I am kidding. I am a feminist, and I make no apologies for it. It seems to be a contentious statement though, hence people always start the sentence with a denial, and I am wondering how you are feeling right now as you are reading this post? The first time I encountered formal feminism was when I was sixteen at an Open Day for Glasgow University (I think it was Glasgow) when I visited the table run by the FemSoc, the Feminist Society. I think that is what they were called at that time. I picked up a badge which said:
Women who want to be equal to men lack ambition.
It made me laugh, and I picked up a card which read:
Standing up and fighting like a man is easier than sitting down and writing like a woman.
I did not understand that statement then, and even though I pinned this card on my notice board for years, I am still not sure I understand it. I am sitting here writing now, and I would much rather be doing this activity than fighting! Maybe, it is that I just do not agree with it.
In my 40 Day Journey this week, Julian has been considering Mary, Jesus’ mother, and how she was:
… marvelling with great reverence that He was willing to be born of her who was a simple creature created by Him.40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich; edited Lisa E. Dahill
This prayer was very fruitful for me. I have always found the familiar images of Mary problematic – she has not exactly been presented as a feminist icon, but I will pick up that story another day perhaps. For the moment, I simply want to acknowledge there is an area to talk about here. I also noticed, when I did the imaginative contemplation on the Annunciation during the Spiritual Exercises, that when she agreed to walk this particular path with God, even though she was betrothed to Joseph, at no point did she say to Gabriel:
Well, I really would like to, but I need to check it out with Joe first, just to make sure that he is okay with it.
In other words, she submitted herself to God’s authority without stopping to consider any social conventions of her being subject to a man’s authority, or even his feelings; and she had no doubts that she had a right to do so. To my mind, it makes her a feminist.
I have been very much influenced in my understanding of scripture by reading that I did when I was studying for the Catholic Certificate of Religious Education (CRE) when I first became a teacher. I studied four modules on scripture, two on the Old Testament and two on the New Testament and read further than directed because I was so thirsty to learn more. Three books that changed my perspective and how I interact with scripture were: “What’s right with Feminism?” by Elaine Storkey – I said earlier that I had attended a talk given by her; “Wives, Harlots and Concubines, The Old Testament in Feminist Perspective” by Alice L. Laffey; and “In a Different Voice” by Carol Gilligan. The latter book I had read as part of my teacher training, rather than the CRE correspondance course I did in conjunction with Strawberry Hill College, as it was then.
There is a classic hypothetical scenario, The Heinz Dilemma, designed by Lawrence Kohlberg, presented to people in psychological studies and their answers are analysed, not necessarily for their solution, but for the reasoning behind their solution. There is a video resource that I have used in science lessons that presents the scenario to prepubescent children and then follows them through puberty and presents it again three years later to demonstrate how the brain changes during puberty and we become capable of more complex reasoning and able to cope more with grey areas. The scenario goes along these lines:
A man has a wife who is very ill and is dying from her illness. The pharmacist down the street has a medicine that can cure her, but it is expensive. The man is poor and cannot afford to buy the medicine. Should he steal it? Discuss.
Traditional psychologists used answers and reasoning given to this scenario by boys and girls to surmise that men were rational and logical and that women were emotional, with the underlying assumption that rational was superior. Gilligan offers a different interpretation of the results than traditional male psychologists. She argues that men and women reason differently and that their reasoning was based in part on how they were defined by society and how they defined themselves. Men, she points out, were more likely to define themselves in terms of position and status, whereas women were more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships. I spent a short period noticing it whenever people introduced themselves to me at the time, or when they introduced themselves on quiz shows on the television. Men might say:
I’m James, and I’m an engineer from London.
and women might say:
I’m Mary, wife of David and mother of two fantastic teenage boys.
I notice it less so these days, nearly thirty years later, but then again, I am not looking out for it so much and I got rid of my television. We can see this bias in scripture too: many women are unnamed and are identified in terms of their husbands or sons, for example Bathsheba is simply referred to as the wife of Uriah in Matthew’s genealogy, the woman with the haemorrhage is unnamed. On the other hand, men are named, and defined in terms of their position in society: Luke defines Zaccheus as the chief tax collector. Men are rarely defined in terms of their relationships, without any reference to their position or status, the Roman centurion whose servant was ill, for example. Of course, there may be many contradictory examples on both points,and there are also the gender roles of the time to take into context too. I am not offering it here as a hard and fast rule.
The point Gilligan makes regarding the moral dilemma is that men argued from a position based on status and position, and sought a solution to the problem from a legalistic perspective, whether the man should or should not steal the medicine. Women generally refused to accept that premise, and sought a solution around building a relationship with the pharmacist in order to find an arrangement to obtain the medicine.
In my engagement with scripture, subsequent to my reading, I started to notice that there were women, like Mary, who accepted God’s authority, without making any reference to male authority figures – Samson’s mother for example. When her husband does get involved and makes a fuss around all sorts of protocols regarding burnt offerings, and asking questions regarding what had already been discussed with the woman, I imagine the angel looking at her and rolling his eyes as he says to him:
Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her.Judges 13:13
I also notice that when Jesus interacts with people, it is always from the perspective or relationship. I mentioned the woman with the haemorrhage before. From a legalistic perspective, this woman could have been stoned for defiling a religious leader, but He draws her into relationship and claims her as kin. The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 – from a legalistic perspective, this conversation should not have taken place: she is a woman not of his kin, he is a man; she is of a different social group where there are tensions with Jesus’ people; but again, He draws her into conversation and relationship. And we are familiar with Jesus being critical of the legalism of the scribes and the pharisees. It seems to me that from the psychological perspective, Jesus reasons like women do with emphasis on loving and cooperative relationship. It is not surprising, given the idea of the Holy Trinity: relationship is where it is at.
The most striking affirmation that Jesus gives to my mind is in the story of Martha and Mary. Mary takes on what might be considered as the man’s role, sitting and talking with Jesus, while her sister, Martha, runs around, doing all the women’s business by making sure the practicalities and hospitality are sorted out. How often do we see this pattern today? For me, the most fantastic and liberating thing happens when Jesus says:
It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.Luke 10:42
He makes it clear, that a woman does have a choice in her own life and that others have an obligation to accept those choices and to not try to exercise control over those decisions. I am a feminist because He affirms my belief that I have autonomy in my soul and free will: I have a right to choose to surrender myself to His authority once and for all and every day and it is for me to discern my choices through prayer and my relationships with others and the church. And if it brings me into conflict with any man who is insisting I accept his authority first, what then? Should I obey a man and disobey God? I am a feminist, because my answer to that question is no, and I believe that I have every right to give that answer. It is my right to make Ignatius’ suscipe prayer my own:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl
I make no apologies for it.
I have linked to this film clip before, but since it is entirely relevant here, I will link to it again.