Liberal/Equality feminist theologies

The next stage of the OCR DCT A2 is a study of liberal feminist theology and their response to secular liberal feminism.  You need to have some knowledge of the aims and methods of liberal feminist theology and know and understand what they teach about the role of women in the Bible.


Liberal feminist theologians attempt to demonstrate that Christianity is not inherently patriarchal and the Bible can actually be used to support liberal feminist aims.  They would argue that the Bible shows that women can perform a wide variety of roles and that certain texts (the story of Deborah, Martha and Mary, Priscilla, Phoebe etc) are particularly important in demonstrating this.

  • They don't believe the Bible is the literal word of God.
  • They think it contains both useful insights and unhelpful misogynistic teachings.
  • They are selective in their use of the texts.
  • They use a hermeneutic of suspicion to challenge traditional interpretations.
  • They deliberately seek out 'forgotten' stories.

You need to consider whether you think that their methods are valid.

Note: the terms 'liberal', 'reform/reconstructionist' and 'radical' are not necessarily very helpful. In many cases a theologian will have written some things that might broadly count as 'liberal' and others that tend more towards 'reconstructionist'. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born in New York.  Her father was a judge and she followed in his footsteps and read law.  She married Henry Stanton (who was involved in the anti-slave movement) and they had three children together.

In 1851 Stanton met Susan B. Anthony and the two of them together campaigned for the vote for women in America.  

In 1851 Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the Woman's Convocation.  She argued that girls should be brought up 'to look forward to a life of self-reliance' (i.e. prepared to have a job and work.  She condemned the traditional female tasks like sewing (she described a needle as 'that one-eyed deamon of destruction that...never makes us healthy, wealthy, or wise.')  Furthermore, she called for women to reject the traditional beliefs about how a woman should behave.  'Teach the girl it is no part of her life to cater to the prejudices of those around her.'  Such a re-education was to begin in early childhood.  She was very confident that education could 'revolutionalise' the world.  She said:

'Begin with the girls of today, and in twenty years we can revolutionize this nation.  The childhood of woman must be free and untrammeled.  The girl must be allowed to romp and play, climb, skate and swim; her clothing must be more like that of the boy - strong, loose fitting garments, thick boots etc., that she might be out at all times and enter freely into all kinds of sport.'

Once girls were educated to think differently, patriarchy would fall.

'...taste the joy of free thought and action, and how powerless is his rule over you!  his sceptre lies broken at your feet; his very babblings of condemnation are sweet music in your ears; his darkening frown is sunshine in your heart , for they tell of your triumph and his discomfort.  Think you, women thus educated would remain the weak, dependent beings we now find them?  By no means.'

The similarities between Wollstonecraft, Taylor and Stanton should be apparent.

From the inauguration of the movement for women's emancipation the Bible has been used to hold her in her divinely ordained sphere.  

When, in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, women began to protest against their civil and political degradation, they were referred to the Bible for an answer.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  From the Introduction to her Women's Bible (all other quotations in the paragraph to the left are also from there.)

Stanton believed that one barrier to women's emancipation was the Bible.  She argued that the Bible was used to fight against women's demands for equality.  Women were told that God had created a specific role for them and they should stick to it.  Whilst Stanton was herself resolutely liberal in her attitude towards the Bible (she said 'I do not believe any man ever saw or talked with God') she recognised her own reverence for it.  She recounted feeling horrified when her mother had used a Bible as a cushion to make a chair higher for a small child 'it seemed such desecration...and this, too, long after my reason had repudiated its divine authority'.

Thus, Stanton felt that it was necessary to deal with the content of the Bible. She got together a committee of women to write a commentary to the Biblical texts. Many of her fellow women's rights campaigners were critical of her efforts (perhaps afraid that the resulting book would offend the conservatively minded and make them more likely to reject than support female emancipation).

Stanton responded to her critics who argued that the task of creating The Woman's Bible was 'a useless expenditure of force over a book that has lost its hold on the human mind' by arguing that it has not lost its hold.  She recognised that Biblical teachings about the role of women did influence how people treated women and what they felt was suitable for them.

