(Essay) Women and Religion – What’s Happening by Glenys Livingstone (1980)

This is the third in a three part series of old articles and papers by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D. that were written in the 1980’s and 1990’s, two of which were published at that time. The first in the series was “Notes on Leaving Christianity”, and the second was “Exodus 1980 Revisited”. This essay presented at the Women and Labour Conference in Melbourne Australia 1980, was not published in conference proceedings due largely to feminist prejudice at the time about women in religion, but it received media attention, being publicised on p.3 of The Age, p.17 of the Sydney Morning Herald, and full page in a regional newspaper with follow up letters to the editor.

Feminist analysis that stops short of religion, stops prematurely. It is in religion that we find the central office – the sacred male precincts that have given that final touch of authority to the oppression of women.

In this paper, I will largely be talking of women from the christian traditions, since this is the one I know – however I do know that the experience of these women resonates with women of other religious traditions. Patriarchy has been widespread, one might say! though of course each tradition is particular, in that women have either been allowed or not allowed more freedoms and “rights”, or shall I say more qualifications of the human person.

Strange as it may seem to many of us here, there are feminist women still within the christian churches. What are they doing there? They are struggling for the right to be the ministers instead of only the congregation, struggling for the right to make the decisions, struggling to recreate the theology – for the right to be taken seriously as scholars and workers in this field.

When in the early 70’s, Alice Hageman from Harvard Divinity School USA, suggested to the then all-male teaching faculty that (a) women’s concerns be included in the curriculum (b) a chair in Women’s Studies be established (c) there be ultimate parity of women with men among faculty and students, she was bombarded with probing, defensive, hostile questions, until one theologian in sympathy, created for those present, the image of the search for evidence of life in outer space as analogous to the search for information about the experience of women in the churches.[1]

Though the male theologians present thought it very funny, the image was and is most apt. As Alice Hageman later comments:

The settings vary from theological seminary to denominational office or assembly to local parish, but the basic message is the same: The experience of women within the churches can be compared to that of creatures from outer space – unknown, unnoticed, possibly irrelevant.[2]

Women have organized the cake stalls, the church dinners, cleaned the church buildings, arranged the flowers and prayed in the pews while the men have counted the moneyand planned the programs. Women have used their intelligence and energies in teaching Sunday Schools, while men have taught in seminaries and universities. Women have listened and obeyed, and men have been ordained as ministers and priests.

This neat little system is beginning to crack, because some women, and then more women within it are beginning to rise up, fall out of rank – demanding recognition of their capabilities.

But the doing alone is not enough – the whole theology that backs this system up must be and is being recognised for what it is – patriarchal through and through. There is, for example first off, a phallic thought structure, on the top of which sits God the Father, accompanied by God the Son, and god the Holy Spirit (who of course has been a “he”). Just underneath that there is the holy clergy who have been and still mostly are of course, male. They fight amongst themselves to reach higher positions in the structure – closer to the Ultimate Patriarch (who is by the way also mostly white). Below that, which is the ground level, there is the people of God, who are mostly women; since this is the closest they get to the top, they tend to make sure they are there. And women’s humility and holiness in this position is idealized and crooned about – making it harder to see the lie.

Still further down are the undesirables who have yet to be saved; and then at the very bottom, those who have decided not to be saved. It is here that women really star again – as temptresses, and instruments of the downfall of many. But even then, we are not usually given the title of Ultimate Evil – perish the thought that the Devil be a woman! It would be too horrible to imagine a woman with that much authority and talent.

For catholic women, there is Mary who might be a source of some hope and comfort; but patriarchy has prevailed, and Mary is most often only the Ultimate Female Eunuch[3]. In many most heavily patriarchal cultures, Mary embodies for the people,female divinity – the Goddess of old who will not be put down to die. when it has been asserted by worried patriarchs from other christian churches that Mary is a little too divine, the catholic heirachy has been quick to deny her divinity – their ambivalence is profound.

this book changed so many – moved us

In the christian churches celebration and worship, the coming of the Kingdom is continually on prayerful lips; and “even the humble ‘feminine’ tasks assigned to women by the Divine Plan”[4] are raised to a more holy, supernatural level in the hands of the gracious male clergy. Birth becomes baptism, preparing meals and feeding becomes Holy Communion, the functions of listening and consolation become the Rite of Penance and the Sacrament of the Sick. When men perform these humble female tasks in the name of the Father-God they are suddenly powerful, meaningful, sacred. And women don’t qualify for the performance.

But “the Awful Truth”[5] is now being seen. Increasing numbers of women in the churches and the study of theology are recognizing their alien status. They are beginning to sense more intensely the death of women about them, the deadly air that denies Breath and Be-ing to themselves as women. The stench of the death of their own kind is awakening them – some are fleeing for their lives, others who find the energy are sticking around for the battle.

