GOD AND WOMAN AT YALE* by Carol P. Christ


As a graduate student, I was told in every way possible that I could not be a woman and a theologian.

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.



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18 replies

  1. Isn’t is somewhat of a paradox that on the one hand Greek men would speak of the female as being “defective” but on the other hand Greek men observed as their sources of inspiration the 9 Muses all of whom were Female as well as Sappho the “10th Muse.” Surely, if the Greek Men truly thought women were “defective” they would have selected male muses e.g. Homer, Hesiod, etc.

    Additionally when Greek men including Alexander the Great sought advice of the highest order they did not go to other men. Instead they went to the great Oracle at Delphi and consulted with the High Priestess of Pythia. Why would Greek men consult the advice of a Prophetess if they truly felt a woman’s mind was “defective?”

    How does the author of this article account for this paradox?

    Thank you

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    • Maxwell, it is also a paradox the Pope of Rome prays to the Virgin Mary while prohibiting women from the priesthood of the Church.

      In the case of the oracle at Delphi, male priests interpreted the Pythia’s words as patriarchy became stronger.

      I am not “alleging” that Aristotle thought women’s mind was defective. He said so himself and his views are well-known.

      How could a culture idealize women as muses while not letting them vote in their “democracy”? Once again, we could ask the same questions about idealized images of women in our own culture. How do men pray to female figures yet denigrate women?

      In the case of Greece, I subscribe to the theory that “Old Europe” as described by Marija Gimbutas was matrifocal, woman-honoring, egalitarian, sedentary, not warlike, and celebrated the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration. Classical Greece is a patriarchal and warlike society. Its religion retained some of the ideas and images of Old Europe, but with a patriarchal overlay, whether it be priests interpreting the words of women, or a Goddess of weaving and olive trees being turned into the warlike Athena. Women maintained some of the traditional powers as priestesses, but they had to serve the patriarchal state. Siggghhh…

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  2. I’m a big fan of your books and enjoy your writing very much. Reading this post reminds me of a question–how did you continue to make it as a student given this hostile climate? Did they grade your work fairly? Did they continue to be surprised you had both a mind and body, but were able to accurately evaluate the work of your mind? I’m writing my dissertation about a thealogy of the body, because I’m fascinated by the association of women with the body and how that’s been used to control and dominate them.

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    • I did not get high grades in graduate school. I was told by the Director of Graduate Studies that when my comps were discussed by the faculty, they were uttering in shocked tones, “She really does have a theological mind.”

      How did I continue?
      1. I had a Danforth Fellowship so I thought I must be smart even though no one at Yale seemed to think so.
      2. My undergrad prof Michael Novak asked me to be his research associate one summer and he reminded me that I was smart after all.
      3. I met Judith Plaskow and we “heard each other into speech” while repeating the mantra to each other “no you are not stupid, what you said makes sense” over and over again.
      4. The feminist revolution happened.

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  3. Carol, we’ve compared notes in the past, both of us having been in graduate schools where the generic male subsumed all humanity. Yours is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. I had better grades than any man in the English department where I was studying. I’m sure you did, too, so let us cheer. We both survived!

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  4. Dear Carol, thank you for this revelation from part of your remarkable life which touches the lives of so many women less empowered to challenge the sequela of the so called saint’s summa insecurities… or food for present sociopathologies. What you describe as a matter of your “survival as a whole person” is still key to the survival of women whole person identity. And the inspiration that you share with us contributes to the narrative that women need to rescue themselves from fringe (assigned labels) identities to gradually encountering a center and truth in body and mind. Your words are healing in so many levels.

    A few days ago, as I attempted to articulate a description of cultural, linguistic and epistemic cognitive dissonance, fueled by classical dualism (in western terms, because dualism in Indian/Hindu theology means something completely different) I felt and knew that there was something missing or yet to emerge… And now when I read you express that there was “a disconnect between the way I was perceived and the way I perceived myself…” I see that this disconnect in perceptions touches upon one of the greater chasms in epistemic cognitive dissonance–a pervasive psychic sore which probably threatens many women’s true identities with a mental breakdown. But, isn´t that even convenient and lucrative, precisely to strengthen patriarchy? Or that is what they believe. I don´t want to sound cynic about the sons of women, I hold a few very dear to me; the rest need to hear more from you and feminist sisters. I look forward to reading your upcoming book with Judith Plaskow.

