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What's a Woman and Who Decides? from 'Woman in a Man's Church' by Arlene Swidler

What’s a Woman and Who Decides?

from Woman in a Man's Church pp. 11-27.
by Arlene Swidler
Published by Paulist Press, New York, 1972.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

In the beginning, according to one of the assumedly all male authors of the Bible, there was a man, Adam. This man, according to Genesis 2:20, gave the names to all the animals and birds around him. Supposedly by classifying things and deciding what’s what the man gained control over the rest of creation.

Something like that has gone on in the man-woman relationship almost ever since. The male has done the classifying, the organizing, and the writing; the female has been the subject of philosophizing, theologizing, psychologizing, and sometimes just daydreaming.

So even today if you want to know what a woman is, you’ll pretty well have to get a man’s opinion. The books in the library are mostly written by men. The psychiatrists who tell us what’s right or wrong with women are mostly men-and men accustomed to dealing with a special group of women at that. The churches which decide what a woman should become are all completely male-dominated. What’s a woman? “Ask a man,” seems to be our civilization’s answer.

Much of the theorizing has been done in a vacuum. This is most especially true in the religious area, for where women are concerned, what could be more of a vacuum than a monastery? And that, of course, is where Thomas Aquinas worked. He entered at the age of five. It is from Aquinas that many of our Catholic ideas on women come, for Thomas is to this day the preeminently official theologian and philosopher of the Church.

Thomas’ big contribution to Catholic thought was his enormous synthesis of traditional Christian thought and ancient Greek philosophy and science in his Summa Theologica, His ideas on women thus combine the attitudes of the Church Fathers and the theories of Aristotle; both strains are misogynist.

Aristotle was a biologist, but facts known in the fourth century before Christ were few. Instead, men and women got pushed into the philosophical categories of form and matter.

These ideas were taken over by Thomas.

According to Thomas, there is only one thing for which women are necessary, only one area in which men cannot be better helped by another man. That of course is procreation. The idea that there is only one thing that women need men for would never have occurred to him.

But even in procreation Thomas sees the woman playing a very inferior role. Using the Aristotelian categories of matter and form, Thomas equates the male contribution with form and the female with matter. The best analogy is with the growth of plants. The male role is like the seed, the female like the earth. The female simply nourishes what the male has planted, a concept which is understandable in a society where biological sciences are primitive. On the other hand, one wonders why looking around them didn’t convince these thinkers that children were just as likely to look like (have the form of) their mothers as their fathers.

The logical conclusion of this matterform system of thought is that the child should resemble only the father, just as the plant resembles the parent from which the seed came: to the extent it resembles the mother, the earth, it is defective. And Thomas carried this to its conclusion by labeling women “misbegotten males.”

In many ways the earlier Fathers of the Church had been even more demeaning in their attitude towards women. Tertullian is famous for his statement to women, “You are the devil’s gateway.” According to Epiphanius, “Woman is easily seducible, weak, and without great understanding.” Both of these men were clearly drawing their conclusions from what they had read in the Bible.

This is the way women have been regarded throughout history. Most women have been mothers and housewives and confined completely or at least to a much greater extent than their men. It has been the men who met with one another, did the talking and the philosophizing and the organizing. The system has always-at least in the historical reaches of our own past-been a male system. The male has been the norm, the human being. The female has been “different,” peripheral.

Of course, there have been rebellious uppity women in the Church who tried to do their own thing, and there have been men who tried to help them. Women in religious orders who wanted to do something rather than simply be something-whosaw their destiny as active collaborators in Christ’s mission rather than merely the object of male pastoral care-have existed through the centuries.

Mary Ward, the founder of the “English Ladies” in the seventeenth century, is a famous example. Her idea was to have a group of women religious, living outside a cloister without a distinctive habit, who would be under the direction of a woman superior general with authority to transfer them as they were needed. These “English Ladies” would devote themselves to teaching girls and giving them a solid academic grounding, including such masculine subjects as Latin.

