O Pioneers? Thoughts on Women and Theology

A few weeks ago,  I attended a Women at Union dinner in the home of Dean Mary Boys; during the evening, 15 smart, capable, and energetic women shared stories and raised questions about bringing the lessons we learn at Union about creating community, asking hard questions, and general ideas about liberal theology back into the world – a world that for some is conservative in thought and dubious of women in religious authority. Now I am an unabashed feminist and have been since learning about “women’s lib” and the ERA as a young teen in the mid-1970s. I think it is vital that women’s voices are not just acknowledged, but heard as contributing to the whole conversation, not just the feminine aspect of it. Sadly, there are still times even at Union where the fact that women have anything to say at all on a topic is treated as surprising, and more often are treated as “from the feminist perspective” – thus safely contained on the sidelines so that the serious men didn’t have to let it soil their serious theological discussion.

Yet when I raised this concern, some women in the room seemed worried that I wasn’t preferencing women’s voices, or not making it notable enough that a woman’s voice was even in the room. There was, from some, a sense that women’s voices in religion was still so new it had to be pointed out and treated as precious. Now I recognize my own privilege here, raised up by the sisters of second-wave feminism and enmeshed in a denomination whose women’s voices have been (by and large) honored as vital additions to the whole of our faith (with noticeable emphasis in the last 30 years). I also recognize that even in that privileged space, there is work to be done as regards women; for instance, I have growing concerns that the increase in female ministers means a diminishment of ministerial authority and reduced salaries, that “minister” joins “teacher” and “nurse” in the realm of “women’s work” and thus gets sidelined. I also worry that as the number of women in theological scholarship grows, the more anxious other theologians – even those considered liberal or progressive – will get about new directions of thought and will seek to contain them in the box marked “feminist.”

harknessThese thoughts bring me to Georgia Harkness, an early 20th century theologian who fought exactly these attitudes. I encountered her in a class on American Theological Liberalism, taught by Gary Dorrien. To Dorrien’s credit, Harkness is not treated as special because she is a woman. She is not an afterthought; rather, in a lecture and chapter on those who brought 20th century liberal Christianity to the people,  her voice is as important as the voices of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Rufus Jones. And in fact, Harkness did add to this important part of the conversation, namely: how do we make these theological advances real to the faithful? Her book Conflict of Religious Thought was intended to popularize the more esoteric ideas of Brightman and Hocking. And, at least among her colleagues (Brightman, as well as Niebuhr, Tillich, and Mays, among others), she was seen as one theologian among many.

And yet, it was clear she was a woman in a man’s world. Harkness noted in the early 1920s that “Practically every avenue of leadership today is open to women save for the Church.” Her life’s story is an all too familiar one – from being excluded from certain educational programs, to her not being fully ordained as a minister, to the not-so-subtle put downs about her appearance and manner – all indignities suffered solely because of her gender. That Harkness was able to meet fellow male theologians on intellectual grounds at all must have been a relief to her.

Yet, like many who came before and have come after, being a member of a marginalized group and having the opportunity to be heard compelled Harkness to speak up on the role of women. Enduring decades of both implicit and explicit sexism in the field of religion likely kept her ire up enough to speak out rather than stay silent. Her writings in the Christian Century and her speech at the Oxford Conference in the 1920s may have fallen on deaf ears at the time, but they were certainly notable for their explicitness about the subjugation of women in the field of theology and religion. It was indeed a vital move for the advancement of women that she take on this part of the establishment; I wonder how much of her work for the cause of women eclipsed her more intellectual and philosophical work.

And so, back to the first part of this reflection, my question is this: is Georgia Harkness a notable personalist theologian of the 20th s a woman, despite her being a woman, or along with being a woman? And, perhaps more importantly, why is she not as notable as other members of her cohort? Why are her books no longer in print? Why is it that I only just learned about her?[1]

And so it goes; for all the progress we have made in feminism – the goal of which is equality of genders – we still have far to go.

 

 



[1] If nothing else, I wish I had known about her book The Dark Night of the Soul when I went through my own a decade ago.

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