Being Woman, Being Human, Doing Justice

[1] One key idea embedded in feminism is that gender is socially constructed.

[2] One core idea of Lutheran theology is that human beings are created in the image of God.

[3] Can both of those things be true at the same time?

[4] If we take seriously the significant influences of biology, society, psychology, culture, and politics on our understanding of what it means to be a woman or to be a man, where does that leave central theological claims like the one about human being imago dei? After considering how feminism has enhanced our understanding of the processes by which we understand, construct, and define gender, I will explore ways that Lutheran theological ideas build on them and indeed help us flesh out a more holistic understanding of being woman, of being human.

Feminism & Gender

[5] Introducing my undergraduate students to “feminism” inevitably starts with a healthy amount of deconstructing the “feminazi” trope popularized for decades by right-wing media personalities.[1] After getting all the negatives on the table, we move to actual definitions:

a. Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.[2]

b. Feminism is the policy, practice, or advocacy of political, economic, and social equality for women.[3]

c. Feminism criticizes sexism and patriarchy, and advocates for the equal humanity of women.[4]

[6] After a more thorough understanding of how feminism has both responded to injustice and been an essential part of working toward gender justice for many generations, students inevitably wonder why the negative stereotypes have taken hold and persisted for so long. This is a very good question that leads to important discussions about the processes in place to create and maintain inequalities based on not only gender, but also race, social class, sexuality, and myriad other elements of our human identities. Conversation about gender, as distinct from biological sex, must happen with an understanding that its construction always intersects with sex, race, age, class, and other things. It is also crucial to understand that society, in particular a white racist patriarchal society, stratifies all of these things, so that one way of being a woman is more valued than another, that being a man is more valued than being a woman, that being white is more valued than being black, and so on. This all directly contradicts the idea that human beings are created in the image of God, and so we shall return to that concept in a subsequent section.

[7] To say that gender is “socially constructed” means most basically that what it means to be “appropriately” man or woman is defined by society, informed by culture, rewarded by a complex system of privilege and oppression, and subject to change over time and across cultures. Some theorists describe gender as performance, something we all do when we get dressed, style our hair, accessorize, walk, and talk. Judith Butler says that “gender is a kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing,” but this does not mean “it is … automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.”[5] This metaphor of improv and stageplay extends Butler’s performance idea. We understand, more or less, what is expected of us “onstage” each day. We know what we can get away with, what risks might be fun, and what risks are too great. Just look around. What are you wearing? What are others around you wearing? How are you and they “doing gender” right now? (This makes for a fun classroom activity in itself.)

[8] Butler points out the fundamentally social and even public nature of gender, noting that “one does not ‘do’ one’s gender alone. One is always ‘doing’ with or for another, even if the other is only imaginary.”[6] If you were always and only by yourself, you would have no real “audience” for the “performance.” It is the next part of her discussion that leads to central definitional issues and theological questions:

a. “What I call my ‘own’ gender appears perhaps at times as something that I author or, indeed, own. But the terms that make up one’s own gender are, from the start, outside oneself, beyond oneself in a sociality that has no single author (and that radically contests the notion of authorship itself.)”[7]

[9] There are many key pieces of this statement relevant to Lutheran and feminist theology: ‘one does not do one’s gender alone’ … ‘something that I author or own’ … ‘a sociality that has no single author’ … or does it?

[10] Butler is a philosopher and theorist unconcerned with God. But we can introduce theology to this by taking the basic theological claim undergirded by Genesis 1:26-27 that human beings are created in the image of God, that God is in some measure the “author of sociality.” Then, what does it mean to be a woman? To “do gender”? Classic feminist theology like that of Rosemary Radford Ruether began with Genesis 1 to simply state that women are fully human, so that “whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine.”[8] Black liberation theologian James Cone argued similarly that “to say that God is creator means that my being finds its source in God. I am black because God is black!”[9] This is well-tread ground, so I want to turn here to exploring how the created-ness of our humanity might square with the social-constructed-ness of gender.

Lutheran Interlude

[11] Gerhard Ebeling’s reading of Martin Luther’s ontology of being human provides important resource for this work. In other writing, I have explored the structure Ebeling ascribes to Luther’s writing on humanity.[10] The basic idea is that as human beings, we exist in relationship. This is not unlike Butler’s claim that we don’t do gender alone. Ebeling uses Luther’s Latin phrasing when he specifies that our relationality extends in four main directions: coram Deo – in relationship with God, coram mundo – in relationship with the material world, coram hominibus – in relationship with other people, and coram meipso – in relationship with one’s self.[11] This gives us tools to reconcile the created-claim with our understanding of the socially-constructed reality. Humans are created (Deo) to be in relationship with other people (hominibus) and the world (mundo). The latter two can be seen as the “sociality” of which Butler speaks, the location of social construction and, we might theologically note, a location of sin.

