Progressive Christian Channel
Must Feminists Write Feminist Books?
Note: In this Religion Roundtable, we've asked the authors of three prominent faith memoirs to write about their views on—and experience of—female spirituality. Check back here every few days to hear Jana Riess, Lauren Winner, and Sarah Sentilles discuss the unique religious questions facing women today.
Dear Lauren and Sarah,
Last week I got a message from an old friend who, after a protracted doctoral program and two kids, is now a seminary professor (insert "you go girl" here). She contacted me to ask if my recent memoir Flunking Sainthood, which she'd heard good things about, would be appropriate for her upcoming course on feminist and womanist theologies. "As I finish up the syllabus," she asked, "it would help if you could tell me in what ways your work could be seen as a feminist theological perspective?"
I dashed off a quick response. Yes, the book incorporates a feminist perspective since I am a feminist and it bleeds through everything I write. Chapter 2, on fasting, talks some about the diet culture and why fasting may be a fraught spiritual discipline for some women for that reason. Chapter 3 is all about finding God in housework, much of which falls to women, and wonders aloud why society has so devalued housework when there is a preponderance of biblical evidence that even God keeps house. Chapter 5 is about not shopping, which is really about not coveting; I don't talk specifically about gender in that chapter but throughout history women have borne the brunt of scorn for being "consumers" while men are considered "producers."
But since I wrote that hasty reply the question has been nagging me. Flunking Sainthood is not an explicitly feminist book. I wasn't thinking as I wrote it that I needed to give voice to women or express a particular POV; I just wanted to tell my story of trying (and failing at) twelve different spiritual practices. If I was intentional about anything it was that the book be funny. At my writing group I had readers mark an asterisk beside everything they thought was humorous, and if too much time had gone between their asterisks I made ruthless cuts to the text.
So as a ferocious women's college alumna and feminist I am now wondering whether I dropped the ball here. (And speaking of feminism, what kind of utter guy metaphor is "dropped the ball"?) Do women writers who are feminist have a responsibility to write overtly feminist books? Or is it good news that women have progressed enough in our culture that they can write however they damn well please and not have to consider themselves representative ambassadors of an Amazon tribe?
I put this to you, Lauren, Girlfriend-of-Long-Standing; and you, Sarah, Girlfriend-I-Have-Not-Yet-Met: how do you handle this in your own writing?
Jana Riess is the author of Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor and several other books. She is currently immersed in a multiyear Twitter project called The Twible. (It's the Bible, now with 68% more humor!)