As a feminist activist and a person of faith, both feminism and religion are integral parts of my life. My faith informs how I view the world just as much, if not more than, my being a feminist does. I would not be authentic if I did not proclaim myself to be a Jew, a feminist, and a Jewish feminist.
However, the intersection of feminism and religion is rarely discussed in either community. Among feminists, religion is often perceived as a sexist institution that has oppressed women for centuries; many people of faith, meanwhile, think of feminism as a threat to their values. In order to expand this conversation, on October 23, I moderated a panel called “Feminism and Faith: A Discussion.” Hosted by the campus feminist group the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS), the event was cosponsored by Harvard Christian Faith and Action, the Harvard Foundation, the Harvard Islamic Society, Harvard Hillel, the Humanist Community at Harvard, and Sikhs and Companions at Harvard. Panelists were Memorial Church’s Reverend Dr. Lucy Forster-Smith, Hillel’s Rabbi Getzel Davis, the Humanist Hub’s Greg Epstein, and Harvard Divinity School students Fatima Al-Binawi and Dorie Goehring. There are many people from different backgrounds who identify as feminists, so it was a priviege to hear perspective from several of those communities.
As a religious feminist, I really felt like I was in my element at this panel. It provided me – and everyone else in the room – with a safe space to discuss our intersectional identities. We could openly talk about our faith and our feminism, and not worry that someone would critique our social beliefs or doubt our dedication to God, which happens all too often in the outside world. I cannot even count the number of times when my coreligionists have, upon hearing that I’m a feminist, begun to lecture me on what they believe is Judaism’s prescribed role for women. In the same vein, I have had to sit through monologues about the inherent sexism of patriarchal religions from feminist friends more often than I’d ever wish. At this panel, there was none of that insensitivity.
The biggest surprise of the night for me was the panelists’ responses to the question “Do you identify as a feminist?” I figured this would be a short, simple introduction to the panel, establish all of the speakers as feminists, and segue into the real meat of the discussion. I did not expect the panelists’ answers to be so in-depth, well-thought out, or quite so critical of the traditional feminist label. I usually just call myself a feminist without questioning the term’s implications or limitations. Every panelist, however, pushed back on the word, expressed discomfort with its loaded history, and opted to use some sort of other, more nuanced identifier. For example, Lucy Forster-Smith’s identified as a womanist and Greg Epstein preferred to be called an intersectional feminist in order to be more inclusive.
I felt like I belonged on the stage when the panelists discussed the intersections between feminism and their faith, and the challenge of balancing the two. “My friends ask me, why are you still Catholic?” Dorie Goehring said, a comment that I have gotten many times as well in regards to Judaism, much to my frustration and chagrin. It was incredibly affirming to hear feminists of other faiths grappling with the same issues as I am, like when Fatima Al-Binawi talked about dealing with religious strictures about modesty and Getzel Davis discussed women’s erasure in religious texts. Knowing that the struggle is interdenominational, that people from every faith background are trying to find ways to reclaim and reframe women’s roles and women’s place in religion, is powerful for me.
And so, I am a feminist and I am a person of faith. These two parts of my identity are not mutually exclusive, nor are they contradictory. My feminism informs my faith, pushing me to speak up for women’s inclusion within religious spaces, reexamine holy texts with a gendered lens, and challenge recently-imposed patriarchal norms that are wrongly named as true religion. Sometimes it’s difficult to balance both, but it’s an uphill battle that I’m happy to fight. Feminism is important to me because it is a movement to make the world a better place, and my faith is important to me because I believe it is the way God wants me to live my life. I’m too ignorant about other religions to know if they are all compatible with feminism, but I know that my faith and feminism are inseparable.