Women, Men and the Bible
by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1989
Republished on our website with permission of the author. The book is at present out of print, but autographed copies may be obtained at a discount by sending a check for $ 10.00 US (includes p&h) to Dr. V.R.Mollenkott, 11 Yearling Trail, Hewitt, NJ 07421, USA.
Chapter 4: Freedom from Stereotypes
What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice. What are little boys made of? Snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails.
Aside from the delight that children feel in the presence of rhyme and rhythm, they are getting a message from that familiar nursery rhyme. While at first it may seem that girls get the best end of things, it takes only a little reflection to realize the kind of pressure which is exerted by telling people that they are made of everything nice. In other words, little girls learn that they are intended to give delight, while little boys learn that they have no particular responsibility to give delight. Little boys may function in individualistic ways which may even sometimes be frightening or repulsive to other people, since little boys are made from snakes and snails. But little girls should not behave in disturbing ways, for they are supposed to be pleasant to the taste of other people, like sugar and spice. This type of learning, which surrounds a child in preschool years and all the way through school, is called socialization.
Have you ever noticed your own discomfort when you are shown a baby whose gender you are not sure of? You feel afraid to make any distinct reaction, because you know deep inside yourself that the parent would be distressed should you contribute to the wrong type of socialization. If the baby is a girl, you wouldnt want to pretend to sock her little tummy and call her a real he-manl If the baby is a boy, you wouldnt want to admire his curls and talk about the loveliness of his skin! Almost from the moment of birth, the socialization process begins.
In her science-fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin describes an imaginary planet where people spend most of their lives in a state which is neither one sex nor the other. l Only during certain periods of sexual desire (called kemmer) do they become sexual beings. An individual never knows, right up until kemmer begins, which sex he/she will become this time. After the time of kemmer, he/she returns to the neither/nor state until the next period of sexual experience, during which he/she may become once again the same sex as before or may just as likely spend some time as the other sex. Consequently, a single individual during one lifetime may become the mother of several children and the father of several others.
All of this may seem very confusing and unattractive to us. The important factor for our purposes is the extreme discomfort felt by the normal male observer from Terran (Earth) in the presence of such individuals. How would you feel in the presence of somebody who looks like a rather sexless person but is known to be the mother of several children and the father of several others and who just may blossom into a sensual woman next week-or may just as likely become a sensual male? What you would feel would probably be a more intense version of the discomfort you feel in the presence of a baby whose gender you do not know. Its bad enough not to know how to react to a baby; its worse not to know how to react to an adult. Our socialization has taught us that we must have one set of reactions for women, another set of reactions for men. What has been overlooked in our socialization is the importance of being able to react to one another simply as persons, as human beings.
Our socialization has not emphasized the fact that a male and female human being have far more in common with each other than either of them has with any other organic being. A human male has far more in common with a human female than he has with a stallion or a bull. Although we Americans claim that we belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have forgotten to stress that the male and female human being are both made in the image of God. The horses and cows and all the other animals, no matter how beautifully complex, do not share in that image. The human race is, therefore, held responsible for all the rest of creation.
Our socialization has emphasized the differences between men and women to such a tremendous degree that it has obscured some of the basic meanings of the Genesis creation stories. The reason Genesis 2 pictures God as creating woman out of the rib of Adam instead of out of another handful of dust is surely to emphasize that male and female are far more closely similar to each other than to anything else in creation. In the process of naming the animals, we are told, Adam saw many females of many species; but he knew that none of them was suitable for him. On the other hand, the moment he saw woman, he recognized her as bone from my bones, flesh from my flesh. The socialization process which emphasizes radical differences between male and female is therefore a denial of the oneness of the human race as taught in Genesis. According to this basic Judeo-Christian source, our humanity in the image of God is far more central than the biological distinctives which make us physically different from each other.
