For International Women’s Day: More Confessions Of a Politically Incorrect Feminist Theologian

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As I explained in previous posts, the difficulties involved in being a feminist in a religious, patriarchal environment can at times seem insurmountable. And, while I have found it quite easy theologically to reconcile the maleness of Jesus and the Father God with even the most radical of feminist principles, as my theological studies progressed I found myself completely abandoning one of them and capitulating to a form of what, in relation to feminism, would be considered extreme political incorrectness.

In the context of the Judaeo-Christian tradition of hospitality, and Christian teaching on what the ‘Kingdom of God’ will be like, something that I had resented and avoided as much as possible began to assume a different appearance: namely, what is known in feminist theory as ‘women’s traditional work’. There are three main strands of feminism, each with its own theory of why women are oppressed and how this oppression should be overcome. These are liberal feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism. We’re going to have to take a little detour through feminist political theory before I can explain its relevance to theology.

Liberal feminism’s view of the role of women in society has been shaped by liberal, capitalist theory generally, which in turn has its roots in the work of philosophers such as Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Mill and, latterly, Rawls. Liberal philosophy and political theory came to the fore during the eighteenth century Enlightenment with its intellectual and physical revolutions, although it emerged initially from the confrontation between capitalism and feudalism that began in the seventeenth century. The rising merchant class had revolted against restrictions placed on travel, manufacture and finance by the feudal system, and against the claim of monarchs to authority by divine right.

Liberalism is grounded in the notion that human beings are essentially rational agents; indeed from Aristotle to the medieval era, the notion of rationality as a defining feature of human nature has been prominent in the Western philosophical tradition. The liberal ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all are based on the conviction that all individuals have an equal potentiality for reason. The liberal perspective on reason, however, presents liberal feminist activism with serious problems. This is because, influenced by Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”, liberal theorists assume that rationality is the defining human characteristic, while the body is inferior to our mental capacities and not a part of the human essence (what makes us human).

This has led to a mind/body dualism in Western society in which occupations requiring ‘mental’ labour are perceived as superior to those requiring mainly physical labour. Non-liberal feminists (socialist and radical feminists for example) criticise the mental/manual distinction since it leads to a dismissive and even contemptuous attitude towards women’s work, which is traditionally physical work carried out in a domestic setting. The elevation of the mind at the expense of the body also militates particularly against women, since it reinforces the hostility toward the body apparent throughout the long Western philosophical tradition. In that tradition women, because of their child-bearing capacities, have always been more closely associated with nature (particularly non-human animal nature) than men, who are identified with culture and mind. Indeed, it is doubtful that any woman could, as Descartes did, base an entire philosophical system on the dictum “I think, therefore I am”. For most of history most adult women have had little time to think. The liberal denigration of the body and its corresponding stress on the importance of a disembodied reason is generated by a male conception of reality; it contains an inbuilt androcentric bias to the effect that women are inferior to men.

Liberals treat morality and rationality as synonymous, and base their political theory on desires which they identify as universal. The most important of these is that, since humans always inhabit environments of relative scarcity, they will be motivated by the desire to gain as large a share as possible of the available resources. Hobbes and Locke maintain that humans are motivated by the desire for almost unlimited acquisition, and Locke regards this desire as moral and therefore rational. Liberal theory also asserts that people generally try to maximise their individual wealth, status and prestige, and that this is rational, and therefore moral. As a result, liberal political theory can be said to contain an implicit assumption of the existence of a universal egoism.

From a Marxist, as well as a feminist perspective, socialist feminists question the liberal account of rationality. Firstly, Marx considered the body to be of equal importance to the mind, and physical labour just as important as mental labour, meaning that there is no sharp distinction or relative importance between mind and body. Secondly, Marxists believe that rationality is most effective when it is operating at the societal and collective rather than the individual level; finally, in Marxist theory  competitive individualism is considered irrational precisely because resources are limited. Marxists believe that humans have a boundless capacity for cooperation, but that this capacity is suppressed and discouraged by a political system which protects and legitimates human selfishness. Under socialism, of course, the means of production would belong to the country as a whole; such a revolutionary societal transformation would, according to Marx and Engels, give rise to new developments in human nature. Cooperation would replace competition, egoism would be replaced by generosity, and work would become a vehicle of self-realisation rather than a burden. This general increase in human well-being would also have a trickle-down effect into the family; working men, for example would no longer ape their bosses and behave like petty tyrants towards their wives. Marxists also strongly dispute the liberal ethos that conceptualises human happiness in terms of wealth and social prestige.

