Category Archives: Feminism

A Feminist Utopia in the Early Christian Church?

Could Christianity contain the dormant seeds of the postgender utopia described by radical feminists in the 1970s, uncoupling women from reproduction and the domestic sphere?

I havsainte been working on the idea that Christianity transmitted patriarchal notions of gender differentiation as it spread globally from its origins in the Middle East.  Embedded within its salvific message is the naturalisation of the complementarity of the sexes and the divinely ordained ordering of the feminine and masculine, defining how we have come to see the roles of men and women.  I argue that women have fared badly from the cultural influence of Christianity over the centuries and even now in some of its forms there remains ambivalence towards the spiritual equality of women.

Theologians have argued over the New Testament statements that, to modern sensibilities, appear highly misogynist.  How can a woman read these texts and not feel that Christianity is immutably masculine and oppressive? Or feel that her meaning and function are expressed through reproduction and her identity as ‘mother’?

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety  1 Timothy 2:11-15

I realise there are theologians who work to contextualise, contain and ameliorate the effects of these Biblical statements [1] attempting to dull the sexist edge.  In stark contrast, however, is the other New Testament theme; that in Christ there is neither male nor female (for example, Galatians 3:28) – a tantalising vision of androgyny that ought to have swept away oppressive gender differentiation.  Yet androgyny was ignored as a basis for human relations.

Rosemary Radford Ruether [2], a feminist theologian, suggests a radical understanding of how these two opposing paradigms could have been expressed in the early Christian Church, with the subsuming of the liberating de-emphasis of gender in favour of more powerful patriarchal social arrangements as Christianity transitioned from sect to accepted religion.  Her argument suggests that two forms of Christianity developed in its infancy.  The first was centred round the belief in the imminent appearance of the cosmic Christ, who would establish a new heaven and earth, sweeping away old oppressive systems, leading some to eschew the world and prepare for the eschaton – the end times and the beginning of a new order.  These eschatologically-minded Christians, argues Radford Ruether, saw gender as irrelevant, transcended sex and marriage and thus liberated women from the expectations around their reproductive and domestic function.

Since it [was] assumed that the patriarchal hierarchy of family, religion and state was inherent in ‘this world’, early Christians could only imagine a new humanity in which women were included as equals as one where the reproductive role of women was abolished.                                                                                                                 Rosemary Radford Ruether [3]

This idea that early Christians may have sought a postgender earthly pre-eschaton existence, where women were not saved by childbirth at all, that they were not to be considered as other, is an entirely different Christianity to the one that promotes gender complementarity, the ideal of motherhood and the otherness of women.  This is the second Christian paradigm and it won ascendency as time ticked by and there was no sign of imminent cosmic revolution.  Christianity assimilated into the patriarchal culture in which it had been conceived and began the process of embedding this patriarchy into theology and doctrine.  The genderless vision died.

During the 1970s feminist authors explored utopias where gender did not define women’s (or men’s) position, character and ‘natural’ traits.  Shulamith Firestone perhaps provided the best known touchstone for this postgender ideal [4] where, to free women and children from the ‘slavery’ of the patriarchal nuclear family, technology replaces the use of women’s bodies for reproduction and communal parenting dissolves the domestic sphere.  Marge Piercy put the imaginative heartbeat into this vision of a genderless future in her novel ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’.  Babies born in vitro and men sharing the breastfeeding breaks the monopoly that women have over reproduction, but also, for these writers, it is the key to their liberation.  As with eschatological Christian thought suggested by Radford Ruether, women’s equal status is bound up with transcending sexuality and reproduction.

For me, this is only the beginning of asking a question and there will not be agreement amongst feminists about the desirability of androgyny and postgenderism, with or without religious symbols.  Certainly many women derive deep meaning from childbirth and childrearing and would not see the loss of this as any kind of utopia.  What is interesting though, is the process of obscuring the genderless nature of life ‘in Christ’ in favour of rigid differentiation softened only by social progress and the work of theologians who wish to mitigate the worst of the patriarchal statements in Biblical text.  Given that Christianity with its embedded patriarchal notions has influenced western culture so significantly, perhaps an interesting question to ask is: What would that culture look like had the paradigm that did not emphasise gender – in Christ there is neither male nor female – been dominant?