In Australia, women are entering theological colleges and seminaries in slowly increasing numbers. Some churches have been officially open to the ordination of women for some time, but the anti-female atmosphere has weighed heavily during the study and during job applications, so the numbers of ordained women have never got beyond miniscule proportions. Although some catholic seminaries in this country now allow women to study there, it is never assumed that the women are there for any really serious purpose. How could they be, the patriarchal church might well ask; but whether the male heirarchies consider it serious or not, the women whose feet are in the door, are proceeding on to bore holes right through, in and out, up and down, the woodwork.

a journal/newsletter published by women in Australia asking questions and on new pathways, late 1970’s, early 1980’s.

These women in theology in Australia who are becoming visible, are beginning to group together, at present often simply to be with each other, to talk and to be heard. There is one group of women from within Sydney churches who have been together for over a decade now, and are publishing a newsletter, full of questions, searchings, women’s stories.

In the USA, women have been present in theological colleges and seminaries for a longer period of time and in greater numbers, and in just the last few years there has been an explosion of publications on women in the churches. In addition, women’s centre’s have sprung up in Boston, Berkeley, Philadelphia, New York, Seattle and still more are forming. These places are providing the arena for the study of women’s lives, labour, women and third world issues, ritual, goddesses,and feminist critique of present and past theologies and religious structures.

In South America, and in Canada too, groups of awakening women are gathering, publishing, holding press conferences, dialoguing.

In England, anglican and catholic women have been and are, very active in their protests – devising strategies for impact.

These women in the Judeo-christian tradition are actively attempting to disengage their religious tradition and their religious experience from patriarchy – to see what’s left. Some believe there there is much that can be salvaged without cost to the integrity of women and even some to gain. Women in theology are looking again at biblical passages that have been used to keep women down, and also at the recorded Gospel incidents about women that have been practically ignored. With new eyes that are now their own they can see other possibilities.

For example, it is possible that in Genesis where the creation story is told that woman can appear not merely as an afterthought as has been made out, but she can appear as the crowning of all creation.[6] It’s there if you like and that’s your bias! There has been serious work done on the section in Genesis where God supposedly puts woman in her place.[7] Another possible translation is that what was in factwritten there originally was not a recording of the Divinity’s condemnation of woman but a sympathetic, mournful prohpecy of her downfall – the coming of patriarchy.

One can also look again at the maleness of Jesus. In 1st century Palestinian culture, although usually the girl-child was valued much below the boy-child, a boy-child who had no father, no name – who was “illegitimate” – was valued even lower.[8]

In such a one – lower than the lowest, cut off from the land of the living – could the most oppressed of the earth find themselves … God-with-us …[9]

But Jesus’ “illegitimacy” was rectified in the clamour to institutionalize his maleness and sit him at the right hand of the Father.

Women in theology are also pointing out incidents where the Gospel writers speak specifically to the issue of the oppression of women. When the woman taken in adultery was brought to Jesus, he did not condemn her, but he did condemn the double standard.[10] Jesus was specifically breaching the law concerning the family and sexual relations which were designed to protect male authority, honour and property.

When the motherhood of Mary is extolled in biological terms, Jesus explicitly rejects this view of woman simply as bearer of descendants. He replied that woman’s worth is not her procreativity but her sensitivity to her God.[11]

Jesus discusses religion with Martha and Mary, obviously regarding them as intelligent people. When Martha comments that Mary should be doing woman’s work, Jesus rejects this expectation of woman’s place.[12]

Of particular note, though strangely ommitted from note by past male theologians including St. paul, are the two points in Jesus’ ministry where he specifically chose women to proclaim the Gospel. The woman at the well was the first to be given the message of Jesus as Messiah[13] and Mary Magdalene was the first to proclaim the news of the resurrection.[14]

There is also evidence that in the early christian churches, Jesus’ revolutionary understanding of female and male equality was carried into practice.[15] Women as well as men were leaders – with the same authority as bishops. It seems that amongst the christians of that time there was some respite from phallocentric culture.

But what might it mean in the christian churches today for women to be coming through to preach, break the bread, bless, baptize, bury and marry? With the pulpit de-sexed it could no longer be “the phallic symbol in the sanctuary with the Book on top to give it authority. Women would more than likely carry the book down among the people, pointing out seeds of liberation that a patriarchal mind-set and culture had overlooked.”[16]

Women breaking bread and pouring wine! Outraged male clergy might well ask what would happen to this act’s hallowed nature; since women would be doing what they have traditionally done all the time. the question might arise in people’s mindsas to why “the eating of bread and the drinking of wine should be separated from the consumption of the kindly fruits of the earth”.[17] This powerful symbolism just might be rescued from its present bind and restored to the people’s common humaness.

Women baptizing infants becomes women re-birthing: why? Is not the birth that women have always given not holy in itself? The split between physical birth and spiritual birth might begin to heal, since both are given of the Great Womb.