Liberal feminists believe, however, that in contemporary society the treatment of women violates the three main principles of liberalism: equality, liberty and justice. Their main grievance is that women are unjustly discriminated against on the basis of their sex; they argue that since rationality is the essential human quality, and since women are also rational agents, women are as capable as men in all fields, and must not be discriminated against on the grounds of sex. They argue that women are, in fact, subjected to several forms of discrimination, the most obvious of which is legal discrimination. Liberal feminist activism has therefore been directed mainly at the repeal of laws perceived as unjust towards women, and the passing of laws which formally grant women equal rights to men with regard to the franchise, education and job opportunities. However, liberal feminists also believe that most discrimination is informal and based on custom. Informal discrimination is typically manifested both in assumptions that women are not suited to certain sorts of work and, conversely, that they are particularly well-suited to other sorts of work. They maintain that feminist progress notwithstanding, even in contemporary society there are strong expectations – often shared by women themselves – that women should take primary responsibility for the work involved in raising children and running the home. These assumptions are carried over into the labour force, where women are expected to provide all sorts of nurturing and menial services to men, women and children. Liberal feminists, influenced by the male philosophical perspective, believe that the work typically performed by women in both the private and public spheres is of little value, since it services the body as opposed to the mind. They conclude that women can be liberated from their oppression only by entering the public sphere and successfully competing with men for highly-paid jobs in business, in the professions and in academia. They fully buy into the liberal capitalist agenda of universal egoism and the equating of happiness with wealth, status and prestige.

Throughout its three hundred year history, the goal of liberal feminism has been the achievement of formal equality in law for women. It was hoped that once all legal barriers were removed, women would rapidly gain substantive equality with men, and any residual prejudice could be overcome by rational argument. While it is undoubtedly true that the liberal strand of feminism has been the most effective in transforming the lives and expectations of women, socialist and radical feminists argue  that liberals have gone as far as they can within the existing political system in improving the lot of women. They question the liberal conviction that public legislative campaigns can change private attitudes; the fundamental problem for liberal feminism, as they see it, is its failure to challenge the mental/manual distinction which structures the world of work in contemporary society. The liberal feminist desire for what amounts to an androgynous society devalues women’s traditional work, and accepts the androcentric bias of liberal philosophy in which male values are normative. In maintaining the mental/manual distinction liberal feminist theory, they argue, actually helps to rationalise and perpetuate women’s oppression and domination.

Socialist and radical feminists conclude therefore that women’s oppression cannot be ended without a revolutionary transformation of contemporary political systems, albeit that socialist feminist theory is also androcentric to a certain extent. In Marxism, as in liberalism, the solution for women’s oppression is for women to enter the workforce. This is because Marx and Engels argued that women’s subordination results from the institution of class society and has persisted into the present because the unwaged labour of women suits the interests of capital. As to the historical origin of women’s oppression, Marx and Engels make the assumption that in every society there has always been a sexual division of labour “which was originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act”. This ‘natural’ division of labour is replicated in the split between household work, carried out by women, and the work involved in producing the means of subsistence, which is traditionally the sphere of men. For Marx and Engels the sexual division of labour is related to the biological constitution of men and women, and therefore biologically determined. Under a socialist regime, the ‘natural’ gender distinctions of the private sphere could be abolished in the market place by drawing women into paid employment in the sphere of production. This would make women independent of men and ultimately transform the ‘sexual division of labour’ in the home. Thus the Marxist solution to the problem of women’s oppression is ultimately the same as that of the liberal approach: androgyny in the public sphere.

Socialist feminism has expanded upon this by arguing that the family should be taken out of the private domain and become an institution primarily under the control of the state; in classical Marxism the family is considered to belong to the private sphere. To effect this theoretical change, socialist feminists have attempted to  redefine the family as an economic unit, or – in Marxist terminology – a system of production. Socialist feminists justify this by arguing that humans have material needs other than food, shelter and clothing. Equally fundamental to human survival are the social and individual human needs for the bearing and rearing of children, for sexual satisfaction and  emotional nurturance.  Since these needs are fulfilled by human labour, the system developed to satisfy them must be a system of production, even if it does not always produce tangible results.