[12] Perhaps social construction, of gender, of race, of class and other things, can also be seen as part of this world. Like civil government, the family, and other institutions Luther and Augustine ascribed to the kingdom of this world,[12] flawed insofar as they are human-made, they are things through which God works toward justice. The human body itself is a temporal reality through which God works, via the incarnation, to bring about spiritual ends. A gendered body is one of these temporal realities.

[13] As Butler describes it,

“Gender is the apparatus by which the production and normalization of masculine and feminine take place along with the interstitial forms of hormonal, chromosomal, psychic, and performative that gender assumes.”[13]

[14] Along with being produced and performed, gender also involves hormonal and chromosomal elements. It is the biological body within the social reality. Similarly, Lutheran theologian Mary Elise Lowe states in a 2009 article that

“Queer theorists also assert that human identity is unstable and that individual subjects come to be amidst discourses such as law, medicine, economics, and religion.”[14]

[15] In referring to individual subjects, Lowe turns attention to our self-understanding and awareness. This is fundamental in discussions of gender identity, personal identity, and it is what Luther sees as human life coram meipso.

[16] How does our theological and political advocacy advance justice for women when the category of ‘woman’ is complicated by looking at the confluence of, as Butler notes, hormones, chromosomes, psychic, and performative reality? Or, taking into account, as Lowe names, discourses of law, medicine, economics, and religion?

[17] What is a woman? Really?

Trans* Theoretical

[18] When we try answering the question of what is a woman, perhaps biology or chromosomes or female anatomy come to mind – she has a vagina, uterus, ovaries, breasts, certain facial shape, particular hormones, soft body hair, fallopian tubes, and so on. Or, maybe she doesn’t. The presence or absence of any of those things does not in fact determine whether or not someone is a woman. So, what does?

[19] In her 2007 book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano reminds us that “it’s downright sexist to reduce any woman (trans or otherwise) down to her mere body parts or require her to live up to certain societally dictated ideals regarding appearance.”[15] Emerging scholarship on queer and transgender issues is an important resource for this theological conversation. Consider the basic questions often asked of trans*[16] people: But, what ARE you? Really? Or, what IS she? Really? Think about descriptions like “biologically male but living as female.” Is biology our destiny or not? The assumption in much of this is that there is something REAL to be gotten at, and that it’s related to biology and what’s between a person’s legs.

[20] Serano actually challenges strict social constructionism when it comes to understanding gender. Here is how she describes the term trans and the reality it reflects:

“I will use the word trans to refer to people who (to varying degrees) struggle with a subconscious understanding or intuition that there is something ‘wrong’ with the sex they were assigned at birth and/or who feel that they should have been born as or wish they could be the other sex.”[17]

[21] In other words, she says, “their subconscious sex does not match their physical sex.” One of the things this reveals is that gender and sex are not, and trans* people tell us cannot be, completely socially constructed. If it could, in our heteronormative patriarchal culture, there would be no such thing as a trans* person. A profound sense of self, at odds with the body, is the key indicator. This is a powerful example of human life coram meipso.

[22] Serano uses language of “intrinsic inclination” alongside social construction. These inclinations, she says, “are likely to be hardwired into our brains (as they exist on a subconscious level and often remain constant throughout our lives),” though it remains true that “social factors clearly play a strong role in how each individual interprets these inclinations.”[18] She points out that we rarely can tell the difference between the intrinsic and the social, and that “we only ever notice our inclinations when they are exceptional – when they deviate from both biological and social norms.”[19] Many of us don’t notice them because we are “cissexual,” people “who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced [our] subconscious and physical selves as being aligned.”[20] We, who have experienced our inclinations as more or less matched up with our socially prescribed roles, and our physical bodies, rarely think about them as different or even conflicting things.

[23] Until recently, we have privileged this way of being in the world by calling it “normal.” Much in the same way, Serano notes, that 60 years ago we used to speak of “normal” sexuality in contrast to “homosexuality.” Social, philosophical, and theological discourse has moved in the direction of naming the norm, in that case “heterosexual,” in this case “cissexual,” as a way of starting to dismantle social privileges and see oppression and injustice where and when it exists.

