Changing Church: Dr. Caryn D. Riswold, Lutheran Theologian and Author, Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies, Illinois College

Dr. Caryn D. Riswold

Feminism is the radical idea that women are equally human, and Christians everywhere should care that throughout human history, and still today, people have not in fact believed or acted as if this were the case.

Feminists should care about Christianity because it is simultaneously a religion with an egalitarian vision that has been and should continue to be liberating for women, and because it has been a major institution of patriarchy that remains a pervasive cultural force needing criticism.

These statements come from Dr. Caryn D. Riswold’s compelling book Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave. ( This succinct book makes the case for the strong connection between Christianity and feminism better than any other book I know. Dr. Riswold presents thorough scholarship in a clear and engaging style accessible to lay and clergy, as well as academic, audiences.

Dr. Riswold describes her purpose in writing this book: “I wrote Feminism and Christianity for two main audiences: the Christian who is either skeptical or uninformed about feminism’s relevance for the religion today, and the feminist who doesn’t see any need to talk about Christianity given its patriarchal history and tendencies. I divided the book into ‘feminist questions of Christianity’ and ‘Christian questions of feminism’ as a way to start addressing the questions that I know to be out there. I don’t claim to have answered or even asked every question perfectly, but I do hope to have sparked conversation and discussion in classrooms, churches, and living rooms that will live on beyond the covers of the book.”

While Dr. Riswold realizes the value of her academic writing, she feels called also to write for a wider audience. “I also intentionally wrote the book to be accessible to a wide range of readers. My previously published writing had been much more tailored to an academic reader and an audience more familiar with terminology and ‘insider’ issues in the field of Christian theology. I’ve come to realize in recent years, though, that while that work remains vitally important, I am called also to speak and write to people who are not experts. In fact, this is what I do in the classroom with undergraduate students every day! Explaining the history and relevance of something like Latin American liberation theology to 32 twenty-year-olds taking my introductory class for general education credit—that’s just another Wednesday to me. So, I realized, why not take the skills and passions I bring to my classroom every day into the public realm of writing, speaking, and publishing?”

Caryn Riswold grew up in Lutheran congregations in South Dakota. She was in the first generation of her family who earned a college degree. In 1993, Caryn completed her B.A. degree at Augustana College, a liberal arts college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), located in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When she was about to leave for graduate school, the pastor of her home church remarked about her interest in feminist theology: “But you’re not one of those feminazis, right?”

In the introduction to Feminism and Christianity, Caryn also relates this more recent incident: “I travel through the rural Midwest proudly wearing a black T-shirt proclaiming in hot-pink letters: This is What a Feminist Looks Like. The manager of the Cracker Barrel in Missouri said to my husband: ‘She doesn’t look any different than my wife.’” This remark, like that of Caryn’s pastor, indicates that many people still have distorted images of feminists.

In her graduate studies Caryn connected feminism and Christian theology. She earned the Master of Arts in Theological Studies (M.A.T.S.) degree from Claremont School of Theology, the Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree from Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree from Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. For more than a decade Dr. Riswold has taught religion and chaired the Gender and Women’s Studies program at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois.

In 2010, I met Caryn at the annual Faith and Feminism/Womanist/Mujerista Conference at Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran in San Francisco. She was engaging, knowledgeable, and witty in her presentation and in personal conversations. In her presentation she was so persuasive about the importance of social media, like Facebook and Twitter, in spreading the egalitarian, liberating messages of Christianity and feminism that I increased my activity on Facebook and signed up for Twitter when I got back home.

Practicing what she preaches, Dr. Riswold continues to find wider audiences for her messages. “Bringing more thoughtful people into conversations about justice and God and church and religion and social change is crucial to any movement,” she explains. “So I started trying to do that in Feminism and Christianity, and I’ve taken it to another level now with my blog, feminismxianity, on the Progressive Christian Channel at ( Since that launched in July 2012, I’ve been amazed by both the gratitude and the resistance (still!) for feminist perspectives on Christianity, politics, and pop culture.”

In bringing feminism to her study of Christian theology, Caryn has taken some risks. She gives this example: “As a graduate student at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where my advisors were all male professors, I declared that for my qualifying exam on a major theologian (a full day event for which one spends months researching and preparing), I wanted to write on radical feminist philosopher and theologian Mary Daly. To put this in context, know that most of my classmates wrote on more typical (male) giants in the field like Wolfhart Pannenberg or Karl Barth or Albrecht Ritschl or maybe Jon Sobrino. My faculty advisors agreed, and I was off and running. It’s just one moment in my journey where supportive communities made a significant difference. It has been important throughout my journey that I’ve been a part of educational and ecclesial communities that recognize and support feminist work.”

