Special Introduction from the Religion and Politics Editor
Entering the twenty-sixth year of producing first-rate feminist scholarship in religion is reason enough for celebration. With this issue, we have sweetened the occasion by assembling the range of sections for which the Journal has become famous—articles, poetry, roundtable, and review essay—and by formally introducing a new section entitled “Religion and Politics.” This section is dedicated to the task of unpacking the religious rhetorics and disciplinary practices (like “confession”) encoded in political speech and public policy. The editorial board of the JFSR is well aware that producing feminist scholarship in religion is a profoundly political act. Nonetheless, we are convinced that the contemporary intersections of religion and politics are both proliferating and particularly volatile. Many examples could be cited: the rising tide of “religious” violence; the expanding political valence of heterosexist, racist, and paternalist “family values” and “faith-based initiatives”; the curtailing of women’s access to birth control and safe abortion; the metastasizing surveillance of campus speech and dress; and the continuing pressures of migration and globalization, which expose women’s bodies to unmitigated violence, economic vulnerability, and the asymmetrical and unwieldy burdens of preserving cultural continuity and authenticity. These developments call for sophisticated, rigorous, and timely responses in the pages of this esteemed journal.
The articles gathered here evidence the remarkable range of issues in the field as well as some persistent themes: the extraordinary and ambivalent power of women’s bodies in public, whether gaping, gazing, mourning, or nursing; the contextual, relational, and dynamic dimensions of feminist and womanist ethics; and the therapeutic and political valences of religious speech and ritual. In the first article, Rachel Muers outlines a feminist ethics of breast-feeding that directly challenges the individualization of the responsibility of feeding infants—a responsibility that is placed almost exclusively on the shoulders of the “total mother.” Muers calls on feminists to recognize breast-feeding as a significant human good, but, at the same time, cautions them as to how contemporary discourses surrounding breast-feeding reflect troubling historical and religious images of “compleat” mothers whose choice to breast-feed is in accord with a God-ordained prophylactic safeguarding “quality” families. Muers assembles biblical, theological, and feminist ethical resources, such as the primacy of relationships (including that between mother and the agential infant) and the womanist ethic of survival, to face head on the class and racial privileges that figure into the distribution of risks of feeding infants.
If you thought you knew Medusa—she with snakes in her hair and whose mere gaze turns the beholder to stone—Miriam Robbins Dexter begs to disagree. Carefully rereading ancient Greek and Roman texts, Dexter reveals the complexity and ambivalence associated with the one whose Greek name means “ruling one.” Dexter suggests that this Medusa is a synthesis of the Neolithic bird/snake Goddess and the demon Humbaba, who is beheaded by Gilgamesh (hence Perseus’s severing the head of Medusa). Dexter’s study reveals that the psychoanalytical framing of Medusa, whether as threatening castration or as the symbol of apparently fearsome female genitalia, is a truncation of the earlier goddess as source of life as well as death. Dexter appreciates feminist retrievals of the fearsome Medusa head as an icon of anger and rage. (One might mention here the best-selling children’s book series based on the hero Perseus, soon to be in movie theaters; in this series, the beheading of Medusa is only somewhat offset by the use of that head to stop an abusive husband.) At the same time, Dexter rightly reminds readers to beware of continuing this truncation of the fullness and complexity of Medusa’s varied powers.
In a December 2009 report, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released poll data indicating that large numbers of Americans mix elements of diverse traditions. Hence, Michelle Voss Roberts, in her article “Religious Belonging and the Multiple,” offers readers timely theoretical resources for analyzing the increasingly syncretic habits of Americans as well as their broader significance for the study of religion. Voss Roberts argues that the preponderance of such mixing challenges key concepts in the study of religion. For Voss Roberts, the chief theoretical challenge is to theorize multiplicity; she suggests attention to hybridity, fluidity, and the metaphor of the rhizome to “circumvent vexing problems of essentialism, theological exclusivity, and institutional elitism” (59). For Voss Roberts, feminists’ acknowledgment of our irreducible multiplicity, and our repudiation of the elite and scholarly practice of policing boundaries, prompts us to heed the imperatives of solidarity with the marginalized in and between traditions and of literacy in two or more religious traditions. Thus, Voss Roberts’s piece is a sophisticated rejoinder to the charge that inspires her essay: Western feminists’ turn to multiple religious traditions reflects “their privilege to colonize and plunder the world’s religions” (60).
For L. Juliana M. Claassens, ours is a traumatized world in need of resources to acknowledge and remedy individual and corporate pain. To this end, she explores the symbolic value of the wailing women summoned by God in Jeremiah 9:17–20. Claassens recommends that feminists reclaim the image of the wailing woman as an instantiation of women’s agency. Furthermore, speaking as a South African in the aftermath of the limited achievements of the temporary Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she sees the need for institutionalizing public and communal spaces for expressing grief and concomitantly resisting the powers-that-be. The need for public grieving is acute; Claassens cites the worldwide economic crash, terrorism, war, genocide, and human rights violations. One might caution Claassens as to the need to be careful of reifying a gendered opposition of grief and justice, therapy and law; although it is certainly the case that law and justice are beholden to the courage of those who publicly cry injury.
