Voices of Protest and Anger
from Women and Spirituality, Ursula King, Macmillan 1989, ch. 1, pp. 12-32.
'Feminists have charged that Judaism and Christianity are sexist religions with a male God and traditions of male leadership that legitimate the superiority of men in family and society. This new challenge to traditional faiths just confirms the view of some feminists that society has outgrown its need for religion. . . . Other feminists, however, are convinced that religion is profoundly important. For them, the discovery that religions teach the inferiority of women is experienced as betrayal of deeply felt spiritual and religious experience. . . . They are convinced that religion must be reformed or reconstructed to support the full human dignity of women.'Carol P. Christ and Judith J, Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising, p.l.
Many contemporaries consider feminism primarily as a protest movement characterised by rage and anger. We have to ask ourselves why this is so. What is feminist protest about? Has it legitimate foundations and if so, how is one to interpret the social, political and spiritual implications of this protest? In particular we want to know why feminists challange religion and what in religion it is they challenge.
Examples of feminist protest and anger are probably more widely known than the note of celebration and joy which rings through much of feminist writing and experience. People's image of a 'typical feminist', based on either ignorance or prejudice, has been largely shaped by the somewhat one-sided and biased portrayal of feminists in the media. Radical and aggressive feminists especially have been used by critics and opponents as convenient scapegoats so as to avoid the challenge of having to take the real issues of feminism seriously and give full consideration to the alternatives proposed by women. Before we look specifically at the challenge posed by feminists to religion, it will be helpful to unravel some major threads of the feminist challenge in general.
The challenge of anger
Women do indeed speak out in protest and anger; they experience a righteous rage. But what does this really mean? What power and strength is erupting in these feminist outbursts? Many people do not even have the patience to listen for they find feminist voices too disruptive, unreasonable and shrill. But is the shrillness not there because the voices are still broken, still partially undeveloped and inchoate? They must find a fuller, richer, more balanced and harmonious tone, maybe, to express the full emotional, moral, intellectual and spiritual power which women are now discovering for themselves and proposing as alternative for others.
One must be sensitive to the new spirit emerging and weigh up the positive sides of anger as well as the negative ones. Elsewhere I have described this ambiguity by saying that women
who were submissive for so long, are now expressing a profound rage and anger. Their dissatisfaction and angry resentment, so far voiced only in private, has at long last been made public: anger with their fathers, mothers, husbands and children; anger with the churches, political and religious leaders, with all the stern gatekeepers of meaningless traditions; anger with the enslaving symbols and oppressive structures of patriarchy. The protest is over the injustices of sexism subordinating one sex to the exploitative powers of another. It is a protest over the history-long exclusion of women from the centres of power and decision-making, their relegation to the spheres of nature and nurture, denying them a full part in shaping the values of culture. Given this history, it hardly seems surprising that some women may now be driven by their anger to seek excesses of power and self-affirmation. It is easy to point to such excesses but more difficult to acknowledge that, most fundamentally, women's protest is over all the separations and divisions which rend our world asunder. (King, 1984a, p. 3).
At the roots of women's protest lies ultimately a spiritual protest. In protesting about discrimination, subordination and oppression, women voice their profound experience of alienation in always being the Other (Beauvoir, 1972) acknowledged, defined, feared and controlled by men. Marianne Katoppo, an Indonesian woman theologian, has proudly written:
I claim the right of woman to be liberated from being the threatening Other. I claim the right of woman to be the Other in all her fullness and variety of gifts - the Other who is not the adversary, the deviation, the subordination of the Self, but the one who gives meaning to the Self. (1979, p.7)
The power of anger which breaks through in feminist protests is a power which struggles for equality, liberation, and freedom. Looking at anger from its positive side, it can be seen as another face of love - love for authenticity, love for the real, life-sustaining values, love for the fullness of life, love for the earth and its people and, among committed Christian feminists, love for the true church as the people of God.
Thus one must distinguish two kinds of anger, as Susan Griffin rightly remarks. There is the anger which is known and accurately placed, the anger which liberates one in mind and body. But there is also a second kind of anger which is displaced and imprisons. 'It becomes obsessive; it turns into bitterness; it leads to self-defeat; it turns us against ourselves'. But to 'escape from genuine sources of anger is to escape from the self (Griffin, 1982 pp.283, 284).
The phenomenon of feminist anger presents a challenge in itself which must be carefully examined and weighed up. Feminists are not exclusively defined by rage and anger as some of their opponents seem to think. Their thinking is not only shaped by reacting to existing situations but is in part truly innovative and creative, as it is grounded in new experience and sustained by visionary imagination. Whilst feminist anger challenges the world at large, the inherent ambiguity of this anger also implies a challenge to feminism itself as it requires a critical self-examination of feminist thought and practice.
