2016-06-30
Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., has had a ringside seat at NOW, the Ms. Foundation, and other hot-button women's groups for thirty years. She is founder and president of The Sister Fund, a major contributor to women's causes. Hunt earned her Ph.D. at New York's Union Theological Seminary, focusing on the religious roots of the women's movement. She was troubled that religious views were not welcome in feminist circles. Through dialogue and conferences on faith and feminism that she is helping to organize, Hunt sees that rift starting to heal. An expert in conflict resolution, Hunt is married to Harville Hendrix, the couples counseling guru and former pastoral counselor, with whom she co-founded Imago Relationship Therapy and co-authored several best-selling books.

In her recent book "Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance" Hunt analyzes the relationship between faith and the women's movement; she also profiles five religious women who were pioneers in the struggle for women's rights: Emily Dickinson, Teresa of Avila, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, and Dorothy Day.


Can you explain how you came to see that the feminist movement was closed off to religion?

In my personal life, as I was sitting in feminist meetings, it was ironic that we were invited to bring our "whole person" and our full sisterhood to the table, but if you mentioned your Hindu faith, or your Christian faith, or if you said "I'm in a prayer group," [you were] met with stony silence and embarrassment.

As I went back and forth between my feminist activities and my [religious] roots, I saw how combative feminists were and I felt that was necessary for part of our evolution, but that there was a greater strength. And so, I began to wonder what would happen if feminists got interested in empathy, and instead of challenging men for not including them, asked men what was going on with them, what made it difficult for men to invite women into their circles or give them equal pay. The dialogue piece was missing in the women's movement. Most faiths I know are about interconnectedness. That was missing in the feminist movement.

I feel that faith and feminism have a deep relationship to each other and that both are responses to the deep human yearning for connection and for peace on earth, and that they both have a vision of universal human equity. What this book is encouraging is a more intentional dialogue between faith and feminism because they in fact need each other to complete their respective missions.

Would you say that the greatest tension is with Christians who have attacked the feminist agenda, making it difficult for women to believe that they could be both active Christians and feminists?

I do think that the Jewish tradition and the Muslim tradition also structure their faith in a way that challenges the feminist agenda of women's voice being equal to men's. And it is troubling to me and troubling to many women who want feminism to resound strongly in their faith. I don't think it's more intense with the Christians.

Gloria Steinem wrote the introduction to your book. And Betty Friedan writes in a cover blurb that she encouraged you to write a book on faith and feminism as you were walking together on a beach. Is the fact that they wrote those things an indication of a change of heart on their part, a warming up to faith?

I was very blessed. Both women mean a lot to me, and I was surprised that they were so forthcoming in writing about the book. With Betty, she was never against religion. She was always frustrated that feminists projected that. In fact, of the seven people who founded NOW, two of them were nuns. And when they had their first press conference, Betty said, "Wear your habits." And the nuns said, We don't want to wear our habits because we are here to start a social movement-it's not about a religious thing. And Betty said, "No, I want you to wear your habits for this." And they said, no they wouldn't. And finally Betty said, "Dammit, wear your habits!" She was always wishing that religion would be front and center. She was more like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Betty always felt that religion has to be part of social reform, that the story of religion keeps women subservient, so you have to open up the religious piece and talk about how religion can fuel the vision.

The form of your book is interesting; it's set up to be discussed and shared in a group, making it ideal for women's spirituality groups.

I would be thrilled if the book were presented that way. Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the only other woman who has written a book like this. She put it out a long time ago, and I don't think it got heard sufficiently. She said that feminism invited her into the movement but told her that she'd have to give up her faith. And Judaism told her that she'd have to give up her feminism. She felt schizophrenic. My book invites women to tell their stories-if you start talking about who you are, both your faith and feminism will come out.

You see a great deal of hope in dialogue.

In addition to small groups of women coming together to address this in their homes, we need the National Council of Churches or different feminist groups to convene panels on the issues of faith and feminism and have the dialogue going on to establish where the issues are where we can easily converge. It seems everyone is tip-toeing around the fact that there's a great breach, and we can't afford the divide.

I was stunned with the Vatican's proclamation approved by the Pope against feminism and an explication about where all the feminists have gone wrong. The Pope does some very worthy things, but he obviously missed his opportunity on this issue. Obviously he has such a narrow view of what feminism is and many feminists have a very narrow view of what religion is. Not until the two forums come together will the convergence happen.

