Thursday, September 27, 2012

Musings on the NOW Conference: Faith and Feminism - Can a Religious or Spiritual Woman be Feminist…and an Activist for Reproductive Rights?

This post is part of a series discussing the 2012 National Organization for Women (NOW) Conference: Energize! Organize! Stop the War on Women. You can read my notes on this session here.

The third breakout session I attended at the NOW conference was titled Faith and Feminism - Can a Religious or Spiritual Woman be Feminist…and an Activist for Reproductive Rights? It was moderated by Allendra Letsome, NOW Membership Vice President. She spoke for Protestants at large, but practices as a Methodist. Representing Catholicism was Marissa Valeri, the Catholics for Choice Outreach Coordinator. Mona Lisa Wallace, San Francisco NOW President, is spiritual and “believe[s] in the Goddess as a pre-Abrahamic religion.” Jacqueline Steingold, a National NOW Board Member, was the Jewish emissary. She is specifically a member of the Reform movement. Jerin Arifa, a NOW National Board Member and Chair of the NOW National and NYS Young Feminist Task Forces, spoke for Islam. The atheist representative was Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

When I saw that there was a session about the intersection of religion and women’s rights, I was really excited. I hadn’t expected there to be a space for religious feminists at the conference, so it was a cool surprise that such a session was being offered. It was the last session before Shabbat (Sabbath) began, so I felt it was a relevant topic to hear about.

I really appreciated that there was a representative from every major religion. It was nice to hear about all these different faiths, which I am largely ignorant of, and how they can be very much feminist.

I learned a lot in this session, especially about Catholicism and feminism. The Catholic emissary, Valeri, explained how a lot of what is accepted as Catholic teaching, especially about reproductive issues, is not as simple as it seems. I had never known any of that. There’s a car that I often see parked in my neighborhood with a bumper sticker that says “Catholics and choice: you can’t be both.” I’m happy to know that the owner of this SUV isn’t as correct as he or she thinks. (While I’m discussing this bumper sticker, I’m complaining about it from a design standpoint. It says “Catholics and Choice” in really big letters, and the “u can’t b both” in small letters. As a result, from far away, it looks pro-choice. As a graphic design geek, this bothers me to no end.)

I also learned a lot about Islamophobia. Arifa, the Muslim representative, spoke about her experiences with Islamophobia within feminist spaces, which really made me sad. I had always thought that it’s accepted within liberal spaces that terrorism does not define Islam. It shocks me that women who call themselves feminists can act so blatantly discriminatory towards Muslims. How can someone who is dedicated to empowering women discriminate against a portion of the global community, which obviously contains women? Islamophobia is a step away from anti-Semitism and every other ism out there. It’s imperative that we fight every ism with the same intensity, since they all lead to the same end.

I think that everybody in attendance, regardless of religious affiliation, couldn’t stand the atheist representative, Gaylor. This was not because of her beliefs, but because she was extremely militant about them and alienated the religious people in the room. When she said “The Bible…[is] very misogynist,” steam was coming out of my ears. How dare she call my holy book sexist? What right does she have to say that the Bible is anti-woman? As someone who believes the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) is God’s word as recorded by Moses, I feel that it is impossible for it to be discriminatory towards women; God loves all people, regardless of sex or gender, so God would not give us rules that are unfair to women. While it may seem misogynist on the surface, or may be twisted to seem sexist, at its core the Tanakh is a feminist chronicle. And for an atheist to tell me that my holy book is misogynist? That does not fly AT ALL. Who the heck does Gaylor think she is to tell me the Bible is sexist? Just because she doesn’t believe in its validity doesn’t mean she has any right to criticize it and judge it.

One thing that really surprised me about this session was how many women felt uncomfortable being religious within feminist spaces. Several women in the audience talked about when they came out as religious to their feminist friends, and a couple of the panelists expressed empathy, having gone through the same thing. The idea that so many women are struggling with reconciling their religion with their feminism is so foreign to me. While it took me a while to realize that Judaism and feminism totally mesh, it did happen within a relatively short amount of time. I’m really glad that it did, and it’s not something I struggle with.

When I first created Star of Davida and corresponded with some of the major Jewish feminist bloggers, Shira Salamone of On the Fringe advised me not to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Jewish feminism. I thought it was interesting the same concept was shared by Wallace, who identifies as spiritual. I guess it applies to every religious affiliation. That’s, in essence, what I took away from this session: we’re all working towards the same goals, regardless of if/where we pray.


  1. I'm a Mennonite feminist, and for me, my religion isn't only compatible with feminism, it's a large part of the reason that I'm a feminist. It makes me really sad that a lot of feminists aren't religious and that a lot of religious people don't understand that God loves everyone. It's always nice to hear from religious feminists, from whatever background.

  2. Wow, I get distracted by such major details as the Yamim Noraim/High Holidays and Sukkot, and miss seeing my name in print. :) I hope you'll continue to take that advice of mine.