Also emerging in the 1960s and 1970s was renewed consciousness among white women that, just as abolishing slavery had not resolved racism, so getting the vote had not resolved sexism. During World War II women had successfully held mens manufacturing and management jobs, but once the war was over, many women were summarily dismissed from their employment to make way for men, regardless of whether they were widowed or self-supporting. A massive advertising campaign kicked in, portraying women as happy homemakers. Available work was restricted to nursing, school teaching, secretarial assistance, or domestic service, and the reality for many was poverty and discrimination.
Women reading Scripture found almost two thousand years of blame for sin and the downfall of all humanity. Scripture passages about obedience to husbands were used to control women questioning abusive marriages. Elizabeth Cady Stantons 1895 publication of The Womans Bible paralleled Martin Luthers rejection of objectionable texts, but Stanton was not as well protected as Luther. She was blasted in the press, and even the suffrage organization she founded voted to condemn her work. She published a second volume, just to make her point.
White women of both the suffrage era in the late 1800s and the feminist movement a century later made crucial errors by allowing racism to dominate the movement at strategic points. After early unity around abolition, suffragists chose to focus on getting the vote for women, but left black women out of the struggle. (Black men over 21 technically received the right to vote by Constitutional amendment after the Civil War, although some states instituted poll taxes and literacy requirements to disenfranchise them.) Early feminists did not take into account the different realities of women of color, nor did white women confront their own racism. For women seeking biblical interpretations that address all peoples realities, these were painful lessons. Later, white feminists made similar errors and struggled with how to be anti-racist.
White women had no specific biblical model, such as the Exodus had provided for abolition. Women emphasized themes of justice, protection of widows, and the way Jesus related to women in the Gospels. They rejected certain texts, and centuries of negative interpretation of biblical women. For example, the Bible never describes Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, but centuries of church tradition projected that image onto her.
A second wave of the womens movement gained momentum in the 1970s. Roman Catholics like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly took radical stands in a church where women had little to lose. Protestant feminist theologians Letty Russell, Phyllis Trible, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza studied the Bible in depth, offering detailed analysis and alternatives to patriarchal interpretations of Scripture. Seminary attendance by women went from around ten percent to almost fifty percent today. The issue of womens ordination in mainline denominations gained headlines and caused much uproar during the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s the numbers of women graduating from doctoral programs in biblical and theological fields exploded relative to previous numbers. In the 1990s women discovered the kind of authority that comes from their experience and education to interpret Scripture in a new way.
Many women of color sought a clearer way to deal with their own gender issues in the context of ongoing issues of racism. African-American author Alice Walker originated the term womanist, defining it to include elements of tradition, community, self, and critique of white feminist thought. Theologian Jacquelyn Grant defines a womanist as "one who has developed survival strategies in spite of the oppression of her race and sex in order to save her family and her people," and stresses the importance of black women speaking out for themselves in order to validate their own experience. Womanist Bible scholars and authors like Renita Weems, Delores Williams, Joan Martin, Clarice Martin, Katie Canon, Cheryl Gilkes, Kelly Brown, and many others have stepped into the biblical dialogue by using the experience of African-American women as the starting place for a dialogue with the sacred stories of the Bible. They emphasized the African-American interpretation of the story of Hagar, the Egyptian woman in Genesis, as a formative story of relationships between women of different races in a world dominated by male power structures. Africans such as the wife of Moses, the bride in the Song of Songs, or the Ethiopian eunuch take on new dimensions when the tellers of the tales are women of African descent.
As women gained numbers and influence in the mainstream of scholarly biblical interpretation, some of its currents began to shift. Latina women, in their rich diversity, joined the flow in small but vocal numbers, with some claiming the identity "Mujerista," Spanish for "Womanist." Elsa Tamez, a Mexican Bible scholar and dean of the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica, professor Maria Pilar Aquino, the Brazilian Ivone Gebara, and Cuban-American seminary professors Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Daisy Machado, are foremost names that come to mind. The Gospel stories of Jesuss relationships with ordinary people, or of Jesuss family fleeing government persecution, or of the Syro-phoenecian woman whose quick wit and faith caused Jesus to change his mind and heal her daughter, despite racial barriers--these are the stories that emerge as Latinas relate the Bible to their own context of political strife, exploitation, and racism throughout the Americas. The Gospel calls for justice that requires reflection and action on both the social and personal levels. This justice cannot be separated from love and reconciliation.
