Feminism and Religion, Front and Center: Reflections on Harris and Biden’s Victory Speeches
By Midori E. Hartman.
November 7th is an important day in United States history for more than one reason. On this same day in 1893, Colorado held a referendum to determine women’s suffrage—the right to vote—becoming the first U.S. state to do so. This would kickstart a domino effect for enfranchisement for women at the state level, ultimately culminating in the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, in which the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of sex. We as a nation had to endure a much longer wait to address racism than gender: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured federal prohibition against racial discrimination in the voting process. How proud all those American women and men would be if they could have seen the results of this week.
Now, November 7, 2020 resonates with the past in its invitation to see a more equitable future, a clarion call that many were so desperate to hear after their experiences during the 45th presidency’s term. We, as feminists and womanists, as scholars of and leaders in religion, witnessed a symphonic connection between our ethical stances and our own work as it was brought mainstream, front and center for the world to see. This blog is a reflection on the feminist and womanist principles and the role of religion that I see as being galvanized in the victory speeches of the President elect and Vice President elect.
Kamala Harris, Vice President Elect
Kamala Harris is the first woman, first Black, and first Asian Vice President elect. As an Asian American woman myself, I never thought that such a person—one that so perfectly reflects the diversity of the American people—would be welcomed this year. Prior to Harris’s nomination, I thought it would come slowly: first a male PoC VP sometime down the line, then maybe woman VP, all with the eye that perhaps, one day, I would see a woman president in my lifetime. Rather than a trickle, Harris is a wave, checking my own assumption that both misogyny and misogynoir would prevent equality from actualizing any time soon.
This, of course, means that we cannot let people say to us, “you’ve had your non-Caucasian and woman VP, when will you be satisfied?” It is only fitting to cite Martin Luther King Jr.’s response to these kinds of questions during the Civil Rights movement, referencing Amos 5:24: “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In her victory speech, Harris reminded us that, “I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.” We can stand proud that her election means that girls today will not hear an empty promise behind the phrase “dream big,” but rather they will know that their dreams can be actualities: they heard the glass ceiling break, as Anthea Butler reminds us.
As feminist and womanist scholars of religion, we know that there is a long history between how the Bible has been used to both reify and resist the oppression of women. Although Harris did not appeal to religion in her speech, she is the inheritor of a legacy of feminists and womanists who used religion and the Bible as a means to argue for their equality. Moreover, we know that womanist work calls us to center real stories and real people, most especially Black women’s lives, and I hear this centering come to the stage in the embodiment and storytelling of Harris herself.
Joe Biden, President Elect
Joe Biden is not a figure of many firsts at this moment. His long history in politics—48 years—is considered by some to be a sign that not much will change. That said, a lifetime dedication to the democratic process does not automatically mean that his administration will not be up to the challenge of helping the nation heal and to address the issues of racism and sexism in this country. As his campaign slogan announces, he is invested in “restoring the soul of the nation.” As I see it, this is a prophetic call being raised: present society is not yet just. It is as Langston Hughes has observed about this nation: America is “the land that never has been yet—and yet must be—the land where every [person] is free.” We’ve got a lot of work to do to make that a true reality and not just an empty paean to liberty in the abstract.
In the biblical tradition, prophets are called to speak for the people, for those who are oppressed and suffering under current systems of power. They bring hard news that must be spoken. Of course, I am not asserting that Biden is literally a prophet of God; rather, his campaign and promises for his administration perform such a calling, one in which we must play an active role in bringing social justice into being. As many of us have learned, our work does not stop on Election Day, it actually begins.
Biden quoted religious material twice in his speech. His first quotation is Ecclesiastes 3 (Qohelet), highlighting that now is the season to heal America after such a bitter divide between sides in this campaign. Ecclesiastes is categorized as wisdom literature, a genre that most often observes and speaks to universal concerns of the human condition (e.g. Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the good life?) There is a universal wisdom behind the recognition that we’ve reached such a moment for healing in our lives and the life of this nation.
However, the more impactful religious quote appears when he enters the denouement of his speech by referring to a Catholic hymn, “On Eagles’ Wings,” which is based upon Psalm 91. The author of the hymn, Jan Michael Joncas wrote it after learning that his friend’s father had died of a heart attack. It became famous when used during the memorial of those lost in the domestic terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995. It was played at the funeral service of Biden’s son Beau in 2015. In this way, Biden was not citing a hymn for the sake of appealing to a religious (Christian) audience: he was reaching out to all of us who have lost loved ones over these past four years.
A Final Note
Whatever you may personally feel about the personal lives and previous political history of either the President elect or the Vice President elect, we may objectively respect that history was made this past week. We as feminists and womanists, we as scholars of and leaders in religion, can recognize this. Moreover, it is not simply enough to “win” an election: the hard work comes after, in honoring the promises made and meeting the challenges that arise in an imperfect system. As we see in Biden’s call, we must struggle through the painful process of recovering what unites us as a nation in order to build that more perfect union for which we are always striving.
For us in and outside of the academy, this is a call to consider the roles we play in both the fracturing and now the healing of American society. While we acknowledge the ideal stance of a separation of church and state, we still must recognize and wrestle with the role that religion still has on the American psyche and politics. We must point out and address the ways in which religion is used to separate and divide, to promote religious intolerance and hate crimes. And yet, religion itself holds much for us to think about what it means to heal even as we confront suffering. Where to begin depends upon one’s own tradition, texts, and communities. One approach we can take is to look to the tools and language in our own sacred texts to help us build an interreligious—and non-religious—dialogue, just as Biden has done with his victory speech.
I end this with a note of bemusement: this coming week I will be teaching both Psalms and Ecclesiastes in the Wisdom literature module of my Hebrew Bible class. I will repeat President elect’s citation that there is a time for everything (Ecc. 3:1). The time is now.
Midori E. Hartman is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Albright College. She holds a PhD in Historical Studies with an emphasis on Christianity in Late Antiquity from Drew University. Her primary research interests are Augustine of Hippo, ancient slavery, and rhetoric as it intersects with issues of gender, ethnicity, and animality.