ESSENTIALIST POSITION OF WOMEN in the Christian Tradition
This essay will discuss the implications of the essentialist position on a woman’s nature in the Christian religious tradition.
‘If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our everlasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure’ Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus encouraging marriage and childbirth.
The desire to define an essential female nature is still extraordinarily strong. Modern and postmodern feminist theory is split along party lines. The essentialist position shows that there are both radical and conservatives sharing a belief in innate differences between men and women. In seeking the ‘foundational essentialist impulse’ position on a woman’s nature a universalistic theory about social structure was formulated by Aristotle, questioning the relationship between nature and culture in the definition of sex roles.
Since then it has sent its roots deep down into women and men’s psyche, influencing western society in profound ways (Heckman in RELS: 26). Rossi (1977), in keeping with this pro-family position says “the females attachment to her children is biological, whereas the male’s is social’ thus resurrecting a familiar argument with a marked similarity to nineteenth century feminism (RELS 303: 27).
Social constructivists also link up with ‘maternal thinking’ theorists. These eco feminists seek a new style of political leadership ‘largely associated with women’ rooted in distinctly feminine values. They advocate a feminist philosophy of liberation with an emphasis on an essential universal experience of the woman’s body, even uniting some who are otherwise radically opposed such as Firestone (1979) and Griffin (1978) Eco feminists agree with the essentialist nature of women but want to alter this biological role, which they see as the source of woman’s oppression (Heckman, RELS 303: 26).
The central thrust of contemporary feminist anthropology maintains ‘gender is a socially imposed division of the sexes’. It is a product of the social relations of sexuality, and, ‘the masculine feminine dichotomy appears to be universal; the traits associated with them are not consistent across cultures’; ‘gender is entirely a social construct constituted by cultures and symbolic systems they deploy’. Gayle Rubin (1975) makes an interesting observation, ‘the sex gender system” is a set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity in which these transformed sexual needs is satisfied’ (RELS 303: 30).
Another postmodernist who sharply criticizes the essentialist position is Judith Stacy (1983; 84; 87;) labeling it ‘conservative pro family feminism’ (: 86) and ‘maternal thinking’ (RELS 303: 28). Postmodernists say that the very fact that the question concerning women and men’s roles in the family arises at all reveals that our knowledge of the world has not advanced, the discussion is futile and is evidence of universalist absolutist tendency’s enduring tenacity. However, postmodernists have been accused by essentialists of ‘abandoning difference’, denoting the inability to discuss any differences between men and women. One of the most forward thinking is Faucalt, a postmodern philosopher and an extreme constructivist, who focuses on bodies and sexuality and claims they are both constructed through discourse (RELS 303: 29).
The outcome of this argument has serious consequences for women in the West, and particularly for women’s religious experience. It seems as if by some sad irony the ghost of tradition is still haunting women (Fatum 1989:55). This ghost of tradition, the ‘rule of the fathers, patriarchy, is embedded in the household codes of the New Testament. Richard Leonard’s book (in M. Franzmann 2000: 25). ‘Beloved Daughters’ shows the power of discourse in shoring up the essentialist position to keep women in their place in the home and under their husband’s rule. Leonard, a male celibate cleric approached his theological thesis from the essentialist position from the papal document (Mulieris dignitatem). This document asserts that ‘women and men do not have equal rights in marriage’: The married woman must be obedient to her husband’ (in Franzmann 2000: 28). Such a negative argument does not affirm women in their true essence of the non-essential as a means of overcoming cultural oppression. This oppressive stance, in turn, springs from the New Testament household codes, which are riveted in Aristotle’s essentialist position and the concept of patria potestas, the power of the father over his own family, a fundamental principle of Roman Law’ (Lefkowitz & Fant 1992: 99)
One of the underlying problems of having an essentialist dogmatic approach that serves to maintain the ‘maternalist’ position is found in Lone Fatum’s statement: ‘traditional interpretation of Paul is based on an overall gender-blind theology with a basic attitude of dogmatic rather than analytic, resulting in an aversion towards problems of sexual discrimination or suppression of women in Paul and among the early Christians (Fatum: 1991:50). Discriminating interpretation of this kind, resting upon the foundation stone of the essentialist position of the women has resulted in a large body of evidence being knowingly concealed. Brooten (1985) in her groundbreaking work spells it out in her Introduction ‘the purpose of this dissertation, therefore, is not to present a hitherto unknown body of evidence, but rather to suggest a new interpretation of known material’.
Brooten’s work corrects one aspect of Jewish women’s freedom of movement and leadership roles around the first century C.E. However, new scholarship carried out by biblical feminists does not, as a general rule, find its way into the homes of largely uneducated women in the domestic realm who are most affected by Aristotle’s’ essentialist position on women, the historical background to the New Testament household codes, and the gender blind theology of Paul.
The importance of historical data concerning women in Judaism and early Christianity being re-interpreted by biblical feminists which has been uncovered in primary and secondary sources of literary and material remains is commented on by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Fiorenza sums up the difference in such research and the traditional work carried out by men, who in the main have started from the essentialist position on women’s nature. Fiorenza maintains ‘Antiquarian Positivism reduces text to archival quarries for historical facts, understanding them as windows on the world which give us accurate information and “data” about the past’ (1992: 81). However, if we accept that the text does not give us reality of ‘history as event’ but rather, historical representation’, then we can not rely upon the scriptures alone as reliable data for the study of women past and present. This is important given that ‘history by and large has always been written by elite men as their own story’ (1992: 80).