For her own part, Stanton felt that it was perfectly acceptable to reject the degrading teachings found in the Bible whilst upholding other examples as beneficial.

'The Bible cannot be accepted or rejected as a whole, its teachings are varied and its lessons differ widely from each other.  In criticising the peccadilloes of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, we would not question the virtue of Deborah...In criticising the Mosaic code, we would not question the wisdom of the golden rule.'

'The canon law, the Scriptures, the creeds and codes of the church discipline of leading religions bear the impression of fallible man.'

The Woman's Bible provided a commentary to Biblical stories concerning women. It contained a variety of different view points (as one would expect given the 20+ contributors).  The women were not primarily biblical scholars but many had engaged with the work done by professional biblical historians.  The following quotations are all taken from Stanton's own comments.

The complete text of the Woman's  Bible can be found here.


Stanton compared the Genesis 1 account with that found in Genesis 2.  

'The first account dignifies woman as an important factor in the creation, equal in power and glory with man. The second makes her a mere afterthought.'

'It is evident that some wily writer, seeing the perfect equality of man and woman in the first chapter, felt it important for the dignity and dominion of man to effect woman's subordination in some way.'

She also suggested that even the account of the Fall could be reinterpreted in a more positive light.

'...the unprejudiced reader must be impressed with the courage, the dignity, and the lofty ambition of the woman. The tempter evidently had a profound knowledge of human nature, and saw at a glance the high character of the person he met by chance in his walks in the garden. He did not try to tempt her from the path of duty by brilliant jewels, rich dresses, worldly luxuries or pleasures, but with the promise of knowledge, with the wisdom of the Gods.'


Stanton pointed out that the story of Deborah is rarely held up to women as an example to follow.  Women were usually told to emulate the women who are meek and obedient instead.

'We never hear sermons pointing women to the heroic virtues of Deborah as worthy of their imitation. Nothing is said in the pulpit to rouse their from the apathy of ages, to inspire them to do and dare great things, to intellectual and spiritual achievements, in real communion with the Great Spirit of the Universe. Oh, no! The lessons doled out to women, from the canon law, the Bible, the prayer-books and the catechisms, are meekness and self-abnegation; ever with covered heads (a badge of servitude) to do some humble service for man; that they are unfit to sit as a delegate in a Methodist conference, to be ordained to preach the Gospel, or to fill the office of elder, of deacon or of trustee, or to enter the Holy of Holies in cathedrals.'

'Deborah was a poetess as well as a prophetess, a judge as well as a general. She composed the famous historical poem of that period on the eventful final battle with Sisera and his hosts; and she ordered the soldiers to sing the triumphant song as they marched through the the {sic} land, that all the people might catch the strains and that generations might proclaim the victory.'

Jephthah's Daughter:

A stark contrast to the strength and leadership of Deborah is the submissiveness of Jephthah's daughter [though one could argue her response was courageous!]. Stanton rejected the way the story was often interpreted and hypothesised a better ending - one which involved Jephthah's daughter standing up for herself and rejecting her vow.  In this section she also compared Jephthah's daughter to the type of woman who rejected the woman's rights movement.

'We often hear people laud the beautiful submission and the self-sacrifice of this nameless maiden. To me it is pitiful and painful. I would that this page of history were gilded with a dignified whole-souled rebellion. I would have had daughter receive the father's confession with a stern rebuke, saying: "I will not consent to such a sacrifice. Your vow must be disallowed. You may sacrifice your own life as you please, but you have no right over mine. I am on the threshold of life, the joys of youth and of middle age are all before me. You are in the sunset; you have had your blessings and your triumphs; but mine are yet to come. Life is to me full of hope and of happiness. Better that you die than I, if the God whom you worship is pleased with the sacrifice of human life. I consider that God has made me the arbiter of my own fate and all my possibilities. My first duty is to develop all the powers given to me and to make the most of myself and my own life. Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice. I demand the immediate abolition of the Jewish law on vows. Not with my consent can you fulfill yours." This would have been a position worthy of a brave woman.'

