Saturday, February 11, 2006

Feminism Revisited

As you may have gathered from the millinarcissism sidebar, I consider myself a feminist. I think my conversion came when I saw that bumpersticker that said "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." I thought, "Guess I'm a feminist."

However, I've grown rather shy in my convictions of late. Perhaps it was the incident in a Seminary class last year. In a discussion about feminism, I made the point that when some women dismiss all western philosophy as patriarchal, the actually concede a lot more to Aristotle et. al. than they in fact should. Great ideas are not the property of men, and a woman should feel completely free to use them (or not) because they could have as easily been thought of, or thought better, by a woman. Western philosophy is not all tainted anymore than it is all true. Truth, I remarked, is independent of the sex that proclaims it. If someone shouts "Look out, Bus!" it really doens't matter to me what their gender is. The point is heed the remark and not get run over by the bus.

I thought it was the beginning of a good conversation, but it was cut short by a woman who announced to the class, "I'd just like everyone to keep in mind that the person who just made that argument is male." I think there's a word for dismissing people not on the merit of what they say but merely because of their sex, but surely she wasn't being sexist. Only men can do that. So I just stopped talking about feminism. After all, how could I trust myself? I am man. Hear me whimper.

But recently I've been inspired, and now, forgetful of my sex (mind the obscure book reference), I dare address the topic again.


Of course there are many feminisms. Often most vocal is the feminism that dismisses all human history as a patriarchal mess until N.O.W. was founded in 1966. It is reminiscent of the Marxist whom I spoke with in London who, in response to my question whether all history was a black hole until Karl Marx's birthday, answered unhesitatingly "YES."

Much more interesting however is the feminism that suggests the problem may not be as much patriarchal history (although it is often undeniable and always regrettable), as with patriarchal historians who have overlooked the historical role of women. This kind of feminism does not need to make up data, but only uncover it - for it most definitely is there. It is a worthwhile endeavor, and I've tried to give a few examples of it with Radegund, Christiana, Macrina, and The Republic.

Here are two more:

At the risk of severing our populist roots, Denise and I went to see Verdi's Rigoletto at the Met this week (with a nicely subsidized student rate). You've heard the main theme before (click the sound icon here) at least in Spaghetti commercials. The lyrics strike one immediately as shockingly sexist. The womanizing Duke of Mantua sings:
La donna e mobile, qual piuma al vento,
Woman is unpredictable, like a feather in the wind,
muta d'accento, e di pensiero.
she changes her voice, and her thoughts
Sempre un amabile, leggiadro viso,
Always a sweet, pretty face,
in pianto o in riso, e menzognero.
in tears or in laughter, always lying
La donna e mobile, qual piuma al vento...
Woman is unpredictable, like a feather in the wind...
But context is everything. When seeing the actual Opera, the lyrics take on the reverse meaning. For the womanizing Duke of Mantua is in fact all the things he sings about without exception, whereas (SPOILER ALERT) in contrast to him stands Gilda: A faithful, unfickle, rock solid, heroic woman who loves that faithless man even to the end.

Now certainly a feminist might retort by saying that Rigoletto actually supports the mistreatment of women by showing that women should stay with scumbags. But although the Opera could certainly be viewed that way, I think it a forced reading considering that almost every scene is devoted to contrasting the real love of Gilda to the false "loves," either possessive or faithless, of various men. If anything, there might even be a case for calling the Opera matriarchical, but go there I shall not.

I Timothy 2
Considering the hard partricarchal milieu in which it was written, the Bible is of course at many points unusually "feminist" in its approach. For example, although the Gospels do portray Christ with twelve male disciples, they all prove faithless. It is the women who stay with Christ to the end, and it is the women to whom Christ first reveals his resurrected glory. However there are of course those infamous texts that seem on first read a flat endorsement of male chauvinism, one of the worst cases being this passage from 1 Timothy 2. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright's take on the matter however is particularly insightful. When considering this passage, the key
"is to recognise that it is commanding that women, too, should be allowed to study and learn, and should not be restrained from doing so (verse 11). They are to be 'in full submission'; this is often taken to mean 'to the men', or 'to their husbands', but it is equally likely that it refers to their attitude, as learners, of submission to God or to the gospel - which of course would be true for men as well. Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as 'I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man' - the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years. It can equally mean (and in context this makes much more sense): 'I don't mean to imply that I'm now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.' Why might Paul need to say this?

There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion - the biggest Temple, the most famous shrine - was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that's her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area; and, as befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place."
The details, including his translation of the passage can be found in the article. But if Wright is right, then as with Rigoletto, context properly understood leads to a much different meaning than first impression may convey. I am quite confident that many feminists would here object, and not only because N.T. Wright is a male but because they think he is glossing a serious difficulty. But then again, he's not a marginal scholar, and he just might be correct.

The point of course is not to dismiss that patriarchy happened. It certainly did. But as a good friend once remarked to me, the problem is not patriarchy as much as it is archy - that is power. And power was dealt with decisively when omnipotence divested itself on the cross so long ago. Christianity: Bringing you radical deconstruction since the third decade of the 1st century.

But keep in mind this is a man telling you all this. I can't be trusted.