But her order, like the Jesuits she had to some extent modeled the group on, was suppressed by Pope Urban VIII. His Bull stated that the group among other things was trying to carry out works “by no means suiting the weakness of their sex.” Mary Ward herself, not convinced the Bull was authentic, tried to continue her work and was actually imprisoned by members of the Holy Office in a convent in Munich.

The Visitation nuns, now one of the more strict and less experimental groups, began as a contemplative but uncloistered congregation designed to visit the sick poor in their own homes. But after only a few years the women were forced by the hierarchy to become a religious order with strict enclosure. Nowadays they don’t do much visiting.

Today Sisters are rethinking what it means to be a woman religious, often with dynamic results. Yet in the universal church, and very often in individual dioceses, men still think they must define the role.

Secular culture has not been any less male-dominated. When you think about it, all the outstanding women personalities in literature up until almost the present have been male inventions. Medea and Antigone of the ancient Greek plays, Dido of the Aeneid, Juliet, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth and today’s Liza Doolittle and Olive Oyl-all are inventions of the masculine mind. Down through all these centuries people have been learning about human nature through studying a male-dominated literature.

Even today, when we have a number of first-rate women novelists, lots of men try to avoid reading what they think of as “women’s books.” Occasional college men complain to their literature professors if they are assigned novels by or about women.

One of the more obvious ways to see how our young people today-both boys and girlsare being taught their sex roles is to look at their textbooks. Studies of school materials have been made in the past by groups dedicated to interracial and inter-religious understanding, and now within the past few years feminist groups have been using the same techniques

Everything from literature to history can be examined for its references or lack of references to women. Even things like mathematics books are scrutinized. Are there more problems and illustrations about Johnny than Mary? And is Johnny doing more interesting things than Mary? Is he shown calculating the amount of fuel for a trip to Mars while she doubles the recipe for gingerbread?

Most recently church groups have been checking their own publications for possible sex discrimination, and of course they have been finding it in great quantity. The Methodists seem to have been the first to publish a full-scale study, in this case of their own Sunday School curricula.

In the third and fourth grade levels, the Methodist committee found, among other things, that there are 54 pictures of boys in the student book and 29 of females. Though the Methodist Church has ordained women for many years, all of the ministers and missionaries portrayed in the curriculum are males, and the idea of such a vocation for girls is discouraged in one story by ridicule.

Women are seldom mentioned in occupational terms, the report says, and married women are never identified as working outside the home. Women are portrayed as doing housework in 13 instances, but no men are.

In some ways the findings of the Methodist team in their review of the nursery school curriculum were even more important. The materials for three-year-olds were found to be full of sex-stereotyping. Besides the occupational stereotyping and the homebody mother image of the third and fourth grade level, the committee presented statistics like these:

a. Girls appearing as those who are passive, powerless, waiting on others, needing help and protection, watching theaction,unhappy 28

b. Girls as active in play activities 5

c. Boys appearing as active, brave, protectors of women, angry, playing with blocks, trucks, etc., in control 31

d. Boys reading or in some other passive activity 3

Typical examples:

“Clink, clink. Brad put his money in the basket on the beauty center. The teacher helped Wendy open her purse so she could get her money out.”

“The farmer gave the children a special treat. He let each one of them pick a pumpkin, any one they liked. Brian pulled his from the vine all by himself. Missy needed the teacher to help with hers.”

One of the most peculiarly American aspects of the contemporary feminine image is that of “consumer.” The man-so the argument runs-is expected to produce, the woman is supposed to consume. Thorstein Veblen, an American economist writing his book The Theory of the Leisure Class at the end of the last century, coined two phrases that sum up the consumer concept rather neatly: “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure.”

Veblen’s idea was that in order to have status one must not merely have wealth, one must display this wealth. One way is by “conspicuous abstention from labour.” Such conspicuous leisure does not mean idleness, but merely being active in a non-productive way (he included religion and sports among his list of nonproductive occupations). The second way of impressing people was by “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen thought this function of the leisure class was so well established that not to eat well, dress well and live in a tastefully furnished house marked a man of our society as inferior.

