Religious, Feminist, Activist

Cosmologies of Interconnection

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Laurel Zwissler
Anthropology of Contemporary North America
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , April
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Laurel Zwissler’s monograph, Religious, Feminist, Activist, examines the role of religion in feminist activism in North America through an ethnographic study of Toronto-based feminists who are Catholic, United Church Protestant, or Pagan. The author weaves material from interviews with sixty-one activists, participant observation of three groups, and the 2001 anti-FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) protest in Quebec into academic conversations in feminist studies and religious studies. She succinctly summarizes scholarly and political debates, explaining terms and concepts for those unfamiliar with the mechanics of protesting (e.g., affinity groups) and with academic terminology (e.g., feminist care ethics). She uses theory to unpack her rich descriptions of events and substantive quotes from interviews, making the chapters accessible for a broad audience and imminently teachable. Zwissler skillfully balances neutral ethnographic representation of her participants’ views with pointing out things she found problematic, such as one group calling the police to remove a homeless man who was disrupting a Samhain ritual. Throughout the book, her analysis focuses on “the deliberate creation of community” (43) through rituals, working with conflict, and engaging in activism.

The first chapter examines how ritual can create community, support individual activists, and focus energy for political action. Zwissler reads her participants’ discussion of rituals in relation to academic and political conversations around individuals’ relationship to rituals, how rituals direct attention and express value, and how rituals impact those participating in them. The groups cross boundaries between traditions, with Christian groups borrowing Pagan elements to relate to nature and bring in playful elements. They also respond to political critiques about the purpose and functions of ritual by clarifying the relationship of ritual to social change work. They see ritual as a way of caring for individuals and smaller communities that sustains political engagement. Zwissler relates some group strategies for working with conflict around rituals, emphasizing the effort put toward negotiating differences and building community.

In the second chapter, Zwissler continues the discussion of ritual by investigating her hypothesis that traveling to a protest can be seen as a ritual of pilgrimage or an “instrumental sacred journey” (97) in which protesters travel to come together as a group asserting values of social justice and solidarity, witnessing and spreading messages in support of their values, and forming communities that seek to embody the values and ideals that they call for. She finds that considering travel to demonstrations by religiously motivated protesters as pilgrimage opens insights into the experience, even though there was no consensus among participants that the term was a good fit. Zwissler productively applies Victor Turner’s notion of “communitas” to explain the excitement expressed by protesters participating in the anti-FTAA protest and, following Benedict Anderson, sees protesters creating global “imagined communities” that transcend nations and connect marginalized people. Understanding that pilgrimages also are spaces of disagreement, Zwissler traces some of the conflicts that arose among protesters, especially those surrounding choices of tactics and risks. 

The third chapter engages theories about the role of religion in the public sphere to argue that feminists use the concept of spirituality to allow them to talk about their personal beliefs in progressive political discourse. For me, this was the book’s most interesting argument. Zwissler connects the tension between religion and spirituality with Protestant Reformation criticism of empty institutionalized forms and emphasis on individual experience. She connects promotion of secularism with the dominant North American value of individualism. Secularism relies on this value of independence from authority and dismisses religion as institutionalized, conservative, and even repressive. Noting how rarely secularism is critiqued in academia and in leftist political discourse, Zwissler sees secularism as supporting heterosexual male privilege by concealing the origins of values espoused in secular discourse and enforced by secular institutions: “Secularism in the West has served not to empty public space of religious values but to unmark dominant religious values, making them if not invisible, then impossible to name and thus impossible to subject to the justice apparatuses of legislation and courts” (135). Religious activists face prejudice that associates secularization with social progress, yet in North America, interest in progressive social change has gone hand-in-hand with interest in alternatives to traditional religions and a discourse of spirituality that distinguishes personal spiritual beliefs and practice from religious institutions. One result is that talking about personal spirituality is acceptable public discourse in progressive social movements, whereas talk about religion is often not welcome. The discourse of spirituality, Zwissler argues, refuses the Enlightenment’s separation of public and private domains and produces “a third space, outside the male-dominated hierarchies of Christianity and the secular state, from which traditionally marginalized people can launch critiques of both” (202). This view makes sense of the demographics of secular and spiritual discourse among progressive activists in North America. 

In her final chapter, Zwissler complicates understandings of resistance which imagine an autonomous individual acting against systemic power, by describing what she calls a “social justice” ethical system that expands feminist care ethics by applying it to broader political issues such as racial, economic, and environmental justice. Social justice ethics connects personal, political, and spiritual and emphasizes the importance for activists of both self-care and interrogating privileges related to different aspects of their identities. In this ethical system, influenced by Marxism but also liberation theology and feminism, activists refuse binary divisions between people and groups. Zwissler relates this ethical system to the “cosmology of interconnection and mutual responsibility” (158)—a worldview that Zwissler traces throughout the chapters as she relates her participants’ experiences of community. She points out that this sense of interconnection enables a very broad view of what constitutes political work, inspiring significant political work like an early successful fair trade project, but it also “may indeed lend political significance to minor personal actions, as critics warn” (189).

Zwissler adds tremendous insight to the motivations and methods of religious feminist activists, including providing some explanation as to why Christian feminists don’t wield religious discourse in political realms the way that conservative Christians do. Some participants expressed awareness of their privilege as Christians and reluctance to use the power of religious discourse because of how it might reproduce Christian hegemonic power and further marginalize those who are not Christian. Such attentiveness to power dynamics and difference supports Zwissler’s conclusion about how these activists provide models for being in community together. Based on their worldview of interconnection, activists come together in communities that provide support, encourage patience and compassion, and connect people. With this ethnography of groups rarely studied with such depth, Zwissler provides an important contribution to scholarship on social movements and feminist and religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sharon P. Doetsch-Kidder is Term Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laurel Zwissler is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Central Michigan University.


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