Because of the role socialization to which we have all been subjected, we assume that certain characteristics are masculine and certain characteristics are feminine. Men, we assume, are naturally more aggressive, rational, and competitive than women. Women are naturally more passive, romantic, and supportive than men. Men lead, women follow. Men who fail to be dominant are lacking in true masculinity. Women who fail to be quietly dependent are lacking in true femininity. These assumptions are known as sex role stereotypes. Of course they lead to stereotyped expectations about male and female performance in the world. Men should be the bosses, women the secretaries. Men should be active in the business world, while womens place is in the home. Men should be up front, women behind the scenes.
Even psychologists have been subjected to this socialization, so that until very recently most of them have assumed that healthy women differ from healthy men by being more submissive, less independent, less adventurous, more easily influenced, less aggressive, less competitive, more excitable in minor crises, more easily hurt, more emotional, more conceited about appearance, less objective, and less interested in math and science. And it is not surprising that such characteristics should often surface in women who have been taught from the beginning of their lives that proper little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. When one little girl told former President Nixon that she wanted to enter politics, he promptly assured her that what she really wanted was to become a wife and mother-and that is typical of the kind of pressure toward conformity which each sex is made to feel.
For little boys, serious problems arise if their personalities happen to be fairly shy, passive, and retiring. Although girls are permitted to be tomboys when they are small, there is no positive or even tolerant term for little boys who want to play with dolls and who prefer solitary or nonaggressive pastimes. For women, the problem becomes exceptionally serious in young adulthood because the usual psychological description of a normal woman-submissive, dependent, easily influenced, and so forth-is actually the profile of a neurotic person.2 Psychologist Joyce Brothers comments that it is no wonder women are perplexed and bewildered, since to ask a healthy personality to fit herself into a neurotic pattern is indeed enough to drive a woman crazy. 3 In exactly this fashion, thousands of women are driven into depressions or heart palpitations or other psychogenic illnesses by trying to make themselves fit into social expectations which run counter to their own personalities and gifts.
The young man who tends to be dependent or passive can at least tell himself that he is a snail or perhaps a friendly puppy-dog tail instead of a snake. But there is no such out for the assertive female leader who offends people because they assume she should confine herself to being everything nice. If a male is logical and powerful in the presentation of evidence, he is admired for his strength; if a woman if equally logical and powerful in the presentation of evidence, she is often criticized for being tough, a shrew.
According to several prominent sociologists and medical researchers, the scientific evidence indicates that masculine and feminine identity is far more dependent on social learning than on genetic makeup. For instance, studies by John Money and Anke Ehrhardt show that although a certain hermaphrodite-that is, a person born with both male and female organs-may actually be female as far as chromosomes and hormones are concerned, she may still be successfully brought up as either a boy or a girl, depending upon the sex which is assigned to the child by other people. A boy trained for any reason to think of himself as a girl would grow up acting like a girl; a girl trained to think of herself as a boy would grow up acting like a boy. The only logical conclusion is that the physiological differences between the sexes do not in themselves determine the dissimilarities in thinking and behavior. Learning makes the difference.4
Some people argue that masculinity and femininity are inborn or innate and that it is natural law or Gods will that the sexes be as different as possible from each other in order to preserve their separate roles. Such a notion runs counter to scientific evidence and denies the oneness emphasized in the biblical accounts of creation. Furthermore, if masculinity and femininity were created by God or built into natural law, so that never the twain should meet (except in intercourse), then social expectations toward male and female should be uniform in every culture all over the world. Such is not the case. For instance, one study of selected cultures found that in 12 societies, it is expected that men should always carry the heavy burdens, while in 57 other societies it is expected that women should always carry the heavy burdens. In 158 societies it is expected that women should always do the cooking, but in 5 societies it is understood that cooking is exclusively a mans job. In 95 societies the manufacture and repair of clothing is only done by women, but in 12 other societies this work is done only by men. In 14 societies, houses are always built by women, but in 86 other societies, housebuilding is exclusively a male prerogative.5
To take a specific example: on Cheju Island off the coast of Korea, the women work for the family living while the men stay at home and care for the children. Isolated on this small island in the Yellow Sea, the population (about 60,000) had escaped outside influences for thousands of years until the recent invasions of tourists-and until recently both men and women on Cheju Island have been contented with the way things were.6
Anthropologist Margaret Mead has shown that in certain New Guinea tribes, the ideal temperament for men and women differed drastically from one tribe to another. In one tribe, the ideal for both sexes was gentleness. In another tribe, the ideal for both sexes was aggressiveness. In a third tribe, the ideal for males was dependence and affectionate sensitivity, while the ideal for females was aggressive dominance.7
With a background of such knowledge, we can begin to realize that our own societys masculine ideal of rationality, dominance, and so forth, and our feminine ideal of emotion, submission, and so forth, are little more than localized tribal assumptions, passed on from generation to generation by the process called socialization. Far from being Gods ideal or a universal natural law, our rigid sex role stereotypes may often block individuals from developing into all that they were meant to be.
