A Discussion with Gina Messina, Co-Author of Faithfully Feminist
May 25, 2016
Background: Many feminists may describe religion as patriarchal, but feminists are also active within faith traditions, advocating for change. Gina Messina-Dysert is one such Catholic woman. She draws on feminist theologians before her and also collaborates with women of other faith traditions via the blog www.feminismandreligion.com and the book Faithfully Feminist. While in Washington, D.C. to speak to young women at Sixth and I Synagogue on May 25, 2016, Messina-Dysert met with Crystal Corman and Melody Fox Ahmed to discuss her work at the intersection of religion, gender, and politics. The conversation that follows explores how she co-created space where feminists invested in their faith tradition could express themselves and learn from each other. As she and co-authors traveled around the United States to speak about the book, they found audiences eager to engage on the topic. She also discusses persistent challenges and how she works to transform backlash into dialogue.
You’ve had very positive reactions to your blog. Can you tell me how it started?
Three colleagues and myself founded the blog www.feminismandreligion.com in 2011. Our goal was to create a platform where particularly women—but really anyone with feminist ideas—could find a place to have a voice and create dialogue around issues that are usually very much silenced in public, especially in churches. These issues ranged from women’s ordination to reproductive justice to various ways that women are challenged within their traditions.
We pulled the blog together originally with the idea that the four of us would each write once every other week. That would make two posts a week, but within a month we were booked seven days a week with people who wanted to contribute and participate! We’ve been booked seven days a week since. We have people writing from all around the world and we also have people writing from all different traditions. We have readers in 181 countries now, which is really exciting.
What we have found is that this has really become a forum for people to talk about the different issues that they are experiencing within their traditions. It’s also a place to acknowledge feminist values within their traditions, and then create dialogue around those. It’s been a great place to learn from one another and to expand borders. It is a place to put ideas out where otherwise you wouldn’t have the opportunity (because you have been silenced). It’s been a wonderful project and a wonderful opportunity to engage with great feminists.
As a feminist blog, do you have male writers?
We started off with almost all women, but we’ve always said this is a feminist conversation that is not limited to women. Right now we have two men who identify as feminists who regularly contribute and many more who offer submissions. We have a lot of men who read and also respond to the different pieces. Men have a very important role in the feminist movement, and the challenges that exist are challenging both men and women. We have always wanted to be clear about that.
Rosemary Radforth Reuther wrote a piece for the blog that is a central piece titled, “What is feminism and why should we do it?” It helps people to understand what approach we are taking to the conversation. I really love how she says feminism is about honoring the full humanity of every woman and every man. This isn’t about trying to raise one gender above the other or creating a new kind of oppression. This is about working together for change. That’s really the perspective that we come to the conversation with.
From the beginning, were these efforts multi-faith?
Yes, it’s always been an interreligious project. Those of us who founded www.feminismandreligion.com have ties to Christian, Catholic, and Mormon backgrounds, but we knew that we wanted this to welcome all voices. This would be necessary to really offer an opportunity to dialogue and to recognize where we have commonalities but also differences and learn from each other. That has always been the goal. It was really overwhelming how many people wanted to participate. And because of that, we have had and continue to have a strong and important inter-religious dialogue.
Feminism has baggage on its own, but you’re combining this with religion. How does this complicate matters further?
I think any time you bring gender into the conversation it creates a particular dynamic for that conversation. But bringing religion in makes it so much bigger! People are either really grounded in their tradition—and view you as challenging the word of God—or people are very anti-religion and say, “What are you doing? How could you ever say that anything within a patriarchal tradition could be liberating for women?” I’ve also seen people frustrated that you’re having these conversations around traditions beyond Christianity in a so-called “Christian nation” (the United States). They say, “How could Islam be liberating for women? You’re condoning violence against women.” It takes on so many different tones.
Even though it's said there are three things you shouldn’t talk about—gender, religion, and politics—those are all of the things that I talk about! As an individual I have received hate mail. I did a talk recently at a university and had some protestors, and I had some people who ripped my posters down. I felt really privileged, because that means you must be doing good work, right? I am always hearing the backlash, the passion, and the anger that people have from all kinds of different directions. Definitely, bringing those three things together creates a real fury within people.
How do you manage or respond to backlash on the blog?
People who are very fundamental (or very traditional) in their beliefs read blog posts and react with negative or angry comments. We have a comment policy we apply consistently; every idea is welcome but must be given in a respectful manner. Sometimes we get comments that can be really problematic, or maybe violent in tone, so we’ve worked at writing back to those people to say, “We really want you to participate in the dialogue, but can you reword your comment so that it is respectful and engages in dialogue rather than attacking aggressively?” People respond to that, surprisingly, and it’s really helped to build the dialogue.