The feminist challenge in historical perspective.
Feminism is a relatively recent phenomenon. But one must not forget that its roots go back as far as the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and especially the liberalism of the nineteenth century (Rendall 1985). It was especially the freedom struggle for the abolition of slavery which, during the nineteenth century, led to the first wave of the women's movement in the USA and Europe. Perceptive women could easily see the analogy of their situation with that of unfree slaves. The initial struggle was much concerned with obtaining the political vote and equal rights for women, but some early feminists also criticised the injustices perpetrated by religion.
During the twentieth century many aims of the early women's movement were put into practice. Yet it became increasingly clear that women had not gained as much as they had hoped for and were far from having obtained full social equality in all areas of life. During the 1960s new economic and demographic conditions, especially the wide availability of birth control, created a new social and political climate. These factors, together with the protest of the students' movement, were important influences in the birth of a new feminism. In spite of certain continuities with the earlier women's movement feminism, as we know it today, is something decisively and one might say revolutionarily new.
Many critics consider the feminist movement as a passing phenomenon, of significance only for the educated, urban, middle-class women of the western world. This mistaken impression is due to their very limited experience of the new spirit which is alive among women in many different parts of the world. Surveys of contemporary feminism (Banks, 1982; Evans, 1982; Bouchier, 1983; Eisenstein, 1984; Mitchell and Oakley, 1986; King, 1986b) often group feminists according to their major political orientation into liberal, socialist, marxist and radical feminists. Yet it is important to keep in mind that the fundamental challenge of feminism, which I consider to be a spiritual as well as a political challenge, is much wider than any party-political line and is not restricted to the dominant political orientations of the West. Feminism is about a different consciousness and vision, a radically changed perspective which calls fundamentally into question many of our social, cultural, political and religious traditions.
Feminism is not only a social and political movement. It functions as a critical category in contemporary culture because it challenges and examines the foundations of our language, thought and institutions, our social and political power structures and their hierarchical divisions. Thus feminism has produced a new theory and praxis in most areas of cultural activity. It offers or at least dreams of challenging alternatives which seem less divisive, more integral and wholesome. Its critical perspectives point to the crossroads at which contemporary society has now arrived, the decisive turning-point we have reached in our development.
Religiously committed feminists are sometimes somewhat disparagingly called 'soft feminists' by other more radical members of the feminist movement. This is perhaps an indication that religious issues, about which some women care very deeply, are not taken sufficiently seriously by certain feminists. There are a growing number of feminists who, though not religiously committed in a traditional sense, are nonetheless strongly attracted to a wider spiritual quest. They represent what has been called a 'metaphysical' or 'spiritual feminism' which is sometimes criticised for emphasising a path of inwardness to the exclusion of any political commitment. Certain strands of this spiritual feminism are closely interwoven with and influenced by different psychoanalytic theories. These may be criticised in some respects, but women's spirituality as understood in the feminist movement is on the whole strongly action-orientated and has a political dimension in a wider sense, even though it may not be actively involved in party politics,
David Bouchier in his study of the feminist movement in Britain and the USA sees feminism as very much alive, but depicts a two-sided picture of the women's movement by describing it on one hand as 'divided, sectarian, weak and isolated from political power' and on the other as a movement which is 'diverse, creative, full of energy and profoundly committed to the vision of a better life for all women' (Bouchier, 1983 p. 208). He speaks of the smallness and fragility of the movement in Britain where he found about 3001 different feminist groups with perhaps 10000 active members of I whom only about 2000 are core members. In North America the numbers would naturally be larger.
Numbers are important, especially with regard to the effective-ness of campaigns about specific social and political issues affecting I women. But whatever the numbers are, figures which can be collected by statistical means are bound to mask much of the widespread consent and tacit support which many women, especially young women, students, pupils and women living outside the main urban areas - all unlikely to be organised in strong groups give to feminist ways of thinking today. It is not only the identifiable feminist core-groups with a strongly pronounced voice of their own, but other, more muted voices too which express significant, transformative experiences in the spirituality of women. These voices are indicative of a changing mood, a growing quest, a newly emerging vision which appeals to thousands more women than can be found in any organised movement.
