7 Books About Faith and Feminism
Monica West, author of "Revival Season," recommends books about women who grapple with—or reject and replace—patriarchal religion
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I didn’t grow up hearing the word “feminism,” but my brain didn’t need to know the word to understand the freedom that it provided. At home and school, I was allowed to be everything I wanted—outspoken, smart, inquisitive, creative, brave, athletic, fearless. When I stepped in church, however, I knew that things were different even if the rules weren’t directly communicated to me. I accepted the starchy tights, dresses, and skirts—never pants—of Sundays, knowing that there was something about being formal and looking your best for God. But then I started to learn other things that weren’t in the Bible but that some people believed: how women were beneath men, how women couldn’t pastor churches, how women had to be married to be whole, how women had to be wives and mothers. At that moment, the dress seemed like a signal of something else: femininity, modesty, purity.
I started to wonder if there was a place within my religion—or any form of organized religion, for that matter—that allowed women to feel free and powerful, where it taught them that they weren’t lesser than men but rather whole as they were. I wondered if there were doctrines that made women central rather than peripheral, if there were narratives that saw gender roles for women outside of the notion of mother and wife, that defined them on their own terms rather than in relation to someone else. Whenever I need to find answers for something that I can’t see prominently in real life, I look to fiction.
In my novel Revival Season, 15-year-old Miriam Horton yearns to understand her place in her family and in the larger patriarchal religious structure of her world. After witnessing her father commit a shocking act of violence on the summer revival circuit, she discovers a secret about herself that places her at odds with her family and her faith. She spends the rest of the book questioning everything that she has previously accepted as true. Revival Season is my way of thinking about how feminism and faith can intersect and imagining what that world could look like.
Here are some other novels that show women of different faiths grappling with what it means to be powerful agents of their own choices. Some of them rewrite Biblical accounts, some of them imagine entirely new religions, and others find ways to center women’s voices in a patriarchal space. All of them help me envision what’s possible in the world.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Deesha Philyaw’s incredible stories feature women whose lives and identities are inextricable from the church. These daughters, lovers, and mothers navigate how to be who they truly are in light of the church’s patriarchal teachings and double standards about what women should do. Readers watch multiple generations of women who want to be holy but don’t quite know what that means, especially because the definition is based on their subjugation. Philyaw shows these women making their own rules of holiness that allow them to stay true to some parts of the conservative Christian tradition they’ve been raised in while also allowing it to serve their needs. Some women are successful with these attempts while others are frustrated by its futility. Ultimately, the stories allow women to grapple with what it means to be a fully realized Black woman and a Christian.
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
Etaf Rum’s brilliant novel is told from the multigenerational perspectives of female members of a Palestinian family before and after they emigrate to the United States. Mother-in-law Fareeda clings to rules of Arab propriety: she wants her son to have male heirs and is disappointed when her daughter-in-law Isra has four daughters. At 18-years-old, Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, has reached the age where she is expected to entertain suitors for marriage. There is one problem: Deya wants to go to college rather than get married. As she navigates the expectations of her culture and her Islamic faith, she wonders about what is possible for her outside of traditional gender roles. While Deya mulls through these decisions, she meets a woman who helps her see possibilities for her life that are separate from the gendered constraints that have previously bound her.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Though not centered around an organized religion per se, Alderman’s novel imagines what happens when women have a special physical power that makes them omnipotent and potentially dangerous. One of the characters with this power—Allie—uses her abilities to escape a brutal home life and flee to a convent. Soon, other people recognize that she has the special ability to control her power, and they come to her for healing. Thus, she reinvents herself as Eve—a spiritual leader of a new matriarchal religion that believes that God is female and emphasizes the female deities in other religions. Even though power ultimately corrupts Eve and her mission, Alderman fuses feminism and faith to remind readers of what can be possible in the world.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
When the Price family leaves Georgia to become missionaries in the Congo, their goal of converting the Congolese to Christianity is clear. Once the family is in the Congo, Leah, the oldest and most outspoken daughter, notices how her father’s brand of faith doesn’t translate well to the people he serves. In fact, Nathan Price’s mispronunciation of a Kikongo expression is the source of the book’s title: when Nathan attempts to say that Jesus is “most precious,” he says that Jesus is “poisonwood.” Nathan’s linguistic mistakes are only the beginning, and Leah is the first to understand how her father fundamentally misunderstands the people he serves. Though Leah still believes in her father’s faith, she forms ideas that are wholly distinct from his, thus forging her way as a person of faith separate from her father’s influence as well as Christianity’s colonial underpinnings.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Though she wrote the speculative novel in 1993, Butler imagines a world that is eerily similar to the one that we currently inhabit, complete with racial discord, income inequality, a climate crisis, and a zealous leader named who promises to “make America great again.” Into this setting, Butler inserts 15-year-old Lauren Olamina who is raised by her Baptist preacher father but finds herself growing increasingly disillusioned with her father’s faith. In search of something more, Lauren creates a new religion called Earthseed in her journal; the central belief of Earthseed is that God is Change. Lauren doesn’t share this religion with anyone at first, but when violence forces her to flee from her gated community, she shares Earthseed with her fellow escapees. As the novel ends, Lauren settles into a community where she can begin to practice Earthseed in a deliberate way. Butler reminds readers that women can find and create faiths that serve them when traditional faith no longer does.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Diamant sets her novel in the red tent: a biblical location where the women of Jacob’s tribe must go when they are menstruating. By reimagining Dinah’s life, readers see an all-female community of previously minor biblical characters (including Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah) use their important voices to broaden the biblical narrative of Genesis and give it texture. By rewriting biblical history from a female perspective, Diamant centers women’s agency and power rather their degradation. For example, Diamant rewrites Dinah’s biblical story about being raped by Shechem; in this new version, she falls in love with Shechem and marries him. Thus, Diamant uses these collective stories to transform the red tent from a place for subjugation into a location of power.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The Mothers begins with a collective first-person plural voice: the Greek chorus of church mothers that comments on the events in the novel. They are gossipy, judgmental, and opinionated, yet Bennett intentionally places these female voices as the conscience of the narrative. The story they are abuzz about is that of Nadia Turner who has gotten pregnant at 17 by Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son, after her mother’s suicide 6 months prior. We also meet Nadia’s best friend Aubrey Evans who is the chaste embodiment of virtuousness that the church teaches girls and women. Though the Mothers in the novel perpetuate the church’s patriarchy, the book is about womanhood in its various iterations. Furthermore, the idea that a religious world can be mediated by autonomous female voices holds possibilities for the multiplicity of voices that can speak out about religion.