But doesnt the Bible teach that women should be gentle and modest and self-effacing? And if it does, then isnt our socialization process correct? Wouldnt the New Guinea tribes that teach women to be aggressive be simply wrong?
It is indeed true that the Bible instructs women to be modest, patient, and humble. For instance, I Peter 3:3-4 urges Christian women to behave modestly and to be concerned not so much with external adornments as with their inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in Gods sight (NIV). But the Bible also instructs Christian males to be modest, patient, and humble!
For instance, the very context of the I Peter passage about a womans inner beauty teaches that it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God . . . . If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God (I Peter 2:19-20 NIV). And Titus 2 teaches men and women, young and old, that we all should live self-controlled, upright and godly lives, citing patience and temperateness and love as some of the specific advice to male Christians. The famous thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians defines love as being patient, kind, unselfish, and long-suffering; and love is identified as the greatest of all the spiritual gifts, the ideal for Christian men as well as Christian women.
So once again it becomes evident that our culture has gone ; wrong by teaching submissive Christian virtues only to women and failing to teach the same ideals to men. It would seem that the New Guinea tribe which perceives gentleness as the ideal temperament for both men and women comes closer to the biblical ideal than the dominance and submission pattern which has been practiced for centuries in the so-called Christian nations!
But if everyone in the culture were humble, patient, and loving, where would we get our leaders? Here I think it is important to distinguish between aggression and assertion, between dominance and firm leadership. Aggressiveness is characterized by militant, forceful attitudes and actions which are intended to dominate and master other people. Assertiveness is characterized by positive affirmation and firm insistence on the individuals perceptions in the face of denial or rejection. The goal of assertiveness is usually to bring about recognition of the viewpoint of the asserter, as opposed to gaining mastery over someone elses personality. A leader must be assertive but need not be aggressive. Aggressive persons tend to push and shove; assertive people do not push and shove others, but neither do they stand silent while others push and shove them, if there is anything that can possibly be done about it.
Most American males have been taught to be assertive and even aggressive by the socialization process we have been discussing. But many women are in need of assertiveness training. This need not be in violation of biblical injunctions toward mutual submission and mutual service, since healthy human relating requires that each member of a relationship communicate or assert his or her honest feelings to the other person. Patience and self-control do not require the cultivation of a doormat mentality! It is true that Jesus was passive and submissive at the crucifixion, for a very specific purpose and to achieve a supreme goal; but he was aggressive with the money-changers in the temple and was extremely assertive in his many confrontations with the self-righteous religious leaders of his day. His example demonstrates that self-sacrifice is right only when the sacrifice is freely chosen to bring about a good greater than that which is given up; that even agg- ressiveness may be called for in rare and unusual circumstances; and that assertiveness is frequently necessary.
Sociologists use the word instrumental to identify the characteristics associated with the socialization of boys, and expressive to identify the characteristics associated with the socialization of girls. Instrumental behaviors are related to getting a job done: activity, assertiveness, dominance, selfreliance, achievement orientation, and emotional control. On the other hand, expressive behaviors are people-oriented: emotional responsiveness, affection, nurturance, and concern for interpersonal relationships. As we have seen, the Bible pictures all three Persons of the Trinity as manifesting not only instrumental, so-called masculine traits but also expressive, socalled feminine traits. And the Bible tells us that as human beings we are all made in the image of God. In order to become fully human, therefore, we all need to cultivate all the desirable human qualities which are consonant with our individual personalities, without worrying about whether they are stereotypically associated with our particular sex.
