Eighty people came to Glasgow University Chapel for the launch of two books on 21. November, one by our own Alison Jasper, Because of Beauvoir: Christianity and the Cultivation of Female Genius, the second by her husband, David Jasper, The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament, and the People of God, both published by Baylor University Press (Waco, Texas), 2012.
David introduced a number of speakers, beginning with Professor Nigel Leask, Regius Professor Of English Literature at the University of Glasgow, who welcomed all.
Right Rev. Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, then spoke of David’s book, commending it for its careful examination of the liturgical community and the place of the community in the church and the world.
Right Rev. Gregor Duncan, Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, spoke in similarly warm terms of David’s contribution to contemporary theology.
Professor Ann Loades, CBE, Professor Emerita of Durham University, and Prof. Richard Roberts, Visiting Emeritus Professor at Stirling and a member of the Critical Religion Research Group, both addressed the publication of Alison’s book. Professor Loades commented:
I have read the book with admiration … it is beautifully organised and written, and entirely original both in its conceptual framework (female genius) and in the examples you use… the fight for the recognition of what women have and continue to do is no joke, as we wll know.
Professor Roberts placed Dr Jasper’s book in the wider context of Simone de Beauvoir’s argument, picking up particularly on de Beauvoir’s description of the male lack of empathy for the situation of women (‘It is… a difficult matter for man to realize the extreme importance of social discriminations which seem outwardly insignificant but which produce in woman moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to spring from her original nature'; The Second Sex, 1953/1988 edition, p26). Marriage, motherhood and sacrifice became reified metaphors in this context. And yet it is precisely this context that enables ‘female genius’ to achieve being and creativity. She describes,
… the surprising complexity of many singular lives in which female genius is achieved in the pleasures of a courageous and creative dialogue with the problematic structures created as a consequence of male-normative perspectives. (Jasper, p41)
There is, therefore, a world of female achievement to be explored before the past sixty years, and Jasper does this using a variety of approaches, but with a particular emphasis on Julia Kristeva’s thinking. Using four women as case studies – Jane Leade (b. 1624), Hannah More (b. 1745), Maude Royden (b. 1876) and Michèle Roberts (b. 1949) – she shows how they have ‘all been formed in some way by Christianity, its praxis, its beliefs, or its ethical and aesthetic sensibilities’, and all can be regarded as examples of female genius: ‘the struggle to avoid being objectified within male-normative contexts while seeking to engage genuinely with “the other”, including men.’ (p. 75) This approach to female genius, Jasper argues,
tries to do justice to the full complexity of the lives of women who struggle against the consequences of male-normative frameworks of value while also managing to create new relationships and think in new ways that keep the temptations and perilous dangers of that framework itself clearly in focus. (p. 75)
Professor Roberts cited Jasper’s closing lines from the book:
…contemporary feminist discourse needs to recognise that we do have a past that informs a present and our ongoing discussions with each other, globally, in much more complex ways than merely in terms of a negative – for example, Christian – legacy, thankfully disposed of. To ignore the challenging and insightful ways in which women have shown themselves able to engage with the Christian imaginaries of the past is, once again, to diminish and trivialize their capacity to survive, to struggle to contest, and thus to flourish even in the most inauspicious circumstances. (p. 158)
He praised Jasper for not letting go of de Beauvoir’s original question: ‘What is a woman?’, lauding her contribution in this book to the ongoing emancipatory discourse and the clarity with which questions of ‘religious women’ were discussed.
Professor Loades summarised her thoughts: ‘Dr Jasper’s new book is… refreshing to read in its attention to overlooked examples of ‘female genius’ – we look forward to more.’
Alison Jasper has written a short blog posting about Female Genius that you may wish to (re)visit. Warm thanks to Professors Loades and Roberts for help in writing this update.
Note that Heather Walton has also commented on Because of Beauvoir on the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture website.