Inevitably, new birth would shift to that moment form which it was once split off by a patriarchal perception which assigned body to woman and spirit to man …. It would envision a love that … calls persons to pick up their lives as sacred gifts.[18]

However, there are many feminist women from within the christian churches for whom the salvaging , and the waiting, and the opposition is proving too taxing. The questions which raise themselves are eventually proving too radical. They are beginning to leave all this behind them, in determination and need to celebrate themselves as full human beings, to be servants of their own liberation (and others as well, if possible). They wish to create new communities where they will no longer be spoken into silence. Women in theology are hearing each other into speech[19] – and some are moving beyond the churches and beyond christianity, because they/we must.

newspaper reports May 1980: The Age, Melbourne, and Sydney Morning Herald

Intertwined with this exodus event is the re-emerging of Female Divinity – the Great Goddess. There are hundreds of groups of women and men in North America and Britain, and at least a few in Australia, who are re-searching the Goddess, in forgotten books and in forbidden spaces within themselves. The Goddess means many things. She is an inner potential – the woman rising inside. She is an expression of the cycle of life – death – rebirth. She is a symbol that legitimates the presence and use of female power. She is “an affirmation of the female body, a re-valuing of the bodily processes of menstruation and childbirth ….. a healing of the severe mind-body split,”[20] She is an affirmation of female will – “For women sin is obedience and grace is the responsible assertion of will.”[21] She is the personification of what Mary Daly calls the Cosmic Covenant – Sisterhood – the profound agreement within and among us that is being found.[22] She is the focus of our seeing through the deceptions, distortions and mystifications of patriarchy, the focus of our journey into new space where we can Be, the focus of the creation of new myths and stories by which we may grow.

I’d like to finish with a poem by Olga Broumas that has meant a lot to me because it speaks of a journey inwards to recover my own female divinity and the painful realization that all past familiar words and images which had given form to my reality were a betrayal of myself.

             Let’s not have tea.

            White wine

            eases the mind along

            the slopes

            of the faithful body, helps


            any memory once engraved

            on the twin

            chromosome ribbons, emerge, tentative

            from the archaeology of an excised past.


            I am a woman

            who understands

            the necessity of an impulse whose goal or origin

            still lie beyond me. I keep the goat

            for more

            than the pastoral reasons. I work

            in silver the tongue-like forms

            that curve around a throat


            an arm-pit, the upper

            thigh, whose significance stirs in me

            like a curviform alphabet

            that defies


            decoding, appears

            to consist of vowels, beginning with O. the O-

            mega, horseshoe, the cave of sound.

            What tiny fragments

            survive, mangled into our language.

            I am a woman committed to

            a politics

            of transliteration, the methodology


            of a mind

            stunned at the suddenly

            possible shifts of meaning – for which

            like amnesiacs


            in a ward on fire,

            we must find words

            or burn.[23]

© Glenys Livingstone 1980


Broumas, Olga. “Artemis” in Beginning With O. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1977.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father; Towards a Philosophy             of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press 1973.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch.

Hageman, Alice.”No More Silence” in Sexist Religion & Women in the Church. Alice Hageman (ed.). New York: Association Press, 1974.

Morris, Joan. The Lady was a Bishop. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Morton, Nelle. “Preaching the Word” in Sexist Religion & Women in the Church. Alice Hageman (ed.). New York: Association Press, 1974.

Ranck, Shirley. “The Great Goddess Re-emerging” in Center for Women and Religion Newsletter, Vol 4 No.3.


[1] Alice Hageman, “No More Silence”, p.18.

[2] Alice Hageman, “No More Silence”, p.19.

[3] this was the title of Germaine Greer’s popular feminist book at the time

[4] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 195.

[5] This is a reference to a popular feminist Australian play with that title, by Robyn Archer.

[6] Genesis 2

[7] Genesis 3:16

[8] Nelle Morton, “Preaching the Word”, p.40.

[9] Nelle Morton, “Preaching the Word”, p.40.

[10] John 8: 3-11

[11] ?

[12] ?

[13] John 4: 5-30

[14] John 20

[15] Joan Morris, The Lady was a Bishop . New York: Macmillan, 1973.

[16] Nelle Morton?

[17] Nelle Morton, “Preaching the Word” p.35.

[18] Nelle Morton, “Preaching the Word”, p.35.

[19] an expression of Nelle Morton’s

[20] Shirley Ranck “The Great Goddess Re-emerging”, p.16.

[21] Shirley Ranck “The Great Goddess Re-emerging”, p.16.

[22] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 159.

[23] Olga Broumas, “Artemis”, p. 23.


Read Meet Mago Contributor Glenys Livingstone.

[Editor’s Note: Above essay is included in She Rises: Why Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality?]


Leave a Response

Be the First to Respond!

Notify of

I’m glad you’re reprinting this because it didn’t go out of date at all. And I was happy to see Nelle Morton’s name again, and to reread Olga Broumas’s poem in its entirety. Thanks, Glenys!