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The battered bride

The battered bride

Chapter 5 in Freeing the Feminine by Elspeth and Gordon Strachan,
Labarum Publications, Dunbar 1985, pp. 100-116.

Republished on our website with permission of the authors

As we have discovered, a symbiotic fusion, a marriage of equals between the opposite poles of life, symbolised by heaven and earth and called masculine and feminine, was held to be the ideal pattern for life in a number of different religious and philosophical traditions. Antagonism between the opposites had to be overcome or there would be evil. Domination by one over the other would only break the harmonious balance which was the much desired goal. Everything was understood to contain a spark of the opposite in itself: spirit in matter, matter in spirit; heaven on earth, earth in heaven; masculine in feminine, feminine in masculine. Nothing was exclusively one thing or the other. Tragically however, this picture of mutual love and fusion has proved only to be a metaphysical ideal, not a practical reality. History has shown not a happy marriage of equals, but a battered bride and a searing divorce. Where there should have been complementarity there has been polarisation; where there should have been equality there has been domination; where there should have been harmony there has been disunity.

Our world today is patriarchal-ruled by men and the masculine spirit. As we have seen, the masculine spirit was necessary to enable humanity to understand the mysteries of nature, analyse her secrets and put her gifts to use. Civilisation necessarily requires a certain degree of freedom from the unpredictability of nature, an awareness of individual identity apart from the corporate mass of humanity. These are characteristics of the masculine spirit, which analyses, separates, distinguishes, and brings to consciousness a sense of the self and the other. However, taken too far, a concentration on the divisions between the self and the other, between man and nature can lead to prejudice and exploitation, and can become a raison d’etre for the categories of oppressor and oppressed. This is what has happened. The predominant spirit of patriarchy - the masculine has become the oppressor and the feminine has been its victim. Levi-Strauss wrote: ‘Passage from the state of Nature to the state of Culture is marked by man’s ability to view biological relations as a series of contrasts; duality, alternation, opposition and symmetry’ (1) The ability to contrast has had its place in the development of human consciousness, but it has gone too far: contrast has become conflict, duality has become dualism, alternation has given way to stagnation, opposition is unnecessarily adversarial, and symmetry has led to suffocating stereotypes.

Nowhere is the fate of the feminine clearer than in the fate of women and nature. It is the traditional view of women that they are ‘closer to nature’ than men, and both they and nature have been squeezed into a ‘feminine’ stereotype. This portrays them as submissive, exploitable, inferior to man and the man-made. Women have been regarded as ‘unclean’ - of the earth, earthy; nature has been called vicious and bloodthirsty - red in tooth and claw. Both have been reduced to matter as opposed to spirit; both have been made into the servant and enemy of man, so people talk of ‘the battle of the sexes’ and ‘man’s battle against nature’. What should be seen as dual poles of one nature have been torn apart into a dualistic polarisation of opposites.

The meaning of male and female has been rendered static, stereotyped and finite. Thus women have been identified with the ‘negative feminine’ qualities of passiveness, intuitiveness, receptivity to emotion, servility and domesticity. The qualities of the feminine have been debased. The qualities of the masculine have been correspondingly elevated, and ‘masculine’ men are expected to display the ‘positive’ qualities of assertiveness, leadership, initiative, rationality, self-control and physical strength. The women and men who do not fit these categories are made to feel inferior. Over the centuries, however, it is women who have lost the most, for they have represented all that patriarchy felt obliged to repress and negate. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote,

‘. . . humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being . . . . She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute-she is the Other. (2)

Of course, as de Beauvoir observed, there are many more who fit the category of unacceptable other. It is not only women who do not conform to the ‘norm’ for humanity. In the west this category is also filled by blacks, Jews, ‘Red’ Indians, the disabled, the poor, the Third World, the Russians - the list is endless. Each civilisation has its own outcasts. Racism, elitism, colonialism, sexism, so many divisive ‘isms’ have been justified by the ruling class’s claim that the other is inferior, different, strange, and therefore exploitable. (3)