[1] John Temple Bristow (1988).  What Paul Really Said About Women.  (Accessible and short account of the common pro-woman Biblical apologetics)

[2] Radford Ruether (1990) The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy.  In A. Loades (ed.) Feminist Theology:  A Reader, pp. 138-148

[3] Ibid, p. 143

[4] Shulamith Firestone (1970) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

 

 

 

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The Law of Attraction: Would Bourdieu Approve?

51RswbgKulL__SY355_If you have never come across the Law of Attraction it is probably best described as a philosophy that mixes spirituality, psychology and quantum physics.  The mass appeal of the Law of Attraction over the last decade is understandable.  It offers us a cosmic Other and hope.  Packaged for a mass audience, an entire industry has been generated offering us a way out of the small space we have been allocated in life.  Graham Lineham hilariously lampooned it in an episode of the ‘IT Crowd’ and the idea of thoughts manifesting things is bound to attract derision.  The most interesting idea, for this discussion, lay at the heart of The Law of Attraction; our thoughts and actions are determined by paradigms – clusters of habits- that have been imprinted on our subconscious by external forces since birth.  Bourdieu, a French sociologist called this our ‘habitus’ and reading his work significantly raised my consciousness about my own working class paradigm and why I often feel uncomfortable in situations that fall outside this conditioning.  The lag between my class and gender habitus and arenas in which I wish to operate is known in Bourdieu’s framework as the hysteresis effect.  My habitus is a comfort zone that has propelled me on a particular trajectory and my beliefs and actions are geared towards this, subconsciously (and if I’m honest, sometimes consciously).  Bourdieu’s work is a way of viewing class and gender boundaries as a socially determined means of protecting distinction and privilege.  If I don’t like the trajectory my habitus has prepared me for, then I need to stretch that habitus.

If we ignore the metaphysics, the Law of Attraction has something in common with Bourdieu’s sociological framework; it recognises this gap between habitus and individual ambition, seeing the de-programming of our subconscious as a way out of a socially restrictive existence.  If we want to be wealthy, so goes the teaching, then we should ‘act as if’ we already are.  Dress, talk and act like a millionaire.  For Bourdieu, this is learning the rules (the doxa) of a new game in order for us to expand our habitus and equip ourselves to operate in a different sphere and at a different level, losing those feelings of discomfort.  Changing our attitudes, knowledge and behaviours is, in Bourdieusian language, accruing cultural capital.  The Law of Attraction sees this as alignment between our desires, emotions and actions – throw in some help from the Universe and it is a heady mix.  Where Bourdieu and the Law of Attraction diverge is in the balance between individual free will and structural power; Bourdieu sees this as a subtle interplay where individuals must negotiate structural boundaries that are externally constructed for the benefit of the dominant class (and we can see this very clearly in terms of gender).

Feminism’s goal is to encourage self-actualisation in women.  This could be seen as entirely compatible with the philosophy of the Law of Attraction.  It encourages a ‘know thyself’ consciousness-raising that might well be helpful to women who, in the same way that class throws a boundary around our identity, find their culturally-approved feminine identity suffocating.  Breaking free from oppressive paradigms means unlearning beliefs, attitudes and behaviours with which we have been inculcated – shifting from a patriarchal paradigm to one of emancipation.  The recognition that we have been conditioned by external forces to accept certain ideas is powerful.  If we can unlearn, for example, those masculine and feminine traits that appear ‘natural’ to us we have a much better chance of achieving an androgynous future (yes, this is a good thing!).  Of course, the Law of Attraction does not have an explicit feminist agenda and – let’s face it – most of us just want to get rich.

Blurring the rational/emotional dichotomy may be good for us.  The Law of Attraction challenges our acceptance of the mind/body split.  Certainly, women have often found themselves on the wrong side of these binaries ever since Apollo and Dionysus split our psyches into two.  A philosophy that allows individuals to step outside their habitus and challenge social order is a step in the right direction.  I am wondering aloud whether some of the techniques in the Law of Attraction can be sociologically applied to undo our gender and class conditioning.  Imagine if children could freely explore their potential free of class or gender conditioning.  Imagine if women could slough off limiting ideas of femininity and just be.  I’m not sure Bourdieu would have wholly approved of the selling of a dream to people, but I do think he would have been fascinated by the sociology of it.