Damage is done to the human spirit by assigning valuable qualities to one sex exclusively. To teach boys to be exclusively instrumental or task-oriented is to rob them of their opportunity to be tender, open about their feelings, and in touch with the full range of human emotion. To teach girls to be exclusively expressive is to rob them of the opportunity to achieve worthwhile career goals and a sense of their independent worth. Traits which the Bible identifies as the enemies of full humanity, such as domineering over another person, should not be taught to either sex; but traits which are valuable in either sex are part of the human potential and should not become exclusively the property of either half of the human race.
Will this lead to unisex? Of course not. Unisex is the state of being physically indistinguishable by hair or clothing as either male or female. It is possible for a person to be dressed in governance. Only then will Christian churches be true to the biblical teaching that male and female are made in the image of a God who is both paternal and maternal, both powerful and submissive, both instrumental and expressive, both transcendent (above us) and immanent (within us).
Unisex is no more desirable than any other attempt at total conformity. What I am describing is the opposite of con-formity: the full development of each persons God-given tal-ents and personality traits in all their infinite variety. Since every Person of the Trinity is biblically pictured both in "masculine" instrumental and "feminine" expressive terms, we need have no fear about developing all aspects of our own individual potential. To put fancy terms on it, since the Holy Trinity is pictured as androgynous, we need not fear to be psychologically androgynous as well. Biologically we remain male and female and relate to each other in that fashion; but we are basically persons and need to develop whatever gifts we have been granted, without undue concern about whether society brands those gifts as "masculine" or "feminine."
But will psychological androgyny lead to increased homo-sexual activity, as some people fear? All the evidence points in the opposite direction. In her study of the tribes which regard either gentleness or aggressiveness as the single temperamen-tal norm for both sexes, Margaret Mead found no evidence of homosexual activity. But in societies where sex-role differen-tiation is extremely rigid, such as in an Arab culture like Libya, homosexual activity is widespread. The reason for this is that when men and women are taught to regard each other as totally different and radically unlike, the only reason for them to get together is for sexual intercourse. Consequently when people want to develop tender intimacy with a like-minded person, they may be drawn to someone of their own sex rather than to the radically different other sex. Where orientation allows, tender intimacy may lead into sexual ex-pression. Thus the average Libyan male will use women for sexual intercourse, for all practical purposes raping the women in his harem without any foreplay or tenderness; but he will often reserve his genuine intimacy and affectionate sexuality for his male friends. Here again we see the significance of the Genesis creation narratives; they demonstrate the essential unity of the human race and the possibility of like-mindedness and one-fleshedness despite male-female distinctives. By emphasizing psychological androgyny and breaking free from sex-role stereotyping, we will not be encouraging homosexual activity. Rather, we will be alleviating certain conditions that might push bisexual people toward homosexual experience.
Males and females are intended to work in harmonious partnership in society, in the home, and in the church. When men reject their so-called female component, they become contemptuous of the other sex as well. Instead of manifesting the best qualities of what society calls feminine, such as tenderness, intuitiveness, and nurturance, they develop the negative qualities, such as narcissism and selfishness. And when women reject their so-called masculine component, they also become contemptuous of the other sex. Instead of developing the better traits of what society terms masculine, such as strength and assertiveness and clear logic, they tend to develop the negative qualities of that "masculine" component, such as opinionatedness and rigid dogmatism.
Of course, all this escalates the war of the sexes. By contrast, as we have seen, the Bible teaches mutual concern and mutual respect, for "woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God" (I Corinthians 11:11-12 NIV). This implies that marriage is a partnership of equals under God. And in witness that "everything comes from God," Christian communities should be characterized by harmonious relationships between men and women, so that fully qualified women as well as men are acceptable in all aspects of Christian ministry and church governance. Only then will Christian churches be true to the biblical teaching that male and female are made in the image of a God who is both paternal and maternal, both powerful and submissive, both instrumental and expressive, both transcendent (above us) and immanent (within us).