Feminist critics have unmasked the ideological foundations of much of our knowledge and institutions, including the practice of religion and spirituality. The notion of ideology can be understood in a more general or more specific sense. In a general sense it can indicate the way in which all knowledge, all values and beliefs, are related to actual conditions of human existence, especially economic and political conditions. In a narrower sense ideology can be seen to be related to unexamined thoughts in our lives which we accept as unquestioned. Ideology can hide the truth, The feminist critique of ideology, especially with regard to the understanding and presentation of women, is both necessary and helpful. Yet this critical perspective must in turn be applied to feminism itself, for it is legitimate to ask how far at least some forms of feminism have developed into a new ideology which, far from bringing the promised liberation of women, leads them into a new, though different, kind of slavery. As the feminist writer Susan Griffin puts it in her thought-provoking meditation on 'The Way of All Ideology': 'But when a theory is transformed into an ideology, it begins to destroy the self and self-knowledge. ... It organizes experience according to itself, without touching experience. . . . Begun as a cry against the denial of truth, now it denies any truth which does not fit into its scheme. . . . All that makes it question, it regards as its enemy. Begun as a theory of liberation, it is threatened by new theories of liberation; slowly, it builds a prison for the mind' (Griffin, 1982, p. 280). Whether feminism will achieve true liberation or create another prison for the mind is certainly the crucial question in the area of spirituality where freedom of the self within and without is the core experience. For many women today the vision of such freedom is first seen and experienced in small groups through a change of awareness brought about by the process of consciousness-raising.
Feminist consciousness and sisterhood
Consciousness-raising has been called the first step in feminist theory. It was originally developed as a method by members of radical feminist groups who helped each other to become fully and critically aware of each other's situation as women. Their encounter took place in small, unstructured and deliberately non-hierarchial groups with changing moderators rather than one permanent 'leader'. This method has spread to innumerable women's groups and caucuses; it has been effectively used on a wide scale throughout the feminist movement. It is intimately linked to the use of story-telling, the sharing of one's own personal story and life-experience of joy and suffering with other women.
This critical sifting and mutual sharing has made women deeply self-aware and has transformed, 'raised', their consciousness. With it comes the experience of women's own power in defining their life and choices rather than their being defined by others. This has led to a sense of independence and autonomy, to a newly found identity and the joy of personal fulfilment. In this deeper sense the liberation of women is not only about economic and social, but also fully personal independence and the discovery of the true self - a discovery of great spiritual importance.
The emphasis on a self-defining, autonomously acting subject and the importance attached to overcoming false consciousness which is ideologically distorted, has much in common with the themes of philosophical existentialism. It is no accident that Simone de Beauvoir's influential book The Second Sex, originally published in France in 1949, has remained a classic text in contemporary feminist thought (Evans 1985). It is important to recognize that the development of feminist consciousness is part of the wider mutation and transformation of contemporary human consciousness. In a recent book on Feminist Theory (Keohane, Rosaldo and Gelpi, 1982) three different forms of consciousness are distinguished as far as women are concerned. There is first of all 'feminine consciousness' which represents for feminists 'an object of analysis rather than a source of insight, it involves consciousness of oneself as object of the attention of another; it arises from the sensation of being looked at and brings to one's awareness what one appears to be in someone else's eyes'. A second form is 'female consciousness' related to 'the deep-rooted, age-old experience of women in giving and preserving life, nurturing and sustaining. Profoundly conservative, it is also resonant with radical possibilities. The notion of women as "close to nature", distorted sometimes to discount the abilities of women to reason and to speak, here becomes the basis for a more fruitful line of argument' (pp.ix, x).
Whilst the first form, in its pure state at least, might be considered an example of what may be called 'false consciousness', the second form of consciousness has been fundamental to the historical experience of women, but in practice it has often been intertwined with the first. Now the third, critical form of consciousness is 'feminist consciousness'. It is described in the following terms:
This is a consciousness developed and defined as we reflect on women's experience, and on the asymmetries in power, opportunity, and situation that have universally marked the fortunes of women. Without denying the importance of 'female consciousness', or the reality of 'feminine consciousness', our 'feminist consciousness' draws attention to the pervasive patterns of subordination, limitations, and confinement that have hampered and crippled the development of the female half of humankind as far back as the species can remember. Concerned about the worldwide situation of women now as well as throughout the past, it develops a vision of an alternative way of living in which individuals of both sexes can flourish in diverse ways, without restraints imposed by rigid and impersonal sex/gender roles. (Keohane, Rosaldo and Gelpi, 1982, p.x).
Feminist consciousness, therefore, does not provide yet another intellectual perspective, one option among many, but it provides as new matrix and orientation to all other perspectives. The deliberately fostered change in awareness among women has sometimes led to radical conversion experiences of such intensity that they have been likened to the profound metanoia of a religious experience. This almost ecstatic self-discovery has also led to a new celebration of community, of the bonding among women. The sharing of stories of suffering, oppression and joy, of histories unknown and newly discovered, has created a new sense of solidarity among women expressed as 'sisterhood'. Sisterhood can be both a powerful experience and an equally powerful symbol of the togetherness, the relatedness of all women - their relatedness in suffering and oppression, in giving birth and life, in nurturing and caring, in joy and ecstasy.