Fiorenza points out that access to reality is ‘always mediated through language’ (1992:91). It is little wonder then, that where the essentialist position is held, Christian women will experience the effects of language that is intent on keeping the reality of the public lives of women in the New Testament era hidden. The work of biblical feminists is found in their attempting to ‘break through the silences and biases of historical records to re-appropriate the past of women who have participated as historical agents in social, cultural and religious transformation’ (1992: 80). Jewish feminists such as Kraemer (1996: 36) and Brooten (1985) have refuted this marred image of first century Jewish women that has left all women on the periphery, marginalizing them.
Examples of these effects can be found in a wide range of Christian scholarship which sketches a ‘monolithic Jewish society in the first century CE that was highly “patriarchal” confining women primarily to the domestic realm, with little access to any public life’. Kramer argues ‘negative portraits of Jewish women in the first century are thus contrasted with New Testament narratives to buttress claims of Christian superiority over Judaism’. A multitude of sources ‘testifies to women’s attendance at synagogue services and their participation in synagogue life. (1985: 106). Bernadette J. Brooten’s research confirms this in her dissertation ‘Women Leaders in the Synagogue’. There, according to Brooten, women served as leaders in a number of synagogues from 27 B.C.E. to perhaps sixth century C.E., during the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Classical Greek social code restricted women’s movements. However, changes were taking place in the second century B.C.E. through second century C.E. due to the influences of Hellenistic culture and Rome (Corley 1993: 24). Respectable women in Classical Athens and in Hellenistic Alexandria, obliged to stay at home, due to the household codes of classical Greece, were working creatively in wool and with the lyre. Certainly the women in Athens were not idle, but instead they supported and superintended their households (Aristophanes in Ancient Greece 13:56). There is other evidence showing that women of the lower classes in Athens went out to work to earn a living to support their households (Aristophanes in Ancient Greece 13:54).
At the same time, women became landowners by inheritance in Ptolemaic Egypt the earliest record showing CE 42. Around this same time plenty of women owned immovables, including houses or sheds or parts of buildings (Pomeroy 1984:156). Aristotle reported that ‘nearly two fifths the whole country is in the hands of women’ (Aristotle Politics 1270a23, in Ancient Greece 13:18). Educated Greek women are present in the Gospels, the Syro-Phoenecian women being an example of one speaking out publicly in a confronting manner and winning a theological argument (Schussler Fiorenza, 1992: 96)
‘Despite the androcentric retelling of women’s stories, treatises from this formative period reveal that women were apostles, prophets, and teachers, that they exercised a diversity of ministries including baptizing, disciplining, and presiding over the Eucharist, and that they held the full range of church offices – bishop, presbyter, widow, deacon, and virgin’ (Torjensen 1993: 291).
Changes were also taking place in Rome noted by Corley in Rome’s meal practices with ‘the inclusion of wives in some formal banquet settings’ (Corley 1993:28). This change meant that the communal meal was one where women and men met together face to face, prompting social intercourse between the sexes. It is interesting to note that in all of this social change ‘the primary setting of early Christian dialogue and worship was a formal public meal’ (Corley 1993:24). This took place in women’s space, in their homes. It was not until the early church was moved out of the private sphere of the woman to a public place that women were displaced from leadership in the Christian community. However, not wanting to fall into the trap of making a theological project of utopian quality, nevertheless, the early Christian church theological foundations were laid for women’s leadership in the Christian vision of the reign of God (basileia). Therein ‘God’s wholeness was extended to all and it can be said to have made women and men equal’ (Torjensen 1993:291)
When women agree to obey the household codes, they are thus enforcing the essentialist position of the woman, and its continuing power can be seen. This power relies upon women’s compliance. This confirms Kate Millett’s proposal that ‘perhaps patriarchy is even more a habit of mind and a way of life than a political system’ (in Franzmann 2000: 8). The implications of this are that Christian women have suffered ‘loss of life’ to a misguided ‘cause’, that of androcentric doctrines and practices which serve to build and maintain a household and church community that is overshadowed by the rule of the father. As a result, the church collectively has been impoverished, morally, intellectually emotionally and spiritually, with its wider implications, ‘the exclusion of women from the public realm throughout the history of western political thought’ (Jean Bethke Elshtain, in RELS: 27).
The outcome of this phenomena up to the present day has been, with few exceptions, dutiful women submerging themselves and their identity, thus reinforcing the cover up of that body of women’s history, albeit ignorantly, in order to accommodate a religious system that denies them functioning in it beyond their essentialist nature. Furthermore, by their supporting a system financially, serving it freely and wholeheartedly, by enriching and nurturing it, assisting it by every means for its public face to appear flawless, without recognition or reward, is a phenomena especially related to women in religion generally.
Several questions arise from this observation. Where do those Christian women who no longer support this system of abuse go to nurture their own spirituality? Where does community arise for these exiled women in order to fill the vacuum left in the wake of this essentialist position being held to their detriment? Other questions concern her need for having her own sacred space? Indeed a woman’s home, the very place that was once constituted as her prison has become her sacred place to hide and find refuge from the resultant fallout of the effects of the essentialist position.
In sum, the assumption that woman is essentialist in her nature has had serious implications on freedom and development with regard to her spirituality and her finding her unique place in the world at large.