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Posts by Heather W. Reichgott

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.


Mary Wollstonecraft: Women Are People, the 1792 version

A Books post by Heather W. Reichgott

Men have increased the apparent inferiority of women till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale.
— Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 119

Wollstonecraft’s brilliant manifesto Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published a scant three years after the beginning of the French Revolution, five years after the new United States of America adopted its Constitution. Philosophically and theologically, Wollstonecraft stands squarely on the principles of the Enlightenment era. Lest anyone think that 1792 was somehow too early for anyone to have a feminist consciousness, Mary Wollstonecraft demonstrates that the inalienable rights with which we are endowed by our Creator could quite easily be understood as extending to women as well as to men.

The book begins with a few general principles which will come as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the prevailing ideas of the time: Reason is the salient human trait separating us from animals; Virtue is a sign of merit in human beings; people should strive for reason, virtue, and knowledge. Everyone should be free to pursue these goals. That freedom implies the necessity of democracy and equality before the law. Whenever artificial divisions of rank are introduced, the higher-up become tyrannical and the lower-down become resentful (and have no motive to refrain from vice when the authority figure is not around). Hierarchy inhibits the moral development of the whole human race.

Then Wollstonecraft applies these basic human-rights principles to the situation of women. She argues that there are no differences between men’s and women’s personalities and abilities. The only differences that seem to exist have been introduced by men in order to keep women in an inferior position, and women have (thus far) accepted them, because of the temporary and token benefits they receive.

“To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character; or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” (100)

An artificial division exists between “virtue” in general and a separate set of female “virtues” which, far from being a separate path to virtue in general, lead to the development of an indolent, superficial and vain character.

“Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex; … She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused.” (118)

And this, really, is the target of Wollstonecraft’s greatest opprobrium: the construction of womanhood in which women are taught only to be beautiful, coquettish, amusing to men, with the one goal of landing the best man possible in marriage. The irony is that these skills can only even be used during a comparatively brief period in a woman’s life. Presumably she will not spend her entire life span husband-hunting. Why then make it the goal of her existence? More on this in a moment.

Wollstonecraft is arguing against a few other opponents: the contingent of writers in favor of the English aristocracy, particularly Burke; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was greatly respected at the time but viewed women as beautiful appendages to men; and a few writers of very silly essays on the education of young women, including a very silly Scots Presbyterian minister named James Fordyce. Reading Vindication in isolation from its context, one wonders how people could ever possibly have espoused Enlightenment ideas about liberty and equality without also espousing the liberty and equality of women. To Wollstonecraft, at least, it’s obvious.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born to a family of poor English farmers and worked her whole life, first on the farm, then as a teacher, school director, governess for a rich family, and finally was able to support herself by writing. She was part of Thomas Paine and William Godwin’s circle in London before becoming an expatriate living and working in France. Although the life of upper-class women gets the most criticism in her book (perhaps influenced heavily by the reportedly beautiful and lazy mother Wollstonecraft worked for as a governess) there is a great deal of insight into the lives of women from all class backgrounds. For women of every class are considered inferior, and barred by tyrannical hierarchies from the development of their natural abilities.

Wollstonecraft had two long-term relationships with men. The first (with Gilbert Imlay) produced a daughter, Fanny Imlay, who committed suicide as a young adult. The second (with William Godwin) produced another daughter. She died in childbirth at age 38, giving birth to this daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.)

Wollstonecraft herself was extremely reluctant to marry; she eventually did marry William Godwin after some years. Regardless, she has a very high view of marriage. Indeed, her treatment of (heterosexual) marriage is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Rather than critique the institution, she critiques the way in which the current construction of womanhood actually inhibits women’s ability to be good wives.

Beauty and flirtation matter most in the early stages of marriage, maybe only during courtship in Wollstonecraft’s estimation, and they affect only a superficial level of human relationship. Once married, a woman who is still obsessed with her own beauty and her husband’s superficial admiration will not develop the character to be a hard worker, a loving caretaker of children, or an intellectual companion and friend to her husband. Indeed, a woman brought up according to prevailing standards of womanhood will not even understand most of what her husband thinks, does or cares about. Husband and wife will become bored and frustrated by one another. Meanwhile, the wife yearns for a way to exercise the only skills she knows, attracting men–and so her careful societal education has taught her to seek out affairs. Thus, the current construction of womanhood fails even at its own stated goal: to produce good wives.

