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  • Strategic Essentialism in Nationalist Discourses:Sketching a Feminist Agenda in the Study of Religion
  • Susan Abraham (bio)

In the United States, celebrations such as Mother's Day, Father's Day, Columbus Day, or Veteran's Day, to name a few, rhetorically function to shore up Christian kyriarchal, militarist, and heterosexist nationalism. In an essay on nationalism and globalization, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza states that "patriotic nationalism is the most powerful discourse of the day. . . . The rhetoric of the most recent presidential campaign [2004] has driven home the degree to which religion is implicated in such nationalist discourse."1 The call to think of nationalism as the frame for critical studies in feminism and religion necessitates the move to study religion in the cultural-political context of nationalist rhetoric. Consequently, feminist proposals in religion will need to closely examine the cultural contexts and the rhetorical function of gender in nationalist agendas.

One way to frame this analysis is to examine the issue of gender essentialism. On the one hand, the problem of essentialism has been identified as the locus of various hegemonic and ideological controls of women; on the other hand, some feminists writing in the study of theology and religion strategically retrieve modes of essentialism to combat the ideological representations of masculine superiority. An examination of the way in which the term is used in contemporary feminist theory shows that reliance on essentialism, whether strategic or otherwise, extracts a cost that remains politically perturbing. In making this assertion, I refer specifically to Schüssler Fiorenza's move to the rhetorical; what is the effect of deploying strategic essentialist positions on cultural, social, or biological femininity on the intersecting axes of oppression on wo/men such as race, class, gender, and sexuality?

An example of the way in which strategic essentialism can be mobilized for theology has been presented by Nancy Dallavalle in her essay "Neither Idolatry nor Iconoclasm: A Critical Essentialism for Catholic Feminist Theology."2 Dallavalle claims that feminist rejection of gender essentialism creates an "agnosticism" of gendered identity. According to Dallavalle, reliance on biological sexuality requires the strategic, or, to use her term, the critical use of essentialism to imagine in a more capacious way, the possibility of gender as a theological resource within the Catholic tradition. In this view, gendered identity has sacramental potential and women have a theologically legitimate way to speak of themselves as infused with the divine. Critical essentialism here functions to [End Page 156] negate the punishing impasse of both the "complementarity" model, a mainstay of traditional Catholic theology, as well as the binary understanding of male/female that perpetuates domination/subordination relationships. Critical essentialism thus retains the "centrality of the doctrine of creation" while noting that the doctrine has no life outside of the continuing reflective life of the church.3 In fact, in her opinion, plumbing the mystery of biological sexuality and difference is a form of "holy work."4 Dallavalle's forceful argument rests on the idea of gendered identity as sacramental, a distinctively Catholic insight. I agree with her that Catholic theological anthropology can be imagined more capaciously with the strategic potential of gender essentialism. However, her argument turns on an anthropological essentialism. In other words, Dallavalle's critical essentialism rests on a specifically anthropological (in her case, biological sexuality) retrieval.

In my estimation, such anthropological essentialism runs the danger of being co-opted by nationalist agendas that seek to construct national identity through idealized and hyperfeminized retrievals of femininity. Dallavalle's move to base feminist constructive work in a Catholic sacramental sensibility for constructive theological anthropology grounds Catholic theological anthropology in a biological determinist context. Such a move can be used strategically to counter specifically Catholic exclusions in theological anthropology, but biological determinism has fallen prey to patriarchal and androcentric prescriptions for women, as Dallavalle acknowledges.5 Nevertheless, the "pleasures" of doing theological anthropology from within the Catholic framework has the potential in her view to overturn some of Catholic theology's more entrenched positions on the inclusion of women. This strategic move may have political potential.

Strategic essentialism as a category was significantly influenced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's presentation as a concept to challenge Western feminism...


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pp. 156-161
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