I am involved in a network of women's funds. The Women's Funding Network holds an annual conference. And this year, the theme of the conference was reaching out to three new populations: men, corporate women, and institutional religion. I was very involved in all the meetings around the theme of religion, of course. And it was just fantastic.

These hard core feminists came and said, "The church has hurt me so much, I was raised Catholic, there's no way I can ever go back. The church was so demeaning to me and my goals." There was such hurt expressed, and tears were shed. But we had beautiful facilitators, and the women came together. One ardent activist came up afterwards and said to me, "Helen, I got religion here!" It was very moving.

How did you choose Emily Dickinson, Teresa of Avila, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, and Dorothy Day to profile in your book?

I'm not ordinarily a mystical person, but I actually had dreams of these women. My dream life was the editor and shaper of this book.

Any dreams that were particularly powerful?

No, but I had a dream of Teresa of Avila-just dancing in her habit. And after reading and reading about her, I had a dream about Dorothy Day reaching out to people on the street. I'd occasionally have dreams like that, and I wanted to make sure that there was something universal about the selection, since it [spans] different continents, centuries, and cultures.

Some were real believers, like Lucretia Mott. But then others like Emily Dickinson, lived with such doubt every day, but the doubts were windows into her own depths and into her empathy, and it made her honesty about her struggle so powerful.

Each of the five women you discuss represents a stage of the internal journey of the heroine, you say, or the wholeness path: pain, shadow, voice, action, communion.

I wanted to stress the communion part because that's where I think we want to go. Feminism is about interconnection, but it's stopping short of the real kind of outreach that it could have. Becoming conscious of how we are all interconnected is important. We must treat one other carefully in order to not rupture the connections between each other.

The other challenge is for feminism to think about its shadow, which is the split-off part of its spiritual self.

And what would that shadow consist of and how would we work with it?

First to own the fact that, while there is a long-standing split between faith and feminism, American feminism was birthed as a spiritual effort. The women who issued the first public call for women's rights were fueled by their religious fervor and passion, and they started every one of their meetings with prayer, and their first proclamation was that women deserved to have a public voice. They knew that slavery was wrong and they were not going to stay silent. The government was saying that they had to stay silent, and the church was saying they had to stay silent, but God was telling them that they had to go speak! And they rallied! They had all these local antislavery societies, hundreds of them, and they decided to pull together-this is in 1835. These women were there because of a sacred calling. They would name it that way. They would say, God is telling us that women have to have a voice in our society. And that's the root of American feminism.

I'm not sure that many people think about how feminism was linked to the abolitionist movement initially, not just to the desire to have a vote.

The average lay person might not know, but feminist historians know it. However, few books do the needed analyses. Some historians try to minimize the religious language, thinking of it as an idiom of the day, but I think it did have meaning for the women of that period, and continues to have meaning today! We become dismembered if we divorce ourselves from these powerful traditions. So there's a lot of enthusiasm now as people are diving back in and reclaiming faith as part of our empowerment. There's receptivity to it now that wasn't there twenty years ago. And as the women began to work to free the slaves, they began to see their own slavery, which then seeded the work for women's rights.

What would a "whole feminism" look like?

I think it's so important to understand that feminism is not about women. Feminism is about human beings. Feminism is about the creation. It's a consciousness of how we are interrelated to each other. And to the extent that anyone's voice is muted, that must be redressed. Whole feminism is a new kind of consciousness where no person is free, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, until all people are free. It's about a human regard that we have for one another, being expressed in our daily actions.

Faith and feminism need each other to complete their respective missions.
Feminism when wedded [to] faith becomes grounded in a deeper perspective that is transpersonal, something beyond itself. Feminism is a part of this larger working out of "right relationship" that theology talks about. So faith grounds feminisms beyond itself. And feminism challenges faith to take more seriously the mandate for full human equality and to include women in its vision of justice.

Did feminists hurt Democrat John Kerry's presidential bid by insisting upon one hundred percent purity on partial birth abortion, which many religious conservatives and pro-life people strongly oppose?

Given how entrenched the positions are, to debate one side or another is not the thing. I have seen for some years a crying need for dialogue. [There's] a cry out for a dialogue between these two groups. Until that happens, neither is going to convince the other side of their view. People need to come to a place of empathy for both sides of the abortion issue.

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