Women biblical interpreters are diverse in race, nationality, and ethnicity as well as in basic approaches to Scripture. Their interpretation reflects the plurality of their experience. Within that context of diversity and plurality, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza describes four systematic principles for the process of interpretation called hermeneutics: 1) suspicion; 2) remembrance; 3) proclamation; and, 4) creative actualization. Of course, these categories are more fluid than numbers and definitions imply, but they are useful to consider briefly.
Suspicion: Womens "hermeneutic of suspicion" comes out of almost two thousand years of being excluded from virtually all leadership in the church based on gender alone. It questions assumptions of the meaning of words and texts promoted by church authorities and theologians during that period. Sexism had to have played a part in the Bible--it was written in a patriarchal context for men, by men, and interpreted by male authorities. Inquiring women noticed that Scripture texts that talked about womens leadership were traditionally ignored, over-sexualized, de-sexualized, or even changed. Mary Magdalene, probably an important leader among the followers of Jesus, was over-sexualized by being labeled a prostitute--an interpretation Scripture does not support. Mary, mother of Jesus, was de-sexualized by the translation of the Hebrew word for "young woman" to the Greek for "virgin," and a strong tradition exalting her virginity. Junia, a womans name mentioned as an apostle in Romans 16:7, was changed by translators to "Junias," the male version of that name.
Remembrance: A "hermeneutic of remembrance" seeks out the existing womens stories in the Scriptures that have often been ignored because the focus was on a male character. An example raised up by Renita Weems and Delores Williams is Hagar, who was cast out by Sarah and Abraham to die. Instead she became the first woman in the Bible to have God speak directly to her. Hagar survived her oppression, and God made her the mother of a great nation. Remembering Hagars story is a sign of hope for all women surviving oppression.
Phyllis Trible combines remembrance with a literary approach to Scripture. She reads closely and at face value the stories of rape, murder, and dismemberment of women--"texts of terror"--and asks people to remember the women in the stories. The murder of an unnamed concubine is one of the stories Trible lifts up (see Judges 19: 1-20:7). In this shocking story, a man traveling with his concubine passes the night in a strange town. Men of the town surround the house asking for the stranger to come out so they can rape him. The stranger pushes his concubine through the door and the men rape her all night. In the morning she falls dead on the doorstep, and her "husband" retrieves her body, then cuts it into twelve parts which he distributes to the tribes of Israel to provoke war.
Trible urges us to grieve for this unnamed woman, and to tell her story and the stories of women who lose their lives daily to domestic violence. Women are insisting that we remember the stories of women in Scripture and daily life--no matter how painful.
Proclamation: A "hermeneutic of proclamation" urges us to tell the truth about sin and redemption. Where the Bible supports the subjugation of people because of gender, enslavement, illness, etc., it should not be denied or hidden. Like all sins, these should be confessed and repented. Christians today have a responsibility to reject customs that were acceptable in ancient societies. The context of justice is more important than holding texts above criticism because they are "sacred Scripture."
Mexican scholar Elsa Tamez interprets the recurring theme of liberation throughout the Bible as meaning it is for real people, here and now, in a world filled with suffering and domination. Tamez rejects the long Christian tradition of spiritualizing or allegorizing the journey to freedom. She is keenly aware of the international economic enforcement of suffering, and the double bind faced by women who are poor. Proclamation of the love of God and the forgiveness of Christ requires that conversion include transformed lives. As John Wesley said, such holiness is always lived out in a social context.
Creative Actualization: A "hermeneutic of creative actualization" reads between the lines of Scripture. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenzas book In Memory of Her looks at the Scriptures about Mary Magdalene and surmises that her role as a significant leader was edited out, under-represented in the text and ignored by interpreters. In Just a Sister Away, Renita Weems uses a style similar to Jewish Midrash to retell biblical stories from the perspective of women who have no voice--or even name--in the biblical text, such as Lots wife, Mosess Cushite-African wife, and Jephthahs daughter.
New questions of authority reflect the increase in women scholars who raise new questions of interpretation. Mens experience of God and interpretation of Scripture have been accepted since Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus--or since Abram left Ur of the Chaldeans. Womens interpretations and experience has been treated as unreliable at least as far back as the disciples disbelief of Mary Magdalenes witness to the resurrection. Today womens interpretation is often criticized because it incorporates womens experience as a valid tool for interpretation. Such criticism infers that men do not use their experience as a way to interpret Scripture--or assumes that there is no difference between mens and womens experience.