[24] To do this, we have to work at the messy intersection of inclination and social construction. We have to work at the intersection of self (meipso) and world (hominibus/mundo). The epigraph for the introduction to Marcella Althaus-Reid’s book, The Queer God, reads: “The body does not lie, but the truths it tells us may seem strange.”[21] Serano also points out that “the vast majority of us are gendered primarily based on our physical bodies rather than our behaviors.”[22] So despite our efforts at understanding the complex process of socially constructing gender, there is clearly more to the story.

[25] The simple fact that there have always been individuals whose socially assigned and constructed gender is not the one that they understand themselves to be should be enough to complicate things. We know this is real from the stories that trans* and intersex people tell about their lives. These experiences witness to the power of the relationship we have with ourselves, as creatures, and as created by God. Reconciling all of these dimensions, all of these relationships, has to be part of achieving wholeness and justice – when a self understanding is and can be reinforced, supported, and affirmed by the socially constructed models of being human in the world and with other people, and when all of this is framed and centered on each individual imago dei and coram deo.

[26] Mary Lowe points out that the “queer political approach, however, rejects the essentialist solidarity argument and claims that gender is performance and all persons are queer. This opens the door to trans, bi, and queer persons and challenges discourses about sexuality, gender, relationships, and family commonly operating in Christian churches.”[23] This leads us finally to consider what a Lutheran social statement on women and justice might look like, given all of these theological and theoretical resources.

Justice and Women

[27] It is a little ironic and exasperating that so much of recent local and national politics has centered around women’s biology, specifically their reproductive capabilities, and their very particular genitalia. Transvaginal ultrasounds have now been debated extensively by male politicians and pundits, and of course mandated by several states for any woman seeking an abortion. A United States Senate candidate (among others) tried to repeat the old bizarre unscientific lie that a woman can’t get pregnant during rape if it is sufficiently traumatic to her body. Feminist activists and people of faith found themselves having to restate old arguments for the compatibility of contraceptive use and Christian family life. If anything, women’s bodies and lives have been more threatened and essentialized in recent years than they have been in generations. So while we need to talk about social, theological, and political issues raised by complicating the definition of “woman,” we also have to keep advocating for some basic rights and access issues for those born and living as female.

[28] Is there room in our work for justice for a trans* woman, for whom justice might mean that her insurance policy covers hormone therapy if she wants it? For whom justice might mean protection from employment discrimination and harassment? For whom justice might mean no more fetishizing of the cross-dresser on reality-tainment television? For whom justice might mean access to a public restroom in which she feels most comfortable as herself? For whom justice means not being addressed with the wrong pronoun? For whom justice might mean things we haven’t even considered because we haven’t fully heard the stories? A social statement on women and justice is challenged to take these things into consideration.

[29] The Episcopal Church, for example, at its 77th General Convention in 2012 “granted transgender people protection against discrimination in the ordination process and in lay leadership in the Episcopal Church. Such protections remain unavailable in the vast majority of religious and secular institutions as well as in most states and municipalities (only 16 states have transgender nondiscrimination laws on their books.”[24] In opposition to this, the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence wrote a public letter to be shared with all dioceses, stating that “To embrace an understanding of our human condition in which gender may be entirely self-defined, self-chosen is to abandon all such norms, condemning ourselves, our children and grandchildren, as well as future generations to sheer sexual anarchy.”[25] Certainly Lawrence was not the only critic of this move, and the Episcopal church is not alone in wrestling with these questions.

[30] This is where a Lutheran understanding of human life coram meipso as created by God, also coram hominibus, perhaps avoids the binary that Lawrence and others think will lead to sexual anarchy. It’s not that our sexual identity is “entirely self-defined” but it is also not entirely ascribed to us by those outside of ourselves. To completely dismiss the power of self-definition is to dismiss that part of our self that responds to God’s call to live and work and be in the world as our most authentic selves.

[31] Queer theorist Jasbir Puar challenges some current feminist championing of intersectionality by pushing us to think about “assemblage” instead:

“As opposed to an intersectional model of identity, which presumes that components – race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, age, religion – are separable analytics and can thus be disassembled, an assemblage is more attuned to interwoven forces that merge and dissipate time, space, and body against linearity, coherency, and permanency.”[26]

[32] Assemblage suggests a dynamic constructed whole with many interactive parts that is fluid and changing as networks interact. Intersection suggests a location, a street corner on which I stand where white meets female meets heterosexual. Puar notes that in an assemblage, “categories – race, gender, sexuality – are considered as events, actions, and encounters between bodies, rather than as simply entities and attributes of subjects.”[27] Luther’s concept of the human being and her various relationships coram deo, mundo, hominibus, and meipso provides a theological equivalent to this idea of a network of events, actions, and encounters.