Already in the last century Veblen noted that the wife was expected to be a vicarious consumer for the head of the household-he points out the deliberately impractical bonnets and high heels of the lady which show she is incapable of productive work, and even adds, “The substantial reason for our tenacious attachment to the skirt is just this: it is expensive and it hampers the wearer at every turn and incapacitates her for all useful exertion.”

The woman as vicarious conspicuous consumer is at least as much with us today as she was then. Where a woman of not too many years ago was respected for cooking and sewing well, today’s woman is a source of pride to her husband if she knows the smart artists to patronize, the “in” designers, the chic resort to visit. That’s the image the mass media are trying to project.

In the middle classes the emphasis is more on home furnishings and gourmet cookery, and while retaining her position as consumer the wife becomes more of a drudge, spending more and more time in housework. (This doesn’t promote-or demote-her to the producer class simply because the work of cooking up exotic meals or polishing the furniture with special waxes is essentially useless.)

Betty Friedan argued this same point of view in her book The Feminine Mystique, which appeared in 1963 and is credited with starting the whole new women’s rights movement. Friedan, herself a free-lance writer for women’s magazines for a number of years, had long been interested in the growing unhappiness of so many women who were trying to conform to the happy housewife image. One of the major influences was the new image which the women’s magazines started presenting in the late ‘forties. Heroines in earlier issues had usually lived their own lives, had their own independent thoughtsthey even took flying lessons on the sly, or put their jobs before a date.

Then suddenly, in the late ‘forties, there was a shift to stories and features about women who did nothing outside of the home and family. The reason, Friedan finally learned, is that at the end of the war the men returned and slowly took over the jobs as writers and editors for the women’s magazines. And these men yearned for the comfort of a home after the days on the battlefield.

What cinched the change, according to Friedan, was the fact that these women’s home magazines know they can sell more of their productsewing machines, laundry soaps, appliances of various types-to the woman who stays at home and thinks of herself as a “professional” homemaker. It made good sense to make the women proud of their roles as consumers.

In some ways working women are made to play the consumer game even more dramatically. How many times a woman is hired on the basis of her appearance! A receptionist or secretary is more and more often expected to dress in the latest fashion to add glory to the boss’s reputation. “This firm wants to look like it’s going places. We need people who reflect that in the front office.”

So what do all these images add up to? There is no doubt that women come out as second best. Women are sort of handy assistants in the usual image: assistants merely in procreation, according to one view, or in more general ways in today’s world-the typist to the executive, the nurse to the doctor, the checker to the supermarket manager. Women appear as not terribly bright, not very ambitious, slightly silly, likely to worry over their hair-dos, and eager to please the male of the species. Watch your local television station for details.

It’s equally clear that the image has been put together over the centuries by men, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, and that the image is very helpful to men in many ways: it bolsters the ego, it gives men more leisure, it keeps women out of the power structure.

One of the first things we need today is the free atmosphere in which women can decide for themselves just what they are and what they are intended to be. One of the more interesting parallels between women and Blacks as oppressed groups is the way each has been stereotyped in the past-as somewhat irresponsible, uncritical, perfectly content with a secondary role, emotional-as all the things which helped the white male keep his status. In the past both groups have for the most part accepted the stereotypes and made them their own. Today the Blacks are rebelling, and the women are only a few years behind.

But after a woman has been brought up from her infancy with special feminine toys, feminine clothes, feminine ways of getting approval, and feminine ways of earning a living, she can’t decide one day that tomorrow she will be her real self. She can’t differentiate between what she really wants and what she has been taught to want.

We will need women psychologists and psychiatrists speaking and writing from their own personal and professional experience, women marriage counsellors in larger numbers, more women sociologists and women college presidents before women will be free enough from male pressures to think about themselves objectively. (Let’s hope that they won’t then decide to write books of philosophy and theology about what it means to be male!)