Women constitute half the human race, and their exclusion from ‘normal humanity’-‘mankind’- has been a crime of monumental proportions, causing not only deep psychological hurt, but the most desperate physical suffering to women over the centuries. The extraordinary violence shown towards the female species in the following little rhyme from Bulgaria is an indication of women’s traditional worthlessness. Because his wife has presented him with nine daughters, and no son, the man promises to reduce her to a blind crippled torso if she has the audacity to be delivered of yet another girl:

If the tenth, too, is a girlchild
I will cut both of your feet off,
To the knees I’ll cut your feet off,
Both your arms up to the shoulders,
Both your eyes, too,
I will put out,
Blind and crippled you will be then,
Pretty little wife, young woman. (4)

The profound hatred .of the female displayed in this verse is unfortunately not limited to Bulgaria; it has been world-wide. It has been the practice in a number of cultures, for instance, to leave new-born baby girls on the hillside to die because they were seen to be of no value, only a burden on family finances. Even in China, where the apparently enlightened yin-yang philosophy was so highly developed, an inequitable, male-dominated patriarchal society grew up over the centuries, with extremely repressive attitudes to women which are only now disappearing. This was the view of women in third century China:

How sad it is to be a woman,
Nothing on earth is held so cheap,
Boys stand leaning at the door, like Gods fallen out of heaven.
Their hearts brave the far oceans,
wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No-one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store. (5)

In China, women’s feet were bound, to ‘improve’ the proportions which nature had bestowed and also to keep them under control, securely at home - their husbands’ possessions and servants. In the same way, the roots of the bonsai tree were clipped to reduce it to a manageable size-nine inches instead of ninety feet.

Attitudes such as these are not just history, unfortunately. In India today women are still throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres because it has been so deeply ingrained into their minds that without a husband a widow has no right to live. Despite persistent legislation against this practice of suttee, it still goes on in remote parts of India where the new message of women’s worth has been unable to dislodge the old doctrine of her uselessness. Even more horrific is the continuing practice of bride-burning. There still appear to be great numbers of bride-burnings each year in India, a matter which causes considerable embarrassment to the government. The woman is considered to be so much her husband’s property and of such little value in herself that if he decides he has not received a sufficiently large dowry from her father, he will burn her alive in order to remarry and procure a second, hopefully larger amount from his second wife. These examples may be extreme, but the fact that they could happen at all in today’s world is an indication of the seriousness of women’s problems. There are many horrifyingly inhuman things, such a clitoridectomies and child marriages, done to females in the name of patriarchy which show the end-result of the dispossession of women from their inheritance of equality. (6)

The extent of women’s pain, exploitation and suffering throughout the world at the hands of men is still not appreciated by most people. Although in Europe we are very much better off in comparison with our Indian sisters, and many others, nevertheless even here there is evidence of a deep-rooted assumption that a woman is the property of her man, whether father or husband. In the supposedly liberated west it is still taught by many authority figures and governments that a woman’s place is only in the home. In Spain the saying goes that a woman’s place is at home with her legs broken! This is to keep her the private and manageable property of her husband. Violence against women is still commonplace. The alarmingly high incidence of rape, and the humiliatingly light sentences for the rapist; the widespread, but hidden incestuous molestation; the de-personalising of pornography and the growing numbers of battered wives all testify to a sick society. (7) As the Scottish Plan of Action says in its report for the United Nations’ Decade for Women:

Violence against women takes many forms including pornography, rape, incestuous rape and harassment at work. These are all inextricably linked in a society in which women of all ages are continually degraded, dehumanised and humiliated. Violence against women is not a new phenomenon. It stems from the age old belief that men have a ‘right’ to control and punish women whether they live with them or not.