Women have written, sung about and celebrated sisterhood in ecstatic and rhapsodic terms as witnessed in contemporary women's poetry, literature, art, films, music and photography. Sisterhood can be, and often is, understood in an exclusive, all-female sense. Mary Daly (1974a) calls it a 'charismatic community' and even a 'cosmic covenant' among women, but sisterhood has the potential of widening out into larger circles of community. For the moment it is important to acknowledge that sisterhood has created and strengthened newly woven bonds among many different women, young and old, wealthy and underprivileged, educated and uneducated, black, white, brown and yellow women. Sisterhood is made up of an immense web of threads of all colours and sizes; its activities consist of connecting and sharing, of speaking and sparking.
This web and its threads has created a women's network far larger and more informal than structured organisations with statistically accessible numbers. The informality and lack of rigidity of the feminist network may appear as weakness from the vantage point of existing political power structures. But as the feminist critique addresses the very nature and essence of these structures, the malleability and flexibility of women's groups - the feminine valley spirit, as the Taoists call it - may prove to be its very strength. As a women's poster tellingly proclaimed: 'Sisterhood is blooming. Springtime will never be the same again'.
Feminist voices express concern and protest about many specific issues (for an analysis of the major themes see Eisenstein 1984), but fundamentally all criticisms and campaigns are rooted in an outright challenge to patriarchy, androcentrism and sexism. These are three different, but interrelated aspects of the same basic phenomenon of a false ordering of reality as traditionally understood. With the newly sharpened awareness of feminist consciousness this falsification is now radically called into question and a new order is called for.
What are patriarchy, androcentrism and sexism? These terms are widely used in feminist literature but are not always clearly defined. If one looks at them in a wider historical perspective, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that their current meaning, implied throughout feminist writings, is of relatively recent origin. Moreover, through their feminist usage these terms have acquired a new meaning they did not have before.
On consulting the Oxford English Dictionary (1971; reprinted 1980; hereafter OED) one can find a definition of patriarchy; there is also one on androcentrism in the Supplement, but nowhere a reference to sexism. Similarly, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1974) has many entries on sex and sexuality, but none on sexism or androcentrism. Patriarchy is briefly treated, but in a different way from that understood by contemporary feminists.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that the origin of the word 'patriarchy' is an ecclesiastical one, found as long ago as the sixteenth century. Thus the first definition given for patriarchy in the OED is 'the dignity, see, or jurisdiction of an ecclesiastical patriarch' as well as 'the government of the church by a patriarch or patriarchs'. A second usage, found since the seventeenth century, is 'a patriarchal system of society or government by the father or the eldest male of the family; a family, tribe or community so organized'. The definition in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Micro-paedia VII: 800) runs as follows: 'a hypothetical social system based on the absolute authority of the father or an elderly male over the family group'. The entry also mentions the theory of nineteenth-century anthropologists who, largely inspired by the example of ancient Greece and Rome, considered earlier cultures as having passed through different evolutionary stages, one of which was patriarchy. But the writer mentions that in the 1970s anthropologists had largely disproved such evolutionary theories and come to the conclusion that absolute male authority was rare in human societies. Therefore the word 'patriarchy' is said to have fallen 'into disuse among social scientists as a technical or categorical term'.
This discarded anthropological and earlier ecclesiastical usage is obviously of a rather limited application and need not detain us further. But it is clear that there exists an important religious and social dimension in both the concept as well as the reality of patriarchy. Today the word is primarily understood to refer to a male power and property structure in which men are dominant to the detriment of women and, one may add, also largely to the detriment of their own full development.
Patriarchy is widely discussed in feminist theory as it is the central target of all feminist critique. Patriarchy is often contrasted with matriarchy, the rule of mothers, which a considerable number of feminist writers consider as historically prior to the patriarchal system. However, patriarchy is older than written history and so far no definitive answer has been given as to when and why it began. Some radical feminists maintain that the male-dominated family may be an inheritance from our prehuman ancestors whilst others, especially marxist and socialist feminists, consider patriarchy as partly resulting from the institution of private property.