As the voices and readers grew, how did you know it was time for a book?
The idea of the book came from the blog. One of the conversations that has come up over and over again is the question of why someone would stay within a patriarchal tradition if you are a feminist. Can you truly be a feminist if you identify as belonging to a particular tradition that is patriarchal?
I thought that this is such an important topic that people really struggle with, so why not write a book exploring it. I reached out to my good friends and colleagues, Jennifer Zobair and Amy Levin, to see if they wanted to co-edit a volume where we could bring in voices from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women about straddling these spaces—finding space for yourself as a feminist and belonging to a particular religious tradition.
How did you find and gather the authors across faiths?
We came together on this book and reached out to feminist friends, colleagues, and so on to find people that were interested. Very quickly we had a list of 45 women! Initially the publisher thought we’d find maybe 20 authors but we knew that this was so much bigger—plus we were engaging three traditions. It came together and we were amazed at the stories that the women shared. It was such a privilege to be part of the editing process, reading their stories and engaging with them.
I also want to say that there was so much interest in it that we got a publisher immediately. We were excited to know that people were interested in the conversation and found it to be valuable.
We also were overwhelmed by the response. When the book came out it actually went through its first print really quickly. We had lots of invitations to speak, taking us all over the country. At every location we find that people are so engaged in the dialogue and want to talk about the issues they’re seeing in their church or their synagogue or their mosque. They’re asking, “How do I navigate this?” Others are sharing ideas and thinking about different ways to “subvert the system.” How do you subvert a system in a way that is safe for you? We all have different issues that we’re confronting in our traditions. For example, Kate Kelly was excommunicated from the Mormon church because of her work around ordained women. (I always say that Mormons and Catholics have a lot in common because of the excommunication factor.) This shows that you can experience violence in different ways.
Writing is one thing, but saying it to an audience can be quite different. What have you learned when talking with people about these topics?
I have learned the importance of how to dialogue with people by meeting them where they’re at; you have to find that line. If you’re too bold then you may push too hard and then people aren’t going to hear you. They’re really just going to be angry with you. But if you can listen to a person, hear where they’re coming from, and respond to them in a respectful manner this can open space for dialogue. Then you may find ways to work together for change. You’re not always going to agree on everything, but what kind of common ground can we find and what kind of ideas can we share, even though there’s strong disagreement here? That has been a real big lesson for me and I think for a lot of feminists in general.
As you’ve traveled around to speak, have you encountered existing work within communities?
It’s been a mix. It seemed that in places where people are already having the dialogue, fewer people came to our event. They’re already part of the conversation. For instance, we did an event in New York City, and we had a decent group but it wasn’t huge. It’s a very diverse community with many things happening there.
Then we went to Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. We had a huge audience. It was overwhelming, and the dialogue that took place was amazing! People said, “This isn’t something that we talk about, and we want to talk more about it.” The best part of the day, for me, was when a cameraman recording the event asked, “Could I ask a question?” He was so interested!
When you get into these spaces where people really are curious, and they don’t have a platform or outlet for such conversations, it’s very exciting. They find a place where they can dialogue about it, find new information, and see how they can navigate things for themselves. We don’t generally attract people to events that are disagreeing or want to challenge us. In Cincinnati we did have someone challenge Amina Wadud who was there speaking with us. She was gracious in the way that she responded, but I also think that that person genuinely had a question and was confused by what her tradition is teaching her. In that sense, I think it was great that she and Amina had that dialogue.
Feminism has changed over time. How did you engage across generations?
We focused on finding authors for the book under the age of 50. And the reason is because I think that a lot of people believe that younger women are no longer engaged in their faith traditions and/or that traditions are dying amongst the younger generation. We wanted to say that no, this is continuing, and it’s because of women like Amina Wadud, Rosmary Radford Reuther, and Judith Plaskow who have done this really hard work and have created this path that other women are following the path. This is why we approached these three women to write the forward in our book! These women are so incredible, and they’re so willing to engage in how a younger generation can carry on this work. I feel like the work that occurs is very much inter-generational and the dialogue is very much inter-generational.
As a professor, how is it working with young women on these topics?
I feel so privileged to work at a women’s focused college. I love working with young women. We have male students (eight percent of the student population) and gender plays a key role in our curriculum. We talk about gendered issues to give our students a good understanding of the way that gendered issues intersect with other issues in society.
