When M. T. Winter, a professor at Hartford Seminary, lectures on the female representations of God in the Bible; when she mentions the biblical images of God as a nurturing mother or as a mother bear; when she explains that "Shaddai," a recurring term in the Old Testament, relates to God's feminine side, she sometimes sees the women in the audience shed tears of gratitude.
"Women say, 'I've felt this way all my life,' " said Winter, author of a trilogy of books on the representation of women in the Bible.
For many women and some men, Winter said, the idea of a feminine side of God still seems a little seditious. They may believe it, they may pray it, but they don't know if it's OK to talk it.
Winter, a nun, said she no longer thinks of God as having any gender.
"When I'm praying--or in my own experience--I'm really beyond that," she said.
In teaching and lecturing, though, she emphasizes the importance of confronting the gender issue and of acknowledging that the centuries-old, exclusively male image of God is not the only legitimate one.
When the feminine aspect of God is denied or suppressed, she said, the result is spiritual impoverishment.
In an era when women ministers, rabbis and Episcopal priests are no longer considered oddities and when denominations have adjusted their hymns and liturgy to make them less reliant on male imagery, one might conclude that the notion of a personified, male God has been banished from most quarters of liberal theology.
But as feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote in her 1973 book, "Beyond God the Father," even among people who have made a conscious, intellectual adjustment to an abstract, genderless God, "images survive in the imagination in such a way that a person can function on two different and even apparently contradictory levels at the same time. Thus one can speak of God as spirit and at the same time imagine 'him' as belonging to the male sex."
So even in congregations where women serve in the clergy and where the language of worship is rigorously "inclusive," it's possible, even probable, that the adults in the pews and the children in the Sunday schools harbor persistent images of a male God.
"I think it's one of the last things to change because it's so firmly entrenched in people's subconsciouses," said Hartford Seminary President Barbara Brown Zikmund.
Children, she said, pick up the patriarchal image of God in the natural socialization process.
"It's the whole culture," said Brown Zikmund. "Even parents who want to do it very intentionally another way can't overcome the culture."
The nuts-and-bolts changes to put women on a closer-to-equal footing in American religion can be traced to the feminist impulses of the 1960s and '70s. In recent years, however, there has been what Winter calls "an avalanche of literature" that pushes deeper into such questions as God's gender, the significance of women in Scripture and the role of women in the early Christian church.
"They're digging deeper behind the words and trying to understand the ideas," Brown Zikmund said.
Some women decided not to stick around long enough to see what those scholars come up with. They've left mainstream religion for several new movements that emphasize the female aspect of divinity, in some cases to the exclusion of the male aspect.
The most prominent is the so-called Goddess movement, a loose grouping of several schools of thought concerned with reviving aspects of the religions that existed before Judaism and Christianity, in which the primary divinity was usually female, often connected somehow with the idea of Mother Earth.
Two books powering the movement are "The Great Cosmic Mother" (Harper & Row) by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor and "The Spiral Dance" (Harper San Francisco) by Starhawk.
Trend-watchers Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt considered the Goddess movement significant enough to warrant a chapter in their book, "Megatrends for Women" (William Morrow). The authors estimate the movement at between 100,000 and 500,000 strong.
"Their premise is that it's safe for women in this country to say they worship the Goddess," said Deborah Smith, who has participated in several Hartford-area women's groups dealing with women's spirituality. "But I think there's some hesitation among women in this country to take that risk."
Smith said she finds herself more inclined toward a genderless god than toward Goddess-worship. But after years of reading, listening, discussion and meditation alongside women who have chosen Goddess-worship, she understands their reluctance to speak openly about it.
Many ideas--including paganism and Wicca, a benevolent form of witchcraft--associated with the movement still carry negative connotations, she said.
Smith said many aspects of Goddess-worship are misunderstood.