The “second wave” of American feminism was still in its early days in 1975 when Dorothee Soelle (1929-2003) arrived at Union Theological Seminary. Feminist theology was a recent endeavour and the mainstream feminist conversation was still largely shaped by secular liberal ideals. Liberal feminists sought to counter the notion that women and their femininity were ill-suited to the professional public sphere. They worked to abolish legal inequalities women faced; in particular they sought to address issues that prevented women from being accepted in the workplace. Liberal feminists, through organizations like NOW, looked to achieve equality through legislation. They also sought to counter notions of essentialism and, in turn, heavily emphasized the individual. Upon befriending American academics at Union, Soelle was surprised to find so many women identifying primarily as feminist theologians. Christian E. Gudorf, who worked as Soelle’s teaching assistant at Union, remembers Soelle’s confusion: “to her [feminism] seemed a narrow cause advocated by women of privilege—white, middle-class, American women—when there were so many other groups…who should be the focus of efforts for justice.”[1] Through conversations with students and faculty at Union, as well as her own process of reflection, Soelle gradually began to consider feminism differently. In her own words, feminist “manifestations gave me a better understanding of a number of things in my own biography.”[2] Soelle eventually adopted the title feminist for herself. 

            Adopting the term did not mean she immediately began towing the party line, however. Her different context—as a German, a Christian liberationist, and a member of the Left—meant her feminism differed from the “mainstream” feminists of her time, as well as some other feminist theologians. She acknowledged this difference in her autobiography Against the Wind: “Perhaps my road took a different course than that of many younger women for whom feminism comes first, and only then their politicization.”[3] We see these differences throughout her work. They surface in her discussion of workable images of God, in the sources she used, and, most importantly, what she saw as the goal of feminist work. If we look at each of these places where Soelle articulated a feminist position yet broke with liberal feminist convention we can get a sense of her particular expression of feminist liberation theology. In place of a feminism oriented towards individual rights and stripped of all the symbols of patriarchy, Soelle’s feminism envisioned a reinterpreted Christian tradition that moves all people, including men, towards justice and wholeness. In her own words, within the Christian tradition, “opposing our repressive religious heritage is a liberation tradition that teaches us to believe in wholeness, even at times when we are actually aware of our brokenness and despair.”[4] Soelle’s feminism simultaneously takes seriously the patriarchal history of Christianity and remains committed to the search for the liberative heart of the Gospel.  

            By the time Soelle arrived at Union and began discussing feminism with her colleagues, Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father had already been published, sparking a tremendous shift in feminist theology. Picking up elements of Daly’s critique (though still remaining within the Christian tradition), other scholars such as Phyllis Trible and Rosemary Radford Reuther further highlighted the negative impact certain emphases and prevalent interpretations within the Christian tradition have had on women and their spiritual development over time. Soelle, in Theology for Skeptics, articulates a similar perspective as she reflects on her problems with the image of “God as Father”: 

My difficulties with the father, begetter, ruler, and controller of history deepened as I came to understand more precisely what it meant to be born as a woman (that is in the language of the tradition, ‘defective’) and to live in a sexist society…. How could I worship a God who is no more than a man?[5]

Soelle began to see the limiting impact this image, dominant in the Christian tradition, has had through history. “Father” is an image “easy to misuse for authoritarian religion, [and] as easy to harden into obedience and subjection.”[6] Yet, for all its misuse, Soelle argues for the retention of this symbol, along with others, in feminist liberation theological expression. Directly countering “other feminists” who advocate for the abandonment of “phallocentric” images, Soelle argues that “God as Father” can be put to liberative use, emphasizing God’s immanence and humanity’s dependency: “Familial symbols of God, the talk of God out Father and God our Mother, can have a liberating effect not because they alleviate the dehumanizing, oppressive characteristics of patriarchy but because they bind us to nature and to the human family.”[7]