Epilogue

Although I have long since parted company with religion, I do want to have an open mind about the metaphysics.  In some ways I can buy into the idea of dissatisfaction being the driver for achievement and who wouldn’t want a shortcut?  Quantum physics is weird and if electrons can be in two places at once, if Schrodinger’s cat can be alive and dead at the same time then maybe something at the Planck level can work for us.  Unfortunately, if I try and visualise a pile of cash I now only see Prof. Brian Cox rolling his eyes.  But if in one of the infinite realities out there I am uber successful, could it be this one?

 

 

 

Why All Feminists Should be Theologians

thContemporary Western feminism, it has been suggested, has allowed a divide to develop between secular and Christian feminists[1], and this has come as a bit of a shock to me having immersed myself in some gripping and theologically radical Second Wave writing.  Respected authors such as Mary Daly[2] and Rosemary Radford Reuther[3] had no problem with mingling feminist philosophy and theology during the 1970s in ways that powerfully served feminism’s goal of liberation from all manifestations of patriarchy (or however one would express this in post-modern parlance).  Some current commentators argue that Christian feminists are not articulating feminist theology with discussions in the wider feminist community – they are shy about bringing God into it.  Secular feminists are, in turn, a little cool (and sometimes downright hostile) towards those who attempt to maintain the two incompatible (as they see it) identities – feminist and Christian[4].  As well as general alignments to secularism, feminist critiques of Christianity have propelled many women to its margins or to abandon it altogether (who might be described as post-Christian[5]), so it is understandable there is some angst.

Though I write as a post-Christian feminist (a handy descriptor I picked up from the rather brilliant Daphne Hampson), I agree with authors who describe this divide as feminism’s ‘neglect’ of religion and its impact on women.  (I should point out I focus on Christianity here, though the principles might travel across other belief systems).  This lacuna – or missing piece – in current feminist discussions is doing us a disservice.  Whilst we no longer really talk about any grand causality of sexism, there is surely a need to retain some sense of aetiology – by that I mean asking where ideologies come from.  Why have women been, in many and varied ways, considered the second sex so ubiquitously and for so long?  Writers like Daly and Radford Ruether understood the enormous impact Christian symbols and myths, underwritten by patriarchal interests, have had on Western culture.  Until these symbols have been fully explored, and the underlying misogyny exposed and incapacitated, they still cause harm to women.  This has nothing to do with belief or iconoclasm.  You don’t need to believe in God to be subject to the effects of the cultural absorption of a religion’s myths and symbols.

I hope to participate in some bridge-building and push through this secular/spiritual divide, which I think is sometimes conflated with the rational/emotional dichotomy.  If secular and Christian feminists together explore the cultural manifestations of religious symbology, without any value judgements on spiritual belief, the common ground would become more obvious.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, a Bronze Age Hebrew text, is perhaps one of the clearest examples of religious symbol passing into cultural consciousness.  From the myth of Adam and Eve complementarity of the sexes is developed (which Mary Daly describes as ‘evil’), a notion which is for some feminists a way of maintaining woman as ‘other’ and as secondary.  Masculinity and femininity are constructed as having different God-given traits (for example, nurturing and caring are feminine and leadership and authority are masculine).  Social conditioning gives this idea life.  This duality is so old that it appears ‘natural’, and if we wish to explore its genealogy we need to understand inherited Christian thought.  The ‘cosmic hoax’ (Daly) of Eve being the instigator of the Fall – and guilty for all the world’s ills – has had a malignant effect on how femininity has been constructed.  This divine ordering of masculinity and femininity set Western culture on a trajectory of sex differentiation and without understanding the theology of this we can’t fully explain the witchcraze of the 16th and 17th centuries, or fully understand why and how women have been separated into the domestic realm, or why they have been seen as auxiliary to men’s achievements, or even why we are currently disneyfying our girl children in a tedious ocean of pink.  Christianity transmitted to the Western world, through its symbols and myths, a set of beliefs about the nature of women that has determined their spiritual, psychological and material status for two millennia.  Rejection of religion, I argue, should not mean the rejection of the understanding of religion.  If we don’t understand what has been embedded into our collective psyche how can we hope to change it?  And we haven’t even begun to talk about the maleness of God yet…..