This spring semester I taught a gendered studies class with all female students who came into the classroom with a very, very limited understanding of women’s political issues or issues that women are engaging in religion. Also, I found that going into the U.S. presidential election, they hadn’t really engaged any of it. They were young women and this was their first election where they were eligible to vote. We had a lot of dialogue and conversation about gender issues. The students were overwhelmed and it was very eye-opening for them. We co-wrote a paper together for the class called “What’s at stake for college women in the upcoming election?” We wrote it for the Huffington Post. We worked together and excitement built as they felt like they had a voice in the world. That was my goal—to let them know that you have a voice, your voice matters, and you have the ability to share that voice and participate in change. My other classes were religion-focused classes and yes, I bring gender into those classes as well.
Given your global blog readership, have you taken the book internationally? Would it be relevant across cultures and contexts?
Our publisher and the editor for the series that we are a part of wanted us to focus specifically in the context of the United States, so we did. But we’ve had some contact from someone in the U.K. who picked up Faithfully Feminist and wanted to have a dialogue and panel discussion there. Given the U.S. focus, we have not reached out to other countries. But I do see that through the blog people are very interested in the conversations that are occurring. While a lot of our writers are in the United States, we have several writers and readers outside of the U.S.
What are you currently working on?
While working on Faithfully Feminist I found myself thinking about what is the next conversation beyond this? What other things should we be looking at? One of the things that I find really critical is putting our research and ideas into action. How do you actually make change in the world?
I’m now collaborating on a book titled Women, Religion, Revolution along with Xochitl Alvizo, a dear friend and colleague co-founder of the blog. I often refer to her as my partner in feminism. Often times, we think of activism or revolution as being very macro-level. We often think that we as individuals can’t participate in change or don’t have the ability or time, at least compared to the large global movements we see. But we want to point out that this wasn’t the fact. We’re all engaging in revolutionary work whether we realize it or not. We’re talking about it really being rooted in love and justice and how women are using the foundational teachings of their religious traditions to launch these everyday revolutions.
The book addressed intersectionality and very different perspectives across different traditions. We have Catholic, Mormon, evangelical, Muslim, and Jewish contributors. I think we have some Goddess contributors. It’s culturally and generationally diverse.
Have you seen the needle move on some gender issues in your own tradition?
As a Catholic, I think that we see baby steps within the Church. It can be frustrating, because everybody wants change now. I always talk about this feminist ethic of risk that comes from Sharon Welsh with the idea that we have to have a mature attitude and recognize that the change we want isn’t going to happen today. But, if we can continue to engage and work for it, it will happen down the line. It might be in our grandchildren’s lives or our great-grandchildren’s lives, but our efforts do count.
I see Pope Francis doing a lot of great things, and I celebrate these, but I think that he has blind spots. I constantly write about Pope Francis and also note that he has not opened the conversation on women deacons. When are we talking about women priests? I want to believe that he’s taking baby steps and he recognizes that really large change is going to rattle people. He’s obviously getting a lot of resistance, but he also says things about women that are very problematic. I continue to push the conversation, while also honoring the progress that has been made. I think that women across traditions feel that way. Yes, we see these baby steps, but we’re not where we want to be.
I’m curious if your blog topics often point to or struggle with scripture and gender equality.
We all pull from the foundations of our traditions including scripture. People turn to Scripture as a way to understand their faith. People, I think, are very engaged in praxis issues, but it does come back to scripture often. As a Catholic, I think it also comes back to foundational teachings in looking at who is Jesus, what did he teach, and how are we applying that today. For me, it always comes back to social justice. I talk about the overarching themes throughout the Bible of social justice and liberation. We have become so wrapped up in proof-texting and pulling out little bits and pieces that we miss the message. If you have a piece of literature that people are exploiting and using in a problematic way, we need to have conversations. Texts like Sodom and Gomorrah are about hospitality and loving your neighbor, not about homosexuality. Too often people use these texts to oppress others and overlook the liberative message that is supposed to be there.
The concept of “rape culture” is more widely discussed following recent attacks on college campuses. How do you engage on this topic?
I wrote a book called Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence. A lot of my research revolved around rape culture and looking at some of the ways that religion is used to ordain such a culture. One area of my focus was virgin martyrs in Catholicism. These stories are not true—they were made up—but a lot of people don’t realize it. They think these saints (such as Saint Agatha and Saint Katherine) actually existed and were tortured to death because they refused to be raped and accepted death instead. Saint Maria Goretti is a modern-day virgin martyr; she died in 1902.
This has created a culture that controls women and sexuality and also leaves us with ideas that in order to be of value, we have to protect our virginity. Issues around rape and shame are so tied up in our traditions, teachings, and also in the way we understand our sexuality and what it means to be a “good woman.” It’s very problematic.