Problems such as these have, of course, been the subject of much feminist debate, especially over the past ten or twenty years. At last women are exposing the myths surrounding sexual stereotyping and the degradations which women have received at the hands of men. Patriarchal rule, the rule of the fathers, has been accused and found guilty. The patriarchal religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam have been dismissed as being much too male-orientated and exclusive of women. All these have been quite rightly denounced for some outrageous attitudes, and have earned a great deal of the fury and bitterness hurled at them by the Women’s Movement. Yet the problem is deeper even than the abuse and exploitation of women. Women have been boxed into a caricature of the feminine, and their fate at the hands of a masculine dominated ‘man’s world’ reflects the fate of the whole of the feminine pole of human experience and of nature.

The association between women and the earth is, as we have seen, an ancient one. The kind, seed-receiving soil has been likened to the kind, seed-receiving womb since earliest times, and both were expected to produce a rich yield for the sower. Such was the attitude of the Earl of Rochester, as illustrated in the following poem to his mistress:

See the kind seed receiving earth
To ev’ry grain affords a birth:
On her no showers unwelcome fall
Her willing womb receives them
And shall my Celia be confin’d?
No, live up to thy mighty mind [sic]
And be the mistress of mankind. (9)

Taunts such as this can grow far more dangerous, however, for what if Celia refuses to yield up her womb for his progeny? Similarly, what happens if the earth refuses to yield and be fertile?

He breaks the wilderness. He clears the land of trees, brush, weed. The land is brought under his control; he has turned waste into a garden. Into her soil he places his plow. He labors. He plants. He sows. By the sweat of his brow, he makes her yield. She opens her broad lap to him. She smiles on him . . She is his mother. Her powers are a mystery to him. Silently she works miracles for him. Yet, just as silently, she withholds from him. Without reason, she refuses to yield. She is fickle. She dries up. She is bitter. She scorns him. He is determined he will master her . . .

He says the land need no longer lie fallow. That what went on in her quietude is no longer a secret, that the ways of the land can be managed . . . In his mind he develops the means to supplant her miracles with his own. In his mind, he no longer relies on her. What he possesses, he says, is his to use and to abandon. (10)

If the traditional connection between Mother Earth and the Earth Mother - nature and women - leads to such patronising and ultimately violent attitudes, then clearly it is a connection which must be resisted. Simone de Beauvoir certainly resisted it. For her it was the mysterious powers associated with women and nature which gave women a mystique and kept them as the Other:

In spite of the fecund powers that pervade her, man remains woman’s master as he is the master of the fertile earth; she is fated to be subjected, owned, exploited like the Nature whose magical fertility she embodies. The prestige she enjoys in men’s eyes is bestowed by them; they kneel before the Other, they worship the Goddess Mother. But however puissant she may thus appear, it is only through the conceptions of the male mind that she is apprehended as such. (11)

Simone de Beauvoir seems to see nature as in some way opposed to culture and alien to an evolved humanity. Of course, in this case, any identification of women with nature would imply that they are in a less evolved state than men. This is precisely what has been said by scientists, physicians, teachers and spiritual leaders over the centuries. Women have been ‘proved’ to be intellectually inferior to men - imbecilic, in fact, according to some - they have been ‘proved’ to be more childlike than men (along with blacks), they have been ‘proved’ to be morally irresponsible, spiritually incapable and physically unclean. (12) Freud saw women as in effect secondrate, ‘mutilated men’. His infamous theory of ‘penis- envy’ was based on his belief that the majority of women’s problems stem from their awareness of their inadequacy compared to men. It is no doubt significant that he also saw women in opposition to civilisation. In Civilization and its Discontents he wrote:

Women represent the interests of the family and sexual life; the work of civilization has become more and more men’s business; it confronts them with ever harder tasks, compels them to sublimations of instinct which women are not easily able to achieve . . . . What (man) employs for cultural purposes he withdraws to a great extent from women and his sexual life; his constant association with men and his dependence on his relations with them even estrange him from his duties as husband and father. Woman finds herself thus forced into the background by the claims of culture and she adopts an inimical attitude towards it. (13)

