Following up an earlier post, I have some further reflections on the work of Dorothee Soelle. In addition to repurposing “God as Father” and Marian imagery, and allowing Freud to retain some of his authority, Soelle also broke with certain feminist conventions when she articulated her feminist priorities. The main priority of liberal feminism was women’s equality. Members of the movement advocated for women’s participation in the public sphere and for legal reforms to ensure their equal standing alongside men. From the early suffragettes campaigning for the right to vote, to those who sought equal pay for female employees, helping women, in the name of equality, enter arenas from which they had been barred on account of their sex was an ever-present quest. Women in various Christian denominations used similar rhetoric when they began to campaign for the right to be ordained members of their religious communities. In contrast to this prevailing emphasis on equality, Soelle did not subscribe to the mainstream feminist notion that equality in the public sphere and “women’s liberation” were one and the same. Her sentiments on women being able to enlist in the German armed forces, as she discussed in Of War and Love, serve as one example of her departure from prioritizing equality. Soelle expresses her disapproval of a campaign amongst some German women who wanted barriers to their enlistment removed. Soelle was an ardent critic of militarism, both in Europe and in North America. For her, the idea of building “peace” through amassing weapons and “equality” through the inclusion of female soldiers was the ultimate adventure in missing the point. She argued, “the debate over equal rights and equal opportunities overlooks to what end these rights and opportunities are used in present day society.”[1] Given the irredeemably violent and corrupt nature of the military industrial complex, Soelle thought women pursuing full participation in it were misguided. The armed forces were unjust not because they excluded women, but because their very existence represented a disregard for the value of human life and a failure to accept finitude and vulnerability. 

Where the women saw an opportunity to gain further equality in German society, Soelle saw these them as having internalized the pursuit of the ideals of patriarchy – a system so corrupt it should be undone, not bolstered by women’s further participation in it. Not wanting women to capitulate their lives further to a broken, deathly system, Soelle opposed the campaign. She argued: “Women will become strong when they stop worshipping the golden calves that men worship” including “unlimited economic growth, national security, [and] the balance of terror.”[2] The goals of secular liberal feminism, namely the pursuit of equality, were set too low in Soelle’s view. Here we get a glimpse of the feminism that Soelle articulates: one that calls for a dramatic overhaul of what a society values. “Feminism fights not only for the equality of women but also for a different culture.”[3] Put another way, liberation feminists “do not want just an equal share of the pie as it is. They realize that they will have to bake an altogether different pie.”[4] Her feminist convictions derive from a wider value system that prizes justice and peace on a global scale. 

In considering an “all together different pie” Soelle was able to articulate a liberation feminist perspective that expressed concern for the ways that patriarchy negatively impacted men as well as women. This concern was atypical within liberal feminism. “However strongly I critique patriarchy,” she explained, “my feminism is not separatist in relation to men.”[5] She outlined her definition of oppression in The Strength of the Weak: “I understand ‘oppression’ to mean that our most important activities in life are determined by others and not by ourselves.”[6] This definition leaves room to explore various mechanisms of oppression – even those which negatively impact those who generally ‘benefit’ from oppressive systems. In collectively participating in the ‘othering’ of women, men are also affected, though in different ways. She states: “within this all inclusive interference in our working world, I do not find that men suffer any extra measure of harm or discrimination. It is women who do more work and dirtier work for less pay…. [But] both men and women are prevented from fulfilling their needs in different ways.” [7] Put another way, the patriarchal capitalist system prevents women from proper work while it prevents men from being able to properly love. “The role stereotypes that are harmful to women in quite a different way deprive the male of the possibility of further self-development so that he…becomes incapable of language, attentiveness, tenderness, and the ability to transcend himself in his wishes.”[8] Expressing concern for her children growing up in patriarchy she noted it becomes more difficult for men to extricate themselves from the system: “The dangers my son is exposed to are more difficult to combat because they go hand in hand with social recognition, success, and other bribes. In this respect, it is more difficult for him to become a human being.”[9] Soelle sees these deficiencies as the product of unhealthy socialization of boys and men rather than as a product of “maleness.” It may be more difficult for the deficient man to overcome the restraints patriarchy places on his ability to love, but it is not impossible. Doing so will open up new ways of relating. “The liberated man,” Soelle suggests, “when he eventually appears, will be able to love [a female] God.”[10]