When the apostle Paul wrote Galatians 3:28, his dazzling vision of a society without barriers between Jew and Greek, between slave and free, between male and female, this was probably his meaning. Certainly he could not have meant that those born Jews and those born Gentiles would lose their ethnic roots. According to the context, he meant that those recent rules and practices which militated against the Gentile converts, forcing them to conform to Jewish stereotypes, would be abolished in the equality of Christian fellowship (Galatians 2:14). Similarly, he could not have meant that Christian males and females would lose their biological dis-tinctives, but rather that in the freedom and psychological wholeness fostered by Christian fellowship, each male and each female would be free to develop his or her gifts without reference to gender-based stereotypes. They would not be forced to conform to sexual stereotyping any more than Gen-tile converts would be forced to conform to Jewish religious customs.
When we compare these biblical insights with the findings of recent psychological research, we find a remarkable positive correlation. For instance, Sandra Lipsitz Bem describes some of the practical effects of sex-role stereotyping in an interesting article called "Fluffy Women and Chesty Men." She describes six different carefully controlled psychological experiments, the results of which all pointed to the same conclusion: "traditional concepts of femininity and masculinity do restrict a person's behavior in important ways." Dr. Bem explains that "in a modern complex society like ours, an adult has to be assertive, independent and self-reliant," but "traditional femininity makes many women unable to behave in these ways.'' Furthermore, ''an adult must also be able to relate to other people, to be sensitive to their needs and concerned about their welfare, as well as to be able to depend on them for emotional support''. But Dr. Bem's research indicates that ''traditional masculinity keeps men from responding in such supposedly feminie ways.''
Dr. Bem finds the psychological ideal in androgyny which allows an individual to be both independent and tender, assertive and yielding, masculine and feminine. People identified as androgynous on psychological tests tended to excell stereotypically masculine men or feminine women in overall intelligence, in spatial ability, and in creativity. Androgynous women were just as warmly responsive to babies as were the feminine women, but the androgynous women were far more playful than either the feminine women or masculine men. Dr. Bem concludes that psychological androgyny will permit people to cope more effectively with diverse situations. 8
Similar corroboration of biblical insights occurs in the research reported by psychologist Robert Ornstein. He explains that the two hemispheres of the human brain are specialized for different modes of information-processing. The left hemisphere, which governs the right side of the body, operates primarily in a verbal, intellectual, sequential mode. The right hemisphere, which governs the left side of the body, operates primarily in a spatial, simultaneous mode. The right hemisphere mode, Ornstein explains, is often devalued by the dominant, verbal intellect. The right hemisphere appears inelegant and lacks the formal reasoning power of the more polished intellectual left hemisphere. Because the right hemisphere is more involved in space than time and more involved in intuition than in logic and language, it is frequently forgotten and ignored, especially in scientific education and practice. But Ornstein thinks that the right-hemisphere mode may well prove to be essential for science and even for the survival of civilization.9
Although Ornstein does not link these findings to sexual attitudes, it does not take much effort to remember that throughout Western literature and society, the female has been associated with the exotic, mysterious, and intuitive approach to reality (the right hemisphere so devalued by modern society). And the male has been associated with analytic thinking, formal logic, and verbal intellect (the left hemisphere which has been given almost exclusive respect in the sciences and in popular attitudes).
By urging a more equal use of the two basic modes of consciousness, the logical and the intuitive mode, Dr.Ornstein lends support to our contention that a total split between what is properly feminine and properly masculine is harmful both to the individual and to society as a whole. It is time to stop categorizing individual traits. It is time for men to develop those aspects of themselves which are considered feminine and for women to develop those aspects of themselves which are considered masculine - without fear. God has given us whatever gifts we possess. We dare not refuse to develop them out of fear of human rejection. We must learn to listen to the voice of God, even when that voice runs counter to social stereotypes.
