biblical, arguments) to earlier struggles over religious authority (struggles that span the full history of Christianity, to choose just one example, into the present day). In the West, the premodern querelles des femmes and the emergence of feminism as a product of Enlightenment arguments concerning reason and virtue—both intellectual resistance movements that struggled mightily with religious institutions and theological arguments concerning women’s natural inferiorities—are important precursors to contemporary feminist interventions into the academic study of religion. On the querelles des femmes, see Joan Kelly’s classic essay, “Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle des Femmes, 1400–1789,” in Women, History, and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 65–109. On the Enlightenment inheritance for feminist critiques of religion, see many of the excerpts anthologized in Alice S. Rossi, ed., The Feminist Papers from Adams to Beauvoir (2nd ed.; Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988; original edition: New York: Columbia University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
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    Fieldwork studies have produced interesting work in both of these geographical areas. See, for example, on Latin America: Elizabeth E. Brusco, The Reformation of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion and Gender in Colombia (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995)Google Scholar
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© Elizabeth A. Castelli 2001

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