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Women, Gender, Religion: Troubling Categories and Transforming Knowledge

  • Elizabeth A. Castelli

Abstract

“‘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.

Keywords

Religious Tradition Religious Experience Academic Study Muslim Woman Feminist Study 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  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
  2. 2.
    Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 42.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 259.Google Scholar
  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
  5. For a version of the history of feminist interventions into various academic disciplines, see Domna C. Stanton and Abigail J. Stewart, eds., Feminisms in the Academy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995). For an assessment of the current state of women’s studies as a field, see Joan Wallach Scott, ed., Women’s Studies on the Edge, a special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9:3 (Fall 1997).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    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
  7. While many will argue that “feminism” as an intellectual movement must be carefully historicized and contextualized within this Western Enlightenment frame, some will notice currents of critique of women’s situation outside of the European and American contexts. See, for example, Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992)Google Scholar
  8. and Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), especially her concept of “gender activism” as a potential solution to the problem of the term feminism.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Russell T. McCutcheon, ed., The Insider / Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader (London: Cassell, 1999);Google Scholar
  10. Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, eds., Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    This is not to make a call for apologetic treatments of religious traditions nor to deny the stark claim by historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith when he writes: “Religion has rarely been a positive, liberal force. Religion is not nice; it has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” See Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 102–20, quotation at 110. Apologetic special pleadings and facile dismissals of “religion” as simply false consciousness ironically do the same kind of ideological work—refusing to take religion, in all its messy complexity, seriously.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman, eds., Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986); quotation from Bynum’s introduction at 2.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    Ursula King, ed., Religion and Gender (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    It should be noticed that the category of “gender” has caused some anxiety in certain quarters. See Darlene Juschka, “The Category of Gender in the Study of Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 11 (1999): 77–105, which argues that “gender appears as a neutral category of analysis and is therefore a means by which to depoliticize feminist analysis.” As a consequence, gender registers in her discussion as “a category of analysis …developed within a hegemonic discourse … [a] master’s tool” (77). The opposition that governs Juschka’s critique is feminism/interested/politics versus gender/objective/science, an opposition that does not adequately characterize the literature she surveys or the broader field(s) of feminist studies of gender. Juschka’s critique is far from persuasive, in my view, especially since it does not take into account the wide range of work in critical gender studies, which is unapologetically and unabashedly political in its impulse and effects. (Note that Audre Lorde’s critical concept, “the master’s tools,” goes unattributed.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 13.
    See Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister/Outsider: Essays and Speeches [Trumansberg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984], 110–.)Google Scholar
  16. For a subtle engagement of the institutional and political investments of these terms, see Leora Auslander, “Do Women’s + Feminist + Men’s + Lesbian and Gay + Queer Studies = Gender Studies?” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 9:3 (Fall 1997): 1–30.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    Chidester, Savage Systems, traces the history of the comparative study of religion to the colonial encounter (using southern Africa as his exemplum). See also a wide range of publications in recent years: Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History of Religions (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991);Google Scholar
  18. Tomoko Masuzawa, In Search of Dreamtime: The Quest for the Origin of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993);Google Scholar
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  21. Donald Wiebe, The Politics of Religious Studies (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999);Google Scholar
  22. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  23. See also the review essay by Russell T. McCutcheon, “The Category ‘Religion’ in Recent Publications: A Critical Survey,” Numen 42 (1995): 284–309,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. and two recent handbooks for the study of religion: Mark C. Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) andGoogle Scholar
  25. Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds., Guide to the Study of Religion (London: Cassell, 2000).Google Scholar
  26. 14.
    Consider the perspective of Morny Joy, “Beyond a God’s Eyeview: Alternative Perspectives in the Study of Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 12 (2000):110–40;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. see also Marsha Aileen Hewitt, “Ideology Critique, Feminism, and the Study of Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 11 (1999): 47–63, for a trenchant argument for separating feminist reconstructive work within religious traditions and the feminist academic study of religion. Hewitt’s discussion would fit happily amidst the discussions cited in the previous note.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 15.
    Orsi offers two examples for the sort of work he champions and for which he advocates: David L. Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)Google Scholar
  29. and, perhaps of particular interest to readers of this volume, the groundbreaking work by Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  30. 16.
    Of the extensive literature on this subject, see Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly ed., Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar
  31. and Susan Mizruchi, The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Social Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 17.
    A related study of “matriarchy” has just recently appeared. See Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  33. Historical and archaeological research on evidence for ancient goddesses and goddess cults is gathered helpfully in two recently published works: Karen L. King, ed., Women and Goddess Traditions in Antiquity and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997)Google Scholar
  34. and Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, eds., Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  35. 18.
    Jarena Lee’s autobiography may be found in William L. Andrews, ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 25–48.Google Scholar
  36. Jackson’s writings have been collected, edited, and published by Jean McMahon Humez in Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Cox Jackson, Black Visionary Shaker Eldress (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  37. To situate these sources within the broader framework of African American women’s religious history, see Judith Weisenfeld and Richard Newman, eds., This Far by Faith: Readings in African-American Women’s Religious Biography (New York: Routledge, 1996).Google Scholar
  38. 19.
    I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (2nd ed.; New York: Routledge, 1989; original edition: London: Penguin, 1971).Google Scholar
  39. 21.
    The literature on the broad topic of “religion and the body” is too abundant and wide-ranging to be summarized here. Among important anthologies here are Jane Marie Law, ed., Religious Reflections on the Human Body (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995);Google Scholar
  40. Sarah Coakley, Religion and the Body (Cambridge Studies in Religious Traditions 8; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997);Google Scholar
  41. Tani E. Barlow and Angela Zito, eds., Body; Subject, and Power in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  42. and Michel Feher, ed., with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Parts I–III (New York: Zone Books, 1989).Google Scholar
  43. 22.
    Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, eds., Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), especially the introduction at 3–50.Google Scholar
  44. 23.
    There are numerous books on “women in Buddhism,” but they tend not to take up explicitly theoretical questions. Among the more important of these, see Diana Y. Paul, Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Tradition (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1979);Google Scholar
  45. Anne C. Klein, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995);Google Scholar
  46. and Rita M. Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  47. See also some of the articles in volume 1 of Haruko Wakita, Anne Bouchy, and Ueno Chizuko, eds., Gender and Japanese History (2 vols.; Osaka: Osaka University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  48. On a range of religions in Southeast Asia, see some of the articles in Begum Karim Wazir-Jahan, ed., “Male” and “Female” in Developing Southeast Asia (Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Women 14; Oxford/Washington, DC: Berg Publishers, 1995).Google Scholar
  49. 24.
    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
  50. and John Burdick, Blessed Anastácia: Women, Race, and Popular Christianity in Brazil (New York: Routledge, 1998).Google Scholar
  51. On Australia, see Diane Bell, Daughters of the Dreaming (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  52. 25.
    Some of the founding texts in the field of masculinity studies in religion include Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994)Google Scholar
  53. and James McBride, War, Battering, and Other Sports: The Gulf between American Men and Women (New York: Humanities Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  54. See also Stephen Blake Boyd, W. Merle Longwood, and Mark W. Muesse, eds., Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996)Google Scholar
  55. and Björn Krondorfer, Men’s Bodies, Men’s Gods: Male Identities in a (post-) Christian Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  56. Worthy of special note is a very recent work of historical theology: Virginia Burrus, Begotten, Not Made: Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth A. Castelli 2001

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