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  5. Thanks Vrinda and Barbara. It still hurts to think about those days. No one should have to go through anything like that. And sadly, women still face versions of the same thing in so many places in our world…

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  6. Dear Carol;

    While it is true this sort of horrible male behavior is still on-going, I believe it is getting better — even if painfully slowly. I also firmly believe it is due to those who went before me — such as women like yourself and Judith Plaskow — that this is happening. Thank you so much for your example and your inspiration; I hope to someday be as good an example to those who follow me.

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  7. I don’t see much change at all in male behavior; they are just as awful as ever, only now they have adapted, and mouth platitudes. Talking to the women in the Occupy movement, we now see a new feminist consciousness emerging, because of the very same male leftist behavior of a generation ago. It’s fascinating to see young women graple with this, since they believed that the revolution had been won. Now as they get in the 20s and early 30s, they see what they are truly up against.

    No structural change has occured within patriarchy, none at all. So clearly, all the tactics of feminism were not enough to dislodge the colonizer’s grip on the world.

    It could be the graduate school in theology is now filled with women, but the dominant subject matter is still patriarchy, the patriarchal texts, and their religions. Women are accomodating this for some reason.

    As a person with really no rights at all under this dictatorship of the hetero-patriarchal world, sometimes I just look at this with a deep sadness. Women are still marrying men, lesbians are having children, it is all so depressing. Hetero women are crowing constantly about how wonderful their husbands are; I find a kind of arrogance in this that drives me nuts.

    Yale now, well men aren’t “allowed” to voice these opinions so loudly anymore. Certainly, I am not interested in the world of the hetero society, with all its sado/masochism, it’s acceptance of male dominance. All of it seems odd and disconnected to me. Within a lesbian culture, there is no real diversion between mind and body or even spirit. Surrounded by women, we have a tender regard for one another, an expression of a deep and timeless love, and the incredible beauty of that direct gaze. that intense listening to the lesbian soul that doesn’t really exist within hetero women’s realities.

    The mind/body duelism is what males have created in western society… more later… but nothing has really changed at all my dear women, you have just accomodated.

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  8. Mind/body dualism is just what males assign hetero females, their colonized lands. That’s all its ever been.

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  9. Fortunately, that does seem to be changing some… at least at my school, Claremont School of Theology. We have some of the most AMAZING women both teaching and studying here. Further, I have never felt discounted as a theologian here or as a student in general because of my gender. There may be students that disagree with me, but this is my truth… at least as it stands today.

    Although I do notice that the male students seem to do better economically than the female students. it isn’t like the world in general has changed much.

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  10. Hi Carol —

    I was in graduate school (in German) beginning in 1971. My story is similar, but also different. I went to graduate school as a feminist, because I was going to prove that women were just as smart as men. In my first semester, I critiqued every sexist remark I heard in my classes. In my second semester, I had an amazing experience, which at the time seemed very embarassing, but that in (pretty short) retrospect, I realized was very positive. I was in my first seminar, and as usual, the professor said something that was inane from a feminist perspective. At this point in the class, every single head in the room swiveled in my direction, expecting me to respond. I’m sure that I did, but what I realized after the class is that I had educated my entire cohort of graduate students about what sexism was.

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  11. I found this very moving, thank you so much for sharing. I dress quite androgynously in graduate school, I shouldn’t have to, but I can’t shake the feeling.

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  12. This whole issue of clothing is odd to me. I have never wanted to wear the type of clothing colonized hetero women wear—grad school is not the fashion club, it is a serious academic undertaking of the mind.

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    • If we dress asexually or androgynously to avoid the male gaze, we are still being defined by the male gaze. While there was a stage when the lesbian dress code was not to dress in a way to call attention to womanly beauty, this dress code is no longer the only one, as many lesbians are now wearing lipstick and dressing to look beautiful. Whether any of us are free of the male gaze is another question.

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      • I completely and whole-heartedly agree. Sadly, in our attempt to not be objectified, we often objectify ourselves further, by continuing to emphasize modest dress as inherent to self-worth. The male gaze is present whether or not we dress in a sexually provocative manner. The goal should not be to further quash female sexuality, but rather to embrace ourselves as sexual beings on our own terms, whatever those terms may be.

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    • And why should an undertaking of the mind require us to deny our bodies? Whose view is that?

      Like

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