Following the articles section, we have our second entry in the Religion and Politics section. Yvonne C. Zimmerman skillfully demonstrates how former president George W. Bush’s injection of a faith-based agenda into U.S. antitrafficking policy actually hindered efforts to stop the human rights violations entailed in national and international trafficking in human beings. The Bush administration’s focus on the trafficking of women and children for the purposes of forced sexual labor not only obscured the varieties of human trafficking but also conflated prostitution and trafficking, the latter yielding a 2003 addition to anti-trafficking efforts known as the Prostitution Loyalty Oath. Accordingly, any organization that had not gone on record as being against prostitution would not be eligible for funding. Zimmerman insists that the oath be understood in the broader context of the Bush administration’s policies on sexual activity. Within this context, it becomes clear that decisions about policy and personnel in anti-trafficking efforts were largely driven by a conservative Christian agenda to promote sex within the confines of heterosexual marriage. Consequently, highly trained and well-regarded anti-trafficking organizations lost out to poorly trained persons and organizations who nonetheless endorsed Bush’s efforts to police nonprocreative sex.
Readers are rewarded next with an extended interlude of poetry. Susan McCaslin imagines Demeter and Persephone, ancient Greek fertility goddesses, mother and daughter, in the midst of the landscapes of the twenty-first century. Their presence effects a re-enchantment—a recurring plea in contemporary books, television, and movies for all ages—but theirs is not without a critical edge. McCaslin’s goddesses indulge in raucous laughter and transformative song, but they also mourn the exploitation of youth and collective disconnection from the earth. Like the curbsides, malls, and oil tanks that propel the figures and emotions of McCaslin’s series, the scenes of Lenore Weiss’s Tkhines are familiar images of mobility in contemporary life: airports, parking lots, hybrid cars, as well as fleeting moments of connection (intertwined sleeping bodies, chatting neighbors). Weiss’s prayers mark three succeeding months; they convey the passage of time and playfully turn it back. Vivid images of time’s passing compete with her own regeneration from dry bones to young girl, thus lending a somber note to her evocations of peaceable geopolitical developments. “Communion of Saints” and “Holy Thursday” by Julie Stoner and “Commemoration” by Lisa Dordal reflect the struggles of two Christian girls and one Christian woman (explicitly Catholic in Stoner’s poems) as they come up against the patriarchal scripts that drain the joy from their holiday rituals. Accused, respectively, of being an idiot girl (for pretending to be Saint Peter), a controlling woman (for offering to adjust the stole of an insecure priest), or an ambivalent Mary (for failing to convey overwhelming desire for the man), these three remarkable young women nonetheless find sources of resistance in the midst of heartrending attempts to humiliate them.
This issue’s roundtable assembles a group of scholars in various stages of their careers to consider whether they see their work as more closely aligned with feminist or gender studies. Despite their differing preferences and emphases, it is fascinating to see that each author notes the challenge of theorizing about and accounting for women’s agency in diverse religious/cultural environments and suggests that this challenge has summoned a productive tension of feminism and gender studies. I suggest that their combined analyses also challenge readers to think more creatively about feminist material and discursive practices, as perhaps diverse “media,” rather than simply a political disposition. If we understand feminism as “media,” as Jonathan Sheehan has suggested for the “Enlightenment,” that is, as a “new constellation of formal and technical practices and institutions,” such as reading circles, academic departments, legal discourses, translations, and journals, we might avoid some of the limitations associated with this term in the field of religious studies.1
In addition, I wish to highlight their intriguing suggestions for future scholarship: reexamining what gets to count as a “feminist” issue (Reznik), bringing feminist theory to bear on “practices of endurance rather than agency” (Skerrett, 131), learning to hear the myriad normative interventions of women’s religious discourse (Bucar), building disciplinary bridges in the context of a “leaner, consumer-driven twenty-first-century university” (Whitehead, 136), designing a postcanonical program of graduate study (Farneth), and taking account of sex and gender at various stages of life from childhood to old age (Oh).
The issue ends with a review essay by JFSR editorial board member Vivian-Lee Nyitray, in which she deftly examines the arguments of three books (one is an edited collection) addressing Confucian traditions’ positions on gender and women. Nyitray opens her essay with two caveats: there is no agreement as to what it is that constitutes “Confucianism” and viewing Confucianism as a “religion” is not without controversy. After reviewing the more important installments of these debates, Nyitray helpfully informs the nonspecialist reader that there is nonetheless agreement on the following two points: Confucian traditions are expressive of a “distinctively patriarchal familialism” (144–45) and that “differential, secondary, and often brutal treatment of women in China over the centuries had its support, if not its origins, in Confucianism” (145). Nyitray is clearly wary of apologetic arguments: she critiques faulty translations of male-exclusive language into gender-neutral language, polarizations which pit Chinese feminists against non-Chinese feminists, and exclusive identification of Confucianism with China. Nyitray also warns scholars of getting caught up in what she terms the “closed hermeneutical circle” of Confucianism: a “deeply self-referential system of marked conservatism” (155). Nyitray concludes her informative and engaging review by noting that analyses of Confucianism are hampered by situating Confucianism in opposition to a “monolithic . . . liberal Western feminism” (159)—a problem that would be remedied, she offers, by scholars of Confucianism finding more interesting conversation partners among the diverse array of feminist, womanist, mujerista, Asian, and indigenous feminist theologians, and Goddess thealogians. In other words, Nyitray offers a gracious salute to the readership of the JFSR and equips us with the resources to weigh in intelligently.
Elizabeth Pritchard teaches at Bowdoin College, where she offers courses on Christianity, gender and religion, models of secularization, and Marxism and progressive religious movements. Her research areas include political theology, law and religion in the modern West, and agency and gender. She is currently completing a book-length manuscript on the religious underpinnings of liberal toleration.
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