1 Corinthians 11:

Stanton commented on the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 in which Paul instructed women to cover their heads as a symbol of male authority.  As with her commentary on the story of Jephthah's daughter she used the story as an opportunity to reflect on current practices.

'According to the custom of those days a veil on the head was a token of respect to superiors; hence for a woman to lay aside her veil was to affect authority over the man. The shaving of the head was a disgraceful punishment inflicted on women of bad repute; it not only deprived them of a great beauty, but also of the badge of virtue and honor.'

'Though these directions appear to be very frivolous, even for those times, they are much more so for our stage of civilization.'

'Yet the same customs prevail in our day and are enforced by the Church, as of vital consequence; their non-observance so irreligious that it would exclude a woman from the church. It is not a mere social fashion that allows men to sit in church with their heads uncovered and women with theirs covered, but a requirement of canon law of vital significance, showing the superiority, the authority, the headship of man, and the humility and the subservience of woman. The aristocracy in social life requires the same badge of respect of all female servants. In Europe they uniformly wear caps, and in many families in America, though under protest after learning its significance.'

'It is certainly high time that educated women in a Republic should rebel against a custom based on the supposition of their heaven-ordained subjection.'

Dr Rosemary Radford Ruether:

Rosemary Radford Ruether was born in 1936 in Minnesota.  She has degrees in Philosophy, Ancient History, and Classics.  She received her doctorate in 1965 and is currently professor at Claremont School of Theology.

For many years Radford Ruether considered herself to be a Roman Catholic but opposed many of the Church's doctrines.  She supports female ordinationcontraception and is pro-choice in relation to abortion.  Consequently, her views were judged heretical by many of the more conservative members of the clergy.

Her best known work is Sexism and God Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (1983, republished 2002) but she has written books on topics such as liberation theology and ecological issues as well.

It is worth noting that both Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson believe that this cannot be done. They believed that Christianity is a historical religion and cannot shed its misogynistic past.

She believed that the role of feminist hermeneutics is to find a way for women to reclaim central Christian principles from patriarchy.  In other words, feminist theologians have to find methods of extricating the valuable core of Christianity from its misogynistic history.

'The task of feminist hermeneutics today is not only to develop and solidify the principles by which women appropriate the good news of liberation from patriarchy and develop the stories and texts to proclaim this good news. The task of feminist hermeneutics is also to establish this theory of interpretation as normative and indispensable to the understanding of the faith.'

Rosemary Radford Ruether in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible: A Biblical Approach to Women's Liberation (1985) ed  Letty M. Russell, 

A hermeneutic of suspicion:

In common with most liberal feminist theologians Ruether believed that:

  • The Bible is not all the word of God (it contains God's word but also contains the words of humans which reflect their world view).
  • Interpretations are not neutral but are subjective and contextual
  • Feminist theology should be done from the starting point of experience

Therefore, Ruether (like Cady Stanton and Trible) begins with a hermeneutic of suspicion, questioning both the text itself and the way it has traditionally been used.

Ruether was also willing to look beyond the Bible an consider the insights of non-Christian holy books and traditions.  This contributed to her work on reforming language used about God.  You can find out more about this on the reconstructionist page.

A 'Golden Thread':

Quotations taken from Sexism and God-Talk.

Ruether suggested that the Bible contains a 'golden thread', that is, a consistent theme that runs throughout the texts.  This thread, she said, is the theme of liberation; a 'prophetic-liberating tradition'. It can be found in Old Testament stories like the Exodus in which God sided with the oppressed and liberated them.  It is found again in Jesus' radical treatment of outcastes, his criticism of established religion and his message that people should treat others as they would like to be treated (the golden rule). 

Ruether thought that this theme represented the genuine authentic word of God encapsulated within the Bible.  Other aspects of the Bible are not the word of God; these come from human beings.  Ruether was quite willing to admit that a lot of the Bible stories are misogynistic and she thought that many aspects of the Bible were irrefutably patriarchal

Once  this central message has been identified, we can (according to Ruether) use it to evaluate the other Biblical stories.  Those that do fit with this essential message can be viewed as authoritative.  Those that do not can be rejected and assumed to derive from the reflections of the world view and prejudices of the writer.