Viennese psychologist Otto Rank once remarked that woman had to be made over by man in order to become acceptable to him. 10 And in the process of remaking women into submissive and dependent creatures who would be no threat to their own self-confidence, men robbed themselves of honoring the functions of that valuable right hemisphere of their own brains. Scorning the feminine, men devalued their own intuitive sense and their own ability to grasp situations as a whole. Thus patriarchal society has condemned itself to an overbalance of left-hemisphere thinking. In religion, the result frequently has been an overemphasis on doctrine and logic with a corresponding loss of warm emotional responses. We are currently witnessing many attempts to correct this imbalance, including the charismatic movement in many churches, the rage for astrology and the widespread interest in Transcendental Meditation and other Oriental concepts, and the emphasis on values clarification in education. Admittedly some people have carried their reaction to a truly anti-intellectual extreme which is no healthier than the original logic-chopping. The church as well as the school and the home will, therefore, profit from a sanely balanced appreciation of the right hemispheres intuitions (the feminine) working in harmonious equality with the rational left hemisphere (the masculine"). Under such conditions, men are free to recover their souls and women are free to recover their minds.
Psychologically speaking, the Christ-nature provides the biblical symbol of wholeness and perfect physical and mental health, possessing wisdom and stature, and . . . favor with God and humanity (Luke 2:52 NIV). So when Paul says that in Christ there is oneness, there is neither male nor female, he is envisioning the breakdown of all stereotypical behavior, including the hierarchical pattern of male dominance and female submission. He is supporting the concept that a healthy personality involves a harmony between the so-called masculine and feminine components in both men and women, while a healthy society involves a harmonious sense of partnership between those who were created biologically male and those who were created biologically female. As John B. Breslin says, the reason we must correct our language about God to include feminine as well as masculine analogies is that God is neither masculine nor feminine and we are all both.''
Obedience to the biblical standard of mutual submission combined with freedom from sex-role stereotypes will promote wholeness within the individual personality and the Christian community. Such wholeness is described in Ephesians 4:11-13; God gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare Gods people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the [Child] of God and become mature, attaining the full measure of perfection found in Christ" (NIV). Since the Bible pictures the Christ in both stereotypically masculine and feminine roles, to attain the full measure of perfection found in Christ is to reflect Jesus psychological androgyny and to relate without any rigid roleplaying to the members of the other sex.
For too long we Christians have ignored such implications. For too long Christian leaders have blocked genuine friendship between men and women by insisting on a pattern of dominance and submission rather than responding to the liberating message of the Good News. For too long many Christian churches have denied the fulfillment of Jesus great prayer in John 17. This prayer takes on new dimensions in the light of a Godhead of three interrelating Persons who each contains a harmony of masculine and feminine elements. Jesus prayed that all of them may be one, . . . just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us .... I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity (NIV). Neither male nor female, all one in the Body of the New Humanity.
1. (New York: Walker and Company, 1969). The Left Hand of Darkness is now available in paperback from Ace Books.
2. See Phyllis Chester, Women and Madness (Garden City, N.Y Doubleday & Co., 1972).
3. The Brothers System for Liberated Love and Marriage (New York: Peter H. Wyden, 1972), pp. 13-14. Some of the material in this chapter was first published in Virginia R. Mollenkott, The Womens Movement Challenges the Church, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2 (Fall, 1974), 298-310.
4. Letha and John Scanzoni, Men, Women, and Change, p. 15.
5. Roy G. DAndrade, Sex Differences and Cultural Institutions, in The Development of Sex Differences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), pp. 174-204.
6. I first ran across this information in a tabloid (The National Tattler [January 25, 1976], p. 3). I have since corroborated the information with Ms. Hidong K. Kwon, a Korean who holds a B.A. from Yonsei University (Seoul, Korea) and an M.L.S. from Columbia University. Ms. Kwon comments: Korea is a very traditional society. Therefore, Koreans do not want to admit in official sources that there is an island just off the tip of their country where everything is different. Lack of official information regarding sex roles in Cheju Island dramatizes one of the basic problems of womens studies: because women have been regarded as unimportant, their history has been largely unrecorded. Modern women, therefore, are finding it necessary to reconstruct their history inch by inch.
7. Sex and Temperament (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1935).
8. Psychology Today (September, 1975), p. 62.
9. The Psychology of Consciousness (New York: Viking Press, 1972), p. 225.
10. As quoted by Adrienne Rich in a review of Women and Madness, New York Times Book Review (December 21, 1972), p. 20.
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