“Women today are far better off than women in the past. It’s time they shut up and stopped making so much fuss!”
Many things have changed for the better over the last couple of centuries, but the evidence that women are especially at risk simply because they are women is still available on a daily basis: In 2009-10, for example, about 9 incidents of domestic violence a day were recorded by the Central Scotland Police Force. Of these reported incidents – to say nothing of those that remain unreported – 88% were perpetrated by men against women.
A common response to this kind of evidence is to shift the discussion into comparisons. The suggestion is that much worse violence against women exists in “war-torn Africa” or “Islamic communities” or with people in “fundamentalist sects.” The thought that sexist structures that can breed violence on this scale, continue to characterise even so called progressive societies is quickly displaced, in this example, by a convenient connection between ‘religion’ and patriarchal oppression. In other words, progressive societies are seen to be essentially secular.
Of course, this represents a genuine dilemma for feminist theologians and critical scholars of religion because the case against Christianity is compelling and as feminists, they generally have no desire absolutely to deny this. And yet, dismissing Christianity simply as something to be thankfully consigned to history, means consigning all the achievements of women who have identified themselves as Christian alongside it; from this perspective, all Christian women are victims if not collaborators. Yet in its effects, this approach hardly differs at all from previous attempts by men to deny the achievements of women because of their gender.
To address this dilemma we first have to go back to the relationship between feminisms and the Western Enlightenment. This movement, celebrating the power of human reason to explain and harness the forces of nature, gave a powerful impetus towards feminist thinking by severing the connection between social order and a patriarchal God; without God the Father to give a warrant for the whole hierarchical order of being including women’s subservience to men, there was no reason why women should any longer buy into the myth of male supremacy. On the other hand, the key architects of the Enlightenment were far less successful in taking the divinity out of the human male and all things masculine, including a masculine distain for Christianity as a dangerous and irrational (feminine) superstition.
Moving back to the 1970s and 80s, feminist biblical critics, were still struggling to resolve the dilemma even as they worked to apply second wave feminist theory to Christian scripture. They were stll caught up in the double bind; struggling to draw attention to biblical women and women readers in a positive way, whilst at the same time trying not to let either patriarchal texts or the guild of (male) biblical scholars that interpreted them off the hook. Thus their readings of the bible recorded the presence of biblical women, yet very often these accounts focussed on the Bible’s “texts of terror” – its stories of casual violence, its reduction of women to mere objects or to the empty “otherness” that defined a real male presence. In other words they often ended up playing more strongly on the sense in which Christianity was unsympathetic to women than on the sense in which women might justly take their places as its crafters, sustainers and reformers. Yet, looking at the situation more positively, this was exactly what those scholars were doing in trying to address a complicated set of issues that didn’t respond easily to one approach. Sometimes in the hard-won pleasures of dialogue with these problematic structures they did manage, as writers and readers, to overcome all the built-in disadvantages with which they began as women in the male normative context of Church and academy.
In the last sixty years, there has been a vigorous growth in the kind of work that focuses on the lives of women. And, having so many more narratives about women to draw on, our imaginations are fed and our view of what women can do is dramatically widened. In this way, the scenario with which this piece began is also sharply challenged because we can begin to show that the contrast between the situation of women in the past and in the present is nothing like as polarised or final as this suggests.
Arguably, over the centuries, women have found many ways to negotiate problematic structures such as Christian patriarchy, crafting courageous, creative and at some level, pleasurable forms of engagement without necessarily rejecting it outright. Following the philosopher Julia Kristeva, I would call these women ‘female geniuses’ and have written about four such female geniuses in a forthcoming book Because of Beauvoir: Christianity and the Cultivation of Female Genius to be published this year by Baylor University Press. Look out for it!