By contrast, the American Steven Goldberg (1977) argues that patriarchy is universal and that there has never been a matriarchy in the history of human societies. Moreover, he strongly maintains that patriarchy was inevitable in the past and will be so in the future. He defines patriarchy as
any system of organization (political, economic, industrial financial, religious and social) in which the overwhelming number of upper positions in the hierarchies are occupied by males. Patriarchy refers only to suprafamilial levels of organization: authority in familial and dyadic relationships [between two people, here a man and a woman] is a manifestation of the psycho-physiological reality that is referred to ... as male dominance. (Goldberg, 1977, p.25)
The inevitability of patriarchy, rooted in universal male dominance, is exclusively argued on the grounds of physiological differences between men and women resulting not from 'obvious anatomical and reproductive differentiation but a neurodocrinological differentiation' (Goldberg, 1977, p. 64). Specialists in the sexual differences of human physiology will have to argue with Goldberg on his own grounds, but it seems to me that emphasising sexual psychophysiological differences is one thing, whilst vehemently advocating the inevitability of patriarchy as a universal form of social organisation is quite another. The theory seems to be unduly biologistic, if one may use this term, in determining the social roles of men and women on the grounds of their physiological differences. Moreover, Goldberg assumes without much further explanation that physiological differences also imply fundamental psychological differences. There is no consideration of the social construction of role and gender identity created through the processes of socialisation and formal and informal education. It is not surprising that Goldberg's arguments, as those of other advocates of a biological determinism of the sexes, have been strongly criticised (Sayers 1982; Warren, 1980, p. 71 f.).
Goldberg argues at length that his theory is based on a strictly scientific analysis. But if this really were the case, it would have to remain far more open-ended and could not be so categorical in predicting the inevitability of patriarchy for the future. His argument is fallacious here, for whatever may have been the case in the past, there is no reason to believe that future societies could not be different. Goldberg does not consider at least the possibility of profound social changes or even leaps and mutations in the development of contemporary society which are argued, among others, by many New Age thinkers today - namely, that we stand at the threshold of quite a different, a new age in the history of humankind - a vision not unlike that of some feminists.
Goldberg defines a feminist as any person who denies the importance of physiological factors in sexual differentiation on which he exclusively builds his argument. However, he seems to be primarily concerned with strengthening the dominant position of men over and against the demands of contemporary feminists. He even admits that the 'hard evidence for a physiological basis for the female's greater nurturance tendencies and the female's greater psychological aptitudes is far less extensive than that for the physiological basis of the male tendencies' (Goldberg, 1977, p. 198). One cannot but suspect that he is far less interested in adducing evidence for females than for males!
As the above arguments show patriarchy, then, implies a theory about both the history and the nature of human society. It relates to the evolution of societies, but also to the nature of the family, the understanding and practice of sex roles and the formation of separate gender identity. The term patriarchy is used to describe the situation of women now and in the past, their dependence on and subordination to fathers, husbands, brothers and all men in positions of power, privilege and influence (Figes, 1986). In addition, patriarchy is used as a critical category to pass judgement on contemporary society and its institutions. Consequently, patriarchy is not only the major focus of all feminist critique, but probably also the term which has attracted the greatest negative emotional charge within contemporary feminism. Moreover, patriarchy is inextricably tied up with deep religious roots and ramifications, not only because of the widely perceived (rightly or wrongly) absolutist rule of a divine father - which must be rejected - but also because of the inherent patriarchal structure of all historical religions.
Wherever one looks in the world, religious institutions are dominated by men. Women are largely invisible, or at least marginal to the public positions of power, authority and hierarchy. There are hardly ever official 'spokeswomen' of religious institutions whereas at the grassroots level women almost everywhere form the majority of participants in ordinary, day-to-day religious life. Whilst God as all-encompassing Ultimate Reality transcends the differences of sex, this Reality has in many religions been predominantly, and one might say to the point of idolatry, presented as 'father' rather than 'mother'. This is now clearly recognised and found inadequate. As the theologian Sally McFague has written in a perceptive chapter on 'God the Father: Model or Idol?':
The issues of idolatry and irrelevance come together in the image of God as father, for more than any other dominant model in Christianity, this one has been both absolutized by women and, in recent times, found meaningless by others. The feminist critique of God as father centers on the dominance of this one model to the exclusion of others, and on the failure of the model to deal with the anomaly presented by those whose experience is not included in this model. (McFague, 1983, p. 145)
In Mary Daly's trenchant critique women's liberation implies moving 'beyond God the Father' (see Daly 1974a). But whilst not all feminists would wish to draw the same radical conclusions from this position as she does, they would certainly agree with her statement that if 'it is true that human beings have projected "God" in their own image, it is also true that we can evolve beyond the projections of earlier stages of consciousness' (p. 29). Yet this will inevitably involve some forms of iconoclasm - the breaking of the idols of an earlier age.
