Naomi Wolf, Jesus, Rosa Brooks, and a misreading of feminist history
Much has been made recently of Naomi Wolf's confession to the Glasgow Sunday Herald of her recent vision of Jesus. The iconic figure of 1990s feminism, author of the important "Beauty Myth", and a number of less compelling follow-ups, was by her own account raised a "nice Jewish girl". But she told the Sunday Herald:
“I actually had this vision of Jesus, and I’m sure it was Jesus,” said Wolf. “But it wasn’t this crazy theological thing; it was just this figure who was the most perfected human being that there could be – full of light and full of love.”
More bizarrely, she experienced this as a teenage boy. “I was a 13-year-old boy sitting next to him and feeling feelings I’d never felt in my lifetime,” said Wolf. “[Feelings] of a boy being with an older male who he really loves and admires and loves to be in the presence of. It was probably the most profound experience of my life. I haven’t talked about it publicly.”
Wolf emphasised that her spiritual renewal strengthened her commitment to feminism as her life mission. “I believe that each of us is here to help repair the world,” she said. “My particular mission seems to be about helping women remember what’s sacred about them or what’s sacred about femininity .”
She's been subjected to a fair amount of ridicule, the latest example coming in this Rosa Brooks column in the LA Times. Brooks doesn't take issue with Wolf's vision so much as she laments what she sees as a disturbing trend to spirituality and "unreason." She writes
Given our history, perhaps it's inevitable that many a modern midlife crisis will culminate in a spiritual awakening. But in our religion-saturated culture, I worry that we're losing touch with another great American tradition: the tradition of skepticism, rebellion and good old-fashioned orneriness.
Raised by atheist philosophers who worshiped reason, Brooks' frustration is familiar to me. What bothers me is that Brooks connects feminist history to skepticism and unbelief, with the not-so-subtle implication that a genuine commitment to women's rights rests uneasily with a faith in Jesus. Brooks concludes her column by writing about the
...early American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had little time for religious cant. Stanton mocked the biblical account of Eve's origin in Adam's rib as "a petty surgical operation to find material for the mother of the race. It is on this allegory that all the enemies of women rest their battering rams."
As for Wolf, it's hard to argue with a vision. But if Wolf, who insists she's still committed to feminism, really needs a great American tradition to help her through her midlife crisis, she could do worse than emulate Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
It's true that Stanton had little time for "cant". But Brooks is dead wrong to suggest that she was a woman without religious faith. It is Stanton who wrote the famous "Women's Bible" in 1898, not to mock Christianity but to re-frame it in feminist terms. With the text, she became the "mother figure" for later theologians who would be both feminist and authentically Christian, writers like Rosemary Ruether and Elizabeth Johnson and countless others. Stanton writes in the forward to her BIble:
Thus, the Old Testament, "in the beginning," proclaims the simultaneous creation of man and woman, the eternity and equality of sex; and the New Testament echoes back through the centuries the individual sovereignty of woman growing out of this natural fact. Paul, in speaking of equality as the very soul and essence of Christianity, said, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." With this recognition of the feminine element in the Godhead in the Old Testament, and this declaration of the equality of the sexes in the New, we may well wonder at the contemptible status woman occupies in the Christian Church of to-day.
Rosa Brooks is right that Stanton had little patience with the organized churches of nineteenth century America. But there's a whopping distinction between dissatisfaction with institutional Christianity and a rejection of the Gospel message. Stanton insisted that a vibrant and strong faith in Jesus was congruent with an enduring belief in women's equality and in feminist activism. To claim her as a "freethinker" or an "agnostic" is to badly distort women's history and to do a profound disservice to those of us who see, as Stanton did, that in Christ there is "no male or female."
From the Sunday Herald interview, I don't know if Naomi Wolf has come to Christ or not. Brief visions are important, but they are not -- in and of themselves -- real conversion experiences. Still, I'm glad that she's interested in helping integrate feminism and spirituality in the task of tikkun olam, the "healing of the world" so essential to the Judeo-Christian vision. In doing so, Wolf is connecting to a long-standing tradition in American feminism that goes back to the abolitionists and the suffragettes, back beyond Stanton to the likes of the Grimke sisters -- a tradition of championing women's complete and radical equality while embracing a real and living faith in Jesus.
Rosa Brooks, your women's history professor called. You need to repeat the class, my sister.
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