Ruether also encouraged women to use their own experience to inform their interpretation of the Bible.  In this respect, her approach of doing theology is very similar to Latin American liberation theology or black theology.

'...whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.'

Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk

In Feminist Hermeneutics: A method of correlation she said that the '…critical principle of feminist theology is the affirmation and promotion of the full humanity of women.'  In other words, texts that promote woman as autonomous human beings are judged authentic and those that do not are rejected.

So we can describe Ruether's hermeneutic in two ways:

  1. Identifying the golden thread and using it as a criteria for evaluating other texts.
  2. Using female experience to evaluate whether particular biblical stories promote the full humanity of women


Ruether's Christology (her beliefs about Jesus) would take her beyond liberal feminism and into the realm of reconstructionist theologies.  However, her initial thoughts could be said to fall broadly within the liberal tradition and she explored the idea in detail in her essentially liberal book Sexism and God-Talk.

Essential characteristics (things an object has to have) are said to be part of its essence.  

Non-essential characteristics (things it might have but need not necessarily have) are said to be accidental to it.

For example, having homosapien DNA is essential to being human, but being more than 5 feet tall is not essential to them.

For feminists, Jesus' maleness is a problem because it has been used to reinforce the view that men are closer to God, superior to women and the 'normative' pattern for humanity.  In the Summa Theologica Aquinas said that 'because the male excels the female sex, Christ assumed a man’s nature.' Thus maleness has been assumed to be part of the essence of Christ (and thus part of the essence of God). As Mary Daly wrote 'when God is male, then male is God'.  

Ruether challenged this view and argued that maleness was accidental to Jesus. This would mean that God is not associated with maleness.  We can relate this back to Ruether's previously stated criteria.  To see maleness as being part of God's essence is not consistent with the 'golden thread' (as it would not lead to the liberation of women) and it does not promote 'the full humanity of woman' because it implies that she is less perfect than man.  By saying that maleness is accidental to Jesus, Ruether was saying that God could become incarnate in either male or female form.

Ruether has argued that Christianity has always had within it a tradition of recognising that God does not literally have gender (gender is a physical thing and God is non-physical).  There has a also been a (minority) tradition of referring to God using female terminology.  Consequently, Ruether proposed that reconstructing the language that Christians use about God was both necessary and desirable (see notes on reconstructionist feminist theologies).


Ruether was aware that her approach left her open to criticism.  She selected certain texts as authoritative over and above others. This is known as preaching a 'canon within a canon' - i.e. trying to identify a set of especially authoritative texts within an already authoritative text.  Ruether did not deny that she did this, however she argued that this is what Christians have always done.  The Bible has never been treated as though everything it said was equally authoritative.  For example, historically the Genesis 2 creation story (in which woman is made out of man) has been treated as though it were more authoritative than Genesis 1 (in which man and woman are made together).

Mary Ann Tolbert (in a book called Defining the Problemhas challenged Ruether's view that the liberating-prophetic tradition found in the Old Testament and in Jesus' ministry can be used to support feminism.  She points out that the Old Testament prophets do not themselves speak about the liberation of women. Ruether replied that the prophets themselves could not have spoken of the liberation of women because they were limited by their own world-view. However, is this response entirely convincing?  If the prophets were speaking on God's behalf (which Ruether implied they were, given that their liberating message is the bit of the Bible that she thought was authentic) then surely they should not have been limited by their human world view.

Dr Phyllis Trible:

Phyllis Trible was born in 1937 in Virginia.  She studied theology at university and gained a PhD in 1963.  Scince then she has held various teaching posts (she is currently dean of Wake Forest School of Divinity in North Carolina) and has written numerous books and articles.  Two of her most well known books are God and the Rhetoric of Sex (1978) and the Texts of Terror (1984).

Re-reading of Genesis:

For feminists, Genesis 2-3 presents a problem.

  1. Eve is created out of man (less in God's image, dependent on man)
  2. She is made second
  3. She is made to be his helper
  4. She sins and leads him into sin
  5. She is punished by having him as master over her.