[1] Llewellyn and Trzesiastowska (2013) Secular and Religious Feminisms: A Future of Disconnection?  Feminist Theology 21(3), pp. 244-258

[2] Mary Daly (1973) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation

[3] Rosemary Radford Ruether (1975) New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation

[4] Zobair, J,  Messina-Dysert, G and Levin, A.  (2015). Why We Really Need to Stop Rejecting Religious Feminists from the Movement.  Everday Feminism [Online].  Available at  http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/rejecting-religious-feminists/

[5] For example, Daphne Hampson (1990)  Feminism and Theology

Becoming Unbecoming by Una – Book Review

This is a graphic book – a genre (I vaguely think of comic books) new to me.  It is beautiful to handle, with inky images you want to touch and narrative that falls into prose.  It is also a harrowing and politically sharp book that weaves a woman’s tale of adolescent awakening in the context of 70s/80s’ version of (the usual) sexual double standards – the hexing of women’s bodies – with a frosty account of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.  The anger is subtle and the images speak as loudly as the words.  Its subject may be in the past, but its feminist ire is entirely present – relevant now as it was then (ladybird Summer, Madness, vinyl, learning to be a nice girl).  It seems a travesty to call it ‘history’.

The Yorkshire Ripper is now history – it is my history that I share with Una, the author.  As a young teenager in West Yorkshire during the suffocating height of Sutcliffe’s (let’s give him his real, human name shall we?) incomprehensible brutality against women, I too lived for a decade with the normalising of female fear and the media, police and public constructions of ‘innocent’ and ‘not innocent’ women victims.

Una nails it.  The memories come flooding back.  Women were encouraged to maintain a curfew (and the feminists really blew their stacks), not men, amongst whom the perpetrator walked and worked.  Prostitutes were seen as obvious victims (dead women walking) and shock only rippled through the press when the ‘innocent’ were targeted – surely a mistake, they said.  He must feel some remorse now.   The positioning of women, whose sex was bought by men, as non-innocent victims mirrors Una’s personal experience of being used and abused by older men, being sexually labelled and forced into a special caste apart from respectable girls. Did anyone know just how devastating and misogynist the term ‘slut’ was?  Do we know it now?

This book is compelling, not simply for its haunting illustrations and narrative, but for its unflinching reflection of the world I grew up in.  Keep your hand on your ha’penny.  Don’t go out at night.  Don’t dress like a slag.  Be a good girl. Lower your gaze.

This is a timely read.  Peter Sutcliffe has been declared ‘sane’ and will move from Broadmoor to a mainstream prison.  Of what kind of madness has he been cured?

Sharon Jagger

 

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Becoming Unbecoming by Una

I’m NOT a feminist because……… (fill in the blank)

I have recently seen and heard statements such as ‘some of my feminist friends…’ and ‘I’m not a feminist but….’  This began to intrigue me as it suggests people think of feminism as a niche ideology, something for a particular type of woman (admit it, you have an image in your head).  ‘My friend the feminist’ distances the speaker from feminism as it would from a political party or club member (my friend the freemason; my friend the communist etc).  This is interesting because it suggests a vacuum where there should be a definition.

Let’s get to the simple fact:  feminism is the belief that men and women are equal and should be treated as such.  It’s really not any more complicated than that.

So to distance oneself from feminism is to say ‘I don’t really believe that the genders are equal’.  That’s fine to have that belief.  We can then have an honest and open debate about why you may not believe in equality of women and men.  And I will try to persuade you otherwise.  It could be stimulating, but we are unlikely to be friends. What I find difficult to grasp is the (let’s face it, lazy) approach which puts feminism into a box that is for single-issue fanatics and politicos with an axe to grind, as though it has nothing to do with the wider society.  As though my life, your life, your daughter’s life is unaffected.  Gender equality affects the entire human species and you’re either for it or you’re not.

 

A child, innocent of the beliefs we stamp on to it from the day of birth, asks “Mummy, Daddy, what’s a feminist?”

“Well, kiddo,” you answer,  “a feminist is someone who thinks men and women are equal and should be treated as such.”

The child is observant.  “But men have willies and women have ‘ginas, so they’re different.”

“Yes, our bodies have different jobs to do, but they are equally important.”  You may want to add that one job is vastly more physically demanding than the other.

The child finds it simple to grasp that men and women are equal.  Why wouldn’t they be?  Biologically they may have differences, but why would this translate into inequality?   Why would one gender find itself subservient to the other?  At this basic level, it doesn’t make sense except as a bad way of gaining power by one gender over another – a morally dubious goal.  As the child starts to think for itself it may ask; “so why isn’t everyone a feminist? (And why is my bedroom pink?)”