Although brilliant, articulate, and well-connected, Wollstonecraft did not manage to begin or inspire any kind of women’s movement in her own time. She was rediscovered, to some extent, by women’s movements in Europe and North America in the mid-nineteenth century. However, even those groups did not fully grasp the import of her argument. American suffragettes were more likely to claim that women needed the vote because their “feminine gentleness” would make society less harsh and violent, not because women are citizens and deserve the same rights as any other citizens.

Why did Wollstonecraft’s argument fail to find traction, especially at a time when universal rights of liberty and equality made perfect sense to all those successful revolutionaries? Sadly, the only reason seems to be her unusual love life. Wollstonecraft was known in her own time, but mostly, she was known in the way that we know celebrities who appear on the front pages of supermarket tabloids. Ordinary people could give the names of her lovers and children, but no one seemed to care about the content of her book.

Today, Vindication of the Rights of Woman is partly a historical window into the conditions of eighteenth-century women, and partly an argument that continues to be relevant. Women can now vote and enjoy full civil rights, although the ERA, an employment nondiscrimination amendment proposed by the suffragettes, has still not been passed. (It will be re-introduced into Congress for this year’s go-round on Tuesday.) Girls and boys now receive the same education; the supposed discrepancy between girls’ and boys’ math and science abilities completely disappeared in the very first year that girls and boys were given equal math and science education.

However, the myth of woman as beautiful useless coquette lingers on. Media images are full of women who are beautiful, attract attention, and are good for absolutely nothing. Even women who achieve tremendous success in career and/or family life still must fight against self-doubt and humiliation if they don’t look like sex objects. Clothing marketed to six-year-old girls and fifty-year-old matrons mimics that of twenty-year-olds on the hunt for male partners. As Wollstonecraft argued over two hundred years ago, we must let women’s abilities unfold unhindered, and treat ourselves and one another as people, if we as a society are truly to benefit by the contributions of all citizens.

Karl Barth: Woman’s purpose is to be a wife

By Heather W. Reichgott

It’s safe to say that Karl Barth is one of the most respected Protestant theologians today. Theology curricula regularly give Barth pride of place.

Barth is known for rehabilitating Reformed theology’s emphasis on the transcendent otherness of God, God’s initiative in relation to human beings, and Jesus Christ as the representative of humanity in salvation and election. People from hard-line Calvinists to mystics have been profoundly influenced by his theology. In addition to an influential Commentary on Romans and books of essays, Barth published the multivolume Church Dogmatics, which sets out in exacting and sometimes repetitive detail his beliefs on each and every one of the traditional theological topics.

Given Barth’s intelligence, depth of thought and verbose style, one might be surprised by his theology of gender. In the 387-page volume of the Dogmatics, which comprises part one of Barth’s doctrine of creation, gender takes up just 29 pages. Barth’s doctrine of creation describes God’s free gift of existence to humanity, and our fitting response which is faith in Jesus Christ; the ongoing relationship between God and humanity takes place in the form of covenant.

This is the meaning of God’s creation of humanity in general, that is. When discussing women in particular, though, Barth says some very different things. Using Genesis 2 with occasional reference to the Song of Songs, Barth presents an argument that while humanity is created for relationship with God, women are created for marriage to men. God creates women because man as a solitary creature is not a fitting covenant partner for God. (Dogmatics III.1.290-298) Woman is “the part of him [man] that is lost and found again”. (III.1.301) She is made to be man’s crowning glory “and it is her glory to be his glory.” (III.1.302) While Barth says this is without detriment to her independence, he also says she has no choice in whether to be the sexual counterpart of man. (III.1.303)

Women have no purpose as human beings outside of their marriages. “Being herself the completion of man’s humanity, she has no need of a further completion of her own. … His recognition and acknowledgment imply hers as well.” She is the “elect” of man (of man! not of God!) and does not exercise choice. (III.1.303) “The only real humanity is that which for the woman consists in being the wife of a male and therefore the wife of man.” (III.1.309)

When this lovely harmony is disturbed Barth envisions the problem as both an excess of male domination and an excess of female emancipation. It is wrong for women to try to seek selfhood outside of sexual relationships with men. (III.1.310)

Why does Barth back off from his usual definition of humanity as represented in Christ when it comes to women, and instead offer this view of women as sexual appendages to men? Why go counter to his usual argument about the complete otherness of God to humanity, in favor of a Roman Catholic-style analogy between divine-human hierarchy and a male-female hierarchy?