            “God the Father” is not the only image Soelle reinterprets; she revaluates feminine images within the Christian tradition as well. For example, Soelle dedicates a chapter in Strength of the Weak to recasting the image of Mary. Like Daly, who saw the veneration of a woman who was simultaneously a virgin and a mother as setting an impossible standard for living women, Soelle notes some significant problems with Mary’s use in the Christian tradition. Mary is “desexualized and humble, the feminine ideal, a symbol created to teach self-oppression to the oppressed, self-censure to the self-critical, self-exploitation to the doubly exploited.”[8] As living women “we can never measure up to her and should therefore feel guilty and ashamed.”[9] In spite of the oppressive uses to which her image of has been put, Soelle is “not ready to surrender Mary to our opponents.”[10] In order to recast Mary’s image Soelle looks to the Mary of scripture—the character who sang the magnificat and witnessed her revolutionary son be executed—to undermine the view that Mary is rightly characterized by submission. “The little madonna who spoke of liberation in [Luke 1:46 – 53] is not made of plaster or plastic,” Soelle argues. She also turns to alternate images of Mary in history that are less pristine, less docile. Into the High Middle Ages Mary “was known as ‘the madonna of rogues’… who could not help being at odds with the increasingly stringent laws that defined and protected property.”[11] In doing so Soelle undermines the notion that the “powers that be” within the Church have the authority to define the meaning of images. There is more than one way to read Mary; to throw her away because others have appropriated her for their oppressive causes is in its own way an injustice. In keeping Mary’s image alive in the Christian tradition we are able to pay tribute to those for whom she was a life giving idea. “I find it hard to think,” Soelle writes, “that the millions of women before me who have loved Mary were simply blind or duped. They, too, must have offered resistance, resistance from which we can learn.”[12] Existing images within the tradition need not be abandoned—Soelle, in fact, critiques the usefulness of such a strategy—but should rather be understood anew and combined with other, under-used images. Images and symbols in the Christian tradition, for Soelle, should be evaluated not in terms of whether they have been used oppressively in the past; instead they should be evaluated by their capacity to engender resistance to dominant, non-liberative systems and practices. 

A black and white image of three women in 1980s attire. Soelle, centre, smiles in conversation with someone out of the frame.
Dorothee Soelle in 1981

            We have seen how Soelle embraced the feminist theologians’ critique of androcentric God-talk and the idealized version of Mary while at the same time coming to a different conclusion about their continued usefulness. Soelle embraced some of secular feminism’s critiques of Western culture, yet at the same time drew different conclusions than other feminist writers. Let us turn to Soelle’s use of Sigmund Freud as an example. Feminist writers have long pointed to Freud as a source of misogyny. They have argued that the prevalence of his influence on the Western world has contributed to the marginalization of women and the maintenance of patriarchy through the modern era. In both de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and in Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique Freudian thought is taken to task. Both writers, important shapers of feminist thought, devote time to refuting the Oedipal complex and Freudian notions of gender identity development. His thought is not only seen as flawed but also as harmful to society’s understanding of women and womanhood. In The Second Sex de Beauvoir observed a certain disinterest towards women in Freud’s ideas, noting that “Freud was not very concerned with women’s destiny; it is clear that he modelled his description of it on that of masculine destiny, merely modifying some of the traits.”[13] She discusses Freud’s concept of “woman” and argues that, in assuming the female psychosexual development pattern is simply the “complex deviation” from the “standard” male pattern, Freud perpetuated the notion of woman as “other.” In The Feminine Mystique Friedan likewise problematizes Freud’s notions of women and womanhood, linking them to the development of “the problem that has no name.” She asserts that the feminine mystique “is a Freudian idea, hardened into apparent fact, that has trapped so many American women today.”[14] Freud’s othering of women, in Freidan’s view, not only others them on a philosophical level, but in women’s everyday lives.  She argues: “Freudian thought…chains women to an old image, prohibits choice and growth, and denies them individual identity.”[15] These two matriarchs of the feminist movement demonstrate an aversion to Freudian ideas that becomes characteristic of many other feminist thinkers.[16]