Soelle rejected notions regarding gender essentialism – in this she was in line with her liberal feminist peers. Liberal feminists were set on undermining gender essentialism in order to bolster women’s suitability to the public sphere. However, later feminists would critique liberal feminism for elevating women’s participation in the public sphere to such an extent that the traditional realms of womanhood (domestic arts, motherhood, etc.) were respected even less. Soelle’s perspectives manage a more nuanced critique of essentialism that avoids the accidental undermining of what is ‘feminine.’ Rosemary Radford Reuther concisely summarizes Soelle’s notion of gender: 

Soelle rejects any essential difference between women and man in this task of liberation and life-giving love. Women have no superior capacity for love. They, too, can be deluded by and becomes collaborators with dominating power. Yet for her there are differences of social location between most men and women, as well as between the affluent and the marginalized. Because women as a gender group have been marginalized by dominating power and have been socialized to identify with love and relationality. Soelle hopes that women may be readier to break with lies and power systems and to align themselves with the struggle for justice and love.[11]

Both men and women are socialized in particular ways and have different tendencies positively reinforced by the society around them. This socialization leads to different experiences for men and women, even when other elements of their social location (class, nationality, etc.) are shared. This fact renders gender an important element of theological reflection, especially as it relates to thinking about sin.  Woman and girls’ socialization generally rewards them for denying their status as bearers of God’s image. This habit of denial develops particular patterns of sin into which women may be more likely to fall.  For example, women’s socialization makes pride less of a risk than excessive self-deprecation and passivity. “We make ourselves dependent on others,” she observes, “and leave to circumstance how things will turn out.”[12] In the eyes of feminist theology women’s greatest sin has been “taking our place in the patriarchy without resisting.”[13] Their socialization places women at a disadvantage in a patriarchal system but, as Ruether notes, this incentivizes abandoning said system and choosing to work towards “an altogether different pie.” 

Rather than distancing herself from ‘the feminine,’ Soelle paints it in a positive light and highlights its potential as a force for resistance and liberation. Like she had done with “God as Father”, Mary and Freud, Soelle was able to take gender stereotypes and recast them in a ways that point people towards liberation.

She neither defaults to the acceptance of traditional interpretations, nor the conventions of particular critiques. She evaluates each image, each text, each source herself. She takes what she sees as liberative in feminism, scripture, mysticism, Freud, Marx, the Christian tradition, even Western culture, and pulls it all together to form her theology of feminist liberation. In commenting on this process Soelle notes:

it is not a matter of noting women’s themes alongside men’s themes, women’s theology alongside men’s theology, and opening up an adjacent area for women in educational establishments. Rather, feminist theology offers a perspective on all the traditional objects of theology, which demonstrates oppression and which is therefore one which works towards liberation.[14]

Soelle’s articulation of feminist liberation theology is both compelling and challenging. She at once finds a home for those who have been oppressed by the mainstream theological tradition and places upon them the imperative of resistance.   

[1] Of War and Love, 62.

[2] Ibid., 62. 

[3] Strength of the Weak, 82. 

[4] Ibid., 54. 

[5] Against the Wind, 70.

[6] Strength of the Weak, 49. 

[7] Ibid., 49. 

[8] Ibid., 54. 

[9] Ibid., 58.

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “The Feminist Liberation Theology of Dorothee Soelle,” in The Theology of Dorothee Soelle, ed. Sarah K. Pinnock, (New York: Trinity Press International, 2003), 216. 

[12] Thinking About God, 66. 

[13] Ibid., 67.

[14] Ibid., 71.

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