In 1983, scholar and theologian, Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza published her seminal work, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. The work for women’s equality continues but may it be done in memory of the women who inspire us.
Using the story found in the Gospel of Mark, 14:3-9, Fiorenza zeroes in on Jesus’ words about a nameless woman who anointed him with costly oil: “And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly – and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
In this book, Fiorenza identifies and examines how male dominated interpretations of the biblical text have historically produced theologies that marginalize, oppress, silence, devalue, and dismiss women. She argues that male dominated interpretations of scripture have greatly damaged women across centuries. Without considering historical contexts, interpreter bias, and socio/political agendas, many have used biblical texts to put and keep women “in their place.”
While women have come along way, we are still daunted by remnants of bad theology and misinterpretation of scriptures. To this day, there are still churches that will not allow a woman to serve as the lead pastor of a congregation, because of a misinterpretation and decontextualizing of the Apostle Paul’s teachings.
There are still men who oppress their wives, demanding obedience to their rule. In many parts of the world, women are still treated as property, sexually abused and mutilated, forced to marry men much older, beaten and even murdered for exposing too much skin (anything more than their hands, feet, and eyes, literally).
Right here in the United States, women and girls continue to experience domestic violence, become victims of sex trafficking, and workplace harassment as emphasized by the “Me Too” movement. Many of these travesties can be traced back to male dominated interpretations of religious texts.
In secular realms, women continue to earn less than men despite comparable (and in some instances higher levels of) educational preparation. In 2022, researchers revealed that numbers continued to reflect 2020 data, showing that women earned 83 cents of every dollar made by men.
The pay gap is even greater for women of color. Black women earned 64% and Latino women earned 57% of what white males earned in 2020 as documented by the U.S. Labor Department.
Women across the ages have stood up against theological, mental, physical, and societal structures used to keep women down. Like the woman in the biblical text, so often, we don’t know their names.
Too often we benefit from their sacrifices, learn from their experiences, and gain strength from their struggles. Yet we know nothing, really, about who they are.
Even the feminist movement of the 1960’s largely advanced by Betty Friedan in her famous work, The Feminine Mystique, left out sisters of color. Bell Hooks in her seminal work, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, argues that Black women continued to suffer societal abuse, oppression, dehumanization, degradation, racism, and overall inequality even after white women gained the right to vote.
Highlighting the groundbreaking equal rights speech made by Sojourner Truth during the second annual convention of the women’s rights movement, in Akron, Ohio 1852, Hooks paints a vivid picture of the lines of separation. Black women did not have the privilege of fragility, perceived feminine physical weakness and gentleness. They were too busy picking cotton, scrubbing floors, being whipped, raped, and having their children sold.
While white women were fighting for the right to vote and expand their opportunities beyond the boundaries of being housewives, no consideration was given to the plight of Black women. The feminist movement launched by white women did not include those who would work as domestics, cleaning their homes, feeding and raising their children.
The white feminism movement ignored those working tirelessly for low wages, while they (white women) pursued their careers and gained higher education. Black women had to develop a new framework that correctly articulated their painful and peculiar experiences.
While we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is important that we take time to examine the roots of our struggle and how those roots continue to entangle us today. It is critical that we engage in conversations that go beyond highlighting the works of a few obscure women.
We must learn from their stories, study their strategies, and work to raise awareness of the systems that persist in cycles of perpetual “firsts” in 2023.
Yes, we must celebrate and honor our “sheroes” of the past and present. But true honor will come to them as we continue to break down barriers that keep women marginalized, nameless, and powerless.
May we do it “in remembrance of her” and the many “hers” that have gone before us and paved the way for the successes, privileges, and blessings that we have today.
May it be done in remembrance of her, for her pain, her shame, her brokenness, her abuse, and misuse. May we work in remembrance of her, her triumph over tragedy, her ability to rise like air, her resilience, her beauty, and her strength.
In remembrance of her, may we continue to learn our sisters’ stories, tell their stories, champion their stories, and create new stories that will one day enable us to overcome the brokenness of our collective realities.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for International Women’s Day (March 8). The previous articles in the series are:
Imagine a Gender Equal Baptist World | Meredith Stone
Building a World, a Church Where We Show up for Everyone | Leah Grundset Davis
Senior pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland. She is the author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.