Culture versus nature = man versus woman. As de Beauvoir says, ‘In woman was to be summed up the whole of alien Nature.’ She sought to from this connection, hoping that by from ‘alien nature’ she would also free them from alienation. Yet there is an even more fundamental liberation needed before ‘women’s liberation’ can have any effect: nature must be freed from its category of ‘alien’. Freud knew that man’s attempts at civilisation, his repression of his instincts and his relegation of love, had led to an extremely serious imbalance: ‘Men have brought their powers of subduing the forces of nature to such a pitch that by using them they could now very easily exterminate one another to the last man.’ Women suffer from their association with ‘alien nature’, but society’s alienation from nature affects us all. If the fate of women reflects the fate of the feminine pole, then that pole, and especially Mother Nature, is in a state of rape. As our present ecological crisis shows, unless we overcome our desire to be separated from nature, and also our drive to destroy her, there will be no world in which the newly-liberated women can celebrate their freedom.

The age-old association between women and nature should unite feminism with ecology, not separate them. As historian Carolyn Merchant points out, juxtaposing the goals of these two movements can be extremely creative and productive, suggesting ‘. . . new values and social structures, based not on the domination of women and nature as resources but on the full expression of both male and female talent and on the maintenance of environmental integrity’. (14) No one can be liberated from nature-we are all part of one creation and depend on our environment for our very existence. But both women and nature must be freed from the shackles of a caricatured feminine stereotype. Nature is no more passive and subservient than are women. Kit Pedler’s Gaia was a raging revolutionary. The great Ishtar was ruler of heaven and earth and the whole pantheon. Nature both receives the seed and produces it, both contracts in the autumn and expands in the spring, has both analysible laws and impenetrable mysteries. If we call nature Mother, it should not be to reduce her to the passive feminine stereotype, but to explore the everchanging complexities of the meaning of mother, which includes the masculine qualities as well. In the same way to call God Father should not reduce him to the ‘aggressive masculine’ stereotype, but rather expand and elevate our understanding of fatherhood; as Jesus sought so earnestly to do, to his great cost.

In the last chapter we explored some of the Hebrew pictures of God in which he is described in masculine and feminine terms, which reflect both masculine and feminine qualities. He was for instance both the agonised, desperate and violent mother in labour, and the peaceful, comforting mother giving suck. All of life, women and nature included, manifests different aspects of the masculine and feminine at different times. As the Preacher said in Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven;
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

(Eccles. 3:1-4)

Another way of putting this is that there is a time for yin activity and a time for yang activity. Although this may seem like a blinding insight into the obvious, the fact is that society is so committed to unbalanced yang activity that we are in a profound state of disequilibrium. Something must change. As the Book of Changes, the I Ching, tells us, when the yang has reached its climax it must retreat in favour of the yin. The yang has indeed reached its climax, as Austrian physicist Fritjof Capra ably demonstrates in his wide-ranging book The Turning Point. His analysis of our contemporary attitudes, as revealed in our social structures, education, medicine, psychology and politics, etc, shows that at the root of many of our modern crises-environmental pollution, economic collapse, world starvation, increased crime and the proliferation of nuclear weapons-lies our obsession with yang rather than yin activity. He lists a few of the traditional qualities associated with yang and yin, which we have already come across:

feminine masculine
contractive demanding
responsive aggressive
co-operative competative
intuitive rational
synthesising analytic

He further observes,

Looking at this list of opposites, it is easy to see that our society has consistently favored the yang over the yin-rational knowledge over intuitive wisdom, science over religion, competition over cooperation, exploitation of natural resources over conservation, and so on. This emphasis, supported by the patriarchal system and further encouraged by the dominance of sensate culture during the past three centuries, has led to a profound cultural imbalance which lies at the very root of our current crisis-an imbalance in our thoughts and feelings, our values and attitudes, and our social and political structures. (15)