Trible offered a possible feminist reading of the text which ignores the traditional exegesis of this story and returns to the text afresh.  

She responds to each of the points made above as follows:

Compare her reading of the story to that found in the Mulieris Dignitatem.

  1. She is of the same substance as man (taken from his rib). They are made to be together, united as one.
  2. God did not create man and then woman.  He created humankind and then split it into two genders, male and female.  Trible argued that the language used supported this analysis.
  3. To be a helper is not necessarily a subordinate role.  God is described as the helper of Israel.
  4. Eve takes the initiative and seeks out wisdom.  The man, by contrast is passive.
  5. Man's 'mastery' over woman is an aspect of the fall, it is not what God intended.

Daphne Hampson (in her book Theology and Feminism) has condemned Trible's reading of Genesis as unduly optimistic and argues that there is no reason to try to reinterpret obviously patriarchal texts.  She points out that we do not try to find a more positive reading of the character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice.  We just accept that the anti-semitic sentiments are a product of their time.

However, consider whether Hampson is correct to compare Shakespeare to the Bible. People believe that they should follow the teachings in the Bible, few people would argue that we should follow Shakespearian principles.  Does this make a difference?

Texts of Terror:

Trible recounts the stories of the following women:

Hagar (used by Abraham as a mistress so he can have the children God promised).  Genesis 16.

Tamar (raped by her brother). 2 Samuel 13.

Jephthah's daughter (sacrificed by her father). Judges.

Unnamed concubine (raped and left for dead).

The 'texts of terror' refer to the Old Testament stories in which women are victims of violence and abuse.  

Whilst some people might think that such texts are best dealt with by being ignored, Trible thought that it was important to remember the stories of the victims of violence.  Her approach 'retells biblical stories of terror in memoriam, offering sympathetic readings of  abused women.'

Of the story of Jephthah's daughter she wrote:

'...the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah documents the powerlessness and abuse of children in the days of the judges (Judges 11).  No interpretation can save her from the holocause or mitigate the foolish vow of her father.  But we can move through the indictement of the father to claim sisterhood with the daughter.'

'Interpreting such stories of terror on behalf of women is surely, then, another way of challenging the patriarchy of Scripture.'

By remembering the victims in the Bible and by reading the stories from their perspective Trible hopes to ensure that they are not forgotten. 

Judges 19 gives us some background to the story.  The Levite 'took for himself a woman.'  The story does not give us any more detail about how he acquired her. However, she then ran away from him back to her father's house.  The Levite followed her to 'speak to her heart' and get her back.  After talking with her father and sharing food with him, he got his concubine back before they set out on the journey that would lead to her death.

One of the stories set forth in the Texts of Terror is the story of the Levite's concubine.  In this story a Levite (a member of the priestly tribe of Israel) and his concubine were staying as guests in a house when the townsmen demanded 'bring out the man that came to your house that we may know him'.  The houseowner replied that the man was his guest but offered 'my daughter the virgin and his concubine' instead.  The Levite pushed his concubine out of the house and the men 'and they raped her and tortured her all night until morning.'  When dawn broke, the Levite found his concubine collapsed in the doorway and said 'arise and lets be going'.  She gave no answer so he put her on the donkey.  Later he cut her into twelve pieces and sent the parts out to the twelve tribes of Israel.  Trible's commentary on the story says: 

'Of all the characters in scripture, she is the least...She is alone in the world of men.  Neither the other characters nor the narrator recognise her humanity.  She is property, object, tool, and literary device.  Without a name, speech, or power, she has no friends to aid her in life or mourn her in death.  Passing her back and forh among themselves, the men of Israel have obliterated her totally.  Captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered and scattered - this woman is the most sinned against.'

'Her body has been broken and given to men.  Lesser power has no woman than this, that her life is laid down by man.'

For Trible, by reading and remembering her story we can at least ensure that she has friends to mourn her.  

However, Trible also encourages us to go beyond pure memorial and judge the action.  Note Trible's choice of words in the last sentences of the above quotation. She has subverted Christian words from the Christian liturgy and from John's gospel. John 15 states 'Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends'.  Like Jesus, her body is broken and handed out.  Like Jesus she is sacrificed to human sinfulness.