[33] Undergirding the challenge for those working on a social statement on women and justice is cissexual privilege. Those of us who have never experienced the dissonance of our self-understood gender and the one socially constructed around our body, have rarely considered how this affects our work toward justice or even our understanding of what it means to be woman. If nothing else, we need to level the discursive playing field and place ourselves in the same messy network of intrinsic inclinations, social constructions, and stratifications that trans* people experience more acutely in many ways. Serano suggests in fact that “There is no such thing as a ‘real’ gender – there is only the gender we experience ourselves as and the gender we perceive others to be.”[28]

[34] Such is the power of human life coram meipso, in relationship with myself. It’s a relationship that is intimately bound up in the world, connected to other people, and fundamentally originating in God. By balancing the emphasis on our social public selves with attention to our intimate private selves, we might begin to glimpse what justice and wholeness can mean for all women.


[35] A summary challenge in Serano’s words: “It is no longer enough for feminism to fight solely for the rights of those born female.”[29] Insofar as some types of feminism already understand that stratification and oppression occurs along class lines, racial lines, and boundaries of sexuality, it is time for us to look at the defining lines of gender itself. And when the ELCA speaks of “women and justice” we pay heed to our theological tradition when we have the most comprehensive understandings of both terms.


[1] For a documented discussion of the cultural emergence of this term, see “Feminazi”: The History of Limbaugh’s Trademark Slur Against Women.” (accessed July 30, 2013).

[2] bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, (Pluto Press, 2000) 1.

[3] “About Us,” Feminist Majority Foundation. (accessed July 30, 2013).

[4] Caryn D. Riswold, Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, (Eugene: Cascade, 2009) 4.

[5] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, (New York: Routledge, 2004) 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, (Boston: Beacon, 1993) 19.

[9] James Cone, qtd in James Evans, We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 74.

[10] See Caryn D. Riswold, Coram Deo: Human Life in the Vision of God, (Eugene: Pickwick, 2006); “Coram Meipso: Presence, Privilege, and Vocations in Lutheran and Feminist Languages,” Dialog: a Journal of Theology 49, no. 3 (Fall 2010) 202-209; “Annoying the Student with Her Rights: Human Life Coram Hominibus, Reflections on Vocation, Hope, and Politics,” Intersections (Spring 2010) 36-41; “Coram Mundo: A Lutheran Feminist Anthropology of Hope,” Dialog: a Journal of Theology 48, no. 2 (Summer 2009) 132-139; “Imago Dei and Coram Mundo: Theological Anthropology for Human Life Today, or The World is the Woman,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 8, no. 1 (January 2008).

[11] Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1964) 197-202.

[12] For a discussion of Luther’s ideas about spiritual and temporal authority, along with his Augustinian roots, see Caryn D. Riswold, Two Reformers: Martin Luther and Mary Daly as Political Theologians, (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2007) 62-63.

[13] Butler, Undoing Gender, 42.

[14] Mary Elise Lowe, “Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Theologies: Origins, Contributions, and Challenges,” Dialog : A Journal of Theology 48, no. 1 (2009) 53.

[15] Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, (New York: Seal Press, 2007) 11.

[16] “Trans* is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum. There’s a ton of diversity there, but we often group them all together (e.g., when we say “trans* issues).” From Sam Killermann, (accessed July 30, 2013).

[17] Serano, Whipping Girl, 27.

[18] Ibid., 98

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 12.

[21] The epigraph is attributed to Califia & Campbell, 1997, 113, in Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, (New York: Routledge, 2003) 1.

[22] Serano, Whipping Girl, 192.

[23] Lowe, “Gay, Lesbian, and Queer,” 58

[24] Becky Garrison, “Episcopal Church Promotes the ‘T’ in LGBT Equation” The Washington Post, July 30, 2012, (accessed July 10, 2013).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) 212.

[27] Jasbir Puar, Ben Pitcher, Henriette Gunkel, “Q&A with Jasbir Puar,” (accessed July 10, 2013).

[28] Serano, Whipping Girl, 13.

[29] Serano, Whipping Girl, 17.

Dr. Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.