One of the causes of our imbalance according to Capra, has been the influence of scientific materialism on society. We pride ourselves on being a ‘scientific age’, but the scientific paradigms which are being used are often those of an outmoded Newtonian/Cartesian world-view. In this view nature is divided into two unconnected compartments: mind and matter. Matter is seen as inert, dead, unrelated to mind or spirit, and mind is similarly unrelated to matter. It is this reductionist world-view which has dominated scientific thought and the whole of our culture for centuries, but the new physics - of the Quantum Theory and the Theory of Relativity - expose this ‘building block’ view of nature as fallacious. Mind and matter, time and space, observer and observed, are all seen as part of one cosmic dance of opposites, a seamless web of consciousness. As Capra says, ‘In atomic physics, the sharp Cartesian split between mind and matter, between the I and the world, is no longer valid. We can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves. ’(16)

Scientists such as Capra are speaking the same language as the ancient mystics and philosophers, but so far this language seems to be unintelligible to the vast majority of people. Similarly the message of the T’ai Chi, that there is nothing in heaven or on earth which is purely spirit or matter, mind or body, that they are complementary, indivisible and equal aspects of the whole; and the message of numerologists that the unbridled masculine energy will end in holocaust; and that of psychological truth concerning the balance of inner opposites, as well as the example of Christ, seem to be incomprehensible to mainstream, modern thinking. It can be no coincidence that so many of the negative effects of the untamed masculine powers represented by the number 666 are evident today. In the past few years we have witnessed the lost dreadful ‘fantasies of violence, material wealth and power’, (17) the tyrannies of self-willed governors and the ultimate holocaust by fire-the nuclear bomb.

Does Christianity have anything to offer this situation? Unfortunately, according to many new thinkers like Capra, who themselves have gone over to the eastern traditions, it not only has few answers, but is itself part of the problem. For instance, Capra believes that:

The view of man as dominating nature and woman, and the belief in the superior role of the rational mind, have been supported and encouraged by the Judeo-Christian tradition, which adheres to the image of a male god, personification of supreme reason and source of ultimate power, who rules the world from above by imposing his divine law on it. The laws of nature searched for by scientists were seen as a reflection of this divine law, originating in the mind of God. (18)

As we have already seen, the Judeo-Christian God is not in fact a male god, although many Christians seem to think that he is. Beyond gender, he manifests both the masculine and feminine qualities of the women and men whom he made in his image. Nevertheless church tradition has made God seem male, and has built on this ‘maleness’ to keep women subservient and excluded from spiritual (and other) equalities with men. God has been portrayed as ‘safe in his heaven’, distant and otiose like the sky gods of Mesopotamia, unconcerned with the matters of earth, uninterested in the more ‘feminine’ side of his creation and positively hostile to women. It is this spirit/matter divide which has made Christianity the butt of such fierce criticism, particularly from those concerned with environmental and feminist issues. The reasons are plain enough: both women and nature have been relegated to the realm of inferior ‘matter’, while men have been identified with the ‘male’ trinity in the distant bliss of heaven.

One of Christianity’s most influential critics has been the Professor of Medieval History at the University of California, Los Angeles, Lynn White. White contends that the roots of our present ecological crisis can be found in religious doctrines, and he lays most of the blame on the influence of dualistic, body-alienated Christian teaching. He put forward his views in an article written in 1967, whose impact has been staggering-quite out of proportion to its size. Clearly what he said confirmed the feelings and suspicions of a great number of people, and he is still being widely quoted today. He saw Christianity as one of the world’s most anthropocentric and exploitative religions. In his view, ‘Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions . . . not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. ’ (19)

This is a common criticism today and it is voiced by a variety of people. There seems to be little doubt that the predominant emphasis of Christian doctrine has been towards the soul rather than the body, heaven rather than earth. The body and the earth were seen as part of ‘fallen nature’ and therefore required to be subjugated, enslaved, flagellated and marginalised. Those who have tried to overcome this dualism, or over-emphasis, have been very much in the minority. Augustine wrote that all he was concerned with in his thoughts were ‘God and the soul, nothing more, nothing at all.’ His example has been diligently followed. Nature as such has seemed to present so many theological problems that it has been left out of most theological thinking; so much so that the great Karl Barth, proving Lynn White’s point, suggested that what Christians should discuss is not theology but theo-anthropology! (20)