Socialist feminists also point to the fact that the means of  satisfying these needs have, throughout history, been distributed and exchanged through the social institutions of marriage and prostitution; such transactions involve, either overtly or covertly, payment with money. Traditionally, wives are financially supported by their husbands in return for housework and the raising of children. Socialist feminists conclude that sexuality and procreation, areas considered in all previous political theory as ‘natural’ and biologically determined, fall within the domain of Marxist political economy and can therefore be transformed through collective decision-making regarding changes in social practice. Sex, as well as gender, they argue, is socially constructed. This is of vital importance to socialist feminists, who believe that women’s oppression can only be ended when ‘the division of labour in the sexual act’, reconstituted in male-female relations throughout the whole of society, is itself abolished.

The political goal of socialist feminism is therefore to destroy “the social relations that constitute humans not only as workers and capitalists but also as women and men…Women and men will disappear as socially constituted categories”. This goal will be achieved by the abolition of normative heterosexuality, marriage and the family as traditionally understood.

It was however twentieth century radical feminism, the most recent of the three strands, that popularised the use of the term ‘patriarchy’. Radical feminism also appropriated the Marxist notion of class, arguing that women are a class defined by sex. The definition of women as a class carries the implication that men gain material benefits from their domination and exploitation of women; within the sex-class system, the ruling class is called ‘the patriarchy’, a term originally used by anthropologists to refer to primitive nomadic societies. Radical feminists use it in a broader sense to refer to a universal system of male domination. Their critique of patriarchy has not only become a focus of academic research, but has also been assimilated into public consciousness via the media and best-selling works of non-fiction and fiction such as  Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. Radical feminists maintain that owing to the universality of women’s subordination, it is the first and fundamental form of domination. It is also the cause of and model for all other types of oppression. They conceive patriarchy as “a total system of domination. Through imperialism, racism, and class society, groups of men seek to dominate each other. Most of all, however, they seek to dominate women….”

The radical feminist political solution to the evils of patriarchy is a drastic one, involving the separation of women from men in order to facilitate the development of a ‘womanculture’. In contrast to liberal and Marxist feminist goals, the ‘womanculture’ would celebrate female values and female qualities such as nurturance, empathy, intuitiveness, flexibility and spontaneity. This would be in marked contrast to the patriarchal culture which typically has prided itself on military prowess, sexual aggression, analytical thinking and emotional ‘cool’. While there is much to recommend the idea of a ‘womanculture’, it would surely be far better for radical feminists to challenge the dominant patriarchal conception of reason, emotion and the relationships between them and instead to develop new conceptions of these relationships in order to transform patriarchy rather than abandon it.

Each of the three strands of feminist theory described above has made important contributions to the understanding and overcoming of women’s oppression: liberal feminism has, thus far, been the most effective, while socialist feminism has been the most culturally influential in challenging our presuppositions about gender. Meanwhile, radical feminism has checked the excesses of the other two strands by rejecting androgyny and gender deconstruction and celebrating what is distinctly feminine.

Now that we have looked at these feminist perspectives on women’s traditional work, it is time to turn from political notions of the ideal society to the predominant values of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus. In all of the ways in which the Nazarene tried to describe what the Kingdom would be like, the ‘banquet’ parables are, for me, the most evocative. The Old Testament background for these parables is found in Isaiah 25: 6-9 which describes a lavish banquet prepared by Yahweh:

 

On this mountain the Lord of the hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines

strained clear.

And he will destroy on this mountain

the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the sheet that is spread over all nations;

he will swallow up death forever

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…..

 

The derivative Gospel story of the Great Banquet (Lk. 14: 15-24 par) must be considered as part of a significant collection of parables set within chapters 14-16 of Luke’s Gospel that are either given within the context of Jesus’ table talk, or inspired by his love of table fellowship; they reveal that the virtues associated with hospitality, especially generosity, humility, and inclusivity, are relevant to salvation and will characterise the warmer, kinder world of the developing Kingdom which will focus on relationships rather than power or prestige. In the Kingdom, everyone will be physically and emotionally satisfied, because everyone will have a place at the table; plenty to eat and drink, conviviality, no loneliness, no one who is considered an outsider. Hospitality and its myriad pleasures are most associated with women, and therefore taken for granted; not all that important in the world at large as compared to, for example, politics, business or the military, which are largely male domains. In God’s Kingdom, however, the female sphere as traditionally understood will be more important and transformative than the male one. Indeed it is within this feminine, domestic context that all differences will be overcome and a universal love and harmony will be achieved. Of the three strands of feminism, therefore, it is radical feminism with, firstly, its insistence that all forms of oppression are interlinked and, secondly, its celebration of the female genius, that is closest to the biblical evocation of the Kingdom of God. The Gospels also validate radical feminism’s insistence that androgyny is not the way forward for women in their attempts to overcome oppression.