As she takes feminist theology to wider audiences, however, Caryn does not always find such support and acceptance. “Resistance to feminist theology is still quite real,” she states. Caryn has met resistance especially through reactions to her blog posts at feminismxianity.  “Even on something as seemingly innocuous as the Women’s Ordination Conference’s parody of “Call Me Maybe” video titled “Ordain A Lady,” the number and level of negative comments is pretty stunning. I’ve made a decision as a blog administrator to allow comments when they are negative, when I vehemently disagree with what they say, and even when they are personally insulting to me. I do that in part to allow others to see the real resistance to justice and women’s empowerment that exists today. It may be just a few comments here and there, but it represents a broader opposition to our work for justice that we need to name, read, and resist collectively.”

In addition to her writing and teaching, Caryn’s justice ministry includes serving as one of twenty participants in the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at The Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. Caryn sees the intersection of justice issues, identifying herself with “third-wave feminists,” whom she describes as “the generation of feminists active in the twenty-first century who were raised during and with the benefits of second-wave feminism” and who work “to include awareness of race, class, sexuality, age, ability, and many other factors that shape human identity.”

Many women in Caryn’s generation don’t want to be called “feminists,” because of negative stereotypes they associate with feminism and because they believe that women have already achieved equal rights. But Caryn points out that women still don’t receive equal pay for equal work and that sexism is often more subversive than ever before. She lists other inequities: “Women make up about 17 percent of the United States Congress. Every U.S. president has been male. One in four women is raped or assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in her lifetime. Women earn approximately 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. Women cannot be ordained into leadership in the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Christian Reformed Church, and many other sizable Christian denominations.

Thus, Dr. Riswold challenges Christians of all ages to see the continuing importance of feminism and to join with feminists in justice work. “Recognizing the important and culturally beneficial work that feminism has done for both women and men takes little more than a cursory glance at history. Realizing that feminism is one reason why multitudes of women have had access and choices that they have had is important. Understanding how multitudes of women around the world and in our own neighborhoods still do not have all of the privileges afforded to men is also important. Feminism and the advocacy for women’s equality remain culturally and politically relevant and necessary.”

In the conclusion to Feminism and Christianity, Dr. Riswold expresses some ways she hopes that Christians and feminists will apply what they learn from this book. “Church reading groups and their pastors might be inspired to examine the language that they use to talk about God on a daily and weekly basis in worship, prayer, and public communication. If language does not reflect the fullness and diversity of the human community, they may take steps to change it. Young third-wave feminist activists might be willing now to see how some Christians can be partners in advocating for federal marriage equality, debunking the popular misuse of God’s word to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans. They no longer need to accept the way the Bible is invoked by heterosexist political foes.”

Caryn cites Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran as an example of a church creatively connecting Christian tradition and feminist theology specifically in worship that includes biblical female names for the Divine such as “Mother, Shaddai, Sophia, Womb, Midwife, Shekinah.” Caryn explains that “feminism challenges Christianity to understand its history of suppressing concepts of a female deity as well as to open itself up to a rich storehouse of images and names for God that more fully represents human experience.”

As she connects Christianity and feminism in her justice work, Caryn says she draws inspiration and strength from grateful responses to her teaching, writing, and speaking. “Years ago, I heard writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel speak at the University of Chicago. A question posed to him at that event was ‘Where do you find joy?’ His slow and thoughtful response was something like this: ‘When I am teaching. . . when I am in the classroom. . . and there is a student. . . maybe even back there in the corner. . . who GETS IT. . . . That is my joy.’ This resonates with me so much. It sometimes happens with the young people I teach and advise and talk to in my daily work. It sometimes happens with a reader who writes back to me that they are so happy to have ‘found’ my work. It sometimes happens on Twitter when someone thanks me for saying the things that not enough other people are saying. It sometimes happens off to the side at a conference when a female colleague says ‘Thank you for saying something real in a room full of suits.’ When someone gets it. As long as I have a voice and a platform, I will continue to tell stories and speak to the justice that needs to more fully pervade our world.

I highly recommend Caryn D. Riswold’s book ( and blog ( ) for more of her prophetic, creative work.

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