            Soelle’s works are peppered with references to Freud. She joins de Beauvoir and Friedan in identifying Freud’s othering of women.[17] In addition she critiques him for contributing to notions of pleasurable submission to suffering that reinforce Christian masochism.[18] Yet, alongside these critiques are many positive references to his works. She employs some of his observations in her own analysis; she draws on his analysis of the Narcissus myth, his framing of the Oedipal complex, and uses his language of neuroses to describe unhealthy impulses in society, such as security.[19] In particular Soelle seems to have treasured one principle of Freud’s: his definition of sanity. She writes in To Work and to Love: “Sigmund Freud was once asked what a sane, or non-neurotic, person would be like. In reply, he defined the sane person as one who is able to work and to love.”[20] It is from this saying that she took the title of her book and to this definition of wholeness that she turns to again and again in her work. She expands it to encompass a vision of a healthy, non-neurotic society as well as the sane individual. Work and love are two very important themes in Soelle’s theology. Soelle critiques both capitalist notions that view work as commodity and theological links between work and punishment for sin. She posits an alternate view of work in which it is seen as meaningful in and of itself. Work, rather than a punishment, should be seen as an expression of our being created in God’s image.[21] In being able to work and love, and do both well, humans will come to a better experience of ourselves as created beings standing in relation. As a human race in right relationship with the Creator, we are not only to be freed from our neuroses, but also to be freed for working and loving. In (repeatedly) using Freud as the basis for her definition of wholeness, Soelle countered prevailing feminist convention by giving his perspectives a sizeable amount of authority in her work. One could say that what Soelle does with Freudian principles is analogous to what she does with the Christian tradition: she critiques its elements that inhibit fullness of life, but then expands upon its core ideas that move humanity towards change, development, and just living. 

[1] Christine E. Gudorf, “Dorothee Soelle, Feminism, and Medieval Women Mystics,” in The Theology of Dorothee Soelle, ed. Sarah K. Pinnock, (New York: Trinity Press International, 2003), 147. 

[2] Dorothee Soelle, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 67. 

[3] Dorothee Soelle, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian, trans. Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 72. 

[4] Dorothee Soelle with Shirley A. Cloyes. To Work and to Love: A Theology of Creation, (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1984), 147. 

[5] Dorothee Soelle, Theology for Skeptics: Reflections on God, trans. Joyce L. Irwin, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)26.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Dorothee Soelle, The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 42. 

[9] Ibid., 43.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Ibid., 45.

[12] Ibid., 48.

[13] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, London: Jonathon Cape, 2009), 51.

[14] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique,: Annotated Text, Contexts, Scholarship, eds. Kristen Fermaglich and Lisa M. Fine, (New York: WW Norton, 2013), 86. 

[15] Friedan, 87. 

[16] In the intervening decades the relationship between Freud, feminism, and theology has become increasingly complex. For an example of how Freud is discussed since Friedan and de Beauvoir see Diane Jonte-Pace, “Which Feminism, Whose Freud?” in Pastoral Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 6, 1992. 

[17] For an example see Strength of the Weak, 99. 

[18] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, trans. Everett R. Kalin, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973), 22.  

[19] Dorothee Soelle, Of War and Love, trans. Rita and Robert Kimber, (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1983), 98.

[20] To Work and to Love, 2. In all of Soelle’s many references to this quote she never once discusses its source, nor, indeed, quotes Freud properly. Love and work are reversed in the original statement, which was made in reference to Freud’s most famous patient, the “wolfman,” whom Freud treated in the 1910s. English translations of Freud’s case notes, which contain the original quote, are found in The “Wolfman” and Other Cases, translated by Louise Adey Huish (New YorkL Penguin Books, 2003). 

[21] A summary of Soelle’s points in chapter five “Dynamics of Work in Capitalist Economies” and chapter six “Between paradise and Curse” in To Work and to Love.

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