We cannot even excuse Barth by his place and time. This volume of the Dogmatics was published in 1958. While women’s suffrage would not become national law in Barth’s native Switzerland until 1971 (more about that process here), in Germany, where Barth spent much of his academic career, women had had the right to vote since 1919, and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights had called for universal suffrage in 1948. Women’s “emancipation” was hardly a strange and exotic thing in Barth’s world.

What do you think, readers? Is this a fair assessment of the humanity of women? If not, does it sour you on Karl Barth altogether, or do you have a way to explain his sexism, or do you find a way to work with the ideas of Barth that are helpful and to jettison the rest?

Resurrection and natural law: a feminist perspective

By Heather W. Reichgott

As Easter approaches, here is a feminist perspective on the resurrection.

Plenty of feminist theologians take a dim view of miracles, for a variety of reasons. Some feminists react against the authoritarian/literalist(1) view of the Bible that insists at the same time on miracles and on the superiority of men over women. Others are closely aligned with academic and other communities that prefer a scientific view of the world, or rather, one form of science in which miracles are not considered a possibility. While I respect these positions, I am a feminist who takes a strong view of miracles, especially the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection, a gracious act of God subverting the normal processes of nature, has crucial implications for theologies of gender that base themselves in natural law.

In her article “Queering Death,” Elizabeth Stuart reaches back to the ancient linkage of death and reproduction. Male and female cleave together in intercourse to produce children; the parents die; the children live on and produce more children. Meditating on the resurrection account in the gospel of John, Stuart claims that the resurrection undoes the necessity of this pattern, for it undoes the finality of death.

The natural law tradition in theology, which argues from evidence in the created world to make propositions about what should be, holds to a theology of gender that is based on the physical events of heterosexual intercourse and reproduction. Since heterosexual genitals can be made to fit together, and since this activity sometimes produces children who grow in the womb of the woman and nurse from her breasts, the argument claims that therefore procreative heterosexual intercourse is the only legitimate context for human sexuality, and that women’s existence is ineluctably tied to their responsibility to bear children in a way that men’s existence is not.

The problem with this argument is that the link between natural process and ethical necessity has been broken completely by the resurrection. In the resurrection God demonstrates that She is beyond death. Jesus, who had been killed, is restored to Mary Magdalene and Peter and Thomas, all those who loved him and all those who hated him. The work of God that Jesus was doing was not stopped by the resurrection. Jesus rose from the grave, undoing death once and for all, giving us reason to hope even in the midst of the tombs.

If this is what God can do with such a natural process of death, what does that mean for gender?

Clearly we cannot look merely at the world we see in front of us to understand what God wishes us to be. This is not all there is. That is the basis for Christian hope, whether such hopes are directed at survival, healing, social change or life after death.

Stuart writes, “It was not just that God defeated death, but that God did so in human flesh, and this has profound implications for flesh itself. It bursts from the tomb, the same but different: a flesh no longer made for cleaving nor for oblivion. … For a Christian, death does not even threaten the end of bodiliness, but rather becomes a physical experience/encounter with the divine.” (2)

If God’s plan for life and death is not limited by the grave, then there is no reason to believe God’s plan for gender is limited by the natural process of heterosexual reproduction. And in fact, a thorough reading of the Bible presents us with numerous women whose importance to the work of God far outstrips their reproductive roles. Women in God’s eyes are much more than wives and mothers; indeed, they need not be wives and mothers in order to be pivotal figures in Biblical narrative, or to be pivotal figures in God’s work in the world today.

In the resurrection God takes a natural process and subverts it completely. As people of the resurrection, Christian women may be confident that God has completely subverted the “natural” rules of gender once and for all.

(1) No one can really be a literalist, since it is impossible to obey the entire Bible at the same time; however, I use the term since it points to a frame of mind which readers will recognize.
(2) “Queering Death” in The Sexual Theologian, eds. Althaus-Reid and Isherwood (T&T Clark, 2004), p. 62-63.