Trible invites us to consider the relevance of the story today.

'"Direct your heart to her, take counsel, and speak." From their ancient setting, these imperatives move into the present, challenging us to answer anew....To speak for this woman is to interpret against the narrator, plot, other characters, and the biblical tradition because they have shown her neither counsel nor attention.  When we direct our hearts to her, what counsel can we take?'

'First of all, we can recognise the contemporaneity of the story.  Misogyny belongs to every ae, including our own.  Violence and vengeance are not just characteristics of a distant, pre-Christian past; they infect the commuity of the elect to this day.  Woman as object is still captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered.  To take to heart this ancient story, then, is to confess its present reality.  The story is alive and all is not well.  Beyond confession we must take counsel to say, "Never again."'

By remembering the story, by looking at the use and abuse of power within relationships we can use it to illuminate cases of abuse and inequality today.  The Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana said that  'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' and Trible hopes that by remembering past sins we can repent and avoid them in future.


Criticism of liberal feminist theology tends to come from two opposing sides.

  • Conservative Christians who think that liberal feminism goes too far.
  • Reconstructionists and radicals who think it does not go far enough.

Conservative Christians from the Roman Catholic tradition might object to liberal feminisms rejection of tradition and its challenge to the traditional doctrine of 'equal but different'. They could argue that women reach their potential by fulfilling their God-given role (motherhood).  They would reject liberal feminism's supposed marginalisation of motherhood and would defend it as an honourable task for women.  They might argue that liberal feminist (both secular and religious) misrepresent the traditional view of marriage.  It is true that Christianity has traditionally taught that wives should obey their husbands, but hand in hand with this goes the instruction for husbands to love their wives.  If a husband truly loves his wife then he will not abuse the power that he is given in the relationship and he will take her opinions into account.

Conservative Christians from the fundamentalist-leaning Protestant evangelical stream might object to the way that liberal feminist theologians are selective in their use of the Bible.  Protestants stress the authority of of the Bible (Catholics tend to also stress the authority of tradition) and fundamentalists see it as the inspired Word of God.  As such it must be inerrant (because God is omniscient), timeless (because he is eternal) and useful (because he is omnibenevolent).  To talk of a canon within a canon would make little sense to a fundamentalist as all the words in the Bible come from God.  Consequently, a fundamentalist would not accept the view that certain teachings are merely a reflection of patriarchal world views and can be disregarded.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Post-Christians like Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson would consider the attempt to salvage Christianity doomed. Both considered it to be inherently Patriarchal and beyond recovery.  

Others, like Pagels might consider something of Christianity to be kept but they would say that it needs radical reconstruction if it is to be of any use. Theologians need to go beyond identifying a core message of equality or pointing to specific examples of empowered women.  Equally, Schussler Fiorenza's work suggests that it is not enough to just highlight the existence of patriarchy in the text. She used creative actualisation to try to recreate 'herstory' (as opposed to 'history') and recreate the stories of the women who had been written out of the Bible.  Ruether herself went beyond purely liberal theology in her work on language about God.

Consider for yourself the following questions:

  • Does the Bible support liberal feminist aims?
  • Is the idea of a 'golden thread' helpful?
  • Is the Bible relevant to issues of feminism today? Does it still have an influence?
  • How legitimate is it to pick and choose what parts of the text you keep?
  • Is it reasonable to assume that the Bible reflects cultural norms that existed at the time it was written?  How would we know? 
  • Can you be a Christian and a feminist?

Further Reading:

Extremely useful overview site with short summaries of the views of all the leading feminist theologians.  Essential reading.  Here.

The Cambridge Companion to feminist theology is all available online here (though only if you are accessing it from an institution that has paid for the subscription). Particularly useful for this section are chapters 1 and 6.  (Also very useful - good wide reading).

Essay-style questions to consider:

To what extent is Christianity compatible with feminist aims?

'Liberal feminists failed to recognise that Christianity needs to be reconstructed if it is to be compatible with feminism.'  To what extent do you agree?