More and more women are insisting that the male-female relation discussion must be a dialogue. The time is past when Whites could tell Blacks what they were and what they ought to be and how they ought to react to things or what the Black experience was. In the ecumenical arena one of the first rules is to let each side define itself, present its own views, and choose its own leaders. Why not take women seriously too?

This is especially true in the question of psychological differences. Are men and women born with different values and tendencies or do they learn them? In the past almost everyone has insisted quite strongly that men and women are different, or rather that women are different. Men are never the different ones; they have always been the standard, and women are the Other, the different ones. Men have enjoyed developing the idea.

Yet our culture is very strongly maledominated; what we know about being human comes from male philosophers, theologians, psychologists and historians. It should then be up to women to say whether their own experience is different from this widely-known norm. A man can neither know from experience what it means to be feminine nor compare his own masculine experience with knowledge in the form of a tradition of female-authored literature, art, philosophy, and history-there simply isn’t any.

This is the reason for the female consciousness groups springing up around the country, more and more often within Christian church structures. Here women can get together and discover how much they have in commonwhat it means to be female in America threefourths through the twentieth century.

And after self-definition we’ll be ready for dialogue.

The second big need of today-and this is especially notable within the Church-is the need to force ourselves to get along without female stereotypes. Men are extremely fortunate not to have all those books written about them. All those definitions have set limits and narrowed options. So what we need are not new theologies of women or even sex, for they would only bring new stereotypes. Many many women in the church and society say they are happy living in their traditional ways. Many others feel that their talents and humanity are being stifled. Stereotyping looks at these two female selfimages and says, “Woman is either . . . or. . . .” Liberation in Christ Jesus says, “Women are both.”

A famous English novelist described in 1928 her reactions to the evening paper.

“Some previous luncher had left the lunch edition of the evening paper on a chair, and, waiting to be served, I began idly reading the headlines. A ribbon of very large letters ran across the page. Somebody had made a big score in South Africa. Lesser ribbons announced that Sir Austen Chamberlain was at Geneva. A meat axe with human hair on it had been found in a cellar. Mr. Justice-commented in the Divorce Courts upon the Shamelessness of Women. Sprinkled about the paper were other pieces of news. A film actress had been lowered from a peak in California and hung suspended in mid-air. The weather was going to be foggy. The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought,

who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor (her symbol for the male who writes books about females). His was the power and the money and the influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and sub-editor. He was the Foreign Secretary and the Judge. He was the cricketer; he owned the race-horses and the yachts. He was the director of the company that pays two hundred per cent to its shareholders. He left millions to charities and colleges that were ruled by himself. He suspended the film actress in mid-air. He will decide if the hair on the meat axe is human; he it is who will acquit or convict the murderer, and hang him, or let him go free. With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything." (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, New York, 1929)

Look over last night’s paper. How much have things changed?

Compare your city newspaper with your diocesan paper.

Jot down the items in the evening’s TV news coverage. What impression of the role of women would a foreign visitor get?

A New Jersey minister, Rev.Dr. Thomas Boslooper, spent ten years on a study of successful women, interviewing 300 “women of accomplishment" and 150 husbands. His conclusion: All mature, intellectually creative women were tomboys when they were young. Among his other findings:

“Successful women with severe emotional problems get little or no physical exercise.

“The more physically active a woman is, the closer her intellectual capacities come to a man’s.

“Many physically active women try to keep their athletic prowess hidden because society tends to regard the woman athlete as unfeminine.” (The New York Times, Dec. 27, 1967)

Do his findings parallel your own experiences?

What pressures militate against women’s being athletes?

Compare the encouragement and financial support given boy and girl athletes in the school systems.

Do church and other youth organizations tend to favor the male athlete?

What’s a Woman and Who Decides?

To what extent do women help form the contemporary image of women? Check the following:

The number and professional status of women employed by the major news magazines.

The extent to which men direct women’s fashion and homemaking magazines-check the mastheads.

The employment of women by the major men’s magazines.

The writers and producers of popular television programs.

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