“Not a Prayer except Ourselves”: Christian Theological Feminism in the Poetry of Frances Harper, Emily Dickinson, Vassar Miller, and Sharon Olds
Type of Degreedissertation
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Luce Irigaray proposes the possibility of an ethical society in which woman is no longer subjugated to man’s concept of her identity but has an identity of her own. As Irigaray and other theological feminists have pointed out, a key tool for the support of Western patriarchy is a Judeo-Christian concept of God created by man in man’s own image. The fact that women are believed to have had little or no influence in shaping the dominant concept of the divine in Western thought is both a symptom and a product of the fact that women have been marginalized in Western society. Prompted by Luce Irigaray’s feminist critique of Christianity and Alicia Ostriker’s examinations of biblical revision in women’s writing, this project offers a comparative look at Christian theological feminism as it appears in the works of four United States women writers. The dissertation first explores some of the trends in prose by theological feminist in the twentieth century. It then explores ways that similar critiques appear in the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Emily Dickinson, Vassar Miller, and Sharon Olds. Through close analyses of poems selected for their subject matter, this dissertation examines ways that the poetry of Harper, Dickinson, Miller, and Olds responds to traditional Christian rhetoric, reinterprets the Bible for feminist purposes, and attempts to redefine a space for the feminine within a framework of Christian theology. This project will also discuss how these poets propose the existence of a female divine through images of feminized nature and divine maternity, and how they try to create spiritual communities of women by reconsidering the relationship of the maternal and the divine and by attempting to recover female genealogies. The central questions this project seeks to answer are what difficulties have these U.S. women poets encountered with the Christian divine, how have they attempted to revise concepts of the Christian divine to resolve those difficulties, and how does their rhetoric about the divine place them within the tradition of theological feminism?