The Faith of Feminists: Religion in the National Organization for Women

Ann Braude, Harvard University

Date: March 15, 2006

Event Recap

On March 15th the Center welcomed Ann Braude, director of Harvard University’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, to speak about the “Faith of the Feminists: Religion in the National Organization for Women” (NOW). Braude’s work explores the role religion and women theologians played in the life of NOW in the 1960s and 1970s, and the reasons why NOW has been understood as hostile toward religion. Braude acknowledged that the study of women’s religious history and feminism in the late twentieth century is a controversial topic. Conventional views of NOW hold that these feminists viewed religion as a component of patriarchal society, and interrupted the historic partnership of women’s activism and religion in advocating for social change. Braude argues that this tradition did not simply die out in secondwave feminism. Rather, according to Braude, religion and feminism were intertwined—sometimes antagonistically and sometimes cooperatively—in the 1960s and 1970s.

Braude’s presentation explored the ways in which religion was both absent from and an important part of the creation of NOW. An enduring image of the supposed clash of religion and feminism occurred at The Catholic University of America in 1971. Braude showed a photograph of ardent Catholic Patricia Buckley Bozell (National Review founding editor William F. Buckley’s sister) attempting to slap Ti-Grace Atkinson, the former New York chapter president of NOW, as she inveighed against the Catholic Church’s view of women. The story behind the incident, Braude noted, is more complicated. The fact that Atkinson spoke at a Catholic school and was actually a popular speaker at other Catholic universities demonstrated that religion and second-wave feminism comingled in this period.

Braude highlighted the founding of NOW in 1966 as another moment of intersection between religion and feminism. Pictured at the inception of NOW were its first president, Betty Friedan, and other leading figures of feminism, including, Sister Joel Read, S.S.S.F. In fact, Friedan wished to involve religious women in the activities of NOW, and  understood the movement as an effort for women’s rights irrespective of belief or non-belief. Indeed, part of NOW’s founding charter outlined eight task force issues,  including one on religion.  The organization’s platform was that sexism destroys religious values, and this was a particularly important idea for Catholics to consider as they witnessed the end of the Second Vatican Council. The task force on religion was led by a Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Farians, Ph.D. who understood NOW as an opportunity for female leadership in the Catholic Church. Ultimately, organization members disagreed about the need for trained female theologians, and divisions within NOW over the religious question intensified regarding the abortion issue. Braude invited the audience to share stories and memories of both women’s religious experience and the development of NOW. Several attendees reflected on the development of trained Catholic women theologians, and the extent to which these theologians were and continue to be involved in leadership positions within their religious communities. Overall, the luncheon offered an opportunity to reflect on women’s religious history in the United States and to rethink the role of religion in the history of the supposedly anti-religious National Organization for Women.