The perception of androcentrism
Patriarchy is not only about social, economic, religious and political power structures, but is rooted even deeper than that in attitudes, values, language and thought. As Kate Millett has said: 'So deeply embedded is patriarchy that the character structure it creates in both sexes is perhaps even more of a habit of mind and a way of life than a political system' (Millett, 1971, p. 63). Feminist writers are slowly uncovering this hidden dimension of patriarchy by following it through our conscious and unconscious mind and exposing its negative influence in all our thinking.
It is perhaps more appropriate here to speak of the perception of androcentrism which can be defined as 'having man, or the male, at its centre' (OED, Supplement). The first usage of the term androcentrism, indicated by the OED, is found as recently as 1903, Lester F. Ward (1841 -1913), one of the early pioneers of American sociology, seems to have invented the term and first used it in his book Pure Sociology. A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society (New York and London: Macmillan 1903, reprinted 1914). He deals there with what he called 'the androcentric theory' when discussing the relations between the sexes. In fact, he proposed two theories: The androcentric theory is the view that the male sex is primary and the female secondary in the organic scheme, that all things center, as it were, about the male, and that the female, though necessary in carrying out the scheme, is only the means of continuing the life of the globe, but is otherwise an unimportant accessory, and incidental factor in the general result' (p. 292). Ward opposed this theory to another 'gynaecocentric theory', perhaps culling the term from Bachofen (1861). This theory is described as 'the view that the female sex is primary and the male sex secondary in the organic scheme, that originally and normally all things center, as it were, about the female, and that the male, though not necessary in carrying out the scheme, was developed under the operation of the principle of the advantage to secure organic progress through the crossing of strains' (p. 296). These quotations show that Ward's theory was also primarily based on biological considerations. Influenced by Comte and Spencer and general evolutionary theories of society, Ward maintained that the stage of gynaecocracy was historically primary, but was later succeeded by the stage of androcracy, the rule of men or male supremacy, which resulted in the complete subjection of women. Goldberg, whom we discussed earlier, indirectly refers to one aspect of Ward's theory as well as Bachofen's when he states that 'the term gynaecocracy has occasionally been used to describe an (imaginary) society in which government is run by women' (Goldberg, 1977, p. 26).
It is not quite clear from Ward's book whether in speculating about the future of society he considered the current androcentric phase to be superseded by a new gynaecocratic phase. He laconically states: 'The androcentric world view will probably be as slow to give way as was the geocentric, or as is still the anthropocentric' (Ward, 1914, p. 332). He also relates the interesting fact that he first developed his gynaecocentric theory in April 1888 before the Washington Six O'Clock Club in the presence of 'certain distinguished women' who included, among others, the well known American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (p. 297).
The term 'gynaecocentric' did not become widely known in the way 'androcentric' is now current. It is not clear who first adopted the latter term from Ward and then applied it in a much wider sense. From a limited biological, historical and sociological application, the meaning of androcentrism has been expanded to refer to a state of affairs where everything people do and are is now recognized as being one-sidedly defined by the example and experience of men alone. In other words, what is usually thought of as being universally human or a generally valid norm has not been determined by what women and men together experience and understand, but has been exclusively described, analysed, categorised and laid down by men. This is true of the understanding of the family, of society and government, of politics and property, of education and all the disciplines of human knowledge, of the sciences and the arts, of religion and of spirituality.
Men have named things and people; men have thought, invented and shaped the world; they have mapped out reality for themselves and established sharply drawn boundaries within it. Women have been assigned their place and role within the scheme of things made by men alone. Today's feminists perceive the fetters and limits of these boundaries and wish to redraw the map of reality anew. They claim the right to do their own naming of things and people, to shape the world, define language and thought and weave the pattern of their own experience into the texture of culture and society. Feminists now challenge all the androcentric assumptions underlying our values, attitudes and beliefs, including those of religious beliefs. The term 'androcentrism' has become firmly rooted in feminist vocabulary whereas 'gynaecocentric has not been adopted, not even by those members of the feminist movement who plead for an exclusively woman-defined and woman-centred culture. Some radical feminists may envisage a gynocentric society, but they are in a minority. Androcentrism cannot be overcome and replaced by its opposite, for this again would not be inclusive but exclusive. The major threat running through the feminist debate is not sexual exclusiveness and cultural separate-ness, but a search for a more integral and holistic way of life. The battle is with dualism in all its forms, manifested primarily through sexual opposition but also through many other aspects of dualistic thinking expressed in concepts such as body/mind, nature/culture, earth/heaven, black/white, and so on (see Ruether on 'Androcentism' in The Encyclopaedia of Religion 1987, vol. I, pp. 272-6).