This is not to say that women must be confined to their traditional roles; the hope is that the feminine gifts for relationships, nurturing, and conflict resolution will be as transformative in the public sphere as they have been quietly powerful in the sphere of domesticity. Yet the real key to women’s liberation will lie, surely, not in getting women to ape men, but in getting men and, even more importantly, women themselves to appreciate their own gifts rather than take them for granted. What radical feminism calls the ‘womanculture’ must not develop in isolation from the ‘manculture’ but be woven seamlessly into it in a way that will transform existence. How can such a seemingly miraculous transformation occur? I would argue that political activism, while certainly necessary to overcome prejudice in all of its manifestations, is not enough for a task that will demand of us the generous love of neighbour depicted in parables such as the story of the Good Samaritan: the overcoming of the hatreds and suffering caused by prejudice and bigotry is a religious as well as a political matter. The Banquet parables depict an inclusive world in which all who accept God’s invitation into his/her Kingdom are loved and cherished. They bring to mind St. Paul’s Christian manifesto which is radical and revolutionary  beyond anything dreamed up by Marx: “….for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28).

And so, as a result of my studies in biblical theology, I gained a new perspective on the kind of work I had previously despised and began to immerse myself in the – for me – new found joys of homemaking and domesticity in general. I could do this safe in the knowledge that despite appearances, women’s work in all its forms is somehow transforming the world: no matter how thankless and taken for granted it may often seem in comparison to much more highly valued male achievements, God is using it for his/her purposes in building up the Kingdom. God ensures that not one iota of the love and sacrifice that characterises women’s traditional work goes unnoticed or is wasted; it is all being taken up and constantly incorporated into the developing Kingdom of God. If, indeed – as Christianity teaches – God can bring good out of evil, how much more can he/she bring infinite goodness out of our finite, limited efforts at love and sacrifice. Somehow, in a way that we can’t yet understand, women’s traditonal work has an essential role – even, I would suggest, the most important role- in the building up of God’s Kingdom, in which male and female qualities and virtues will be truly complementary and equally treasured and effective in both the public and private spheres. Right now, it is hard to imagine what such a world might look like, but it certainly won’t be one in which the desire for wealth, status and prestige predominate as now, suppressing the development of harmonious and joyful relationships.

 

Coda: The history of political feminism begs some important questions, especially in an evolutionary context. Christian tradition talks about some sort of one off ‘primal sin’ that is the cause of all the world’s problems. Due to developments in science, specifically evolutionary biology, we now know, however, that the Genesis story is in large part mythological. Evolutionary theory in fact supplies plausible answers to the causes of women’s oppression, with the debate centering on whether male domination is primarily a cultural or genetic phenomenon. My own research has convinced me that it is mainly cultural and therefore at least partly rectifiable through politics and the social sciences generally. From a theological perspective, of course, there is another question: is there a spiritual dimension to the world’s prejudices and hatreds? Within the theological context of origins it may be asked whether or not moral decisions were made by early humans that had a detrimental effect on our cultural evolution.

Evolution, which is relevant theologically to both creation and morality, is one of those fascinating meeting points between religion and science where common ground has caused much controversy. Many of today’s leading theologians are currently exploring this common ground, especially in relation to evolution and behaviour. Significant progress is being made in this interdisciplinary area –  which is the hottest and most cutting edge field of research in the academic humanities – although as yet there has been no doctrinal change or adjustment even in institutional Christianity which is favourably disposed towards evolutionary theory. I am pretty sure, from my readings in both theology – as in the biblical stories discussed above – and in evolutionary biology, that there is indeed a spiritual dimension to the world’s travails.

Resources: Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totawa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1983), pp. 64, 135, 255.

“Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1968), pp. 182-183.

Niamh Middleton “Sacramental Spirituality: The Feminine Dimension” in Spirituality (Dublin: Dominican Publications), Vol. 21, pp. 156-159.

Niamh Middleton: “Faith and Feminism Can Make Strange Bedfellows” in On Religion, Issue 12, Autumn 2015, p. 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “For International Women’s Day: More Confessions Of a Politically Incorrect Feminist Theologian

  1. Niamh, excellent analysis and presentation. I feel that you might also find a lot of similarity in the ‘pagan’ religions and their views on the division of men’s and women’s roles, and their contribution to the subjugation of women, even though most are matriarchal religions.
    The true revolution will eventually have to be in a co-operative view of complimentary roles with equal respect for both physical and mental labor. This has been one of my own pet projects in my own sphere to show that as JC showed as the ruler must be a servant, and no one is above another.
    Blessed Be

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