Why isn’t everyone a feminist?  For every wave of activism in favour of this equality there has been an equally robust backlash which has sought to make the label ‘feminist’ a pejorative one that only a minority would be prepared to stand by.  It has in the past been emptied of its meaning.  It has made fighting for equality between genders a minority past time that can be sidelined as irrelevant when it is inconvenient.  It’s inconvenient that women require equality within the work place after having given birth to the next generation.  It’s inconvenient that women want to be equally represented at all levels.  It’s inconvenient that men need to check their sexual behaviour in order to eradicate rape culture once and for all. It’s inconvenient that world religions need to dramatically change to allow women the equality they have a right to.   If you agree that these are inconveniences worth addressing, you are a feminist my friend.  If you don’t then that’s OK.  But it does make you a misogynist and you need to take on that label and justify it.

The myths about feminism probably do need debunking, but for now, if the sceptics can grasp that feminism is as simple as our definition above states, we can start to debate real issues rather than wasting energy on explaining why distancing yourself from feminism is to distance yourself from equality of men and women.  And for those who don’t believe there is an issue with gender equality and feminism is simply stirring up disagreement, please read ‘The History of Misogyny’ by Jack Holland as a start.  After 3000 years of horrendous subjugation we need activism, movements and a label on which to hang our beliefs.

For those who DO wish to distance themselves from gender equality –  let’s do it!  Let’s debate the whys and wherefores.  I would like to offer a tip to the would-be ‘unequalists’:  when preparing your arguments, replace gender with race and test whether your beliefs are acceptable then.

If you are not prepared to call yourself a feminist (even in private, to yourself – you don’t have to buy the tee shirt), then you are saying you believe women are NOT equal to men.  And we have a problem.

BBC ‘Blurred Lines : The New Battle of the Sexes’

This programme screened 08/05/2014 on BBC2 is a gut wrenching synopsis of the misogyny that is now explicitly being expressed in the UK. However, it is the type of sexism that a woman can avoid and ignore if she does not venture into the virtual world or (very worryingly) school. It would be easy to assume there is little overt sexism in this country. The comments of the UN’s special rapporteur, describing Britain as one of the most sexist countries in the world, elicited a skeptical backlash; we don’t stone women here and they are allowed to drive so what’s get problem?

‘The problem’ was succinctly and calmly described by Kirsty Wark in this programme, drawing back the curtain of wilful blindness to show us a vile, seedy and downright misogynistic side to our culture. As the programme points out, the internet hasn’t invented a new misogyny (my goodness, no. This is the exact same misogyny that comes straight from the ancient civilisations). However, the internet has amplified sexism and feeds the print press with the extremism it propagates. The sickening tweets received by Prof Mary Beard just for expressing an opinion are the tip of the iceberg and we may never know how many intelligent, talented women are diverted away from a public voice because of the extreme backlash the internet facilitates. Who are these people who use threats of death and sexual violence as a response to a woman’s opinion being expressed?

The most insidious aspect of modern misogyny is within the world our young people inhabit. A quick survey of the responses to the programme reveals shock from parents and a shrug from their teenage children; this is how life is for them.  Rape culture is endemic and the influence of porn is rife.  A cursory look at the popular game Grand Theft Auto  reveals staggering misogyny and there is a suggestion that the concept of consent needs to be taught in school to boys.  Imagine that!

We are left with a grim picture of age-old misogyny expressed in new forms.  The rise of feminism needs to match it blow for blow or we risk losing ground that has been  slowly and painfully gained over centuries.

The Daily Mail gets defensive over UK being labelled ‘sexist’

http://www.feministtimes.com/the-daily-fail-doth-protest-too-much/

This is a pithy article from the newly established Feminist Times. It picks up on the backlash from the recent UN rapporteur’s criticism of the UK being, in her opinion, one of the most sexist countries in the world. Tabloids such as the Daily Mail are often criticised for sexist content, but we’ve shrugged and avoided the paper if it offends. This latest debate has, however, brought out the latent anger against the paper’s attitude towards women in particular and social media is beginning to reflect this.

It comes as no surprise to many that Britain has been labelled as sexist. It seems that projects such as Everyday Sexism is providing empirical evidence for this. Equally, the open misogyny is becoming louder as people begin to speak out about cultural sexism – propagated by, amongst others, the Daily Mail. Our legislation may on the surface be progressing equality, but it appears clear that women and right thinking men are entirely fed up with the chronic low-level sexism that permeates large swathes of our society.