Valerie Saiving Reconsidered
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Valerie Saiving Reconsidered

In her 1960 essay, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” Valerie Saiving criticized male theologians, particularly Reinhold Niebuhr, for failing to note that their models of human experience were written from the perspective of men’s experience. She, in turn, attempted to reflect on theology from the perspective of women’s experience. This groundbreaking essay has been called “the first landmark in feminist theology.”1 Mary Bednarowski observes that Saiving’s name is ubiquitous in feminist theological texts. “I am not hesitant to estimate that three-fourths of all the books of women’s religious thought I’ve read mention this article.”2 Although Bednarowski’s estimate seems high, I have yet to find an article mentioned more frequently. Some scholars describe Saiving’s essay as the inauguration of feminist theology, but if Saiving’s essay marked the beginnings of feminist theology, it was a sluggish start. Although the essay was featured in Time Magazine a few months after its publication, it soon faded from view. As Nelle Morton noted, “Most of us dismissed the essay as having no particular relevance for us, and continued reading Niebuhr.”3 Two decades later, Judith Plaskow wrote, “Her article was . . . forgotten. For most of the 1960s there was little writing on women and religion. When we began grad work in theology at Yale in the 1960s, we were taught nothing about feminist or even feminine theology. . . . We had read Saiving’s essay and knew from our own experience that the material in our courses left out and belittled our experience as women.”4

The 1960s saw remarkable changes in U.S. culture. Women were forming consciousness-raising groups and organizing marches around the country and within this very different context, Saiving’s article “was picked up again, photocopied, and distributed widely among women in theological schools and departments of religion.”5 It was not until the early 1980s, however, that Saiving’s work and challenges to Niebuhr and Christian theology gained prominence.

Two publications sparked this renewed attention. In 1979, Plaskow and Carol P. Christ published the popular collection Womanspirit Rising; Saiving’s was the opening essay. The next year saw the publication of Plaskow’s Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. In the opening lines of the preface, Plaskow confessed her disappointment [End Page 79] that “other women . . . have not take up Valerie Saiving’s cudgel and attempted to write systematic theology from a feminist perspective.”6

Plaskow’s disappointment did not last long. In the early 1980s, feminist theologians took up Saiving’s challenge and in some cases, her cudgel. In many of those early attempts, Niebuhr was right in the middle of the discussion. If Saiving’s is the article that feminist works mention most often, then Niebuhr’s is the classic corpus against which they protest most loudly. Theologian Catherine Keller observed that Niebuhr was held in “special infamy” among feminists, and ethicist Beverly Harrison dubbed him “the prototypical liberal male chauvinist.”7

In many of these early 1980s texts, scholars hailed Saiving while taking up her disagreements with Niebuhr. Over time, however, Saiving became the subject of increased criticism. Her article came to be described not only as “classic” and “groundbreaking” but also as “dated,” “essentialist,” and “misleading.”8

Saiving Challenged for Appealing to a Generic “Women’s Experience”

Early feminist challenges to Saiving bear a striking resemblance to Saiving’s criticism of Niebuhr. In 1989, Susan Thistlethwaite wrote that Saiving’s analysis “does not fit the experience of many black women. . . . Without a historically accurate definition of what it means to be female in different racial, class, and sexual role definitions, Saiving’s contribution to understanding ‘sin for women’ is misleading.”9

In the same year, Jacquelyn Grant opened her book White Women’s Christ, Black Women’s Jesus with a chapter on the appeal to “women’s experience” among white feminist theologians, beginning with Saiving. She asks if white feminist theologians succeeded in “creating an inclusive women’s experience.”10 By the final chapter, it is clear that the answer is no. Because of this failure, Grant charged that feminist...


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