When I was studying for my Ph.D. at Yale in theology in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my skirts were short as was the fashion of the day. The male faculty and students and their wives dressed in ways that would not call attention to themselves or their sexuality. I was also over 6’ tall. When I walked into a room, I was consciously and unconsciously perceived as a threat to a world which these men had simply assumed was “theirs.” Their response was to categorize me as a sexual being (I was once introduced as “our department bunny”) and to erase my mind. I was to discover that the male graduate students were making bets in the dining hall about “where she will sit today.” One of my friends frequently fell down and feigned to “worship” me when I passed him in the hallways. I had never received so much attention from men before and it was flattering.
At the same time, I was being told by these men that of course “no one expected me to finish my degree because I would marry and have children” and that “all of the jobs should go to men who have families to support.” The “generic male,” as in “when a man finishes his PhD,” was the common language of both faculty and students. If I protested, I was reminded that I probably would not finish my degree anyway. I dated two of the other students in my first year, fell in love with one of them and lost my virginity to the other. They both dumped me. I was being told in every way possible that I could not be a woman and a theologian. There was such a disconnect between the way I was perceived and the way I perceived myself that I came close to suffering a mental breakdown.
I found a clue to what was going on in a most unexpected place. While reading the assigned passages from medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, I decided to see what the great man had to say about women. I discovered that he agreed with the great philosopher Aristotle of Greece that women were defective males and that our defect was a lesser rational capacity. With respect to each other, woman was body, and man was mind. Thus, the revered theologian opined, man was to rule over woman as a man’s mind rules over his body. I was both angry and excited to discover that theology itself was the key to understanding what I was experiencing. If the men I was studying with accepted the view that in relation to me, they were mind, and I was body, then everything fell into place.
When I tried to explain to the men who were ignoring my mind why they were doing it, they erased me again. “No one thinks that way anymore,” they replied. With that simple statement, they killed three birds with one stone. They excused the history of male dominance in theology; they refused to look at their current attitudes; and they made me feel stupid. When I discovered that Karl Barth had said a version of the same thing in the twentieth century, I was told, “No one reads that part of his work because it isn’t important.” Later I made the argument that Barth’s view of the man-woman relationship was important: he used the same model of hierarchical domination with love to explain the man-woman and the God-human relationship. I said that if we criticized one, we had to criticize the other. This time the professor picked up my position paper, glanced at the title, and flicked it aside.
For me the question of whether women could have a body and a mind was far more than an intellectual challenge. It was a matter of my survival as a whole person. In my work and my life I have struggled to embrace my body and my connection to nature without ever denying the power of my mind. Questions about the relation of body and mind and of the relation mind-body to nature have been central in my work. I would like to think that my work and the work of my peers has put the question of whether or not a woman can have a mind and a body to rest once and for all. Sadly, habits of behavior and habits of thought are not changed in a single generation. Classical dualism’s separation of mind and spirit from body and nature lives on, and women are still made to feel that we must hide our sexuality and our female beauty if we want our minds to be taken seriously.
*Excerpted from the draft of a book I am writing with Judith Plaskow, tentatively titled God After Feminism: Body, Nature, and Power.
Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the fields of women and religon and feminist theology. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.