Feminist theology basics: What is gender?

by Heather W. Reichgott

“One is not born, but becomes, a woman.” — Simone de Beauvoir

I’m posting a few articles on what we might call the “basics” of feminist theology: what gender is, why it matters theologically, and some examples of where feminists have frequently challenged sexism in the Christian theological tradition.  I hope these articles will be useful (particularly to people who are relatively new to feminist theology), and I hope they will prompt discussion.

These articles are also a close reading of a particularly wonderful introduction to feminist theology: Feminist Theory and Christian Theology by Serene Jones. If you’re only going to read one book about feminist theology, this is a good one–it’s interesting, readable, refers frequently to Jones’ parish ministry as well as to highly intellectual theory, and the chapters stand alone fairly well, for those who are interested in some topics but not in others.

What is gender? (working with Feminist Theory and Christian Theology chapter 2)

The automatic response is: well, there are male people and female people, and you can tell which a person is upon birth.  God made a world full of boys and girls, men and women.  We are to live according to our prescribed gender role.  End of discussion?

When we start thinking about those gender roles, things get more complicated.  Where do the gender roles come from?  How do we learn them?  How do they differ across different cultures and historical periods?  Why do they differ at all?  We notice that all kinds of things go into a gender identity that have to be learned: clothing, hairstyle, manner of speaking in a group, name and nickname, hobbies, work habits, acceptable and unacceptable friendships, etc.  Furthermore, transgender and intersex people don’t fit either of the traditional male/female categories.  Could it be that gender itself is learned?

Serene Jones tells the story of sitting on a search committee that was debating whether a woman should be called as the church’s next pastor.  Some members said women are more nurturing than men, therefore more pastoral and better listeners.  Some thought a woman minister would be better with the children in the congregation.  Others said having a woman as a minister would make a difference in a negative way, although they couldn’t really articulate how; one member said “It’s just not the same.” (p. 22-23)

Do women have these traits by nature, or are they learned; and is it accurate or inaccurate to make general statements about what women are?

Feminist theory defines essentialism as the view that women have certain traits by nature, although it’s very much open for discussion what those traits are, what makes them good or bad, and how they ought to be deployed in the world.  Theologically, this means God made two genders and each gender was created in a certain way, although it’s very much open for discussion whether or not that implies a hierarchy of genders.

Feminist theory defines constructivism (or constructionism) as the view that gender is created by culture.  That does not mean gender does not exist, although that is a common misunderstanding of constructivism.  Things created by culture are very real, and cannot easily be changed: buildings, books, economies, laws, prisons, prizes, even our own names.  Theologically, this can mean we are to learn and grow into a predefined godly gender role, or it can mean gender roles are open to debate, criticism and change.  A constructivist might stress Genesis 1.26-27 and Galatians 3.28: God made humanity male and female, not male or female, implying a combination or continuum of genders–and even our created gender can be altered by who we become in Jesus Christ.

Feminist essentialists celebrate women’s characteristics. For example, the search committee members who said women are more pastoral than men because of their superior listening skills.  Helene Cixous wrote in “The Laugh of the Medusa” that women’s writing needs to break free of male forms and become more like the process of childbirth, writing from their own “mother nature.” (p. 24)

The philosophical and theological tradition too often places discussion of “women’s nature” in a completely different category from “human nature.”  Human nature (or theological anthropology) is explicitly or implicitly discussed as if humans are only male.  Then, a separate section on women may appear, describing mostly women’s nature as mothers and wives.  (p. 25-29)

Constructivism claims both that gender is learned in a regulated and predetermined way from culture (which is kind of fatalistic) and that, since the messages we receive from culture end up conflicting a lot of the time, we can ask questions about them, choose between them, and argue with them (which is kind of individualistic).  Constructivism lifts up Margaret Mead’s famous observation that, while every culture has gender roles, every culture’s gender roles are different.  Jones discusses Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, in which Butler argues that gender is entirely learned and regulated, not naturally inborn. (p. 31-36)

One difficulty with constructivism is that it’s hard to take gender apart and then try to make some definitive political statement.  Constructivism does not lend itself to manifestos, legislation or mission statements.  Many people who seek social change point out that at some point, you need clear standards of right and wrong and a clear idea of what a woman is, in order to bring about change on women’s behalf.

Jones defines her own position as “strategic essentialism.”  This is really the only glaring flaw in an otherwise wonderful chapter: the term “strategic essentialism” was coined by Gayatri Spivak in her work with other intellectual women of color, and Jones oddly does not mention Spivak at all.  The Jones and Spivak versions of strategic essentialism are related but different.  For Spivak, strategic essentialism is the decision by a group to claim a common identity (“We are women of color”) and advocate on behalf of that identity, while understanding that there are differences within the group (womanhood in South Korea is not the same thing as womanhood in Nicaragua).  For Jones, strategic essentialism is an in-between place with very pragmatic goals, doing essentialist things when it is useful, and doing constructivist things when it is useful.  Useful for what?  After so much examination of social norms we can’t just randomly throw in our favorite set of ethical standards to measure the universe by.  Rather, we have ethical standards that matter a lot to us, but we exist in a world with a lot of sets of ethical standards.  It’s the places where they conflict with one another that give us a chance to examine them–ours included.


3 responses to “Feminist theology basics: What is gender?

  1. Heather,
    In my study of feminism, I have noted that most of the LBGT community would prefer a constructivist view of gender sense it allows a fluid position on gender, moving the debate away from the supposed problems of male female when thinking of sexuality. On the other hand most feminist in the past have preferred an essentialist position for the opposite reason. Is this distinction influencing your position? Does it move you away from some feminist theology?

  2. heatherreichgott

    Hi Viola,

    Yes, constructivism certainly has the upper hand in the LGBT world these days, as far as I know. There are some important exceptions–many gay men, in particular, take an essentialist view of gender and sexuality, which fits with the argument that “I was born this way and this way only”. I’m thinking of people like Mel White (“Stranger at the Gate”) and John McNeill.

    Personally, I’m pretty much a constructivist because everything I’ve seen, heard and experienced of gender indicates that gender is learned and acted out. I have this position because I think it correctly describes reality, not because it moves the debate in a particular direction. And yes, being a constructivist does move me away from some feminist theology. I don’t agree with very much of what Mary Daly says, for example. From a constructivist perspective it doesn’t make any sense to say women are inherently better than men… or that women are inherently anything in particular as opposed to men.

  3. Eve Wood-Langford

    Some of the problems for women and theology must lie with orthodox interpretation of the beautiful myth of Adam and Eve. It is seldom mentioned however that almost all the components of this myth pre-date the written Old Testament, having circulated in Abraham’s country of Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC. At that time the epic poem of Gilgamesh incorporated the creation from clay of a fully adult male. Like Adam this man lived naked with the animals until he was joined by a naked female. The poem also records the first man to enter the garden paradise, and mentions a serpent with a human head called ‘lord of the tree of life.’
    These stories were rooted in polytheism, in which the nature gods did not favour human promotion, thus human heroes had sometimes to defy the gods in the name of progress. This religious philosophy was turned on its head in the revolution of monotheism in which Eve’s disobedience to the Lord was a sin.
    When the Eden myth-history is examined in the light of its origins, however, it can be seen to record a unique anthropological event in the human story. In the revolution of monotheism Eve offered the human race something of far greater value than original sin. Her true story has been vilified and it is time her pre-biblical role was reinstated. (See: Eden: The Buried Treasure.)

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