Feminist voices criticise all these dualistic divisions and plead for a new wholeness which can create a more equal and just community between women and men, a truly full humanity for all. In the words of Sheila Collins
The wholeness that feminists are proposing is a wholeness based on a multidimensional vision of the world, rather than on a single vision which has dominated Western culture and most theological thought. Such a multidimensional vision means the ability to grasp complexity, to live with ambiguity, and to enjoy the great variety that exists in the world. Wholeness does not imply the eradication of differences ... or ... the fear of a monotonous unisexual creature . . . On the contrary, wholeness of vision may lead to a multiplication of differences, as people are able to choose freely the person they want to be rather than following a pattern of one they are expected to be. Only through an affirmation and celebration of our differences can we come to an understanding of the ties that bind the total creation together. (Collins, 1982, p. 366)
It is precisely this search for wholeness and integration which lies at the heart of spirituality. Seen from a holistic perspective it is painful to discover that most religions are deeply rooted in a patriarchal framework and shaped by an overwhelmingly androcentric point of view. Whilst Christian feminists, for example, have spent much time and effort on reinterpreting the androcentric passages of the Bible, women from other religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are now also beginning to question the androcentric assumptions underlying their traditional religious heritage. This is not surprising as women's consciousness is changing so fast today that more and more women, but more men too, are beginning to recognize what has been called the 'sin of sexism
Sexism and the critique of masculinity
Sexism has been defined as an exclusive ordering of life by way of gender. Whilst biological sex is given, gender is socially and culturally constructed and must be learnt. Members of both sexes acquire a gender identity or gendered sense of self which is quite distinct and independent from, and sometimes even opposed to, the biological facts of their sex.
Sexism does not necessarily manifest itself only in an anti-woman attitude. It can also be expressed in an inverted manner through being overly flattering and pro-woman in certain situations. On closer examination, however, this often turns out to imply a rather condescending and patronising attitude which proves that woman is not really taken seriously as a person in her own right or that her work is acknowledged for its intrinsic worth. This kind of attitude is often found in church circles, especially among clergymen, but equally among art historians (see Parker and Pollock, 1981) and other writers. Goldberg's defence of patriarchy and male dominance, accompanied by paying lip-service to the biological centrality and endurance of women (Goldberg, 1977, p. 193), is another example. Yet the aggressively anti-male attitude of some feminists is just as sexist as the frequent antifeminist attitudes found among men. In general, however, the word 'sexism' is more often associated with an exclusive attitude towards women than men, as the former is more widespread than the latter.
I do not know who first coined the term 'sexism', but it seems to have been formed in analogy to 'racism'. The comparison between sexual and racial oppression is often made in feminist writing but the parallels have their limitations, as Mary Midgley has pointed out: 'For racial disputes there are in principle at least three possible solutions which do not depend on the parties understanding, accepting and learning to live with each others' distinctness. They are assimilation, apartheid and emigration. For sex, there are none '(Midgley and Hughes, 1983, p. 98). The further question arises, of course, whether these three possible solutions offer any genuine solution to interracial strife or whether they represent a further source of it. It seems that for the development of both racial and sexual harmony people have to accept and learn to live with each other's distinctiveness.
At present sexism is endemic in our social, political, educational and religious institutions. Women are kept in subordinate positions almost everywhere whereas men hold most, and often all, positions of authority and power. The sexist premises of all existing disciplines of knowledge are slowly uncovered by many Women's Studies courses which are now developing worldwide. Committed Christian feminists have made great efforts over the years to point out the sexist assumptions in theology and church life. In 1974, the World Council of Churches called a consultation of 170 women from about 50 countries to discuss sexism in the churches and examine the discrimination against women among Christians around the world (WCC 1975). During the opening of that consultation the British theologian Pauline Webb pointed out that sexism is not simply concerned with physical terms, as many people seem to think. She said:
By sexism I take it that we mean any kind of subordination or devaluing of a person or group solely on the grounds of sex. In this sense, it is obviously analogous to racism, and an equally virulent heresy. There was a time when people talked about racism in purely physical terms as though it were all about differences in skin colour. But as we probed it more and more deeply, we discovered much more profound differences - differences of history, culture, identity, and self-understanding. Deepest of all, we traced the entrenchment of racism in the very power structures of society, so that the world today is dominated by white money, white politics, white power.