Lynn White’s accusations and those of many others are not easy to answer. Anyone who reads the bible will know that it most certainly does not teach that it is God’s will that man exploit nature, but that is how it has been interpreted by many Christians, including some of the church’s greatest fathers. Dualism, the artificial division between the body and mind, spirit and matter, goes back a long way in Christianity and even longer in philosophy. Plato has often been accused of being the father of a body-denying, hierarchical, spirit-orientated mentality which has dominated church and society in the west. His relegation of physical pleasure and pain to the lower sphere of existence reflects at its most extreme a dualism which disregards and exploits the earth, women and feminine qualities. Because of its influence on ecclesiastical doctrine it has led to the failure of Christianity to offer both women and men the fullness of their humanity as well as their spirituality. The effect of this on men has been bad enough; its effect on women has been catastrophic. Women as representatives of the ‘inferior’, material earthly side of life have not only been excluded from spiritual equality with men but treated as a sort of deformity and subjected to such violent verbal and physical abuse that it has not infrequently verged on the psychopathic. Rosemary Ruether has stated the problem very plainly:

Sexism, or the inferiorization of women, is based, symbolically, on misappropriated dualisms. The basic dialectics of human existence: body/soul; carnality/spirituality; Becoming/Being; seeming/ Truth; death/life; these dualisms are symbolized in terms of female and male and socially projected as the ‘natures’ of men and women. The meaning of the ‘feminine’, then, is modeled, especially in classical ascetic cultures, on the images of the lower self and the world. Autonomous spiritual selfhood is imaged (by men, the cultural creators of this view) as intrinsically ‘male’ while the ‘feminine’ becomes the symbol of the repressed, subjugated and dreaded ‘abysmal side of man’. (21)

She points out that this dualism has its ultimate expression in the division between God (masculine) and nature (feminine). If we take a look at some of the statements which great religious and philosophical leaders have made about women, and remember that by implication they were saying the same about nature, then we shall understand why both women and the earth are on the point of wreaking their revenge.


1. C. Levi-Strauss: Les Structures elementaires de la parente, cited by Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1981, p 17.

2. Simone de Beauvoir, Ibid. p 16.

3. Rosemary R. Ruether: New Woman; New Earth, Dove Communications, Victoria, 1975, for a brilliant study of the relationship between sexism, racism and capitalism.

4. Cited by H. R. Hays: The Dangerous Sex: the myth of feminine evil,Methuen and Co. Ltd., London, 1966, p 12.

5. Cited by Sukie Colgrave: The Spirit of the Valley, Virago, London, 1979, p 76.

6. For a disturbing and angry account of women’s sufferings, see Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly, The Women’s Press Ltd., London, 1979.

7. See Susan Griffin: Pornography and Silence, Women’s Press, 1981.

8. The Scottish Plan of Action for the Decade of Women, compiled and edited by Cassandra McGrogan and published by the Scottish Joint Action Group, p 22. <

9. H. R. Hays, op. cit. p 180.

10. Susan Griffin: Women and Nature, The Roaring Inside Her, Harper Colophon Books, New York, 1978, pp 52-54.

11. Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. p 105.

12. See Alice through the Microscope: the power of science over women’s lives, by the Brighton Women and Science Group, Virago, London, 1980.

13. Freud: Civilization and its Discontents, translated by Joan Riviere, Hogarth Press, London, 1930, p 73.

14. Carolyn Merchant: The Death of Nature, Wildwood House, London, 1982, p xv.

15. Fritjof Capra: The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, Wildwood House, London, 1982, pp 21-22.

16. Fritjof Capra: Schumacher Lecture 1979 printed in Resurgence Magazine no 78, January-February 1980, p 14.

17. John Michell: City of Revelation, Abacus, London, 1973, p 138.

18. Fritjof Capra: op. cit. p 24.

19. Lynn White: The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, Science Magazine, March 10, 1967.

20. George S. Hendry: Theology of Nature, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1980, p 18.

21. Rosemary Radford Ruether: Male Clericalism and the Dread of Women, Student Christian Movement pamphlet, edited by Mary Condren, number 24, p 16.

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