And the more you think about it, the more you realize that sexism too has these deep ramifications. It is not just a matter of acknowledging physical differences between men and women. . . .It is rather recognizing that alongside this difference there have been different histories, different expectations, a different sense of identity, and an association with the structures of power that have created a male-dominated order in almost all human society and certainly within the Church, making it impossible for the Church to foreshadow the truly human community. (WCC, 1975, p. 10)
Pauline Webb emphasised the need to understand the root causes of sexism and the way it manifests itself in our society today. She also stressed the importance of realising our identity as women and our potential for sharing our experiences with others so that we can bring about a change which will liberate us all. Much of the work of the World Council of Churches in its subsequent project on 'The Community of Women and Men in the Church' has been concerned with getting these aims more widely accepted at a local, regional and international level. Many Christian women from different churches around the world have come together in their work to combat the 'sin of sexism' and put into practice an alternative way of living the Christian gospel. A recent British example of women's self-examination comes from the Quakers who devoted a whole issue of their journal The Friends' Quarterly to 'Sexism and the Society of Friends' (January 1986).
It is not only the churches but many other institutions too which deny full equality and space to women. Such lack of outer and inner space dehumanises women; it warps and maims by not allowing them to develop their full potential - and it harms men too. The feminist protest over sexism, androcentrism and patriarchy implies a critique of countless inequalities and dualities; it also involves a radical rejection of the misconstruction of a traditionally defined femininity. But at its sharpest and most poignant it challenges the very meaning of masculinity in our culture. Feminists (but male critics too) have pointed out that 'the cultural ideal of the competent, aggressive, competitive and emotionally uncommunicative male is a psychological straight jacket which limits men both in their capacity for personal fulfillment and in their moral sensitivity' (Warren, 1980, p. 305).
Feminists see masculinity, as contemporarily understood, practised and projected by the media, as closely associated with the exploitative rape of nature (Griffin, 1984), the manipulative and destructive aspects of analytical science and technology, and the militaristic megalomania of competitive political powers who vie with each other to increase the threat and potential for human extinction. Masculinity is seen to be associated with a falsely praised objectivity which masters and dominates, an instrumental attitude, a cold-blooded, calculating rationality which artificially separates the different spheres of individual and global human experience. Instead of being the human norm for everything, the masculine ideal has become a deformation of being human and is perceived as an ultimate danger for the continuity of life on earth. It is important to recognise that although men may not conform to this as individuals, the negative effects of this masculine ideal nonetheless shape and pervade our culture in countless respects. This trenchant cultural critique finds expression in many aspects of political feminism; moreover, it is an important part of the spiritual side of feminism - of its search for wholeness, integration, balance and sanity in a world wounded by deep divisions.
The feminist cultural critique of the world as it is, with its masculine power structure and competitive spirit, implies a vision of an alternative, a better world which some have characterised as simply Utopian. But it needs this Utopian quality in order to appeal to and mobilise the creative powers of women and men to bring about the fundamental social change and transformation so urgently required if our highly endangered species is to survive. As Hester Eisenstein has put it:
But the feminist Utopia presents a very different picture, of a society perhaps unrecognizable from where we now stand, but which could emerge, over the very long haul, out of the many changes now being sought by members of the women's movement around the world. In my understanding of the term 'feminist', then, I see an element of visionary, futurist thought. This encompasses a concept of social transformation that, as part of the eventual liberation of women, will change all human relationships for the better. Although centrally about women, their experience, condition or estate, . . . feminism is therefore also fundamentally about men, and about social change. (Eisenstein, 1984, p.xiv)
The same author rightly warns against a falsely understood universalism whereby feminists, in their claims about the universal and identical oppression of all women, have been extraordinary facile in their diagnosis through not acknowledging the great diversity of women's experience with regard to race, class, nationality, religion and education at different times and places. Similarly, we must not fall into the trap of a false 'spiritualisation' of the claims of feminism, as if all feminist endeavour had to do with the spiritual goal of self-transcendence and as if there were only one kind of 'spiritual feminism' with clearly perceived aims accepted by all followers. Instead, great diversity reigns here as elsewhere in feminist thought. It is my contention, however, that the multi-faceted feminist enterprise includes many elements which point and pertain to what is traditionally considered as the area of spirituality. If the feminist quest and vision are about wholeness - about how to be wholly and fully human today - if it is about the creative, life-giving powers of individual and social transformation, if it is about the radical revisioning of our ever more complex outer and inner world, then it is at the same time concerned with the dynamics of spiritual experience, growth and liberating fulfilment.
We have looked at the common threads, the shared aims and methods which link all feminists together, even though their political and spiritual options may differ widely and even be exclusive of each other. We must now investigate the specific challenges which feminists voice against many traditional aspects of religion and spirituality. At the same time we must not forget that contemporary feminism includes many creative resources for a rich and powerful spirituality in the modern world. It is this challenge, and its power to nourish and renew the life of the human spirit, which we wish to explore in the chapters that follow.
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